Pass. Ball. Money.
By Ben Badua
Pass. Ball. Money. It’s a familiar refrain instantly recognizable to anyone who’s taken in an Amherst football practice. Echoing across Pratt Field on a particularly cold and windy fall afternoon on Thursday, Oct. 24, the Jeff secondary repeated the phrase again and again as it went through its pre-practice routine.
Wearing a Purple hat and black sweatsuit, head coach E.J. Mills talked to his defensive backs about a film session as they stretched. Minutes later he’d found his way between the hash marks as the secondary lined up, single file at the 5-yardline.
One-by-one each defensive back ran towards Mills. As the head coach’s arm cocked back, they yelled ‘pass.’ After the release, an audible ‘ball’ could be heard. Following the catch, you guessed it, ‘money.’ And so it went, over and over. While the field position changed as the drill progressed, the saying did not. Pass. Ball. Money. Or as senior safety Max Dietz once yelled, “Pasar. Pelota. Dinero.” Even in Spanish, the goal was the same. See it, catch it. Failure to do the latter resulted in penalty - push-ups. The results speak for themselves.
Through the first four games of the season, the Amherst defense hauled in 15 interceptions. They had 13 in all of 2012. Entering Saturday’s showdown with Trinity, the unit also ranks second in the conference in points (11.8) and yards allowed (276.3) per game. Part of the reason for this year’s success? The emergence of a talented, but more importantly, cohesive senior class that bought into the Jeffs’ scheme after years of immersion in the program.
The most senior member of an experienced secondary is Landrus Lewis. Sustaining an injury that kept him out of the tailend of last season, the Pennsauken, N.J. native was able to obtain a medical redshirt that allowed him to return for a fifth year. Back at full strength, he has regained his rightful place as one of the NESCAC’s premier defensive backs.
A first-team all-league selection in 2011, Lewis entered 2013 with seven career interceptions. Facing the conference’s most potent passing attack in Week 3, the shutdown corner twice picked off Middlebury’s McCallum Foote, arguably the NESCAC’s most heralded quarterback. Seven days later, Lewis added to his personal tally, notching his 10th career interception against Colby.
“Landrus has exceptional talent,” says Mills. “He has incredible instincts and skill. He possesses great strength, quickness, football IQ and speed and has a good understanding of when to be aggressive and when to back off.”
Joining Landrus in the defensive backfield are Dietz and cornerback Kevin Callahan. A gifted offensive player in high school, Dietz played quarterback, running back and wide receiver. Making the transition to the defensive side of the ball upon arriving at Amherst, the safety now acts as the unit’s signal caller. With a firm grasp of the team’s schemes, he currently sits tied for second in the conference in passes defended, with six break-ups and three interceptions, nabbing a pick in each of the team’s first three games. Not a surprising statistic considering his otherworldly athleticism.
“The guys all say he’s an alien,” Mills says. “The lights will go off in the film room and you’ll hear everyone go, ‘Diiiiieeeeettttzzz,’ like he’s E.T. phoning home. He has as much athletic ability as anyone and has made himself into a tremendous defensive back.”
What Callahan lacks in Dietz’s sheer athleticism and Lewis’ superior skill, he makes up for with hard work and an unparalleled understanding of the game he loves. The son of Division I Monmouth University head coach Kevin Callahan, Sr., he has been around football his entire life. That intuitiveness has helped foster a strong awareness of team dynamics and has cultivated a thorough knowledge of the game.
“He just gets football,” says Mills. “He plays bigger than he is and through his dedication to film study, he’s going to gain an advantage just by knowing what other teams are trying to do to him. Kevin’s knowledge of our defense and how to apply that to an offensive scheme is what allows him to be successful and puts him in the best position possible. He’s like another coach on the field.”
While the Jeff secondary could certainly lay claim to some of the credit for the strides the Amherst defense has made this season, Mills would be the first to tell you that it’s a team effort. It’s cliché, but in this case it’s true.
Near midfield on that windy autumn day was defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Bussard. Flanked by five members of his group, Bussard quizzed his players on the defense’s calls and formations, before running through a set of agility drills. On the opposite end of the field, defensive line coach Eddy Augustin put his linemen through several exercises. Focusing on technique, players came up from their stance and made their way around a black tackling dummy before later splitting up into two rows and four pairings for one-on-one battles. While neither unit had a catch-phrase as catchy as the secondary’s, both were preparing to do their jobs just the same.
“Defensive football is a coordinated effort,” Mills says. “It starts up front with pressuring the quarterback. The linebackers also have to typically be in a window that makes the quarterback throw the ball higher and the defensive backs need to be in a position to break on the ball. One group does not have success without the other.”
On the same page against Middlebury, all three units worked together flawlessly on Lewis’ first interception of the season. Hitting Foote early and often, Amherst brought six players on a blitz in the first quarter. Feeling the pressure, the senior signal caller got the ball out early, but sailed an errant throw into the waiting arms of Lewis, who returned it 45 yards to set up a Jeff touchdown. All told, the Purple & White hauled in five interceptions that afternoon, matching the five picks it collected in the squad’s opener against Hamilton.
“We tell our guys that we want to punish the decision maker,” says Bussard. “I think we hit Foote 15 times that day and did a great job of getting pressure and forcing mistakes. By mixing our checks, coverage and formations we were able to make him uncomfortable.”
Playing a key role in Amherst’s defensive efforts as he has for three years as a starting outside linebacker is Danny Chun. Always seemingly at the right place at the right time, the tri-captain has made a habit of learning his opponent’s tendencies and tailoring his game accordingly. Playing in a quarters defense that requires the linebackers to often drop back into coverage as well as play the run, Chun has had to embrace the virtues of adaptability.
“We don’t play as aggressive a form of the quarters defense as other schools in the NESCAC and we put more stress on our linebackers as a deeper to shorter team,” says Bussard. “Danny has good field speed, is good in space, and has what we call ‘big vision.’ He can see crossers and the quarterback and has great peripheral vision that allows him to quickly knock a ball down, immediately hit a receiver [so there are no yards after catch] or ideally, make an interception. He has the versatility to become a different type of player depending on the circumstance and what we ask of him.”
With Chun and Bussard’s linebackers covering shallow routes and Mills’ secondary taking away the big plays, Augustin’s linemen have feasted on opposing backfields. Despite the graduation of all three starters from 2012, the defensive line has not lost a step, surrendering a league-low 75.3 rushing yards per game, while registering a conference-best 19 sacks. In a breakout performance against Tufts, the line helped hold the Jumbos to just seven yards on the ground, while getting to the quarterback a season-high seven times.
“It’s really been a group effort,” says Augustin. “We’ve had contributions from a lot of different guys who work hard and are where they’re supposed to be. We always preach [on the defensive line] that when you get into a one-on-one situation, you have to win that battle. So far our guys have taken advantage and gotten it done.”
Like the rest of the defense, seniors have played an integral role in the line’s resurgence. A running back his first three years, Steven Jellison made the move to the opposite side of the ball this season. Despite the difficulties inherent during any transition period, the bruiser has found a home in the trenches, turning his big, 6’3 frame into one of the team’s most effective pass rushers. Still possessing the great hands that made him a formidable force on the offensive end, Jellison has also come away with an interception this season. Dropping back into coverage after sniffing out a screen pass against Colby, he made a diving pick, showing off the ball skills few linemen possess.
“He’s a phenomenal athlete,” says Augustin. “At 250 lbs., there are not a lot of guys [his size] that can move like him. He’s already found a role in the pass rush. He has a good sense of staying in front of the quarterback and is able to track a lot of guys down with his closing speed.”
Also making their presence felt up front are Owen Davis and Benji Sklar. Vying for a starting spot since his sophomore season, Davis has long been a mainstay in the Amherst defense. Despite battling through injuries the last couple of years, the senior has continued to be a dependable contributor and outstanding teammate. Seeing significant time in 2013, Sklar has fully grasped both the mental and physical aspects of the position, tapping into a wealth of talent.
“You can always count on Owen,” says Augustin. “He has good technique and understands his assignments and will be where he needs to be. Benji has been as mentally prepared for this season as he ever has been and it’s all coming together for him. His ability to process the information in front of him, stay on assignment and take advantage of his physical tools has really helped him break through.”
As the pre-practice routine drew to a close, the defense reunited along the home sideline for stretches. While it may have been the secondary’s saying that filled the air, it’s a practice reinforced and aided by the unit as a whole. The defensive line applies pressure and takes away the run. The linebackers cover short routes and fill in the gaps. The defensive backs break on the ball and take advantage of mistakes. If the coverage doesn’t help yield a sack on its own, the ball will be in the air, and if everyone is where they’re supposed to be, it just may be going the other way. Pass. Ball. Money.