NESCAC quarterbacks know that they risk disaster every time they drop back against Amherst. Over the past few years, The Jeffs have been far and away the best at creating interceptions. They led the league in both 2013 and 2014, totaling 37 interceptions over that time. The finest moment for the group was against Middlebury in 2013 when they intercepted Mac Foote ’14 five times in a 37-16 beatdown. This year Amherst brings back three longtime starters, seniors Jaymie Spears ’16, Jimmy Fairfield-Sonn ’16, and Chris Gow ’16. Those three represented the backbone of the secondary a year ago, and this year they will be the driving force for a defensive unit that is looking to improve despite losing a few key pieces.
All three of Gow, Spears and Fairfield-Sonn have become integral parts of the defense over the years. Their strengths and skill sets vary widely, allowing the defensive staff to rely on each of them to fill in a specific role that makes the group together so good. For Head Coach EJ Mills, how the pieces fit together is what makes this trio so good.
“As good as they are individually, their greatest strength is how they play together as a unit,” Mills says.
Each of the three remind me of some NFL or college stars. Even though they play slightly different positions, the best comparison I have for Fairfield-Sonn is former LSU and current Arizona Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu because of how they attack at the line of scrimmage and have a knack for the ball. Fairfield-Sonn had four total turnovers last year, two on interceptions and two on fumble recoveries. From his strong safety position, Fairfield-Sonn has the freedom to read what is in front of him. Yet Coach Mills was quick to add that Fairfield-Sonn is instinctive enough that he always makes the right read and doesn’t get beaten deep because of his aggression. That aggression is not just on the field, but it carries over to pregame. Fairfield-Sonn describes himself as the “energy and hype guy” who gets his teammates going in the locker room and right before the game. That he is one of the smallest players on the field at 5’10” and 175 pounds (I suspect that height might be an exaggeration too) makes no difference.
Then there is the brain in the back, free safety Chris Gow. He is in charge of making all of the coverage calls on the field. When the offense tries to catch the Jeffs off balance with motion, Gow is the player who makes the adjustment calls. Fairfield-Sonn compared him to Earl Thomas, the safety for the Seattle Seahawks, because of Gow’s defensive quarterback tendencies. I shouldn’t undersell his athletic abilities either. He has the speed to cover a lot of ground in the back end, and he is physical enough that he led the Jeffs in tackles last week against Bates. He had four interceptions a year ago, including one against Trinity where the Bantams tried to take a shot deep but were foiled by Gow.
As for the most decorated member of the secondary, Jaymie Spears … Coach Mills just chuckled when asked about him. What he kept coming back to is best summed up by University of Miami player Santana Moss.
Big time players step up in big games.
Simple as that.
Not really, of course. Spears does a million things well on the football field, and one of them is that he rises the occasion at the best possible moment. Spears has started for Amherst since his sophomore year and over that time has become a star. In 2013 against Middlebury, it was Spears who returned an interception 74 yards for a touchdown to put the nail in the coffin. It was last year when Spears became a force to be fully reckoned with. He had six interceptions and eight pass breakups, and it was his exceptional timing that made the biggest difference. Not even five minutes into the 2014 season, Spears blocked a Bates field goal to keep the game scoreless. In the third quarter, one play after Bates had intercepted Alex Berluti ’17 at the Amherst 30-yard line, Spears snagged his second interception of the game to keep the Bobcats at bay. Then in the biggest game of the year against Wesleyan, Spears blocked an extra point which ended up giving Amherst the chance to make a field goal to tie the game at the end of regulation.
Spears is one of the most athletic players in the league, but at the corner position that takes you only so far. Mills said that Spears watches as much film as anybody on Amherst, and he picks up on receivers tendencies very well. That combination allows him to always stay balanced and in control. The obvious comparison for him is Darrelle Revis, but Richard Sherman might be a better one because Spears always stays to one side of the field in Amherst’s defensive scheme. Fairfield-Sonn noted that because Spears is the boundary corner, he often lines up next to the opposing sideline and gets trash talked a good amount. “But Jaymie lets his play do all the talking for him,” Fairfield-Sonn says.
The final spot of the field corner is filled by Stefan Soucy ’17, a part-time player last year who replaces Ryan Duzyk ’15. Soucy looks more like a safety than a corner at 6’1″ and 210 pounds, but he still has the athleticism to stay with receivers. And the pipe line of talented defensive backs is strong with Brown transfer Kyle Obana ’18 and Nate Tyrell ’19 both potential starters next year.
As good as this secondary is, they still have their warts. A good counter-argument can be raised that the current Jeffs secondary is overrated and has gotten lucky. Against Middlebury last year, a rainstorm made throwing the ball very difficult, and so we did not get to see what Matt Milano ’16 could do against the Jeffs. Trinity also was without starting QB Henry Foye ’16 last year which meant they were left without a capable thrower on the roster. Then, as further evidence, you could point to the game that Wesleyan’s Jesse Warren ’15 had last season. He was able to gash the Jeffs’ secondary for big gains, finishing with two touchdowns and 306 yards on just 26 attempts (11.8 yards per attempt). Amherst intercepted him just once, though the Fairfield-Sonn interception did lead to a short field and an Amherst touchdown.
They were only third in the NESCAC in pass defense behind Wesleyan and Williams a year ago. However, both of those secondaries have to replace a significant amount of personnel. The Williams secondary also benefited from the fact that they trailed in a lot of games and so teams wanted to run the ball against them.
On Saturday the Amherst defense held Bates to 117 passing yards and had no interceptions: not an exceptional performance against the run-heavy Bobcats. The game tells us little about what the Jeffs are capable of, though the ability of the one true receiver threat for Bates, Mark Riley ’16, to catch seven balls for 87 yards is troubling.
The arguments against the Amherst secondary are fair ones, but the strengths of the Jeffs drown them out. Passing windows against them are narrow to non-existent, and the possibilities for all three seniors are huge. Mills has seen his fair share of elite secondaries at Amherst, and he was excited about the possibilities for this group.
“I don’t want to call them the best unit I’ve had back there, but they have a chance to be very very good this year,” Mills admitted.
In the next couple of weeks the Jeffs will enter the meat of their schedule against Middlebury and Wesleyan, and that secondary will be called on to live up to the high standards they have set over the years in big moments.