MONROE, La. --- While many of the players may be the same, pretty much everything else about ULM's defense has changed since the conclusion of the 2008 campaign. Headlined by new coordinator Troy Reffett, the Warhawks defense has three new coaches to accompany a new scheme, outlook, and aggressive philosophy.
Reffett brings with him the 3-3-5 defensive formation employed during his tenure at New Mexico over the past five seasons. Utilizing this defensive alignment, Reffett's Lobo defenders finished the season ranked 26th against the run and in the top 50 in overall defense in a wide-open Mountain West that annually features some of the nation's most unique offensive formations.
Listening and watching during practice, the new defensive scheme can be summed up in three words: aggression, speed and toughness. These three traits are ones that the Warhawks, under the direction of their new defensive coordinator, will have more than ample opportunity to become accustomed to.
"If you are not going to play hard and you aren't going to play very physical, then you aren't going to play. Period," Reffett said. "It wouldn't matter if we were playing the four-man rush or the cover two, we would do it very aggressively. Some of the things that we try to incorporate in the defense through our drills and the spring are toughness and effort. We are going to fly around the field."
Listening to Reffett talk about the keys to the defense one would have to think that ULM can excel early and often. If you are drawing a line in the sand, the strength of the 3-3-5 scheme lies up the middle with a talented athlete manning each the nose guard, middle linebacker, and HAWK safety positions.
For the Warhawks, this shift in philosophy means centering some of the unit's defensive stars. After spending his first three seasons split in the two linebacker set, senior Cardia Jackson is expected to shift to the middle of the field and the MIKE linebacker position. Senior James Truxillo moves over from the bandit to the HAWK safety while Aaron Williams takes a step over to play above the center on the defensive line.
"Those are the three guys that have as much opportunity to make plays because they are right in the middle of everything," Reffett said. "Aaron Williams is a really, really good player. He has a chance to be exactly what you want in this defense. Then you get Cardia and Jason Edwards at the MIKE [middle] linebacker and James Truxillo and Shaq Belson at the HAWK. We feel very confident with those guys there."
Bringing pressure and blitzes from different areas, the 3-3-5 is designed to keep opposing offenses off balance and force them into quick decisions. With options that allow the coaches to tailor it to the available personnel, the ULM coaches are able to play off the Warhawks strengths, making the 3-3-5 very difficult for opposing teams to replicate.
Still Reffett and staff know that installing the sophisticated defense will have its growing pains along the way. Overcoming those miscues will become a matter of attitude on and off the field.
"You are going to make mistakes during the course of the game," Reffett said. "But if you have 11 guys who are chasing the ball and playing really hard you can overcome them with effort. We need to develop an attitude of being tough. We need to walk on the field, believe we are tough, act like we are tough, and play very physical."
For the Warhawks, the effort has been there. ULM's defensive players have been flying around the field over the course of the first three weeks of spring practice, forcing turnovers and wrecking havoc in the offensive backfield.
The defense is coming along. After two weeks the base package was installed, allowing Reffett and company to move on to some of the more intricate nuances that accompany a defense designed to bring pressure from all directions.
"I think [the new defensive scheme] will put us in a lot of situations to make plays," junior linebacker Theo Smith said. "We are going to be moving around a lot sideline to sideline. There is a lot of blitzing and fakes that keep the offense off guard. There is a lot of blitzing."