By Kyle LoJacono
The Gaither football team has become known for its defense.
The Cowboys (3-1) allowed just 16.25 points per game last season, a year that saw them go 9-4 and make the second regional finals appearance in the school’s 28-year history.
The defense has trimmed that points allowed average to 12.75 through the first four games of this season. The unit has held opponents to single-digit points in seven of their last 17 contests, including four shutouts.
“We really leaned on our defense a lot last year, and even this year,” said Gaither second-year coach Jason Stokes.
The architect of that oppressive defense is someone who once suited up in the Cowboys’ silver, white and blue under the lights on Friday nights — 2002 Gaither graduate Brian DelValle.
The defensive coordinator began his football journey on the fields of the Lutz Chiefs at age 10. He was originally an offensive lineman and linebacker, but moved exclusively to the defense in high school.
The Cowboys went 1-9 during DelValle’s freshman year, but improved to 7-5 the following season and made the second round of the playoffs.
DelValle started playing more as a junior, which was one of the most successful seasons in Gaither history. The squad set a program record with 11 wins to just two losses and made the regional finals.
DelValle said he learned a lot about coaching while playing both inside and outside linebacker.
“I didn’t know I was going to be a coach until my senior year,” DelValle said. “My dad (Milo) coached in the late ‘80s at Tampa Bay Tech and coached me a little bit in little league. My junior year I had a really good head coach and defensive coordinator (Howie DeCristofaro), and he really taught me how to be a student of the game.”
DelValle had the chance to walk-on at some smaller colleges, such as Webber International University, but decided to jump right into coaching.
“I was just an average football player,” DelValle said. “When I graduated I wanted to get back into it as a coach. Joe Severino was at King, and he used to coach me in little league. I told him I’d like to coach, and he needed an assistant. I went over there when I was going to college. I thought I was going to be a junior varsity defensive assistant, but the first day there was no other defensive coach. That made me the JV defensive coordinator.”
He remained the JV defensive coordinator for two years before serving as King’s varsity defensive backs coach from 2004 to 2005.
“I was at King, but it wasn’t my alma mater,” DelValle said. “I’m glad I didn’t come back here right out of high school. Then I still knew all the players, so it probably wouldn’t have worked as well.”
That return came in 2006. He was the Cowboys outside linebackers coach for three years before taking over as the defensive coordinator, but decided to head north of the county line for the 2010 season.
DelValle was the co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach at Land O’ Lakes in 2010, a season that saw the Gators go 9-2 on the field with a playoff appearance.
“I left and went to Land O’ Lakes, which was good for me,” DelValle said. “I got away from here for a year, and met a couple good coaches over there. Being in a different county in a different scenery let me see a different group of teams.”
Land O’ Lakes allowed 14.18 points while averaging seven sacks that year. The Gators used a blitz-heavy defensive attack that year, a philosophy DelValle believes in.
“I just loved blitzing when I played, and you can tell it’s usually the linebackers who make a lot of plays on my defense,” DelValle said. “The defense changes week to week based on the other team, but we always blitz.”
DelValle returned to Gaither in 2011 when Stokes took over the program.
“He seemed genuine, but you need to be more than a good guy,” Stokes said. “You have to know what you’re doing, so I did some research through some guys who coached with him. Everything came back A+. I brought him on, and he’s been dependable and forward thinking with his defense. I’m really happy with him.”
His defensive knowledge came in handy when Stokes had to direct much of his attention to the offense after taking over play calling in Week 2 last year.
“Ever since I had to take over the offense, he’s been like the head coach of the defense,” Stokes said. “I trust that he’s going to do the right thing. … He’s smart and very prepared. He watches a lot of film and knows the other team’s tendencies. The biggest thing is he knows what his players can do, and he doesn’t put guys in positions where they can’t make plays.”
His players have been doing just that.
The Cowboys have forced eight turnovers and recorded 13 sacks through the first four games this season despite massive turnover from the year before.
The defense lost about half its starters to graduation, including four who signed to play in college. DelValle moved up some reserves into the starting lineup, shifted some players’ positions and even went to Gaither’s offense for reinforcement in the form of senior Dom Neglio.
Neglio (33 tackles) played running back the last three years, but moved to inside linebacker after DelValle told him he could fill a need.
“I played defense in little league, so it wasn’t too hard of a transition learning from coach DelValle,” Neglio said. “I always saw the intensity the defense brought every day in practice. … In every drill he makes sure we know our assignment because if we do that we can be aggressive and make plays.”
Junior outside linebacker Matt Williams (32 tackles, one forced fumble) has learned from DelValle the last three seasons.
“He worked with me on my tackling form, and that’s really made me a better tackler,” Williams said. “He’s a great teacher. The whole defense trusts in coach DelValle. He’s going to get us to where we need to be.”
Williams said the fact that DelValle was on one of the most successful teams in Gaither history is an added benefit.
“I feel like there was a gap from when he graduated until now,” Williams said. “There’s great chemistry going on because he knows how the players feel and how we develop because he’s not even 30 years old. He’s able to bond with his players, but he means business.”
DelValle said the biggest tool he has in building defenses is the work done with his players’ minds.
“Watching film, knowing what to look for and knowing what the other team wants to do is what I try to push on them,” DelValle said. “That way, on Friday night, they’re confident because there’s nothing the other team can do that they haven’t seen.”
Stokes said the players respond to his methods.
“He’s younger, which helps out a little bit I think, but at the same time he commands their respect,” Stokes said. “They see the job he does. He gets excited, and they feed off of that.”
Stokes did credit one other person for the defense’s success.
“I do want to thank his wife (Samantha) for letting us have him,” Stokes said. “He just got married, so newlywed as a defensive coordinator is a lot of time away from home, so I thank her.”
Gaither travels to district rival Steinbrenner on Oct. 5 at 7:30 p.m.
—Stats as recorded to Maxpreps.com by coaches