LARAMIE, Wyoming — It is one of the more common things first-year University of Wyoming football coach Craig Bohl has said since he was hired in December.
"Leverage our defense."
That means Bohl wants his defense to be the strength of both this season's team and future teams.
The good news is nine defensive starters return from last season. The bad news is the defense struggled mightily in 2013.
It was among the nation's worst units in scoring (36.7 points per game), rushing defense (220.2 yards per game), passing defense (261.8 ypg), total defense (482 ypg), pass efficiency defense (157.7) and opponent first downs (292).
Yet, during spring drills and through two fall camp practices, Bohl said he feels the defense can and will be the strength of this season's squad.
"Not to make bold statements, but I think experience does make a difference," Bohl said after Tuesday's second practice of fall camp.
"They don't have a complete understanding of our defensive scheme yet, but when you're that old and have played that much football, we have to take advantage of that. I can tell you when you have those guys, they want to be good."
UW is switching from the 3-4 scheme used the last few seasons to a 4-3, Tampa 2 defense, where there are four linemen, three linebackers and two deep safeties.
The Cowboys tried to be a 4-3 team under former coach Dave Christensen after he was hired in 2009, but a lack of manpower made that ineffective.
UW's projected starting 11 should be decent. But depth behind them, particularly along the interior of the line and at safety, is a major concern.
But the players believe in this new defense, and that is a significant first step.
"We love what we're doing now," sophomore nose tackle Uso Olive told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle (http://bit.ly/1kppkg3). "The three-man (front) was not right. This Tampa 2 defense is great. We believe in what the coaches are trying to do with us."
"...The credibility is there, and we're putting in the effort."
The credibility is the fact that Bohl's defense helped North Dakota State win three consecutive Football Championship Subdivision national titles from 2011-13.
Defensive coordinator Steve Stanard, who also coaches UW's linebackers, said the players retained what they learned during spring drills very well.
However, there are several keys that must be mastered for this defense to be effective for the Cowboys' season-opener Aug. 30 against Montana — and for the rest of the season.
"We have to play harder, plain and simple," Stanard said. "We are going to be a hard-playing, fast defense. We, as coaches, have to put them in positions to do that and not overload them mentally. We have to leverage the fact that they've played in a lot of football games. It's different when the bullets are flying for real, but they've already been under fire."
Taking better angles to the football and being better tacklers are two of Stanard's keys for this defense. He said looking at film from last season, poor angles to the football — which this staff refers to as "keeping the cup" — cost UW at least two games. It finished with a 5-7 record.
Tackling, or a lack thereof, has been an issue for UW in recent seasons. UW and most college teams don't do a lot of live tackling in practice to avoid injuries. Bohl has only one scheduled scrimmage in fall camp on Aug. 16, and said a couple of weeks ago that there won't be as much hitting in fall camp as there was in the spring.
"But if a guy knows what he's doing and is playing fast, he's got a chance to be a better tackler," Stanard said. "If he's not sure what he's doing, it's hard to be a good player and a good tackler.
"By the time we play Montana, whatever we can do fast is what we're going to line up and play."
Despite last season's poor numbers, a factor in that was the offense. UW ran a fast-paced, no-huddle offense that was last in the conference in time of possession at just over 25 minutes per game. The defense was on the field for an average of 80.5 plays per game.
Less than a minute could be run off the clock during an offensive series, especially if the offense went three-and-out, and even when it scored points.
This season, Bohl wants the offense to possess the ball and the defense to get more stops. He wants UW to "grind out" wins, and wear teams down with both the offense and defense in the fourth quarter.
Whether that can be done remains to be seen, but, for now, the defense says it is up to the challenge.
"Our mentality is to win the game, instead of the offense," said senior defensive end Sonny Puletasi. "I think we are a whole different group than last year. There is more energy and enthusiasm. The change (in coaches and schemes) helped us a lot. I think we will get the job done."
Information from: Wyoming Tribune Eagle, http://www.wyomingnews.com