Memphis Preview 2006 - Defense
Memphis Tigers
Posted Aug 7, 2006

Memphis Tigers Preview 2006 - Memphis Tiger Defense

What you need to know ... The D had is moments last year doing a great job against mediocre offenses but struggling mightily with good passing games and high-octane attacks. Pass defense has been the problem for the last few years, but there's hope for an improvement with five returning starters led by All-American Wesley Smith. The linebacking corps loses its top two tacklers, but gets a big boost with the return of Quinton McCrary on the outside. The three man line should be able to get to the quarterback and has decent size against the run. 

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Wesley Smith, 82
Sacks: Brandon McDonald, 3
Interceptions: Brandon McDonald, 3

Star of the defense: Senior FS Wesley Smith
Player that has to step up and become a star: Senior NG Van Houston
Unsung star on the rise: Junior LB Greg Hinds
Best pro prospect: Smith
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Smith, 2) LB Quinton McCrary, 3)
CB Jamal Rufus
Strength of the defense: Experience in the secondary, athletic linebackers
Weakness of the defense:
Starting experience on the line

Defensive Line
The line was a work in progress all of last year even having to go to two down linemen at times thanks to injury problems. On the plus side, the time missed by Marcus West and LaVale Washington allowed several young players to get their feet wet for this year. There isn't a dominant lineman in the group, but there doesn't appear to be a glaring weakness as long as Van Houston's knee is healthy on the nose and Brandon Douglas turns into a space-eater at one of the tackle spots.
The key to the unit: Fight through the growing pains. This is a very young, very inexperienced group that'll need a while to find a groove.

Defensive Line Rating: 5

Projected Starters
- DT Corey Mills, Soph.
The Ole Miss transfer stepped up this spring and took over the number one job on the left side. He has the prep résumé as one of the top recruits for the Rebels a few years ago, and now he's expected to quickly grow into one of the top all-around producer up front. While he's not huge at 6-4 and 260 pounds, he's strong and can get into the backfield.

- NG Van Houston, Sr.
Houston needed to fill in for big Albert Means last year and be the veteran anchor, but he suffered a knee injury and missed the entire season. He slimmed down to 280 pounds and should be an active interior pass rusher.

- DT Rubio Phillips, Sr. - 3 tackles, 1 sack
Last year was supposed to be the breakout season for the former JUCO star, but he suffered a knee injury in the opener against Ole Miss and missed the rest of the season. He's a 262-pound pass rusher who should be among the team leaders in tackles for loss if the rest of the line is effective at keeping the heat off him.

Top Backups
- NT Brandon Douglas, Soph. - 2 tackles, 1 TFL
Douglas got a little bit of work last year on the nose and at the other tackle spots seeing time in eight games. At 6-3 and 291 pounds he's the team's biggest defensive lineman, and now he has to grow into a rock as a backup nose tackle. He's not going to be much of a pass rusher, but he'll be a key player against the run.
- DT Cortez McCraney, Soph. - 10 tackles
McCraney filled in when injuries struck the line and ended up seeing time in 11 games. He bulked up to 255 pounds and should be stronger against the run on the left side behind Brandon Douglas.
- NG Ryan Williams, Soph. - 10 tackles
Williams had a good redshirt freshman year showing great promise on the inside, but he had problems with his shoulder and struggled through a few games. At 278 pounds, he needs to be a factor behind Van Houston in the middle.
- DT Clinton McDonald, Soph. - 6 tackles
While he's only 240 pounds, McDonald is one of the strongest players on the line. He has the potential to be a good pass rusher on the right side, or he can be used like another outside linebacker against the run.

The team's top two tacklers, Tim Goodwell and Carlton Baker, are gone after combining for 190 tackles, nine sacks and 11 tackles for loss, but the Tigers get a key player back in Quinton McCrary. The junior only played in two games last year, but he's healthy now and should be even more disruptive than Goodwell and Baker were. Heath Grant is ready to be a playmaker in the middle, and Greg Hinds provides big-time athleticism on the outside.
The key to the unit: The health of Quinton McCrary and the development of Greg Hinds. These two should be tremendous pass rushers if they can stay on the field.
Linebacker Rating: 6

Projected Starters
- Greg Hinds, Jr. - 6 tackles
Hinds was a top high school receiver and was a huge recruit for Memphis a few years ago. Now he's expected to grow into a dangerous all-around playmaker on the outside using his speed and athleticism as a pass rusher as well as a top coverman against running backs coming out of the backfield.

- Heath Grant, Jr. - 32 tackles, 1 sack, 4 broken up passes, 2 recovered fumbles
Grant played a key backup role all last year showing he can be a disruptive force when he got his chance to show what he could do. He's a mobile 225 pounds in the middle with decent range and quickness.

- Quinton McCrary, Jr. - 10 tackles, 1 sack, 3.5 TFL, 2 forced fumbles
McCrary was on his way to a monster season when he suffered a thigh injury after missing the first two games of the year with an ankle injury. The 232-pound junior is a bolt of lightning with defensive back speed and big hitting ability on the outside. The former safety made 82 tackles in 2004.

Top Backups
- Mike Snyder, Sr. - 44 tackles, 1 sack, 3 broken up passes
Snyder turned into a key starter taking over when Quinton McCrary couldn't go on the right side. Now the 234-pound senior will go back to being a backup as long as McCrary is healthy. He's strong enough to play in the middle if needed.
- Michael Spurlock, Sr. - 18 tackles, 1 sack
Spurlock got over the badly broken leg suffered two years ago to be a good backup in the middle. He's not all that fast, but he's a tough player behind Heath Grant.

Defensive Backs
The good: The Memphis pass defense improved to 107th in the nation after finishing 114th in the nation in 2004. The bad: The Memphis pass defense allowed 280 yards per game, four more yards per outing than it did two years ago. Experience won't be an issue with five players with starting experience returning led by All-America safety Wesley Smith. Brandon McDonald has to grow into a true shutdown corner after an impressive first season, and the rest of the secondary has to make more big plays and can't keep getting torched deep. Memphis allowed a whopping 14.2 yards per catch last year.
The key to the unit: Slow down efficient passers and be stronger against the deep ball.
Secondary Rating: 5.5

Projected Starters
- CB Brandon McDonald, Sr. - 49 tackles, 3 interceptions, 11 broken up passes
The former JUCO transfer is a ball-hawking machine leading the team in interceptions and broken up passes. He had a few problems through out the year, but he made enough big plays to hope he'll be in for a steady season as the team's top corner.

- Right Cat Safety Rod Smith, Jr. - 50 tackles, 2 interceptions, 2 broken up passes, 1 sack
Smith was supposed to be one of the new stars of the secondary, and he didn't disappoint turning into a reliable all-around defender. He has the size at 6-1 and 215 pounds to go along with cornerback speed. If he can stay healthy, something he couldn't do last year, he should flirt with all-star honors now that he knows what he's doing.

- FS Wesley Smith, Sr. - 82 tackles, 1 sack, 1 interception, 3 broken up passes, 2 forced fumbles
One of the nation's best defensive backs, the 6-3 Smith hits like a linebacker and covers like a corner. He's the unquestioned leader of the defense earning three straight first team All-Conference USA honors with 269 career tackles, nine tackles for loss, two sacks and five interceptions.

- Left Cat Safety Derek Clenin, Sr. - 17 tackles, 1 interception, 1 sack
The former walk-on isn't all that big at 5-9 and 193 pounds, but he quick enough to hold his own. He has enough starting experience to know what he's doing, but he could quickly get knocked out of the starting spot if Sam Brewer and/or Tyler Griffin shine in fall practice.

- CB Jamaal Rufus, Sr. - 41 tackles, 7 broken up passes
Rufus has the potential to be special this year. He has safety size at 6-3 and 207 pounds and is a sure tackler. He'll man the left corner spot, but could move to safety if Dustin Lopez takes over one of the corner jobs.

Top Backups
- CB Dustin Lopez, Sr. - 14 tackles
The former JUCO transfer is experienced enough to see starts on the left side. He's not nearly as big as Jamaal Rufus, but he's very athletic and plays like a veteran.
- CB Jermaine Chambers, Sr. - 13 tackles
The former walk-on found his niche on special teams. At 6-0 and 207 pounds he's a bigger option at right corner behind Brandon McDonald.
- S Sam Brewer, Sr. - 16 tackles, 1 broken up pass
A good special teamer and a solid backup so far, Brewer will push Derek Clenin hard for the starting spot on the left side. He's bigger and more of a playmaker.

Special Teams
Punter Michael Gibson will be on the All-America short list, but it's an open casting call to replace placekicker Stephen Gostkowski. The return game needs a lot of help after averaging a paltry 4.78 yards per return last year and 20.19 yards on kickoff returns. Top running back Joseph Doss will handle the kickoff returns to start, while top corner Brandon McDonald will try to add more pop than he did last year returning punts.

The key to the unit: Find a steady, reliable placekicker and get more from the return game.
Special Teams Rating: 6

Projected Starters
- PK Trey Adams, Soph.
Adams has to try to replace all-star Stephen Gostkowski, who nailed 70 of 92 career field goals and scored 369 points. The walk-on will have to battle with Kittrell Smith and freshman Matt Reagan.
- P Michael Gibson, Sr. - 59 punts, 2,632 yds, 44.6 average, 13 inside the 20
One of the nation's best punters returns after a tremendous first season after coming over from the JUCO ranks. He's big, experienced, and has a huge leg able to blast the team out of any situation. The Tigers finished third in the nation in net punting.

Related Stories
Memphis Preview 2006 - Depth Chart
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Memphis Preview 2006 - Further Analysis
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Memphis Preview 2006 - Offense
 -by  Aug 7, 2006

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