Defensive tackle Rashard Lawrence, safety Jacorion Andrews and cornerback Corey Straughter are surely some of the best returning starters to build a defense around that can be found in the area, if not in the state.
The problem – at the beginning of the season, anyway – lied in the fact that they were the only ones. Donald Louis, Courtney Wallace, T.J. Lemoine and co., the ones that led last year’s Tiger defense to the state championship, are gone: Louis at ULM, Wallace at Louisiana Tech and Lemoine at LSU.
So far, so good.
Through two games, the Neville defense has held opponents to 12 points and created five turnovers, a good track record to have heading into a game against an Ouachita offense that scored 44 points in its only game this season.
“We have created some big plays on defense,” Neville head coach Mickey McCarty said. “I think that starts up front with some pressure, we’ve got some guys in the interior there that are playing well and playing hard. We still have a lot of things to clean up, but we have created some opportunities for our defense to create some big plays.”
The aforementioned turnovers have been especially crucial to the 2015 Neville defense’s exploits so far. Neville forced three first-half turnovers against Ruston, two fumbles and an interception, which the offense turned into 14 points. The Tigers went on to win that game by 16 points, with the two touchdowns off of turnovers being an obvious difference maker.
Neville forced two more turnovers in the Maumelle game, one fumble in the running-clock second half and one interception that finally accomplished what Neville wants from all of its turnovers: a defensive score. Cole Marsh returned an interception for 25 yards and a touchdown that gave Neville a 30-0 lead and more or less ended the game.
“We hang our hat on (turnovers) and always have. We want to be an opportunistic defense,” Neville defensive coordinator Benjy Lewis said. “We worked in the spring with guys to be ball hawks and try to score the ball. We weren’t able to do it against Ruston, although we did get some turnovers, and I was so happy for Cole.
“I saw that pick on the sideline and I thought he was just going to go out of bounds once he got his feet down, but he got himself turned and got going. The thing we practice that I was so proud of was getting out in front and blocking for him.”
The Neville defense was especially impressive in the Maumelle game, as the starters held the Hornets 51 yards in 33 first-half plays and handed the shutout over to the second team to hold for the rest of the game.
“The thing that I like to see out of our defensive football team is good, what I call team defense,” McCarty said. “It’s a unit defense: there are 11 pieces to that thing and they all have to fit and work together. When someone’s out of a gap or in the wrong coverage zone or defending the wrong person, we’re in a bind if the offense can exploit that. Good team defense is really good to see. Last week, being able to pitch a shutout was obviously really good team defense.”
Along with the turnover craze, the Neville defense has that attitude about it anytime the opportunity for a game-changing play occurs. In the season opener against Ruston, the Bearcats went for a 2-point conversion that would have put them within seven points of the lead if converted. Marsh stuffed the run for a loss of 10 yards and Ruston didn’t score for the rest of the game.
Neville forced a stop on the first series of downs in the Maumelle game by meeting a third-and-1 with a tackle for a loss and followed that with a safety in the second quarter. Lawrence moved his blocker 2 or 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage directly into the ball carrier to create the safety.
“I think it comes through preparation and film study for those guys. They’re aware of situations,” Lewis said. “We try to make them aware of what a team like to do in certain situations and we take that and we drill that small picture, give them block and everything, then widen it back out into the scheme and the play.
“I’ll honestly say that against Ruston and then against Maumelle with the safety, they were very prepared. They knew what the play call was going to be, they knew what we wanted them to do and they went out and executed it.”
McCarty added praise for his defensive staff and the way they coach, “situational football,” when it comes to third downs, a major talking point for coaches and players alike heading into this season. McCarty expects that sense of pride to carry over into the Ouachita game, where Lewis knows one turnover can be the deciding factor.
“This game, in the time that I have been here, a lot of the time has come down to a one- or two-possession game,” Lewis said. “In that situation, a turnover is going to be huge, and we’re looking to be the ones to get that turnover.”
Follow Brett on Twitter, @BHudsonTNS.