ALBANY — Despite all of its success in the University at Albany football team’s first five games this season, redshirt junior defensive lineman Antoine White said the Great Danes’ defense knows it is not a finished product.
“We’re still forming the identity of our defense,” White said after Thursday’s practice at Tom & Mary Casey Stadium.
UAlbany head coach Greg Gattuso, though, already knows how he wants his defense to look and play. This year, more so than in his first three seasons leading UAlbany, the Great Danes’ best unit is demonstrating what Gattuso is trying to build with the players he recruits on that side of the ball.
“We try to recruit fast, flexible, bendable athletes — and kids that make plays in high school. That’s a big part of our evaluation. [It’s] not just the athleticism, but [about] kids we see making plays,” said Gattuso, whose team plays 3 p.m. Saturday at Richmond in CAA action. “Playmaking is something that, in my opinion, is almost a natural instinct.”
All of that is easily understood . . . except for one part.
“There’s a difference between flexible and bendable to me,” Gattuso said. “Bendable are the people that can change direction well. They’re flexible in their ankles, their knees and their hips. They’re able to change directions really quickly and they [can] bend tight to blocks.”
Gattuso pointed to three players on his defense as prime examples of the players he likes to recruit: senior lineman Malachi Hoskins, junior safety Mason Gray and senior defensive back Jamal Robinson. At 230 pounds, Hoskins is smaller for his position, while Gray and Robinson each weigh less than 200 pounds. What those three players have in common, Gattuso said, are their quickness and agility, attributes which help them finish tackles or create turnovers.
“We’re never going to be gigantic on defense, because we value what we value,” Gattuso said.
And that’s fine — more than fine, really — because the results are there for the UAlbany defense. The Great Danes rank seventh in the FCS and second in the CAA in points allowed per game at 12.2. As a group, UAlbany’s defense has shown a great propensity to live up to the bend-but-don’t-break philosophy often preached. The Great Danes have allowed seven touchdowns this season, but only three against FCS opponents.
“Defensively,” Gattuso said, “we have a certain style of kid we recruit, that we plug in and fits into what we do, and they’ve been good. They’re playing very well.”
There have been three separate instances, one of which is ongoing, in which UAlbany has not allowed a touchdown for 60 minutes or more of game action. The Great Danes’ had a stretch of 88:43 without allowing a touchdown from Week 1 to Week 3. Later, in UAlbany’s Week 3 win against Monmouth, the Great Danes started a stretch of 82:36 without a touchdown that ended when Villanova scored as regulation expired in Week 4.
Then, last week, UAlbany’s defense did not allow a touchdown in a 6-0 loss to Elon.
“It was still a loss,” said redshirt sophomore linebacker Eli Mencer, one of two Great Danes to win CAA Defensive Player of the Week this season. “Every loss is hard to come back from, but we can’t play the blame game. We just need to come out with the same effort, same energy [this weekend] to get a win.”
“There’s things we can fix. We did things wrong that we need to clean up,” Gray said. “We need to do our jobs each week.”
The job this week is more difficult for UAlbany (1-1, 3-2), which is ranked No. 24 in the media poll and is unranked in the coaches poll. Richmond (0-1, 2-2) is ranked No. 14 in both polls and has one of the FCS’ best offenses. Richmond is ranked No. 1 in the country in total offense at 557.5 yards per game and is No. 12 in scoring offense at 38.8 points per game.
Offensively, UAlbany remains in flux. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Will Brunson (concussion) is expected to play Saturday, while star junior running back Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks (knee) had no official change made to his “out indefinitely” status despite practicing with UAlbany’s scout team this week.
So, UAlbany’s defense will likely need to carry the Great Danes this weekend if they are to move to 4-2 rather than fall to .500. While the Great Danes’ defensive rankings are impressive, they are not the top way the team’s defense judges its performance.
“The biggest thing, week in and week out, is just trying to be 1-0 each week,” White said.
Reach Gazette Sportswriter Michael Kelly at [email protected] or @ByMichaelKelly on Twitter.
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