FOOTBALL: Secretary of Defense sets standard

Keith Farner

Standing 25 yards behind the line of scrimmage, defensive coordinator David Elson watches his prized defense go to work.

Like a scientist looking through a microscope, Elson picks apart each of his players’ movements. Immediately after each play in practice is over, he rushes in with suggestions to improve.

The Hilltopper defensive unit, one of the backbones of Western’s recent string of wins, can attribute much of its success to Elson, the longest-tenured assistant on Coach Jack Harbaugh’s staff.

“He’s the type of coach that will get under your skin to make you a better player,” senior defensive lineman Patrick Reynolds said. “And that just makes you want it more. If you mess up in practice, he’ll let you hear about it for three or four days. But he’s also the first one to congratulate you when you come off the field.”

Western’s defense leads the Gateway in four defensive categories. It has given up 7.8 points per game in six conference games. And junior cornerback Jeremy Chandler leads the conference with five interceptions.

After earning three letters from Butler University in Indiana as a strong safety, Elson went to Southern Illinois – this week’s opponent for the Toppers – where he was a graduate assistant.

Elson was hired at Western as the defensive backs coach in 1996, and immediately after spring practice in 2001, he was promoted to coordinator.

“The thing that’s made us not only competitive but put us in the top echelon of I-AA football has been the performance of our defense,” Harbaugh said. “It was very obvious that was the right hire.”

Since then, Elson has learned a lot, but mostly about patience.

“After about a month of Joseph Jefferson being here, I was ready to throw the towel in on him,” Elson said about the former Topper who is now the Indianapolis Colt’s backup cornerback. “He was late, he was missing this, he was missing class. On the field, he was struggling a little bit understanding what we were doing. I didn’t realize it at the time, he was fresh out of high school, he just hadn’t grown up yet. Thank God Coach Harbaugh set me right on that path and said ‘just be patient.'”

Last season, Elson’s defense led the Gateway in rushing, passing, scoring and total defense. It set a conference record for total yards allowed per game while ranking in the top 10 nationally in all four categories.

“We put most of our best athletes and fastest guys on the defensive side of the ball,” Elson said. “It’s a philosophy from the head coach.”

This year has been another challenge. With last season’s star-studded secondary, he could focus on the whole defense and not worry about one particular group.

With five new starters, most in the secondary including junior wide receiver Antonio Veals moving to free safety, Elson focuses more on coaching instead of strategizing.

“I’ve spent more time with Antonio just making sure he understands everything we’re doing, and I think that’s normal anytime you have turnover at any position,” Elson said. “It was good for me to have to go back through and teach from the ground up and go from A to Z.”

And now, he says, the defensive unit is nearly as good as last year and, other than experience, the only thing this group lacks is height.

Experience is something Elson does have with his front seven. Six starters returned from a year ago, including four seniors. And since Western plays a 3-4 base defense, those linemen and linebackers provide moxie.

Two of the four starting linebackers were preseason All-Americans. Junior Erik Dandy was named to four teams but tore his anterior cruciate ligament Oct. 15. And the only linebacker who hasn’t received many accolades, sophomore Charles Thompson, leads the team with 100 tackles.

That defense will prepare to stop one of the top offenses in the country Saturday. The Saluki’s rushing attack is ranked third in the country, while their scoring offense leads the Gateway.

But while the offense is solid, the defense leaks like a sieve. Giving up 28.4 points per game, SIU is last in the conference in three of the four major defensive categories.

“This defense is the prevalent defense in the conference,” Harbaugh said. “It’s not something we have to look at and say, ‘Now, how are we going to attack it?'”

With a top-notch defense packed, Elson and the Toppers will take on Southern Illinois at 1:30 p.m. Saturday in Carbondale, Ill.

Topper Tidbits

•After Western Illinois beat Northern Iowa last weekend, the Toppers can only claim a share of the conference championship. They lost the tie-breaker and automatic bid into the playoffs by losing to the Leathernecks 14-0 Sept. 14 in Bowling Green.

•Harbaugh said senior wide receiver Jerome Reaves won’t make the trip to Carbondale, Ill., because of a failure to go to class.

BEGINITAL Reach Keith Farner at [email protected]