But that was three years ago.
This year’s defense is making plays and holding teams to a 6.3 scoring average through its first three games against Sprayberry, Pope and Langston Hughes.
The Wildcats have a perfect record three games into the 2012 season, thanks largely to their aggressive defensive unit that’s looking to keep up their relentless play Friday in their Region 5AAAAAA opener at Etowah.
The Wildcats gave up just one touchdown in their 10-7 win over Sprayberry in their season opener. They blanked Pope 33-0 at home two weeks later before making a fourth quarter defensive stand in their 19-12 win on the road at Langston Hughes last Friday.
When coach Mike Collins came in to rebuild the program two years ago, he hadn’t planned on fixing things overnight, but the percentages of points allowed went down incrementally in the following years.
When asked how Wheeler’s defense improved immensely over a two-year period, he came up with two reasons — the Wildcats are faster and tackling better. He also stated how well the 3-4 formation suited their talents.
“We allow our guys to run around defensively and they are buying into it for the most part,” Collins said. “The guys enjoy the attacking style of defense. It fits their personality.
“If you’re going to play defense, (we’ve) got to tackle. We rally to the football, and so far — thank goodness — we tackle well. That’s the most important thing as opposed to strategy. We get a lot of hats to the football, we get a lot of guys down and that’s the main reason why we’re successful.”
Wheeler’s defensive is smaller than the average offensive lineman that it lines up against, but the Wildcats’ line makes up for it with speed. Julian Johnson holds down the line at nose tackle while Roderick Riley and Lucas Mendonca help close down the gaps at defensive end when stopping the run. Collins said linebacker Demetrius Webb is solid against the run and his secondary, led by Allen Artis and Elyjah Marrow, has been efficient.
Wheeler’s defense was tested in the fourth quarter when Langston Hughes threatened to take the lead.
The Wildcats had difficulty getting off the field in the second half on third downs and with fewer than 2 minutes remaining, they faced fourth-and-eight on the Wheeler 43-yard line. The Wildcats finally got off the field with a secured victory when Elyjah Marrow came through with an interception off a tipped pass.
Riley had two sacks against Langston Hughes plus seven tackles while causing and recovering a fumble. Linebacker Quincye Price led with 11 tackles.
“They actually went to a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy,” Collins said. “Langston Hughes was able to move it down there a couple of times, but (the defense) continued to believe in the system and made the big plays that they needed to.”
Wheeler used its speed to its advantage the previous week against Pope.
Wheeler made a clutch stop in the first half when Pope was on the Wheeler 1 with two chances to get in. Quarterback Stephen Skruck attempted to sneak it in on fourth down, but was stopped by Artis and Adrian Morris.
Early in the third quarter, Wheeler took Pope out of the game when Artis blocked a punt and Maleek Catchings scooped it up and took it to the end zone.
Wheeler’s defense beat Sprayberry on an interception return by Artis.
“We tell them to run and play downhill,” defensive coordinator Davis Harvey said. “It’s a week-to-week thing. We figure out (an opponent’s) top run play and their top pass play and work on those each week. And we also try to get better on the mistakes we made the prior week.”