Less than two weeks away from the season-opener, the Chadron State College defense is shaping up, according to defensive coordinator Craig (Jersey) Jersild.
Not all the starters have been designated, but most of those on the two-deep depth chart have been identified, Jersild said. Since he expects to use between 20 and 25 defenders in each game, it may not matter much who starts, anyway.
Jersild, who had been among the CSC defensive coaches for more than a decade before taking over as the coordinator last spring, is the first to admit that the defense must do better if the Eagles are going to be improved.
They gave up 516 yards a game last season. That’s 83 yards a game more than ever before.
Jersild is not looking for miracles and doubts that he can draw up alignments on a white board or find a computer program to solve the problems. But he’s quick to quote former Pittsburgh Steeler coach Chuck Noll: “If you want to win, you have to do the ordinary things better than anyone else does them day in and day out.”
“We want to play hard and perfect what we’re doing,” Jersild said. “We’ve got to master the things that are required to stop the other teams and play together. It’s about coordinating our assignments. I want all 11 guys who are on the field for us to know what everybody else is doing.”
“We’ll have more depth and experience this year and that should help,” the coach continued. “We’re focusing on what’s important. We want to create takeaways so our offense gets the ball and also have a lot of ‘three and outs.’ We’ll give it our best shot.”
Jersild gives lots of credit to his assistants for “getting everyone to play at a high level.”
The 2019 defense will be a mixture of players who saw action last fall, numerous redshirt freshmen and sophomores who have matured and several transfers who have joined the team, particularly in the secondary, to give it some added clout.
Jersild thinks the line could be the strongest phase. Returning starters Calder Forcella, a senior from Greybull, Wyo., who was an all-state quarterback in high school, and junior Brendan Hopkins of Green River, Wyo., are expected to be the anchors. Sophomore Alex Mai of Fort Morgan, Colo., will likely start between them at nose guard.
Their backups are young, but highly regarded. They are sophomore Tayven Bray of Thunder Ridge High in the Denver area and redshirt freshmen from South Dakota, Justin Carpenter of Sturgis and Kobe Whipple of St. Thomas More in Rapid City.
The top six average about 6-foot-2, 254 pounds. Jersild said he will move them around along the scrimmage line “so the opponents can’t just beat on them the entire game.”
More depth is expected from junior Louis Smith of Florida and sophomores Denton Payne of Hemingford and Emmit Rosentrater of Paxton.
Much is also expected from middle linebackers Tyler Lewis, a senior from Arvada West High, and junior Travis Wilson of Fresno, Calif. Jersild calls them “true Eagles, tough guys who play hard all the time.”
At 5-foot-11 and barely more than 190 pounds, Lewis, known by his teammates as Gator, long ago gained the reputation of being someone who “makes things happen.”
As a redshirt freshman in 2016, Lewis scored the Eagles’ first touchdown of the season by recovering the ball in the end zone after a teammate blocked a punt. The past two years, he’s started every game and has racked up 169 tackles, half of them unassisted.
As a sophomore, Lewis returned both a fumble and an interception for touchdowns. Last season, he forced three fumbles and swiped two passes to go with 95 tackles.
When asked how Lewis is so effective, Jersild said, “He has no fear, is fast, smart and aggressive. He gives it everything he’s got.”
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Best of all, Jersild said Lewis’s high energy rubs off on his teammates, making everyone around him play harder.
The coach calls the 6-1, 230-pound Wilson, originally from Compton, Calif., “a hybrid,” a player who can do multiple things. Last year Wilson took part in 48 tackles, including 6.5 behind the line of scrimmage.
“He’s always around the football because he knows his assignments. We like that,” Jersild added.
Others who rank high on Jersild’s list of inside linebackers include spunky sophomore Bryant (Buster) Wilson of Alliance, who blocked a punt that resulted in a CSC touchdown last fall.
Among those expected to supply solid depth are redshirt freshman Joey Geil of Casper Kelly Walsh, sophomore D.J. Stephen of Valentine and juniors Lane Helgoth of Burwell and Zeke Zuhlke of Bennett, Colo. Each was a first-team high school all-stater.
The outside linebackers will be vital to the defense. Jersild says they could also be labeled defensive ends and safetys.
“We’re not pigeonholing them to play one spot. We may change the look on the fly to eliminate mismatches,” the coach noted.
As of late last week, the probable starters were senior Micah Scherbarth of Gordon and sophomore Noah Kerchal of Benkelman. Jersild said both have worked hard to improve during the off-season. He added that Scherbarth runs well and is strong, and said Kerchal has good size (6-3, 205) and is physical.
Two Californians, junior Jeremiah Gutierrez, a spring transfer from Compton College, and redshirt freshman Cole Condon of Temecula, are among the top backups.
“I think by the end of the year, this position could be one of our strengths,” Jersild said.
The secondary is also shaping up, Jersild said. Senior cornerbacks DeAndre Barthwell of Westland, Mich., and Demetrius McFadden, Pahokee, Fla., have been at Chadron State all of their careers and want to make their final season a great one.
Head Coach Jay Long calls Barthwell, who intercepted three passes and broke up 11 more last season, an all-conference candidate and is always rooting for McFadden, nicknamed Rabbit, because of his determination. McFadden spent most of the summer continuing to train to become an Army officer through the ROTC program at Chadron State.
The Eagles added transfers Tyler Freeman, a senior via Stephen F. Austin, and Tariq Ballinger, a junior from College of the Sequoias in California, at cornerback this summer.
Another senior transfer, Ju’Wan Murphy, arrived from Humboldt State after it dropped football, and looms big in the CSC secondary.
“He has great speed and is special,” Jersild said of Murphy. “He can play either cornerback or safety. He’ll make us better.”
Others sure to see duty in the defensive backfield include senior Tyree Fryar, a New Jersey native who took part in 89 tackles last fall; sophomores Brendan Brahmer of Alliance, a stickout on special teams a year ago, and Brian Sanchez of Bear Creek High in the Denver metroplex; and freshman Armon Johnson, a Texan who made a good impression during spring drills.
“We’ve got other guys who have worked hard and have improved both last spring and this fall,” Jersild said. “They’ll eventually help. We may not play the same guys the most in every game. If they can run, cover and tackle, they’ll play. They also need to recognize what the other team is doing. Once they learn that, they’ll be on the field.”