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2012 Middle Tennessee Preview – Defense
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
Posted Aug 11, 2012 2012 Preview - Middle Tennessee Blue Raider Defense

Middle Tenn. Blue Raiders

Preview 2012 - Defense

- 2012 Middle Tenn. Preview | 2012 Middle Tenn. Offense
- 2012 Middle Tenn. Defense | 2012 Middle Tenn. Depth Chart

What You Need To Know: It’s not that Steve Ellis failed in his first year as the defensive coordinator, but the D stunk. To be fair there was a ton of work to do and a lot of rebuilding, but now the payoff should come. Ellis will combine forces with Tyrone Nix to handle the duties, and while Nix is a terrific talent who’ll be back in the SEC world soon, the biggest improvement will be from the overall experience across the board. The secondary only gets one starter back, but it should be more talented thanks to the emergence of former Florida State star safety recruit Jajuan Harley. The linebacking corps is fast and deep, and the line should be stronger after taking its lumps. More of a pass rush is a must and more takeaways are desperately needed after coming up with just four picks. The addition of Nix should help change that.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Roderic Blunt, Omar McLendon, 54
Sacks: Leighton Gasque, 7
Interceptions: None

Star of the defense: Sophomore LB Christian Henry
Player who has to step up and be a star: Junior DT Jimmy Staten
Unsung star on the rise: Redshirt freshman S Kevin Byard
Best pro prospect: Junior S Jajuan Harley
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Harley, 2) Henry, 3) DE Omar McLendon
Strength of the defense: Athleticism, Experience
Weakness of the defense: Takeaways, Run Defense

Defensive Line

The Blue Raiders need to get into the backfield far more and they need to get more of a pass rush from the ends. Senior Omar McLendon took over on the left side last season finishing with 54 tackles with 2.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss, and now he’ll work on the right side. At 6-3 and 242 pounds he’s tall, quick, and has the talent to do a lot more. A major recruiting coup for the program a few years ago, he needs to shine and become the star up front everyone expected him to be when he signed on. He’ll be backed up by 6-1, 238-pound redshirt freshman Alexandro Antoine, a speed rusher who’s built to fly into the backfield.

The left side is more of a question mark with 6-3, 240-pound sophomore Jiajuan Fennell trying to come back healthy after suffering a foot injury that knocked him out over the last month of the season. Before getting hurt he made 24 tackles with five tackles for loss, but he has to prove he’s back to form or 6-5, 230-pound sophomore Shubert Bastien will take over a bigger role after stepping in late in the season and finishing with 33 tackles with 4.5 tackles for loss in his true freshman season. The run defense needs to be far, far better, and it starts with 6-2, 276-pound senior Kendall Dangerfield to do more after making 31 tackles with a sack and eight tackles for loss. After sitting out in 2010 to work on his academics, he came back and did what he could, but he didn’t do enough against the run. 6-1, 281-pound redshirt freshman Jerrold Frazier will work in the rotation and should be a bit more of an interior pass rusher when he gets his chances.

Adding more bulk in the interior is 6-4, 300-pound junior Jimmy Staten, who added over 30 pounds to his frame and could be a bigger presence in the interior. He made 29 tackles with a sack and four tackles for loss starting every game, but he has to start gumming up the works and use his size to hold up better. He’ll rotate with 6-1, 295-pound sophomore Patrick McNeil who saw a little time as a true freshman but was out for all of last year with a knee injury. A top recruit a few years ago, he has the potential to be the anchor up front with a little bit of time and seasoning.

Watch Out For … the left end. Can Fennel be healthy and ready to go? If so, the Blue Raiders have the potential for a terrific tandem on the outside if Bastien can play up to his athleticism and upside.
Strength: Experience. When the left side becomes steady, the Blue Raiders will have four veteran starters with athleticism, quickness, and enough time logged in to know what they’re doing. There’s no excuse to not be a lot better.
Weakness: Pass rush. What happened? Middle Tennessee was 17th in the nation in sacks in 2010 and tenth in tackles for loss. Last year the fell off the map with just 19 sacks as a team, and while the tackles for loss were there, they didn’t translate into production against the run. There’s too much talent to not be better.
Outlook: The defensive front had to undergo a total transformation last year with all four starters gone, and it showed. The 2011 line took its lumps, but was talented and showed a little bit of promise and potential as the season went on. Now the line is loaded with veterans with great athleticism on the outside and size inside, but the production has to follow. Awful against the run last season, the interior has to hold up better while the end rotation has to be more disruptive.
Unit Rating: 5


The linebackers have to do a far better job of holding up against the run, and that means more will be needed from veteran Roderic Blunt, who spend most of last year on the strongside but will start out the year on the weakside with second-leading tackler Darin Davis gone. The 6-0, 226-pound junior started throughout the second half of the season and finished tied for fifth on the team with 54 tackles with 1.5 tackles for loss. He’s quick and good at getting all over the field, and he should be more productive with more time in his new spot. However, he has to come back healthy after injuring his knee late in spring ball. he's expected to be back and fine this summer, but this could be an ongoing concern.

However, the real shining star could be his backup, 6-2, 198-pound sophomore the team with seven sacks with 17 tackles and five quarterback hurries. He’s not built to hold up against the run, but he’s strong and is shot out of a cannon when he gets his chance.

Trying to settle the situation in the middle is sophomore Christian Henry, a 6-0, 221-pounder who spent four games last year in the starting role and finished with 36 tackles. While he’s not all that big he’s a great hitter and has excellent range. Adding even more speed to the position is 6-0, 216-pound redshirt freshman Ykeem Wells, a high school running back who can move.

6-2, 216-pound junior Craig Allen started the first five games of the season on the strongside making 53 tackles with a sack despite missing time with a shoulder injury. Extremely strong for his size, he hit the weights hard as a freshman and it paid off. Now he has to hold up.

Also trying to get back healthy is 6-3, 226-pound veteran Stephen Roberts, who was knocked out with a knee injury in 2010 and was only able to make 15 stops last year. Smart and with great range, he has the talent to be all over the field and be used as a pass rusher, but he has to get back to form.

Watch Out For … Henry. There was a rotation in the middle last year with three different players getting starts, but Henry is young enough to step up and make the position his. While he’s not huge, he has good size for this smallish bunch and should be one of the team’s leading tacklers.
Strength: Quickness. This looks like a beefed up group of defensive backs and they all move like it. There’s even more speed among the reserves with Gasque certain to play an even bigger role as a pure pass rusher in obvious passing situations.
Weakness: Run defense. This isn’t a big group and it shows against anyone who can bring any semblance of power. The line didn’t exactly do its job last year, but the linebackers too often played like they were on skates.
Outlook: There’s experience, depth, and a ton of athleticism across the board. Everyone can run and everyone can swarm around the ball, but more tackles have to be made closer to the line. Way too many stops came after big runs, but that might change with more experience. Keeping up a good rotation to keep everyone fresh is a must.
Unit Rating: 5

Defensive Backs

The pass defense wasn’t all that bad statistically because teams spent so much time running the ball. However, there were too many big plays allowed. Junior Kenneth Gilstrap is the lone returning starter to the secondary moving over from right corner to the left side after making 27 tackles with two broken up passes. A full year removed from a knee injury that knocked him out in 2010, the 5-9, 175-pounder should be even quicker.

With Gilstrap moving over, 6-1, 194-pound sophomore Sammy Seamster will take the right corner side bringing great size, 4.4 speed, and terrific upside. A part-time starter at free safety, he has great hitting ability and upside, but he didn’t do anything when the ball was in the air and making 13 tackles on the season. If he goes back to safety, 5-8, 185-pound sophomore Khari Burke will step in after spending last year on special teams making ten stops. He’s not all that big, but he’s tough and can move.

Looking to take over for leading tackler Eric Russell at strong safety is 6-1, 203-pound junior Jajuan Harley, a tough prospect who started out his career at Florida State and now should be a star. Really, really fast, he was a big-time recruit for the Seminoles, got hurt, and ended up leaving the program and was a great pickup for the Blue Raiders. He was mostly a special teamer at FSU but he should be one of the team’s leading tacklers.

5-11, 210-pound redshirt freshman Kevin Byard will step in at free safety after sitting out his first season, and he should be all over the field. Thickly built and quick, he’ll be on plenty of tackles, but he needs to come up with picks to be effective. He’ll combine forces with 5-10, 185-pound junior Reginald Farmer, a special teamer who made six tackles but has been around just long enough to be a bigger part of the equation.

Watch Out For … Harley. A bust of a top recruit at Florida State, he should be able to resurrect his career for the Blue Raiders and should be a statistical superstar. He has all the tools and the talent, and now he has something to prove.
Strength: Speed. There might only be one returning starter, but the secondary got a lot faster with Seamster taking on a bigger role and with Harley and Byard more in the mix. This group can get around the ball.
Weakness: Interceptions. The Blue Raiders came up with just four picks on the year and no returning player made a pick. The secondary has to make far, far more big plays.
Outlook: If Harley can be close to as good as everyone hopes, and if Seamster can shine at corner, the loss of three starters won’t matter. The Blue Raiders gave up way, way too many big plays through the air, but if the pass rush improves as expected the production will be better in the defensive backfield.
Unit Rating: 5

Special Teams

Kicker Alan Gendreau is gone after hitting 8-of-14 field goals, and now it’ll be up to Carson-Newman transfer Carlos Lopez to take over. The senior has a nice leg and was a rock for the Eagles. Expect him to be steady and show decent range with good potential from anywhere inside 50 yards.

The punting game might not have seemed special last season, but junior Josh Davis did a nice job when he got his chances averaging 42.1 yards per try with four of his 13 kicks put inside the 20. He was a second-team All-Sun Belt punter in 2010 but gave way to Nathan Toulson as the year went on. Now it’ll be all Davis who should be terrific again.

The kickoff return game struggled averaging just 19.3 yards per try, but RB Benny Cunningham has the speed and skill to be an immediate help. Jared Singletary will take over for Eric Russell as the punt returner looking to add even more pop to a good group that averaged 10.7 yards per try.

Watch Out For … Lopez. He might not bomb away from 55 yards, but he has a solid leg and should be excellent from close range. Gendreau nailed most of his field goals inside the 30, and Lopez can do that and be stronger from beyond 40.
Strength: Punt coverage. The net punting average might not have been great, but even after allowing a touchdown the Blue Raiders still allowed just 6.6 yards per try. Davis should help keep the average low.
Weakness: Kickoff returns. After leading the Sun Belt in 2010 the production fell off the map with one of the worst return games in the country. Can Cunningham do more for the unit? He can’t do much worse than last year’s combination of players did.
Outlook: The special teams were shockingly disappointing last year, but they should be better with David and Lopes each good enough to be steady producers, and with Cunningham and Singletary speedy return options.
Unit Rating: 6
- 2012 Middle Tenn. Preview | 2012 Middle Tenn. Offense
- 2012 Middle Tenn. Defense | 2012 Middle Tenn. Depth Chart