By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (September 20, 2016) — Cody Burtscher helped the Tarleton State defense shut down Angelo State in a Lone Star Conference opener Saturday night, and was rewarded Monday when the conference named him defensive player of the week.
Watching the senior linebacker make plays all over the field defensively, it’s hard to imagine he spent the first half of his Tarleton career as a running back.
Burtscher saw limited action as a true freshman on a 2013 Tarleton team that shared the Lone Star Conference championship. He rushed 15 times for 82 yards and a touchdown, but was more involved as a sophomore, rushing 62 times for 334 yards and three scores in 2014.
Then the former all-state safety who also played running back at nearby Glen Rose High School found his natural position – at linebacker.
“It was hectic, I just went where the team needed me,” said Burtscher of moving to linebacker as a junior last season. “But I really feel like this is my natural position where I can be free and run to the ball and make plays. That’s what being a linebacker is all about is making plays.”
And even before earning this week’s conference honor following his 11 tackles and a fumble recovery while the Texans didn’t allow an offensive touchdown in the 35-5 thumping of Angelo State, Burtscher was making plays in droves.
Even with Tarleton finishing last in the nation in total yards allowed last season, Burtscher led the team with 95 tackles including nine tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. And he did it in a defense he says the players never really understood.
“Last year we didn’t really understand our assignments, they were never really explained to us,” Burtscher said. “And because we didn’t understand we never really felt comfortable enough to be free to run and make plays.”
Opponents routinely gashed the Tarleton defense, amassing 49 points and 559.6 total yards per game.
Enter Marcus Patton, who was hired away from Colorado Mesa to be the new defensive coordinator at Tarleton shortly after Todd Whitten replaced Cary Fowler as head coach.
“This year we really understand the defense because Coach Patton teaches and explains what we’re doing and why in every situation,” Burtscher said. “When you understand that, you take the field more confident and more free to make plays.”
The results have spoken for themselves. Even in losses to Division I-FCS McNeese State and Southwest Baptist, Burtscher said the defense just had a completely different feel to it. The same SBU team that beat the Texans 31-28 on a field goal with nine seconds remaining has scored more than 40 points in its other two wins. And McNeese State was opening its season at home as the No. 9 team in the nation and reigning champion of the Southland Conference.
“We could tell we were playing a lot better, but Saturday was such a good confidence booster for our defense,” Burtscher said. “Everyone looked at us as being the bottom defense in the league because of last year. That was kind of our emergence where we showed we’re not the same team as last year and we’re definitely not the same defense.
“Coach Patton has revitalized our morale on the defensive side of the ball, where we were all down,” Burtscher added. “He takes the time to explain every little detail and he wants you to get it right. He boosted our confidence and we feel comfortable playing in his defense.”
Burtscher says he could tell right away in spring ball the defense would be different this season.
“You could definitely tell in the spring. We made leaps and bounds from last fall to the spring,” he said. “We’ve hiked up a mountain compared to where we were. We knew we would be a completely different team and Saturday night was just our time to show it.”
And they didn’t do it with a host of new players, but largely with players who just needed a shot.
“John Bellfield never really got the opportunity before, but he has stepped up and played extremely well,” said Burtscher of the cornerback. “And David Solomon at (defensive) tackle has really turned it around since last year and helped us against the run game and in the pass rush. And of course, EJ Speed, he really came to play this year and has done a great job for us.”
Bellfield intercepted a pass and returned it 36 yards to set up a touchdown last week. Solomon has 13 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss, but Burtscher says his true effect is shown in how he takes on blockers to free up linebackers.
While Burtscher leads the team with 33 tackles, Speed, a defensive end, is second with 24, first in tackles for loss with five and is even with Burtscher with 3.5 sacks. Both Burtscher and Speed have hit opposing quarterbacks five times.
Then there is Chase Varnado, the other top returner to the Tarleton defense. Varnado was second on the team with 69 tackles last year and entered the season as the leading returner in the conference in tackles for loss with 13.5.
“It’s been different going from Chase being my rival at Stephenville to being my teammate,” Burtscher said. “He’s a great leader and lifts up the defensive players around him.”
Burtscher also points out Ronnell Wilson, a true freshman from Abilene High School who has already made his presence known with 22 tackles and a pair of quarterback hits in his first three college games.
“He has been so good for being so young,” said Burtscher of Wilson. “He just turned 18 but he’s playing like an upperclassman.”
With ASU behind them, the Texan defenders have turned their attention to West Texas A&M, which has lost to Tarleton just twice over the past 11 years. On the flip side, Tarleton has never lost to West Texas A&M with Whitten as head coach. He is 6-0 against the Buffs.
“We’re going to have to defend the pass,” Burtscher explained. “They like the short game and don’t take a lot of shots downfield, so we’re going to have to be really good in coverage and breaking out into the short routes and force them to throw the ball downfield where our pass rush can get involved.”
The Buffaloes are averaging 346.3 yards per game, 263.3 of it through the air. They have rushed for just 83 yards per contest.
Game time Saturday in Canyon is 6 p.m., and Burtscher says Tarleton’s revitalized defense will be up for the challenge.
“We can keep getting better by putting in the same work as in previous weeks,” he said. “It’s all about practice and staying on top of our game mentally.”
The same ingredients used in last week’s recipe for success.
“It wasn’t a surprise. We know the work we put in every day to be great. All the extra gassers, all the extra work, we knew it would all pay off and what we’re capable of,” Burtscher said.
“Now we have to do it again.”