by Duane Cochran for FightingFalcons.com
FAIRMONT, W.Va. – Exactly how good is Fairmont State University's defense this fall?
Right now no one, including the Falcons themselves, know for sure.
But the potential five games into the season is there for FSU to be special on that side of the football.
“Coach (Shahram) Shafii (the Falcons' defensive coordinator) is doing a great job with those guys,” said FSU head coach Mike Lopez. “You spend time around him and you know he's a special man. He's a leader for us both off the field and on it.
“It's all about our guys believing in what we're doing, buying into it and then executing on the field. I think we've got some maturity on defense. They're growing as a unit and we're challenging them each week to get better. Special defenses only come around every three or four years because it takes time to build them. It's a process that easier said than done.”
The Falcons are 4-1 overall and 2-1 in the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. A big reason for the team's best start since the 1999 season when FSU began 4-1 and finished 8-2 has been the play of the defense.
Fairmont's defense ranks third in the nine-team WVIAC in total defense (284.8 yards allowed per game), third in rushing defense (112.8), third in points allowed per game (18.6), third in turnover margin (+5), second in pass defense (172.0), second in sacks (17) and second in opponents' third down conversion percentage (24-of-81, 29.6 percent).
Fairmont is also tied for the league lead in red zone defense (58.3 percent). Opponents have been inside the FSU 20-yard line 24 times this season and have scored 14 times (10 touchdowns and four field goals).
The Falcons have 59 tackles for losses this fall and 17 sacks – the most sacks the team has recorded since the 2008 squad posted 26. Last year FSU had just 11 sacks for the season and in 2009 the team finished with a mere 12.
Senior linebacker David Pack leads Fairmont State with 11 tackles for loss, while sophomore linebacker Garrett Davis has seven. Junior defensive end Jordan Greathouse leads the team in sacks with four. Pack and Luke Black both have three sacks apiece.
“We have done a better job this year of getting pressure on the quarterback,” said Lopez. “That really helps us in the secondary because our guys know they don't have to cover guys for so long. It's a progression for us and we're getting better. We're better at blitzing and our blitz intensity has been better. A lot of that is desire and intensity.”
Visit From Bowie State
Fairmont State's defense will be put to the test Thursday evening at 7 p.m. when Bowie State (Md.) University pays a visit to Duvall-Rosier Field for a nonconference game with the Falcons.
The Bulldogs are 3-2 overall. Bowie State started the season 3-0, but has suffered a pair of close losses the past two weeks to Virginia Union (32-29) and Virginia State (28-21 in overtime).
Bowie State comes to town Thursday evening averaging 429.8 yards per game on offense and 30.0 points.
The Bulldogs' offense is under the direction of first-year offensive coordinator Jason Woodman. If that name sounds familiar it should. Woodman starred in football at nearby North Marion High School and is a 2002 graduate of Fairmont State.
He coached under both Nick Saban and Les Miles at LSU and Jimbo Fisher at Florida State. He then was hired as the running backs coach at California (Pa.) University and spent the last two years as the wide receivers coach and special teams coordinator under former Fairmont State offensive coordinator Mike Kellar at Concord University.
Arguably two of the most underrated members of Fairmont State's defense this fall may be cornerback Raynell Hall and nose guard Anthony Domico.
Both played key roles in Fairmont's 19-14 victory over the University of Charleston Saturday.
Hall finished with three tackles, one pass breakup and a fumble recovery. His pass breakup early in the fourth quarter on a ball intended for a wide open Jordan Roberts on a wheel route out of the backfield likely prevented a UC touchdown which would have given the visitors the lead.
“That may have been the play of the game,” said Lopez. “And that wasn't even his man. We knew it was coming because we saw it on film. We just didn't know when. One of our linebackers was supposed to have him, but he was wide open and Ray broke on him and separated him from the ball. That was huge.”
Hall, a 5-9, 155-pound senior from Upper Marlboro, Md., is fifth on the team in tackles with 20 and has five pass breakups.
“One of our goals as a secondary and as a defense in summer camp was to build confidence with the coaching staff and show that we could play man defense,” said Hall, whose teammates consider him to be one of FSU's top defenders on the field. “We've done that more and more and as a result we've been able to blitz more and get more pressure on the quarterback.
“We have to be able to lock down. When we've got a man in front of us we're going to lock him down and man up on him. That's our job. As a group this season in the secondary we've really pushed each other to get better each week and I believe we're doing that.”
Domico, on the other hand, made the move to nose guard from defensive end in the spring and has shown progression with his play in the new position each week this fall. Saturday in the win over UC he had four tackles, including one for a loss.
“The biggest thing for me has been getting used to the system and playing nose guard which is still very new to me,” said Domico, a 6-foot, 270-pound sophomore who played his high school ball at Fairmont Senior. “Every game it gets better for me. I feel more comfortable doing my job.
“I'll be honest, the people around me on defense make me better. The linebackers on my team have been a big help to me and Devin Johnson, who played nose guard here in the past, has been a real help. Every day in practice he spends time working with me. Our defensive ends and of course coach (Mike) Fortier have also played a big role in my development as a player. They watch me and if I make a mistake they help me correct it.”