TARPON SPRINGS — Last week, the rain had come and gone. The offense had, too. But the defense remained, coming through with one more stop.
That late stand by Tarpon Springs, which struggled on defense last season, felt like something more than the impetus for the Spongers’ 21-17 victory over Osceola. It felt like the start of a turnaround in which Tarpon Springs shoves itself into the postseason conversation.
The unbeaten Spongers have allowed 17 points in their first two games, fourth-best in the county. The improved play of the defense gives Tarpon Springs an edge as it heads into tonight’s home game against Tampa Catholic (1-1), a team many are starting to believe is a state title contender in Class 3A.
“There’s no doubt, our defense has been key for how well we’ve played so far,” coach Ron Hawn said.
There were Fridays last season when running backs moving through the front seven of the Spongers’ defense looked like steel balls careening off the flippers of a pinball machine. The amount of yardage and missed tackles rolled up as quickly as points in an arcade game.
Running backs shredded Tarpon Springs for more than 170 yards a game, leaving the reputation of the defense in tatters during a seven-game losing streak to close out the season.
“It was frustrating the way we played,” linebacker Damarkus Jones said. “We just needed to tackle better. We knew we had the talent, but there were too many missed opportunities to make plays.”
The defensive unit had an entire offseason to absorb the reality of its futility.
“We didn’t change much in what we did,” Hawn said. “We focused on tackling better. But the biggest change is in character. Guys are on time, disciplined and focused on what we’re trying to do.”
Hawn took over as defensive coordinator and streamlined the system. The Spongers now operate out of a base 3-4 defense, with tackling machines such as Casey Luckenbill at inside linebacker, big bodies such as Brian Anderson and Mitchell Wilcox up front, and players such as Jones who seek out quarterbacks like missiles from the edge.
The difference showed in spring practice when Tarpon running back Michael Ford, one of the county’s leading rushers last season, was consistently bottled up by his defensive teammates.
“That first practice set the tempo for the whole season,” Luckenbill said. “When we were able to bring down Mike, that gave us all a lot of confidence.”
The tackling drills continued with old-school, fundamental stuff this summer. It paid off when the Spongers held Anclote to 12 yards rushing in their preseason game and allowed minus-16 yards of offense to Clearwater in the season opener.
“The changes are pretty simple,” Wilcox said. “We’ve basically polished up a lot in fundamentals and have physical practices. We’ve done well so far, and we want to come out again this week and show what we’re made of.”
Bob Putnam can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @BobbyHomeTeam.