David Carter is pretty much assured of one starting spot, and the reports are that he's doing well in the first five practices.
Justin Edison is penciled in at this time as the other starter and still getting most of the reps with the 1s. But we think it's just a matter of time before Nate Chandler, the former tight end, overtakes him. Chandler not only looks physically imposing at 6-5 and 290, but he's very athletic, showing very good explosion and quickness off the snap.
Donovan Carter, the converted linebacker, has gained considerable weight now that he's at defensive tackle. It's been difficult to determine just how well he's doing at this point.
Our money would have to be on Carter and Chandler as the projected starters come September. Then, we anticipate that one of the incoming freshmen, Cassius Marsh or Sealii Epenesa, will be in the two-deep, probably along with Carter or Edison. Andy Keane hasn't really distinguished himself. It's thought, too, that incoming freshman Wesley Flowers will redshirt.
There is probably still a possibility that Datone Jones could also move inside to DT. Here's the theory: Jones, physically, could very well plug in at the three-technique defensive tackle spot; if another of the defensive ends emerged as one of coach Todd Howard's top four linemen, we think Howard could move Jones inside to get his four best on the field. At this point, after five days of spring ball, however, we haven't seen necessarily that there are two other defensive ends who are capable of doing that. Damien Holmes, right now, is the other starter at DE opposite Jones, and he's being doing okay – still a bit physically over-matched at times. Reginald Stokes will be out all of spring practice due to injury. Keenan Graham is the guy you'd think would have the best chance to step up and seize a starting spot, but we haven't noticed that he's distinguished himself yet in spring. Iuta Tepa, physically, has really developed, but we haven't seen a big impact from him as of yet.
But there is also Owamagbe Odighizuwa, the #8-ranked defensive end in the nation for 2010, coming in this fall. Derrick Bryant will be a true freshman, too, but it's believe that Owa would have the best chance at playing time.
Right now, though, after five spring practices, you'd have to think it's more promising that Chandler will emerge as one of the best four DLs as opposed to one of those DEs emerging and Jones moving to DT.
Linebacker is another spot where the coaches have been mixing and matching quite a bit. The only known commodity is Akeem Ayers, and he has been flat-out fantastic in the first five practices. Not that he has the scheme down, he's more able to allow his size and athleticism to take over. It's been shocking sometimes in the scrimmages just how well he can shoot a gap or close on a ball carrier.
The midde linebacker position is easily the most important spot on defense that's up for grabs. Steve Sloan is pretty much the heir apparent, having started games in the past. But Patrick Larimore is coming up fast. Larimore has shown great instincts and intensity – in fact, his primary problem has been his inability to hold back in thud and non-tackling periods. If a guess had to be made, we'd have to go with Larimore – at least, he'll probably be the starter sometime during the season. Todd Golper has looked good in terms of his pure ability and technical skill, but he's fighting the under-sized issue. David Allen, the walk-on that the coaches like, was thought to be a weakside guy, but he's also seen a few reps in the middle.
At the weakside, the under-sized poster boy, Sean Westgate, continues to hold onto the starting spot. But converted safety Glenn Love has looked particularly good, not only in the linebacker drills, where he looks particularly quick for his size, but in the 11-on-11 and 7-on-7s. He says he's about 220 pounds now, but if he comes back in August at 225-plus, and with more playbook-studying and technical work under his belt, it's not tough to see Love stealing that spot. Westgate has the quickness and the smarts, but it's just difficult to believe that at 5-11 and 210 pounds he'll be able to hold up physically.
Jared Koster, the grayshirt who is now in school and in practice, looks to be going through the learning curve of a newbie. I've been told that he has a chance, though, to be pretty good, but isn't someone who could likely contribute next season. He looks to be about 6-1 and 215.
Then, in fall, it will be interesting to see if one of the true freshmen gets a shot at the weakside spot. Josh Shirley could be more of a stronside linebacker type, and could actually even start with his hand down at defensive end. Besides Shirley, we're skeptical that any other of the 2011 recruits would be physically developed enough to come in and immediately contribute.
But there is also Taniela Maka, the 2010 recruit who has been trying to get academically qualified since last spring. The word is that he's been accepted by UCLA admissions, contingent on him successfully passing the JC courses he's currently taking. It's believed by many that Maka could have the best chance among the new players in fall to compete at the spot.
But, as of the first five days of spring practice, the weakside position looks like it will be a Westgate/Love battle, and it very well could evolve into a platoon situation between the two.
The safety positions have been getting some exceptional play this spring. Rahim Moore, of course, is the known commodity at free safety. Dalton Hilliard looks pretty much entrenched as the second-stringer, and he's looked particularly good in the first five practices. In fact, he's gotten some time at strong safety also. Alex Mascarenas, who is a bit of a forgotten man, is the third-string free safety and actually had some moments.
The strong safety is a competition between Tony Dye, the incumbent, and precocious redshirt freshman Stan McKay. And both have been very good so far. Dye looks more instinctual and quicker, and McKay is an all-around great athlete with very good size for the spot. Former running back Christian Ramirez, who returns to his original position of safety this spring, has actually looked very comfortable at free safety.
It would be surprising if incoming freshman Dietrich Riley came in and unseated any among Hilliard, Dye, McKay or Ramirez in the two-deep.
The corners have had a pretty good five spring practices, except for one tragic injury. Again, there's been quite a bit of mixing and matching among the cornerbacks. While it's generally believed Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price will be the starters – and both have had a good start to spring practice -- a couple of other guys have also fared very well and are definitely competing: Courtney Viney and Andrew Abbott. On one hand you have the size with Price and Hester, and then on the other you have the pint-size, with Viney and Abbott, but their experience, combined with their quickness, have made them very effective so far this spring. We haven't seen much yet from Marlon Pollard, but we'll be watching for him more over the next couple of weeks. We noticed he sat out a day of practice recently.
Brandon Sermons, of course, fractured his femur and is out for an unspecified amount of time.
New GA and cornerbacks coach Daronte' Jones has infused a great deal of energy and enthusiasm into the defensive coaching. He's coaching on just about every rep, hopping around and barking encouragement.
Special Teams is pretty well established – with All-American placekicker Kai Forbath and one of the best young punters in the college game, Jeff Locke, as well as All-American longsnapper Christian Yount.
Really the only drama at special teams is who will be the kickoff and punt return specialists. In the rotation at punt returner has been Josh Smith, Randall Carroll, Taylor Embree and Viney. Carroll and Damien Thigpen have been getting looks at kickoff return. It's been a little shaky in catching punts and kickoffs, but it's clearly obvious that the likes of Smith, Thigpen and Carroll definitely increase the big-play speed at the returner spots.