March 29, 2023
By Evan Lepler
Identifying the top defenders in ultimate is a tricky endeavor, but no one’s more qualified to address the topic than the AUDL’s premier offensive standouts. These are the individuals that that truly know who’s the most difficult to deal with, and they insist that the stats don’t always do a great job illuminating the truth.
“The top defenders aren’t really the ones that get the most hype in the press,” said Chicago’s Ross Barker. “My view on what makes a great defender is so much more in depth than getting a highlight layout block.”
Cameron Brock, the league’s all-time goal scoring king, agrees.
“Honestly, the best straight up man-to-man defenders are not typically the ones I see at the top of the blocks categories,” said Brock. “Those are often defenders who are constantly looking for poach opportunities.”
That may come across as demeaning to those who do produce big stats, though it’s certainly not the intent. Getting the block is often a super meaningful thing, even in the scope of team defense where other lockdown matchups contribute to the turnover. But divvying up the credit and the blame for each turnover is a complex conversation, and it’s reasonable for different people to have very different opinions about the same play.
“Ninety percent of all layout blocks are the offensive receiver’s fault,” said Barker, who’s primarily been an O-line cutter the past two seasons. “They always happen when a player slows down and doesn’t sprint through the catch. That’s assuming situations when it’s not a smart defender reading the thrower and getting a poach block; in that case, it’s 100 percent the thrower’s fault.”
So if turnovers are often offensive mistakes rather than a defender’s impact, as Barker suggests, what can a defender do?
“While I always respect all of my opponents and give them my best, I consider a great defender someone who really throws me off my game for the entirety of the game,” said Barker.
Several elite O-liners shared that it’s not the ‘big-name’ defenders that they fear the most, but instead the no-names who are often young, hungry, and determined to deny them the disc.
“The big names tend to poach more and are wearier of someone making a highlight against them,” said Atlanta’s Matt Smith. “Young, athletic guys who do nothing except try to lock you down are more frustrating.”
Philadelphia’s Paul Owens is a guy who emerged as a defensive menace throughout the 2022 season, tasked with chasing around several of the East Division’s most dynamic talents.
“Paul is a master of angles and setting his cushion to ensure that the shortest line to a less than perfect disc will be his,” said DC’s Jonny Malks. “This is how he’s able to get those gritty layout Ds on handler cuts that come from the open side, [like] the absolute beauty he was able to get last year on a dish pass from [Jeff] Babbitt to Jack [Williams] [...] One of the most memorable times I’ve been stuffed on the mark was trying to sneak an around flick by him on the sideline last year when the Breeze played Philly at home. Paul’s specialty is making windows look tough regardless of where he is on the field by adapting to each scenario using his ultimate IQ and athleticism.”
New York’s Jack Williams, who ultimately earned Championship Weekend MVP honors, needs little reminder about Owens’ impact.
“The past two times we have played, he has made some incredible plays on me in the handler space,” said Williams. “He has really quiet feet, meaning there are times where I feel like I’m more open than I am. He also has incredible timing on his bids and is great at predicting where I want to go. It’s something about the way he plays that makes me feel open but then I realize he’s right there.”
Whereas Owens has tantalized many of the East Division’s stars, multiple South Division O-line leaders mentioned Austin’s Matt Armour as a particularly dangerous matchup.
“He’s a unique combination of length, strength, and lateral quickness that you rarely see,” said Carolina’s Sol Yanuck. “He’s excellent at matching you in charge of direction, and if you try to fight through him to win a certain space, he’s got a solid frame that’s tough to move, similar in many ways to Tim McAllister. He’s also a guy who plays the right way, succeeds because of his positioning and applies physicality legally.”
That’s gotta be one of the most difficult dynamics as a defender, remaining physical and aggressive while still staying within the framework of the rules.
“The best defenders put a body on the person they are defending and make them work for every step,” said LA’s Michael Kiyoi. “This is a fine line, though, because I think people mistake fair physical play with fouling at times.”
Discovering the right balance is key to not only being a successful defender, but also in earning the respect of your opponent.
“Cam Wariner from the Glory is the toughest matchup I’ve faced in the AUDL,” said New York’s Ryan Osgar. “His combination of athleticism, physicality, and frisbee IQ makes him maybe the most elite defender in the league. Cam is relentless and always forces me to work super hard just to touch the disc.”
Ultimate intelligence, another absolutely unquantifiable measure, was another commonly mentioned attribute. When it comes to showcasing excellent understanding of everything involved on the field, the best offensive players know it when they see it.
“[Cody Spicer’s] first step and athleticism in the air make him a tough matchup on anyone,” said Salt Lake’s Jordan Kerr. “But he really excels at knowing his matchup’s strengths and mitigating those throughout the course of a game. That requires a very high on-field IQ.”
While we often want to focus on the realm of hyping individual defenders, it’s masterminding coaches devising complex game plans and full units collaborating together that have the best chance of stymieing the top offensive threats. Within those calibrated systems, certain players can stand out even more.
“First thing that comes to mind for me has to be that Atlanta zone,” said Yanuck, specifically mentioning veteran Hustle defenders Kelvin Williams [now retired] and Michael Fairley. “I still don’t really think anybody has it completely figured out—likely because [Coach] Miranda [Knowles] is constantly tweaking it week-to-week. They do a good job of finding a niche for all their guys, Fairley and Kelvin do a lot of the hard running, setting the marks in the front of the zone. Obviously, their size and length is apparent, but I think the zone’s success can be attributed to their IQ and adaptability.
“They’ll play passive and make you feel like a certain throw is going to be free for the whole point, and then all of a sudden they’ll rotate and force you into plan B late in the stall count. It’s always a fun cat and mouse game with them, trying to stay one step ahead. They’re also very clean with their marks. Most double teams in the league are constantly fouling, but these guys rarely foul, and if they do they don’t complain if they get called.”
Like the highest level of any sport, ultimate’s most scintillating playmakers take the field every game knowing that they could be victimized by another tremendous athlete. Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose, but it’s the battle that keeps bringing the best back for more.
“I have to say that the tough matchups are the most fun,” said San Diego’s Travis Dunn. “You get to battle a guy for 48 minutes and there’s a mutual respect because you both know that you’re really making the guy on the other side work to gain any advantage. And when you can win those kinds of matchups, it feels even more rewarding in the end.”
Praising the Rest of the Best
Earlier this week, I asked several AUDL players the following question: “Who have been the toughest defenders you’ve had to tangle with over the past couple seasons?”
Here are some of the other players who earned mentions, listed alphabetically.
Colin Berry, Minnesota Wind Chill
“His combination of speed, quickness, and length are what drive cutters crazy. When he’s healthy, he’s as good as they get at making me work hard for every catch. I also think the Wind Chill coaching staff does as good a job as anyone in our division when it comes to game planning. And he usually has a very solid team around him. He’s a guy that would be good anywhere, but their coaching staff is so good about getting their entire team in a position to slow down initiations that the cutter defenders benefit. The easiest way to slow down a cutter is to mess up the backfield and throwing lanes. Minnesota does that as well as anyone. Throw in a guy as athletic and talented as Berry and you’ve got a recipe for success.” - Cameron Brock, Indianapolis AlleyCats
David Bloodgood, DC Breeze
“We’ve matched up a bunch historically, in particular had a really good battle in our 2021 regular season finale that went to double overtime. Think we are similar in that we both process the game very quickly, so it’s always a challenge to maintain a positional advantage against someone with such good awareness." - Sol Yanuck, Carolina Flyers
Marques Brownlee, New York Empire
“Marques is an interesting matchup because he’s deceptively big. His wingspan is insane, but you don’t notice until you’re trying to throw an around break or through a double team. He keeps his arms closer to his body until you’re about to release the disc and suddenly his full hand is there. It’s crazy. His length and physicality combined make the matchup very fun to play against.” - Luc Comiré, Toronto Rush
Thomas Coolidge, Madison Radicals
“Just a fantastic opportunistic defender who masterfully balances playing physical person D with poachy team D. He has a knack for making big plays at big moments, but fortunately that hasn’t been on me. I love battling with him. - Josh Klane, Minnesota Wind Chill
David Cranston, DC Breeze
“The Breeze always have well thought out team-wide defensive schemes that challenge the things we like to do most, and part of that is David’s giant mark. He has great field sense and is always able to challenge throws I am usually very comfortable with. Defenders rarely get hyped unless they make a giant layout block, but David does a lot of the little things right which make an offensive player uncomfortable. - Ryan Osgar, New York Empire
Mike Drost, New York Empire
“A wily defender who excels at sitting in dead space on pull-play junk coverage and reading a center handler’s eyes to get run through first-throw blocks with ease. There have been a couple times playing the Empire where it looks like I’ve just thrown a flat clap-catchable pass to Mike’s chest because he’s sat just outside of my field of vision before using his speed to swoop through. Mike is best at disrupting a handler’s rhythm purely by making them think twice about whether or not he might be lurking nearby. He makes passes look open and gobbles up a lot of blocks by showing you at the last moment that they’re not.” - Jonny Malks, DC Breeze
Troy Holland, DC Breeze
“He is one of the more disciplined defenders I have played against. He is very disciplined and never overreacts to any jukes that I do. I have to change up how I make moves the most when I play against him.” - Jack Williams, New York Empire
Nick Hutton, Indianapolis AlleyCats
“One of the most athletic defenders in the league and also one of the fiercest competitors. He’s out there looking to kill and take names. I usually just try to get him away from the action when he matches up on me so he doesn’t have an opportunity to make one of his massive Ds.” - Josh Klane, Minnesota Wind Chill
Ben Lewis, Houston Havoc
“Ben Lewis has multiple strengths. He’s explosive and physical and still fast, and thus has succeeded so well in the open field even against people three or four inches taller than him. Also his mark is one of the best in the league. It disrupts the opponent every single game and it can fall under the radar.” - Matt Bennett, Houston Havoc
Tim McAllister, Carolina Flyers
“Tim is one of the smartest downfield defenders I’ve come across in the pro division. He never wastes energy on fakes and cuts that aren’t viable, so it feels like his gas tank is endless. He also walks the physicality line well, rarely fouling but always putting a body in the way.” - Evan Swiatek, Austin Sol
Xavier Payne, Indianapolis AlleyCats
“He’s very physical, strong, and has the right mental aptitude to defend in the AUDL. X has great movement technique and does an effective job dictating as a defender. He gets his body in the way and forces you to take your second option as a cutter. I think his strong suit is guarding under cuts more than deep cuts. This is just my opinion, but it feels like he definitely has a high awareness of where the disc is at all times, what the stall count is at, and what the situation on the field is. With that real-time knowledge, he adjusts his position accordingly to take away what the offensive cutter is likely looking for in their first cut.” - Ross Barker, Chicago Union
Kevin Pettit-Scantling, Madison Radicals
“It’s less about his defense on his man and more about how you just always have to know where he is. There’s a reason he has as many highlight plays as anyone in the league. He’s always lurking. He plays defense somewhat on a knife’s edge, but he’s so good at knowing his limits. It’s very rare that he commits to act on a poach without affecting the play. You see some players that go for way too many poach opportunities that they have no chance of making a play on. That just ends up leaving your teammates in a terrible situation, but KPS rarely, if ever, does that.” - Cameron Brock, Indianapolis AlleyCats
Garrett Santi, Los Angeles Aviators
“We’ve had the chance to match up a few times my two years in the league. He’s a smaller guy, but is incredibly fast. He’s one of those defenders that will pressure every cut and really make you work to get the disc. Not to mention he’s very valuable when they get the turn as he’s usually the one running the counterattack. - Jordan Kerr, Salt Lake Shred
Jasper Tom, DC Breeze
“Dude knows how to put the clamps on. He’s super underrated in his ability to match the shiftiness of handlers and uses his body really well. He honestly got the better of me last year in our first game vs. DC, as I wasn’t expecting that level of defense.” - Luc Comiré, Toronto Rush
Christophe Tremblay-Joncas, Montreal Royal
“Battle him a lot at practice and he is an absolute grinder. We call him ‘Camion’ up here which means ‘Truck’ in English. He has great size, never-ending tank, can play you in a box or take you one-on-one deep. Special talent. - Kevin Quinlan, Montreal Royal
Phil Turner, Toronto Rush
“The dude’s nasty. He’s so big and physical, but also knows how to use his body in small spaces if he finds himself in the backfield. He’s a nightmare matchup downfield and somehow manages to poach off onto every huck. There’s very few guys in our division that I won’t throw James Lewis a 50/50 shot against, but Phil’s the first guy on that list. Got snubbed for Defensive Player of the Year last year, but he’s coming back with a vengeance this year.” - Luc Comiré, Toronto Rush
Jason Vallee, Los Angeles Aviators
“Went from a nobody who was an easy matchup at the start of his career to the most menacing defender on both handlers and cutters last year. His length and athleticism frustrated the shit out of me. Always right there on your hip.” - Josh Klane, Minnesota Wind Chill
Joey Wylie, Austin Sol
“Joey Wylie is going to be great. He’s very young, but the way he guarded me reminded me of a cornerback in football. Doesn’t allow much separation and can stick on your hip at top speeds. If I had to guess, I’d assume he played football growing up. He breaks in and out of his cuts really nicely. Stays low, chops his feet, rotates his hips efficiently, and above all, has that aggressiveness. He applied pressure the whole game. He was one of the players I went up to and talked with after the game to pay my respects saying I think he has a really bright future. He’ll be even better as he learns how to keep his eyes up and know where the disc is at all times without relying on sideline help. He’s a player that I think I would love to play with.” - Ross Barker, Chicago Union