Ashton Smith and Alex Liners

Bradford linebackers Ashton Smith (left) and Alex Liners are excited to roll out the Owls’ new 4-2-5 defense on Friday at St. Marys.

Jeff Puglio felt it was time to simplify the Bradford defense.

In previous seasons, the 11th-year Owls football coach felt that perhaps his players were getting mixed up due to difficult defensive reads each week, and it was costing them.

So during the offseason, Puglio decided to wipe the slate clean and install a new look. The Owls shifted away from the 4-4 and in July began installing a new 4-2-5 scheme, one Puglio feels puts a “premium on athletes” and “has been a breath of fresh air” for his team. The head coach will also serve as his own defensive coordinator this year.

One of the biggest differences, he said, is the Owls are able to maintain the same keys from week to week, no matter what the opposing offense throws at them.

“What I like about this defense is your key is your key, and it’s not going to change,” he said. “We can get really good at reading what we’re supposed to read and get more comfortable with what we’re doing each week. It doesn’t matter who the opponent is; we can fit our system to whatever offense we’ll see.”

That’s something Puglio’s starting linebackers, Alex Liners and Ashton Smith, said they’re looking forward to.

“I like the new ways we’re just reading guards and we’re seeing how the line functions,” Liners said. “I hope that this year will be a lot different (for the team). I’m super excited to see the new players coming along, and so far the defense looks amazing.”

The thing he’s most looking forward to, though?

“Knocking heads,” he joked. “I’m super excited; I can’t wait.”

Smith, meanwhile, likes how the Owls’ passing defense is shaping up so far.

“We can break it down and pick an offense apart on passes all day long,” he said. “It’s nice and spread out. Last year we were more compact and more of a blitz-based defense. Now it’s just all-around. We can cover deep balls, short balls, blitzes … it’s an overall good defense.”

Puglio, meanwhile, asserted that Bradford will be a defense of balance, and that the ground game will still be at the forefront each week.

“(Looking at) the teams we’ll play … St. Marys gashed us on the ground last year, and Ridgway and Kane will always have a strong run game,” he said. “They’ll try to run the ball; every offense wants to control the ground game. But we have athletes this year to stop the run game, but keep a similar package on the field for third-and-long, too … we’re very versatile with it.”

That versatile defense is built on a couple simple things: individual responsibilities and proper pre-snap alignment.

Puglio detailed that each player has a spot on the field he’s responsible for, and that lining up according to what the opposing offense shows. That’s a big part of Bradford’s gameplanning each week, as well as covering any potential schemes the Owls didn’t see on film.

“We focus each week on what formations we’ll see from an opponent and on making sure we can adjust to anything we might see,” he said. “We (also) plan for things we haven't seen that we may possibly see, so we try to give a good look at practice.”

At Tuesday evening’s session, the Owls caught a few things they hadn’t prepared for, which Puglio said was a positive.

“I want to catch those on Tuesday and not Friday,” he said.

Preparing for what St. Marys may show Friday, though, has been a unique challenge this year, as neither team has seen the field yet.

“This has been preparing for a game in the dark,” Puglio said. “We have no idea what to go off of, so we’re kind of taking a guess on what we might see from last year’s game, and we’ve talked to people around the area about what they’ve seen. We’ve done the best we can to put a plan together, but we’re just happy to be playing.”

Given the simplicity of Bradford’s new reads, though, Puglio is confident his defense is prepared, especially since the team has been working on the new look since early July.

“We got the green light on July 6 and went three nights a week with 35-40 kids each night,” he said. “We’ve never had this much participation in any offseason, so we got a lot of work done since July.

“So we’re as prepared as we can be. I don’t think there’s a chance we’re underprepared.”

The Owls and Flying Dutchmen square off at 7 o’clock Friday night at Dutch Country Stadium.

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