What you need to know ...
New defensive coordinator Paul Randolph has plenty of
experience to work with, but he has to get far more production
out of a D that finished near the bottom in just about every
major category and was steamrolled over by any running game with
a pulse. On the plus side, things got better as the year went on
after allowing 45.7 points per game over the first seven. The
hope is for quickness to overcome the lack of size in the back
eight of the 3-3-5 alignment with the strength likely to be in
the secondary led by safeties Andray Downs and Chad Price. Up
front, a replacement is needed for all-star John Syptak and some
semblance of a pass rush needs to emerge.
Tackles: Andray Downs,
Courtney Gordon, 2
Interceptions: JaCorey Shepherd, 2
Star of the defense: Senior S Chad Price
Player that has to step up and become a star: Junior DE
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Vernon James
Best pro prospect: Junior DT George Chukwu
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Price, 2) S Andray
Downs, 3) Chukwu
Strength of the defense: Safety, overall quickness
Weakness of the defense:
Size, pass rush
Injuries forced the line to go from a 4-2-5
to 3-4 and a 3-3-5 throughout last year. That experience should pay off
this season in the 3-3-5 under the new coaching staff. Unfortunately,
star end John Syptak is gone meaning a D that generated little to no
pass rush last season now losses its top player. George Chukwu and
William Wood are big bodies on the inside, but the spotlight will be on
the ends with Jonathan Cary and Courtney Gordon needing to hang out in
The key to the unit: Several players will have to combine to make
up for the loss of John Syptak. Being better against the run is a must
after allowing 212 yards per game and 33 touchdowns.
Defensive Line Rating:
- DE Jonathan Cary, Jr. - 21 tackles, 1 broken up pass
Cary saw time inside and out last year and now will be a big end at 6-3
and 285 pounds. In the 3-4 he'll be used like a tackle but will need to
show early on that he can generate some sort of pass rush. He has the
athleticism to do it.
- NG George Chukwu, Jr. - 30 tackles, 1.5 TFL
The big man in the middle ended up starting the final four games of last
year and now should shine as the anchor on the nose. He's a strong 305
pounds with the build to be the focal point of the 3-4. He's not going
to get in the backfield with any regularity, but that won't be his job.
- DE Courtney Gordon, Sr. - 27 tackles, 2 sacks, 5 TFL
If there's going to be any sort of a pass rush from the front three,
it's going to come from Gordon. A spot starter who flourished on the
other side of John Syptak, now the focus will be on the 250-pound senior
to generate some pressure.
- NG William Wood, Sr. - 19 tackles, 1 TFL
Wood hasn't turned into the run stopper he was expected to become thanks
to an injury, but he has plenty of experience and brings size to the
front line at 6-3 and 300 pounds. He's good enough to be a second tackle
if the coaches want to go to a 4-3.
- DE Victor Brooks, RFr.
A smaller, quicker option than Victor Brooks on the outside, the 6-5,
250-pound Brooks should be more of a pass rusher.
- DE Dietrich Davis, Soph. - 8 tackles, 1 sack, 2.5 TFL
An understudy behind John Syptak last year, the 245-pound Davis will be
a key pass rusher in the rotation behind Courtney Gordon. He's a decent
tackler with good potential.
The defense will still use some elements of the 2-5
backfield from time to time, but mainly the three traditional linebacker
spots will be set with the hope that sophomores Vernon James and Brian
Raines can use their speed to help out the horrible run defense. Marcus
Rucker is a former running back who has to be a pass rusher on the
strongside. There's reliable depth with Jared Gilbert and Lance Luedeker
good enough to start if needed.
The key to the unit: The athleticism has to make up
for a lack of size.
Linebacker Rating: 4.5
- Marcus Rucker, Sr. - 20 carries, 94 yds, 4.7 ypc, 1 TD,
1 catch, 3 yards
The former running back never busted out as expected on
the offensive side, but his speed and quickness should make him a
dangerous outside linebacker once he figures out how to play the
position. He's 215 pounds on the strongside and will have to prove he
can hold up against the run.
- Vernon James, Soph. - 6 tackles
Now that the defense will use a true middle linebacker, James should
have a home. The former defensive line has the toughness, the speed, and
the tackling ability. Now he has to get the experience to be the leader
of the D. If all goes as planned, he'll be one of the team's top
- Brian Raines, Soph. - 25 tackles
Used as a safety last year, the 195-pound sophomore will look to make
the transition to weakside linebacker. He's a good leader who should
quickly make more of an impact now that he has more responsibility.
Expect him to be turned loose as a pass rusher.
- Jared Gilbert, Jr. - 40 tackles, 1 TFL
Gilbert has been a key reserve on the inside with decent size and enough
quickness to start if needed on the strongside behind Marcus Rucker. At
230 pounds, he's a bigger hitter than the 215-pound Rucker.
- Lance Luedeker, Jr. - 10 tackles, 1 recovered fumble
Luedeker came back from being hurt all of 2004 and became a decent
backup on the inside. He's not the athlete Vernon James is, but he's a
strong tackler and is bigger at 6-0 and 225 pounds.
The secondary struggled through youth and
inexperience last season, and now it hopes to get more consistent
production out of sophomores JaCorey Shepherd, Brandon King and Carl
Taylor. Fortunately, safeties Audray Downs and Chad Price are seasoned
veterans with 57 career starts between them to steady the pass defense.
It's a very quick group overall that has to come up with more big plays.
The key to the unit: More interceptions and better
play from the corners.
Secondary Rating: 5.5
- CB JaCorey Shepherd, Soph. - 46 tackles, 2
interceptions, 3 broken up passes, 1.5 TFL
Shepherd stepped in early on and ended up being the team's best corner
in the middle of the season. The cousin of former Texas A&M quarterback
Reggie McNeal has excellent quickness and the potential to be a shutdown
number one defender as he gets more experience.
- Spur Carl Taylor, Soph. - 26 tackles, 1 interception
One of the few players on the team who was recruited heavily by the big
boys, the speedy Taylor will play a hybrid safety/linebacker position
and should become a deadly pass rusher when he gets a chance. He's
athletic enough to play corner with the talent to make plays all over
- FS Andray Downs, Sr. - 58 tackles, 1 interception, 2 broken up
passes, 1.5 TFL
The leader of the secondary with 28 career starts and 190 tackles, Downs
is a steady, tough defender who has seen it all. He's only 5-9 and 185
pounds, but he's a great hitter with outstanding range and sprinter's
- Bandit Chad Price, Sr. - 5 tackles, 1 sack, 9.5 TFL, 4 broken
Part linebacker and part safety, it would be nice to keep the veteran in
the defensive backfield to make more plays against the pass, but he's
too good at making plays behind the line to not be turned loose. He has
29 games of starting experience and will be allowed to freelance.
- CB Brandon King, Soph. - 24 tackles, 1 interception, 2 broken
up passes, 2 TFL
King pushed his way into a starting role after the fourth game of the
season and should be a fixture for the next three seasons. He's a small,
quick defender who needs to be more consistent and break up more passes.
- CB Lance Byrd, Sr. - 24 tackles, 4 broken up passes
The veteran reserve and occasional scout team quarterback saw four
starts last season. He'll combine with Ja'Corey Shepherd at one spot
with the more consistent of the two getting the most time. There will be
a spot somewhere in the secondary for one of the team's top athletes.
- CB Jon Turner, Jr. - 8 tackles, 2 broken up passes
Turner got the start over the first four games but struggled and lost
his job to Brandon King. He's a bit bigger than King and has the speed
to be back in the hunt this fall.
- S Bencil Smith, Soph. - 15 tackles, 1 broken up pass
He has a nice motor, but he's not all that big and has
limited skills. even so, he's one of the team's most important reserves
playing behind Chad Price at the Bandit.
Jared Scruggs will make sure the kicking game is fine as
both a top punter and a backup kicker behind Luke Juist. The returns
game was one of the worst in Conference USA with Andray Downs and
Brandon King struggling all season to break anything big.
The key to the unit: The experience in the return
game has to turn into production, and Luke Juist has to be a solid
Special Teams Rating: 6
- PK Luke Juist, Jr. - 2-3 FGs, 1-1 extra points
Juist looks to take over all the placekicking duties after getting some
long range chances last year highlighted by a 53-yard bomb against Navy.
Consistency will be his key or else punter Jared Scruggs will get his
shot at the job.
- P Jared Scruggs, Sr. - 48 punts, 2,056 yds, 42.8 ypc
Unbelievable as a freshman, lousy as a sophomore, and
then back to great as a junior, Scruggs is one of the nation's better
punters with a great leg and nice touch. At times, he's the team's best