It's true Safety/Husky Coach Corey Batoon has an ace up his sleeve not available this spring - Husky Tony Conner, expected back in fall camp, but at this juncture, he can't afford to take that for granted.
His spring reality is that he's got one player - C.J. Hampton - who has any appreciable experience out there now.
But what is apparent to even the novice eye is the athletic talent available is good, it's just a matter of molding it into productive players within the defensive system.
"The competition has been real good. W’ve been trying to take a look at really the three new guys. Montrell Custis is like a new guy because we redshirted him early and moved him around to a couple of positions," said Batoon. "Then we’ve got Greg (Eisworth) and Myles (Hartsfield) with us right now at the safety position. We’re trying to juggle getting a good look at those guys, figuring out what they’re going to be able to give us in the future and also trying to plug in new guys at the other two positions.
"Right now we’ve got Zedrick Woods playing the Rover position where Trae play last year. CJ Moore is also playing Rover. Hamp ... C.J. Hampton’s playing the free. We moved AJ Moore, taking a look at him at the free safety position as well as Armani Linton. We’ve got the three freshmen - Custis, Hartsfield and Eisworth - all kind of playing the Husky position because we’re going to keep Tony out of spring ball. We’ve got a couple of guys that have been in the system 2-3 years. They know the terminology, just trying to see where they best fit in our system. Spring is the best time to do that."
The experience will have to come from Hampton, who has his opportunity to lead that group now.
"He’s got the opportunity now. Came in ... maybe should have redshirted that freshman year but didn’t have the depth that we wanted, so he had to play," Corey explained. "The benefit is that he learned the system, and we haven’t really moved him around to a bunch of different positions. He knows that position. He’s a very good vocal leader out there. He helps those kids get lined up, a lot of the checks, we’re rolling some new corners in there. Jalen Julius comes to mind, so he’s been great in terms of communication. He's been able to play a little bit better, a little bit faster. He’ll have every opportunity to see what he can do. We need him to step up."
Woods is believed to be the frontrunner at the Rover spot after playing all three positions, and the dime, last seasona s a true freshman.
"Red, we played, jeez, in the course of the fall all the positions for us except corner," Batoon stated. "He played dime, started for us, was our dime back. He played Husky some when Tony went down, played Rover, played Free. He knows our stuff. He has a very good football IQ for a freshman, really just trying to find a place that he fits and feels most comfortable, because knowledge-wise he knows all four of the positions. With him we have some ability to move him around. Depends on how some of the others come along too."
With Conner out, Custis seems to have the edge at the Husky slot for now.
"He started off at corner, and then we moved him back to the Husky position. He was kind of back and forth. We knew pretty early that he wasn’t going to be in the fold so when you kind of go in redshirt mode sometimes you turn your brain off and kind of put yourself on the shelf, but this offseason was really good for him. He got in the weight room, changed his body," Corey assessed. "He was a corner body, now you look at him out there, and he’s one of our biggest safeties. He’s done a great job in the offseason. From an understanding perspective he’s really come on. A lot of young guys are still processing things and playing slow. He's not processing, he’s out there reacting and playing a lot faster than I thought he could. He’s having a really good spring. A few days into it but so far it’s been really good."
True freshman Hartsfield has also turned some heads early in spring training.
"Looks like a guy that’s not out of high school, spent a year in prep school. Looks kind of similar to a junior college guy in terms of his maturity," Corey said. "He’s a physical kid. He’s put on some weight since he’s gotten here. He’s about 200 pounds. He has the coverage skills you want where he could possible go back to corner if we need. He could play all five of the positions back there. He was a really good get for us."
Linton is now 212 pounds and, if he puts on much more weight, will be looking at outside linebacker, but for now, he's a free safety.
"Because of the earely decision to redshirt him, he's playing like a freshman. I think he’s still trying to feel his way through it. There’s still processing going on, which there should be, it’s practice 4," said Batoon. "He knows it, but again, you can see glimpses of it when maybe we can adjust some of the variables it’s just a half deal where maybe in skelly when there’s no run-pass conflict. As he gets more confidence in himself he’ll be fine. There’s something there. There some athleticism there. There’s length that we desperately need. There’s size. He’s just got to be able to put it all together."
Batoon is hoping the Moore twins, being in the system for the third year, will also be able to contribute big to the cause.
"We need experienced guys to step up," he closed.
At the safety slots and husky, there are plenty of athletic candidates, but Batoon has his hands full getting them "game ready."
This spring, every rep will count with the youth and inexperience he is working with.