2011 Memphis Preview – Defense
Memphis DT Dontari Poe
CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - Memphis Tiger Defense
Preview 2011 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: After having absolutely nothing go right in 2010, Memphis is seeking a defensive do-over. The Tigers were shredded in every way imaginable, ranking no higher than eighth in Conference USA in run defense, pass defense, scoring D, sacks, or takeaways. The promising news for second-year coordinator Jay Hopson is that he used a ton of young players throughout last season. DL Frank Trotter, NT Dontari Poe, and LB DeRon Furr will continue to be the mainstays, but there's hope that last fall's freshmen have grown up. Underclassmen, such as DE Corey Jones and corners Lonnie Ballentine, Taurean Nixon, and Mohammed Seisay represent hope for better days down the road. It's hard to imagine things getting any worse for a unit that was treated like a piñata in 2010.
Star of the defense: Senior DE Frank Trotter
Tackles: Frank Trotter, 80
Sacks: Terrence Thomas, Corey Jones, Dasmine Cathey, 3
Interceptions: Mohammed Seisay, 2
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore CB Taurean Nixon
Unsung star on the rise: Junior LB DeRon Furr
Best pro prospect: Junior NT Dontari Poe
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Trotter, 2) Poe, 3) Furr
Strength of the defense: The defensive line, upside of the young corners, team speed
Weakness of the defense: Pass defense, the pass rush, run defense, third down defense, red zone D, lack of turnovers
State of the Unit: Whatever optimism that exists for the upcoming season can likely be traced to this group, the most talented in Memphis. The Tigers lose little from a year ago, returning three starters, eight linemen with a letter on the resume, and a pair of holdovers with all-league potential. If much-needed defensive progress is made in 2011, it's going to begin with this unit.
Senior Frank Trotter arrived last season for the Tigers, making 80 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, and five quarterback hurries to earn honorable mention All-Conference USA recognition. The program's Defensive Lineman of the Year, he can play inside or outside at 6-2 and 265 pounds, using his quick hands and quicker feet to beat his man and make penetration into the backfield.
At nose tackle, Memphis boasts an SEC-caliber interior lineman, 6-5, 350-pound behemoth
junior Dontari Poe. An immovable object on the interior, he's been a starter since arriving, making 41 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, and two sacks last season. Shockingly quick and decisive for a player of his size, he's coachable and fundamentally sound, which could help him play on Sundays once he's through as a Tiger.
The defense will need more help on the edge, especially at those times when Trotter lines up on the inside. Sophomore Corey Jones cracked the lineup toward the end of his first season, making 24 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and three sacks. Now up to 6-3 and 260 pounds, he could give the Tigers the edge presence it's desperately seeking. Senior Daniel Thomas is bucking for a starting assignment after lettering in his first year out of Mesa (Ariz.) Community College. The 6-2, 255-pounder got acclimated with 16 tackles and 1.5 stops for loss. As situational third-down rushers go, 6-4, 210-pound senior Dasmine Cathey is a productive one. Despite seeing spot duty in 2010, he still managed to contribute 23 tackles, six stops for loss, and three sacks.
A smaller, quicker version of Poe, 6-2, 305-pound sophomore Johnnie Farms is slated to be the backup at the nose. After playing in just three games as a rookie, he's too talented and disruptive not to enjoy an expanded role. In order to add more depth to the interior, former offensive lineman Tommy Walker has been moved to defense, where his career began. The 6-3, 280-pounder has earned three letters and should have few problems with this transition.
Watch Out For … the development of Jones and Farms. Both showed flashes early in their careers, boding well for the defense in the future. Jones, in particular, wasted no time getting used to the feel of the game, and has a chance to capitalize on the attention Poe and Trotter will receive from opposing blockers.
Strength: The Trotter-Poe duo. Very different players. Very similar results. Between the suddenness of Trotter and the strength of Poe, the Tigers have a pair of talented linemen, who can consistently collapse the pocket and create opportunities for teammates.
Weakness: Stopping the run. As a whole, the line simply didn't get enough of a push in 2010, too often getting driven back off the line of scrimmage. Memphis was 81st nationally against the run, yielding 172 yards a game and 4.4 yards per carry.
Outlook: The building blocks are in place for the Tigers to quietly have one of the better defensive fronts in Conference USA. Trotter and Poe are vastly underrated away from campus, and Jones and Farms bring youth and energy. And unlike last season, depth doesn't figure to be much of a concern, with experienced players dotting the two-deep.
Unit Rating: 5
State of the Unit: The primary offseason objective will be to overcome the graduation of Jamon Hughes, the program's leading tackler and an All-Conference USA first teamer. It won't be simple. Over the last two years, he had a knack for being around the ball and firing up the rest of his teammates. Sorting out the pecking order on the two-deep is especially critical since Memphis had so much trouble keeping backs from getting beyond the first level of defense.
Hughes came to Memphis via the SEC. Junior DeRon Furr did as well, beginning his career at Auburn. While the two are very different players, they could wind up having similar career trajectories. Furr started 10 games last season, making 58 stops, seven tackles for loss, and two fumble recoveries. A one-time safety, he's grown to 6-3 and 230 pounds, yet still has the range and athleticism to make plays all over the field.
Keeping the SEC trend going, former Arkansas Razorback Khiry Battle is eyeing a full-time job after testing the waters last season. A somewhat squat 6-0, 220-pounder, he loves contact, getting a taste of action and making 13 tackles last fall. A converted strong safety, 6-1, 195-pound junior Akeem Davis is making a move to linebacker, where his athleticism can spark the unit. Felled by a knee injury last year, he's closing in on a starting assignment and looking for a bigger role on defense. Although he played sparingly and made just seven tackles, the coaches are very high on junior Ricky Holloway now that he's a little bigger and a lot wiser when he gets on the field. A solidly-built 6-1, 235-pounder, he possesses the speed and lateral quickness to string out plays and be an effective run defender. Taking the lead for a starting job is 6-0, 225-pound senior Terrence Thomas , who made quite an impact in his first season of extensive action, collecting 37 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, and three sacks. Newcomers Kenyatta Johnson and Fred Harvey will be in the rotation as well. Johnson is fresh out of Hinds (Miss.) Community College, giving Furr all he can handle, and Harvey is a redshirt freshman who impressed the staff with his work ethic and intensity.
Watch Out For … the Furr to fly. Hughes is gone. Furr, a former high school quarterback, is entering his second season as a full-timer on defense. If he can shake Johnson, who's giving him all he can handle, all signs point to the junior becoming one of the Tigers' top defensive players and a candidate to lead the team in tackles.
Strength: Lateral quickness. Above all else, the linebackers are going to prowl from sideline-to-sideline and cover plenty of ground this fall. Furr is a thoroughbred, and he's surrounded by a bunch of defenders who navigate the field like safeties. Together, they'll get from Point A to Point B about as fast as unit in the league.
Weakness: Proven run-stuffers. Speedy? Yup. Stout? Not quite. The Tigers are light, even more so now that Hughes has run out of eligibility. They'll cover lots of ground, but are prone to getting trampled upon reaching their target.
Outlook: Hughes is an enormous loss, but the emergence of Furr should help somewhat soften the ball. He's on the brink of becoming a Conference USA star. He's surrounded by an athletic group that needs to improve its discipline and do a better job of tackling in the open field.
Unit Rating: 5
State of the Unit: Consistent with the rest of the squad, Memphis struggled in the secondary last season and needs to build its overall depth and talent. Ranking last nationally in pass efficiency defense, the Tigers were shredded mercilessly, allowing 38 touchdown passes and picking off only eight. It was a long year for a defensive backfield seeking a few stoppers and replacements for Marcus Ball, Darius Davis, and D.A. Griffin.
The brightest spot in an otherwise dark situation is provided by 6-2, 200-pound sophomore CB Mohammed Seisay , who started all 12 games in his first season of action. A starter by year-end, he wound up making 39 tackles and a pair of interceptions. He has the size and tenacity of a safety, but has also shown the potential to be a ball-hawking corner. Even if he still bites on too many balls, it's a combination that has the staff elated about his future.
There'll be plenty of competition to see who else ends up atop the depth chart at cornerback. Like Seisay, 6-1, 190-pound sophomore Taurean Nixon played as a rookie and earned a letter. A rangy defender with track speed, he had 15 tackles and broke up two passes, barely approaching his potential. Sophomore Lonnie Ballentine was the third of the precocious corners to play early on, collecting 17 tackles as a reserve. Pursued by SEC schools a year ago, he's a 6-4, 215-pounder who'll be tough to beat up top. The veteran of the group is 6-0, 200-pound senior Lavaris Edwards , a long-time backup and three-time letterwinner.
At free safety, 6-0, 205-pound junior Mitch Huelsing was a pleasant surprise in 2010, making 35 tackles and contributing on special teams. He stepped up when Ball was suspended, playing with energy and intensity. At 6-1 and 215 pounds, sophomore Derek Smith is a bigger and slightly more physical option. Seemingly headed for a productive season, his progress was curtailed by a knee injury. To help bolster depth, Cannon Smith , who began 2010 as the starting quarterback, is moving to strong safety. A heady 6-0, 190-pounder, he's simply looking for an opportunity to make contributions.
Watch Out For … the development of the kids. The coaching staff opted to go with plenty of youth in the secondary, partly out of necessity. There were a ton of mistakes, but the lessons ought to prove valuable for the upcoming season as the kids seek more chemistry and a greater degree of consistency.
Strength: The future at cornerback. Yeah, there'll continue to be growing pains at the position, but there's a lot to like about the coming years in the secondary. Seisay, Nixon, and Ballentine are all big, athletically-gifted, and no longer wet behind the ears. They're going to catch more than a few opposing quarterbacks off guard this fall.
Weakness: Pass coverage. You name it and Memphis has struggled at it … for years. Last year, when the Tigers ranked last nationally in pass efficiency defense, was no fluke. The defensive backs are raw in coverage, allowing too many passes to be completed and too many yards after contact.
Outlook: Memphis will continue to have problems against the pass. This year, however, there's hope. The cornerbacks are young and exciting, and the two-deep will be littered with underclassmen. While quality passers are still going to exploit this group, there'll be weekends when Seisay & Co. exact a little revenge and pick off a handful of passes.
Unit Rating: 5
State of the Unit: All things considered, Memphis had to be pleased with the way the special teams unit turned out last fall. The program was faced with replacing Matt Reagan, one of the best kickers in school history, yet lived to tell about it. It went young in key areas, laying the ground floor for what figures to be a promising future.
The new kicker for the Tigers was junior Paulo Henriques , who proved to be a viable successor. A local product, who'd previously only handled kickoffs, he was true on 14-of-18 field goal attempts and perfect inside 40. He's 5-10 and 230 pounds, with good leg strength, but needs to improve his accuracy further away from the goal post.
The big surprise from the special teams unit was provided by sophomore Tom Hornsey , who did more than just win the punting job as a true freshman. A Freshman All-American right out of the gate, the Aussie averaged 42.7 yards and did a nice job on directional kicks. Effective with his left and right foot, he has an exciting career trajectory ahead.
Watch Out For … the staff to continue seeking answers by putting its best athletes on special teams. Porter was not happy with last season's results, and is determined to be more effective in this area going forward.
Strength: The punting game. Considering his limited experience playing American football, Hornsey was a revelation for the program a year ago. He'll only get better over time, particularly encouraging news for a defense that needs all of the field position help it can get.
Weakness: The return game … again. For the second straight year, Memphis was patently feeble on returns, providing no help to the offense. A season after ranking 119th in punt returns and 91st on kickoffs, the Tigers could do no better than 120th and 117th, respectively.
Outlook: The good news is that the program developed its punter and placekicker of the future in the 2010. The bad news? The return game and coverage teams were so bad that no one seemed to notice. The Tigers need to begin doing the little things better, starting with the basics, like tackling and blocking on special teams.
Unit Rating: 4.5
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