How’s that old saying about defense go?
Ah, there it is: The best offense is a good defense.
For the Culpeper football team, that adage has never been truer.
The Blue Devils, who are breaking in several new skill position players in a brand new spread offense this season, are relying on an athletic, physical defense to help carry them until they’re able to put all the pieces together offensively.
Culpeper hung tough with visiting Eastern View for more than a half in last Thursday’s season opener, due in large part to its defense. While the Blue Devils ultimately lost the game 28-0, they held the Cyclones’ spread option rushing attack to 214 yards on 45 attempts—an average of 4.8 yards per play.
By comparison, Eastern View’s offense averaged more than nine yards per attempt last year.
“I’m very proud of how our defense played,” acting Culpeper head coach Brandon Utz said. “Some people see 200 yards rushing and assume you didn’t play well, but that’s a low number for [Eastern View] because they have one of the best offenses in the state.”
Utz said that, while the Blue Devils are strong at every level defensively, the front seven in their 3-4 scheme is what sets the tone for them.
Senior defensive end Kam Buckhanan (6-1, 270) and junior nose tackle Bracken Hibbert (6-3, 260) are both two-year starters who are tough for opposing offensive lines to move in the trenches. The other defensive end, senior Joe Lombay (5-8, 180), makes up in quickness what he lacks for size.
The linebacking corps, which consists of juniors Riley Harrison and Austin Lentz inside and junior Joe Holland and senior Storm Martin on the outside, is quick to swarm to the point of attack.
“Those guys are gritty,” Utz said of his linebackers. “Our entire defense is tough, but those guys will grit their teeth, come up and hit you.”
The disruptive nature of Culpeper’s front seven allows its secondary to roam freely. That senior-laden group is anchored by all-region performer Armani Hoffman and Cam Lacy at the safety positions and Dejour McCray and Ozzy Reindorf-Malm at the cornerback spots.
The Blue Devils’ secondary limited Eastern View quarterback Till Butler to a 4-for-9, 77-yard performance last week, with 60 of those coming on a touchdown pass to Alex Spangler in the first quarter.
Hoffman said the key to limiting big plays like the one they allowed to Spangler is simple.
“It’s all about communication,” he emphasized. “And it isn’t just in the secondary. If we communicate from front to back and back to front, we’ll be alright.”
This week, Culpeper faces another spread team when it welcomes Monticello to Broman Field.
The Mustangs, who lost their season opener 35-13 to Spotsylvania, are led by quarterback Malachi Fields. The 6-foot-3, 180-pound junior is a threat in the running game, as he racked up 100 yards and a touchdown on the ground in that game.
“Monticello has plenty of athletes, but Fields is the one to look out for,” Utz said. “He’s really talented, so we’ll need to contain him if we’re going to have a chance to win the game.
The one thing we could’ve done better against Eastern View was get off the field sooner. We made a few mistakes that allowed them to extend some drives on us, which contributed to some fatigue for [our defense]. If we can make some quicker stops and get off the field with more regularity against [Monticello], then I believe we’ll be in good shape.”
Offensively, the Blue Devils hope to establish more consistency in the running game this week after mustering a mere 89 yards rushing against Eastern View. Harrison and McCray were the only two players that experienced a modicum of success for Culpeper, as Harrison finished with a team-high 59 yards on 15 carries and McCray totaled 25 yards on five touches.
However, Utz said the plan is to continue with a by-committee approach, as Lentz, junior Stewart Jones and senior Jacob Douglass are all still in the mix.
“Riley ran the ball pretty well for us last week, but we’re going to rotate backs in order to keep guys fresh,” he remarked. “You also have to consider the fact that many of them play both ways, and that heat and humidity is still playing a role as well.”