Three weeks ago, prior to spring training, Defensive Coordinator Tyrone Nix was looking for several things from his troops during the next 15 practice.
A better understanding of the defensive scheme.
Doing the little things right.
And developing more toughness as a unit.
After watching the 17-17 tie in an obviously evenly-matched Red-Blue Game Saturday, he was not about to say all of those things had been accomplished by his side of the ball, but he saw them headed in that direction.
"We have an understanding of our responsibilities, our schemes, our coverages - and gaining the knowledge of everything we wanted to do schematically and learning to play faster was one of our main priorities," said Nix. "I think we got a lot done in that area.
"I also felt like we were more physical at several positions. I am biased toward the linebackers, but I think they are a physical group of guys. Some of that is due to their size and the rest is due to the way they attack practice and their day-to-day habits. It's been a real physical spring. We wanted to become more mentally and physically tough and I think we accomplished some of those things. We paid a price with a lot of injuries, but it needed to be done that way to instill that toughness in them. We are better fundamentally, and tackling is the number one defensive fundamental. We did better flying around and getting people on the ground."
Nix kept his train of thought with the linebackers.
"I don't think there is any doubt Clarence Jackson, Ralph Williams and Mike Marry, really young LBs, can handle it if they will continue to work and improve this summer, they will help," he stated. "And I am just going to tell it like it is - (freshman) C.J. Johnson is going to factor in. He will play. We are going to have a rotation.
"I really liked the way Ralph attacked the spring. He has stepped up. He will get better and better. He played DE in high school and is learning the MLB slot now. He has real intensity and passion for the game. He's tough and physical."
Nix then shifted to the Rebel secondary.
"I have been very happy with (CB) Wesley Pendleton. He has outstanding speed and we feel we can lock him down on a lot of the receivers in this conference," Ty noted. "CB Charles Sawyer finished spring strong and is stepping up to being the kind of player we thought he could be. The expectations on him are high.
"The guy I am waiting to get back is Marcus Temple. He is not only a four-year starter in certain packages, but he's a leader. He may be the best player who's not out there right now. Brishen Mathews had an active day today and Ivan Nicholas had a pick and long return."
Up front, there are still some decisions to make, according to Nix.
"It's still undecided up front. Carlton Martin was having an outstanding spring before he got injured. He was starting to separate himself. It hurt Carlton to miss those spring reps, but he will be OK," said Nix. "Justin Smith also did a good job. At nose, it's up for grabs, but Bryon Bennett made some plays and Gilbert Pena did some good things despite needing more conditioning.
"We also believe Uriah Grant should be able to help us and maybe even a guy like signee Woodrow Hamilton. They all need to work hard this summer.
"At defensive end, Jones and Cameron Whigham came out uninjured and improved a lot. Cameron rushed the passer well in the Red-Blue Game, as did Carlos Thompson - I thought they were the best pass rushers on the day. They got after Randall Mackey pretty good all day. Gerald Rivers and Wayne Dorsey missed a lot of spring. I don't think it will hurt Rivers much, but I wanted to see more out of Wayne. He was just starting to put himself in position to make more plays and I wanted to see that next step to finishing plays."
When OLB D.T. Shackelford went down, Nix was looking for someone to step up in the leadership department.
"The biggest step in leadership came from DE Jason Jones. He's been under the radar some, but nobody can match his work ethic and character and he's the first who comes to mind in leadership, sans D.T.," Tyrone stated. "(MLB) Mike Marry has also grown to a certain level in leadership. (SS) Damien Jackson has a chance in that area as well and we can't forget (DE) Kentrell Lockett just because he is not practicing now. He has proven his leadership abilities in the past.
"We may not have as dynamic a leader as D.T., but we will have some guys step up and maybe it will be more of a unit thing, where everyone takes a piece of the leadership."
Overall, no major complaints from Nix as spring ended.
"I'm not suggesting we don't have a lot to do between now and September, but spring training was a very good start," he closed.
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