This sounds familiar.
The last play of spring practice featured a Hail Mary attempt from redshirt junior quarterback Vaughn Charlton that was intercepted inside the redzone by redshirt senior defensive back Dominique Harris.
Harris’ game-ending interception preserved a 10-0 shutout by his White team in Saturday afternoon’s annual Cherry and White intrasquad spring football game at the Edberg-Olson Hall Football Complex.
It also brought back chilling memories from last season. In the third game of the 2008 season, Buffalo defeated the Owls, 30-28, on a last-second Hail Mary completion between a handful of Temple defenders.
“We were practicing on that hard all spring, and that was kind of a flashback,” Harris said. “I didn’t want to have it happen again. You have to get the ball out of the air.”
The Owls already conquered one of their demons from a disappointing 5-7 record last season. Now, as spring practice comes to an end, and summer camp looms in the future, the defense is still looking to improve before the Owls open the 2009 season at home Sept. 3 against cross-town rival Villanova.
“I thought the first-team defense played like they practiced,” fourth-year coach Al Golden said. “They practice hard, and they have excellent leadership right now.”
It starts up front at the defensive line, where the unit is led by senior defensive tackle Andre Neblett. Neblett is a Preseason First Team All-Mid-American Conference selection after consecutive Second Team All-MAC honors.
Neblett and senior defensive end Brian Sanford return as starters and will be joined by junior defensive tackle Elisha Joseph and sophomore defensive end Adrian Robinson. The unit is trying to improve on getting into the backfield, as it allowed 165.9 yards on the ground with only 18 sacks last season.
“Obviously, we want to do better going forward,” defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio said. “We’d love to be more disruptive. We’ve left too many sacks on the table each of the last two years.”
Behind the defensive line are the linebackers, who have a lot of depth, beginning with seniors John Haley and Alex Joseph and junior Amara Kamara.
“They’re really hard workers. They’ve all played a lot of football,” D’Onofrio said.
It was Kamara who was awarded the Defensive Most Improved Player for the spring practice period at halftime on Saturday. He posted 67 tackles with two sacks and was challenged by the coaching staff to improve his game in the offseason.
“We wanted him to play a little faster and stop trying to feel everything out, just cut it loose and play fast and react, and he’s done that,” D’Onofrio said.
Kamara was humble when talking about himself.
“Coming in, I just felt like I had a lot of improving to do,” he said. “I came out, and every day, I tried to work at it.”
Golden said Kamara succeeded and was the best choice for the award.
“Incredible work ethic. In here all hours of the day,” Golden said. “Takes care of his business. Takes care of his academics. Really studies hard in the classroom and in the facility. Spends a lot of time preparing for each and every practice.
“To have that kind of maturity and have that kind of leadership and approach going into his junior year really is what separated him from the group.”
The group that offers the biggest question mark is the secondary. The biggest issue with the unit has been depth.
“Last year, we didn’t have as much depth as we needed,” D’Onofrio said. “We’re really happy with the safeties. The corner position is up for grabs right now. We’ve got a lot of candidates.”
Harris will start at strong safety and will be joined by junior Jaiquawn Jarrett at the free safety position. Redshirt junior Anthony Ferla, who had five tackles over the weekend, looks to have one of the corner positions, while the other seems to be a battle between sophomores Marlin Terrell and Jared Williams.
“The corners you really have to assess with the film. They looked good,” Golden said. “We finally have enough depth on defense to hang in there through a whole season.
“No excuses this year,” he added. “If we get banged up, we better have guys that are ready to step up.”
With nine starters returning on defense – and most of them juniors and seniors – the unit knows it is running out of time to complete the turnaround of a program that had just two wins combined over two seasons before last year.
“Anytime you have guys that have been here from the beginning, they know we struggled back three years ago, and now, as we’ve become a pretty good defense, what kind of work that takes,” D’Onofrio said.
Pete Dorchak can be reached at email@example.com.