This is a preview of JMU’s 2013 defensive line. It focuses on Madison’s new defensive line coach, a grumpy man named Jeff Hanson, who, after a 15-minute chat (which consisted of him heckling me about being a reporter), a six-minute interview and another 10-minute chat, became one of my favorite coaches I’ve ever covered . If you were to build a football coach, he’d be something like Jeff Hanson. The story ran Aug. 21, 2013.
HARRISONBURG, Va. — Jeff Hanson does not look or sound beloved. He has a drill sergeant’s charm and the voice of an executioner. But since taking over as the James Madison football team’s defensive-line coach in the spring, the 63-year-old has overcome his death glare and calloused vocal chords to turn JMU’s players into Jeff Hanson fans.
“Very fierce, [but] you can tell he cares a lot,” JMU senior defensive tackle Jordan Stanton said Tuesday after practice at Bridgeforth Stadium. “He might come off as different, but in his voice, you can just tell he cares and wants you to do so well. He wants you to be successful as a defensive lineman.”
Sage Harold agreed. He first met Hanson when Hanson was Virginia’s defensive-line coach and recruiting Fork Union at a camp. Harold, then a linebacker on FUMA’s post-graduate team, was taking part in a drill, and Hanson, instead of trying to woo Harold to Charlottesville, attempted to make him better.
“I was doing a drill because there was, like, a lot of recruits here, and I was just trying to get scholarships, and he was out there — he was really trying to coach the drill,” said Harold, now a junior defensive end at JMU. “He was trying to coach me on how to play the drill. Instead of recruiting me, he was just trying to get me better as a player. … Knowing that all the other colleges were talking to me, he was coaching me as a player.”
Hanson’s style is brusque — “I always say if you don’t want to know what Jeff thinks, don’t ask him,” JMU coach Mickey Matthews said — and hard. But it’s also heavy on detail, precision and discipline, intended to cultivate physical and mental toughness in his players.
After five months, they’re in. Just look at this sentence-finishing exchange between Harold and junior defensive end Brandon Lee after practice Tuesday.
Lee: “He’s brought discipline.”
Harold: “Damn right, boy.”
Lee: “He’s definitely more of a —”
Hanson, in what he described as his “Clint Eastwood voice,” said detail is important because it can eliminate mistake-by-interpretation. His players say he talks constantly about having the “eye of tiger,” clinical first steps off the line and “violent hands.”
It’s all about detail.
“I think there’s a lack of detail to teaching and coaching in football, and I’ve always tried to be a very detailed teacher of young men,” said Hanson, who spent three years at Virginia after coaching three stints at Richmond, his alma mater: 1971-79, 1989-06 and 2008-09. “I think if you’re not detailed, there’s a lot of gray area kids can take one way or another. So by being detailed, I’m being precise on what I want guys to do. Then they have a clear understanding of their jobs.”
Hanson took over for Isai Bradshaw, who is now coaching JMU’s strong safeties — a move to help get Hanson to Madison. Matthews said he called Hanson, fired by U.Va. as part of a staff purge, and hired him because of his experience and recruiting connections in the state. Hanson already has landed two of JMU’s five recruits for the class of 2014, both from the Richmond area: Benedictine defensive end Cornell Urquhart and Mills Godwin linebacker Abraham “A.B.” Rhodes.
Virginia ranked fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference in total defense last season (353.3 yards per game) and sixth in rushing defense (144.9 ypg).
“I thought Richmond’s defensive line was very well-coached,” Matthews said. “They were never out of position. I thought the University of Virginia’s defensive line was extremely well-coached. … [Hanson’s] just very good. He’s solid as a daggum rock.”
Hanson wants the Dukes’ defensive line to be that way, too.
JMU returns all but three defensive linemen from last season. The starters, at this point, are to be determined, Hanson said, because Madison has had so many injuries, but the top eight are Harold, Lee, senior Tyler Snow, junior Zack Ozycz and sophomore Ascene Jacques at end, and Stanton, senior Bingham Togia and sophomore Alex Mosley at tackle.
It’s possible that Snow, who has been out with a hamstring injury, could see time at tackle, a position he has played in the past. There also is a chance that true freshman defensive end Andrew Ankrah could play because of depth problems created by the injuries.
Lee said he thought the defensive line — which hasn’t had any major injuries, only nagging ones — would be OK.
“We’re just taking care of ourselves,” he said. “We’re not going to win anything now, but we can definitely lose something now. If somebody goes down big, we can definitely lose something right now.”
In 2012, JMU led the Colonial Athletic Association in rush defense, allowing 122.5 yards per game, which ranked 19th out of 121 Division I-AA teams. But Matthews and the players said the Dukes’ pass rush — 18 sacks in 11 games last year — needs to be better.
“Sacks are not the No. 1 priority, but it helps out with pressure, tipped balls, quarterback hits,” said Stanton, a 6-foot-4, 285-pound NFL prospect. “… We didn’t execute on our pressure a lot and our twists [last year] — a lot of miscommunications and stuff like that. But I think the main focus as a whole on defense is being a unit and playing together.”
And, if Hanson has his way, with a sneering, snarling Clint-like toughness.