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2011 San Jose State Preview – Defense

CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted May 30, 2011


CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - San Jose State Spartan Defense


San Jose State Spartans

Preview 2011 - Defense


- 2011 San Jose State Preview | 2011 San Jose State Offense
- 2011 San Jose State Defense | 2011 San Jose State Depth Chart
- San Jose State Previews  2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006

What You Need To Know: After getting killed by major injuries, there’s no excuse for the D to be miserable for yet another year. Head coach Mike McIntyre is a defensive coach by nature, and now he has a team loaded with good veterans and enough athleticism and talent to start producing far more on a regular basis. The key will be stopping the run after the line got beaten up and battered throughout last year, but Travis Johnson is one of the WAC’s best pass rushers to work around. The linebacking corps has two terrific true sophomores in Keith Smith and Vince Buhagiar to clean up the messes, and it’ll help to get back Pompey Festejo and Kyler O’Neal from injury. The biggest lift should come from the return of All-WAC star safety Duke Ihenacho, who missed most of last year with a foot injury. The secondary is now loaded with veterans and promising players, but like everywhere else on the D, the production has to come.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Keith Smith, 115
Sacks: Travis Johnson, 7.5
Interceptions: Peyton Thompson, 2

Star of the defense: Senior S Duke Ihenacho
Player who has to step up and be a star: Senior DT Andrew Moeaki
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Keith Smith
Best pro prospect: Ihenacho
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Ihenacho, 2) Smith, 3) DE Travis Johnson
Strength of the defense: Experience, Linebacker
Weakness of the defense: Run Defense, Pass Rush

Defensive Line

State of the Unit: The defensive line didn’t do enough against the run, allowing 203 yards per game, and didn’t do nearly enough to get into the backfield. Even so, there are a few good starters coming back and it’s a big line that shouldn’t have a problem holding up on a more consistent basis against the stronger teams.

The star of the front line should once again be junior Travis Johnson, a 6-3, 244-pound speedster who led the team with 7.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss with 62 tackles and four quarterback hurries. A dominant high school pass rusher, it took a little while to figure out what he was doing, and then he started to blow up getting off the ball in a hurry highlighted by a three-sack day against Utah State and a two-sack game against Louisiana Tech.

Johnson will be backed up by senior Mohamed Marah, who was supposed to be the star of the line over the last few years but hasn’t been able to get past a shoulder problem that kept him down two years ago and knocked him out early last year. At 6-0 and 240 pounds he’s built like a linebacker, but he’s a pass rushing lineman, as is 6-0, 230-pound junior Vincent Abbott, who stepped in and made 41 tackles with three sacks and seven tackles for loss with a team-leading three forced fumbles.

JUCO transfer David Tuitupou is a big 6-5, 272-pounder who started out his career at BYU before coming over to the Spartans. He’s a pass rusher for his size, dominating at Snow College, and he has the bulk to be strong against the run.

Trying to stuff up the middle is 6-2, 295-pound senior Andrew Moeaki after making 21 tackles with a sack and three tackles for loss. The former star at College of San Mateo is quick off the ball and is able to get into the backfield in a hurry, but his job will be to do more against the power running teams. One of the team’s biggest linemen, he has to be an anchor, while 6-2, 282-pound redshirt freshman Marcus Howard is an interior pass rusher with nice size.

6-1, 278-pound senior Joe Nigos didn’t do anything last year, but the tough defensive tackle has the strength to be solid against the run and has just enough quickness to be a pass rusher. He’s not huge, but he has the strength and motor to play big. 6-5, 283-pound redshirt freshman Travis Raciti is a big athlete who’ll quickly be a part of the mix to get his size and large frame on the field. He’d be ideal as a 3-4 end, but he’ll have to show early on that he can handle getting shoved around against the run on the inside.

Watch Out For … the end job on the other side of Johnson. The decision is easy if Morah can finally get past his shoulder injury, while Tuitupou and Abbott can both play and can both produce if everyone is worrying about Johnson.
Strength: Pass rush. If Johnson can pick up where he left off at the end of last year, he’ll be an All-WAC performer. All four spots are quick enough to get to the quarterback, but they have to do it on a regular basis.
Weakness: Run defense. There’s too much size, and the WAC is too lousy at running the ball, to be as bad as the Spartans were last year against the run. The run defense was the second-worst in America two years ago and improved to 104th last year, but it needs to be better.
Outlook: If Johnson really is as good as he showed late last season, and if Marah can get past his shoulder injury, the pass rush should be terrific with a little bit more time and more help from the tackles. All that matters, though, is stopping the run after getting rolled over throughout the season. It wasn’t just Wisconsin and Nevada that rolled; Louisiana Tech cranked out 374 yards and five scores.
Unit Rating: 4.5

Linebackers

State of the Unit: All three starters return to a group that had to produce under fire after a slew of injuries struck, and they had to clean up a lot of messes thanks to a brutal year from the defensive front. The team’s top two tacklers return and there’s depth, and now it all has to come together to make the porous defense far stronger.

Keith Smith got thrown into the fire as a true freshman and he was phenomenal, leading the team with 115 tackles with four sacks and 14 tackles for loss as one of the best all-around defenders in the WAC. He’s not huge at 6-2 and 225 pounds, but he’s a phenomenal tackler with great range, and now he’ll be turned loose even more on the outside and could be an even more dangerous pass rusher. How good did he become? Over the last four games of the season he made 36 solo stops with 19 total tackles against Utah State and 13 against Louisiana Tech.

6-4, 244-pound sophomore Vince Buhagiar, like Smith, was able to step in as a true freshman and came up with an excellent season finishing second on the team with 89 tackles with two tackles for loss in the middle. He’s not the athlete or the playmaker that Smith is, but he sucked in everything that came his way and has great range to get to the ball.

Also back in a starting spot is 5-11, 205-pound senior Tiuke Tuipulotu after making 70 tackles with two sacks and five tackles for loss. Part linebacker and part safety, he’s an athletic playmaker who gets all over the field and can use his quickness to be solid against the pass, even if he didn’t pick off a pass and only broke up four passes last season. He’s a sure-thing tackler who should once again be one of the team’s most disruptive forces.

Senior Pompey Festejo has been a factor for several years and finished third on the team in 2009 with 83 tackles, and now the 6-0, 220-pounder will work behind Buhagiar in the middle. The former safety has the range and the hitting ability, but he’s trying to get back from a broken left foot that cost him all of last year. Able to play anywhere in the linebacking corps, his return will be a huge boost to the rotation.

Junior Kyler O’Neal was supposed to be a key part of the puzzle last year, making 13 tackles and a sack in the first four games, before suffering a knee injury and getting knocked out for the year. The 6-0, 213-pounder has terrific speed and a 100 mile per hour motor, and he should make plenty of plays as Smith’s backup.

6-0, 240-pound redshirt freshman Derek Muaava will bring some desperately needed size to the corps able to work inside or out. He’ll start out playing behind Tuipulotu with great cutting ability and speed for his size; he’s a top-shelf athlete who can do a little of everything for the defensive front seven.

Watch Out For … the true sophomores. Smith and Buhagiar were key players in Mike McIntyre’s first recruiting class, and they showed they could step in and dominate right away. Now they know what they’re doing and they should be even more productive and effective.
Strength: Depth. With Festejo and O’Neal coming back, the Spartans have two starting-caliber linebackers who’ll try to fight into the rotation with the three starters likely established. This could be one of the team’s strongest areas if everyone can stay healthy.
Weakness: Holding up against the run. Yes, the linebacking corps made a ton of tackles and a ton of plays, but way too many of them came down the field. This group was ripped up by the faster speed backs and had a hard time whenever anyone got a hat on them.
Outlook: The ultra-aggressive linebacking corps should be better with the young players of last year more experienced and ready to do even more. The star power is there after Smith and Buhagiar showed what they could do, and if Festejo and O’Neal can be back to form, this could be one of the better linebacking corps in the WAC.
Unit Rating: 5.5

Defensive Backs

State of the Unit: The secondary didn’t get a whole bunch of help from the pass rush, but it wasn’t good on its own, either. There are good veterans returning and there should be better with a little more of a pass rush, but the improvement against the decent passing teams would go a long way to turning around the program’s struggles.

The Spartan defense suffered a devastating blow early on losing senior Duke Ihenacho for the year with a foot injury after making eight tackles with a tackle for loss in the first two games. The 6-1, 210-pound two-time All-WAC safety doesn’t miss a tackle and is terrific when the ball is in the air. He’s back and healthy again and he should be one of the leaders of the defense working as a hybrid of safety and linebacker. A tone-setter, he has excellent quickness and great instincts with next-level ability, and now he should be back to form and a gamechanger for the defense. He’ll be backed up by junior James Orth, the 6-2, 195-pound veteran who stepped in and made 50 tackles with a team-leading three picks. A wide receiver by trade, he’s smart, fast, and can play anywhere in the secondary and produce.

Sophomore Bene Benwikere is a fast 6-0, 185-pound playmaker who came in as a true freshman and finished fourth on the team with 74 tackles with a pick and 1.5 tackles for loss. A fast, athletic safety, he’s smart enough to always be in the right spot and keep the mistakes to a minimum, and he should be one of the team’s best tacklers once again. JUCO transfer Rob Fiscalini III is a 5-11, 205-pound junior who made 60 tackles for Foothill College after making 61 stops as a freshman. Really, really fast, he was a star high school sprinter who can dominate as a nickel back.

Senior Brandon Driver is back on the outside, and he has to be a lot better. The former JUCO All-American was terrific for Santa Rosa College, and he had his moments last year making 43 tackles, but he has to be a lot better when the ball is in the air. The 6-0, 180-pound cousin of former Maryland basketball star Juan Dixon has size and the quickness to be used as a returner, but he needs to be the team’s lockdown corner.

The combination of senior Peyton Thompson and junior Ronnie Yell will work at the corner job on the other side of Driver. The 5-11, 180-pound Thompson is a solid veteran tackler, following up a 48-tackle year with 82 tackles and two interceptions with ten broken up passes and five tackles for loss, and now he’ll be used in a variety of ways. He should be a whale of a nickel and dime defender when he’s not at corner, while the 5-10, 188-pound Yell made 44 tackles with a pick and ten broken up passes. He’s a good tackler who can handle the quicker targets, and now he has to pick off passes.

Watch Out For … the return of Ihenacho. The Spartans have experience returning and have hope to be better, but getting back a star like Ihenacho should work wonders for a secondary that needs more help. He should instantly come in and be one of the team leaders.
Strength: Experience. With Ihenacho returning, the Spartan secondary is loaded with veterans who all hit. Tackling isn’t a problem at any of the four spots, and this group should be all over the field.
Weakness: Pass defense. There’s too much talent, experience, and athleticism to be so bad. Hawaii came up with 593 yards and three touchdowns, but everyone else who could throw had fun, too. The experience has to translate into production.
Outlook: There’s no excuse to not be far, far better. The corners are full of veterans who have seen it all, but they need to start picking of passes. The safeties should be fantastic with Ihenacho and Benwikere as good as any in the WAC.
Unit Rating: 5.5

Special Teams

State of the Unit: The kicking game appeared to be set going into last year, and then sophomore Harrison Waid stepped up and took over the starting job at punter and placekicker. He has a nice leg and good range, showing it off going 5-of-9 on field goal attempts from beyond 40 yards and hit 14-of-22 on the year. While that might not seem great, three kicks were blocked. He was equally solid as a punter averaging 43.8 yards per try putting 18 inside the 20 and forcing 15 fair catches.

RB Brandon Rutley did a decent job on punt returns averaging 8.6 yards per try, but he only got eight return attempts, while corners Ronnie Yell averaged 20.2 yards per kickoff return and Brandon Driver averaged 23 yards per attempt.

Watch Out For … more pop from the return game. The Spartans have veterans returning, but they also have a slew of speedsters in the bank to get more chances.
Strength: Waid. He’s a weapon who bailed the team out of jam after jam with his punting ability, and he’s a strong enough placekicker to get even more shots from deep. It’ll help if he doesn’t have to deal with a bunch of blocks.
Weakness: Attempts. The problem last year was a defense that didn’t allow enough punt returns, but that should change. The Spartans only got nine punt returns – opponents got 34. The Spartan coverage team wasn’t miserable, but it gave up two scores.
Outlook: As long as the protection can be better on field goals, and if the speed and quickness can lead to more on the return game, the Spartans could be excellent. Waid is a terrific all-around kicker, but he’s a better punter than a placekicker. The kickoff coverage has been excellent, allowing just 18.2 yards per try.
Unit Rating: 7.5

- 2011 San Jose State Preview | 2011 San Jose State Offense
- 2011 San Jose State Defense | 2011 San Jose State Depth Chart
- San Jose State Previews  2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006