By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (August 15, 2016) — Marcus Patton turned Colorado Mesa into one of the most feared defensive units in Division II football.
Now Patton is charged with revamping a Tarleton State unit that finished last in the nation in total defense in 2015, a big reason the Texans finished 3-7.
The new defensive coordinator comes to Tarleton after two seasons in the same role at Mesa, where his unit finished among the top 10 in the country in fourth-down conversion defense, defensive touchdowns and turnover margin. Mesa produced 28 defensive takeaways in 2015, including 19 interceptions, and were also 11th in the nation in red-zone defense and 12th in scoring defense, surrendering just 17.8 points per game.
Mesa was 9-2 last season, including a seven-game win streak during which Patton’s defense allowed more than 20 points just once. The week before beginning its long win streak, Mesa did not allow an offensive touchdown in a 16-13 loss to Midwestern State, which went on to win the Lone Star Conference playoff tournament and take the top seed into the Super Region IV playoffs.
A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Patton played college football at Kansas State, coached four years in the Florida high school ranks, then returned to the college level as an assistant coach. He has had more than 10 former players advance to the NFL and recruited others who continued their careers professionally.
Flash Sports Editor Brad Keith caught up with Patton at Tarleton football media day Sunday, and they made time for a quick Q&A:
BK: Welcome to Stephenville. I guess you’re getting settled in and everything?
MP: I’m enjoying it here so far. My family are southern people by heart, so we were very excited to get back down south. Everyone who knows football knows how important it is in the state of Texas. I have a little son who loves football and I’m a football lifer, so it just made sense. We’re really enjoying it here; Texas has the things we love – good food and good football.
BK: You had a good thing and a good defense going at Colorado Mesa. Why Tarleton?
MP: I did have a good thing going and a good group of guys there at Mesa, but just the opportunity to get back down South was too good to turn down. It had more to do with family reasons as far as what me and my wife believe and where we want to raise our kids. Then I got a chance to meet Coach Whitten, and I know he’s won here before. I kind of researched him just like he researched me, and I know the Lone Star Conference is a great conference in the state of Texas. In the football world, we’re always looking for challenges and this was the opportunity to come to Texas, compete in an elite conference at the division two level with a coach who is a proven winner. I’m looking forward to doing great things here.
BK: What was your first impression of the Tarleton campus and of Tarleton football?
MP: The campus is beautiful. I know there is a lot of history here and I was kind of excited to see it. One thing I’ve learned being a lot of places is there are a lot of good people everywhere, but I could tell right when I stepped foot on this campus that it’s a special place and the reason is the people. Just walking around and meeting different people and seeing how much they care was huge for me. As for the football part, I am really excited to come in and see some of the guys, and see the talent of some of them. I know it doesn’t look like there has been a lot of talent on defense, but I know there are some talented guys who can come in and contribute. Some things very fulfilling for me were seeing Coach Whitten has such a strong offensive background and that the offense here averaged 38 points last year. I’ve never been part of a team with an offense that explosive, so that’s exciting to me.
BK: What are the keys to getting more leadership out of the returning players and other keys for this defense to be successful?
MP: Usually when you have problems on a side of the ball there are a lot of things that need to be changed. It’s not always just talent or just coaching. I think mostly we need to focus on teaching these guys to play fundamentally sound football and getting them to play hard and to believe in each other. Defense is really about having 11 guys who can all be counted on by each other and playing together. All it takes is one breakdown by one guy and you give up a big play. I saw that a lot on film from last year. The defense would be playing tough in certain segments, then all of a sudden on third and long there would be a breakdown by one guy and it turns into an 80-yard play. Was it a talent issue, a coaching issue, a communication issue? It could be a combination of all those things. What we’re trying to do is teach the fundamentals, clean up the communication and teach these guys to compete, not just on first and second down, but first, second, third, even fourth down if we have to. They have to understand playing great defense is about consistency not just making a great play on one snap.
BK: I know you haven’t had them in full pads yet, but what is your first impression of the guys since you’ve had them all here together?
MP: I think we have a lot of work to do. I’d be surprised if any coach would tell you they are at championship level at this point of the season. I don’t want to get into talk about projecting how good we’ll be or anything like that. All I can tell you is we’re going to go in there every day and work, keep stressing fundamentals and try to find who our best 11 football players on that side of the ball are, and then after that find out who our role players are. One thing that helped us at Colorado Mesa was our defense played an average of 22 guys per game. Because of uptempo offenses, games today have almost one and a half times as many plays as there were back when I played, so we have to find roles for other guys, things they can come in and do that gives our every down guys some rest and implements other guys who can come in and do special things. It helps gives your young players experience as they work to become one of those every down guys and it makes your football team better.