- Free Agency
“You must be running out of things to write about,” says DeVone Claybrooks, laughing.
Not at all, I assure him. Been wanting to write about him for a few weeks, I tell him. With Claybrooks and the Calgary Stampeders heading for Toronto and a Thanksgiving matchup on Monday, now seems the right time to highlight the first-year Calgary defensive coordinator and what he’s accomplished so far in 2016. And to talk about his old pal, Rich Stubler, the man Claybrooks succeeded and who is now the defensive coordinator for the Argos.
Claybrooks laughs a few times more during our interview. It’s a warm laugh and one that suggests a real fondness for Stubler, under whom Claybrooks served as Calgary’s defensive line coach in 2014 and 2015. “I owe a lot to Stubes,” Claybrooks says. “He’s an integral part of my life. He’s one of my mentors.”
Claybrooks is one of the more under-the-radar stories of this 2016 season, a season clearly defined by the insistent, steady dominance of the Stampeders in all aspects of the game. Following in the footsteps of Stubler, Claybrooks was named the team’s DC this past off-season and although the unit lost stalwarts like Keon Raymond and Juwan Simpson – two very important ingredients in Stampeders’ Grey Cup Championships in 2008 and 2014 – Calgary’s defence remains a fairly tough nut to crack for opposing offences.
The Stamps aren’t leading the league in a lot of defensive categories.
In fact, you’ll find them in fourth or tied for fourth in a slew of statistical columns, although they are number one in the category that is most important of all, having given up an average of only 22.2 points per game. “This is a Stube-ism,” Claybrooks chuckles, “and you can quote me: If they didn’t change the score of the game, I don’t need the stats.”
More Stube-isms permeate the conversation, as Claybrooks fully gets the theme of the piece, what with his unit gracing the same field as Stubler’s on Monday. He also talks in glowing terms of his being in Calgary, a place where he played for three seasons before retiring and staying on as D-line coach in 2012. Previously, he’d had stints in the NFL where he played for coaches Tony Dungy, Bill Parcells and Jon Gruden (Claybrooks won a Superbowl with Tampa in 2003). He is well-connected and as a native of Virginia, you might assume he had a chance or two to slip into a post-playing life down south.
“I’ll put it to you the way my grandfather told me,” Claybrooks responds when asked why he chose Calgary as the place to launch his coaching career. “My grandfather said ‘if you can get paid fairly, treated respectfully and you can win ball games, you ride that ‘til the wheels fall off.’”
The wheels are nowhere near falling off for Claybrooks. The Stamps might be on the verge of an historic season, endeavouring to be the first team in the 18-game schedule era to finish the regular season with just one loss. The defence has played its part, despite the loss of the vets previously mentioned and the addition of two first-year corners in Tommie Campbell and Ciante Evans as well as rookie middle linebacker Alex Singleton. Despite the changes, the Stampeders’ defence is still tops in the league in the category of yards allowed per play with an average of 6.0 given up.
“I’ve got the best staff in the league,” says Claybrooks. “We work hard, we put the time in and we work together very well.”
He’s not, he says, trying to reinvent the way defences are constituted.
There’s a little of his personality in there, of course. Also a little Stubler, with whom he talks regularly, usually on a weekly basis.
There’s also a respect for the veterans that have played for many seasons in Calgary and the successes they’ve had.
“I was able to inherit a solid defence with a solid team that went 14 and 4 and had one of the best defences in the league last year,” says Claybrooks. “You just really try to morph it and do some things that you like to do but also do some things that work in this league.”
“Our guys fly around and they do all the little things,” he continues, proudly speaking of a unit that does still have some key veteran presence remaining from last year. “They put in the extra time. And you can see the fruits of their labour on the field.”
“I owe a lot to Stubes. He’s an integral part of my life. He’s one of my mentors.”
Claybrooks has trust in his players and a coaching style that those players enjoy, one that he says consists of echoes of a lesson or two from Stubler, a man he calls “pops.”
“Stubes thinks, since he doesn’t have any kids, that he’s my dad,” says Claybrooks, laughing again. “He calls me ‘big boy.’”
Among the fatherly lessons taken from the old master is one that might sound familiar to keen followers of the CFL. Stubler has long been known as a coach who will hand loads of responsibility to the players on the field and Claybrooks is preaching from that book.
“One of the key things (Stubler taught him) is you trust your players and you let ‘em play,” he explains. “Don’t over-coach your guys. Let them try to understand the mistakes and let them try to work it out amongst themselves with your guidance instead of you telling them to ‘do it that way’ because there’s a million different ways to play football and execute what you’re trying to execute.”
“Don’t be so bull-headed and stubborn that you can’t understand that concept and say that because it’s not done my way it’s not done right.”
In order for that style of coaching to be successful, a coach must have players he can depend on, not just physically, but also intellectually.
Stubler had Mike O’Shea and Orlondo Steinauer as on-field defensive quarterbacks when the Argonauts won a Grey Cup in 2004 and Raymond and Simpson, to name a couple, when the Stampeders won in 2014. For Claybrooks, there are two veterans in the secondary who are adept at on-the-fly coordinating.
“(Safety) Josh Bell does a great job, him and (halfback) Jamar Wall, of getting us where we need to be and putting us in situations to minimize the explosions.”
That’s crucial, Claybrooks says, because it’s one thing to design a concept and quite another thing to have to execute it in a fluid atmosphere. He borrows another Stube-ism, brightening once again as he says it:
“When you’re drawing it up on the board, those X’s and O’s don’t move.”
“When you have guys like Wall and Bell, (defensive end) Charleston Hughes, (linebacker) Deron Mayo, you’ve got veteran guys that have played years at a high level in this league and been on successful defences. You value their insight.”
The Calgary defence is shining in some important categories and seems to rise at opportune times, although there have been instances where some holes became evident. Winnipeg’s late fourth quarter drive to take the lead a couple of weeks ago is one. Calgary is third-last in the CFL in forcing two-and-outs and the unit has been on the field for an average of 61 plays per game, tied for the most. On the other side of the ledger, Claybrooks’ defence allows an average of 7.4 yards per pass, and an opposition completion percentage of 65.1, with both of those marks being league bests.
“We’re headed in the right direction,” he says, “but we haven’t even played our best game by far.”
In search of that, the Stampeders get a chance to hone their game, this week, against a team that just cut three of its top receivers and is still working its new quarterback up to a level of comfort. On paper, that should be a recipe for a sharpening of defensive claws and fangs.
Beyond that, maybe Claybrooks’ latest talk with his mentor can bring some insight. Nope. There will be no regularly scheduled chat session ahead of a clash, Claybrooks says, laughing once more.
“This week we agreed we don’t talk.”