The Rebels had one of the most porous defenses in the NCAA last season, but are led by one of the most exciting players in the nation in strong safety and Mountain West Conference defensive player of the year Jamaal Brimmer. After a 21 tackle freshman campaign, Brimmer exploded last season, racking up 100 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, six passes defended, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Brimmer and stellar middle linebacker Adam Seward, however, could not salvage the Rebels defense, which struggled to slow down opponents last season.
Key Stats: NCAA rank in ( )
Scoring defense: 30.5 (84)
Rushing: 159.1 (60)
Yards per carry: 3.97
Passing: 234.7 (82)
Yards per pass: 7.24
Total defense: 393.8 (76)
Yards per play: 5.43
Turnovers forced: 18—9 interceptions, 9 fumbles
Sacks: 27 for 204 yards
Defensive Line Analysis:
In seniors Dietrich Canterberry and Joe Oniwor, the Rebels have a pair of 300-pound returning starters at tackle that combined for 58 tackles last season. At one end spot is another senior and returning starter, Chris Eagen, who tallied 45 tackles and four sacks last season. The Rebels expect Eagen to garner all-conference accolades this fall. The former junior college All-American missed spring practices with an abdominal injury that is not expected to hinder him this fall.
The addition to the starting quartet is probably the line's best player, sophomore Leon Moore. The 6-5 255-pound end earned first-team freshman All-American honors after tallying 11 tackles for loss and three sacks in his initial campaign.
The top reserves are tackles junior Brian Nicholson, redshirt freshman Stephen Hall, junior Isaiah Tafua and ends senior Pete Dunbar and redshirt freshman Ryan Heise.
Junior all-conference middle linebacker Adam Seward highlights this unit. Seward had a team-leading 133 tackles last season, good for third in team history. He also added 8 TFL.
Ryan Claridge returns to the starting lineup after missing all of last season with an hernia. In 2001, Claridge had 71 tackles, eight TFL and an incredible six forced fumbles. The 250-pound Claridge is quick enough to play on the Rebels tennis team, on top of being a top-notch linebacker. Claridge would have started on the weakside last season, but this fall he will move to the strongside to replace Tyrone Tucker. Completing the starting unit will be either Reggie Butler or John Andrews, both juniors.
The linebackers corps has solid depth with either Butler or Andrews joined in reserve by strongside ‘backer Zach Bell and middle linebacker Terrence Young, both juniors, who started last season in place of Claridge on the weakside and tallied 21 and 42 tackles respectively.
Apart from Brimmer, this unit is in flux. Sophomore Joe Miklos moved from linebacker to free safety and will compete with junior college transfer Will Tagoai at free safety.
At cornerback, redshirt freshman and converted wide receiver Jason Rogers will likely be joined by junior Ruschard Dodd-Masters. Dodd-Masters started three games at weakside linebacker and the final three games of the season at corner and had 48 tackles and two interceptions last season. Sophomore David Olsen, junior Jesus Wright, true freshman Ernest Gordon and senior Daniel Jones will push the projected starters for playing time.
Brimmer, Seward and Claridge are practically locks as first-team all-conference performers and any of the three may earn All-America honors. In addition, Moore is a budding star. The defensive line will be serviceable, but likely will not make many difference-making plays. The secondary is chocked full of athleticism but aside from Brimmer is extremely short on experience. Only Dodd-Masters had an impact on the defense last season and Olsen, like Rogers, is a converted receiver. The unit will likely make some big plays, but will give up plenty as well. The team does not have an established pass rush and, though Moore and Eagen should be improved, a consistent rush is question mark. The linebackers are very good, and Brimmer is one of the best defensive players in the country, but they may have a lot of covering up to do.