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Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Football

Q&A: Spavital, secondary’s tight-knit group proven paramount


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One of the things defensive backs coach Zac Spavital stressed on the secondary’s stellar play was that they’ve been able to build camaraderie with each other, whereas they had trouble in years past after shuffling new players into a new coordinator’s schemes | Justin Tijerina/The Cougar

Historically, UH’s secondary had been a liability. Now, it’s arguably its strongest asset — pass defense is ninth in the nation and coming off a year when the defensive backs also led it in interceptions (20). Defensive backs coach Zac Spavital has coached a secondary that featured some ups, but mostly downs since his arrival in 2008.

Spavital sat down with The Cougar to discuss the secondary’s significant progress.

The Cougar: With the secondary not being one of the strengths in years past, how have you been able to turn it around these past two seasons?

Zac Spavital: A lot of it is (defensive coordinator) Coach Gibbs. His defensive structure has given our guys a chance. Another part of it is the maturity of the group. We were very, very young in years past. We were kind of all over the place my first three of four years here, but now we’ve been able to get young guys in the system for more than a year. Now we’re in year three with these guys; they’re comfortable; they know what they’re doing, and they’re confident. I think that’s one of the main reasons why we’ve been able to do this.

TC: With the graduation of Zach McMillian and Thomas Bates, how do you feel the transition has been for transferee Lee Hightower and William Jackson as the two starting cornerbacks?

ZS: William played a lot last year, and Lee started at Boise State. They’ve played a lot of football, so the transition for (Hightower) has been a little cleaner. He ran our defense for a year, ran all the defensive schemes and played spring ball for us. And that’s why our group has been so productive.

TC: Last season, it seemed as if the defense itself relied on its ability to force turnovers to get y’all through some games, and that’s not the case this season. How have you been able to play solid defense?

ZS: That’s fair to say, but we have a lot of returning starters, and (our players) have been in the system for more than a year. Around here, we’ve changed defenses a lot over time. Now, Coach Gibbs has given us a great base, and we’ve gotten to that point where we can actually stop people. Last year, we were able to play good defense, play well and stop the run. But we also needed some turnovers to stop some guys. This year, we’re still preaching turnovers, but we also know that we can function out there and adjust the formation in different plays that we see each week. That’s allowed us to be a little better defensively.

TC: With strong safety Adrian McDonald, a former high school quarterback, how has he been able to play so well since he was a freshman, given that he never had a lot of experience on defense?

ZC: To me, it’s either hit or miss. Some guys, it comes natural to, and he’s just one who is. We’ve recruited several high school quarterbacks to play. Most of them stay to offense because it’s easier for them, but he’s one of the few that actually can play this type of position. When you do get a guy like that, you get a different type of (defensive back); a guy that understands the game a little bit more. It’s something special. When you can get a guy that has that type of offensive skillset playing this position, it’s a good deal.

TC: The secondary calls itself the “Jack Boyz,” a self-proclaimed name that illustrates the defensive backs taking the ball away from opponents. How important is the culture for them jokingly “jacking” items away from their teammates off the field so it translates on the field?

ZS: They understand the importance of it. It’s now and everyday part of practice, where it’s not in a lot of other places. They take a lot of pride in it, and it’s now become a standard. I’m excited for them because it’s something that we preach. We may not have the turnovers we had a year ago at this point, but the effort to get the ball out is still there.

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