SPOTLIGHT: Airline defense beginning to offend opponents

FOR THE DEFENSE – Brayden Linton (33) and Mark Engelke (19) celebrate a defensive stop against Captain Shreve as teammates Chris Montgomery (5) and Tyler Ballard (40) look on. (Photo courtesy of JENNIFER ENGELKE)

By TEDDY ALLEN, Journal Sports

In the past three games, each a win, Airline’s up-tempo offense has dropped a lot of jaws in the stands and a lot of points on the field. The Vikings have averaged a bit better than 54 points a game to even their record at 3-3 overall, and more importantly, 3-0 in District 1-5A.

But don’t forget about the defense.

The Vikings won a wild won against Benton, 75-59, a game that wasn’t really in doubt by halftime. Then they shut out Natchitoches-Central, 46-0, and gave up only seven in a 42-14 win last week over Shreve; the Gators’ other score was a pick 6.

“Those first three games, I thought we were right there, just not putting it all together,” Airline defensive coordinator Zack Pourciau said. “Even after I watched the Benton film, if you take out the fourth quarter, I was pleased with how we played. The biggest thing after that was making sure our guys understood that the intensity can’t drop at all. Ever. The kids are finally buying into that and believing that no matter what happens on offense or special teams, every time you’re on the field you have the opportunity to make a play and that you owe it to yourself and to your teammates to play to the best of your ability. We can’t let the momentum of the game affect how we play.”

“A lot of how we played early had to do with the kids learning a new scheme and the coaches trying to figure things out,” head coach Justin Scogin said. “I knew everything was going to be good; it was just a matter of it clicking with the kids.

“Plus, it was the first time for a lot of our coaches to play with an offense that plays really fast like ours does,” he said. “We didn’t give the defense a lot of time to rest. I think that and special teams slowed (the defense) a little at the start.”

There were eight turnovers in the 46-21 season-opening loss to North DeSoto, so the defense basically had no time to rest.

“Take out the North DeSoto game,” Pourciau said, “and I think we played well the second half against Union (26-22 back-and-forth loss) and well in the first half against Northwood (a 35-28 loss).”

“(Northwood) is definitely good,” Scogin said. “But a lot of it that night was we needed to make plays and didn’t make enough. We held them to seven points the first half and then kind of wore down.”

Since the 0-3 start, the Viking tide has turned.

“The biggest difference is we got frustrated very quickly, frustrated and angry when there would be a turnover and we had to go back on the field really quick,” said senior outside linebacker and leader Mark Engelke. “Now when there’s a turnover or something goes wrong, we don’t collapse on ourselves. We say, ‘Let’s go get a stop and get off the field.’

“I wasn’t real confident after the North DeSoto loss,” he said. “But the Union game was super fun. We hung in there with them the whole night. I felt then that our defense could be pretty good. I think now we’re consistent, we follow our assignments, we play like we practice.”

When safety Ladarius Epps was hurt and missed the shutout of Natchitoches-Central two weeks ago, wide receiver Bryson Broom played safety for the first time in his life and did so well that both he and Epps played defense in last week’s win over Shreve.

“That way we have so much more athleticism on the field,” Pourciau said. “Bryson picked (free safety) up so fast. He’s extremely coachable, so athletic and fast; he can play the pass so well that we can get (strong safety) Brayden Linton a little more intentional in the run game.”

“He’s not scared to hit,” Engelke said of Broom. “He’s flying around all over the place. I love having him out there.”

Versatile defender Justin Epps, a solid 5-9, 195, hasn’t even played and won’t be back until late October. But he has been “helping out and coaching kids up,” Scogin said. “Such a great kid to have around. It’s been quite a surprise how the guys who’ve filled in have bought in and done such a good job.

“I like our physicality,” he said. “Really good tackling, solid coverage … it’s all been pretty exciting to watch.”

Thursday’s 1-5A game should be, too, when Haughton visits Airline at 7 p.m.

“Last year after we started 0-3, I felt we were a good team athlete-wise, but I got the feeling we weren’t going to win a lot of games,” said Engelke; (the Vikings won one). “But after we started 0-3 this year, the difference was confidence. We knew we had the ability to win games if we just put it all together.”

“I’m having a blast right now,” said Pourciau, in his first year as Airline’s DC. “It’s fun to be able to have a chance to be in ballgames. When we play defense the way we’ve played the last two weeks, it’s even more fun. Guys are running around having a blast. It’s easy to coach when the kids are playing fast and smart.”

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