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Kennesaw State secondary showing major growth in program’s second year

Kennesaw State’s secondary has been causing trouble for the opposition.

With their 4-2-5 defensive scheme, the Owls (4-2, 0-1 Big South) rely on a mix of speed and strength in their defense, and that is most exemplified in the back. With four of five starters returning from last season’s group, KSU has been wreaking havoc on opposing offenses.

“When you play hard, good things happen,” safety Taylor Henkle said. “A lot of the time we’re in the right place at the right time, and that goes to the coaching staff and them putting us in those good positions.”

Through six games, the Owls have forced 13 turnovers, including nine interceptions. Last season KSU had 13 interceptions for the entire season.

The players said their ability to create more takeaways starts with defensive coordinator Brian Newberry’s gameplans, but their trust of each other is what takes their execution of those gameplans to a higher level.

“(Derrick) Farrow plays the free safety position. That’s right behind me. He’s my safety. I have two classes with him, so we get to chill and hang out all the time,” cornerback Dante Blackmon said. “We got a great connection.”

Along with spending so much time together off the field, the group also credits last season, and the chance for them to learn and grow together as another reason for their trust and chemistry.

And although he was not in the starting unit last year, cornerback Akebren Ralls has been able to pick up on that chemistry quickly.

Newberry said Ralls has grown a lot throughout the year, and his ability to improve his game wherever the coaches see fit has been noticed.

“He played really well (against Liberty), I thought he played really well in the opener,” Newberry said. “And there were a couple weeks when he didn’t play great. And we sat him against Missouri S&T, and he responded. There was some things he needed to fix and get better at doing effort wise and from a physicality standpoint, and he did those things. … Kid had 10 tackles (against Liberty).”

While Ralls and Henkle patrol one side of the field, and Blackmon and Farrow keep the other on lockdown, Dez Billingslea brings a unique element to the unit that takes it over the top.

Billingslea operates as a hybrid defender as the SAM linebacker/safety, playing essentially everywhere on the field throughout the game, allowing the defense to consistently provide new looks without leaving its base package. Billingslea said as he has become more acquainted with this position, it has made life easier for the entire defense.

Whether it’s covering a tight end or slot receiver, taking on a blocker or rushing the passer, Billingslea is needed to do it all. And although there has been a dip in his numbers, Billingslea said it is because he has gotten better at playing this new position, and he’s not just chasing the ball around the field.

“This year, playing the position is less productive stats-wise because of the gameplan and me knowing I have to do my job better,” Billingslea said. “So it cuts the production down, ’cause I have to set the edge so another guy can make the play, or I have to buzz to the flat so this guy can make the play, but that alone helps us make more plays on defense. … Me doing my job allows everybody else to do their job right.”

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