There is no denying it: The Nevada Union Miners struggled to stop the ball last season.
Their defense was chewed up all year long, and whether it was through the air or on the ground, the Miners were a sieve.
The good news is most of that defense has graduated. The bad news is they now need to replace an entire linebacking corps, which was the strength of last year’s defense.
On the bright side, Nevada Union head coach Dennis Houlihan said he has just the right guy to build a new corps of backers around. Taking over the middle linebacker spot, previously held by Tanner Vallejo for three years before heading to Boise State, will be Josh Belendez.
“Belendez has a nose for the ball,” Houlihan said. “He’s like Vallejo but not as fast but has an ability to get to the ball and avoid blockers. He’s a junior and he’s shown he can be a leader.
“He starts on both sides and never once asked to come out. He’s got a motor that runs and runs. He’ll go until he has nothing left. He’s one of those guys, if we had 10 of him, I would say look out state championship.”
Nevada Union defensive coordinator Brad Dal Bon also beams when talking about Belendez.
“Josh Belendez is our emotional and physical leader,” Dal Bon said. “When we ask for someone to get de-cleated on offense, he’s there. He’s a tackling machine and not afraid to jump on a senior, a sophomore. He’s just very passionate about the program.”
Belendez, who will be joined at linebacker by Brock Grininger, Brandon Lopez and Brandon Ennis, has the support of not only his coaches but his teammates as well.
“He’s young, but he definitely knows what he’s doing,” defensive captain Gareth Noxon said. “He pops kids. I actually want to come watch him next year.”
Noxon said the defense is gelling and that the Miner pass defense will be much stronger this season.
“The thing we need is to just go out there and do what Nevada Union is known for,” Noxon said. “Flying around and hitting people all the time. Just every play, knock some one down every play, running back, bop, bop, bop, every play. Don’t give them a break, don’t let up, don’t let them drive at all. Three and out every drive.”
Noxon is a second-year starter at safety, and the 6-foot, 2-inch, 195-pound senior looks to bring NU’s defense back to prominence.
“When I was growing up, my brothers played, and their defense was nasty,” Noxon said. “In highlight films, everyone was there. That’s what we want. We want to be known for our defense — our offense should be good— but as long as our defense shuts them down.”
The play of Noxon will no doubt be instrumental to the success of the defense, said Dal Bon.
“Noxon is a leader on both sides of the ball in regards to making big plays,” Dal Bon said. “He’s known to make some big hits and can be the guy to change the game with one big hit. So we’re looking for him to have one of those breakout seasons.”
Joining Noxon in the secondary are seniors Jake Berger and Zach Alcantara.
“Our pass coverage will be a lot better this year,” Berger said. “We are missing Vallejo in the middle, but our D-line is better.”
Part of the problem with the Miners’ defense from a year ago was the scheme, said Houlihan.
“I think last year they tried a different scheme early, and it didn’t work,” Houlihan said. “I think this year we are in a position to run cover-two and cover-three really well. That will give them a better opportunity to do better. They are really working on making their reads, and if they make the reads they should be fine.”
Leading the defensive line will be Davi Pettinato at defensive end. The big, physical player has the ability to stuff the run and wreak havoc on opponents’ passing game.
“Davi is big, physical and very technically sound,” Dal Bon said. “We ask him to do a certain technique, and he performs it the way we want it. Being bigger and stronger is just going to help us on both sides of the ball. He’s one of the guys on the line that will be a run-stuffer and will get to the quarterback.”
Last season, the Miners allowed 27.1 points per game and were gouged for more than 30 or more points six different times.
Houlihan said the defensive scheme is much simpler this season, and he expects the Miners to be much better.
Dal Bon has even named his defense, calling it the Mountain Swarm, which is a bit of an homage to the early ’90s Arizona University defense that was called the Desert Swarm and dominated at the college level.
“Its a mentality that we need to bring — rally to the ball,” he said. “I’m going to be upset if were not rallying to the ball. It’s one of those things that the fans should see it, coaches should see it, guys are going to be rallying to the ball, or they’re coming off the field, even the bigger guys.”
With just days left before kickoff, Houlihan said his defense will be ready.
“The defense is finding its identity,” he said. “When we go into McQueen, we will know what our scheme is, and it won’t be complicated, and it will allow them to play hard.”
To contact Sports Editor Walter Ford, call 530-477-4232 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.