Junior linebacker Dominique Tovell hadn’t played inside linebacker since the mobile app Instagram was still in its infancy.
That was his senior season at Columbia High School in 2010. Now in his fourth year as a college football player, Tovell had grown accustomed to the freedom that comes with playing outside linebacker.
But the Cajuns needed him and a few others to step up. The way things were going, the Cajuns weren’t going to win many games. So, Tovell took off his sprinter’s shoes, grabbed his hard hat and moved inside where the coaching staff felt he’d help the team most.
“It felt real foreign,” Tovell said. “On the outside you get to run a little bit, on the inside it’s more gap assignments. A- to B-gap, maybe C-gap sometimes. Being in there and being gap sound is a little different than being outside and just being able to run in the grass and play football.”
T.J. Worthy had spent his entire career as a safety, starting 14 games in the Cajuns defensive backfield. For three years, Worthy was surrounded mostly by the same group of faces every day in practice with the rest of the defensive backs.
That was until last week, when the coaches told him to meet with the linebackers instead.
“We kind of joked about it how he’s not a (defensive back) anymore,” senior safety Sean Thomas said.
Worthy didn’t mind the position switch, though.
“You’ve got to be more physical, but I don’t have a problem with that,” Worthy said. “I like being physical.”
Not that long ago, Darzil Washington wasn’t even enrolled at the university. His teammates had already played three games by the time he started classes, as he waited a long time to be cleared academically.
About a week ago, those three were just learning that they’d be starting in the Cajuns new-look defense, with Washington and Worthy on the outside and Tovell on the inside. It was a faster, sleeker defense — and it worked.
The Cajuns held a team that rushed for 390 yards the week before to less than 100 on the ground. They flew from sideline to sideline and made the athletic types of plays coaches figured they would. The Cajuns tallied season-best numbers in points allowed, total yards allowed and sacks.
“It was a great win for our team, a good stepping stone for us,” Worthy said. “Especially for our defense. We felt like that was another statement game for us.”
Most impressively, they played sound assignment football despite the challenges they had to overcome. While the added speed on the field helped contain the Bobcats when they tried to stretch the field, Tovell was more encouraged by everyone being where they needed to be.
“We just had to be fundamentally sound,” Tovell said. “Setting the edge, taking your gap, doing what we’re supposed to do when we’re told to do it. We focused in on it and worked on it all week.”
Part of that can be attributed to Tovell’s ability to transition to the middle, which is widely associated with being the so-called “quarterback of the defense.” Though he was playing middle linebacker for the first time as a collegian, he made the majority of the defensive calls for defensive coordinator James Willis.
“Coach Willis put it in my hands a little bit,” Tovell said. “He really helped me with the calls and made me feel comfortable about being in the middle and making calls. He showed he had confidence in me.”
Coach Mark Hudspeth complimented Tovell’s versatility after getting a chance to watch the game on film.
“I thought he did a nice job,” Hudspeth said. “We seemed to get lined up well and were in the right spot most of the time.”
Everybody seems to always look at matchups when figuring out how an offense can attack the defense. How can a team get its speedy tight end matched up on a linebacker? How will a lumbering offensive tackle hold his own against a speed rush?
But for some reason, when the topic shifts to the defensive side of the ball, the conversation becomes less about exploiting matchups and more about scheme.
Why not look at them the same way?
“It still comes down to matchups; it comes down to being gap sound,” Hudspeth said. “Everybody doing their job, taking their gap and then trying to get matchups defensively just like you try to get offensive matchups.”
The Cajuns saw their pieces on the sidelines or at other positions on their defense, and they moved them around to create the matchups they wanted. When those pieces also did what they were supposed to do, it resulted in a lights-out performance.
Speed doesn’t kill unless it’s combined with precision.
“We always knew our defense was good, we were just trying to be great,” Worthy said. “If we stay on the same track that we did the last game, we can be a great defense.”