By BRAD KEITH
PORTALES (October 15, 2016) — If defensive ends EJ Speed and Chase Varnado could have picked one guy on the field to make the biggest defensive play of the game to clinch a victory over Western New Mexico, they would have selected Dariat McDuff.
Good thing for them, their teammate delivered.
McDuff, who Speed looks at as the emotional leader of the defensive line, made a sack to put WNMU in desperation mode, then turned around and made a game-ending tackle while forcing a fumble as time expired.
That fumble was recovered by Speed, who sprinted, ball in hand, to meet his celebrating teammates who were pouring off the Tarleton sideline at Memorial Stadium last Saturday.
“We all feed off each other, but McDuff is the guy who gets the most fired up,” said Speed, a sophomore defensive end from North Crowley. “That was crazy, everyone was excited about that. We love to see McDuff make plays.”
Chase Varnado, a junior from Stephenville who starts at the end opposite Speed, agrees about McDuff, but adds that all the defensive linemen feed off each other.
“It varies. It can be Dariat some days and some days (defensive tackle) David Solomon will kick his shoes in gear, some days EJ gets his words in, it can be any of us on any given day,” said Varnado. “We don’t just have one emotional guy, it can be a different guy every play, and we really feed off each other.”
The Texans (3-3, 3-1) probably won’t be recording many sacks against run-heavy Eastern New Mexico (4-2, 4-1) at the new Greyhound Stadium here Saturday, but they will be looking for plenty of exciting plays against the triple-option offense.
It’s a different look than the spread and all-out air raid offenses Tarleton has faced to this point of the season.
“I think thats why Eastern sticks with it,” Varnado said of what is fast becoming an archaic offensive approach. “They know it and execute it really well, and they know other teams get ready for the spread every week but that they only prepare for this once the whole season. That puts teams on their heels and forces them to prepare extra that week.”
That week has boiled down to today for the Tarleton defense, and Varnado and Speed each say reading keys and sticking to assignments will be crucial.
“It’s all about pressure keys and just attacking those while knowing your assignment,” Speed said. “And we have to be physical. We do a lot of drills on being physical because being physical stops the run, that’s the bottom line.”
Varnado says defending the option requires a lot of trust among defensive teammates.
“One person has the dive, one has the quarterback and one has the pitch, and if you mess up your assignment or try to do too much, you’re going to screw your teammate out of being able to do his job,” said Varnado. “I think the biggest thing against a triple option team is staying disciplined,sticking to your assignment and trusting other guys to do their jobs.”
Varnado and Speed have largely excelled at their jobs this season, and it’s a big reason the Texans are surrendering 27.8 points and 448.8 yards through six games. While that seems pedestrian, it is 21.2 points and 110.8 yards per game less than last season, when Tarleton finished dead last in the nation in total defense.
Speed’s presence is one of the reasons for such improvement. Injured for much of his career, he was a non factor until this fall, but is now second on the team with 41 tackles, second with eight tackles for loss and third with 3.5 sacks.
“My injuries are in the past, I don’t even think about that anymore,” said Speed. “It was a challenge mentally to watch the team knowing I couldn’t go out there and make a difference, but it’s all behind me now.”
Speed was a quarterback at North Crowley, and there is still a highlight reel on YouTube of him slicing through defenses, primarily as a dual threat runner. Some scouts saw him as a receiver or even a safety at the college level, but he believes defensive end is the right fit.
“I’m just an athlete, I think I have good speed and foot work, and mainly that’s what I focus on is just being an athlete and making plays,” Speed said. “But I think I’ve found my home. I think this is the best position for me to learn and grow and best help the team with my abilities.”
Among returners across the LSC, Varnado was the leader in tackles for loss last season, and has not disappointed this fall. He has 34 tackles, nine for loss, and leads the team with five sacks, helping the Texans to 24 sacks through six games after making just 18 all of last season.
What’s not lost on Varnado is how the talent around him has allowed him to improve his own play.
“The past couple years we had a few playmakers, but nobody on the other side of me like EJ. He’s so versatile and athletic and is able to rush the passer, and that gives me confidence because I don’t have to come off the edge thinking I’m the only guy out there,” Varnado said. “EJ at the other end makes it a whole new ball game for me, and I know our defensive tackles, guys like Dariat McDuff and David Solomon, are also going to be there, so I can just focus on my assignments, and when I do that, opportunities to make plays come naturally.”
Both defensive ends credit new coordinator Marcus Patton with restructuring the defense and beginning to turn it around.
“It’s been remarkable. Coach Patton has a fire and true love for the game unlike anything I’ve seen in a long while, and it’s not just him but his whole defensive staff,” Varnado said. “There is a lot of energy and passion that goes into coaching our defense and preparing us so well each week.”
For Speed, it’s the knowledge he’s soaked in from the largely new defensive staff.
“They teach us a lot of stuff about the game in general, and why we do what we do, how it all comes together,” said Speed. “And especially about pressure keys and how to attack the pressure keys and read them and make plays, because that’s what it’s all about.”
The battle at Eastern New Mexico marks the beginning of a tough finishing stretch for Tarleton, which faces Texas A&M-Kingsville and top 10-ranked Midwestern State and Texas A&M-Commerce over the final four weeks of the season.
“We have some tough opponents, but as history shows, the LSC is crazy. Even the last couple weeks have shown anything can happen,” said Varnado. “We just have to have major focus and discipline and finish. Not that we haven’t finished, but there have been times we should have been better. Consistency in finishing I think is a big key.”