Recently hired defensive coordinator David Gibbs on spring ball priorities, "First you start teaching fundamentals and specific techniques that fit your scheme and as you're teaching those, what will happen is the players will stand out as far as their strengths and weaknesses. Then obviously you fit your scheme around the players you have. I'm not one of those guys who say I'm going to run this or that scheme. People always ask me if we're going to run a 4-3 or a 3-4. My answer is always the same – it all depends on what our guys can do. We have an open playbook. I've been around both styles of football and around all kinds of good defensive coaches that I've learned a lot from. Bottom line is I'm not going to run something that doesn't give our kids the best chance to be successful. We need to build some confidence on defense, find a comfort zone and stay consistent in what we're doing because obviously I'm the third defensive coordinator here in three years so the truth is these kids need some stability and consistency. That's one of the goals this spring and then obviously we have to evaluate the players and get the best players out on the field."
On if any players have stood out from video evaluations, "I'd love to tell you but we're a young defensive football team. Going into spring ball we have two starters who are seniors (Zach McMillian and Thomas Bates). We have some experience in the secondary (senior safeties Kent Brooks and Colton Valencia have started numerous times throughout their respective careers) but for the most part we're a young football team which is a good thing because you know they're going to get better over time. The truth of the matter is that we have to get better. We need to play better defensively and everybody knows that. What's happened in the past really doesn't affect things as we're looking towards the future. The important thing is they aren't scarred by all the things that have happened in the past. Of course the bottom line is that talk is cheap. We've got to get out there and grind and coach and play and hopefully come September we're ready to go to work."
Defensively the Cougars return 54.8 percent of its 1,137 tackles and 57.9 percent of its 19 interceptions in 2012. I don't think we have enough depth to play in a 4-3 consistently as Joey Mbu (who will be the nose guard in a 3 technique or a defensive tackle in a 2) is the only player along the line who hits the scales in over 300 pounds as their isn't anybody behind him that can 'hold that line.' I'm guessing the staff will move some of the bigger O-linemen over - guys like an Emeka Okafor (So. 6'5, 330 although he almost won the LG spot in spring ball last year before Ralph Oragwu was deemed the starter), or one of the true freshman?? Emerald Faletuipapai is listed at 6'6 335 (though I hadn't heard any talk of moving him over. That's just all speculation on my part. Alex Cooper was a DE in high school and was 250 pounds as a true freshman two seasons ago. He switched to the O-line last year and played sparingly though rumor has it that he'll move to TE over spring ball. I remember when he was recruited it was said he was very athletic and quick off his feet. He's listed at 280 now and could maybe play inside in a 3-4. This is all speculation on my part as Gibbs has said that he values smaller players who could play half or 75 percent of a game rather than the bigger type who might not be able to give you 25 snaps per game (more on this in my ‘Interview with David Gibbs' article which should be published on Sunday).
Your DE's in a 3-4 are basically DT's in a 4-3 and need to be able to operate in a confined space, which is what Eric Braswell did very well two seasons ago at DE in our 3-4. Coach Logo told me last season that Braswell was 'uncomfortable' playing on the edge as a true DE in their 4-3, and that he was more effective not playing in space. At 265 pounds Jeremiah Farley has the same body type. He's a 'quick striker' which is needed as the DE's in a 3-4 need to get into the body of the O-linemen before they get mauled. Tomme Mark played decently as a true freshman last season and is also listed at 268. B.J. Singleton is listed at 277 and could also possibly play inside. Between Mbu, Okafor and Faletuiapapai and Braswell, Farley, Cooper, Mark and Singleton you've got 8 guys to rotate among your 3 inside positions along the line.
That leaves you with guys that played DE last season such as William Moore, Desmond Pulliam, Efram Oliphant, and Jon Whitten (who was the surprise of spring ball before hurting his knee) to play the hybrid OLB/DE in a 3-4. All the guys there are listed at least at 225 (except for Moore who's at 205) and could be athletic enough to rush off the edge. Then you have incoming midterm transfer Trevor Harris (6'5, 240) to add to the mix along with LB George Bamfo (5'11, 215) who's played plenty at WLB over the past few seasons. These six could play w/ their hands on the ground in a 4-3 base as well. More speculation on my part – since there seems to be an overabundance of talent at LB as opposed to along the line, I would think we'll be seeing a lot more 3-4 this season as that scheme is catered more towards linebackers being able to make plays.
If the D does play in a 3-4 alignment I'm hoping Trevon Randle is the real deal. He along w/ Derrick Mathews will have a lot to 'clean up' as the two inside LBers. They'll have a lot to replace w/ Phillip Steward and Everett Daniels graduating. Steven Aikens and Steven Taylor are two redshirt freshman whom also have a nose for the ball and could be effective at the inside backer spots. Other backers looking to impress this spring include junior Xavier Brown and redshirt freshman Davonte Thomas. Transfer Elandon Roberts (who had 107 tackles at Morgan State last season) along with 220 + pound true freshman Caleb Tucker and Tyler McCloskey may have an opportunity to break the two-deep if things go their way as well. Unfortunately McCloskey and Tucker won't be here until the summer.
As for the secondary, being experienced hasn't necessarily equaled to being better as there have been numerous breakdowns in communication between the aforementioned Bates and McMillian at corner along with Valencia and Brooks at safety over the past few seasons (of course the lack of a decent pass rush hasn't helped either). With Gibbs coaching both the secondary and linebackers, one of his main jobs this spring will be to get the units confidence back up as a whole. McMillian and Bates did step up at the end of last season, both doing an adequate job of covering their respective receivers after shut down corner D.J. Hayden was lost for the season. Turon Walker is a JC transfer out of Diablo Valley (Pleasant Hill, Ca.) who has the size (6-feet, 185 pounds) and cover ability to maybe replace Hayden. Adrian McDonald broke the two-deep last season as a true freshman and looks to establish himself at corner even more this season. Others looking to impress at corner during the spring are redshirt freshman Jarrett Irving and walk-on Alex Tilman.
The leader of the secondary is Trevon Stewart, who looks to continue on a true freshman season in which he garnered All-American status by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA). He led all freshmen nationally and was 13th nationally, regardless of class, with 126 tackles. The free safety was great in run support, despite his diminutive size (5-foot-9, 183 pounds) and is a true ‘playmaker.' Other safeties hoping to make an impact this spring include redshirt sophomore Earl Foster along with the aforementioned Valencia and Brooks. Kent London is a JC transfer (Foothill JC out of Los Altos Hills, Ca.) with the range and size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) that will no doubt allow him to make some noise come summer practices.