When Doug Hocking returned as the Vancouver Island Raiders defensive coordinator this summer, he brought back their swagger.
Last year, the unit was effective but carried a different tone, with a more opportunistic, bend but don't break style.
Particularly over the last two weeks, the Raiders defence has bore their teeth and stifled their opposition in their two biggest wins of the season - 45-17 over the Okanagan Sun and 41-27 over the Langley Rams.
But Hocking only views this as the beginning.
He has coached some great defences in Nanaimo, but he is genuinely excited about the this group can accomplish this year.
"The potential is through the roof," said Hocking, who preaches a high-pressure, swarming defence. "You can see the guys have bought in and taken ownership of the defence, and once they do that the skies the limit."
Only the Sun (128) have allowed fewer than the Raiders 137 points, but they have compiled those numbers against the weakest teams in the league, the Kamloops Broncos and the Valley Huskers.
It all starts up front for the Raiders with their front seven.
Ash Gayat has led a defensive line that appears to finally be clicking on all levels. The towering third-year defensive end has seemingly spent the season in the other team's back field and is second in the B.C. Football Conference with 5.5 sacks and is tied for the league lead with two forced fumbles.
"This year we've moved back to what coach Hock likes, and that's mean 40 football," said Gayat. "It's amazing how many sacks we're getting and how much pressure we're getting compared to the last couple of years."
It is a young group, coached by Reuben Friesen, that is starting gel, and making life in general uncomfortable for opposing quarterbacks and running backs.
Hocking says the influence of Gayat on the younger linemen like Quinton Bowels, Tristian Koronkiewicz and Jordan Kuziek.
"Ash Gayat is a guy who leads all of those guys and he does it every day," said Hocking.
Linebacker was supposed to be a weakness for the Raiders coming out of spring camp, but the late additions of Cole Samson and Nigel Henry has made them one of the top groups in the league - coached by last year's defensive coordinator Jesse Ehrenberg - alongside BCFC all-star middle linebacker Dylan Chapdelaine.
"It took them a few weeks to start understanding each other, but you can really see it in their play now," aid Hocking. "The great thing about it is they haven't even started playing their best football yet, it's still coming."
Chapdelaine is having another huge year, and leads the BCFC with 34 tackles and defensive aggregate points with 96.
"I just come out and play football. I don't even look at the stats, I just come and try to get the 'W' every week and get my defence prepared," said Chapdelaine.
Everyone in the group plays a different role. Henry's speed has made him dangerous in coverage, while Samson has been a high-energy disrupter who has been tough to run on. Chapdelaine has been the field general and has been effective in all aspect of the unit.
Chemistry has been important with the group on and off the field.
"It started off slow and we didn't know our roles and where everyone was going to fit in, but as it has gone on, everyone has pulled together and got better. We've been building off each other's momentum and getting better every week," said Samson, who credits his work at Prime Kinesiology for a lot of his success this year. "He's made me what I am today."
The final component of the defence has benefited from a few tweaks and the work up front. Defensive backs coach Karim Maher has the corners and safeties playing some of their best ball of the season.
They helped hold the BCFC Week 6 passing leader, Rams quarterback Jahlani Gilbert-Knorren, to 192 yards, including just 18 in the second half on Saturday, giving up just one touchdown while picking him off once. The week before, they picked off Okanagan quarterbacks Theo Deezar and Cam Bedore four times - two by Cole Bishop and one each by Andrew Rowe and Jaxxen Wylie.
"If you're defensive line gets a lot of pressure then he's going to throw the ball and we're going to get picks," said Gayat. "If you're defensive coverage has good coverage, then we're going to get to the back field and get sacks."
But they know they have work to do to get to that championship level they desire. Most specifically, they are looking to get a full 60-minute effort.
This Saturday they play the last place Westshore Rebels in Victoria, a team on paper they should dominate, especially coming off of their victories over the Rams and Sun. But they are being careful not to take anything for granted.
"It's always one of the funnest, grittiest matches of our schedule it always fun," said Chapdelaine. "There's going to be some physical plays and they're probably going to come out and chirp, but we're just going to keep it composed and come out with a 'W.'" JAldrich@nanaimodailynews.com 250-729-4243
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