The Cal Poly defense had a lot going against it coming into this season.
The Mustangs (4-0) were coming off a slumping year defensively. They lost nine defensive starters to graduation or injury. And two coaching departures struck at crucial points in the offseason.
But under first-year defensive coordinator Josh Brown, Cal Poly has surged defensively, becoming arguably the top unit in the Big Sky Conference.
“It’s a combination between personnel,” Brown said of the turnaround, “and really simplifying things and getting good at what we do.”
The results speak for themselves.
Cal Poly was 90th out of 120 FCS teams in total defense in 2011, 86th in scoring defense and next to last in passing defense.
The Mustangs gave up an average of 274 passing yards and 29.9 points per game and allowed third-down conversions 40 percent of the time.
Then, defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Greg Lupfer left for Colorado State just before the start of spring practice.
Lupfer’s replacement as defensive backs coach, former Raiders assistant Randy Hanson, was arrested for his role in a bar fight the weekend before fall camp was to start. Hanson was suspended by the school and resigned from the team the following week.
The other news coming into fall camp was that starting cornerback Bijon Samoodi would redshirt after having hip surgery.
But even with the turmoil, the Cal Poly defense has thrived.
Through four games, the Mustangs are giving up only 18.3 points per game and passers have a 99.3 efficiency rating against them — numbers that both rank high in the FCS and lead the Big Sky.
Cal Poly is also in the top 27 in the FCS, allowing 317 yards per game, seven interceptions and allowing fewer than 18 first downs a game.
Former Division III Linfield (Ore.) assistant Neil Fendall ended the instability by coaching the defensive backs and has worked well with a completely new starting defensive backfield.
And Brown, who was promoted from linebackers coach when Lupfer left last spring, has backed up his promise to simplify the defense and improve consistency.
His system focuses on reaction rather than on-the-fly decision-making.
“Last year, we did a lot of route recognition in coverage,” Brown said, “and this year, we’re a lot of spot drop and go-to areas, read the quarterback and get everybody’s vision on the quarterback and breaking on the ball.
“We obviously have some wrinkles that we do and some different things in different situations, but our base is our base, and we don’t care if our opponent knows it. They’re going to see it on film, and we’re going to be better at what we do than you are at what you do. That’s kind of our philosophy.”