By ANDY WOLF
The University of Findlay football team’s defense just keeps getting better.
The 2017 season was the largest step towards becoming a formidable defense.
And there’s a good case to say the Oilers were.
Statistically, they posted bests for the Rob Keys era of 19.2 points and 306.3 yards allowed per game.
“Fundamentally and technically we really improved,” said Keys, now in his eighth season. “We did a better job of getting off blocks and tackling and tracking.
“You can take all the X”s and O’s, yeah they’re a little overrated at times. It was evident against Shepherd (playoffs). I thought the defense really did a good job.”
To quantify the amount of experience returning, 15 of their top 18 tacklers are back with six being seniors.
There are few big voids created as Aaron Ivory (5 interceptions), the Great Midwest Athletic Conference Defensive Back of the Year, and Johnny Hopkins (131/2 tackles for loss, GMAC Defensive Lineman of the Year, both graduated.
But the Oilers functioned as a steady unit with playmakers all over.
They finished tied for fifth in Division II with 31 takeaways.
“It’s kind of two-fold,” Keys said. “No. 1, you recruit guys who have that ability at all three levels. But at the same time, for our coaches, it’s a concerted effort. Takeaways are a focal point of practice.”
For Keys, it all starts in the middle with defensive tackles Cyle Skidmore (51/2 tackles for loss) and Grant Kinsinger (Liberty-Benton).
Skidmore is a senior and four-year player who has seen a vaunted run defense take shape.
As a freshman, the Oilers allowed 234.4 rushing yards per game. That total shrank each of the next two years to 123.9 ypg last season.
“I don’t think we’ve ever been this good at stopping the run or anything,” Skidmore said. “Now we’re getting better at rushing the passer.”
Adding depth to the D-line are Kyle Gibson, Kenneth Washington and Justin Ellis who all saw substantial time last season.
UF also has all three of its starting linebackers back.
Seniors Tyler Long (Tiffin Calvert) and Justice Jenkins (5 sacks, 7 TFL), as well as junior Isaac Miles (41/2 sacks, 7 TFL) all topped 50 tackles last season.
Senior linebacker Anthony Kastelic has also appeared in every game since his freshman year.
“They know what every play coming is,” Skidmore said of the linebacking corps. “They can tell us the ball is getting ran here, it’s a pass. Just hearing them before the play helps you out so much.”
In the secondary, starting corners Tyler Lee and Chewy Chukwuneke each recorded for interceptions last season while senior safety Francis Cutchember had a team-high 58 tackles and 10 pass breakups.
Sophomore Terrance Smith (40 tackles) started for the injured Lee in both playoff games.
Rhode Island transfer Myles Ross is expected to help bolster the secondary with the loss of Ivory, as will junior Romaeo Whitlow.
“It’s a thing where we know we’re all a talented group,” Chukwuneke said of the whole defense. “We all have the ability to make plays. The big thing is doing it within the framework of your assignment.
The Oilers are also doing everything they can to eliminate the big plays.
They surrendered big point totals in all three of their losses to Ferris State (48-27), Ohio Dominican (49-24) and Assumption (45-26).
Each loss contained at least four different scoring plays of 35-plus yards by the opposition.
“We know that if we do our jobs, offenses have a hard time driving the ball down the field consistently,” Chukwuneke said. “When you start giving up slash plays, 25-or-plus plays, that’s when we start to run into issues as a defense.”