VERMILLION — Travis Johansen fully understands where he falls in the world of college football.
He’s a defensive guru in an offensive world.
Much like a devoted pitching coach to a baseball team, Johansen is a man who embraces the challenge of slowing down offenses in a game where fans tend to prefer high-scoring affairs and big plays.
“It’s not fun, it’s really difficult,” he said, with a smile, prior to a preseason practice at South Dakota, where Johansen is in his first season as the defensive coordinator.
And yet, he’s made it a career.
Johansen was hired away from Grand View University (Iowa), where he was the defensive coordinators for six seasons for a program that became an annual contender in the NAIA ranks.
He’s come to realize, he’ll tell you, that scheming for ways to slow down — or, with any luck, shut down — opposing offenses is an enticing challenge in today’s offensive age.
“That’s what we understand; people gravitate this game because it’s fun to watch, and the things that are fun to watch are the ball going into the end zone,” Johansen added.
“I hope to see that too, but just not against my guys.”
Johansen is also confident that the tides are turning.
Or, put another way, maybe college football is cyclical.
“Defenses are catching up and slowing things down,” said Johansen, who will make his debut for USD in today’s (Saturday) 2 p.m. season opener against Montana at the DakotaDome.
“We still think we can develop a really dominant group that causes havoc.”
That’s a philosophy that attracted USD to Johansen.
Opposing offenses averaged 430 yards and 34 points per game a year ago against the Coyotes, and while that’s not exactly horrid given the level of play in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, USD still wanted a change.
To hear head coach Bob Nielson put it, he wanted a system that could create a little more confusion for those offenses.
Here came Johansen to the rescue.
That’s exactly the kind of system he developed to success at Grand View: It’s a philosophy centered on being multiple, with a variety of looks and an emphasis on ‘positionless’ players.
“It creates the thing that I was looking for, a defensive system that makes for a difficult preparation,” Nielson said, “and I think we’ll be that kind of defensive football team this year.”
Of course, you have to adapt what you have to fit your system — in time, Johansen and the coaching staff can recruit specifically to the system.
“You have to make the best of what you have,” Johansen said.
Johansen was, though, able to get a head start with the Coyotes throughout all of spring practices, the summer months and now fall camp to work with his defensive players to adjust to the changes.
“Coach Johansen and his system is exactly that, and I’m excited about where our guys are at in their development within the system,” Nielson said.
Although Grand View was 61-11 with five conference titles and a 2013 NAIA national championship during Johansen’s tenure, it’s a whole other task to find that kind of success at the Division I level — and in the Missouri Valley.
And yes, he’s aware of that.
“That’s the thing about the Valley, there’s not a layup in the schedule,” Johansen said.
No opportunity to simplify things and hold back certain looks or schemes
“You have to be prepared for them all,” Johansen said. “It’s a heck of a league, and I think this group is ready for it.”
That defensive group at USD is headlined by senior lineman Darin Greenfield, a two-time All-American who ranks fourth in program history with 19 sacks. The Coyotes also feature a young linebacker corps led by co-captain Jack Cochrane and a veteran secondary.
In other words, Johansen had plenty to work with when he started implementing his system in Vermillion.
“As far as the versatility of what we want to do, that will continue to grow as the season progresses,” he said. “We have a lot of tools to work with to get it done.”
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