After watching his team struggle to a 5-7 finish last season and lose a handful of close games, coach Bob Biggs knew he wanted to make changes on defense.
Not long into the off-season, he found his man.
New defensive coordinator Mark Johnson comes to the Aggies after spending four years in the same position at Utah State. While he has strong ties to UC Davis (Johnson played linebacker for the Aggies from 1985-1989, and spent eight years on the UC Davis coaching staff between 1990-2004), Biggs said he hired Johnson for the defensive package he employs.
“We interviewed three people and they were all very good,” Biggs said, “but I just felt for what we need to do and the players we have … that [Johnson] would be the perfect fit.
“We’re not particularly big on defense – particularly on the defensive line – but we’re active. We’ve got linebackers that can run and we’ve got corners we don’t like to put in a lot of man situations. That happened last year at times, and we struggled with it because we couldn’t get enough pressure.“
UC Davis forced just 14 turnovers in 12 games, resulting in a minus-12 turnover ratio. It allowed 27.2 points per game last season – second worst in the Great West Conference.
The solution: an aggressive 4-3 zone blitz scheme that puts pressure on the quarterback while keeping the cornerbacks out of man-to-man situations.
Johnson got a chance to unveil his new defense during the annual Blue and Gold scrimmage on Saturday. In addition to coming up with four interceptions, the defense was able to create havoc in the backfield.
“As you saw today, there’s a lot of opportunities to create some defensive plays behind the line of scrimmage,” Biggs said. “We ended up putting the offense in a lot of second- and third-and-longs.“
Johnson expressed satisfaction with the progress the defense has made in learning the new scheme.
“They’re picking it up really quickly, they’re doing a great job,” he said. “They’re driven and smart so it’s really easy to coach them.“
Both coaches made it clear, however, that there is a lot of work left to be done.
“The next step is to build on what they learned,” Biggs said. “The players need to go through the summer when we’re doing seven-on-sevens and continue to talk to each other, communicate and learn from each other. Then when we come back in the fall, we’ve got 29 practices to get ourselves ready to play.“
“[The most important thing] is just to come in great condition and ready to go,” Johnson said. “More repetitions in games will help. We’ve just got to keep learning and learning and learning.“
The Aggies will get their first chance to try out their new defense in a game situation when they head south to face Fresno State on Sept. 5. UC Davis opens its home schedule when it hosts Montana on Sept. 12.
RICHARD PROCTER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.