In three of the previous four seasons the defense finished ranked in the 90s in points per game surrendered, but last seasons efforts made those teams look like the 85 Bears as they gave up an unacceptable 36 points per game during the 2012 season, leading to the ouster of Jamie Bryant and the hiring of David Gibbs as defensive coordinator. Along with stops in NFL cities Kansas City, Denver and Houston, the former Big10 (Minnesota) and SEC (Auburn) defensive coordinator's biggest job will probably be improving the confidence of his unit as he comments, "The most difficult part is to change the culture. 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."
3rd Ward D
In dubbing his defense that moniker, Gibbs said during Media Day, "People use it against us in recruiting anyway (where we're located) so we just decided to embrace it. The players seem to like it and at the end of the day that's all that really matters."
To 3-4 or not to 3-4
The main question practice observers are trying to figure out is what scheme will the defense employ under Gibbs, a 3-4 or 4-3? Apparently both, or they'll go ‘multiple' as Gibbs explains, "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. I mean everybody plays a 3-4 and everybody plays a 4-3. It's a chess match each Saturday (against opposing offenses). Bottom line is we have to give our offense a chance to win the game. It doesn't matter if it's 35-33 or 10-7."
The key to the success of any defense is their ability to generate a pass rush using just a four man front, allowing the back seven to play various zone schemes in order to confuse the opposing offense. An occasional blitz is ok but constantly sending blitzers will lead to a season such as last seasons. While the D averaged three sacks per game (tied for 14th nationally) and seven tackles for loss per game (22nd), they allowed too many big plays leading to an overall ‘feast or famine' mind set. The defense was especially atrocious on third down conversions against, allowing opposing offenses to convert nearly 47 percent of their 206 third down opportunities into first downs (which was 107th nationally). Many of these breakdowns were simple mental errors in the secondary with their particular zone responsibilities, or errors in communication such as when a corner or safety was supposed to pick up a receiver or running back initially covered by a linebacker. At other times members of the secondary simply had to cover his man for too long a time, as the front four simply could not put a decent pass rush on opposing QBs for most of the season (as 22 of the teams 36 sacks came from the linebacking core). In a typical 4-3 you want your ‘down linemen' (front four) pressuring the QB, making plays in the offenses backfield. This was definitely not the case last season as the linebacking core took care of most of the pressure, but hopefully with better athletes up front for second year defensive line coach Ricky Logo the emphasis will shift and the focus (and results) on pressuring the QB will improve.
Players with multiple starts return along the defensive line, giving Gibbs experience up front even though the unit is still very young overall. As bad as the pass defense was last season, the rushing defense was just as bad as opponents gashed the Coogs for nearly 193 yards per game (93rd). Joey Mbu returns at one defensive tackle position with Tomme Mark at the other. Mbu is a 6-foot-3 inch, 312 pound junior who has the most experience up front and will be looked upon as a leader of the unit. Although his stats may look meager (27 total tackles including 1.5 for loss and 1 sack), his main job is to "hold up" offensive linemen allowing the linebackers to shoot the gaps in Gibbs one-gap scheme. Mark had to play a lot last season due to depth issues as a true freshman. He's bulked his body up over the off-season however and is now listed at 6'3, 288 pounds. Playing behind them include redshirt freshman B.J. Singleton (6'3, 285), and Jeremiah Farley (6'0, 283) – a junior whose played plenty in reserve over his first two seasons. Josh McNeil is a 6'5, 307 pound senior whose been moved from the offensive line to defense to help provide depth along the line. While playing true freshmen is never ideal, especially up front where a lot is going on mentally, Nick Thurman (6'3, 285) already has the body of an upperclassman and could possibly help if need be. I asked Coach Gibbs if he was worried about the size of his defensive line during spring ball and he laughed while saying, "I don't think size is going to be a problem for our guys. I like our defensive interior. I think we have quite a few guys who are good football players. Now me saying that and them actually going out there and playing the right way is what we have to get done."
A wildcard along the interior could be transfer walk-on Mike Mustafa, who was recently given a waiver by the NCAA to play this season. Levine commented on the 6'3, 278 pound sophomore out of Katy, "We've been rotating him in with the anticipation of getting that waiver and he's done a nice job when in there. He's a young man that I think's going to play for us this year and work his way into the rotation. It hasn't been a secret about our lack of depth, specifically along the defensive line. What we're doing schematically, with an Eric Eiland (6'2, 236, So.) and a Trevor Harris (6'5, 233 JC transfer) and a Tyus Bowser (6'3, 226, Fr.) has helped, but to find a Division-1 walk-on transfer with his kind of size, feet and ability and with the waiver able to come through, I think it's really beneficial and you'll see him work his way into the rotation this year."
This leads us to defensive end, and probably the most important position on the entire defense – the "rush" end spot. Many people observing practice have noticed that whoever is manning this spot is rushing without their hand on the ground as a typical outside linebacker in a 3-4 would. This is to pick up that extra step necessary in order to fly by the opposing offensive tackle. If this one player can fluster opposing offensive coordinators, such as Sammy Brown did two seasons ago, he will alleviate so much pressure off of the rest of the line. As Levine previously mentions the main "rush" ends will be rotated among Eiland, Harris, Bowser and a late surprise in Chauntez Jackson, who ‘wowed' coaches with 2 sacks in his first team drill during a team drill last week. All have the same body type – 6'2 + and between 220 and 250 pounds. Eiland was a one man wrecking crew in the season finale last season against Tulane with one sack, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and an interception. The 25 year old spent four seasons in the Toronto Blue Jays organization so he's wise beyond his years maturity wise (ok beyond his peers years anyway). Along the strong side (or run stopping) defensive end spot, Eric Braswell (6'5, 268) has taken firm control. The junior has never minded mixing it up as he's switched between end and tackle his first two seasons and was on the CUSA All-freshman team as a DE two seasons ago. Backing him up will be redshirt freshman Cameron Malveaux, whom at 6'6 (252) has the frame to bat down many-a-pass. Rounding out the depth chart includes ends Jon Witten (6'2, 230), William Moore (6'2, 233) and Vincent Hall (6'2, 232). The three juniors have shown flashes of solid play but not the consistency needed in order to see more playing time.
This position has been the heart and soul of the defense over the past few seasons with such stalwarts as Marcus McGraw, Phillip Steward and Derrick Mathews leading the way. Now this unit (and defense) is Mathews alone to lead. He's amassed a herculean like 232 tackles (101 solo), including 27 for loss, 7 sacks, 4 forced fumbles (and a partridge in a pear tree) over his two seasons. And to show he's no one-trick pony he's defended 8 passes from his will (or weakside) linebacker spot. From a 190 pound true freshman, the now 215 pound junior has been switched to the all-important mike (or middle) position, in which he'll be responsible for relaying in the calls to his teammates along with making sure everyone is lined up in the correct spots on the field. The move takes advantage of his natural instincts as Coach Gibbs mentioned before fall camp began, "It was logical for me to move him to keep him in the middle of the formation. He's the best player we have on our defense and he's our leader. It will surprise me if he doesn't have a great year because offenses can't scheme to get him out of the box." Starting free safety Trevon Stewart echoes his defensive coordinators thoughts, "He's the best defensive player I've ever seen in my life."
Manning the two outside spots, for first year linebackers coach Vernon Hargreaves, will probably be Steven Taylor at the Sam (strongside) and George Bamfo at the will (weakside) spot as Coach Hargreaves says (via the houstonchronicle.com), "I think Steve has a really good chance to be a good player for us and George is just starting to come around." Taylor is a 6'0, 210 pound redshirt freshman while the hard hitting Bamfo is a 5'11, 218 pound senior with one start amongst his 35 games played over his career. Backing them up will be redshirt junior Efrem Oliphant, true freshman Caleb Tucker and sophomore transfer Elandon Roberts – whom will all cross-train allowing them to play each position in case of injury. Oliphant was a member of the CUSA All-Freshmen team in 2010 (amassing 66 tackles including 7 for loss), redshirted in 2011 and contributed 11 tackles in reserve last season. I plan on keeping an eye on Roberts as he finished last season with 107 tackles (9 for loss), 2 sacks, 2 pass breakups and an interception for FCS member Morgan State.
As the linebacking position belongs to Mathews, the secondary belongs to starting free safety Trevon Stewart. The sophomore led all freshmen nationally with 126 tackles, while adding 7 pass breakups and 1 interception (which he returned for 53 yards) as he burst on the scene being named a starter for the UCLA game after playing at nickel back for the initial two games of the season. Gibbs quipped on Stewart's tackle totals during Media day, "Anytime your safety makes so many plays it means the ball's getting into your secondary. As a defensive backs coach by nature, I think Trevon can play much better than last year. Now that may not mean he gets the same amount of tackles or ints, but he can contribute more as a leader."
Stewart on being that team leader on defense, "I feel like more of a true leader this year. Last year I was vocal but not really, but as a sophomore I feel like I don't want a game to go by without saying too much." The freshman All-American on team and personal goals, "Hopefully we can win the conference, go to a BCS game and my personal accolades will come after that, but I do want to have another All-American season and be in the running for the Thorpe Award (awarded to the nation's best defensive back)." And finally the Patterson, Louisiana native talks about his ‘swagger' (or confidence for you older folk) which helps him play as he does, "Well I just remember Deon Sanders from high school and what he always said, ‘look good, play good, play good, paid good.' I always laughed at that but remembered it."
If Coach Gibbs (and defensive backs coach Zac Spavital) could clone four Trevon Stewart's the back end would be set. Unfortunately they can't, but that doesn't mean the rest of the secondary is mincemeat as talent does exist, especially in the form of strong safety Adrian McDonald. Much like his true sophomore running mate Stewart, McDonald seems to have a natural instinct that leads him to wherever the ball is. The Lawton, Oklahoma native has been all over the field during summer camp, leaping to make athletic interceptions in man or zone coverage or forcing (and recovering) fumbles when having run responsibilities within the box. McDonald came on late last season, playing in the final 9 games (with 3 starts) – producing 35 total tackles, forcing 2 fumbles (recovering one), intercepting 2 passes and defending one as well.
Backing Stewart and McDonald up at the two safety spots include Earl Foster, Steven Aikens, Jarrett Irving, Jeremy Johnson and late arrival Kent London. Foster (So. 6'1, 192) and London (6'2, 215 Foothill CC out of San Jose, California) are known as big hitters known to ‘blow up' receivers coming over the middle, but must be sure tacklers if they want to guarantee themselves playing time. Aikens and Irving are both redshirt sophomores who have shown promise during summer camp while Johnson is a transfer walk-on (West Virginia via Silsbee, Texas) who has the measurables coaches are looking for in a safety (a solid 6'0, 192 pounds). The question is can he show it during actual games? I haven't heard much from senior Colton Valencia as it seems he's been lost in the mix, which is too bad being that he's a nice kid. I remember all the hoopla a few years back (which I was a part of I'll admit) after the Fort Bend native (who played at Hightower) transferred from Texas A&M. Moral of the story; don't always believe the hype.
While Zach McMillian and Thomas Bates both have plenty of experience as returning starting cornerbacks, that doesn't necessarily impress Gibbs as he commented, "Just because you have experience doesn't mean that experience is good." McMillian has 25 starts over the past two seasons and really took over as a leader in the secondary once DJ Hayden went down with his season ending injury last year, leading the team with 5 interceptions and 6 passes defended. Bates has started 6 games (3 in each of the past 2 seasons) and has 17 passes defended in 38 career games. Both have been inconsistent over their careers and their size (or lack thereof) has led to many opposing wide receivers catching jump balls over their heads (McMillian is 5'10 and a tad under 180 while Bates packs 185 pounds onto his 5'10 frame). While they both will probably start, the competition behind them is certainly hot and heavy amongst newcomers William Jackson (6'1, 175), Turon Walker (5'11, 190), redshirt freshman Brandon Wilson (5'10, 195) and junior Alex Tillman (5'10, 187). Jackson and Walker are JC transfers (Jackson being out of Trinity Valley in Athens, Tx and Walker from Diablo Valley - Pleasant Hill, Cali), whom are both showing good coverage skills to garner potential playing time this season if either McMillian or Bates falters. Wilson was originally recruited as a running back but the move to corner has him flourishing in his role as the potential nickel back as he has ‘mad hops' (as the kids say) that allow him to go up and take the ball away from taller receivers. Tillman, the veteran of the crew, is also having a nice camp according to coaches and is pushing for playing time as well.
The mark of a great defense is determined by how few points it allows (obviously), and that's ultimately accomplished by knowledge transfer of the scheme from the coaches to players, as Stewart praises Coach Gibbs, "The scheme is different but easier. He taught me not only how to play the position but why. Like if we're in a ‘cover-3' he shows me why we're doing it. I know the entire defense hasn't taken a day off (since he's been hired) and we definitely have something to prove."
Stay tuned to Coogfans.com over the next week as a special teams preview should be out along with a game preview article on the Southern Jaguars as we look forward to an exciting 2013 season!