Delaware has been one of the most improved and fun to watch programs these past few years, and their defense has been a big reason why.
The Blue Hens earned their first post-season win since 2007 after knocking off #2 seed Georgetown in 2022, and the Hens returned with a very strong 2023 season. While they have talent all over the field and play great as a unit, their defense has been a noticeable strength. Delaware ranked 4th in the NCAA in scoring defense in 2023 only giving up 9.44 goals per game. In this blog, we are going to quickly highlight a few of the strengths they illustrated in the tough loss against Duke.
This has been a fun unit to watch. One thing that pops off the page when you watch this defense is the plays their poles make across the board. They are not reckless, but rather disruptive. They are opportunistic and do not let opposing offenses off the hook. There is a fine balance on defense between playing disciplined and aggressive. We don't want to create offense by getting out of position and sliding all over, but we also don't want to just sit back and let the offense have an easy day at the office. The Delaware poles do a great job of striking this balance and disrupting at the right times.
Notice here where Duke is working to clear the ball as Joe Speers (#44) on Delaware times up this approach and throws a simple poke right as the ball gets to the Duke player. These are little ways to be disruptive as a defender – work to be there right as the ball gets to your player especially on long clear passes.
Owen Grant (#81) has been one of the best defenders in college lacrosse this past season. He can lock down match-ups, push transition, and score goals, but where I really think he shines is amidst the chaos of the game. Here is an example of him rolling into a throwback. You’ll notice the angle he takes through the passing lane to try to deter the Duke players ability to throw the extra pass. This is a very smart play to stop Duke’s ball movement to the backside; however, it does leave him susceptible to getting dodged. He uses his length and quick hands to get a quick over the head and trail check. While this isn’t something you try to teach all of your guys to do, if you have the size, game sense, and athleticism of Grant you may as well use it to be disruptive.
Next is a clip of Grant picking up a ground ball and getting an assist. Although the camera angle does not show how exactly Grant gets the step, he does beat O’Neill to this GB. He likely is aware and up on his man, reading the play here ready for a ball to trickle over. Just being ready and ball-side of your man in these scenarios can make a big difference. When pushing transition, a nice subtly from Grant is how he turns his shoulder almost looking like he is thinking about stepping in for a deep shot. This draws an early rotate from the defense and opens up his teammate for a much better shot. All poles can pick up this tactic in transition to draw early slides -- use your body language to make the defense think you will shoot.
Although we're highlighting the poles, Delaware also has short sticks that give them a great presence. Here #23 gives a great on-ball presence and forces the dodger into multiple roll-backs which is a great indicator for the poles to slide and support the match-up. Just watch how well Delaware slides, rotates around it, and plays a passing lane to get a nugget.
The final clip in this segment is just one that I think exhibits a very solid, but real, defensive possession from Delaware. It's messy, a bit disorganized, not all of the approaches are perfect, they give up a shot; however, you can tell they are playing fast, hard, and together. It is important to remember in defense you will give up shots, but you need to make the offense work for those shots. In this clip, Delaware exhibits: good pick play, good on-ball defense, a hard slide, and a good rotation. Sure, the final approach could've been a bit better, but it's easy to say that as a Monday morning quarterback (and as a reminder Duke does have some pretty good players). I just found this to be a good overall defensive possession.
Show Don’t Go, Mastering the Hedge
One thing I think Delaware does a very nice job of is “showing” when they are adjacent to the ball. Their poles have great length and game feel – they do a great job of clogging space to dangerous areas without sliding by showing (ie, hedging) adjacent. In the clip below you will see 2 instances where Owen Grant shows to #88 from Duke and takes away his ability to turn the corner for a shot, but he is still able to get back to Brennan O’Neill. He does an excellent job of staying in a sideways stance, jabbing with his right foot early, using his stick in the lane to deter the quick pass, and getting back to O’Neill as the dodger becomes a feeder. He then shows again to #2 from Duke as he attempts to turn the corner to his left hand – this simple jab can deter a dodger from committing to a dangerous area. If you maintain a great stance and posture, you can bluff dodger’s out of turning the corner.
The danger of the adjacent show is getting back cut. There is definitely an art to executing this well. Sometimes younger defenders get confused and they totally lose their man in the adjacent position if they start showing. A savvy offensive player will notice you hedging and then back cut or drift to a dangerous area. If we do opt to show, then we really need to be cognizant of where our man is by constantly turning our head and readjusting. You can see in the clip below how Grant gets a bit stuck in this show and O’Neill almost gets a goal on his cut.
Slide when needed
While the Hens do a nice job of the "show, don't go", they do slide and support when needed. A helpful way to think about slide decisions is by basing them off where a dodger is on the field and his body language in that area. Delaware supports both off of the adjacent and the crease depending on who is the best help option.
In this clip below, Delaware sends a well timed adjacent slide to a Duke dodger from X. This slide is extremely well-timed. The Duke dodger is in a dangerous area of the field and he is working the match-up by leaning into his man. Notice he has one hand on his stick which indicates he is in dodging mode and not feeding mode. The Delaware slider knows he has a small window to slide before the Duke player will be able to throw the ball. Once again, a little more control on the slide and better contain from the on-ball guy would be nice, but this slide forces the Duke dodger to play faster than he would like an ultimately rush a shot wide of the net.
Here's a good clip of Delaware sliding from the crease and rotating around it. The Hens get a great backside fill, and they re-expand back out. Although Duke gets a shot, the Delaware defensive midfielder does a nice job of forcing the ball back to where it came from. This is a good tip for guys approaching a player in tight towards the center of the field. If you can force the ball back to where it came from, then your goalie will not have to reposition as much and your help will already be loaded to that side of the field.
You could certainly dive deeper into many of these aspects and highlight more strengths that lead to Delaware's success. As a spectator of this team, my impressions are that they are a tough, disciplined, and an organized unit. Defense is never as pretty as you draw it up, but if you can play fast, tough, disciplined, and on the same page you will be tough to score against. An area I did not highlight as much is how great I think these poles are off the ground and in transition. They can handle the ball well which is extremely helpful for not allowing the offense to have multiple chances each possession. Never underestimate the power of a great stick on the defensive end.
I hope you found this helpful and enjoyable. It is extremely exciting to see more and more programs playing a very high-level of lacrosse. I have loved watching Delaware play and think the staff is doing a great job there. I know a number of HS guys I have coached will be joining the Hens in the years to come, and I think the program will continue to have success.
- Coach DUNN
We hope you found this helpful. We started First Class Lacrosse because we believe in the power player development. We believe you can get exponentially better if you combine a great work ethic with the guidance of knowing what to work on and how to do it. Luckily, we experienced it firsthand as players and coaches. Our goal is to pass on what we have learned and experienced to future generations of lacrosse players, parents, and coaches. Join our Email List here.