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October 13, 2011

Colonials' defense hasn't missed a beat

You could draw a line right down the middle of the Robert Morris defense and see exactly where its heart was in 2010. Up front were two redshirt seniors, program lifers who finally had brief moments of success in 2010 as Robert Morris grabbed its first conference title in 2010. Gavin Marshall and Chris Roberts never got any conference awards, but they were dangerous on the line, rotating in at tackle to stuff the run and even provide some pressure on the quarterback.

Behind them were the three emotional leaders of the unit. Alex DiMichele and Elias Navarro were two of the hardest-hitting and smartest linebackers in the league, if not all of Division I FCS. And they had one of the most dangerous safeties in the league backing them up in Mike Landers.

No matter what those five brought to the team on the field, they were also among the most visible leaders on the team. That was especially true of DiMichele, Navarro, and Landers.

So when Robert Morris set about replacing eight starters on defense at the start of this year, it wasn't just talent they had to replace. There were communication holes, experience within an attacking defense, and most importantly, the confidence that someone had your back. No matter how close a team is in camp or off the field, that confidence doesn't grow until you see it in game situations.

Five games into the 2011 season, Robert Morris might be showcasing how they've filled those holes. Robert Morris leads the Northeast Conference in total defense, run defense, and opponent first downs and is second in opponent third down conversions and scoring defense. The Colonials rank 11th nationally in the FCS in run defense, 22nd in scoring defense, and an impressive fourth in total defense.

Much of that starts up front with junior ends Nolan Nearhoof and Steve Mitchell, who are among the league leaders in sacks and tackles for a loss and are also two of the three returning starters. But the linebackers and secondary have been a revelation, despite having seven of eight players as new starters. Antwan Smith has turned into a shutdown corner while Alex Tarr has interceptions in back-to-back games. Safety D.J. Myers was very active in making tackles, much in the way Landers was in 2010. And junior college transfer Cameron Chadwick is an emerging leader. Linebacker Kyle Cooper said Chadwick has become more comfortable with the defense and as he's settled in, the defense has improved.

Cooper and fellow inside linebacker Jon Krepps might be the key to the early success, though. Cooper leads the team with 30 tackles, and he and Krepps had the toughest job: Replacing Navarro and DiMichele.

Navarro and DiMichele were crucial to helping Robert Morris stop the run during their tenure, often appearing in the backfield with the snap. Cooper and Krepps have taken on the same mentality.

"If we can stop the run and make teams one-dimensional, we'll be pretty successful," Cooper said after Saturday's win over St. Francis.

Robert Morris held St. Francis to negative yards rushing in the first half while building their 35-0 lead, and it was only until the second team defense made its way onto the field that the Red Flash were able to get anything going offensively.

Krepps missed two games with an injury, and his return has provided additional stability to the defense.

"We saw it last week when he came back. He fills a hole so quickly," Cooper said. "I played his position the first three weeks, and watching him on the field last week beside me, I'm glad he's back. I wasn't doing that. He's heavy and he's hard and he tackles well, and that's all he needs to do."

Coincidentally, Krepps' return has also sparked a surge in takeaways by Robert Morris. The Colonials have forced six turnovers in the past two games after forcing just two in the first three. Not surprisingly, that's come as the offense has clicked more and quarterback Jeff Sinclair said the offense has taken notice.

"Them forcing turnovers is awesome for momentum. It gets us all fired up," Sinclair said. "Even the first three games, they've been playing their butt off every game. They were keeping us in those games we lost because they were playing so hard. Now that they're forcing turnovers, we're all coming together as a team."

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