BY NICK LEWIS
Featured photo: The Salisbury University football front-seven prepares to rush the Kean offense. Sept. 15. Olivia Rowland photo
They have held opponents to just 45 combined points this year through five games. They are allowing just nine points per game. They have 21 sacks in five games.
Finally, this team is still undefeated at 5-0 and 4-0 in conference. No, this is not a video game – this is the ferocious defense of the Salisbury University football team.
It does not take more than a skim of a stat sheet to see the success of this defense. With eight forced fumbles, three interceptions and 35 tackles for loss for 240 yards lost, SU has halted their opponents halfway through their season.
“I’d say the driving force is our desire … to be excellent in all facets of the defense,” senior linebacker Tom Montag said. “Last year we had some success and a lot of those guys we had last year and the success we had, those guys are back. We have a lot of returning guys, and we’re trying to build off of what we did last year.”
The bend-but-don’t-break mentality has continued as well, limiting opposing offenses to just five scores in 10 total red zone trips.
A large chunk of Salisbury’s defensive success can be attributed to the established veteran presence at linebacker. Junior linebacker Patrick Bernardo is one of these veterans and is off to a great start this season, leading the team with 30 combined tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and two fumble recoveries as well.
Montag is another established presence on defense, tallying 29 combined tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 0.5 sacks as well. The two linebackers are part of the veteran core of the team.
Surprisingly, this high level of defensive play is still relatively new to Salisbury. It is not new in the sense of recent changes, but instead it has been a goal over the last several years.
In 2017, Salisbury allowed a stingy 13.9 points per game, good for the top-scoring defense in the New Jersey Athletic Conference. They were also second in the NJAC in rushing yards allowed, allowing just 3.3 yards per carry.
This is the defense they have been trying to build for a long time, and it has taken a lot of work and dedication to get to this point. Over the last two seasons, the energy and culture of the defense have changed dramatically.
“The culture of the defense has changed a lot,” Montag said. “Because when I got here, we were not the defense we are now. We were probably one of the worst defenses in the country, and definitely one of the worst defenses in our conference.”
This might have been the case, as in 2015 and 2016 Salisbury gave up an average of 29.7 points per game and 20 points per game, respectively.
Montag said that both the game plan of defensive coordinator Robb Disbennett and the collection of talent currently on the team has had that big impact on the defensive side of the ball. With 12 players already with double-digit tackles, the progress is evident.
One major step forward for this team has been their ability to rush the quarterback. They already have 18 sacks through four games, which ties their mark for the entire 2017 season.
The linebackers attribute this progress in part due to some additions on the coaching staff, including Graham Hensley and Devon McClain, who played for the Sea Gulls last season. Hensley moved from working with the offensive line to the defensive line this season, while McClain was a standout defensive lineman last season, making 41 tackles.
These additions have helped the pass rush tremendously, as the technique and overall capability of the team to rush the passer has improved. SU head coach Sherman Wood’s players know that the key to continuing this level of defensive domination is effective practice.
“Out here on the practice field,” Bernardo said, “We go 100 percent, 100 percent of the time. We fly around, we do a lot of technique work on top of play recognition and formation recognition.”
He also pointed out that film sessions happen twice a week in order to scout both from opponents’ previous games and their own previous games. In addition to effective practices, Wood also knows how to inspire his players and draw the best out of them.
“His message to us is to keep working hard … he believes in us and every coach we have believes in us …” Bernardo explained. “We can’t want to be great, and then not put in the work to be great.”
Wood and the coaching staff’s belief in the players has sparked their own confidence in themselves. As they continue throughout the season, Montag and Bernardo are looking to bring some serious attention to Salisbury University.
Both linebackers were adamant that they wanted some hardware to return to the Sea Gulls in a conference championship and a potential NCAA tournament run. The Sea Gulls last won the NJAC in 2015, which was their first season in the conference.
“One of the ways they recruited me was … the year before they had won the conference, and they had some nice rings when I came here on my recruiting visit,” Bernardo said. “In high school, we were never really good, but I’m a really competitive guy. I like winning and I wanna win in everything I do, so I really want a ring.”
The players see a high ceiling for what this 2018 squad can accomplish on the gridiron. If the team can continue their current rate of success on both sides of the ball, then something could be brewing in the road ahead.
For now, the Sea Gulls have hit the halfway point of the season undefeated, but some of the toughest matchups are still to come on the schedule, including battles with top-10 teams Wesley and Frostburg State.
“We got some athletes, some players all around the field,” Montag said. “So, our ceiling is high. I don’t really know where it’s at right now, but it’s definitely high.”