Dominant defense has paved Dunbar's way into state semifinals

New defensive coordinator has speedy Poets primed for Saturday's showdown vs. Fort Hill

  • First-year defensive coordinator Michael Carter, a former Bowie State assistant, has the Dunbar defense primed for a state semifinal showdown against Fort Hill.
First-year defensive coordinator Michael Carter, a former… (Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd…)
November 25, 2010|By Katherine Dunn, The Baltimore Sun

Take a look at the scores for Dunbar's football team over the past two months and one thing will jump out at you -- all those zeros on the opposition's side.

The No. 12 Poets have shut out seven opponents this season, including six of their past seven, and they have allowed just 4.9 points per game in advancing to Saturday's 1 p.m. state Class 1A semifinal against Fort Hill at Poly.

The Poets (11-1) were pretty good on defense before, but when Michael Carter, a former Bowie State assistant coach who played at Morgan State, took over as defensive coordinator last summer, he wanted to take better advantage of this team's speed and athleticism.

"We have a great deal of guys who will probably be defensive backs if they play in college," Carter said. "We have three or four good linebackers, but it was more the backs than anything. So I tried to get more athletic guys on the field and that was the change to a 4-2-5. It helps us balance things out."

A year ago under Anderson Powell, who retired as defensive coordinator after 13 years at Dunbar, the Poets ran four down linemen and four linebackers. Carter's alignment loads the secondary with players who can cover a lot of ground.

It's not easy for any opponent to get to the sidelines. With their coverage on the outside, the Poets try to push everything to the middle to feed their linebackers, where seniors Travon Garrett, Andre Cudanin and Epe Henriques have combined for 388 tackles.

They want to clog up the running game and force opponents to the air because they're pretty good at picking off those passes, grabbing 30 interceptions. Leland Lassiter has five in the last five games. DeonTay McManus and Aaron Haynes have four interceptions apiece for the season.

"It's not too much of a change in philosophy," Carter said. "We just changed the numbers around. Everybody thought it was a new scheme, but they ran some form of it last year. It wasn't a big learning curve for the guys."

The Poets also bring a lot of pressure that can throw an opposing quarterback off balance. A little indecisiveness can land him on his back against the speed of a Dunbar line that has 60 sacks -- 15 by LaVar Highsmith and 13 by Dorian Watters.

"We've got fast defensive ends, fast linebackers and fast linemen," Cudanin said. "Usually other teams don't have that speed on their line, because they put the bigger boys in. Most of the other teams are slower than our defensive linemen and a lot of teams can't run outside on us, because we force everything back toward the middle. Our middle linebackers are fast enough to fill the holes because we're running backs, basically."

The Poets had registered 28 straight quarters of shutout football before giving up a touchdown in the second quarter of Saturday's 32-12 South region championship victory over Forest Park. During that stretch, Dunbar shut out Poly, which went into the Oct. 30 meeting averaging 34.5 points and came out with a 22-0 loss.

"They're not often out of position," Poly coach Roger Wrenn said. "They're very disciplined in their gap responsibilities, and that makes it difficult to break long runs and long passes. The mark of a good defense is that they don't give up long passes or long runs, they tackle well and they play team defense and run at the ball. They're just very active and really well-coached."

While the defense is having a lot of success, the offense has had trouble holding onto the ball at times. The Poets, aiming for their fourth state title in five years, gave up more than half of their 59 points in one game -- a 32-20 loss to Patterson in which the Clippers converted four Dunbar turnovers for scores.

That brings some comparisons to another Baltimore team that made its title run on stingy defense.

"They say we're like the Ravens in their Super Bowl year, of course, because our offense struggles and our defense is the heart of the team," free safety McManus said. "We get that comparison a lot. Defense wins championships, but our defense motivates our offense so they can play up to the intensity that we play with."

Early on, head coach Lawrence Smith wasn't sure the Poets could pick up Carter's different defensive schemes quickly enough, especially with 21 or 22 players being used regularly. But he's a believer now.

"The team is riding the defense, so all praise goes to Coach Carter," Smith said. "They're basically the thing that makes this engine move. In all my years here, going back to Coach [Ben] Eaton, we [would never defer on the opening coin flip]. We would want the ball in the first half. Now we want to get the defense on the field first and set the tone of the game."

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