NMU football: First-year defensive coordinator Ballard, his similar scheme welcomed by Wildcats

MARQUETTE – The Northern Michigan University football team may have a new defensive coordinator for the second year in a row, but the program isn’t making any drastic shifts in its scheme under Joe Ballard.

That’s the way head coach Chris Ostrowsky wants it and it’s fine by senior linebacker and defensive captain Morgan Stenz, who will play for his third defensive coordinator in three years after two seasons with Randy Awrey and last season with Brian Newberry.

“It’s really nice keeping that same system and terminology,” Stenz said. “Coach Ballard, he has so many accolades and experiences.

“He brings in a little what he played at Grand Valley and what learned under coach Awrey, coach Newberry and coach (Ostrowsky). He has a phenomenal background. He has all those things in his bag of tricks and weapons that he can pull out at anytime.”

Ballard, who will also coach the defensive backs, enters his seventh season as an assistant coach on the Wildcat football staff. He has coached everything from running backs and wide receivers to special teams before returning to his natural home on the defensive side of the ball in the secondary.

Ballard’s collegiate football playing career began at Central Michigan University before he transferred to Grand Valley State. With the Lakers, he won two NCAA Division II national championships as a strong safety.

Ballard’s accolades, and that of his fellow defensive assistants, have created a huge respect for the coaching staff in the locker room, according to NMU junior linebacker Nick Krause.

It’s a staff the team looks up to, he said.

“We could have totally changed everything (in the system), but having coach Ballard step up and be the D-coordinator, it kept everything about the same on defense,” Krause said.

“The intensity has really picked up on the field. They want us running to the ball, stripping the ball, making turnovers. That’s a big thing around here.”

Assisting Ballard will be second-year NMU assistant Joe Coniglio. The two-time Third Team Mid-American Conference all-star defensive end out of Miami University will not only coach the defensive line, but coordinate the run defense.

Former NMU defensive lineman Matt Forward will assist Coniglio with the line, while Karl Maslowski came in this summer to coach the Wildcats’ linebackers.

Maslowski spent the three previous seasons coaching linebackers at his alma mater, Western Kentucky University.

He won an NCAA Division I-AA national championship with WKU in 2002 while garnering Third Team All-American and First Team all-conference honors, as well.

“We really delegate responsibilities well,” Coniglio said about the staff. “Coach Forward has done a great job helping me out with the defensive line. It’s really been as easy a transition as I could ever imagine.”

Stenz called Ballard’s scheme a simpler version of the one ran by Newberry last season, which is a base 4-3 defense – four down linemen and three linebackers – that includes multiple fronts, occasionally showing a 3-4 look.

NMU finished fourth in the GLIAC in takeaways last season, with 13 of the 22 turnovers being interceptions. However, that turned out to be one of the few positives for the ‘Cats on defense.

Northern ranked 12th out of 16 GLIAC teams in scoring defense, total defense, rush defense, pass defense and opponents’ third down conversions. In sacks, the Wildcats’ eight was dead last.

Opponents scored an average of 31.5 points per game, ran for an average of 189.6 yards, threw for an average of 218.1 and racked up an average of 407.7 of total offense.

Those numbers were racked up in part because the Wildcat defense struggled to get off the field, allowing opponents to convert 46.8 percent of the time on third down and 53.3 percent (8 of 15) on fourth down.

In the red zone, NMU ranked 14th with the opposition scoring a touchdown or field goal on 34 of 39 chances (87.2 percent).

Stenz projects those numbers to improve as Ballard’s simplification of the scheme will allow NMU to execute much better, he said.

Newberry already began to simplify the defense in the second half of last season, which led to a drastic improvement.

After allowing 40-plus points in the first five GLIAC games of 2012, NMU gave up an average of 24.2 over the final five contests. NMU won all three GLIAC games during that stretch in which it allowed less than 30 points.

“I’m excited,” Ballard said. “We’re picking up where we left off from spring ball. It’s not a crazy new system or anything, but it has my own personality to it.

“We’re just going to play sound. We want to run to the football, we want to tackle and try to create turnovers.”