Coach Mike Melnyk borrows from Michigan, Wisconsin to revamp Mt. Lebanon’s defense
Every football team enters camp with questions that need answers, and Mt. Lebanon is no exception.
“My new defensive coordinator is a question mark,” Mt. Lebanon coach Mike Melnyk said with a laugh. “That’s me.”
Melnyk focused more on Mt. Lebanon’s offense in his first six seasons with the team, but this fall he’ll call defensive plays for the first time in almost 20 years. His defensive coordinator resigned after last season, when Mt. Lebo finished 6-5 and lost in the WPIAL first round, so Melnyk decided to switch sides of the ball.
“I like to be on the cutting edge of football,” Melnyk said. “As an offensive guy, I know what has given us problems. So rather than hire somebody and then say, ‘Here is what I want you to do.’ I said, you know what, I’m going to do it myself. I think it’s gone OK so far. We’ll see. I’ve got nobody to blame but myself.”
To prepare, Melnyk used his connections and took trips to Michigan and Wisconsin, learning from them how Big 10 teams are scheming on defense nowadays. Melnyk was a kicker at Michigan in the 1980s under Bo Schembechler, and ex-Mt. Lebanon coach Chris Haering is a Badgers assistant on Paul Chryst’s staff.
Mt. Lebanon played last season with a base defense of four linemen, two linebackers and five backs. This year, there will be more variety, more aggression and ideally more turnovers.
“Without giving away too much information, if you just sit in base and the offense knows what you’re going to be in every formation, they’ll pick you apart,” Melnyk said. “They can (run-pass option) you. They can isolate a guy, and that guy really can’t be right (in his defensive decisions). If he does this, then they do that.
“So defensively you have to be more aggressive,” he added. “You see a lot of teams now trying to attack on defense, they’re trying to be a little unpredictable, trying to create negative plays and get turnovers.”
Melnyk introduced his players to the defense during the offseason and employed parts at seven-on-seven camps.
“I’m really excited for it,” senior outside linebacker Michael Palmer said. “Last year, I thought we had a pretty decent year. Our offense really killed it, and we were one of the top teams in the WPIAL scoring-wise. But our defense was just kind of mediocre, I’d say. I feel like this is something that could really help.”
Mt. Lebanon’s offense averaged 29.8 points last season, which ranked fourth among WPIAL Class 6A teams.
The Blue Devils graduated 1,900-yard passer James Stocker and record-setting wideout Aidan Cain, but they return backup quarterback Seth Morgan, who threw for 1,200 yards. Wide receiver Lucas DeCaro (43 receptions) also returns, so the offense should be solid again.
That allowed Melnyk to shift his attention to a defense that allowed 27.6 points per game, ninth-worst among the 14 teams in 6A.
“It’s already made a pretty big impact,” Palmer said. “He really changed our defense. At first it was pretty tough to grasp. The last two years I was taught certain things, and now I’m told to do those things differently. But he’s got a good concept going, and we’re really starting to put it all together now.”
Palmer led the team in tackles last season and also made a team-best five interceptions. Now a two-way player, he’ll see carries in the backfield along with junior Sam Rolfsen, a fellow linebacker/tailback.
All-conference defensive back Mason Ventrone returns as a junior.
Nathan Hughes and Michael Freilino are back as interior linemen but the team graduated two tackles who were Division I college recruits. Three juniors, J.B. Nelson (6-5, 250), Max Baker (6-1, 230) and Tom Peters (6-5, 245), are options to replace them.
“They’ll be cutting their teeth and we’ll see how they do,” Melnyk said.
A year ago there were two conferences in WPIAL Class 6A and now there’s only one. Mt. Lebanon and others from the Southeastern are combined with teams from the powerful Northern Seven, which features recent WPIAL champions Pine-Richland, Central Catholic and North Allegheny.
“It’s definitely going to be a challenge, because last year and the year before, the northern conference was really a stacked conference,” Palmer said. “But we know that we can definitely compete with them.”
The new defense was crafted with these new opponents in mind, Melnyk said.
“One of the reasons I moved to Pittsburgh was we were looking forward to playing the best of the best,” said Melnyk, who coached 13 seasons at Manheim Township in Lancaster County. “You’re playing in a conference with Pine and NA and Central Catholic. All three of those teams have been in the state championship game since I’ve been here in the last six years. This is the best of the best in Pennsylvania.”
Coach: Mike Melnyk
2017 record: 6-5, 5-1
All-time record: 582-270-30
Date, Opponent, Time
8.24, Gateway, 7:30 p.m.
8.31, Canon-McMillan*, 7:30 p.m.
9.7, at Butler*, 7:30 p.m.
9.14, at Seneca Valley*, 7:30 p.m.
9.21, North Allegheny*, 7:30 p.m.
9.28, at Hempfield*, 7 p.m.
10.5, Upper St. Clair, 7:30 p.m.
10.12, at Pine-Richland*, 7:30 p.m.
10.19, Norwin*, 7:30 p.m.
10.26, at Central Catholic*, 7:30 p.m.
*Class 6A Conference game
Passing: James Stocker*
117-207, 1,949 yards, 12 TDs
Rushing: Antonio LaSota*
156-694 yards, 6 TDs
Receiving: Aidan Cain*
101-1,749 yards, 14 TDs
Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at email@example.com or via Twitter @CHarlan_Trib.