Valley graduates play key roles in Allegheny's up-and-coming defense
Chase Balla, Colten Buzard and Marcus Davenport can quibble sometimes about who makes the most impact on a football field.
When it comes to the computer science lab class they share, however, there's no argument.
“The three of us sit together, and it's usually those two looking over my shoulder for some help,” said Buzard, an economics major who still has a knack for the course, which is an introduction to Java programming. “I don't mind. It's just funny.”
Said Balla: “It's actually a group effort class, so us three working in a group, we kind of have that connection on the field. It helps throughout the class.”
The three Valley graduates share notes in class, but on the football field they share the spotlight as three of the more significant players for Allegheny.
Balla, a freshman, and juniors Buzard and Davenport are three of the top four tacklers for the Gators (3-6), in the midst of their best season since 2012.
Balla is the No. 1 tackler, Buzard the top sacker.
“It's pretty fun,” Davenport said. “We have chemistry that's been (building) our entire lives. Even Chase, even though he's a couple years behind. It's like kind of reuniting Valley again.”
With all three players growing up in New Kensington, they knew and played with each other. Buzard and Davenport shared the field for three seasons at Valley, and Balla and Buzard played together in Buzard's senior year. Davenport was — and still is — a close friend with Tyler Balla, Chase's older brother and also a junior running back at Allegheny.
The three are thriving in a new Allegheny defensive scheme that emphasizes speed and aggressiveness, with an increase in blitzing and forcing turnovers.
The aggressive defense and explosive offense is helping Allegheny's young roster.
The Gators went 2-38 the four seasons before this one but appear on an upward trajectory heading into Saturday's season finale against Oberlin.
Buzard moved from linebacker to defensive end and Davenport from defensive end to defensive tackle to create mismatches with their speed. Balla starts at safety.
“It allows us to pin our ears back and go firing at 7,000 miles an hour,” Davenport said.
After making the transition to defensive end as a sophomore, Buzard is excelling. He has a team-high 11 sacks and needs just 1 1⁄2 more in Saturday's season finale to set the school record.
“If I didn't play it last year, I would have been lost coming into this season,” said Buzard, who worked in the offseason to improve his speed and strength. “It took me a while, and at the end of the year I finally got my foot in the ground.”
Davenport lines up next to Buzard and is finding defensive tackle a more natural fit. At defensive end, he sometimes dropped into coverage.
The move to defensive tackle simplified his role and allowed the former WPIAL champion wrestler to use some of those moves to his advantage.
“The speed of my hands is probably the best thing I took from wrestling,” he said. “I'm constantly shooting my hands and constantly trying to shed hands off of me, where as a defensive end you're occasionally dropping into coverage. ... Now, every play I'm constantly using my hands.”
Balla split time in Allegheny's first two games of the season before becoming a full-time starter in Week 3. He leads the Gators with 63 tackles, including 15 in a loss at DePauw two weeks ago.
“There are some biggger cats in college ball now,” said Balla, who also returns kicks. “I'm taking on dudes about 100 pounds more than me. There's been some days after the game when I can't even walk, but it's definitely been fun. It's nice having a nose for the ball.”
Although the three players compare notes in class and statistics on the football field, Buzard called Davenport his “biggest supporter” in his pursuit of the Allegheny sack record. In football and computer science, they have each other's back.
“It's almost like we're brothers,” Balla said. “It's how it is. It's what football does: It makes everyone a big family.”