BATESVILLE, Ark. –Despite seven starters returning from a year ago, the Lyon College defense will still be a young squad. But first-year defensive coordinator Del Howard isn't about to make excuses as he expects better performances from the Scots football team when it opens the season next Thursday against Wayland Baptist University (8 p.m.) at Pioneer Stadium.
Howard, a former player at University of Missouri, coached the Lyon defensive backs last year. This year he's also taking on the responsibility of the entire defense. He said four returning starters in the secondary and three on the front line means more maturity and better football savvy when the season begins.
"The biggest difference between last year's team and this year is that we're going to be more confident," Howard stated during training camp. "There were times last year when we weren't confident about what we were doing; we were second-guessing ourselves.
"In the last few days of training camp I started seeing guys doing a better job of making calls and going hard – whether they were right, wrong or what. They were just going out there and playing football.
"We have seven returning starters on defense and their game experience from last year will really help us in the long run. Those reps help them understand what has to happen and how to do it. Last year we had a lot of redshirt and true freshmen and this year those guys will be taking some of the new players under their wings and coaching those guys up."
Lyon's returning secondary – safeties Stephen Benedik (SO/Panama City, Fla.) and Xavier Story (SO/Bushnell, Fla.), along with cornerbacks Cedric Cooney (SO/Lonoke, Ark.) and Tre Hawkins (SO/Houston, Texas) – combined for 167 tackles a year ago, including 102 solo stops. Benedik led Lyon in tackles with 89, including 60 solos. He went on to be named a First-Team All-Central States Football League player. Story was fifth on the squad with 49 tackles, with 26 being of the solo variety.
"Stephen just goes," Howard explained. "He flies around and he's a smart player. He understands how offenses try to attack. I'm really excited to have him back.
"Xavier is a guy that does everything right. You don't have to worry about him academically; you don't have to worry about his work in the weight room or on the field. He's an extremely coachable kid and one of our most physical players."
Cooney started at outside linebacker last season and made the switch to safety and cornerback before the year was over. "Having him concentrate on one position will help him tremendously," Howard said. "With him at corner and Tre at the other corner, we'll be stronger. Tre is just electric. He's cleaned up some of his footwork, which comes with game experience."
Taylor Thibeau (SO/Kennedale, Texas) saw a lot of action on special teams last year and will get more reps in the defensive backfield, Howard said.
The defensive coordinator and associate head coach said four returners in the defensive backfield and another player who saw a lot of downs means the Scots will have a tough secondary this fall.
"The tempo has picked up this season because they get it," Howard continued. "We've grown together more because they understand. Our practices have been cleaner and having players and coaches back help make that happen."
Three defensive linemen return. They include Sage Wood (SO/West Plains, Mo.), who missed five games with injuries a year ago and still posted 19 tackles. Nick Bernier (SO/Sarasota, Fla.) was 10th in tackles, finishing with 29, including 16 solos, while earning Honor Mention All-CSFL. Jon Alexander (SO/Vilonia, Ark.) made the switch from fullback to defensive during the 2015 season and posted 20 tackles.
"Nick led us in sacks last year (4.0)," Howard stated. "He's not a very vocal leader, but he's always doing the right thing. He also knows what everybody else should be doing.
"Sage is a high-motor kid. He's the kid that won't stop in the middle of a play. He's going to give you everything he's got on every single play of the game."
Lyon doesn't have returners in their linebacker crew, but that doesn't mean they don't have some outstanding talent. Peter Tuipulotu (JR/San Mateo, Calif.)is a junior college transfer from San Mateo College. Braydon Pender (FR/Thayer, Mo.), whose father is a Lyon alum, is a freshman, and a very instinctive player, according to Howard. DeAngelo Crawford (FR/Jonesboro, Ark.) is from Jonesboro and Braylon Wehrmann (SO/Brownsboro, Texas) was a redshirt last season and returns.
"Peter is a smart football player," Howard stated. "He's a smart football player and has a good head on his shoulder. He has two years of college experience so he knows the tempo and how things should look.
"Braydon is picking up the scheme fast and he's a quick learner. He's young and has room to grow. He can play inside or outside and I'm pretty excited about him.
"DeAngelo and Peter are two of our bigger linebackers. DeAngelo is very aggressive out there on the field."
Howard said the biggest challenge for the season is depth and staying healthy.
"I'm confident with our starters, but their backups are still learning and we're still a young team," he stated. "Some of the guys will have to separate their learning experiences because they could be a play or two from having to be 'the guy'. They need to accelerate their learning curve."
The Scots will play six games at home against this season. They will have a tough task again this year, but their non-conference play could go a long way to helping them as they try to move up the ranks of the CSFL.