On the front end, players were getting out of their gaps. Players trying to penetrate the offensive line were going too far away from their position, opening up creases for quarterback Blake Barnett to escape through for scrambles. Other times, players watched the ball rather than play their assignment, falling for ball fakes. Sometimes, players weren’t receiving the play calls signaled in from the sideline correctly.
Defensive end Anree Saint-Amour described an angst that was causing players to try to make plays by going beyond their assignment.
“It’s like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do that,’ and when you try to get more, you can get caught,” he said.
It perhaps should not come as a great surprise that Tech was making mental errors or misplaying assignments. First, it was the Jackets’ second game using defensive coordinator Nate Woody’s scheme and their first in which they were under the pressure of a high-tempo offense that was requiring them to receive and understand play calls and assignments at a quicker pace than normal. Second, Woody has chosen to play second- and third-string players to keep players fresh and develop depth, a pool of players that includes a number of freshmen and sophomores.
It might be worth noting that, in Woody’s first season at Appalachian State, the defense’s statistical performance was similar to that of the defense in the previous season. Marked improvement only began to show up after a season and a half.
“I think it just come with time,” Rivera said. “It’s a young team, a young defense, especially since they’re all just in their second game of really game speed of playing this.”
It is not an explanation, though, that linebacker and captain Brant Mitchell was willing to endorse.
“We’re two games in, we’ve had a whole camp and a whole spring practice to get it going,” he said. “So, I mean, mistakes are mistakes, and there’s no excuses for it, really.”
Coach Paul Johnson wants the number of players being rotated in by Woody trimmed.
“The coaches are learning the players, and we’ve got to figure out who the players are and play the players,” he said. “It’s not little league; everybody doesn’t get to play. I think the more we play, the more that’ll happen. I think the kids will get better at it.”
Pittsburgh plays a slower pace than does South Florida, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Panthers tried to play hurry-up and see how the Jackets handle it, as well as misdirection plays to test the Jackets’ ability to keep their eyes on their keys.
“If you only mess up once and you learn from it, you’ll be good,” Branch said. “If we learn from what happened this last game, I feel quite confident that we’re going to have a really good year from here on out.”