Whenever things got dicey on the gridiron last season for the University of Toledo, more often than not Barry Church seemed to be there to make that big-time hit or that game-deciding play.
Now that Church has directed his play-making capabilities to auditioning for teams at the next level, the Rockets have been left this spring to find that new X-factor on defense.
With his team now seven practices into spring ball, UT coach Tim Beckman sees senior linebacker Archie Donald stepping into that role, with senior defensive linemen Alex Johnson and Douglas Westbrook filling out a strong supporting cast.
Donald finished last season with a team-high 116 tackles, which put him third in the Mid-American Conference and 21st in the nation. Seven times the Pittsburgh Penn Hills High graduate - and high school classmate of Church's - had at least 10 tackles in a game for the Rockets. He recorded a career-best 18 tackles in a win at Florida International.
But Beckman is quick to point out there's still room for Donald to take his level of play to another level.
"That's exactly what he needs to do," Beckman said yesterday. "He needs to be the playmaker of this defense and so far he really has. These last seven practices, I think he has really stepped his game up."
For a defense that surrendered 37.7 points per game in 2009 and ranked second to last in the MAC in scoring defense, Donald's contribution is a necessity.
"I feel like I have to be more of a leader out there, like a vocal leader as well as mentally and physically to help my team as much as possible," Donald said. "I'm also trying to study more film and just stay mentally prepared every day when we're out here practicing."
While Beckman joked that it'd be nice to have 11 bona fide playmakers on the field at the same time, the underlying message is clear - Donald can't do it alone.
That's where Johnson and Westbrook come in.
The pair combined for five sacks and 11 tackles for a loss last season, but will be counted on for a greater amount of pressure on opposing quarterbacks in the fall.
Johnson has been limited physically this spring while he recovers from offseason surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee suffered in the final game of the season against Bowling Green. But he has still tried to provide as much vocal support as he can to make everybody else around him better, even if he himself can't be out there.
"I get to sit on the sideline and watch and cheer them on," Johnson said. "It's tough, but our defense is doing a lot better, Doug and Archie especially. They're stepping up a lot more and making all kinds of plays."
Westbrook understands that for the defense as a whole to improve, it starts up front.
Last season, the Rockets recorded 12 sacks in their first five games, but posted just eight sacks the rest of the way. In response, UT ended the season by losing four of its last five contests.
"We're working on consistency," Westbrook said, "and not even just in the pass rush but also in [defending] the run game. We have a great coach in [defensive line] coach [Eli] Rasheed, so there's no way we shouldn't be able to get a rush on the quarterback. We just have to be consistent with it all throughout the season."
- Zach Silka