Warriors see optimism with healthier defense

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette D.J. Boyd’s presence on the Lycoming defense, among others, is expected to provide a boost.

Mike Clark looked around at his defensive personnel and he could immediately see an upgrade in the Lycoming defense. It had nothing to do with bringing in recruits or transfers, the change was all about being healthy.

When the Warriors open up the season Saturday at Susquehanna, they’ll have three key pieces on the defense they didn’t have a year ago. Juniors Jarrelle Payne, D.J. Boyd and Ahmad Curtis are all potential difference-makers for the Lycoming defense and a year ago they played just a combined three games for the Warriors. All three of those games were played by Boyd.

Getting players like that back will be the first step in trying to bring Lycoming from the middle of the pack statistically in the Middle Atlantic Conference back to the top, where it’s used to being under defensive coordinator Steve Wiser.

“You’re talking about three guys who will play a significant number of snaps for us,” Clark said. “Getting better is about working on some small things we did wrong last year, but it’s also getting better through recruiting and hopefully staying healthy so we have more competition across the board and better position battles.”

The one thing Clark has been able to do during the preseason is rattle off name after name of players who have improved, or will play a significant role in helping the Warriors improve this season. One thing Clark is sure of is that this defense is going to be faster and more athletic than in recent years.

It was that combination of speed and athleticism which helped the Warriors win 31 games over a four-year stretch from 2011 to 2014. Players like Boyd and Payne are keys to that. Boyd, listed as a starting corner back on this week’s depth chart, is a fast and physical player. Payne is making the move from safety, where he started four games in 2015 to outside linebacker where he’ll likely share time this year with Loyalsock graduate Caleb Robbins.

Add in that starting middle linebacker Trey Smith, a Hughesville graduate, is also coming to linebacker from safety to go with sophomore returner Sam Pawlikowski, and this may be as quick and explosive a group of linebackers as the Warriors have had since the likes of Kabongo Bukasa, Tyler Denike and Kyle Sullivan.

“Nobody in this group is Kabongo, but that group of kids were all all-conference kids,” Clark said. “Athletically we think we have some guys who could be all-conference linebackers. When you go back last year and look at (MAC champion) Stevenson, they had some kids who were really athletic at linebacker and that stands out. You have to be able to run. Sam Pawlikowski is a guy who is going to surprise some people. He’s not very big, but man that guy can run. And he’s a good blitzer. He’s got no regard for his body, and when you do that fast, that matters.”

No matter how you statistically analyze Lycoming’s season defensively last year, it leaves room for improvement. The Warriors were sixth out of 10 teams in scoring defense (26.4 ppg), sixth out of 10 in total defense (401.7 ypg), seventh out of 10 in rushing defense (172.1 ypg), seventh out of 10 in passing defense (229.6 ypg), sixth out of 10 in sacks (1.7 per game), and seventh out of 10 in opponents third down conversion rate (42.1 percent).

With and offense which is breaking in a new quarterback, a new offensive line and new starting running backs, the defense could be asked to pick up some slack this season as they try to improve on last year’s 3-7 record.

“We brought back a lot of starters and we feel strong,” senior safety Mike Ward said. “But we have to be better as a defense. If the offense has to punt the ball, we have to go out there and get the ball right back to them. It’s about a whole team defense, it’s not just one little part that has to get better.”