Most Tiger fans are aware of the well-publicized battle at an outside linebacker spot between Antonio Clay and Tramaine Billie, but there are equally intense fights for the starting spot at defensive tackle between Rashaad Jackson and Jock McKissic and at nose guard between Donnell Clark and Dorell Scott.
"It really depends on who is playing the best," defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said in an exclusive interview late last week. "I wish we could do that at all of the positions. You want stars at certain spots, but you don't want there to be a drop off. When you're in the South, you've got to have some depth, because you're not going to be 100 percent healthy the whole season."
At nose guard, the battle for this year's starting spot really started taking place when Donnell Clark sustained a knee injury against Temple last season. By the time spring practice got underway, he was still not ready to play.
"At the time he got hurt last year, he was really starting to come on," Koenning said. "We really need him to come back, but we know he's going to be a little rusty coming into camp. But we really need him to come back and be the explosive player that he was before the injury. It's a deal where we'll ease him into it and we'll just see who's playing better as we enter the first game."
If there is an edge at this position, it goes to Clark because of the simple fact that he's a senior, while Scott is a sophomore.
"Donnell's got a certain amount of maturity," Koenning said. "He's probably got the best leadership qualities right now of those four. The other guys are a little bit young, but are maturing.
"Probably the one that's come the furthest is Dorell, from where he was at the beginning of camp last year, when we didn't even know if he was going to be here or not."
At tackle, Jackson has all the makings of a star, but McKissic is the one that is more fundamentally sound. It brings up an interesting debate: start the player who has the most upside and potential or the one that does things the right way?
"We think with Rashaad, as a guy who continues to mature, is capable of starting and becoming the dominant-type player," Koenning said. "Jock did not have a great spring, but Jock does things technically well."
Koenning said he's hoping that by the time the first game of the season approaches that it will be a clear-cut decision who to start at each position. He also hopes that one of them can be the voice of the defense.
"It's hard for the leadership of your football team to be in the secondary, unless you've got a guy that's a safety that comes up and kills people and really be a physical presence," he said. "It's hard to have leadership there. You kind of need some of the tough-guy leadership mentality come from your front. That's where we have a lot of room to grow, I think.
"And it comes down to who is going to separate themselves. It might be where one of them one day flicks a switch and separates his self."
Koenning said he expects Clark to play near 280 pounds, with the other three being no heavier than 295.
"They were all over 300 in the spring, but as it gets hot, they'll shed some weight," he said. "We need them to be as quick and explosive as they can be and still be strong. And I think the 290 or 295 range would be a reasonable spot for them."
And while those four players will get most of the publicity, Koenning said there are a few more names that could be thrown into the thick of the fray.
"I'm kind of anxious to see how Antwon Murchison does," he said. "I'd love to be able to move Murchison down into a three-technique (away from end). And with Etta Etta-Tawo at nose guard, there's another two more guys to throw into the mix as guys that can get reps and be effective.
"That was a lot of reason why we did not sign an inside guy on defense last year. We were anticipating on having three guys at both positions."
Koenning: 3 Spots Up in the Air
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