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RISKY BUSINESS : Playing in the Secondary Puts Defensive Backs First in Line for Big-Play Disasters

Times Staff Writer

Defensive backs are a curious lot indeed.

Why would anyone want to play in the secondary?

The position is chock full of pitfalls and pratfalls. You have to be a little wacko to want to play defensive back.

A DB has to move with grace and quickness, staying with a receiver step for step. Like Ginger Rogers, the defensive back has to do it all backward. Unlike Ginger, who at least had a clue which way Fred Astaire would turn next, a defensive back is at the mercy of the receiver.

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The receiver’s pass patterns--hitches, flies, stop-and-goes, turn-ins, turn-outs--are all calculated to trick the defense for big gains.

The defensive back has more of a chance to fail in spectacular fashion than any other position.

Defensive backs usually don’t mind terribly if a receiver catches a pass in front of them. At least they get to take a crack at him. Getting in a good hit is one of the few chances for redemption. Interceptions are another, but they are rare treats.

But a fake here, a juke there, and off goes the receiver leaving the defensive back in his wake for a big gain or, worse, a long touchdown. Letting a receiver get by is a big no-no.

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“They’re in front of God and everyone when they make a mistake,” said Herb Hill, Loara coach. “It’s not like a lineman. He can point to the next guy and say it was his fault.”

The worst part may be facing teammates and coaches on the sideline, to say nothing of the film sessions the next day. Coaches will run that short piece of film over and over as if to embarrass the guilty player into never making the mistake again.

Yet it happens.

“Everyone tells you to get over it, but it’s hard to do,” said Tim Manning, a defensive back at Trabuco Hills. “You can’t dwell on one screw-up. You learn from your mistakes.”

Getting burned deep might leave a bruised ego, but trying to stop a runaway fullback who has a offensive lineman out in front can leave a defensive back bruised and bloodied.

A defensive back, knowing he’s the last stop before the end zone, has to be fearless, throwing his body at the pair while trying to stop the ballcarrier at all cost.

If he manages to make the tackle, he invariably wobbles back to his feet with a “Did-you-get-the-number-of-that-truck?” look on his face.

Resiliency is the name of the game at defensive back. He can never get down after a big offensive play, lest he lose his concentration for the next play.

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Next to aggressiveness, confidence is a defensive back’s best attribute. In most cases, he either has the speed or he doesn’t. Speed is a gift.

Suppose a defensive back makes it through his high school career unscathed and wants to play in college.

What then?

He’ll likely face a DB coach, a guy like Al Feola of Fullerton College, whose stopwatch and keen eye give the athlete a thorough once over.

If he runs a 4.7-second 40-yard dash, chances are he’ll lose out to a guy who can run 4.5 or 4.4. Maybe to a former quarterback or running back, who’s not big enough to endure the punishment at his former position.

If his speed is OK, he still needs to have the proper footwork and technique.

If not, Feola will redshirt him and work with him until he gets it down pat. It’s a difficult apprenticeship, according to Feola, who has coached defensive backs at Fullerton for 28 seasons.

“I think that defensive back and offensive line are the two most difficult positions to play,” said Mike Milner, Fountain Valley High School coach and defensive coordinator. “A good DB is a real premium, and a really good one is hard to find.”

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Nevertheless, there are those who ignore the drawbacks and overcome the obstacles.

Players such as Rick Sparks and Manning of Trabuco Hills, who rank 1-2 in interceptions in Orange County. Such as Ozzie Merino of Katella, who at 5-feet 10-inches and 150 pounds, was the team’s leading tackler against La Mirada 2 weeks ago and has four interceptions. Such as Guy Shepard and Randy Roskelly of Valencia, who cover receivers as if they know where they are going.

“I never sat down and said I want to be a DB,” said Manning, a 5-10, 175-pound junior. “With my size and my speed, I have to play there.”

Manning, who runs the 40 in 4.6 seconds, has six interceptions this season, only his second playing defensive back. A versatile player, Manning also plays wide receiver and running back for the Mustangs.

Manning fits the mold of the typical defensive back.

“They all have to have good speed, good hand-eye coordination,” said Hill, coach at Loara for 27 seasons. “They have to be able to judge the ball and catch it. They have to have a lot of courage to tackle bigger guys in the open field.”

Milner draws a distinction between playing well and playing exceptionally.

“I’ve seen a lot of kids play free safety and they’re not real aggressive and they got by and helped the team win,” Milner said. “On the other side, an aggressive person, a guy who can really run, a great competitor who likes to hit can bring the position to new levels.”

In any case, it takes something extra to advance to the next level.

“The first thing we look for (in a high school player who could play defensive back at Fullerton) is the body control,” said Feola, who has coached 15 community college All-Americans at Fullerton. “How well do they run backwards, control their feet, what’s their agility like? . . . One of the main things we’re trying to find out is what their natural instincts are.”

Carl Sweet, El Dorado coach, was an All-American when he played for Feola at Fullerton in 1967-68. Sweet, who graduated from Brea-Olinda, went on to play defensive back at the University of Washington.

“I think it’s a high-pressure position,” he said. “It’s a great position to play.”

However, the position has changed considerably since Sweet played.

In order to keep up with complex offensive schemes, the defenses have become more complex and more difficult to play.

“When I played, I basically played in the middle of the field in the zone,” Sweet said. “I just dropped back and played center field.”

Adds Hill: “When I first started coaching, we played 1 cover. You were a zone team. Now with all the offenses, you have to have more covers. It’s a lot more demanding on the players.”

And with more complex offenses comes the increased possibility that a defensive back will get burned for a long touchdown.

No matter how many times the coaches warn their charges, no matter how many films the players watch, it’s bound to happen. A faster, smarter receiver teams up with a strong-armed quarterback, and a defensive back is left to explain what happened.

There’s no place to hide.

“You’re in front of all those people and you know that you just blew it for the team,” said Sparks, a junior who leads the county with seven interceptions.

Indeed, Sparks said he learns a wide receiver’s moves in just a few plays from scrimmage early in the game.

“You have to know them,” he said. “You have to stick with them. You can’t bite early (on a fake). If you do, he’s gone. If you get beat, you’re dead.”

He also watches the quarterback for tips on which direction he’ll throw.

He watches the quarterback’s head, not his eyes. He said he’s too far away to see the eyes, anyway. He looks for clues in how the quarterback takes his drop, where he plants and starts to throw.

“We just have to stay back there and wait for him to commit himself,” Sparks said.

Once the ball is in the air, Sparks tries to wait until just the right moment to sweep in and intercept the pass, or at the least slap the ball away. And if he’s a step slow, he’s right there for a jarring tackle.

What makes it difficult too, Sparks said, is knowing whether the play will be a pass or a run.

“They have to cover the sweep,” he said. “That’s your main goal. First you look for the pass, then watch the receiver to see what he does. If he goes inside to block on someone, then you know it’s a run.”

Shepard, who has played defensive back since he was 12 and is the latest in a long line of fine defensive backs at Valencia, likes the challenge of tackling bigger, stronger running backs.

“I enjoy it more than being a receiver,” said Shepard, who plays both positions for Valencia. “I enjoy getting to tackle, but I’m just too small to be a tackle.”

Manning said he wouldn’t want to play anywhere else on defense.

“It’s a combination of all the things,” he said. “Knowing that you’re the last line of defense. That’s a good feeling knowing that they (the Trabuco Hills coaches) trust you back there.”


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