Three weeks ago, the University of South Dakota Coyotes were still in search of their first win within the Missouri Valley Conference. They now stand on a three-game winning streak, including an eye-opening 21-point comeback against the No. 13 team in FCS, the Northern Iowa Panthers.
Standing at the forefront of the success are four players: seniors Aaron Swift, Dyllon Knox, Devin Taverna and Jarrid Bryant. This quartet of seniors make up the starting secondary for a vastly improved Coyote defense, which through its first seven games, rank as the No. 1 pass defense not only in the Missouri Valley but in the entire FCS.
What makes them even more unique are the places they’ve come from. Bryant and Taverna are both from California and both transferred to USD. Bryant came from Arizona State while Taverna transferred from Palomar College in San Marcos, Calif. Knox, a native of Kansas, transferred to USD from Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kansas. Last is, Swift, who is from Colorado, and is a four-year starter for the Coyotes.
Head coach Joe Glenn said that definitely makes them a fun group to watch grow together.
“They’re from all over the place, so that’s kind of cool to see,” Glenn said. “What’s even better is they’ve all come together as a group and showed a lot of progress.”
Last season’s struggles have been well documented. The defense had trouble getting off the field, and the team never quite figured out how to stop the run, giving up the most in the MVC. The pass defense wasn’t a whole lot better, giving up 190.9 yards per game, which was good for sixth in the MVC.
This year has been a whole different story. Taverna, one of the team’s starting safeties, said there was a new mindset heading into this year.
“Last year was tough on everyone,” Taverna said. “Starting last spring, we got together and said we wanted to make things different around here, play better. That’s why we started the ‘Band of Brothers’ motto.”
The turnaround started immediately. The defense carried the Coyotes in their season opening win over UC Davis, specifically the back end, who only gave up 110 net yards through the air.
Things didn’t slow down from there. Even in the midst of a three-game losing streak, the secondary showed it could hold its own. Now more than halfway through the season, the Coyotes have yet to give up 200 net passing yards.
The team’s other starting safety, and the longest tenured of the four players, Aaron Swift, said there have been plenty of positives in the secondary’s play thus far, but they can’t get caught up in that.
“We haven’t tried paying too close attention to all that so far,” Swift said. “We’ve been playing well, but one busted coverage would mean us giving up a lot of yards. We just have to stay consistent.”
The Coyotes are now 3-1 in the conference. Their first two wins within the MVC came in 17-14 victories over Missouri State and Indiana State, where the secondary only allowed a combined 154 yards through the air, including a season-low 72 yards against Missouri State. All that results in an average of 117.1 passing yards allowed per game, more than a 70-yard difference than last year.
Glenn said this difference has been key in the team’s recent success.
“Their play has been pretty darn good, they can all cover and all run,” Glenn said.
Looking through the gaudy numbers, starting cornerback Dyllon Knox said a lot of the credit actually doesn’t belong to the secondary, rather the stellar play of the guys up front.
“The guys up front have been getting good pressure on the opposing quarterbacks,” Knox said. “Everyone knows the playbook, and everyone is playing fast.”
Glenn said he was the first to agree with Knox.
“They’d be the first one’s to tell you it’s a team game,” Glenn said. “When you have a four-five man rush with the likes of (senior) Tyler Starr and others, you only have to be in coverage for three or four seconds. They don’t have to be in coverage for quite as long as last year.”
But what can’t be denied is the presence the team’s other starting cornerback, Jarrid Bryant, has brought to the Coyotes in his first season is red and white.
“(Bryant) has made a big difference for us. You can stick him out there in man coverage and he can lock you down” Knox said.
Bryant, who transferred from Arizona State, said he’s glad he can bring more experience to this secondary.
“I learned a lot of football at Arizona State, had some real great coaches,” Bryant said. “I’m just trying to bring what I learned over there to here.”
Bryant came to USD as a graduate student with a one-year of eligibility left. He said every once in awhile he’ll get a little grief for being the oldest of the three, but did go on to say the secondary has great chemistry, which is important.
“I came here with a degree already. I’m 23 (years old), so I sometimes get called the old man around here (laughs),” Bryant said. “But all four of us are close and get along real well.”
Bryant, who along with Knox, is tied for the team lead with two interceptions, noticeably stands out when next to his fellow defensive backs. Recruited to Arizona State to play wide receiver, Bryant uses his incredible 6’4” size to his advantage at the cornerback position.
“(Defensive coordinator) Coach Petrino puts me in a lot of good positions,” Bryant said. “I can use my size well in a lot of one-on-ones and challenge people vertically, because when the ball is in the air I can go up and get it.”
Junior wide receiver Terrance Terry said the lengthiness Bryant has is extremely frustrating on wide receivers, noting he has to go up against him every day in practice.
“He’s a talented player, and he makes it real tough on opposing wide receivers,” Terry said. “I do the best I can in practice, but he’s tough. You can tell he’s made a difference in our defense.
Despite being ranked No. 1 in the country in pass defense, Bryant said off the field, all four seniors are really just normal guys and humble about their success.
“We’re just like everyone else,” Bryant said. “I don’t do a whole lot other than football, (Swift) is always sleeping, while (Taverna) and (Knox) are really into video games.”
Glenn said all four of them are class acts off the field.
“They provide a lot of leadership on and off the field,” Glenn said. “Great people for our locker rooms and great leaders.”
The Coyotes are now going into what Taverna described as “the toughest part of their schedule,” and are going to lean heavily on the play of this veteran group. In last week’s stunning 38-31 win in double OT over Northern Iowa, the Coyotes notched three interceptions. All three came from none other than three different members of the secondary: Taverna, Knox and Bryant.
“Our defense was put in some bad situations, and we were giving up some scores,” Glenn said. “But they rebounded nicely and those seniors back there all did their jobs.”
Swift said the win last week was nice, but he isn’t satisfied.
“(Last week) definitely felt great, but now we’re just thinking about the playoffs,” Swift said. “We aren’t satisfied with just these wins; we’ve got to keep getting more.”