SALEM, Va. — It has been an adventurous season for the men in charge of Mary Hardin-Baylor’s offense and defense, and for different reasons.
Offensive coordinator Stephen Lee went from the euphoria of winning last year’s national title in his first season with the Crusaders to the arduous task of building an attack without an experienced veteran at his unit’s most important position.
On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Larry Harmon took the top defense in the country last year and pushed it another rung up the ladder.
So here they are again — men who at times seem equal parts tactician, psychologist and magician — in the frosty Blue Ridge Mountains to prepare the Crusaders for a second straight appearance in the NCAA Division III national championship game. Top-ranked and defending champion UMHB (14-0) enters its second straight Stagg Bowl with a defense that is among the stingiest in the country and an offense that has found a way to produce amid three quarterback changes.
“In football, you want continuity. Not on purpose or anything, but things came along where changes had to be made,” Lee said. “Some of it was difficult, but they were growing pains that were unavoidable.”
After riding senior quarterback Blake Jackson to last year’s title, the Crusaders entered this season with junior T.J. Josey behind center. He lasted only three weeks at the helm before moving back to his receiver position and giving way to sophomore quarterback Kyle Jones, who spent five weeks as the starter before yielding to freshman Carl Robinson III.
As with most newcomers, the learning curve has been steep for Robinson.
“We saw things in Carl and knew we wanted to move him along. We had to insert him and get him going — baptism by fire,” Lee said. “He’s athletic, but he had to learn everything that came along with the position.
“We had to teach him some humility — that you have to earn your stripes. There were some older guys like T.J. and (receiver Bryce Wilkerson) who created a support system to help elevate him. He might not have made it if there hadn’t been guys helping him along the road. We have a great group of coaches, and we all believed where we could go. We just had to all help each other figure out what we could do.”
Robinson has showed flashes of brilliance mixed with some ill-advised or poorly timed throws. He’ll make his seventh start when he lines up for the championship game at 6 p.m. Friday at Salem Stadium against No. 2 Mount Union (14-0), having thrown for 1,387 yards and 10 touchdowns but also six interceptions. He’s part of an offense that averages 380 yards and 38 points per game — numbers that are down considerably from last season’s unit that was among the highest-scoring in the nation, but not low enough to deny the Crusaders a chance to defend their title.
“People on the outside might be saying, ‘What’s going on with the offense? It didn’t look like this last year.’ Well last year, we were pretty good. We were up at the very top last year. Now we’re in the middle and maybe below the middle sometimes, and it looks a lot different,” Lee said. “When your numbers are so inflated one year, they’re not always going to stay there. We probably wanted to plug in some of the stuff that we had with Blake, but it just wasn’t possible. We had to scale it back to some different things.”
Lee is honest in his assessment of the offense but also a realist when it comes to knowing what his unit can do.
“I wish we were better. I wish our numbers were better. We are where we are, though, and that’s the reality,” he said. “Some days, you just need to be the best team in the stadium. Last year, there was pride in trying to be the best in the nation in some statistical categories. Right now, we’re just trying to be the best team in the stadium.”
To this point in the season, Harmon’s defense has had no problem being the best group in the stadium. After directing a unit that gave up just one touchdown in last year’s 10-7 victory over Wisconsin-Oshkosh in the title game, Harmon’s defense has picked it up a notch. Through the first 14 games of this season, the Crusaders gave up an average of only seven points — the fewest in the country.
It starts up front with a senior front four of tackles Haston Adams and Brazos Fullers along with ends Ajay Fanene and Jordan Millar, a foursome that has combined for 33 sacks.
“I think we did get better,” said Harmon, who is in his 19th season with UMHB. “Haston and Brazos improved in their pass rush. Then you have a guy like Ajay, who last year was OK with being a backseat guy. This season, he felt like it was time for him to emerge and he really did.
“Coach Fred always talks about how you have to see it to believe it. Well, seeing our D-line get after the quarterback has made our guys more confident across the board to where we’re just playing at a real high level. Our D-line makes all of our guys feel like we can play with anybody. On third down, and when the down and distance is in our favor, we turn those guys loose.”
The Crusaders yield an average of only 48 yards rushing and 223 total yards per game with a Tampa 2 scheme that has evolved into their base defense over the past, replacing the their old scheme that featured just one safety.
“We started looking at Tampa in the spring of 2014, and we’ve worked really hard to get it to fit to everything we might see,” Harmon said. “With how good we are at linebacker and how strong we are on the corners in run support, we just thought that scheme fit us well. And our guys have so much confidence in it.”
Harmon’s group has continued to shut down opponents despite losing all three starting linebackers and a safety from last year’s team. Even when the level of play wasn’t up to UMHB’s usual standard during fall camp, Harmon — with some advice from head coach Pete Fredenburg — stuck with his scheme and sculpted a defense that has carried the Crusaders to the brink of a second straight championship.
“During two-a-days, our offense was gashing us with the run. I was thinking, ‘I don’t know if we can stay with this and stop the run. We need to go back to old stuff,’” Harmon said. “Pete told me to stay with it and just keep working it and that if we would go through the growing pains that it would pay off for us. It has.”