A year ago at this time our secondary was a giant question mark. Now it could be an exclamation point. We have possibly the best corners in the conference, giving us the ability to shut down receivers and allow our pass rush to develop. The safeties are solid tacklers, but it is my hope they can play more of a role in the passing game because of improved linebacker play against the run. With all four starters returning, plus an unusual amount of depth behind them, our secondary should be the best unit on the defense.
That depth will be critical too. We all know what injuries can do after the debacle of last season. Amazingly we were able to develop depth while the secondary was relatively healthy. For as lauded as the secondary was, we still gave up more than 2,700 yards through the air. There were some spectacular individual plays, but it will be paramount for the defense to cut at least 800 yards off of that total.
It's hard to believe we have up 2,700 yards passing with this solid group and Ryan Kerrigan causing general terror in the backfield. The biggest reason likely was on the other side of the ball, where our offense couldn't get first downs and stay on the field. When that happens, even the best of defenses allow points and yards.
Link was a surprise as a walk-on earning a starting position in 2010. He led the team with 91 tackles, picked off a pass, and recovered a fumble. Unfortunately, he led the team in tackle because he was often the last line of defense. It is better when you have a linebacker leading you in tackles, not a safety, because it means you're stopping guys closer to the line of scrimmage. Link was very active in the passing game with three additional pass breakups and four passes defensed. At times he played out of position, but for the most part he was a sure tackler that performed admirably. When you consider he didn't earn a scholarship until after fall camp last year and he had never played before the opener at Notre Dame his numbers are even better.
Albert Evans enters his senior season as one of our most experienced players. He missed a pair of games last year with an injury, but still had 37 tackles, two sacks, and an interception. He also recovered a fumble and forced two more, making him a very disruptive force. When I talked to Albert at Media Days he talked about taking a leadership role on this team as a senior. He seemed very focused on the coming season and wanted to make even more of a difference.
On the corners we couldn't ask for two better players than Allen and Johnson. Allen has All-American level potential and an attitude that needs to be infectious to the rest of the team. He is both a sure tackler and a ruthless pass defender with three interceptions last year. His first saved a touchdown against Ball State, while his other two were returned for touchdowns. Fans have already started promoting Rico Island as the place where receivers go to get away from the offense. Allen might be the hardest worker on the team, but he recognizes that Johnson, on the other side, helps him out a lot.
Johnson was effective in the punt return game last year, averaging 9.1 yards on seven returns. Coach Hope has even said that Allen may take Johnson's role returning punts, but we'll see in about a week and a half. Johnson had 53 tackles to Allen's 73, and Johnson also added a sack and an interception. It is entirely possible both Johnson and Allen could be first team all-Big Ten picks by the end of the season. I already had two picks, one returned for a touchdown by Johnson in NCAA '12.
Charlot and Eargle are both in their second year out of junior college, but Charlot has taken the bigger step forward. Eargle battled injuries on and off last year, but he still should be a nice reserve cornerback. Charlot made four starts and can be an excellent fifth defensive back. In all 12 games he had 12 tackles and an interception. I think he can definitely be a nickel-back in passing situations.
Harris moved to wide receiver for the spring, but was recently moved back to defensive back. He notched 11 tackles after his redshirt was taken off midseason. He even made a pair of starts, making him our sixth defensive back with starting experience. He is versatile in that he can play either safety or corner, so he is also a nickel back option.
Quinn and Aristide are somewhat wild cards, but they have experience at safety. Aristide has been slowed each of the past two seasons after a devastating knee injury in his senior year of high school slowed him greatly. He seems to finally be coming around. He played in seven games and notched a tackle in limited action. Quinn looked to be in line for the starting safety role that Link earned last season, but he was limited to nine games as a reserve and on special teams. We can expect him to have a similar role this season, but the depth he brings to the table is nice.
Finally, Williams is a former starter another player that will get plenty of playing time at cornerback. In fact, it makes me wonder why Harris was moved back to the defense when we have the depth we see above. With 21 tackles and a sack in all 12 games he will be a key member of the secondary at defending the middle of the field where we have been so vulnerable on third down.
Collins and Feichter are both redshirts that will likely be deep on the bench and be part of the scout team. Lewis is a speedster of a corner from the Chicago area, but he kept his redshirt last year and did not play. As a receiver he had over 900 yards and 10 touchdowns on 30 catches his senior year, so he clearly knows what to do once he has the ball.
Johnson was a bit of a surprise to me in that he didn't earn playing time. I had high hopes for him because he was a ball-hawking safety as part of 2-time state champion Cocoa High in Florida. As a junior he had eight interceptions, three of them in the state championship game. Unfortunately, it has been announced that he will be out at least until midseason with a shoulder injury. It might be next year until we see him now.
In the same article mentioned above for Johnson coach hope reiterated that both Frankie Williams and Taylor Richards could play, but I don't know where. We already have nine players in a secondary that plays six people at most at any one time. I suppose they could factor into the return game or elsewhere on special teams. Both are listed simply as "defensive back" right now, so it likely means they don't have a specific position yet. I would rather have the luxury of redshirting them, but if they can play now, so be it.
Everyone is excited about Ricardo Allen, but the rest of the unit should be more than solid. We have multiple corners, a luxury that allows us to pick the best player for a particular matchup. These guys should allow Gerald Gooden and Ryan Russell to have some fun when it comes to generating the pass rush.
My biggest concern, as always, is the middle of the field. We've had a glaring weakness over the middle of the field on third down for some time now. Most of the time we don't have anyone even close to being in position to stop it. This is the #1 thing on the defense that needs to be fixed. When I can see it in the stands when an opposing team lines up a particular receiver in the slot because they know he will be open on a slant over the middle it should be obvious to coaches that actually study this game for a living. Sadly, it is to the point where I believe it will be fixed when I see it.