CARTHAGE — It doesn’t quite matter where Carthage football coach Jason Coffman slots in Zion Tevaga on the defense. The junior has seen snaps at defensive end and linebacker and more recently at defensive tackle, where his offensive counterpart on the other side of the line is often 100 pounds heavier than he is.
But if there’s a path to the quarterback, no matter how obstructed it may be, Tevaga’s going to find it and exploit it.
He is only the most recent pass rusher to emerge on the Carthage defense. Initially considered only an edge rusher, his playing time was limited due to both defensive end positions being filled by Miguel Blunt and Fombo Azah.
But after getting some playing time at defensive tackle against East Syracuse-Minoa last month, Tevaga showed how he can be playing a bigger role.
“He’s played defensive end for the whole year and Fombo and Blunt are so good at that, that we were just like ‘OK, Zion can play offense and we’ll just play those guys on defense, it’s no big deal,’” Coffman said. “Well against ES-M we decided we wanted to try to get a little bit of a pass rush and one of our other kids who normally spells Bubba (Null) and Anthony Lashway wasn’t in school. He had family stuff going on. So, I said ‘Hey, let’s give Zion a shot there’ and he has taken it and run with it.
“He has suddenly become in the last four weeks a huge part of our defense.”
Carthage (9-1) continues its state Class A journey tonight at 8 when it meets Section 4’s Union-Endicott (2-7) at Vestal High School.
Tevaga, Blunt and Azah have all been effective at stopping the run and sacking the passer in the backfield, and each have done so despite being completely different players.
Standing at 6-foot-4, Tevaga doesn’t quite break 200 pounds. However, his length more than makes up for it.
“He’s relentless, first of all he’s a big, long frame. Just by getting his hands up he’s in the frame,” Coffman said. “But he’s relentless, he wants to get there, he has a pretty good motor to him. As a coach, you learn things — it’s not always the first week of the season that you learn things, sometimes it’s six, seven or eight weeks in, and it was awesome, we figured it out late.”
Dealing with the strength of opposing offensive linemen is always a challenge, but one Tevaga has navigated.
“Mostly just the strength that their O-linemen have, they’re 240 or 250, I’m barely hitting 200,” Tevaga said. “It’s hard to run them over so it’s just kind of doing your moves to get into the gaps.”
Techniques like a swim move or batting down the arms of O-linemen have helped Tevaga get an edge.
Quarterbacks like Troy Churney of Auburn, Tyler Bell of ES-M and Nick Sardina and Zach Britt of Whitesboro, know all too well of Tevaga’s late-season surge.
Unfortunately for Union-Endicott, most of its snaps will come with Tevaga waiting only a few feet away, ready to pounce. Coffman doesn’t anticipate having to take his junior off the field very often.
The same won’t be said for Azah. Tevaga’s emergence has allowed Coffman to give his star running back more of a breather when the team is on defense.
“I worry about Fombo, if he’s going to get 30 touches, getting him a break where I can,” Coffman said. “With Fombo, it’s tough because he gets the ball so much and he’s so valuable on defense and so valuable on offense, we don’t want to take him out. But I’ve learned over the past couple of weeks that we really have to. There are times where he’s going to need to take a break and that’s on defense for us.”
Given the depth that Carthage has, having Azah sit during defensive series isn’t detrimental. For the last two seasons, Coffman has also been able to rely on Blunt to be an effective pass rusher.
“Being on varsity of two years, I’m used to the pace now so that helps, and being able to dominate” Blunt said.
The D-line is obviously the first line of defense on drive. When that can dominate it affects every other defensive unit.
“When the defensive line is clicking, they bring the energy that give the linebackers and safeties all their energy,” Blunt said.
When a someone gets sack or makes a big tackle the entire defense gets fired up.
“Then we can do it again and again,” Blunt said.