There has been a lot of talk about our secondary. The offensive skill positions and line appear to have been settled in terms of starters. Only the Rick Schmeig vs. Justin Pierce at guard spot is a real battle, and Pierce appears to be in the lead according to comments yesterday. The defense is not as clear cut. Five starters need to be replaced. I know this may come as news to you, but we must replace all four starters in the secondary.
Ultimately, I don't think that will have as big of an impact on our season as some think. I say this because our run defense has been an issue for years. A lot was made of how Dwight McLean, Torri Williams, David Pender, and Brandon King were good last year. They were good players, don't get me wrong. When you're giving up 170 yards per game on the ground though it is easy to have a good pass defense. Teams are going to look at our front seven, see we have six of seven guys back that gave up that number, and still think they can run on us.
That's why it doesn't matter as much who starts in the secondary. Until we can prove we can consistently stop the run we will not get better as a team. The lone game last that we had success was against the best team we played: Ohio State. As I have said before, we have to be able to stop poor running teams like Minnesota and Notre Dame first. Once again, that falls on the front seven.
Let's start with the good news: We return three starters this year and three will return next year. Kerrigan is the lone senior on the defensive line anywhere along the two-deeps. He's a potential All-American as well. He had 12 sacks last year, 17.5 tackles for loss, and has abused one of the best teams in the nation (Ohio State) for two years running. His ability alone should open things up for Gooden on the other end. Gooden had 4.5 sacks of his own last year. Short had a fantastic season last year and actually has the most interceptions of anyone returning with two. He is setting himself up for a fantastic career and will be a starter as long as he decides to stay. Pamphile has impressed, but a stress fracture may keep him out for awhile. That has allowed true freshman Bruce Gaston to earn time and praise. Gaston is what we have needed for some time in that he is a big, space eating defensive tackle. The edge is to him right now until Pamphile is healthy, but Taylor, McDaniel, and Kitchens could play too.
The bad news is that we have almost zero depth at defensive end, and Kerrigan has already had two foot surgeries since last year's season finale. Maci is undersized and Brockman is a special teams player most of the time. Given our depth at linebacker, this is where we could see a player like Antwon Higgs put his hand in the dirt like Cliff Avril. Maci only had 17 tackles in 12 games last year Eric Mebane is listed as a DE on the roster, but there is no proven talent beyond Gooden and Kerrigan. I do like our depth at defensive tackle, and I suppose we could shift to a three tackle, one end formation at times. Still, I don't like risking everything on Kerrigan and Gooden staying healthy all year. That's a long time to wait for Randy Gregory.
Redshirtting: Mike Lee
This is a very interesting group. With the recent news that Joe Gilliam has impressed enough to possibly play as a true freshman, we have as many as seven guys that will play at this position. Coach Hope has not been shy in saying that he will play true freshmen if he thinks they can help the team win. This benefits us on so many levels because of the experience we can have in a year or two. Lucas and Gilliam certainly don't have to play, but if they can, that is great.
Joe Gilliam has impressed enough to possibly play as a true freshman.
The versatility at the position allows us to do some different things too. Carlino is a two year starter. Higgs played major minutes last year. Who is to say we're not playing coy when we say our 3-4 is not what we do? Why not bring it out for a few plays, especially given some of the issues on the defensive line. Why not go 4-4 at times in order to stop the run? Joe Holland is a former safety, so why can't we have a 4-4 where he is able to drop into pass coverage. Beckford has also improved against the pass, so he could too.
Like many teams, the linebackers are the key to our defense because they must be able to play the run and the pass. Holland, Carlino, and Werner each had interceptions last year, but ultimately we need them to stop the run. They were fine against Ohio State when the line dominated and we could drop 7 guys into coverage. Against everyone else though, we sucked against the run. Obviously the consistency is there in terms of games played by everyone. Now there needs to be production. There are no more excuses.
This is obviously the most fluid group and one that probably won't be finalized until September 4th. We know that Evans has battled some injuries, but returns with the most experience (30 tackles in 12 games as a reserve). He will likely be the leader of this unit. I am going to go out on a limb along with Boiled Sports in saying that Allen has taken one of the cornerback spots. That's good. He didn't wait for it. Instead he went out and took it. As for the other two spots, who knows? Quinn had the edge coming out of spring practice. He has a little bit of experience (6 games) but I was very impressed with the videos of E.J. Johnson. He's a ballhawking safety we haven't had since Stu Schweigert. Logan Link has worked hard to even earn consideration as a walk-on. Charlot was also brought in to be ready now. Aristide still appears to be slowed by a high school knee injury.
A preview of coming attractions?
At the other cornerback spot Charlton Williams has some experience, but Josh Johnson played more last year (11 games as a reserve). Eargle was brought in to play immediately, so at the very least he'll be a nickel back. Harris and Lewis are supposed to be promising, but I think we lost out on a good one when Jhonny Faustin didn't make grades.
The silver lining in all this is that multiple guys are getting top reps in practice and will play. They're all going to gain experience together, so in a year the lack of current experience should turn into depth. All we need is for guys to becomes answers. Allen has embraced that challenge. If this group comes out and performs well from day one (because ND will test them) it will force teams to go back to the run. If teams still force the run knowing our weaknesses in that area it will allow for a more gradual learning curve.
I still maintain that I am not worried about the pass much. Teams will want to run against us because they know it is a weakness and they can maintain possession of the ball that way. They know our strength is our offense, so they will work to keep the ball away from that offense as much as possible. This is why we must stop the run. No one expects us to. Hell, I don't expect us to because we haven't proven we can do it since 2003. Giving up over 200 yards rushing to a piss-poor running team like Minnesota last year was embarrassing. Getting pushed around by Northern Illinois in the ground game was embarrassing. That has to end now.
The pieces are there. We'll see how they go against Notre Dame. That will be interesting because it is untested quarterback against untested secondary. Honestly, Michael Floyd scares the crap out of me. We have to stop them from running though. They had 167 yards on the ground against last year with Robert Hughes leading the way. It is not so much the yardage that hurt, but the fact that Golden Tate, Theo Reddick, Jonas Gray, and Dayne Crist each had significant runs. We couldn't stop anyone who tried to run against us, and that kept drives alive. What will they do with a healthy Armando Allen, who didn't play last year but had his only 100 yard rushing game against us in 2008?
I have few questions about the offense and its production, but this is a defense that is still searching for some answers. They have 18 days to find them.