2013 Middle Tennessee Preview – Defense
CollegeFootballNews.com 2013 Preview - Middle Tennessee Blue Raider Defense
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Preview 2013 - Defense
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What You Need To Know:
Middle Tennessee was a raider in name only on D last year. Murfreesboro was home to one of the country's worst defenses of 2012, a unit that was toothless despite participating in the Sun Belt Conference. Co-coordinators Tyrone Nix and Steve Ellis are staring at a to-do list as long as their arms. First and foremost, the Blue Raiders must find a way to generate a more consistent push in order to address an anemic pass rush and a feeble run defense. It's a tall order for a team that got shoved around last fall to finish 84th nationally against the run and 109th in sacks. And as is often the case, front seven issues can become the defensive backfield's problems as well; MTSU allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 67% of their passes. Hope comes by way of sophomore SS Kevin Byard who authored an auspicious, all-conference debut.
Star of the defense: Sophomore SS Kevin Byard
Tackles: Craig Allen, 82
Sacks: Leighton Gasque , 4
Interceptions: Kevin Byard, 4
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior CB Kenneth Gilstrap
Unsung star on the rise: Junior Jiajuan Fennell
Best pro prospect: Byard
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Byard, 2) Senior DT Jimmy Staten, 3) Senior LB Roderic Blunt
Strength of the defense: Speed and range, creating turnovers
Weakness of the defense: Pass rush, run defense, size of linebackers, pass defense, third-down D, red-zone D
After finishing 109th nationally in sacks last year, the staff is imploring its pass rushers to generate more heat in 2013. The physical and emotional leader of the group is 6-4, 301-pound DT Jimmy Staten. The senior started all 12 games a year ago, notching a career-best 36 tackles and a sack. He's not the penetrator that the Blue Raiders need from the inside, but he is a powerful and stabilizing force up front for the D-line.
Lining up next to Staten at tackle will be 6-1, 309-pound junior Patrick McNeil. He returned to the field last season, starting four games and making 24 stops, after missing the previous two years to injury. He's very athletic for his size, now needing to operate with more physicality.
Fingers are crossed about the potential of 6-3, 260-pound junior Jiajuan Fennell emerging as the athletic pass rusher that the defense desperately needs. He's still green, having made just a dozen tackles as a backup last year, but he's also coming off a terrific offseason in the weight room and on the practice field.
Over at right end, 6-1, 244-pound sophomore Alexandro Antoine is going to attack the pocket like a glorified outside linebacker. He's small, fast and just quick enough to get around tackles before they're able to sink into their stance. As a backup in 2012, he produced eight tackles off the bench.
The best of a mediocre lot of pass rushers off the bench is 6-5, 243-pound junior Shubert Bastien, who'll battle Antoine this summer for the starting job. He started all 12 games a season ago, making 29 tackles, six stops for loss and three sacks. He's a terrific athlete, with an ideal 6-5, 243-pound frame, but he needs to turn the corner and play with more consistency now that he's entering his third year at this level.
The future at defensive tackle belongs to sophomore J.D. Jones. The 6-2, 322-pound missed spring practice, but will be back to full strength in the summer. He's an anchor in run defense, with the powerful base to be difficult to move off his bearings. As a rookie, he made 14 tackles, while impressing the staff with his potential.
Watch Out For … Staten to emerge in September as the headliner of this unit. He's the kind of steady, hard-working lineman that the coaching staff loves. He has a good motor and the size on the interior to become a much-needed positive in run defense.
Strength: Work ethic. The coaches have done well over the past few years of molding their defensive linemen into the kinds of players that bring it until the whistle blows. If this group is getting beat, it's unlikely to be because it was taking a down off or giving up on a play.
Weakness: Winning at the point of attack. Ground zero for Middle Tennessee's defensive problems can be dropped at the feet of a defensive line that was too often dominated in 2012. The Blue Raiders ranked 109th nationally in sacks, and allowed 4.6 yards per carry, code for getting schooled at the line of scrimmage.
Outlook: For the overall D to have a shot of improving in 2013, the Blue Raiders need to do a much better job in the trenches. This is where everything is going to start on this side of the ball. With Staten leading the way, the interior should be improved. However, it'll be up to the ends, like Fennell, Antoine and Bastien, to really jumpstart the pass rush, and provide more cover for the back seven.
Unit Rating: 4.5
Cleaning up a lot of messes from the second level this season will be 6-0, 223-pound senior Roderic Blunt. He began last season at weakside before switching to the middle, finishing second on the squad with 75 tackles. The emotional leader of the linebackers brings toughness and a physical attitude, on Saturdays and on the practice field, to a D that's going to benefit from his presence.
Playing weakside for the Blue Raiders will be 6-1, 215-pound sophomore T.J. Barber, a starter in six games of his rookie year. While he was obviously raw and at times overwhelmed as a true freshman, his athleticism and improving instincts still led to 43 tackles and 3.5 stops for loss in nine games.
Rounding out starting lineup from strongside will be senior David Jones. While just 5-11 and 200 pounds, he plays the game bigger and with enough passion to help carry him through challenging assignment. The cross between a linebacker and a safety started three games in 2012, making 22 stops.
If Jones' size becomes an issue at strongside, the staff will turn to senior Stephen Roberts, a much bigger 6-3, 236-pounder. The occasional defensive end had 33 tackles and two stops for loss last fall. Backing up Barber at weakside is 5-11, 227-pound senior Justin Jones, a three-game starter who had 41 tackles and three stops for loss in 2012. Blunt's likely successor in the middle is 6-0, 224-pound junior Christian Henry. The team's Most Improved Linebacker following spring drills started twice in 2012, while making 51 stops.
Watch Out For … the recovery of strongside LB Craig Allen. When the senior suffered a herniated disc late in the season, he was leading the Blue Raiders with 82 tackles. However, his future remains clouded because of the location and the severity of his injury. If Allen is healthy, he'll quickly move to the top of the depth chart.
Strength: Depth. Linebacker is going to be among the deepest units of the 2013 squad, especially if Allen is able to make it back to the field at full strength. The Blue Raiders go two-deep with defenders who've started games for the program, a luxury for any defensive staff.
Weakness: Muscle. Middle Tennessee is flat out small on the second level, populated with a handful of defenders who look as if they belong in the secondary. The Blue Raiders allowed 4.6 yards per carry last season. The inability of the linebackers to take on roaming linemen and stand up opposing backs was key reasons why the team had so much trouble against the run.
Outlook: The Blue Raiders are fortunate to have so many veterans returning to linebacker, a situation that would be bolstered by a healthy return of Allen. But this unit remains largely pedestrian, an undersized ensemble prone to getting manhandled on running downs. To compensate for their shortcomings, the linebackers are hoping to have a greater impact on blitzes and in pass coverage.
Unit Rating: 4.5
There's cautious optimism surrounding a defensive backfield that's licking its wounds from 2012, but is also flush with returning starters. The future in the secondary clearly belongs to sophomore SS Kevin Byard, especially since Jajuan Harley left early for the NFL. Byard quickly rose to the All-Sun Belt Second Team in his debut season, flashing the skills needed to defend the run as well as the pass. The 5-11, 216-pound thumper had 74 tackles and two forced fumbles, but also turned four picks into 167 yards and two touchdowns. While admittedly early, Byard is capable of evolving from a small-school player to an SEC-caliber talent.
The team's free safety will be 5-10, 199-pound senior Reginald Farmer, a two-time letterwinner. He's had a very quiet career up to this point, getting in on just six tackles last season. However, he's operated in the offseason with something to prove, earning the program's Improved Strength Training Award for safeties.
The Blue Raiders' most experienced cover cornerback will be 5-9, 183-pound senior Kenneth Gilstrap, a returning starter in Murfreesboro. While still beatable, especially against tall receivers, he took the advice of coaches to become more physical last year, and finished with 28 tackles and two picks.
Partnering with Gilstrap at corner will be junior Sammy Seamster. At 6-1 and 199 pounds, he has ideal length and muscle for the job, but needs to better understand a position he's only played for one year. His apprenticeship in 2012 included two starts, 17 tackles and a couple of stops behind the line.
Middle Tennessee's veteran off the bench at cornerback will be 5-10, 175-pound senior Herbert King. He's in his second year out of Fullerton (Calif.) College, but only had four tackles in spot duty last fall.
Watch Out For … how well Seamster transitions into the starting lineup. He looks the part, and he has all of the natural physical ability, but can he match up with some of Conference USA's better receivers? It'll be a telltale year for No. 8, as he looks to thrive when opposing passers attempt to pick on him in the fall.
Strength: Aggression. The Middle Tennessee defensive backs play with a clear chip on their shoulders, the product of playing on a D that forces them into plenty of alley fights. The Blue Raiders have no choice but to be feisty and physical, both against the run and at the line of scrimmage on passing downs.
Weakness: Coverage softness. The Blue Raiders ranked 103rd nationally in pass efficiency defense a year ago, an unmistakable indication that they struggled in coverage and allowed far too many big plays. Last season was a total breakdown in pass defense, marked by a 67.5% completion rate that ranked 120th in the country.
Outlook: Arguably the weakest link on the entire roster is exacerbated by a lack of a pass rush up front. Byard is an exciting young player, with a promising future ahead, but he'll be very lonely on the postseason honor roll. Middle Tennessee lacks the requisite talent, especially at cornerback, to slow down opposing teams with a pulse in the passing game.
Unit Rating: 4.5
The Blue Raiders are set at punter, but will continue to audition their placekickers in the summer. Senior Josh Davis will be punting in Murfreesboro for a fourth straight year, looking to build on last season's 40-yard average. He'll be looking to recapture his 2010 form, when he was named Second Team All-Sun Belt.
The staff will require more time before deciding between two kickers, redshirt freshman Cody Clark and true freshman Canon Rooker. Clark has the edge of being in his second year, and is the favorite, but Rooker was the nation's 13th-ranked kicker last year.
Junior Reggie Whatley and senior Kyle Griswould are likely to handle kickoffs and punts, respectively. Whatley has game-breaking potential, ranking fourth nationally in 2012, highlighted by a 96-yard touchdown return.
Watch Out For … Clark's comfort level with being the likely choice to kick. Although the coaching staff likes the fundamentals and the leg strength of its placekickers, it won't know until September how well he'll handle pressure situations in close games.
Strength: Whatley. He was one of the Sun Belt's top special teams performers, which ought to translate nicely in Conference USA. He's small, quick and very dangerous when he gets a sliver of daylight from the wedge blockers.
Weakness: The uncertainty at placekicker. No, predecessor Carlos Lopez wasn't Lou Groza-worthy, but he did nail 17-of-22 field goal attempts in 2012. In his place step a couple of untested rookies with no experience at this level, a big concern for the coaching staff.
Outlook: The Blue Raiders harbor the foundation of a solid special teams unit, such as Davis at punter and Whatley on kickoffs. The eventual grade for the unit, though, will hinge on the accuracy of the kickers. If Clark can deliver more than he fails, it'll mean fewer sleepless nights for coordinator Joe Cauthen.
Unit Rating: 5
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