It’s not abnormal for the Emporia State defense to look a few steps sharper than its offensive counterparts in preseason camp, especially the first couple of weeks.
That was no different on Wednesday morning, as a relatively inexperienced offense struggled to finish plays while the defense stepped up most of the practice.
“(Offensively), I thought that we didn’t finish the way that we needed to, (there was) just a little bit of inconsistency,” ESU head coach Garin Higgins said. “From the standpoint of (defense), we got some turnovers, which is good. We’ve really prided ourselves on that ... the years that we’ve been really successful. We’ve still got a (lot of room) for improvement. Today was day three, but honestly, it feels like day seven or eight.
“I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but that’s how I feel.”
After several pass breakups and a pick-six by junior linebacker Gee Stanley during a drill, the defensive sideline was buzzing with energy.
“People have been talking that ... we’re supposed to have a good defense,” senior defensive lineman Parker Bass said. “I really think that’s going to be possible, looking at some of the leadership that we have, like Gary Woods, Jace McDown, Roscoe (Gatewood) ... the guys have been here for a while and know how we do things.”
That group, Bass included, saw themselves struggle to find their stride early last season as two losses in the first four contests came down to defensive breakdowns late.
ESU ultimately won six of its final seven games to reach the postseason for the fifth time in seven years, but for an extension of that success, the defense will likely need to improve in its consistency.
It is far from a fantasy to imagine this core of Hornets performing at an extremely high level, however. Defensive coordinator Brian Nardo likened it to the defensive units from 2015 and 2016, which were among the MIAA’s best. The personnel and experience can be viewed as mirroring that success. The numbers just don’t back it — yet.
“They have to go out and do it,” Nardo said. “I thought we were really good in 2015 with that group coming back that had the great year in ‘16. This group reminds me of them, but statistically, they’re not nearly what that group in ‘15 was coming back. We have to realize we are what we put on the field last year, everything statistically, where we struggled, the games we lost because we didn’t play well, that’s who we are. We have to go out and prove differently, but I think we have a chance to be as good as anybody we’ve had.
“This is the eighth year with our defensive staff (being) together. This is our eighth year with our culture. Every year it should get better. With that experience coming back and seeing what we saw in the spring with how much talent we had and how good they got by the end of the spring, it raised everything, it just takes us to a whole different level.”
Until it reaches that level, the defense will just do its best to hold its own expectations at a high bar.
“We just hold ourselves to that standard of ‘We know (what’s) expected of us and we know what we’re capable of,’” Woods said. “It’s just important for us as a unit to all look at each other and be honest with each other and make sure we hold each other accountable.
“This league is a tough league, the margin of error is really small. What I’ve noticed is teams that bounce back from adversity — adversity happens regardless of what sideline you’re on — whatever team bounces back and answers adversity is pretty much going to be the most successful squad.”
That adversity? It can come in the form of failure, injury ... or even weather.
“(We strive to) win every day,” Woods said. “Don’t let the beat heat us ...”
It was just before noon that Woods spoke, immediately following a couple of hours under the summer sun. He paused, lightly grimaced, then grinned in his typical fashion.
“The beat heat us. Exactly, right?”
He immediately caught his snafu, but played it as prime example of his message before slowly and deliberately repeating the sentence he originally sought to express.
“Don’t let the heat beat us. Go hard every day. Iron sharpens iron. I know that I make the guys on this side better as well as they make me better. We can sharpen each other up as much as possible.”