When Marcus Patton arrived on the campus of Tarleton State University three years ago he inherited a defense that was, for lack of a better description, arguably the worst in school history. No defense had ever surrendered more points against the Texans.
Now, Patton's defense is garnering attention for a completely different reason. The Texans defense has been dominating opponents this season in helping the team to a 4-0 record and a No. 21 national ranking in NCAA Division II by the American Football Coaches Association.
The Texans are downright stingy against the run, allowing opponents just 64.3 yards per game and a meager 1.9 per rushing attempt.
"One of the biggest things is we've got a lot of seniors and a lot of juniors, and we've been able to utilize that experience," Patton said humbly. "We tell our guys all the time that one play, one first down is not going to beat us."
Especially when they are not giving up many big plays or many first downs. In a conference known for its offense, they are 3-0 and outscoring opponents 44-18.
"The ultimate goal is to try and have more points than the other team when the game's over," Patton said, adding with a laugh, "Of course, it's easier to do that if the other team doesn't score many points."
A St. Louis native, the 36-year-old Patton came to Tarleton after success at both the high school and NCAA Division I level as a player and coach. He was a standout defensive back at Kansas State from 2000-04, helping the Wildcats to three 11-win seasons.
He became an assistant coach at Lakeland High School in Florida, helping the Dreadnaughts to 57 consecutive wins, three straight state championships and a pair of national titles.
But like most assistant coaches, his ultimate goal is to be a head coach some day. To do that, he felt he must coach at the college level.
"My dream has been to coach in the NFL. It was a tough decision to leave Lakeland. I loved that place," he said. "But I had to take another step to pursue that dream."
So he left for the University of South Florida as a defensive assistant. He came to Tarleton after spending the 2014-15 seasons as defensive coordinator at Colorado Mesa. In 2015 his Mavericks defense was among the best in the nation, finishing in the top 10 in the country in multiple categories.
In all, his college coaching experience also includes assistant stints at Fairmont State, UCLA, and Indiana State.
It didn't take long for him to make his mark at Tarleton. In his first season the Texans saw an improvement of 121 yards and 14 points per game. The season's highlight was a 26-16 road victory against Eastern New Mexico, when the Texans held the nation's No. 2 rushing offense under 100 yards.
He coached former Texans linebacker Cody Burtscher to one of the most decorated seasons in team history. As a senior, Burtscher was named first-team All-Lone Star Conference, All-Region, All-America, and the LSC Linebacker of the Year.
That season was followed by the Texans being among the top four in the LSC in 2017. They held six of their dozen opponents to 24 points or less, including a 28-6 win over Western Oregon in homecoming. That team was led by defensive tackle Tyrell Thompson, now a senior, who was named a Don Hansen honorable mention All-American.
Patton credits much of his success to simply having a grasp on the fundamentals of the game. As long as a player holds onto those, he said, they have a foundation from which to improve.
“He brings a common sense approach. He doesn’t try to overthink and over-complicate things. He just asks our young men to do the simple, fundamental things very well,” Texans head coach Todd Whitten said.
"When you play fundamental football you give yourself a chance in the important aspects of the game," he said. "Their guys are on scholarship too, so we know they can play, but if we focus on doing things right, the hope is when the game is over we will have made more smart, good plays than the other team.
"With fundamentals you can more easily put mistakes behind you."
And in this conference, Patton notes, there will be plenty of chances to make mistakes.
"Angelo State had 116 snaps against Midwestern. That's basically a game and a half," he said. "That's a lot of chances to score. The way football is today, with today's talent, teams are going to score. But I'd rather give up 40 points and win than 10 points and lose."
Another reason for the Texans' defensive success, Patton said, is a lack of egos. That is supported by their stats, which show 19 players with at least one tackle for a loss (led by junior lineman Chris Radford with 7.5, senior lineman Gary Moore with 4.5, and junior lineman Jordan Phillips with 4.5) and 10 players with at least one sack (led by Radford with 4 and Moore with 2.5).
Six players have at least 20 tackles, sophomore linebacker Ronnell Wilson (25), junior defensive back Jai Edwards (25), junior defensive back Ed Hayes (24), sophomore defensive back Tre Johnson (22), junior defensive back Prince Robinson (20), and junior linebacker Chadwick Thibodeaux (20).
The Texans have also forced a dozen turnovers through four games, including 10 interceptions. Robinson leads with four, while junior defensive back Devin Hafford has three, and Edwards has two.
"A lot of times when NFL scouts break down films, they look at a lot more than stats," Patton said. "It's about being fundamentally sound, being a part of the team and fitting in with that scheme."
Patton should know. He has had over 10 former players go on to play in the NFL, and was responsible for recruiting even more that went on to play professionally.
Patton said he took the Tarleton job for a variety of reasons. He joins another former Wildcat on the staff, Jonathan Beasley. He was also a student-athlete when Tarleton's Assistant Athletic Director for Athletic Performance Rod Cole was the Kansas State strength and conditioning coach.
Also, Patton said, "I love food, football, and the south with its weather. The combination here in Texas, I couldn't turn away."
He also couldn't deny himself the challenge of turning the Texans around on defense. And he wanted to learn from Whitten, whom he considers one of the game's best coaches.
"The thing that drew me most was coach Whitten and the way he views the game of football," Patton said.
As for Patton becoming a head coach, Whitten said he's confident he'll be a great one when the time arrives.
“Absolutely. He has a great feel for the kids and they really respect him. He also has a great understanding for college football,” Whitten said.
And though Whitten knows someday he'll say goodbye to Patton, in the meantime he's excited about this season and what lies ahead.
“I think we have a very bright future defensively. We have made a lot of big plays defensively over the last three seasons and our defense, thus far, has been very explosive this year," he said. "I think if our defense, as well as all of our young men, continue to put the team first and play for each other and improve each week then the ceiling is very high for our football team.”
But Patton is in no hurry to leave, he said. He wants to make sure he's ready for being at the helm when that opportunity presents itself.
"I feel like a lot of head coaches are walking into opportunities and they're just not ready," he said. "They're not bad coaches, they're just not ready. If they'd been more patient, maybe things would turn out differently.
"I'm going to keep doing my best to be the best defensive coordinator I can be, and when I get my opportunity, I want to be sure I'm ready so I can build a good program, like the great programs I've been fortunate to be a part of."