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Building a defense is a priority among area’s best | USA Today High School Sports

Naples defensive coordinator Sam Dollar has had a front-row seat for the shift in offensive philosophy at the high school level over the last 15 years.

Power-running teams transitioned to the spread. Grinding out rushing yardage between the hashes has largely been forgotten when receivers are having success making plays on the outside on screen passes behind the line of scrimmage. Scoring 40 points a game, engaging in shootouts, is an accepted way to win on Friday nights.

And, much to Dollar’s dismay, the bend-but-don’t-break defenses seeking merely to contain those high-powered offense rather than stop them all together has become commonplace.

Naples ranks fourth in defense in Class 6A this season.

Naples ranks fourth in defense in Class 6A this season.

Of the 27 Lee and Collier county schools that have played five games this season, just seven have allowed less than 100 points. It’s no surprise three of those teams – Naples, South Fort Myers and First Baptist Academy – have been some of the most decorated teams in Southwest Florida over the last decade.

“Defense is an afterthought in a lot of places,” Dollar said. “Not here.”

With differing enrollments, the three programs have different ideas about how to disperse their talent during the week and on game nights.

Dollar has run his defense the same way since arriving at Naples in 1998.

He met Bill Kramer while coaching the defense at Miami Central, which held Kramer’s lethal Miami American defense to just seven points. Kramer asked Dollar to join him at Naples the next year.

His time in Collier County has been nothing short of a defensive clinic. Since 2007, the year the Golden Eagles defense held St. Augustine to negative-11 yards rushing to win its second state title, Naples has held opponents to under 13 points per game over last 107 games.

The underlying principle of the Dollar defense is the majority of the players play the same position from the time they are freshman, never seeing an offensive snap.

When Dollar arrived at Naples, between six and eight players were playing both ways. That soon changed.

“It was go ahead and take this outside linebacker and let coach Kramer coach him up at running back,” Dollar said. “I’m going to take this next kid, I’m going to give him every rep, I’m going to coach him as hard as I can. We’re going to try to get it done with the next kid.”

At Naples, there is a six-man freshmen football staff, which allows players to find their position and forces them to stick with it for four years. The goal is to learn the position as a freshman, play it as a sophomore and gain every rep in practice before playing as a juniors and seniors.

The thinking is taking 200 reps at the same defensive position each week rather than splitting the reps into offense and defense combined with less time on the field during games allows players to learn their specific job and do it more effectively with more energy.

Of course, there are exceptions such as senior Miami cornerback commit Tyler Byrd, who is a part-time receiver. But, for the most part, it’s the players like defensive end Crandall Maines, cornerback Terrell Posada, defensive lineman Colton Strickland and linebacker Robert Green, who’ve played their positions for four years who have made Naples the fourth-best defense in Class 6A this season.

“When you have guys going both ways, I don’t think they gain the mental aspect of what the offense is trying to do to you,” Strickland said. “Defense is so much mental stuff. If you don’t get enough reps, it’s going to hurt your performance on Fridays.”

And not all of the Golden Eagles defenders are athletic specimens who run 4.4 or 4.5-second 40-yard dashes. Dollar is more focused on taking the players who run 5 and 5.2-second 40s and making them better players.

“It’d be easy for me to put (probable all-state running back) Carlin Fils-Aime at outside backer. He’s physically gifted and wouldn’t need many reps,” Dollar said. “I’d rather have him over there (on offense) and groom another kid to play outside backer.”

As a result, participation grew because of the availability of 22 starting positions rather than 13 or 14 because several players go both ways.

“There are some guys that hop around from position to position and it doesn’t allow them to have a solid base,” linebacker Green said. “They have to learn on the fly. I’ve had the opportunity to learn the same thing over and over and over again for four years. It’s really solidified what I’ve known and gives me something to work on every single day.”

At South, defensive coordinator Matthew Holderfield, who took over as co-defensive coordinator when John Schwochow left for Island Coast in the spring, subscribes to some of the same ideas as Dollar.

Down linemen and cornerbacks usually play the same position for four years, but defensive ends, linebackers and safeties are in a state of flux throughout their prep careers, Holderfield said.

For example, Minnesota commit Andre Polk started out as a defensive lineman before being moved to safety and the spur position for the Wolfpack, which has given up 14.8 points per game since 2007.

Holderfield and Dollar also differ on scheme.

At South, there are different personnel groupings for stopping power running teams and spread teams.

“We’re just trying put as many playmakers on the field as we can,” said Holderfield, who spent more than a decade as an offensive coach in Alabama. “They have to be able to do multiple things. They have to be able to stop power teams and they also have to be able to spread out and run when they spread the field.”

Dollar believes in having one standard defense and expects the same players to be able to make plays against spread and tighter formations.

“The problem with changing up schemes is you become a team trying to stop an offense rather than just playing defense,” Dollar said.

The smaller schools in Southwest Florida have no choice but to play, for the most part, iron-man football.

Coach Billy Sparacio and First Baptist have mastered the art the last few seasons. The Lions gave up just 13 points a game en route to a state semifinal appearance in 2012 and 11 points a game in 2013.

This season, FBA has surrendered 79 points in five games heading into a crucial district matchup Friday with undefeated Community School of Naples.

Fielding a roster of between 30 and 40 players each year, the biggest question Sparacio faces is how does the team practice?

“It’s not an ideal situation by any means,” Sparacio said. “We don’t have the numbers to split up into offense and defense. So we need some of our best players to go both ways.”

Sparacio separates a 2½-hour practice with a halftime. The starting offense works against the scout-team defense for an hour before a break followed by an hour of the first-team defense working against the scout team.

Over the years, FBA has been blessed with several well-rounded athletes who have acquitted themselves nicely on both sides of the ball.

In Sparacio’s dealing with college coaches, versatility matters in the recruiting game.

“First and foremost, college coaches are looking for players at certain positions who can fit into what they are trying to do on defense,” Sparacio said. “And then if they can find a linebacker who can catch some balls at tight end or a receiver capable of covering, those are the type of guys that can be indispensable.”

Naples, South and FBA are a combined 12-3 this season and figure to be some of the last teams from Southwest Florida standing when the postseason heats up next month. Look no further than defense for a reason why.

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