Personnel is where Massillon defense will start

Chris Easterling
Updated: Friday, May 5, 2017
New Massillon defensive coordinator Craig McConnell<br /><div id="dfp-300x250" style="float:right;"><script type="text/javascript">googletag.display("dfp-300x250");</script></div>
New Massillon defensive coordinator Craig McConnell


EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second of two stories looking at the philosophies of Massillon's new offensive and defensive coordinators based on their comments at the Spring Kickoff.

MASSILLON

Craig McConnell knows what a good defense looks likes in Massillon. As a player in the early 2000s, he was part of the "Black Swarm" defenses which helped the Tigers to back-to-back regional championships.

The 2003 Washington High School graduate is trying to bring those kind of defenses back to his alma mater as an assistant coach. McConnell - who spent the last five years at Jackson, including three as defensive coordinator - was hired this winter to be Massillon's newest defensive coordinator.

McConnell comes home with his own philosophy in terms of Xs-and-Os. However, that's not what he's focusing on first when it comes to the Tigers' potential defense.

"When I first got hired, the biggest thing for me was figuring out our personnel," McConnell said at Wednesday's Spring Kickoff. "Anybody can get on the board and draw up these great schemes. If the personnel doesn't fit, it isn't going to work. That's kind of the process we've gone through the last couple of months."

McConnell has gone through that process with a defensive staff that may be a first in Tiger history. Every single defensive coach for Massillon this fall - line coach J.P. Simon; new inside linebackers coach Spencer Leno; cornerbacks coach Terrance Roddy; safeties coach Dan Hackenbracht - is a former Tiger player.

It is that group which is trying to install a checklist of expectations out of those who will be playing on that side of the football. While some do reference on-the-field performance, both are more about the mindset and attitude the players will bring each day.

"No. 1 is, 'Do your job,'" McConnell said. "What does that entail? That entails getting lined up with a sense of urgency. That means reading your keys and doing your job within the scheme while holding the guys accountable next to you to do the same exact things. No, you're not going to make every single tackle, but if you do your job and have 11 guys doing that, we're going to be where we need to be at the end of the day.

"The second thing is, competing," McConnell added. "That's from warm-ups to the end of practice. They need to be competing. I need 11 guys on the field who are going to compete their (butts) off every single day so that when Friday comes, it's just a normal thing for them."

That extends to the defense that McConnell plans to run. He used the phrase "multiple 3-4" to describe it at the Spring Kickoff, because he admitted the desire to be able to line up with four- or five-man fronts based on scheme or opponent.

However, much like his offensive counterpart, Jon Mazur, McConnell doesn't want to make it so complex that the players are overwhelmed by thinking instead of just flowing to their assignments.

"We have to do a great job as coaches making sure that it's as basic and simple as possible so our guys can just line up and play," McConnell said. "Especially in high school football, we don't want to limit them. We want to allow them to just line up and play the game."

McConnell does have a list of keys he believes Massillon must be able to accomplish each game in order to be successful. The last three years, the Tigers have allowed at least 284.9 yards per game, including back-to-back years in 2014 and 2015 of at least 344.5 yards a game.

For McConnell, though, the final numbers start with the first down.

"We have to win first down," McConnell said. "We're going to practice that way. What does that mean? That means being in second-and-7 instead of second-and-4."

What McConnell hopes is those first-down wins then translate to wins in the other two areas he's focused on: third down and red zone. The last three years, Massillon's opponents have converted on third down by the percentages of 32 (2016), 33 (2015) and 34 (2014).

As for the red zone, the Tigers' opponents converted on 22-of-28 (79 percent) trips there a year ago, including 18 touchdowns. In 2015, it was 27-of-34 (79 percent) with 22 touchdowns; in 2014, it was 21-of-28 (75 percent) with 18 touchdowns.

"If we do those things really, really well, we're going to have a great defense," McConnell said. "I'm excited about our group. I'm excited about the way the kids are working."

Reach Chris at 330-775-1128 or chris.easterling@indeonline.com.

On Twitter: @ceasterlingINDE