This years defensive unit has been defined two big story lines, one off the field and one on it. First, the charges filed against Trent Mackey and the subsequent suspension was huge blow to the team's defensive identity. Mackey had a total of 145 tackles last year which is an amazing statistic considering the closest to him was Darryl Farley with 69 tackles. His performance last year earned him preseason Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year honors this year while also drawing interest from NFL scouts. There is no way to sugarcoat how big of a loss he is, but Coach Curtis Johnson continues to drive home the "next man up" philosophy.
The second story is the influx of young talent in the defensive secondary. Darion Monroe, Jordan Batiste, and Lorenzo Doss are all generating buzz about their abilities and their potential to be big time contributors early on in their college career. While he was recruiting earlier this year Coach Johnson talked about how the team needed some speed in the defensive backfield and it appears that problem has been remedied somewhat with the addition of these talented freshman. They have all battled for time during camp and it is very possible that the #1 and #2 cornerbacks will both be freshman.
On the defensive line there continues to be concern about their size up the middle and the depth at those positions. RS-Sophomore Kenny Welcome, junior Julius Warmsley, and freshman Corey Redwine are the core at defensive tackle and how they fair will be something to watch as the season progresses. On the outside senior Austen Jacks, RS-junior Devin Williams, junior Wendell Beckwith, and senior Casey Blum make up the rotation. Devin Williams has been moved inside on some plays as well. I'm not entirely sure what to make of this unit quite yet besides that their depth may be problematic if they suffer a few injuries, especially with the absence of Michael Pierce. Although they are both listed as linebackers on the roster, sophomore Kerchal Byrd and freshman Royce LaFrance have both been practicing at end. Those moves do not seem like temporary, need based solutions as they have not been in at linebacker at all during camp. The front four may have trouble creating pressure on their own without a pass rushing specialist but the coaches may look to more blitz packages for disruption.
Returning to the issue of size, Coach Johnson said during media day that his solution was substituting speed for size. It sounds like a convenient solution but it is easier to accept knowing that much of Tulane's schedule features teams that utilize spread offenses. Having the ability to play sideline-to-sideline is important when facing the likes of Houston, SMU, or Tulsa.
At linebacker the team is looking for ways to ease the loss of Mackey, however difficult that may be. Junior Zach Davis has done an admirable job stepping in and assuming his spot. Coach Johnson has spoken after practices about how he thinks that Davis is doing a good job in terms fundamentals and being in the right spot. While not as athletic as Mackey, Davis effectively fills the right gaps and puts himself in position to make the play. When in the 4-3 formation RS-senior Darryl Farley and sophomore Matthew Bailey have been playing with the first unit on the outside. Farley missed a lot of camp due to injury but when he finally got out there he demonstrated why he was second on the team in tackles last year. He provides a much needed physical presence. RS-sophomore Cameron DeJean and junior Logan Hamilton both missed portions of camp battling injuries, however they will both be ready for the season and will be the main source of depth.
Another interesting development at linebacker is the frequency at which the coaches have lined up junior Dominique Robertson and sophomore Renaldo Thomas at outside linebacker. This aligns with the speed substituting size attitude and how much they play situationally will be something to watch. Thomas is listed as a safety and Robertson spent time with the defensive backs initially at camp but the coaches want to use their speed to their advantage. I think they like their ability to get pressure via speed as well as being able to cover slot receivers and tight ends. They will be used more sparingly against more run-orientated teams but will surely see action in passing situations.
Something to consider is the frequency at which the defense has been lined up in the nickel formation. Typically there is a combination of Farley/Davis/Bailey in the two linebacking spots with Darion Monroe and Jordan Batiste as the outside corners and senior Ryan Travis at nickel corner. Of course a lot of the teams Tulane faces implement plenty of 3-4 WR sets but the staff also seems to like this formation in less than obvious situations. If speed is the name of the game having more defensive backs out there makes logistical sense.
Moving back to the defensive backs - this has been one of the most talked about units during fall camp and most of it is very positive. Darion Monroe has displayed a lot of skill and the coaching staff has spoken glowingly about him. Coach Johnson thinks he can play him at any position, including safety. Jordan Batiste and Lorenzo Doss have also had solid camps and figure to be in the mix to see a lot of playing time this year. Senior Ryan Travis is the elder statesman and as I mentioned earlier has been playing mostly at nickel. Most of the questions regarding this unit revolve around the safeties. As it stands now, senior Shakiel Smith and junior Kyle Davis appear to be the starters although sophomore offensive-convert Brandon Lebeau has been pushing them a little bit. RS-senior Alex Lauricella is also a factor however he has had to deal with the lingering effects of a serious knee injury from last year. When addressing the safety position Coach Johnson was more reserved and uncertain than he typically is about other positions, so it is very possible that the team will try shaking things up there if they are not pleased with their performance (maybe even moving one of the freshman corners there).
After giving up 37.5 points per game (115th in FBS) last year and allowing 410.3 yards per game (83rd in FBS) the defense definitely needs to improve in order to rack up a few more wins. The influx of younger talent is a step in the right direction however the freshman, especially at defensive back, will certainly take some lumps. The loss of Trent Mackey does not make improvement any easier but perhaps a fresh direction under coaches Lionel Washington and Jon Sumrall will lead to some progress. The defense looked strong at times during fall camp but that could very well be a result of the offense continuing to learn and making some mistakes.
Players to Watch
1. DBs Darion Monroe/Jordan Batiste/Lorenzo Doss
How these three translate to gameday will be a big storyline. There are plenty of reasons to be excited and optimistic about how they will perform.
2. LB Zach Davis
The absence of Trent Mackey places a lot of pressure on Davis to step up.
3. LBs Dominique Robertson/Renaldo Thomas
How will placing them at linebacker play out? It will be interesting to see if they can add some playmaking ability with their athleticism and speed.
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