Vikings defense making headway in spring practice

Most would agree that Portland State football saw major improvements last season, but still lacked the firepower to be a driving force in the Big Sky conference.

Most would agree that Portland State football saw major improvements last season, but still lacked the firepower to be a driving force in the Big Sky conference. Currently, the Vikings are working hard in spring practice, focusing on building off their experience and returning with a greater sense of confidence this fall.

The main focus in training has been around head coach Nigel Burton’s longtime specialty: defense. Last season, the Viks were known for being a dangerous team on the offensive side of the ball. Running back Cory McCaffrey led the Big Sky in rushing with nearly 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns. Quarterback Connor Kavanaugh provided a ground threat and a solid passing game as well. However, what Portland State really lacked last season was an overall effectiveness from the defense.

Portland State’s struggles on the defensive side of the ball were emphasized by their inability to

shut down their opposition’s running game. The Viks gave up nearly 233 yards per game on the ground, leading to 30 running touchdowns from opposing teams last season. The weaknesses were exposed in crucial match-ups, in which the team was unable to close out tight games, ultimately leading to a disappointing 2-9 overall record.

While the defense struggled due to a lack cohesion and game experience, there is an entirely different atmosphere on the field in spring practice this year. Nine returners make their way back to the field for the defense, and the sense of doubt and question has disappeared from the seemingly electric atmosphere thus far.

“The biggest improvement on defense has been across the board,” Burton said with confidence. “Just understanding what players have to do, there are not as many questions, it’s just guys buying into the way we do it and understanding their assignments.”

Veteran players are returning to help build up their defense, with some big names coming back for a senior season. Converted strong safety Deshawn Shead has been a huge part of Portland State’s defense, finishing last season with 51 tackles, seven pass breakups and two fumble recoveries. The other notable returning starter for the defense is middle linebacker Ryan Rau, who led the team the previous two seasons in tackles, coming up with 83 tackles in their 2010 campaign.

The major players returning for the Viks defense will be huge for this upcoming season, but improved confidence and energy is not all that will be required out of players like Rau and Shead this upcoming year. With all the unknowns still appearing in both the linebackers as well as the defensive backs, the veterans will need to come up with big plays.

“We are doing really great right now; we need to keep up our energy and be gap-sound and stay disciplined,” said Rau about his linebacker group. “I think we feel pretty strong. I’m really excited about our

D-line, so right now we feel there is a good overall vibe going in our group.”

While Rau and company look to create a solid linebacking core, a core that Burton said was still in need of improvements, they aren’t the main defensive focus in practice. The defensive backs are where coach Burton feels there is still a great amount of work to be done, despite having Shead and others returning.

“The cornerback group needs the most work,” Burton said. “I think we have some nice playmakers, but its kind of the life of a DB; you can cover a guy 99 times and you get beat once, all everybody cares about is that one time, so I think that’s where we need to continue to improve.”

The improvement is expected after Deshawn Shead was moved to strong safety from the starting cornerback position. The move was made because of the return of cornerback Mike Williams, who played in 10 games last season, starting in two. Oregon State transfer David Ross, who played for the Viks last year, returns to the lineup as well. With Shead’s move to strong safety, coach Burton feels there is more potential to spread the field and accomplish their goal of creating more turnovers.

On Monday, during the first scrimmage of the spring season, the Viks did just that and more in practice. The defense came out strong and didn’t allow the offense to find their rhythm. The offense ran the ball 17 times, seeing almost no result and ending the day with a staggering negative three yards rushing. The defense showed incredible flashes of potential, but at this point consistency is what they will need the most. The first real test for the defense will be on May 7 in the spring game, when the defense will have its chance to show what kind of potential may lie ahead.

“We were pretty good last season, but number one thing is that our energy and consistency are being improved on,” Shead said. “Last year we would be good in one game and then take it down the next game and then play great again and then take it down again, so for us the best thing we can do is be consistent, and that is what we have been doing so far.” ?