2011 Wyoming Preview – Defense
CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - Wyoming Cowboy Defense
Preview 2011 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: The defense has to start being more disruptive, and this year it'll have to start taking more chances after doing little to get into the backfield and nothing to take the ball away. The defensive front has got to be a strength with all four starters returning, and if it's not, it's uh-oh time with five starters being replaced in a smallish, athletic back seven. Tashaun Gipson is a great corner to work around, but the safeties are a question mark. The linebacking corps will see some movement with Brian Hendricks going from the middle to the outside, and while the stats will be there for the corps, the group needs to be tougher against the run.
Star of the defense: Senior DE Josh Biezuns
Tackles: Brian Hendricks, 80
Sacks: Josh Biezuns, 6
Interceptions: Tashaun Gipson, 3
Player who has to step up and be a star: Sophomore CB Marqueston Huff
Unsung star on the rise: Senior LB Oliver Schober
Best pro prospect: Senior CB Tashaun Gipson
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Biezuns, 2) Gipson, 3) DE Game Knapton
Strength of the defense: Defensive Line, Athleticism
Weakness of the defense: Back Seven Experience, Takeaways
State of the Unit: The defensive line was supposed to be a bit of an issue after losing most of its top players, and it was. The run defense was abysmal, the pass rush was non-existent, and there wasn't enough consistency or production throughout the season. Now the hope is for a major improvement with all four starters returning and promising backups to work with.
The best returning player up front should be Gabe Knapton , a 6-3, 263-pound senior who made 128 stops as a linebacker in 2009 and made 67 stops with four sacks and seven tackles for loss in his first year on the end. He bulked up big-time over the last few years, adding around 20 pounds, and now he needs to do more against the run while being a good pass rusher to work around. Speedy redshirt freshman Sonny Puletasi has the smarts and the athleticism, and he has to find a role early on as a pass rushing specialist.
6-2, 260-pound senior Josh Biezuns led the team with 6.5 sacks with 10.5 tackles for loss and 61 tackles and he'll be the main man again on the left side. He made 65 tackles as a sophomore and has proven to be strong enough and quick enough to make the transition from linebacker to the line, and while the defensive front has struggled, he hasn't been the reason. Adding even more toughness to the left end will be Mat Birkeness, a 6-4, 256-pound junior who's moving over from defensive tackle. The former tight end worked on the end before moving to tackle, and he has the athleticism to be tried out at linebacker if needed. He made 22 tackles with 1.5 sacks and four broken up passes.
Sophomore Patrick Mertens is built like a 3-4 end at 6-5 and 280 pounds, but he's a tackle after bulking up 20 pounds over the last year. He always had the frame to get bigger, and he did. Now the payoff has to come as he can be used like a nose guard in the middle if needed but should work best as a one-gap tackle. He made 29 tackles with two sacks and three tackles for loss, and he has the potential and skill to grow into the star of the line over the next three years. 6-3, 272-pound junior Ben Durbin will be the main backup on the end after making 16 tackles with two sacks. The former linebacker doesn't seem like a tackle, but he's growing into the job. The hope is that he can use his speed, starring as a 400 and 800 meter sprinter in high school.
Junior Mike Purcell was banged up early last year with a shoulder problem, but he turned out to be fine with 57 tackles and four tackles for loss. At 6-3 and 286 pounds he has decent size, and he has the quickness to get into the backfield. He still might be scratching the surface, as is 6-2, 279-pound Kurt Taufa'asau , who's coming off a terrific offseason. He's not huge, but he's tough and quick.
Watch Out For … a big improvement. There's no reason for a line with this much experience, this much depth, and this many options to be so bad again. Unlike last year, this is a bigger group with several players hitting the weights hard.
Strength: Options. The line gets all four starters back and has good reserves waiting to check in the rotation. If the first line isn't getting the job done, the second string should get a shot.
Weakness: Proven production. There are some decent pass rushers like Biezuns and Knapton, but there's still a lot to prove for a line that was so bad at times in a year of transition. Basically, the front four is long on potential and short on stops.
Outlook: There's a big chance the Cowboy defensive front goes from being a liability to the team's biggest strength. The rotation should be excellent and there should be more production in the backfield. No, this isn't going to be the Steel Curtain, but it should be much improved.
Unit Rating: 5
State of the Unit: This is when the linebackers are expected to shine. It was supposed to be a year of transition when the athletic players figured out what they were doing, and while there's a little bit of turnover, the hope should be for more production and more activity. This group can run, but it's not all that big.
The leader will once again be senior Brian Hendricks , a decent veteran who finished third on the team with 80 tackles with great range and good hitting ability. Now he'll move over from the middle to the weakside. Following up a 116-stop 2009, he was all over the place and did a great job of getting in on every play, but he didn't make a whole bunch of stops on his own and he didn't get into the backfield. At 6-1 and 228 pounds, he's like a safety playing linebacker, but he hits bigger than his size. Not just a great football player, he was a star wrestler, getting offers from Oklahoma State and Nebraska, and a state champion-level sprinter. If that wasn't enough, he had a good enough academic career to get Stanford interested.
With Hendricks moving to the outside, 6-0, 235-pound senior Oliver Schober , a native of Munich who learned to play football in Germany and is still figuring out the subtle nuances of the position. Tough and active, he made 46 tackles with three broken up passes last year, and now he should be the team leader with everything funneled his way. Backing up Schober will be sophomore Devyn Harris , a 6-3, 225-pound guided missile who started his career on the weakside and will move to the middle. He made 47 tackles as a key part of the rotation with three tackles for loss and four broken up passes.
Working on the strongside will be a combination of JUCO transfers Mark Jones and Mark Nzeocha at the LEO position. The 6-3, 220-pound Nzeocha, a freshman from Germany, is a safety who'll work at linebacker, and while he needs time to and grooming, he has the athleticism and the hitting skills to be fantastic. The 6-2, 225-pound Jones, a junior, is an all-around playmaker from Garden City CC who made 108 tackles and four sacks at the JUCO level. He's not going to get into the backfield too much, but he'll make every stop he gets a chance at.
Looking to make an impact on the weakside is Todd Knight, a terrific prospect who was a standout this spring and appears ready to push for time. He's not going to shove Brian Hendricks out of a job, but he can see time somewhere on the outside depending on the combinations used. He's a thin 6-2 and 210 pounds, but he can pop. A great recruit for the program, Knight spurned bigger places like Cal, TCU and Boise State for Wyoming with his terrific athleticism and great range.
Watch Out For … Schober. The move of Hendricks to the outside was partly to get him into more space and partly to put Schober in the best possible position. The German native should be a threat to make 100 tackles and will clean up everything for the run defense.
Strength: Quickness. As always, the UW linebackers are safety-sized, but they can all move around. They'll get pushed around by the stronger ground games, but they'll swarm to the ball and will be ultra-aggressive.
Weakness: Plays in the backfield. Here's the problem. If you're going to be smallish and athletic, that's fine as long as there are lots of big things happening. The Cowboy linebackers don't make nearly enough plays behind the line and don't provide any real pass rush to help out the front four.
Outlook: The linebackers struggled throughout last year, and while there's a little bit of turnover and a few key losses, help from the JUCO ranks, and with two Germans making big impacts, the potential is there for a better season. This won't be a strength by any stretch, but the starting three, in whatever combination that turns out to be, should be decent with a little bit of time.
Unit Rating: 4.5
State of the Unit: With no pass rush to help out the cause, the secondary got toasted by any quarterback that could competently throw a forward pass. The defensive backs struggled in coverage, but they could all hit with safety Chris Prosinski leading the way with 108 tackles. Now he's gone, along with two other starters, and it could take a little while before the pass defense can start to shine.
The lone returning starter to the secondary is a good one. 6-0, 208-pound senior Tashaun Gipson has been a three-year playmaker, leading the team with three of the team's nine interceptions last year, and now the veteran corner will need to do even more even though everyone will go away from him. He made 40 tackles with nine broken up passes and 3.5 tackles for loss, and he won't miss a stop in the open field.
Taking over on the other side will be sophomore Marqueston Huff, a nickel back last year who made 18 tackles with a pick. The 6-0, 189-pounder has great range and phenomenal athleticism, and he should grow into the position with a little more time on an island. He'll work in tandem with junior James Caraway , who had a tremendous spring who made two tackles in a special teams role. One of the team's fastest players, he runs a sub-4.4 40 and will be used in some way to get his lightning fast wheels on the field.
Taking over for leading-tackler Chris Prosinski at free safety will be junior Kenny Browder , who at 5-11 and 175 pounds isn't big, but isn't afraid to hit. He made 12 tackles in a reserve role, and with excellent speed and quickness, he can work at corner or safety. He'll work in a combination with senior Eric Mitchell , a try-hard, special teamer type who hasn't seem much defensive work so far making just two tackles last year.
5-11, 195-pound junior Luke Ruff, will have to battle to keep the strong safety job, but he has the range and the hitting ability to be a statistical star. He came up with a good season making 27 tackles last year, and he'll be in on every tackle possible. Battling for time will be JUCO transfer Luke Anderson, a 5-10 195-pounder from Blinn CC who made plenty of big plays and was a tackling machine. Wanted by Texas Tech, the Cowboys got him, and at the very least he'll be a key nickel and dime defender.
Watch Out For … the safeties. Ruff, Browder, and Anderson aren't big, but they can all hit and they can all move. They'll get beaten up from time to time, but they'll put up plenty of stats.
Strength: Gipson. The Cowboys don't have a lot of players who'll scare anyone, but they have a great playmaking corner in Gipson who should take away everyone's No. 1 target. He's good enough to force passing games to go after everyone else.
Weakness: Interceptions. Last year's secondary was supposed to know what it was doing, and it did a whole bunch of nothing to come up with the big play. Gipson came up with three picks, but that's about it for the playmakers returning. The defensive backs will tackle, but can they make passing teams pay?
Outlook: Uh oh. There are several shaky areas on the defense, and safety could be the bigger problem if the new guys can't shine right away. There isn't much in the way of overall talent, but there's good speed and the hope has to be for the athleticism to make up for the inexperience.
Unit Rating: 4.5
State of the Unit: Taking over for Ian Watts, who hit 8-of-10 field goals, will be freshman Daniel Sullivan , a promising bomber with a decent leg and the range to push it from just inside the 50. Consistency will be his key, and considering the problems on the offense, he has to be a factor.
The punting game struggled a bit, but senior Austin McCoy is a decent veteran who has started 35 games and averaged an excellent 42.8 yards per kick putting 17 inside the 20. He isn't getting much help from his coverage teams, but he's a steady, consistent bomber who'd get more credit if he could keep the ball out of the end zone. He has come up with 17 touchbacks over the last two seasons.
The return game could stand to be better after averaging 21.6 yards per kickoff return and 7.7 yards per punt return, and now it'll be up to some new starters with sophomores Brandon Miller and Robert Herron to handle the kickoff returns and sophomore Marqueston Huff the top option returning punts.
Watch Out For … McCoy to get more recognition. He's been around long enough to be in the hunt for All-Mountain West honors on name recognition alone, but with just a little more pop, he could be an All-American.
Strength: McCoy. Considering the offense is among the worst in America and the defense will need all the help it can get, he's a weapon who'll bail the team out of several jams.
Weakness: Coverage teams. The kicking situation is a bit sketchy and the return game could use some help, but the biggest issue is a punt coverage team that allows 13.3 yards per try and a kick coverage unit that allows 22.1 yards per return.
Outlook: The expectations were high last year, but the special teams fizzled. After a strong 2009, the coverage teams and overall kicking game regressed, and now it's starting from near scratch with new starters everywhere but punter. McCoy will be good, and everyone else has to be consistently above average to bail out the team's other issues.
Unit Rating: 5.5
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