2011 Middle Tennessee Preview – Defense
Middle Tennessee CB Arness Ikner
CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - Middle Tennessee Blue Raider Defense
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Preview 2011 - Defense
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What You Need To Know:
New defensive coordinator Steve Ellis has a ton of work to do. The D had its down moments, but the pass rush was tremendous finishing second in the Sun Belt in sacks and first in tackles for loss. Only three starters are back, but there's athleticism and speed up and down the depth chart. The line needs Omar McLendon on the end and Patrick McNeil on the inside to pick up the slack left by the loss of all four starters up front, while the return of safety Derrick Crumpton from a knee injury should help ease the pain of all the newcomers in the secondary. The linebackers are the strength with Darin Davis one of the league's best on the outside, while the return of Stephen Roberts from a knee injury will be a huge help in the middle.
Star of the defense: Senior LB Darin Davis
Tackles: Darin Davis, 81
Sacks: Darin Davis, 3.5
Interceptions: Darin Davis, 3.5
Player who has to step up and be a star: Junior DE Omar McLendon
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Stephen Roberts
Best pro prospect: Sophomore SS Sammy Seamster
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Davis, 2) Roberts, 3) SS Eric Russell
Strength of the defense: Athleticism, Outside Linebacker
Weakness of the defense: Experience, Line
State of the Unit: The defensive line was among the best in the country and getting into the backfield and generating sacks and pressure, but the 11.5 sacks of Jamari Lattimore and the four sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss from Jarrett Crittenton have to be replaced. All four starters are gone, and now it'll be a big test for defensive coordinator Steve Ellis to get a repeat of 2010's production.
Taking over for Lattimore on the left side is Omar McLendon, a 6-4, 236-pound junior who has all the talent to be special. He was a major recruiting coup for the program a few years ago with excellent speed and quickness on the outside and the athleticism and upside to become a terror of a pass rushing star in a full-time role after making 19 tackles with a tackle for loss. He'll work in combination with 6-3, 215-pound redshirt freshman Jiajuan Fennell, a smallish, fast pass rusher who was a star high school pass rusher.
Working at right end in place of Emmanuel Perez, who came up with three sacks and 48 tackles, is
Dearco Nolan, a 6-2, 248-pound pure pass rushing end with sub-4.5 speed and excellent closing ability. The sophomore didn't do too much in the rotation making six tackles, but he came up with a sack and two tackles for loss. He'll work in combination with senior
Gorby Loreus, a 5-11, 222-pound veteran who made 31 tackles with 3.5 tackles for loss. While he's not all that big, he's a tough tackler for his size.
Needing to play a big role on the inside, literally, are two young tackles who'll be given every shot to make the tackle jobs theirs. Redshirt freshman
Patrick McNeil is a 6-3, 285-pound top recruit who was a great get for the Blue Raiders. He got banged up early on last year and was able to take a year off, but now he's ready to roll as the anchor of the line at left tackle. Next to him is Jimmy Staten, a 6-4, 266-pound sophomore who was a key backup throughout last year making five tackles. He's not huge, but he has a good frame and is athletic.
Trying to bring some veteran leadership to the front four is SaCoby Carter, a 6-1, 284-pound senior who was supposed to play a big role last year, after making 13 tackles with 4.5 tackles for loss two seasons ago, but he only came up with seven tackles in his limited time. He'll play behind McNeill on the left side, while 6-4, 270-pound redshirt freshman Morris Moore will be a dangerous interior pass rusher. Quick off the ball, he came up with 18.5 sacks and 32 tackles for loss in his senior season of high school.
Watch Out For … McLendon. He has way too much talent and way too much athleticism to not be a dangerous pass rusher. He might not be Lattimore right away, but he should be the disruptive force the line needs.
Strength: Pass rush. Middle Tennessee always finds ways to get to the quarterback no matter who's in the rotation up front. The defense came up with 38 sacks two years ago and 34 last year. There might be a turnover in talent, but the system should still work.
Weakness: Experience. Losing all four starters is a big deal for any defensive front. Lattimore and Perez were terrific, while Crittenton was a dangerous producer in the rotation. It might take a little while for the new group to find a groove.
Outlook: The line might not have a ton of experience and the depth is going to be a question mark, but as always, there will be plenty of big plays in the backfield, lots of sacks, and enough production to get by. The tackle rotation has to be steady, while McLendon, Nolan, and Loreus have to be dangerous.
Unit Rating: 5
State of the Unit: The Blue Raiders have to replace several key players on both sides of the ball, but linebacker is one of the few areas that should be fine. Gone is Antwan Davis, who made 64 tackles and was a key part of the defensive front seven. But the two outside linebackers are back and there are some decent veterans among the reserves.
The star of the defense should once again be Darin Davis, a 6-1, 206-pound strongside defender who finished second on the team with 81 tackles with 3.5 sacks, three picks, and 9.5 tackles for loss. While he's built like a safety, he's extremely strong and gets al over the field in a hurry. Active, he's equally strong rushing the passer or in pass coverage, and now he should be in the mix for all-star honors after being overlooked last year. He'll be backed up by
David Jones, a 5-11, 206-pound sophomore who made three stops in a limited role. A special teamer so far, he'll be a bigger part of the rotation at all three spots.
Back at his starting spot on the weakside is Justin Jones, a 5-11, 210-pound junior who finished fourth on the team with 68 tackles with a sacks, six tackles for loss and two broken up passes. Excellent as a true freshman with 26 tackles and a sack, he showed what he could do with more responsibility. Fast, he needs to do more when the ball is in the air. Also in the mix for the starting job is
Craig Allen, a 6-2, 218-pound sophomore who hit the weights hard over the last year after starring as a key backup making 32 tackles with two sacks. He moves like a safety and hits like a ton of bricks.
Taking over for Antwan Davis in the middle will be Stephen Roberts, a 6-3, 229-pound sophomore who was supposed to be a key factor in the mix last year but went down with a knee injury and was out for the year. Now he's healthy and back and ready to be one of the team's top tacklers. Smart and with great range, he should be all over the field and should be a decent pass rusher. 5-11, 230-pound sophomore
Corey Carmichael stepped in for Davis over the last three games of last year and ended the season making 35 tackles with 5.5 tackles for loss. At 5-11 and 230 pounds he beefed up over the last year and is now one of the team's biggest linebackers. He's built for the middle.
Watch Out For … Roberts. Everything was set up for him to become a statistical star as a key reserve and spot starter, and then came the knee injury. The athleticism is there to be a sideline-to-sideline playmaker and a top producer now that he's healthy.
Strength: Athleticism. Davis, Allen, and Jones can move around and will always be in on every play, while Roberts, now healthy, should fly all over the place. This group will swarm.
Weakness: Bulk. This has always been a problem for the Blue Raiders. They sacrifice size for speed and athleticism, but that tends to be a bit of an issue against the stronger teams.
Outlook: The linebacking corps did just fine after losing Cam Robinson and Danny Carmichael last year, and now the year of adjustment should pay off big time with Davis and Jones two proven producers and Roberts, Carmichael, and Allen able to put up big numbers. This could end up being one of the team's biggest strengths.
Unit Rating: 5.5
State of the Unit: The secondary benefitted from a superior pass rush, and it showed finishing second in the conference allowing just 199 yards per game while keeping the big plays to a minimum. Only one starter is back and losing leading tackler Jeremy Kellem, third-leading tackler Kevin Brown, and top corner Rod Issac will be a problem.
The lone returning starter is at right corner where senior Arness Ikner is back after coming in from the JUCO ranks and making 5 tackles with a pick and four broken up passes. The 5-9, 170-pounder isn't all that big, but he's a great tackler with tremendous athleticism. Now he has to grown into the role of a No. 1 corner. He'll be backed up by
Kenneth Gilstrap, a 5-10, 175-pound sophomore who only played in three games making four tackles before suffering a knee injury and was out for the year.
Starting on the left side will be T.L. Edwards, a 6-1, 180-pound senior who started against Florida Atlantic and also worked as a key starter finishing the year with nine tackles with a pick. The former JUCO transfer from Saddleback College isn't a top ball hawk, but he's smart, big, and he can move. 5-10, 165-pound redshirt freshman
Khari Burke is a thin, quick defender who could be used as a nickel and dime defender.
Taking over for Kellem at free safety is 5-11, 195-pound senior Derrick Crumpton, a top reserve for a few years who has produced whenever given the chance. A five-game starter, working in five DB sets, he finished the year with 37 tackles with two sacks and three tackles for loss, and while he's a big hitter, he needs to do more against the pass. Junior
Denzell Guerra is a true 4.4 runner with the 6-0, 200-pound size to work at strong safety and the speed to be a dangerous playmaker when he gets more of a shot. He made 16 tackles last year after coming up with 13 two years ago.
5-11, 181-pound senior Eric Russell came in from Cerritos College in California and turned into a top kickoff and punt returner. He also saw a little time on defense in nickel and dime packages making 14 tackles, and now the strong safety job is his. Extremely quick and active, he should always be around the ball. He'll be backed up by
Sammy Seamster, a 6-2, 200-pound sophomore who's the team's biggest defensive back to go along with sub-4.4 speed. He made just six tackles in his true freshman season, but he could be a star as a nickel defender.
Watch Out For … Russell. With his tremendous quickness he's more of a corner or free safety in tools than a strong safety, but he should be more than fine against the pass and he should be one of the team's better all-around defenders.
Strength: Athleticism. Russell and Crumpton are as fast and as athletic as any safety pair in the Sun Belt, while Ikner and Edwards can fly. The secondary will always be around the ball and gang tackling shouldn't be a problem.
Weakness: Experience. Only one starter is back, and while the new starters have seen enough time to know what they're doing, Kellem, Brown, and Issac were major parts of the puzzle last season.
Outlook: The secondary was expected to be among the best in the Sun Belt, and it didn't disappoint. This year, a new line might mean less of a pass rush and it might be a problem for a secondary replacing three new starters. This is an athletic group that should be fine against the mediocre passing teams, but the jury is out on what it can do against the more efficient passers.
Unit Rating: 5
State of the Unit: Senior Alex Gendreau was the best kicker in the conference going into last year earning First Team All-Sun Belt honors hitting 18-of-22 kicks, and he followed it up with a terrific 2010 connecting on 10-of-12 attempts including a 55 yarder against Louisiana. His two misses came from 41 and 47 yards away. He has a good, consistent leg and he's not going to wilt under pressure.
The Blue Raiders finished fourth in the league in punting with Josh Davis
averaging an impressive 42.7 yards per try putting 19 inside the 20, but
Nathanial Toulson also had a few chances averaging 39.2 yards per try on 16 chances. They'll both be in a battle for the job.
The kickoff return game was the best in the Sun Belt and among the best in the nation, while the punt return game struggled. Safety
Eric Russell handled both duties averaging a whopping 26.3 yards per kickoff return and just 6.8 yards per punt return.
Watch Out For … the punting game. Davis was terrific at times last year and did a great job of pinning teams deep, but Toulson was named the starter going into the season. That could quickly change.
Strength: Gendreau. He has been one of the nation's top kickers over the last few seasons and there's no reason to think he won't be special again. He has good range and he's consistent, and he should be a difference maker. Last year the Blue Raiders played two games decided by three points or fewer and won them both.
Weakness: Coverage teams. The kickoff coverage wasn't awful, allowing 21 yards per try, but the 9.4 yards per punt return, and a score, hurt. Middle Tennessee isn't good enough on either side of the ball to struggle in field position.
Outlook: Gendreau is special and Russell is a premier return man. The punting game will be sound no matter who's handling the work, so if the coverage teams can be a bit better, the Blue Raiders will have a huge advantage.
Unit Rating: 8
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