coaching feature: defence

Success on the football field requires teammates to work together towards a common goal, putting in the countless hours to make plays on game day. The same applies to any coaching staff and the men in charge of the Guelph Gryphons’ defence are no exception. 

Gryphon Football has an incredible history of producing star athletes on the defensive side of the ball. Recent change at the top shouldn’t hinder that – in fact, it can only help. While there’s a new guy in charge of the 2019 edition of this unit, there is a familiarity and camaraderie among his peers that has made the transition smooth.

dennis mcphee - defesive coordinator (left), joe sardo - linebacker coach (middle), brian cluff - d-line coach (right)

dennis mcphee - defesive coordinator (left), joe sardo - linebacker coach (middle), brian cluff - d-line coach (right)

“Part of the reason that the job was interesting was the guys on staff,” first-year defensive coordinator Dennis McPhee says of his decision to come back to Guelph after a 26-year absence.

McPhee was hired to Head Coach Ryan Sheahan’s staff back in February but it was hardly a situation that required a blank canvas approach. The Hamilton native, who has a stint as Gryphons’ linebacker coach from 1990-1993 among the many stops in a distinguished professional/university career, knew many of the faces on staff when he signed on to head the Guelph D.

McPhee had worked with defensive line coach and 1984 Vanier Cup winner Brian Cluff for years; he was the head man at St FX when current defensive backs coach and former CFLer Richard Karikari was a star player; and linebacker coach Joe Sardo has known McPhee since the start of his own high-school career at Cathedral in Hamilton.

“The expectation under Coach McPhee is that everyone has to play their best,” says Sardo, who has got a taste of the defensive coordinator’s passion for the game at Ti-Cat camps in the Steel City years before they worked on the same staff for the CFL squad. “There are no secrets.”

coach mcphee with linebacker, jared beeksma

coach mcphee with linebacker, jared beeksma

That familiarity amongst the defensive staff has served the team well in the early part of the 2019 OUA season. Communication is a strength, be it passing information down the chain to the position coaches or in a more general setting when all of the defensive leaders meet.

From and X’s and O’s perspective, Coach McPhee believes in having a multiple-front defence that pressures when there is opportunity. And the unit has stood tall in the first month of the season, particularly in a dominant 39-13 road win at Waterloo. The Gryphons racked up five sacks and an interception that day and held the reigning OUA MVP quarterback Tre Ford, who didn’t record a passing touchdown, in check.

“I firmly believe in building the team around the talent that you have,” says Coach McPhee. “You don’t ask them to do things they can’t do. Sometimes young players aren’t sure what they can do so you have to bring them along as they grow.

“The faster they grow, the more they’re able to handle things.”

The move back to university football has been rewarding for Coach McPhee. He’s well aware of the massive commitment it requires for a student-athlete to play U SPORTS football, where the challenge is to balance an unforgiving workload on both the school and sport front. Coach McPhee knows the players, unlike their professional counterparts, are still unrefined and developing who they are.

Part of the job as Gryphon coaches is to help them get there.

“The players don’t care what you know until they know you care,” Coach McPhee says. “But at this level, it’s more than that.”

fifth year captain, job reinhart

fifth year captain, job reinhart

Retention, he adds, is the glue that holds a team together. Guelph’s players, from the anchors like two-sport athlete and captain Job Reinhart, Greg Corfield, and Dotun Aketepe (affectionately known by the DC as the “Tuna”), to the up-and-comers like Jared Beeksma (already a winner of the OUA Defensive Player of the Week award this season) and the ultra-talented Tavius Robinson, are in a privileged position. Their coaches have a wealth of CFL experience under their belts and those years of knowledge are helping shape the current players, allowing them to develop and fill the void left by the departure of recent big names like John Rush, Luke Korol, Royce Metchie, and Nick Parisotto.

“You’ve got a professional at each level,” Sardo says of the unique mix of coaches on the defensive side of the ball. “That’s the model we follow. There are no egos. This staff wants to win and provide a quality student-athlete experience.

“We establish a culture and work ethic and set the expectations of greatness. It starts from the day we recruit a player. When you come here, this is what we will expect from you – or don’t come.

“That’s how we set the tone. You’ll come in, compete and play for what we hope will be one of the best teams in the country. You’re going to be in a pro environment.”

written by: david dicenzo