CONWAY — At the low point this season, when things looked most troubling for his unit, Coastal Carolina defensive coordinator Clayton Carlin reiterated that he had been through this before, that it was a process and system he believed in and at some point it would all click for the Chanticleers.
Perhaps nobody could have expected that would happen just a few weeks later, though.
Since heading into their bye week on the heels of the program’s all-time worst defensive performance – allowing 684 yards in a lopsided loss at Appalachian State in late September – the Chants have held Big South power Stony Brook well below its season scoring average, completely shut down an overmatched VMI team and smothered a Liberty rushing attack that had been among the conference’s best.
And as Coastal visits Gardner-Webb on Saturday at Spangler Stadium in Boiling Springs, N.C., it does so with a defense that suddenly looks like it could be one of the best in the league over the rest of the season.
“This has been a little bit of a rollercoaster this year. I don’t know that I’ve ever been on one like this,” Carlin said earlier this week, sitting in his office and discussing the dramatic defensive turnaround. “You look at Bucknell, the first year we were 1-10 and then we [became] a pretty darn good defense. But in terms of a season, this has been an interesting one. The thing is we really have grown and made progress, and that’s all you want to see.”
He said that progress had to begin with looking in the figurative mirror at himself.
Carlin, in his first year at Coastal after developing a proven track record with successful coaching stops at Cornell and Bucknell, and his coaching staff used that bye week to review almost every big play and long gain that the Chants’ defense had allowed through the first five games.
“Our feeling [was], OK, a big play happened. Why? Why did it happen? There has to be a why,” Carlin said. “And it’s either a bad call by me, it’s their guy is just flat-out better than our guy or it’s a scheme where something happened or we just fell down. There’s always a why. So we did that, and I think we found some things. It wasn’t just this and it wasn’t just that. It was just a true examination of who we are and where we want to go.”
The Chants (4-4, 2-1 Big South) made some personnel changes, including inserting true freshman Richie Sampson into the starting lineup at free safety and moving junior Philip George from safety to cornerback. Of course, Sampson is now out for the season with shoulder injury and George is likely to see work again at his old position.
More to the point, though, Carlin and his staff spent that bye week not even looking ahead to the game at Stony Brook but rather going back to the basics of tackling and positioning with the players. He said he also simplified the amount of coverages, fronts and blitzes he had the defense prepare each week while amping up the physicality in practice with live-hitting workouts on Tuesdays.
“What that bye week afforded us to do was to take a good, long, hard, cold look at who we are, where we’ve been, where we need to improve,” Carlin said. “And it wasn’t easy to do. We had to be brutally honest with ourselves as coaches.”
The results, though, have been noticeable.
The Chants still allowed 283 rushing yards to Stony Brook’s potent offense, but they made it a competitive game and had a chance to drive for the go-ahead score at the end before losing 27-21. Against VMI, Coastal won 34-7 as the Keydets managed only a meaningless late touchdown with reserves for both teams in the game while totaling just 16 rushing yards and 252 yards overall. And last week was perhaps even more impressive.
Facing a Liberty team that boasted two of the Big South’s top-three rushing leaders, the Chants held the Flames to just 86 rushing yards and a season-low 265 yards overall on their way to their most lopsided win (36-12) in the series since 2004.
They have found a leader in sophomore linebacker Quinn Backus, who has already been named the Big South Defensive Player of the Week four times this season, and a growing identity as the kind of hard-hitting, fast-to-ball unit Carlin envisioned all along.
Now it’s on to Gardner-Webb (2-6, 1-2). The Runnin’ Bulldogs have struggled this season, but they have a capable passing game led by sophomore quarterback Lucas Beatty – the reigning Big South Offensive Player of the Week and the league’s leading passer with 227.8 yards per game.
The weakness of that Coastal defense has no doubt been its vulnerable secondary as the Chants rank six out of seven Big South teams in allowing 230.9 passing yards per game, and so CCU coach Joe Moglia sees this as another telling test for his defense.
“I worry about their passing game,” Moglia said. “Some of their pass concepts are concepts that we really struggled with the first five, six games or so of the season. … How well we do against our passing game will say a lot about how much we have improved, so we still have to prove ourselves.”
Carlin concurs with that opinion.
“I don’t know if we’ve ever arrived,” he said. “After 26 years [of coaching], I don’t know if we’ve ever arrived. Every week is such a different week.”
And each is so important now for Coastal, which still has an outside shot at the Big South regular-season championship and a playoff berth if it can win its final three games and have Liberty do the same to force a three-way tie between the Chants, Flames and Stony Brook. The tiebreaker would be conference road wins in that scenario, and if Liberty can topple the Seawolves next week at home, that would open the door for Coastal.
Senior running back Jeremy Height mentioned this week that the team is still striving for that playoff spot, and asked if he really believed it could happen, he didn’t hesitate with his response.
Said Height: “If the coach says we do, you’ve got to believe in what the coach says.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318.