Spring Football: Questions & Answers (Part 2)

The defensive answers in the scrimmage were outstanding on both teams. On the Orange the defensive line was good all the way across. Victor DeGrate, who was good all spring, played with a slight injury and had four tackles. Darnell Smith had only two tackles but recovered an Al Pena fumble and returned it 14 yards to set up a Bruce Redden field goal. Ryan McBean and Larry Brown were a wrecking crew inside (A&M fans will have to pardon the borrowing of the term).

McBean had five tackles, four for losses including two sacks for minus-21 yards. Brown had two tackles including a four-yard sack. New starting linebackers Jeremy Nethon, a player dismissed from the team a year ago, and freshman Chris Collins each had seven tackles, and Collins simply punished ball carriers with his hits.

Spring cornerback sensation Jacob Lacey laid off enough to entice White quarterback Zac Robinson to throw the out to Jeremy Broadway. Lacy then ran through the pass and took off with the interception for a 53-yard touchdown. Later, Martel Van Zant playing behind an intended receiver picked off an Al Pena pass and returned it 48 yards for a touchdown.

And if the defensive standouts on the Orange weren't enough throw in Grant Jones from the White team. The seemingly homeless talent from Pawnee proved he needs to be at home at safety as he picked off two passes, both big time catches. He also forced a fumble on a long pass play to Bowman. Jones led the White and all defenders in the game with nine tackles.

As for the spring overall, here's the questions answered and unanswered.

Can the Defensive Line be the Strength of the Defense? – Answered
This is a real strength of the team. Whenever you have experienced starters like Nathan Peterson and Marque Fountain playing on the second line you can feel pretty good about things. Returning starter Xavier Lawson-Kennedy and contributor Jeray Chatham are the second line tackles. Notice no use of the word back up as defensive coordinator Vance Bedford, who gives plenty of credit to defensive line coach Nelson Barnes and the second year he has had with all of the defensive linemen, says starting doesn't mean as much as finishing.

"I want a rotation with at least two players at each position," said Bedford. "We'll rotate them often over the first three quarters and then everybody should have fresh legs still going to the fourth quarter, and we'll play the guys that have played the best as long as they can go in the fourth quarter."

The first line throughout spring had Victor DeGrate and Darnell Smith at defensive ends and Ryan McBean and Larry Brown inside. Maurice Cummings has also looked good at both tackle and end during the spring. He is big enough to float at both spots adding even more depth. McBean and Fountain each finished the spring with six sacks to lead the linemen and Peterson intercepted a screen pass and returned it for what would have been a touchdown if the whistle hadn't blown the play dead during the return. Peterson feels with the experience on the defensive line with five seniors, three juniors and a sophomore that the defensive line can really help the offense.

"We want to put them in the best possible situations that we can," said Peterson. "Sacks, stops, tackles behind the line, anything we can do to help out. Coach has pointed out that a sack is like taking away six points. You set them back six or seven yards and most of the time you are going to get the ball back to our offense. We've come a long way and I think we can do some of those things."

There is no doubt that the defensive line is the most experienced and deepest position group on the Cowboys heading into the 2006 season.

Are the Starting Linebackers Firmed Up? – Unanswered
This was thought to be a huge question mark going into the spring. Much like the offensive line there was so much youth and inexperience involved with only Rodrick Johnson at middle linebacker and Jeremy Nethon at safety owning much experience. Enter true freshman Chris Collins at midterm. Collins hadn't played in two years, was once considered the best prep linebacker in Texas as a junior in high school, and then he ran into off the field trouble. The rust came off in a hurry for Collins, who is like a laser going to a ball carrier.

"He doesn't always line up right, but you can live with that when a player makes plays," said defensive coordinator Vance Bedford. "Number 44 is a football player that makes plays. He knows how to play the game."

Nethon has always a solid open field tackler but is still feeling his way at linebacker. He makes plenty of tackles, but needs to make more of them at or close to the line of scrimmage. He is a starter heading into the fall, but will be looked on to show more improvement and better understanding of what he is doing when the team reports back in August. Johnson and Air Force transfer Marcus Brown have both been solid in the middle.

Depth is a question that may be answered in August, but Alex Odiari has proven to be very good as a pass rusher and could see a lot of situational duty. Several walk-ons have helped and my in the fall as well. James Balman, a 6-2 and 230 pounder who also participates in cage fighting, is a transfer from Butler County (Kan.) Community College. He has looked good as a back up. Read through the lines and it seems like Gundy is encouraged by what he sees at the position.

"We are more athletic, but obviously we are inexperienced," said Gundy. "Chris Collins moves side to side really well. Rod Johnson is quicker. The off-season with coach (Rob) Glass has really helped him. I was real concerned whether Rod was athletic enough to play at that position, but he is going to be able to do it. His agility is better. Marcus Brown moves around well, and obviously Nethon moves around well because he used to be a safety. When they overcome the inexperience you'd like to think by game four, five or six that we'd have a chance to be faster from sideline to sideline than we were a year ago."

Read through the lines and it would appear that Bedford expects more than what he has seen. Of course, when you are the defensive coordinator you are probably never totally comfortable unless you are lining up with the Steel Curtain or Doomsday Defense.

How Solid is the Secondary and is There Enough Depth? – Unanswered
With all the heroes in the spring game coming out of the secondary you would expect that this group would be considered a strength and all questions would be answered. It is still an area that concerns the head coach, but he does feel better after the spring.

One of the main reasons Gundy feels better is cornerback Jacob Lacey. Lacey came on in spring to earn a starting position at the corner - becoming the top-ranked corner on the roster. Lacey added some weight in the off-season program and has proven to be a very good cover corner. Calvin Mickens and Martel Van Zant have experience, but there is a concern beyond that. Georgia Military College transfer Scott Broughton is expected to come right in and make the two deep.

Safety is even more depth thin although Andre Sexton having a good spring and the move of Sexton to strong safety has helped. Donovan Woods is at free safety, and has adapted well. He moves to free safety as the coaches trust him with those responsibilities and his maturity is a big assist in the secondary. Depth is thin and inexperienced. However, the strong showing by Grant Jones in the spring game could help out. Expect more examination and probably some moves or new names in the depth chart based on preseason camp in August.

Expect the secondary to be re-examined in August with a check of the improvement of the returning players and a solid look at how Broughton and high school All-American cornerback Perrish Cox could fit into the depth chart going into the season.

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