This defense never rests

04/18/02 Sioux Falls Argus Leader
Secondary unit propels team to fast start in NIFL

Picture right Val Hoeppner/Argus Leader
Storm defensive backs Todd Tryon, Bobby Perkins and Philip Wilson (from left) hold up five fingers to symbolize the 15 interceptions the Sioux Falls Storm defense snared in its first four games - a total that grew to 17 in Sunday's loss at Sioux City

At least once a quarter, you'll see them play a bet-the-farm hunch that would make an old-school coach gag on his whistle. And to be sure, they have paid, and will pay, the price: Getting roasted by a slippery wideout is one of the pitfalls of being a Sioux Falls Storm defensive back.

But those occasional failures are usually washed away by a steady stream of triumphs. Over the first five games of the NIFL season, cornerbacks Todd Tryon and Shannon Poppinga and safeties Bobby Perkins and Philip Wilson have established themselves as the circling sharks of a very dangerous defense.

The Storm's most noteworthy numbers are likely its 4-1 record and league-high 17 interceptions. And the DBs have been vital in both departments.

"I'd rather put the game in our hands," Perkins said. "I think we're up to that challenge week-to-week."

And sure enough, that's the design of the Storm's scheme. Fronted by its stout defensive line and tailback-eating linebacker Don Hilsenroth, Sioux Falls' first goal is to bottle up the opposition's running game.

With that accomplished, the opponent is then forced to go to the air - and match wits with the defensive backs. In that battle, the Storm uses two weapons: confusion and gambles.

First, the confusion. Sioux Falls coach Mike Aldrich, the architect of the defense, says that most NIFL teams play three or four coverage's per game. His group often cycles through 10-to-12, all of which are designed to give quarterbacks false reads.

"The coverage's are simple, but the looks are deceiving," Aldrich said. "To a quarterback who is trying to read things on the run, it can be confusing."

Then there's the gambling. All four of these players are in their third season of indoor football, so they've learned what risks the 50-by-28-yard field permits. They've found that relying on conservative coverage's is usually a losing proposition.

Plus, Perkins pointed out, even a risk that backfires isn't that awful in this brand of football.

"Getting burnt on a 100-yard field is terrible," he said. "Even people in the parking lot know what happened. But in arena ball, it happens, it's done, it's over with - next play."

The quarterback

Perkins knows all about the risk-and-reward ratio of this game. Over the previous two seasons, he has snared 20 interceptions - which might be the loftiest total at any level of pro football over that time frame.

Of the four, he's the nerviest. That's one reason Aldrich moved him from cornerback to free safety this season. At his new position, Perkins' ball-hawking intuition is more likely to pay off. (After a slow start to the season, he has piled up four interceptions.)

His judgment is one of the keys to the unit's potency. At his new spot, Perkins is responsible for pre-play coverage alterations.

"He's our quarterback in the secondary," Aldrich said. "... And he does a lot more of that than the guys we've had at that position in the past."

A native of Los Angeles, the sharp-tongued 28-year-old played his college ball at the University of South Dakota. After graduating in 1998, he had a number of brushes with various pro teams, but never caught on.

That, however, wasn't why he came to USD.

"I came out here to get my degree," Perkins said. "That was my main concern - not moving on to some higher level of football."

But he never lost his taste for the game. So when the Sioux Falls Cobras were established in 2000, he was one of the first to join. He is part of a foundation of veterans who are in their third season with Sioux Falls.

The standard NIFL salary is $200 per game, and that, of course, isn't why Perkins plays.

"It's just for the love of the game," he said. "Until they find someone better to take my position, I'm going to keep playing."

The retread

An Achilles tendon injury put him on the shelf for most of last season, and when he was healthy again, his team, the Sioux City Bandits, didn't want him back. Retirement seemed like the logical choice.

But as the season approached, Philip Wilson felt the tug of the game. And with Perkins, a friend and
fellow USD alum, offering him an in with the Storm, he decided to suit up.

"I've been doing this sport for 18 years straight - since I was 9 years old," said Wilson, a native of Fernandina Beach, Fla. "Football is my life, but you have to know when to say when.

"But I'm not ready to say when yet."

He proved that in his wildly successful home debut, reeling in three interception in the first half against Billings. Wilson has a team-high five thefts thus far.

For the Bandits, Wilson played free safety, but now lines up at strong safety for the Storm. Since he is capable of either position, he and Perkins often swap responsibilities - providing another layer of trickery for quarterbacks to ponder.

Wilson, 27, plans to move back to Florida after the season, so this will likely be his one and only Storm campaign. But he's probably not done with football.

"We've got 30 years to have a regular job, but football is only going to be here for maybe five years," Wilson said. "I'm going to make sure to use that time up."

The utility man

He started his college career as a quarterback, then transformed into a pass catcher. He's the Storm's long snapper and, in a pinch, plays a little offense. And he has the physique of a bodybuilder.

But if you have to tie Todd Tryon to one designation, it would be cornerback. Powerful and aggressive, he favors full-bodied battles with receivers, and that has helped him collect three interceptions this season.

After graduating from Carroll (Iowa) High School, Tryon came to USD as a quarterback. But after one redshirt season, he jumped to Buena Vista University in northwestern Iowa, where he played both wideout and cornerback.

Tryon said that when he joined the Cobras in 2000, coach Aaron Bentley wasn't sure what to make of the small-school stalwart. To earn playing time, he volunteered for any task, gradually becoming a DB.

With his wideout experience, Tryon's gambles are often based on jumping patterns that look familiar. And it doesn't hurt that he's built like a clydesdale.

"I bust my ass two hours a day in the weight room, and my brother (Lynn) has the same mentality," said Tryon, whose brother is a Storm wideout, and equally buff. "And we're blessed with genetics."

The 27-year-old sells fitness supplements in his full-time work and his wife is a teacher in Brandon Valley. So football is a hobby - and he has no aspirations of making it a career.

"That never crosses my mind," Tryon said. "I just take advantage of the opportunity that's in front of me. ... This is really about having fun."

The technician

If you're looking for the unit's straight man, it's Shannon Poppinga. Even his job is stable: He's a history/geography/P.E. teacher in the pinprick town of Gregory, located about three hours southwest of Sioux Falls.

By his own admission, the 24-year-old cornerback takes the fewest risks of anyone in the Storm secondary. His calling card is textbook coverage, which has earned him that title of "technician."

Poppinga is a bit of a late comer to cornerback. During his time at Harrisburg High, learning pass-coverage philosophy wasn't that important.

"I came to Augustana as an offensive-minded person," he said. "Since I really didn't know much about (coverage), I had to study it very closely."

When Poppinga began his teaching job in Gregory this school year, he didn't plan on playing football. But the Storm coaches and players convinced him to join as a game-only player. (He rarely practices with the team.)

This situation has required some adjustments. Poppinga said it took some time to get a feel for Perkins' coverage calls. But he feels more comfortable each week.

Meanwhile, Poppinga's fellow defensive backs don't see too much trouble with this arrangement.

"It kind of goes back to the experience," Tryon said. "We've played with him for three years, so I don't think it's as big a deal as if he was a rookie."

Football has to compete with hunting and fishing for Poppinga's spare time. In fact, his doesn't have a powerful need to play.

"We have a bunch of South Dakota guys, so that makes it fun. If it wasn't all those guys put together on this team, I probably wouldn't play."

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