Much has been made of BR-2 Mount Union’s amazing defense. Through five games, the Purple Raiders have given up just 14 points and 672 total yards — most of which were accrued during garbage time — and lead D3 football in total defense, surrendering an amazing 2.43 yards per play and 134.4 yards per game.
All of those numbers paint a nice statistical picture. We understand what the Purple Raiders accomplished, but how they have done so is the better question.
Defensive Coordinator Chris Kappas is in his third year as defensive coordinator for the Raiders, and is a big reason the team has remained successful year in and year out. However, he believes veteran leadership has been the biggest factor in his team’s early success this season.
“We have a lot of experience right now with our guys,” he said over the phone Tuesday morning. “We returned 10 out of 11 guys from last year who have played a lot of football. Some of these guys have been starting for three or four years. They’ve taken their lumps and bruises when they were younger and it’s paying off now.”
Kappas schemes around his athletes, rather than forcing players into roles that might not fit their talents.
“That’s our starting point,” Kappas said, “fitting our players into a situation to be successful. We’re not just going to come in and say this is our defense; we try to figure out where each player can be successful.
“The overall philosophy of the defense is being sound and stopping the run and not allowing big plays. That will continue year after year, but we’ll make minor adjustments here and there depending on our personnel. We’re going to let the guys up front control the line of scrimmage and play sound coverage behind it and get pressure on the QB; that all starts with stopping the run on first and second downs and stacking the box early on. That’s our goal.”
Of course, it helps to have veterans like corner-back Tre Jones, a 5-foot-11, 195-pound cornerback opposing offenses tend to avoid.
“We can put him by himself on an island and he’ll shut down whichever wide receiver he’s covering,” Kappas beamed. “He doesn’t have a lot of stats this year because no one is throwing his way, but I’ll be surprised if you can find someone better at corner in D3 football. We’ve had quite a few NFL scouts looking at him throughout the season.”
Defensive back Alex Kocheff, a 5-foot-10, 205-pound defensive back, and second year team captain, also plays a pivotal role.
“Jones and Kocheff are the corner-pieces of our secondary,” Kappas continued.
Other notables, according to Kappas, include senior inside linebackers Hank Spencer and Jonathan Gonell, both of whom have started since they were freshmen.
“The best football player we have is Tom Lally,” Kappas said of his 6-foot-2, 260 pound All-American defensive tackle. “He’s a a guy who can do it all. He can completely dominate the line of scrimmage by himself.
“Those five guys are the main guys on the defensive team, but there’s quite a few others I could mention that are All-American caliber players.”
So far this season, as in they have in early parts of seasons past, Mount Union has faced decent, not great, teams — BR-45 ONU is the only BR Top 100 team they’ve played. Yet, Kappas isn’t worried about his team losing its edge as they blow by lesser competition.
“We get to go against one of the best offenses in the league during practices every day,” he said. “No matter who we’re playing our goal is to get better every single game. One of the problems we had last year is that we played teams we knew we were going to beat, but we didn’t take the next step to get better the next game. This year we’re taking every opportunity we can to get better every single game. We challenge these guys to have best game of their career every single game.
“This is a tough conference,” Kappas continued. “Some of the numbers don’t reflect on how good some of these teams are. A lot of them have lost starting QBs, which is tough. But all we can do is get better every single game. That’s our goal.”
No coach likes to look too far ahead, and Kappas is no different, but when your team is clicking on all cylinders it’s hard not to get a little excited. Especially after coming so close to winning the championship over the last two seasons (the last time Mount Union won the title was in 2012), losing both times to BR-6 UW-Whitewater.
“The goal and expectation every single year is to win every single game,” Kappas explained. “We have a ton of respect for what Whitewater has done and we’ve had some great battles with them. But we’re going to take it one game at a time and we’re going to prepare for every single opponent. Our goal is to get to the playoffs where anything can happen.
“We have a veteran team with a veteran defense. As long as they stay healthy and keep competing, I feel like we can win every game.”
So far, so good. Mount Union travels to face BR-42 Heidelberg this weekend for what should be their biggest challenge yet.