WALESKA — No. 4 Reinhardt is once again ranked atop the NAIA defensively, but a new group of players are getting the job done on the back end.
Coach James Miller said he knew his defense would be talented once again, but if there was a question coming into the season, it was how a secondary that lost starters across the board would hold up.
“That was one of the places we weren’t really sure what to expect,” Miller said. “We knew we had some good players. That had gotten some time in there before, but we hadn’t counted on them the way we needed to this year. They’ve gotten better every week, though.”
While new players have risen to the forefront statistically, Reinhardt’s defense against the pass is as good as ever.
The Eagles are third nationally in total yards allowed per game (225.8), while ranking second in passing yards allowed (129.6) and passing defense efficiency (86.1).
“We knew we had to step it up this year,” junior cornerback Bryce Ford said, “but we’ve been preparing like starters since Day 1. That’s what you have to do. You never know when it’ll be your time to get in there and make a play, so now that it is, we feel like we’re ready.”
As prepared as they may be, Reinhardt’s cornerbacks often find themselves at a size disadvantage.
Six-foot Sophomore Omari Debose is the team’s tallest cornerback, but the 5-foot-9 Ford said the right mentality can neutralize any length advantage opponents may see.
“We’re one of the smallest secondaries in the country, or at least it seems that way,” Ford said. “The teams we face have tall receivers, but we always go out there with a no-catch mentality. If they’re going to make a catch, we have to make sure it had to be an incredible catch.”
Despite being undersized, Reinhardt’s cornerbacks are not backing down from any challenges. The Eagles usually run man defense on the outside to help free up a pass rush that ranks second in the NAIA with 4.4 sacks per game.
“I like to play man,” Debose said. “I feel like, with off-coverage, you’re giving them all the short routes right from the start. In man, you can take away everything and really bring out the best in the receiver you’re guarding. You can see if he can go make a play and get open. Anybody can have 150 yards if you’re playing 10 yards off.”
Reinhardt is especially keen of running tight, man defense on third down, and it has paid off, allowing conversions on just an NAIA-best 17.4 percent of opponents’ third downs.
Stopping opponents in those situations has been a major focus point for Reinhardt’s coaching staff, and just how important it is to winning has not been lost on the secondary.
“It’s the money down,” Ford said. “You have to get the money. We survive off money, and third down is our money.”
Still, as Reinhardt plays for a chance to lock up the Mid-South Conference Appalachian Division and a playoff berth today against St. Andrews, it knows tougher challenges await.
Saint Francis in particular has had success throwing the ball while eliminating Reinhardt from the playoffs each of the last three years, but bringing a third-down mentality to every play could go a long way in changing that.
“You can’t flip the switch when it’s game time,” Debose said. “I look at every down as third down. They try to trick you every play. If you don’t look at it like that, you can relax and get beat. You have to look at every down as being that important. Especially in those big games, we know we can’t let up for a second.”