Big play defender set for spotlight
Sam Houston St. cornerback Swanson masters art of takeaways
FRISCO, Texas -- One phrase that tends to be thrown around a lot amongst those that love the game of football: every good defense needs a playmaker.
Let me introduce you to Sam Houston State’s Daxton Swanson -- the school’s all-time leader in interceptions with 14. Not only did Swanson break Ronnie Choate’s record that stood since 1959, he tied and broke the record in style.
First there was interception No. 13, and it came against what has become a household name -- Johnny Football. Thanks to a scheduling snafu, the Bearkats were forced into a trip to College Station to take on the Aggies in front of more than 87,000 fans in their regular season finale.
Swanson sat back in the Bearkats’ typical man coverage and waited for his chance to pounce against the scrambling quarterback. Manziel threw a ball up for grabs to Swanson’s man -- a 6-foot-5 wide receiver.
When he came down, the 5-foot-11 Swanson had just picked off the Heisman Trophy winner who threw only eight interceptions all season.
“It was a fun experience to face him,” Swanson said. “I never faced a quarterback that moved around so fluently and with the ability to make such great plays. I give him props for that.”
Manziel and his Aggies happen to be right down the road from Frisco for the Cotton Bowl on Friday night, but Swanson couldn’t dwell too long on his accomplishment. The Bearkats had the FCS playoffs to prepare for.
See, Swanson breaking an interception record shouldn’t come as too big of a surprise to those that have followed the Bearkats. Sam Houston State has an opportunistic defense. Head coach Willie Fritz loves his takeaways. It’s what he’s pounded home since he arrived on campus to take over the program in 2010.
“I feel like [takeaways are] something that coach preached,” starting safety Darnell Taylor said. “He preaches that every day. I feel like now, we’re a team that feels like we know that if we need a stop, we can do that.”
For the native of Waco, Texas, ending up as the all-time leader in picks for Sam Houston State wasn’t even close to being on Swanson’s radar. He first showed off his ball-hawking skills at Toledo, where as a freshman in 2009, he led the team in pass breakups with seven, despite only starting one game.
Things just weren’t working out and his friend and former teammate at LaVega High School, Will Henry, was in Huntsville already at SHSU. It was an easy move for Swanson to go closer to home.
Fast forward three years to the red-field turf in Cheney, Wash. and the home of Eastern Washington. Sam Houston State led No. 2-seed EWU 45-35 with 5:33 remaining and a trip back to the FCS national championship game hanging in the balance. That’s when Swanson notched career interception No. 14, stopping the Eagles’ drive in its tracks.
“We were just trying to get a stop, and I was just doing anything I could to make a play,” Swanson said. “The quarterback started to scramble around and I saw an open receiver and I ran towards him and got the pick. It was a big help in getting the win.”
It couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. He had struck again for another spectacular big play. Something that Swanson has done time and time again during his three years in Huntsville, even if his non-interception numbers don’t jump off the page. Swanson has 44 tackles this season -- good for seventh on the team –- and even as a team, they are ranked a modest 88th in the nation in pass defense.
However, his playmaking ability makes up for almost all of it. Swanson has four interceptions and 14 pass breakups in 2012. His head coach loves it.
“[Swanson is] the all-time leading interceptor in school history, really a great ball hawk,” Fritz said. “We put a lot of pressure on our secondary in playing a lot of man-to-man coverage, plus our safeties and our corners have had to play up against the run. Dax [Swanson] has definitely had a great season and a great career.”
“It’s a great feeling knowing I’ve been able to make plays throughout my career to help my teammates out by getting turnovers,” Swanson said. “It’s really just a great feeling.”
Swanson will go up against a veteran quarterback on Saturday in North Dakota State’s Brock Jensen, someone who his whole team saw beat them in the title game a year ago. While NDSU has only averaged 168.6 passing yards per game this year, Swanson knows how tough they can be after finishing with only two tackles and a pass breakup in last year’s national title game.
“You have to watch out for a lot of things from them,” Swanson said. “They had a big fake punt and you have to be ready for anything, you have to be on your Ps and Qs at all times and expect the unexpected.”
If Swanson can find one more big play in him Saturday, it can yield something even more impressive than his interception record -- a Sam Houston State national title.