Expectations entering last season on defense were lofty coming off of a stellar 2014 campaign under then coordinator David Gibbs. His unit allowed opponents to score only 20.6 points-per-game (ranking them 15th nationally), down from 36 per game from the previous season. In the run game, they allowed an average of 143 yards while allowing 200 yards in the passing game for 343 yards of total offense. More than that though, they established an identity, an identity of forcing turnovers (30 to be exact). This, a year after forcing an NCAA high 43 turnovers. That identity would be come to known as the “Third Ward Defense.”
When new head Coach Tom Herman was hired last season, he knew his defensive coordinator had to be aggressive, “I wanted to have a guy who knew how to pressure people and knew the strengths and weaknesses of different blitzes,” Herman told Bleacher Report last season before his first game. “I’ve gotta tell you. I think I hit a homerun in getting Todd Orlando.”
Make that a grand slam. All Orlando did as coordinator was lead a unit that held opponents to 20.7 points-per-game (20th), while ranking eighth against the run (108.6 yards-per-game) and were second nationally in turnover margin (with a plus 21), a year after leading the nation in that same category. They did allow 274 yards through the air because of Orlando’s exotic blitz packages that left members of the secondary on an island many times, though the payoff was a nation high 35 turnovers forced (14 fumbles recovered 21 interceptions by the “Jack Boyz”). Let’s take a look at what to look forward to with Spring ball, the upcoming 2016 season and what positions need to be focused on the most as six starters need to be replaced (four in the secondary and one each at linebacker and defensive end).
The biggest focus will probably be on the secondary and deservedly so as they lose four starters and potentially five if cornerback Brandon Wilson (5-foot-11 inches, 200 pounds, RSr.) moves to running back. Wilson is a true leader who’s able to defend the run well from his strong side (51 solo tackles which ranked him fifth on the team). While not having the greatest technique, Wilson is a play maker as he forced two fumbles (one of which he returned 85 yards for a touchdown at UCF), recovered one, intercepted a pass and defended nine passes on the season. Add this to the fact that strength and conditioning Coach Yancy McKnight told me a few weeks ago that Wilson is the strongest Coog, pound-for-pound, on the team and he wished there were 90 more kids like the redshirt senior out of Shreveport, Louisiana. When asked which position he thought Wilson should play, McKnight laughed and said, “At the next level he’s going to play whichever position he wants.”
Even though the defense is based out of a 3-4 alignment, they played a 3-3-5, or in a nickel package, often because of the teams they played (pass first), along with the fact that most of their talent and experience was on the backend of the defense. In losing corner William Jackson and safeties Trevon Stewart, Adrian McDonald and nickel back Lee Hightower; the defense loses almost 30-percent of their total solo tackles along with a combined 14 interceptions, 43 passes defended and 7 fumble recoveries. McDonald also graduates as the leading ‘interceptor’ in Coogs history with 17, along with 7 fumble recoveries. Stewart, or “WorldWide,” takes his 204 solo tackles (including 17.5 for loss), 7 sacks, 10 fumble recoveries and 12 interceptions as a four year starter. Both safeties had that innate ability, or football IQ, to know exactly where the ball was going to be, and get there faster than the offense did many times. As far as Jackson, all he did was lead the nation with 28 passes defended as he was often put on that island outside in man coverage. That kind of production won’t be easy to replace.
Cornerbacks coach Jason Washington returns two cornerbacks who played quite a few snaps last year in Jeremy Winchester (6’0, 190, RSo.) and Howard Wilson (6’1, 185, Jr.). Winchester was inserted into the starting lineup against Memphis late in the season and played well; registering 6 tackles (he had 17 on the season). Seeing his first action on the field last year, Winchester also added three passes defended. Wilson was limited last season, playing in only three games (though he did have an interception and three passes defended). It was the prior season, in which he really impressed as a true freshman, starting three games and appearing in all 13 total. The Desoto product produced 48 total tackles in 2014, with three passes defended and three interceptions proving he can also become a play maker in the secondary. J.J. Dallas (6’0, 200, So.) is a midterm enrollee and a JC transfer from Blinn who, according to Washington, “is very versatile and can play the nickel playing coverage on the slot receiver or cover the outside guy in man coverage if needed.” Joeal Williams (5’10, 185, RSo.) played mainly on special teams last season, adding two tackles in seven games along with a blocked kick. Ka’Darian Smith and Javian Smith (no relations) along with Patrick Rosette enroll in the summer to add depth for training camp.
The two safety positions will be a battle as well as only Khalil Williams (6’0, 200, Jr.) returns with any playing experience. Williams will most likely fit into McDonald’s strong safety role, playing deep as the last line of defense. Williams started three games last season and had 18 total tackles with 5 passes defended and an interception returned for 49 yards. His true freshman season saw his redshirt removed halfway through the season, adding 9 tackles in 7 games. Terrell Williams (6’3, 210, Jr.) is another early enrollee who could make an immediate impact as safeties coach Craig Naivar likes his size and intelligence as he should be a force in the box as a solid run defender. The other scholarshipped safeties who will make a push for playing time are Darius Gilbert (6’2, 195, RFr.), Michael Eke (6’2, 205, RFr.) and Garrett Davis (6’1, 200, RSo.) with only Davis seeing the field, registering 7 tackles in 13 games, mainly on special teams, with a pass defended last season. The real help for this position comes in the summer when Collin Wilder enrolls. A four year starter at Katy High, Wilder reminds me a lot of Stewart in that he oozes leadership, and has a knack for making plays on the ball, ending his career with 413 tackles and 64 straight starts.
The linebacker spot will also be a position where a lot of production will need to be replaced, mainly from one man; Elandon Roberts. After a quiet junior season, the former JC transfer exploded on the scene last year from his middle linebacker spot to lead the nation in solo tackles with 88 (142 total), while adding 19 tackles-for-loss, 6 sacks, forcing 2 fumbles while also playing well in coverage with 6 passes defended and an interception. When I asked Coach McKnight his guess on a Roberts type breakout season by any unknown (to the fans) defender, he said without a doubt, Emeke Egbule (6’0, So.), “He’s fast and getting really big. He came in at around 197 pounds last June and right now he’s at about 226, 227 pounds,” McKnight said laughing. “He doesn’t say a whole lot. He just works really hard and is going to be a big kid and he can really, really run and he competes hard. If he continues doing what he’s doing progression wise, I think he’ll show up during fall ready to have a great season.”
Egbule played mainly on special teams last season registering 11 tackles in 14 games while adding a sack. Lining up next to Egbule inside will probably be Mathew Adams (6’1, 230, Jr.), who much like Howard Wilson, struggled last season with injuries but made quite the impact a true freshman two seasons ago with 40 tackles, 4.5 for loss and 2 sacks. Last season he had 49 tackles though he only started 3 games, with 2.5 for loss and 2 sacks. D’Juan Hines (6’1, 225, RJr.) saw a lot of playing time last season in reserve, adding 13 tackles and two QB hurries. Three redshirt freshman who may make an impact could be Jordan Milburn (6’1, 225), Leroy Godfrey (6’3, 240) and Camden Ross (6’2, 245) as they have really put on some size while sitting out last season.
The two outside spots lay in the secure hands of Steven Taylor (6’1, 225, RSr.) and Tyus Bowser (6’3, 240, Sr.). Taylor has been steadily in each of his three seasons with 89, 76 and 92 total tackles the last three seasons. While having 3 and 4 sacks his first two seasons, Orlando lined him up all over the field last season so opposing offensive lines couldn’t get a handle on where he would be blitzing from. Taylor used his blazing speed to up his production to 10 sacks while adding 18.5 tackles-for-loss. Bowser returns with his speed as a pass-rush specialist, de-facto defensive end when going into a four-man front, as he had 5.5 sacks last season and 13 for his career going into his senior season. Bowser is also athletic enough to drop back when Orlando calls for one of his many zone blitzes as he had three passes defended and an interception last season as well. Ralph Harvey Jr. (6’2, 245, Sr.) is one to keep an eye on as a reserve outside backer as he has the size and has had a year in the program to acclimate from the junior college ranks just as Roberts did two seasons ago. Only one linebacker was signed for the 2016 class which was Hasaun Glasgow, who’s really in the Bowser mode as an outside rush linebacker/defensive end. The Manvel product will enter his true freshman season upon enrolling this summer at 6’3, 243 pounds. With time in McKnight’s off-season conditioning program, the sky’s the limit.
Now we get to the area which showed the most improvement last season, the defensive line. Line coach Oscar Giles took a unit which allowed an average of 163 rushing yards over the previous four seasons and meshed them into a hardened group that only allowed 108 last year. The success of the group was keyed by two of the three returning starters in nose tackle B.J. Singleton (6’4, 314) and end Cameron Malveaux (6’6, 270). Rarely did the two redshirt seniors get bulled back as they not only held their ground in the trenches, but caused havoc behind the line of scrimmage in Orlando’s two-gap scheme, allowing the attacking linebackers and safeties to shoot the gaps for sacks or tackles-for-loss. Now in a true 3-4 the D-line won’t take any satisfaction in stats as they rarely show up as is proved by Singleton’s 20 total tackles, including only 11 solo, 2 TFL and a lone sack. Instead they revel in allowing teammates the glory. Singleton also added 3 passes defended via getting his huge mits up in the air to bat passes down. Malveaux used his 6’6 frame to penetrate the line of scrimmage for a unit leading 23 solo tackles, 9 QB hurries and 8.5 tackles-for-loss while also adding 2.5 sacks. Tomme Mark led the line with 36 total tackles and is the lone starter needing to be replaced at end, with that job being contended for by reserves Nick Thurman (6’4, 290, RJr.), Jerard Carter (6’3, 297, RSo.) and Zach Vaughn (6’4, 270, RSo.). Thurman had five tackles for loss and two fumble recoveries as the top reserve in the defensive line rotation last season, with Carter adding two fumble recoveries. Vaughn is looking to step his game up as he didn’t add any stats last season mainly playing on special teams. Chauntez Jackson (6’5, 280, Sr.) and D.J. Jenkins (6’2, 260, RFr.) are two more looking to impress the defensive staff this spring and have plenty of potential.
Of course everyone is awaiting the anticipated arrival of “Big” Ed, Ed Oliver (6’2, 290), as the biggest recruit ever signed, some even comparing him to former Lombardi award winner (76) and the SWC “athlete of the decade” for the 70s, Wilson Whitley. Oliver, according to Giles, is a huge difference maker. The recruiting services agree as he’s ranked as the third best defensive tackle in the nation by Scout and first in-state. Giles said Oliver is almost impossible to move because of his great lower base and has huge hands that allow him to control and disengage from his opponent quickly. As a senior at Houston’s Westfield high, Big Ed recorded an amazing 83 total tackles, including 20 for loss, 9 sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception as a senior. Aymiel Fleming will be another true freshman to keep an eye on this summer as the 284 pounder had 133 career tackles at Texas high school power house La Marque.
For purposes of this article, we’ll include punting as part of the defense because they can flip field position, helping the defense if executed properly. Unfortunately for Washington, punter Logan Piper and his 40 yard punt average are departed. What he was great at was placing opponents inside their own 20-yard line, as he did on nearly 35-percent of his total 107 punts over the past two seasons. The only punter listed on the roster as of this writing is Blake Boyles (6’1, 255, RFr.), out of Sand Springs, Oklahoma. According to the website nationalcampseries.com, “Blake is a young upcoming player. Continues to build on fundamentals. Needs to work on footwork having a smooth flow and explosion through the ball. As he continues to grow and become more flexible he will increase his ball trajectory.” It did mention the lefty as having a huge leg which is something to start with. Joel Scarbrough (5’10, 182, RFr.) is listed as a kicker but will also contend for the starting punting role with Boyles as he received an Honorable Mention on the 6A All-State football team out of Langham Creek in 2014.
In recap, the focus this spring should be getting back to fundamental football. The combination of Taylor, Roberts and Stewart simply overwhelmed opponents last season as they blitzed from every conceivable angle, my favorite being the double-A gap blitz up the middle. This blitz is all about timing. The reason Taylor, Roberts and Stewart were hell on wheels was because they understood gap principles and always maintained gap integrity. Even though Orlando’s blitzes looked like uncontrolled chaos, it was very much controlled. The trio could blitz out of the same defensive front but could be assigned different gap fits based on the coverage called and where the safety was inserted. With new players on each level, the work on regaining this same type of chemistry last season’s defense had begins on Monday.