Saturday against Hampton won’t be the first time the North Alabama secondary has been tested by a heavy-passing team.
The Lions faced No. 8 Montana in week two and gave up 269 yards through the air. Overall, the defense allowed 45 unanswered points in the second half.
Things have been a bit different since UNA traveled to Missoula, Montana, to face the Grizzlies. Last week, the secondary forced three turnovers and got a touchdown in a win over Presbyterian. Safety D’Andre Hart, who forced a fumble and recorded six tackles in the 41-21 win, says his teammates in the defensive backfield have grown as the season has worn on.
“(The) challenges make us stronger,” Hart said. “I want us to be that group that goes out there and answers the bell.”
Defensive back coach Blake Farris said the secondary has been up and down since facing Montana. He pointed out the two big plays Jacksonville State made in the passing game as lapses in coverage when the Lions lost to the Gamecocks 30-12.
Last week, he thought it was much improved, thanks in large part to the turnovers.
“We are getting better,” Farris said. “We’re doing good, but we’ve got to get better.”
The Lions came into this season with less experience than a year ago. The only returning starter from last year’s team was senior K.J. Smith.
“The secondary is a group that probably overachieved a little bit,” head coach Chris Willis said. “(A lot of) these guys are playing the most they’ve (ever) played, and for the most part, they’ve held up.”
While Montana and its quarterback, Dalton Sneed, might have the better overall team, Hampton might have the better skill position players.
The Pirates are led under center by former Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois. The graduate transfer has thrown for 784 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. Seven of those scores have been to receiver Jadakis Bonds. At running back, graduate transfer Shai Mckenzie, formerly of Virginia Tech, leads the way with 334 yards on the ground and two touchdowns.
“We’ve got to handle what is presented in front of us,” defensive back coach Blake Farris said. “We’ve got our hands full this week, but I feel like this group is going to set up … and they’re going to respond.”
Farris challenged his defensive backs in practice on Tuesday. While he understands the task of facing this offense, he wants to make sure his players do.
For players like Hart, however, the pressure is a good thing.
“I like us being tested. We’re being the ones that (are) counted on,” Hart said.