“It seems it was just yesterday I was in that position,” said Malone, a fifth-year senior. “I was laid back, thinking I wasn't going to be thrown into the fire.
“And you never know. I see some of these guys when their number is called, and their eyes get wide. It reminds me of my freshman year when I was thrown into the fire.”
Malone's first college game was more like an inferno. He took the field when the Falcons opened the 2000 season at the University of Michigan. He was one of three red-shirt freshmen defensive backs to see extensive action for Bowling Green that season when he was joined by a pair of freshmen, Jason Morton and Janssen Patton.
Janssen Patton had 63 tackles last year and 3 interceptions.
They now have all grown up, and the three seniors combine with junior Keon Newson, a two-year starter, as the backbone of the Falcons' defense this fall. Malone will start at strong safety when BGSU hosts Eastern Kentucky on Aug. 28 at Perry Stadium; Morton will line up at free safety and Patton and Newson will open at cornerback.
How important will this quartet be to the Falcons in 2003? Last season all four finished among the team's top seven tacklers: Morton had 85 stops, second-best on the team, and had five tackles for loss. Patton finished fourth with 63 tackles, one ahead of Newson, and Malone had 55.
The foursome also played a role in the team's 12 interceptions, with Patton leading the way with three. Patton, a second-team all-MAC performer last season, has picked off 11 passes in his career to rank among the school's all-time leaders.
Tim Beckman, the Falcons' defensive coordinator and formerly the group's position coach, said their ability and experience will help the development of a young defensive line.
“It enables us to be simpler up front, because those guys can lock down the back end [of the defense] in pass coverage,” Beckman said. “In the NFL you see teams paying big money for a third cornerback, that's how important those people are. We're blessed with Malone, Morton, Patton, Newson and [junior] T.J. Carswell, too. We have five guys that can play any one of those positions.”
Beckman said he especially likes the physical nature of the defensive backs.
“We don't just have lock-down corners that only cover guys and won't hit anybody. These kids will hit you,” Beckman said. “They've spent a lot of time in the weight room getting stronger, and they've become a physical bunch that can run.”
Steven Wilks, who took over for Beckman as defensive backs coach this season, has been impressed by the work the group has done watching film.
“They recognize formations and anticipate what's going to happen, and that comes from film study,” Wilks said. “Those guys have committed to watching a lot of tape, really understanding and learning the game.
“On Saturdays the coaches don't play, so you want those guys to see the things that you have seen throughout the week. Then on Saturday they can just go out there and see things, recognize them and react.”
The three seniors said their experience has made them more mature players.
“You have a chance to get stronger, and you get mentally stronger too,” Patton said. “You learn how to watch film, you learn the things you have to do, especially in the off-season. Once you stack those years on top of each other, you have more experience and see things more clearly.”
Morton said that experience leads to confident play.
“I study film and know what I'm looking for. Confidence brings along poise, and I think I play better since I've gotten older. I see some of the freshmen now and I laugh because I know what they're going through.”
But Morton said he and his partners in the backfield have tried to help the rest of the young defense mature quickly.
The difference between his freshman and senior years “is that I'm in a leadership role, and I have some responsibility to bring the rest of the team up to speed,” Morton said. “Now that I know what I'm doing, I'm trying to make sure the rest of the team knows what it's doing.”
The result is a group of defensive backs that, in the fourth year on the field, embraces the challenge of leading the defense.
“The whole defense is looking towards us and we're ready to step up to the plate,” Patton said. “We're not trying to be just one of the best secondaries in the MAC; we're trying to be one of the best secondaries in the nation.”