After the third practice of camp, defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter had this to say about picking up the defense from a year ago and imparting a message on them:
“We talk to them about changing the image, having a new paradigm.," DeRuyter said. "That was my talk with them, meeting one, that we determine what we’re going to be. Don’t let outside voices do that and I think our guys have approached this, because it’s so brand new, with a lot of energy, and you see them go out and make some plays and get excited about it, and that’s what defense is. You’ve got to play with effort and emotion, obviously fundamentals, but if you’re not thinking that you’re not a good defense, you’ll usually hit that mark. So we’ve got to get these guys to change their thinking.”
That paradigm change is starting to occur, the defense is starting to speed up and make plays in the backfield, and part of that comes from something Justin Wilcox has imparted several times this spring. That's putting players in a position to succeed.
The initial transition to a 3-4 defense from the 4-3 seemed like an odd fit to start. There were only six scholarship linebackers. There wasn't a true nose tackle on the roster. A few position changes later, some shuffling of positions around in the secondary, and a ton of fundamental work later, the defense is starting to hum.
A big piece of this was the movement of a few 4-3 defensive ends to the outside linebacker spot, as Cameron Saffle, Evan Weaver, Alex Funches, Russell Ude, and Trevor Howard all made the move, joining Cameron Goode there. In DeRuyter's defense, the 3-4 OLBs are mostly used as pass rushing types, while also getting out in space and covering the flats. Saffle and Funches have been two of the most notable performances during the spring, with Saffle getting two sacks in team periods Saturday, and Funches covering routes in flats and forcing rushed passes. They've allayed some concerns about linebacker depth for now.
"(Saffle's) one of those guys we've targeted," DeRuyter noted, "with his skillset coming off an edge, he's an excellent pass rusher, and we're trying to put him in positions where he can get some one on ones where he can make some plays."
DeRuyter also had some high praise for Funches, who played a bit as a standup DE in junior college, but was recruited to be a down lineman by the previous staff.
"I'm really pleased that the previous staff had recruited him," DeRuyter said about the JC transfer from Trinity Valley CC, "and he was here when we got here in January, because I think he's got a chance to be an impact player. He's very athletic in space. He's got very good pass rushing skills. He's a really bright young man who has picked up the packages really well, and he's the kind of guy that, had we recruited him from the start, that's the guy we would have targeted."
Another beneficiary from this change is OLB Russell Ude. Ude bounced around positions a season ago on the defensive line, getting passed up on the depth chart. The former four-star recruit has found his position, rotating in with the first group on defense.
“100%, I definitely feel like I’ve found my position" Ude said after Saturday's practice. "It feels a lot more natural for me personally. Playing in space, it’s something I’ve got to get accustomed to, but with the repetitions, things get easier, feel more natural."
Ude was recruited as an outside linebacker type by other schools, but after two years of playing with his hand in the dirt, the move to standing up appears to be working.
"Ude is another guy who was an end, now we've converted too," DeRuyter noted. "the first couple days, he was a little bit of a fish out of water, he's getting better every day, so it's part of the learning process that you go through from learning to play with your hand in the ground the whole time to standing up."
On the back end of the defense, there's been a rearranging of sorts as well. There's still a nickel position, which Traveon Beck occupies at the moment, but others have been moved to different parts of the secondary, like defensive back Quentin Tartabull. Tartabull had been mired back on the depth chart at nickel this past season, but this spring he's been running with the first group at safety under the tutelage of Gerald Alexander.
"It just feels like it’s the position I feel most comfortable in," Tartabull noted about his move, "so it was definitely a good transition from playing nickel to now being back a little further, being able to see everything."
It comes with a certain level of work to get the positions, especially with the movement from spot to spot, but Alexander has made sure to keep the focus on the details, a consistent point this spring around the new staff.
"We know, especially in the passing game with some of the quarterbacks that we're going to be playing this season there's a small margin for error," Alexander said. "So we've got to make sure that our technique specifically is very detailed in what we do."
That focus is starting to pay off. The speed of the defense is paying off. Unofficially, the two QBs went 18-36 in team periods, as defensive backs blanketed receivers much like the hail that dusted the field Saturday. Linebackers Devante Downs and Ray Davison burst through the line on run plays for tackles for loss. Darius Allensworth and Luke Rubenzer got an interception a piece. And the outside linebacker group caused havoc.
"The defense has come pretty quick, from a mental aspect, it makes sense," Ude noted about the newfound speed of the defense, "and it’s pretty amazing because we’re only eight practices in and it makes sense. Right now, it’s about becoming everything instinctive, versus having to think about it. Once we get the calls, now we know what to do, we can make pre-snap adjustments, pre-snap reads to help us just play faster."
"I think it’s putting guys in the right position, that’s big," Tartabull added"Our coaches are a really big part. They’ve got us in the right schemes, understanding how to read the quarterback. It’s a lot more complex, but simplified at the same time. It’s a lot quicker of a game, basically."
The jury is still unfortunately out until the Bears head to Chapel Hill for their first game on September 2nd, but for now, the defense is experiencing a newfound positivity that was heretofore unseen.