In his previous stops at Sonoma State and Mendocino College, it was not uncommon for Santa Rosa Junior College defensive coordinator Lenny Wagner to oversee one of the nation’s top-ranked defenses.
In 1999, for example, when he was the head coach at Mendocino, the Eagles’ defense ranked second nationally and limited opponents to 48.2 rushing yards a game.
Since he arrived at SRJC in 2000, however, none of his defenses have come close to reaching such a lofty level.
And they probably never will.
No, Wagner hasn’t lost his magic in Santa Rosa.
He just happens to be a defensive coordinator at a school that uses a pass-all-the-time spread offense, a system sure to makes its defense look ordinary, at least statistically speaking.
Because SRJC rarely runs, its offense has mastered the two-minute scoring drive or, on occasion, the three-incompletions-and-out drive that takes about 17 seconds off the clock.
As a result, the Bear Cubs’ defense typically stays on the field for just under an eternity. To combat fatigue, Wagner says he basically uses two defenses, meaning no SRJC defensive player — no matter how talented — plays every snap. Safety Scott Ware, who was a two-year starter and won a national title at USC, was routinely rotated out of games when he played for the Bear Cubs.
In 2006, SRJC had what Wagner has termed perhaps his best defense. Defensive lineman Koa Misi signed with Utah, cornerback Marquis Hundley signed with Arizona and cornerback Roy Hurst signed with Utah State.
Yet the Bear Cubs’ numbers — 24.1 points and 296.6 yards allowed a game — didn’t rank among the top 20 in the state.
I’ve often wondered about how Wagner feels about leading a defense that in some ways is always operating at a disadvantage and is always overshadowed by an explosive offense.
I asked him about it this week. And, honestly, I wasn’t expecting much. I prepared to get some canned as-long-as-we-win-I-don’t-care-how-we-do-it stuff, but Wagner surprised me. He was refreshingly candid.
Does it bother him? Yes, it kind of does.
“It’s hard not to let it a little bit,” Wagner said. “(SRJC head coach Keith Simons) is always talking about how (the offense) is at the top of the statistics ” ‘We’re No. 1. We’re No. 1.’ I’m like, ‘Thanks.'”
Wagner, of course, can’t make the same claim.
He understands that some people will look at his defense’s numbers and assume it — or he — isn’t any good. So he takes comfort in knowing that his peers understand the situation.
“I have to kind of remind myself that guys that know what’s up, they aren’t thinking that we’re not doing a good job,” Wagner said. “You look at any defense that has an offense like this and, statistically, they’re probably a little higher than a pound-it-out team that has two backs and runs the clock the whole game. So, yeah, I guess it bothers me a little bit. But it’s just a fact that we’re going to be on the field a lot and we kind of embrace that challenge.”
Wagner takes pains to talk up that challenge to his players. He doesn’t want them to know he finds the situation even mildly bothersome (hopefully they don’t read college blogs) and he reminds them they have some control over how much they stay on the field.
“We kind of embrace it and we say ‘Hey, this is how we do it here. This is our challenge and that’s just the way life is,'” Wagner said. “It would be nice to give up 100 yards a game, but the botton line is if we want to get off the field we have to do some stopping of the other team, too.”