As another observer explained, "His struggles really hurt the defense at times and made for problems with the defensive backfield. I am not saying he isn't a loss, but I don't think his shoes will be as big to fill as others do."
Currently A.J. Wallace and Lydell Sargeant are seeing first-team winter session work. Ironically, it was Wallace who took the starting job from Sargeant during the final four games of the season. Wallace ended the season with 33 tackles, seeing action in all 13 games.
"A.J.'s really starting to make the corner — no pun intended — on his play," an observer said. "He is more comfortable in coverage and is playing tighter on routes. He had a nice [interception] in the bowl game and could really be the guy to step in for Justin if he keeps his head in the game and doesn't focus too much on making the big play — that is where he tends to get sloppy."
Sargeant has been focused on his open-field coverage and tackling technique. According to an observer, "He's got to wrap ‘em up, particularly when he has to drop off from coverage on a run to the wing. They have been working him on mirror drills to help him anticipate the movement of a ball carrier to help him engage."
Despite some inconsistency, Sargeant ended the year as the team's third leading tackler with 70 takedowns, over 60 percent of which were solo grabs.
Backing up Wallace and Sargeant currently are Devin Fentress and Willie Harriott, two players who have been relatively quiet over the course of their careers. Observers say both considered recent departures from the team. However, given the current state of the depth chart and the opportunity it presents to them, the consensus seems to be that neither is expected to depart in the immediate future.
Despite having impressive speed, the concern concering the play of both revolves around their size. As one observer explained, "Both guys have size issues; you put a guy like Derek Moye on Harriott and that's like an eight- or nine-inch advantage. James Hardy had about seven inches on Justin — remember how that turned out? These corners need size and speed to really be consistently effective." And height is not the only concern. At about 170 and 180 pounds, respectively, Fentress and Harriott can "get knocked off a route by the bigger wideouts." As another observer said, "They really don't have the size to jam a guy to shift him off his lane."
There are a few X-factors with the corner situation, namely Knowedge Timmons and Tony Davis. Timmons, who is currently serving a suspension from the team, is a player who may be back, but that remains to be seen. If he does make a return, he will provide some needed depth. "If Knowledge gets back, he needs to screw his head on and fly straight if he really wants to contribute."
Another possibility is a shift of Davis from safety to corner, a position at which he started at two seasons ago. Keep in mind this has been mentioned as a possibility among several observers, but they also indicated that a decision on any move had not been made as of this writing. "Tony has some experience, but personally I think he fits in better as a safety. He's not as sharp on the wings," an observer said.
Looking at the strong safety position Anthony Scirrotto is seeing first-team winter reps and is, not surprisingly, the expected starter at the position. "It's great for Anthony that his off-field issues are wrapping up. Now he can focus on his position and really not stew on the other distractions," one observer said. "I do think the experience helped him to mature and appreciate the opportunity he in front of him more."
Backing up Scirrotto has been Nick Sukay. Sukay is an "aggressive," "physical," "intense" player who "has worked with Anthony [Scirrotto] … which has paid dividends." Sukay has been focused on managing his control to avoid overpursuits while gaining a better understanding of the playbook and role of the safety. "It's not a position where you just go out there and run — you have to anticipate and really understand how to run and angle your pursuit. Nick has good instincts, but he needs to learn to trust them," one observer explained.
At the free safety position has been Davis and Mark Rubin. Again, this is a situation where Davis saw starting reps early in the season and Rubin saw them in the last several games. "They are two different types of players; Mark has like four inches and 15 pounds on Tony, but Tony's more athletic and quicker," an observer shared. "It's going to allow [safeties coach] Kermit [Buggs] the ability to provide some different secondary looks based on the situation."
Other guys who are expected to make an impact on the depth chart this spring are Drew Astorino and Chaz Powell. Powell has had a "monster winter," according to one observer. "He's really elevated his physique and really tackled the weights." Powell has good size at 6-foot, 192 pounds and good speed and "aggression, but he needs to get a handle on controlling his runs. At times he goes top gear and completely takes himself out of a play."
Astorino is described consistently as a "pure athlete." Although he is "raw" with his technique, he is "very coachable and realizes he has to put in the extra effort to surpass the guys around him who may have more natural ability." Several observers have named Astorino as a player they expect could really contribute to the depth of the unit this coming season. "He has a nose for the ball and, with some work, could really be refined into an impact player."
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