Photo Gallery of Misericordia Visiting Thursday's Spring Football Practice
It is a fine Thursday morning and the practice has gone well. Ahead of the 'Cats now is a Saturday scrimmage, which will put the punctuation mark on their labors of spring. But even here, under the sun, there are memories of last season, a season in which their defense surrendered an average of 27.7 points and 407.7 yards per game. This is proven when, to start our chat, we toss out a general question to Mike Hankwitz and the defensive coordinator replies, "I like our attitude and our effort. We talked about last year and we're moving on. We've looked at everything, we've evaluated, and now it's about solutions. We've given them solutions and they've worked their tails off to work on them. I like where we're at. We've got a good mix of veteran guys and young, eager guys, kind of like four years ago. So we've made a lot of progress, but we've got to keep making it. That's the key."
When they looked at last season, what did they see?
"We were inconsistent. We didn't execute well enough. We gave up too many explosion plays because of that. Part of that lack of execution was communication, part of it was discipline to do your job. When those things break down, you give up big plays and you're not going to play good defense. There were times when we did, and we got it going, started playing a lot better at the end. But it wasn't as good as we need to be."
We tell him now that, two Saturdays ago, the defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt said, "This whole season is about responding to what happened last year. It's really about redemption."
Here Hankwitz smiles and chuckles ruefully.
Does he feel the same, we then ask.
"Well, yeah. We work our (butts) off, you know, and when you're not as good as you want to be, it hurts your pride. But we're going to do something about it. We're glad Arnie's back. We were hoping we'd have him last fall, but he never got back until the very end of the year (because of injury). He had a great spring going, we were excited, but unfortunately that happened at a number of positions where guys got hurt, missed time. But it's going to happen, so we're trying to develop our depth so if it does happen again, it won't have the same impact."
Another point made on that Saturday by Arnfelt, who was talking after a scrimmage that was dominated by the defense, was this. "The offense really got after us on Thursday and we just kind of said in our position meetings throughout the whole defensive squad, 'We can't let that happen.' You see some things (on film) that could trickle into what happened last year."
"He's probably partly right," says Hankwitz.
And what did Arnfelt see on film that made him think that way?
"I don't know exactly. We've got a lot of young guys playing with the second team and they made some mental mistakes and gave up plays. Probably that's what he's referring to. But, yeah. We had a good first five practices, then we had a two-week break, came back, went three practices out of four days, the third practice being the Thursday he's referring to, and we didn't have the same energy and intensity. But since then, we have. So I'd like to think we've taken a big step and learned from that. But we've got to continue on that same path."
Learned what? That you have to always play with intensity?
"You have to have intensity on defense. Offenses keep changing, tweaking, spreads, this and that, spreading the field, you've got to have intensity on defense. Defense is passion and effort and intensity. If you don't have that, you're not going to be a good defense, I don't care how good you are. You can watch Alabama and they have all this great talent. But they play hard, and they play with intensity. It doesn't matter what your ability level is. You've got to have that ingredient."
Our impression this spring, we now say, is that Arnfelt has emerged as one of the defensive leaders intent on making sure that the intensity is always there.
"I think he has, yes. Quentin (Williams, the defensive end) and him and Ib (safety Ibraheim Campbell) and Bus (linebacker David Nwabuisi), some of the older guys are taking more of a leadership role. That's part of Coach Fitz's (Pat Fitzgerald's) Leadership Council principle. We're trying to teach them how to become leaders and take things upon themselves. But they still have to do it, and I think those guys have stepped up more than normal this spring. That's exciting to see."
Another guy who has been singled out this spring by Fitzgerald, we tell him, is the defensive end Tyler Scott, whom he says is ready to make that step that will deliver him some national recognition.
"I would agree. He was playing extremely well last fall, and then he got hurt and missed three games or so. When he came back, he wasn't quite the same, and then he started getting better and better. This spring, he's taken up from the best he was playing and gone a little beyond that. So, yeah. We're excited about him."
Does he have one characteristic that makes him so good?
"I think it's a combination. He's a good athlete. He was a linebacker, so he's got athleticism. And he's smart, and he plays very hard, he plays with great effort. Now that experience he's accumulated, he's starting to put it all together."
Speaking of experience, we mention that offensive coordinator Mick McCall recently said, "All those kids, they don't get everything the first time through or the second time. The third time, it starts to come." Is there a similar learning curve on defense?
"Oh, yeah. There's an old saying, there's no substitute for experience, and you don't experience everything in one fall, especially if you're a young guy and learning the opponent's defense (on the practice squad) and stuff. You just can't see everything. Yeah. In a perfect world, everyone would learn from everybody else's mistakes and what happened to them. But that doesn't always happen. Sometimes you've got to be there and it's got to happen to you. You've got to make the mistake before you understand what you've got to do, or why it's important you do what you're supposed to do. And experience isn't just what happens to you. It's also what you learn from it. Sometimes you have to have it happen to you before you realize, 'Oh. Now I know why I'm supposed to do this like coach said.'"
With that in mind, are there any younger kids who this spring have shown that they've got that understanding? We're thinking here especially of the line, where big reps have gone to players like junior (in the fall) Will Hampton and sophomore Chance Carter and redshirt freshman Deonte Gibson.
"Deonte's impressed us with his wherewithal, his awareness. Chance, we've seen the potential in him and Will. Another guy who's had a good spring is (sophomore tackle Sean) McEvilly. Then (redshirt freshman) Drew Smith has done a lot of nice things at backer. Collin (Ellis, a sophomore who started last fall) is getting more experience all the time. Chi Chi (Ariguzo, another sophomore who played last fall) is now a little more comfortable, then we've got excellent competition in the back part. Nick (VanHoose, a redshirt freshman corner) has done some good things, shown some good things, as has D.J. (sophomore corner Daniel Jones) at times, and Doogie (senior corner Demetrius Dugar). So we've got competition and hopefully, it is making them all better. Then Davion (Fleming, a junior safety) is healthy and he's a little older, so he's competing, him and Hunter (Bates, a senior). Ibraheim is building on his experience, then (sophomore safety) Jimmy Hall's gaining a lot of valuable experience. So there's a lot of young guys that have shown good things. But the key is they've got to keep improving, keep learning."
How does a coach feel when a redshirt sophomore, Campbell, is his most-experienced backer?
"Well. If you look, Hunter and (junior safety Jared) Carpenter (who sat out the spring) and Davion, they've all played and they've been here two, three years. So they're a little more experienced than you might think. But it is what it is. We're just going to have to execute with what we've got. I think we'll be fine."
We know Damien Proby, who ended last season as the starting middle linebacker, is another who has been held out this spring. But has Hankwitz decided how he will utilize him and Nwabuisi, who started last season in the middle?
"No. But Bus played both Mike (middle) and Will, and that's a big strength for him, his ability to play both. It gives us more depth back there. So we have some flexibility there."
And Collin Ellis has been moved?
"We moved him to Will (from Sam), put him in the box. He's a physical player, it's more natural for him in there. So he's going through a little learning curve, but he's done some nice things."
And Chi Chi's at Sam?
"Him and Drew Smith, two athletic guys. Chi Chi's getting more confident out there. We like his and Drew's athleticism."
Which they need since they play in space?
"Yeah. They're more of the wide side (of the field). Will has to play some in space, but he's on the side of the field where there's a little less room and he can attack."
That covers the players and so, finally, what about Hankwitz himself, whom many blamed him for last season's defensive deficiencies. Does he hear that talk? Does he take it personally?
He chuckles softly and then says, "There's always going to be critics, but I know we've played damn good defense for most of three years. Yeah, when Dan (Persa) got hurt two years ago, yeah, it affected us. But prior to that, I'll stand by what we did. Now (what happened) last year, yeah, my pride's stung too. I take pride in what I do. I'm probably harder on myself than anyone else is. I don't care what they say. I'm disappointed. I'm frustrated. But I'm going to do something about it. I'm not going to dwell on it, and worry about that. I've been doing this long enough to know what we're capable of and what we need to do to get better. I'm not going to worry about the criticism. That's always going to happen. My goal is to get us better."