Ric Beardsley: Making defense great again

Ric Beardsley (Photo: Ric Beardsley Twitter)
Ric Beardsley (Photo: Ric Beardsley Twitter)

Ric Beardsley, legendary Syracuse defenseman and current coach, was one of the best to ever play at his position. A four-time All-American, he was known for his ability to throw devastating checks, make incredible passes and shut-down stellar attackmen. He was a player kids tried to emulate.

During Beardsley’s playing days, collegiate teams like Syracuse, Hopkins, UVA and Maryland benefitted from national exposure. Watching their defensemen provided a wealth of knowledge. Their players were masters at throwing multiple checks, playing smart position defense using their footwork, causing turnovers and generating offense. These one-on-one matchups were intense, cerebral and violent. Players like Beardsley, Gerry Byrne, Pat McCabe, Sid Smith and Dave Pietramala took on a Michael Jordan-like quality. As seasons and years progressed, that type of defense gave way to the slide-and-recover scheme, pack-it-in zone defenses, and playing it safe. The hitting and physicality that was a staple of field lacrosse was suddenly deemed dirty and outlawed. Some of the sports’ luster seemed to fade as offense took a dominant role.

No shortage of incredible defensemen exist today with athletes and shut-down machines like Tucker Durkin, Mike Manley, Brodie Merrill, Michael Evans, Kyle Hartzell and Scott Ratliff, but they play safe lacrosse as a default.

Beardsley has made a commitment to “make lacrosse defense great again.” In the following interview, he outlines his plan.

Ric Beardsley with some of his athletes on National Letter of Intent Day. (Photo: Ric Beardsley Instagram)
Ric Beardsley with some of his athletes on National Letter of Intent Day. (Photo: Ric Beardsley Instagram)

Ric, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. First and foremost, what has happened to the defense in field lacrosse? 

Asking what has happened to the defense may sound a bit harsh. Lacrosse is still lacrosse and a great game like it was 20 years ago. That said, the game has changed, due to so many factors. I could speak for 20 minutes about the changes, but to get to the point, why defense has changed is due to coaching. It’s not that defensive coaches aren’t good at their jobs, but offense is now the focal point for many coaches. I think the advances on the offensive end of the field far outweigh the advances on the defensive end. My focus is to #MDGA or Make Defense Great Again, not by just teaching stick-checks to the masses via social media and clinics, but to truly educate defenseman on how to play one-on-one in a system and have fun doing it. I have many game-like drills that have to do with taking the disadvantages the defense has in a one-on-one situation, those being that you cannot read minds and you don’t have ball. I think the lack of focus on the defensive end of the field as a place to generate offense and excitement makes the game boring and plays into the hands of offensive coordinators.

When did you realize that something needed to be done to get the defense back on track? 

There needs to be a push for coaches to want to learn how the old school can blend and be tweaked into new school thinking on the defense side of the ball. My success on the field is really due to the fact that I am a big student of the game. If you don’t focus on both sides of the ball, how can you make kids want to play defense?

What do you feel are the major differences between the defense played now as opposed to your playing days at Syracuse? 

It is a system/unit versus individual. We took pride in our matchups weekly and daily in practice. We took risks and tried to create chaos as much as possible. It is like Nick Saban’s philosophy: you take a five-star linebacker and coach around his skills; you don’t make him fit into a system. You don’t take an aggressive on-ball defender in lacrosse and hold him back: you unleash him! Players will make mistakes, but coaches try to govern those mistakes by micromanaging players. Let them be creative; let them play.

Has the infusion of box players into the field game or rules favouring the offense because of the belief that goals put fans in the seats given offense the edge? 

That’s not something you can fight as a defenseman. You have to embrace the game changes and rules and work to make yourself effective in that arena. If you are coached correctly, you can play versus box players in field the correct way and exploit the things they give you with that style of play. Again, this leads back to coaching matchups as well as the system.

Shot clock opponents claim that the implementation of a shot clock will lead to more pack-it-in defense and the offense will rush and only get poor shots. The MLL doesn’t seem to have a problem scoring points with a shot clock. I contend that defenses need to put more pressure on the offense early in a shot clock to generate turnovers. What are your thoughts on shot clocks and defenses? 

I think the MLL is exciting and fast paced. I think you could have just as many exciting defense players on the field if they were coached to be more free in college. I think the MLL is IDEAL for a great defenseman.

Beardsley during a clinic. (Photo: Ric Beardsley Instagram)
Beardsley during a clinic. (Photo: Ric Beardsley Instagram)

What needs to be done to make our sports’ defense great again? Can you break down the main principles of great defense? 

Coaching. Start to coach some excitement. Also, don’t just hand the biggest kid on the field a long stick. Get the most athletic kid and the most aggressive kid on the field a long stick. Teach them it’s OK to take a penalty every once-in-a-while. Isn’t that why we practice man-up and man-down in daily practices? Also, give young players a long stick first! Cut the stick down for their size. We lose guys who maybe would be great with a long stick because we choose to give players short sticks first.

How will this movement sit with coaches who like to play the substitution game and rely on defensive schemes rather than skilled players? 

If you have a great pole who can score between the lines and create offense you can take chances and have a unit behind them do all the team defense stuff.

For those players that can’t make it to upstate New York for a clinic do you have any social media training programs available? 

I post on Instagram and YouTube as much as possible but with the winters being so harsh here it’s tough to get the time and space to do videos each week. However, I will be going around the U.S. doing #MGDA clinics in the next year. One thing I think is funny, yet great, is how many other coaches are now doing videos and posting them. My clinics and philosophy cover more than checks; we cover how to break down the attackmen, attitude toward the unit and individual defensive match-ups, footwork, recovery and check recovery. Am I a miracle worker? No, but for some reason college coaches pick my brain all the time about my thoughts on defense. I am going to MAKE DEFENSE GREAT AGAIN!