In today’s modern version of football, throwing the ball is the greatest indicator of any individual unit’s success. Think of the greatest offenses you’ve ever seen, either college or pros. The most dynamic, impactful, and fun offenses were those that were making dynamite plays through the air. In the NFL the Draft focuses on those who throw the ball (quarterbacks) and those that can stop those who throw the ball (defensive ends). In college the best indicator of an elite offense is a dynamite passing game, and the trademark of an elite defense is an experienced secondary; there are those out there who find success without experience but, as a broader trend, it’s the best harbinger of quality.
The modern game has seemingly moved on from awesome running backs and nasty linebackers that destroy those who dare cross the line of scrimmage. Running backs now must catch the ball and pass block and linebackers need to be able to play coverage or their usefullness is limited. Sure, there’s still Stanford and Michigan and Kansas State and Georgia and Wisconsin who will always rely on zagging with the run while everyone else zigs with the pass but, for most of the college and pro teams out there, you pass to win. Even so, the value of a linebacker has stayed the same as far as leadership and field command. Almost every middle linebacker serves as a defensive captain or at least a coach on the field. Being in the middle of the unit gives them the ability get a good view of the offense and communicate changes quickly. And while, tactically, they might not serve the same purpose, the still deliver some of the best hits and serve in a variety of utilities regardless of the defensive formation.
So, it goes without saying that those who coach the linebackers on any team need to be dynamic leaders and communicators themselves. It’s no surprise that an overwhelming number of defensive coordinators were linebackers themselves, or coach the position directly in addition to DC responsibilities, or both; after all, our dearly departed Barry Odom was a gritty linebacker in his Mizzou days.
D.J. Smith is one of those guys and now our newly minted linebackers coach. Young D.J. was a standout linebacker at Appalachian State from 2007-2010, accruing over 500 tackles, and spent four years in the NFL before getting into the coaching ranks. Here’s his (very!) brief resume:
Five years of coaching experience, three of those on the field, two as a linebackers coach, all of his college experience at Appalachian State. A good chunk of the Drinkwitz staff has suffered from a small sample size quandary where there’s not enough data to get a good sense of what they can do but, hey, that’s part of the appeal of hiring a young staff: you don’t know what you’re going to get and you can come to any conclusion that you want!
D.J. Smith’s link to the rest of the staff
- Outside linebackers coach with Eli Drinkwtiz, Erik Link, and Charlie Harbison at Appalachian State
Is he good at what he does?
Almost impossible to tell. But what we can figure out is what the linebackers did under his tutelage with a focus on havoc. If you’re unfamiliar with havoc, it’s a brilliant measure that The Godfather Bill Connelly came up with several years ago: it takes tackles for loss (including sacks), passes defensed, and forced fumbles and measures that against all the tackles you made to give an idea of the percentage of time a defender makes a disruptive play, as opposed to just a standard tackle. So, let’s say a player has 10 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, a sack, and a pass defensed. The sack is a TFL so that would be 2+1=3, and 3 divided by 10 is 0.3, so that player had a 30% havoc rate which is good! For reference, Cale Garrett finished with a 29% havoc rate and Nick Bolton finished with a 21% havoc rate. So let’s take a look at the top three linebackers in each of Coach Smith’s two years at App State to see how much havoc they created.
Appalachian State Defense 2018 - 20th - Outside Linebackers
- Rushing Defense - 8th
- Passing Defense - 5th
- Standard Downs Defense - 3rd
- Passing Downs Defense - 6th
- Big Play Prevention - 12th
- Third Down Success Rate - 16th
- Akeem Davis-Gaither (JR): 72.5 tackles/10 TFLs/1.5 sacks/7 PBUs/2 FFs/26.2% HAVOC
- Anthony Flory (SR): 67.5 tackles/6 TFLs/1 sack/3 PBUs/1 FF/14.8% HAVOC
- Jordan Fehr (JR): 59.5 tackles/7.5 TFLs/5.5 sacks/2 PBUs/15.9% HAVOC
- Noel Cook (JR): 55.5 tackles/11.5 TFLs/3.5 sacks/1 PBU/1 INT/24.3% HAVOC
Defensive Coordinator Bryan Brown deployed a 3-4 scheme to get as many speedy linebackers on the field as possible and it absolutely paid off. Four upperclassmen helmed the four linebacking spots with Davis-Gaither and Cook being super effective rush ends, combining for 21.5 TFLs and 5 sacks on their own. The Mountaineers were Top 20 in almost every defensive category and the four linebackers were the top four tacklers on the team. This was a senior-laden defense and played like it; however, the linebackers were athletic and involved in almost every play, providing a combined 20% havoc rate to the defense.
Appalachian State Defense 2019 - 37th - Outside Linebackers
- Rushing Defense - 24th
- Passing Defense - 17th
- Standard Downs Defense - 10th
- Passing Downs Defense - 55th
- Big Play Prevention - 26th
- Third Down Success Rate - 11th
- Jordan Fehr (SR): 81 tackles/8 TFLs/2.5 sacks/3 PBUs/1 INT/14.8% HAVOC
- Akeem Davis-Gaither (SR): 75.5 tackles/14.5 TFLs/5 sacks/8 PBUs/1 INT/31.1% HAVOC
- Noel Cook (SR): 51 tackles/5.5 TFLs/2.5 sacks/1 INT/11.7% HAVOC
- D’Marco Jackson (SO): 45 tackles/6.5 TFLs/3 sacks/2 PBUs/18.9% HAVOC
Losing six seniors on a defense, and three in the secondary, rarely leads to an improvement and that was absolutely the case for the Mountaineer defense in 2019. All that lost experience caused them to crumble from 20th....to 37th. Coordinator Ted Roof maintained the 3-4 scheme and, even with new faces on the line and in the secondary, oversaw a few more hiccups in passing downs but maintained an excellent defensive unit. Noel Cook was not nearly as effective in 2019 as he was ion 2018 but both Fehr and Davis-Gaither improved in 2018 totals while young D’Marco Jackson burst on to the scene as an impact sophomore. This linebacking corps were 4 of the top 5 tacklers on the team and provided a 20% havoc rate, identical to the 2018 output.
Here’s your TL;DR (for the shortest entry in this series!)
- Worked with Coach Drinkwitz before
- Has maintained a solid havoc rate with all the linebackers he’s coached
- Has only been an on-the-field coach in the college ranks for two years
- Previous stop had talent and program infrastructure light years ahead of the competition
I’ve always subscribed to the theory that the people who are the best at something are rarely good teachers. If something comes so naturally that you already start out much better than your peers and then also work hard and improve then of course you’re going to be excellent. The best teachers tend to be those that struggle at something and then get better because they know the journey and dedication it takes in order to improve. Coach Smith was a standout linebacker at App State, made it in the NFL, and then joined one of the elite G5 programs in the country, coaching a group almost completely comprised of upperclassmen. He’s young and untested, is what I’m saying, and I’m curious to see how he is able to teach and strategize with the pieces he finds at Mizzou. Nick Bolton is a bonafide weapon and it’ll be on Smith to find a battery mate to work with Bolton to replicate the Bash Brothers of Bolton and Garret of ‘19.