Spring Football: Coordinator Joe Dunning, Rocky defense not resting on last season’s gains | SWX right now

BILLING — A big part of spring football is about reps and improvement, and Rocky Mountain College defensive coordinator Joe Dunning has identified a specific area where his players can make progress to help turn the Battlin’ Bears into more than mere playoff contenders.

“Situational awareness,” Dunning said during Rocky’s 11th spring drill practice Friday at Herb Klindt Field. “Whether it’s third down, red zone, different parts of the pitch, we try to understand those situations better and put ourselves in a better position to succeed.

“I think it’s something that if we fix that from last year, we’re a much better defense than we were.”

Last season was a standout year for Rocky, as the Bears forged a 7-3 record and won a share of the Frontier Conference title, just their second league crown since 1999. But in the end, they were outside watching the NAIA. playoffs.

For coaches and players, it was not enough. Dunning knows the role his defense will play in the progress the Bears can make as a whole.

Last year, Rocky’s defense gave up 409.2 yards per game, which ranked it last in the eight-team Frontier. His 27.7 points allowed per game ranked sixth and his 25 quarterback sacks ranked fifth. The Bears forced 23 turnovers.

“I love our defensive scheme. I love what we teach. I love the things that Joe and his team do, and I think a lot of great players are coming back,” head coach Chris Stutzriem said. But I’m still going to try to make sure we attack better, not mess up assignments and put as much pressure on the quarterback as possible.”

Florence linebacker Rocky Spencer Jones lines up before the snap during spring training Friday at Herb Klindt Field.

“If we clean up some of those things, we go from an intermediate defense to a really, really good defense,” Dunning said. “So that’s kind of our goal moving forward in the fall. But you know, the other side of the coin is just knowing that we had a good season, but at the end of the day, we didn’t get what we wanted. Whereas that alone is just kind of driving our guys.

The 2022 season will be Dunning’s fourth as Rocky’s defensive coordinator. Prior to that, the Billings Senior graduate was an intern under Jeff Choate at Montana State and a member of rival Frontier Carroll’s coaching staff, where he was an all-league linebacker as a player.

As he continues to build Rocky’s defense around a 3-4 hybrid scheme, Dunning is encouraged by the impact players the Bears are bringing back, guys like inside lineman Dylan Beridon, winger Ethan Hurst, linebacker Nolan McCafferty and safety Ty Reynolds.

The Bears use the spring ball, as most teams do, as a way to cultivate snaps for younger players and those looking to get ahead on the depth chart. Rocky ran about 50 games on Friday during his live team practice segment.

“Especially for these older guys like Nolan who have started for us for three years. He doesn’t get a ton of reps,” Dunning said. “But that’s because we know what he is and we know what he can do. And so it’s a great time for these younger guys to get reps, but it’s a great time for these older guys that you’re talking about to take on that leadership role by taking guys under your wing.

One of the biggest defensive plays on Friday came from one of those young guys when freshman defensive back JC Steele, a product of Polson, returned an interception for a touchdown.

Meanwhile, Hurst, of Santa Margarita, Calif., is one of Rocky’s still-young defensive players to watch going forward. He was a breakout star on defense as a rookie last year when he finished with a team-high 8.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for the loss.

Hurst’s goal this spring, Dunning said, is to become more of an all-around player rather than just a passing specialist in 2022.

“Very, very excited for Ethan,” Dunning said. “He’s done an amazing job so far at Spring Ball. The thing with him is not his athletic ability. It’s more about knowing exactly what to do each time, and I’ve been very, very impressed with what he’s done so far this spring.

“He knows his job and, as he always does, he plays 100 miles an hour.”

Rocky has four practices left, including his spring game on April 8 at 6 p.m. at Herb Klindt Field. It will take place in conjunction with a “Bear Bash” sports fundraiser that will begin at 7:30 p.m. at Center Fortin.

Stutzriem said the Bears hope to make 100 to 110 plays during scrimmage.

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