For much of last season, Tim Beckman stood near the 50-yard line during the first 10-15 minutes of practice while the University of Toledo offense and defense warmed up on opposite sides of the field.
This year, the Rockets' head coach has gravitated more toward the south end of the Glass Bowl, where the defense goes through its walkthroughs - a telltale sign he's taken a more active role with that group.
As a longtime defensive assistant prior to taking the UT post, Beckman struggled to watch the Rockets' defense flounder last season. UT (5-7, 3-5 Mid-American Conference) gave up a MAC-worst 241.4 passing yards per game and was second-to-last in surrendering 37.7 points per game.
"Being a guy that's been involved with the defense his whole life, it was tough," Beckman said. "But I knew that the system works because I've done the system, and it's worked. So, we just have to get some players in here that can do the system."
Part of the solution for Beckman has also been taking a hands-on approach with the defense and utilizing his own wealth of knowledge to bring about the needed improvement from the defense.
During the bye week before the Central Michigan game last season, Beckman got involved more with the defensive gameplanning and coaching, and he said he plans on continuing that into this season.
"I'll be more with the defense again, yeah," Beckman said. "I helped a little bit at the end of the year with the defense, and I think we played pretty good at the end of the year. We were the only team to hold [Bowling Green wide receiver] Freddie Barnes under 10 catches, so I thought that was pretty impressive."
Besides Beckman's influence, another sign of hope that the defense will improve this season is simply the added experience of the group.
Beckman basically considered all of his players as freshmen last year because it was everybody's first year in his 4-2-5 defensive scheme. Now, they're all sophomores.
"They all have another year under their belt in the system," Beckman said. "We're still very, very young back there, and last year when you're starting three true freshmen in the secondary, you're going to go through some growing pains. But guys are understanding what we're doing now a little more, and we're expecting them to be much better."
The Rockets will again be young - age-wise and experience-wise - this season on defense with five projected starters who are entering their second year with the Rockets, but it won't be used as a crutch, said UT co-defensive coordinator Mike Ward.
"We can't use youth as an excuse," Ward said. "We just can't. We have some guys with some big-time experience, and we expect everybody to get better. And they are."
Seniors Archie Donald at linebacker, Alex Johnson at defensive end, and Desmond Marrow at cornerback are those experienced guys Ward talked about, and they will be counted on to lead the way for the younger players.
Donald finished last season with a team-high 116 tackles, which ranked him third in the MAC and 21st in the nation. He had at least 10 tackles in a game seven times for the Rockets and recorded a career-best 18 tackles in a win at Florida International.
"We weren't consistent enough last season," Donald said. "We didn't take on the schemes from the new coaches as well as we should have. But this year, we know these guys, we've had a year under them, so I feel like that's going to help us a lot."
Ward and defensive line coach Eli Rasheed have constantly reminded Johnson and his teammates on the line all throughout preseason practices that the defense's success starts up front.
The Rockets piled up 12 sacks in their first five games last season, but that total tapered off as the year wound down. UT finished with only 20 sacks.
Johnson said the defensive line has taken a crucial step in avoiding that same pitfall in 2010.
"We've been doing a better job of disguising our blitz packages," Johnson said. "Coach [Jim] Tressel was talking to coach Beck after the Ohio State game, and he told him they knew everything that was coming. We weren't disguising anything, so if we do a better job with that, it will really open up more people."
The Rockets will need to be firing on all cylinders defensively early on, as they are facing possibly the toughest first six weeks of a season the UT program has ever faced.
UT opens at home against Arizona on Friday, then commences MAC play next week at Ohio and then at Western Michigan the following week. After that, the Rockets face their third straight week on the road at Purdue before a homecoming matchup with Wyoming on Oct. 2. Then on Oct. 9, they'll travel to No. 3 Boise State for a matchup on the blue turf at Bronco Stadium.
All in all, UT will be facing seven bowl teams from a year ago, and four of its first six games will be played on the road.
"What do you do?" Beckman said. "You live with what you're dealt with, and you fight each and every day. These kids believe we can win, and I believe we can win, so that's how you take it - one game at a time."
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