USF's Bresnahan has good history with takeaways
Continuing our conversations with USF assistant coaches from before the start of fall camp, we have new defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan, who isn't anchored to a specific position but will have a hand in all parts of the USF defense. His priority for August?
"Creating an identity on defense. We need to be a fast-playing, physical team that creates turnovers. That's the biggest thing we're going to emphasize," he said.
The last part of that -- creating turnovers -- was a major problem last year for the Bulls, who had just two interceptions all season, both in the fourth quarter of USF's win against Connecticut. The Bulls tied for last place out of 120 I-A programs in three key categories: interceptions, total takeaways (9) and turnover margin (-19).
The turnover dropoff was especially frustrating because just a year earlier, USF had forced 34 turnovers with Mark Snyder as defensive coordinator -- to go from that to nine meant the offense constantly had long fields to drive to put points on the board.
Bresnahan remembers something he learned 15 years ago, when he was the Raiders defensive backs coach, from then-coordinator Willie Shaw, whose son David is now Stanford's head coach and worked with Willie Taggart on the Stanford staff from 2007-09.
"He was a big believer in turnovers, and he preached that 85 percent of interceptions came off tips and overthrows, not off great plays," Bresnahan said. "So the combination of man and zone coverage is essential. We could have great lockdown corners like I had in Oakland and play man coverage 70 percent of the time, but you've got to play some zone if you want to create those plays."
Bresnahan has a good history with creating turnovers as a defensive coordinator. In his first year running Oakland's defense in 2000, the Raiders forced 37 takeaways, ranked third in the NFL in turnover margin and won the AFC West with a 12-4 record. In his first year as Cincinnati's coordinator, the Bengals led the NFL with 44 takeaways and 31 interceptions, also best with a plus-24 margin, and won the AFC North with an 11-5 record. Five times in his seven NFL seasons as a coordinator, his defense ranked in the top eight in the NFL in takeaways and interceptions.
"It's not that I'm doing anything different. We're preaching and practicing it, turnover circuit, and we're getting the guys to buy into it," he said. "If you really buy into it, they're competing with each other to make those plays. I don't concern myself with not getting them. I concern myself with not getting enough."
Bresnahan remembers Cincinnati sweeping four games against the NFC North in 2005 -- the Bengals had five interceptions each against Chicago, Green Bay and Minnesota, with another three against Detroit. Cornerback Deltha O'Neal tied for the NFL lead with 10 interceptions that season.
-- Communication was a point of pride for Chris Cosh last year when he was USF's defensive coordinator, but Bresnahan said in his initial evaluations of last year's defense, he saw communication as an area he had to work on. As a result, he didn't roll out as much of the defense this spring -- he estimated the offense installed "10 times more than us" in volume of install -- focusing instead on getting the entire defense on board and talking about what they were doing.
"Not being critical of the previous staff, but the first thing that stood out to me in evaluating our players was a lack of communication, a lack of execution on very easy plays," Bresnahan said. "So we said rather than be a jack of all trades, master of none, we were going to get good at a few things and that's what we were going to hang our hat on. The communication level improved almost daily."
-- Bresnahan will have help from incoming freshmen, but he said he had concerns after spring drills about the defense's overall depth -- how well the Bulls could sustain an injury to a starter and have the next man step in without a significant dropoff in play.
"To me, one of my biggest concerns still is depth," he said. "We have talent. We're athletic. I think we're physical enough. I don't know if we're experienced enough yet. I don't know if we're mentally tough enough yet to do the things we need to do to accomplish our ultimate goal of winning the American Athletic Conference and competing in a BCS bowl game. We still have work to do there."
-- Bresnahan said it's critical that defensive players understand their specific role in the scheme, because freelancing and trying to make plays outside designated roles and leave gaping vulnerabilities.
"It's a gap-controlled system," he said. "If somebody gets out of his gap and tries to make somebody else's play, big things happen against you that way, because you open up lanes."
-- As we've mentioned, pressure from the defensive line is critical, not allowing opposing quarterbacks to get beyond their first or second reads to find open receivers downfield.
"As soon as the second read is done, that guy's either on his back with the ball in his hand, or the ball's up in the air for grabs," he said. "Punishing the quarterback is going to be big for us."
-- Bresnahan said as much as he likes USF's defensive line as a catalyst for the defense and the team's success, all the key players have areas they need to improve on, both in August and as the season unfolds.
"Everybody's got their flaws, too," he said. "Luke (Sager) in certain aspects has to be consistent all the time. JuJu (Forte) needs to bring his A-game every game, because he's not the most talented guy. He's blue-collar, the guy the coaches love. Aaron Lynch has to learn how to play the run as well as he rushes the passer if he wants to be that guy that everybody's looking at at the end of this year for the next level."
-- Speed is a key in Bresnahan's system, so he's rather initially see players making mistakes at full speed than being tentative while waiting for the correct read.
"In that first game, if we come out and become a sit-back-and-think defense, I've slighted our guys," he said. "I want our guys, from the first snap to the very last snap, to go out and fly around. If they make mistakes, they're making it at a thousand miles an hour. Not standing there going 'Should I do this or that?' We have to master a couple of things. We'll go into a game shorthanded as far as what we have available -- we know how to play it and we can play it against anything, that's better to me than having 92 different things but you're not really sure about any one of them."
-- Bresnahan has always been on the sidelines, but the plan is he'll be in the booth this fall, with linebackers coach Raymond Woodie; defensive backs coach Ron Cooper and defensive line coach Eric Mathies will be on the sidelines. The three grad assistants will be opposite their position coaches, so Kurt von Bargen (DLs) and Saki Mihalakos (DBs) in the booth and Tommy Donatell (LBs) on the field.