On Oct. 5, the Lords football team was desperately close to losing a heartbreaker. Despite leading for most of the game against a team that had yet to score a touchdown all season, a costly fumble with just under eight minutes gave Oberlin College a short field. At the time, Oberlin had trouble moving the ball with any consistency, and the Lords were thinking about getting their first shutout since 2001. However, after the fumble the Yeomen scored in two plays, taking a 7-6 lead. After a quick 3-and-out by the offense that lost them 22 yards, the Lords defense, which had carried them to a 2-2 record thus far, needed to get a stop to give them any chance.
Coming out of the Lords’ first timeout with exactly three minutes remaining in the game, the Yeomen only needed to convert two more first downs to take home the victory. On 3rd-and-9 Oberlin’s Zach Taylor dropped back to pass at the Kenyon 42-yard line. Looking for his tight end Brandon Davies, Taylor made an ill-advised pass over the middle of the field, where Lords linebacker Michael Picone ’21 was lurking. Picone jumped the route, intercepted the ball and immediately started his journey towards the end zone. Harkening back to his days as a running back in high school, Picone made three Yeomen miss en route to a 61-yard pick six. The final score was 12-7.
Carrying the 2019 Lords to victories has been nothing new for this defensive unit, which is by far the greatest they have had in years. What is peculiar, however, is that this comes on the heels of two consecutive seasons where the Lords had one of the worst defenses in college football. In 2017 and 2018 the Lords gave up an average of 45.5 and 44.1 points per game, respectively. Even after two straight losses in which they gave up a combined 100 points, through the first seven games of 2019, that number has dropped to 30.4 points per game, the third best of any Lords defense this decade. Over just one season, the Lords have gone from giving up 5.4 rushing yards per attempt to giving up only 4.2, their lowest allowed since 2013, and from giving up 7.78 passing yards per attempt to only giving up 6.75, their lowest allowed since 2012.
Although it is fair to assume these gaps will lessen slightly over a difficult final three games, these statistics are no fluke. They represent a culture change, brought about not only by new Defensive Coordinator Ian Good, but also through veteran leadership stepping up in a time of turmoil for the Lords football program.
Strength and Conditioning
Multiple members of the Lords defense identify their winter lifting period as the spark that ignited this culture change. In August of 2018, the Kenyon Athletics department welcomed Brett Worsham as the new Director of Strength and Conditioning for the Lords and Ladies. As the football team was in season until early November, the first time they seriously got to work with Worsham was that winter.
The Lords were in the weight room five days a week starting at 6 a.m.: three days of lifting and two days of running and conditioning.
“Brett revitalized our strength program,” linebacker Sam Dickey ’20 said.
Defensive tackle Trevor Brown ’20 added that “it was great to have a real strength and conditioning coach so we could apply his knowledge of athletes and their bodies, and I think it’s shown on the field in our improvement.”
However, Worsham’s lifts helped the Lords with more than just conditioning. “We did a lot of talking about our team’s problems, talking about the things we needed to improve on, talking about our strengths and our weaknesses,” Dickey said. “I think it was really healthy, and it really bonded us as a team and bonded us together—not having a coach and fending for ourselves.”
“No one wants to do 6 a.m. conditioning circuits,” Brown said. “But we were all there, we all did them, and it really made us tighter.”
Rallying Around What They Had
In late February, former Lords Head Coach Chris Monfiletto stepped down from his position, leaving the Lords without a program manager as they entered the spring practice season. Of the three holdovers from Monfiletto’s coaching staff, two were defensive coaches: linebacker coach Ian Good and defensive line coach Tom Lachendro.
“I think that not having a coach actually brought our team much closer together, including Coach Good and Coach Lachendro,” cornerback Jimmy Lane ’22 said. “It built a lot of trust in between us because we knew that those two guys specifically were sticking with us through the hard times.”
Lachendro and Good, along with Offensive Line coach Dylan Berardelli, helped guide the players on both side of the ball through the spring season and their search for a new coach. When the Lords eventually hired current Head Coach James Rosenbury III, it was Coach Good who advocated for himself to take over the defensive play-calling duties.
“I’ve never [called plays] before, except for one time last year at DePauw [when] our headsets went out, and our [defensive coordinator] was up in the booth, and I was down on the field, so Coach Lachendro and I had to figure that one out, which was terrifying at the time, but it was a nice little intro to it,” Good said. “I just let [Rosenbury] know early on in the process that [calling plays] was something that I wanted to do.”
“[Good and I] talked about [his desire to call plays],” Rosenbury said. “He said ‘here’s what I would want to do,’ and he kind of ‘interviewed’ more or less for [the defensive coordinator position], and after talking with him more and getting to know Coach Good it was honestly a no-brainer.”
Pride, BFF and TLC
In one of his first duties as defensive coordinator, Good sat the defense down around a white board and asked them: “how do you want to be remembered?” The players spent time listing different values that they wanted to be associated with, and at the end of the session Good told them to pick three defining values “and [these values are] what we’re going to be about.”
The first value the team decided on was ‘pride.’ Good describes ‘pride’ as “having pride in every single thing that you do whether it’s on the field, off the field, as a starter, as a backup, as a scout team player—just having pride in what we do.”
The second value was BFF, short for ‘be freaking ferocious.’ “That means taking on a block, taking on a tackle, going for a pick, ripping a ball out [or] anything like that,” Good said. “Just be ferocious in everything you do.”
The third value consisted of three parts: ‘trust, love and communication,’ represented by the acronym TLC. Particularly, the Lords concentrated on the ‘trust’ part of TLC. To Good, ‘trust’ means “trusting your teammate, trusting your coaches, having the coaches trust each other in everything that you do—because if you don’t have trust, nothing works—but on the flipside, if [you] trust each other, even if something goes wrong, you’re going to be there for each other.”
‘4 to 6, A to B’
At the beginning of training camp every member of the Lords defense received an identical black wristband that said two things on it: ‘Darkside’ and ‘4 to 6, A to B.’ The first of the two phrases is the name that Good gave to the team back in spring ball. Every time the Lords defense breaks out of a huddle, they shout, “Darkside, Lights Out!”
‘4 to 6, A to B,’ which was introduced to Kenyon by Good but seems to have roots during the early part of Urban Meyer’s tenure at Ohio State, is the signature mantra of the Lords defense. Ask anyone on the Lords defense and they will run you through the same basic points. The typical football play is four to six seconds, and on that play a player needs to get from point A to point B as fast as you can. “What it all boils down to is running to the ball and showing effort, but when you put a mantra to it it means a little bit more,” Good said. “I’ll say it to them all the time, they’ll say it to me. I’ll be walking in the hall and our guys will yell out ‘4 to 6,’ and they expect me to say ‘A to B’ back to them, and I’ll do the same thing with them.”
One of the most pertinent in-game examples of the ‘4 to 6, A to B’ philosophy came in the late stages during the Lords’ 15-12 homecoming victory against Hiram College. Shortly after the Lords had scored their second touchdown, the Hiram offensive line broke open a large hole as the Terrier running back ran through the secondary. In previous years, once a player got past every Lord defender on the strong side, they would have walked right into the end zone. However, on this play, weak-side cornerback Bobby Strunk ’22 came flying all the way across the field to take down the Hiram halfback 10 yards shy of the end zone. The play proved ever larger after the Hiram player took a 15-yard penalty for spiking the ball at the end of the run, with Strunk’s play not only saving a touchdown, but forcing the Terriers out of the red zone.
“That’s where you can see the culture being implemented. He’s way over [to the right], and the ball is over [to the left], but he runs it down and saves a touchdown,” Good said. “In my opinion, it’s cooler seeing that than a huge [tackle for loss] sometimes.”
Ring the Bell
One of the most visible changes of the culture is the Lords’ new turnover bell.
In 2017, the University of Miami football team introduced a golden turnover chain bedazzled with diamonds that players who recovered a fumble or got an interception would wear on the sideline immediately following their big play. Good, who has a sticker on his laptop that reads ‘Ring the Bell,’ wanted to bring something along those lines to Kenyon, but “didn’t want it to be something cliche.”
Good threw several ideas at Dickey and Picone, his two biggest confidants on the team, looking for a Kenyon-themed idea. After deciding such symbols as a sword, a shield or a crown were too cheesy, the three mutually agreed on a turnover bell.
The next step was to make the bell not only Kenyon-themed, but ‘Darkside’-themed. His first move was to paint the bell black, and his wife Jess Good, the Head Coach for the Ladies lacrosse team, helped him decorate the bell with Kenyon-themed cutouts.
Some of the most motivating moments have been when unlikely heroes have gotten to ring the bell. In back-to-back weeks, defensive linemen Jack Sherritt ’22 and Brown secured interceptions, the latter of whom is one of the largest members of the team, listed at 276 pounds.
“It’s one thing to get a turnover, but it’s another thing to see two [defensive] linemen getting interceptions. It’s wild,” defensive tackle Nathan Fanta ’22 said. “I think the energy just spreads because [the defensive line] is freaking out, the rest of the defense is freaking out, the crowd is freaking out, the sideline is freaking out.”
However, up until their breakout against Oberlin, turnovers were the one area of Kenyon’s defense that was lacking, only recording two interceptions and two fumbles total through their first four games. “We haven’t [rung] it as much as I wanted us to this year,” Good said the week of the Oberlin game. “Our goal is three per game, which is lofty, but that’s what we expect.”
Against Oberlin, the Lords doubled their turnover production on the season, and they needed every one of the four turnovers they got to secure the victory. “Coach Good says that good defenses stop offense, and great defenses create turnovers and stop offenses,” Fanta said. “So we’ve got to turn the corner and become a great defense.”
Outside of ‘4 to 6, A to B’ and ‘Ring the Bell,’ Good brought several changes on the field that have translated to success. Almost every starter on defense has had their role changed in either minor or major ways from previous years, and the defensive play calls have been a lot simpler, allowing the players to feel confident in what they can do.
“[The biggest difference from last year is] efficiency and simplicity,” defensive end Sam Becker ’20 said.
“Last year, our defensive coordinator would try to create a whole new game plan each week, whereas Coach Good wants us to do what we do,” Dickey said. “We’re obviously adjusting and adapting to our opponent’s schemes, but we’re still playing our brand of football [and] we’re not trying to overadapt and overscheme, which I think was a problem in the past.”
If you ask any of the three major position groups—linebackers, defensive linemen or defensive backs—which has been the most important, they will all defer to another position group. However, the backbone of this Lords defense has been, and continues to be, their linebackers.
Last season, despite the Lords’ struggles, Dickey led the NCAC in tackles and continues to be the Lords’ leading tackler this year, despite falling to sixth in the NCAC. While he’s always been a leader on the field, this year he has taken massive strides and also assumed the defensive captain role. This increase in responsibility can partly be attributed to the mutual trust between him and Good, his position coach for the last three seasons.
“Sam Dickey at the [middle] linebacker spot has been huge. When I got here in 2017, he was a very different person than he is right now—a very different football player, a very different person mentally and physically and socially—and seeing him grow over the past three years has been something pretty special,” Good said. “He’s gets our guys lined up, he makes checks—I put a lot on him and for the most part he rises to the occasion. He’s an extension of me on the field and it’s really nice to have that.”
The Lords made many minor adjustments to the defensive line that have immensely improved their performance. Led by Coach Lachendro, the longest-tenured coach on the Kenyon football staff, the Lords worked their way from ninth place in NCAC sacks last year to a tie for fourth, three shy of their total from last year with three games to go.
“Having Coach Lachendro is huge … because I don’t really have to worry about teaching the [defensive] line; he gives me suggestions about how we should play things this week, and for the most part I trust him on it and let him do his thing,” Good said.
The hallmark of the defensive line has been leadership and position changes. On one side of the starting line, there are two senior leaders in Becker and Brown, who have stepped up in their performance this season. Becker, who has remained a defensive end throughout his Kenyon career, attributes a small change in his duties to his success this season. Becker used to line up outside of the offensive tackle’s outside shoulder (5 technique), forcing him to focus on the edge and not providing much opportunity to get involved on plays occurring between the tackles. This season, he is lined up in between the guard and the tackle (4i technique), which has allowed him to already be only one solo tackle short of his season-long career high.
“I think the coaches did a really good job this offseason of really assessing the players that they had, and kind of fitting them and creating positions that really fit to their strong characteristics,” Becker said. “That type of thing is going on at every position, where everyone’s like, ‘I can do these things that they’re asking me to do really well, and the things that they’re not asking me to do, someone else does better.’”
Some position changes have been more dramatic. Fanta, now the defensive tackle, who leads the team in sacks and is third in the NCAC, was the Lords third-string center last season. Despite the position change, his experience playing the position in high school and his work in spring practice and training camp allowed him to be a significant player for the Lords right away. Fellow sophomore Jack Sherritt showed promise in limited snaps last season, and worked his way up to becoming the second leading tackler on the defensive line this season.
A lot of the defensive line’s improvements can also be traced back to the improvement in the secondary. “From a defensive line standpoint, it’s phenomenal,” Brown said of the secondary play, “because it gives you those few extra seconds to get to the quarterback.”
With all the turnover in coaching, the one major addition to the defense has completely transformed what was one of the weakest units in the conference to one of the strongest. Defensive backs Coach David Angell brings with him a unique experience as the only defensive coach who has consistently called plays before. A defensive coordinator at the high school level for the last three seasons, Angell brings with him a talent for teaching defensive back technique.
“I came in as a receiver and I had never played DB [defensive back] before—not in high school, not in Pop Warner or anything like that,” cornerback Lane said. “Without [Coach Angell] I wouldn’t be put in a position to play… he’s taught me all of the technique I know now, he’s taught me how to read specific receivers, read their intentions [and] I can now go into a game and successfully compete. If we didn’t have Coach Angell, that wouldn’t be the case.”
It may be that Angell’s experience at the high school level has helped him connect with the players in his position group, who are by far the youngest on the defense. Of the five players with the most snaps in the secondary, one is a junior, three are sophomores and one is a first year. In addition, under Good’s new defense, most are now in a different position than they were last year.
Along with Lane’s position change from offense to defense, two of the Lords’ starters flipped positions in the offseason. Good’s defensive scheme calls for “an aggressive, longer boundary corner,” so he took Ryan Mott ’22, who stands at 6 feet 1 inch tall, from playing safety to play the position. That decision paid off against Wooster on Oct. 26, when Mott returned an interception 50 yards to score one of the two Lords touchdowns of the game.
Mott took the place of the former boundary corner, 5-foot-8-inch Chris Nehasil ’21, but Good said that “[Nehasil] is such a smart football player and such a leader for us that I had to find a way to get him on the field.” Good moved Nehasil to free safety, a position he played in high school and feels much more comfortable with.
“I hadn’t played [cornerback] before, so I didn’t know the difference technique-wise in say, how fast you should pedal out—something as simple as that. I felt like I was letting guys catch balls on me, like 5-7 yard hitches, that our corners now, who are comfortable playing cornerback, just don’t allow,” Nehasil said. “[The position change has] made me, and the rest of the defense, more aggressive playing football.”
One of the largest points of emphasis in Angell’s schemes has been to “make a mistake at 100 miles per hour.” Obviously, he is not encouraging mistakes, but rather trying to instill the idea that it’s okay to make mistakes if you’re trying your hardest to make the play. “Coach Angell really emphasized being aggressive as a [defensive backs] unit, and I think he’s done a really good job letting us do that,” Lane said.
“It’s the theme of the year: stress-free football.”
All of these culture changes, coaching changes and position tweaks have done something that was necessary for this turnaround: It changed the culture of the locker room.
“Obviously with Coach Good and Coach Lachendro implementing all this stuff it’s been really fun,” Fanta said. “Last year, it seemed like everyone was on edge, per se, just having to do so much at once, but I really think they’ve just given us the opportunity to play fast and be ourselves.”
“Coach Good has made this defense such a cohesive unit that it never was in the past, and we all just love playing together because of it and him,” Dickey said.
“It’s the theme of the year: stress-free football,” Becker said.
Correction 11/2/19: A previous version of this article inaccurately stated that Good and Lachendro were the only holdovers from Monfiletto’s staff. They were actually two of three, as Offensive Line Coach Dylan Berardelli was also retained, and led the entire offense during spring practices.