What you need to know ... Only four starters return to the
Sun Belt's best defense, but the cupboard is hardly bare. New
defensive coordinator Manny Diaz's biggest issue is finding a
tackle to replace Jeff Littlejohn along with linebackers Dennis
Burks and Jonathan Bonner. The linebackers will be fine if J.K.
Sabb is as good as he was last season, and the line will be fine
if Sean Mosley and Erik Walden can generate consistent pressure
on the ends. The secondary will be the strength with Bradley
Robinson about to be hailed as one of the Sun Belt's top
J.K. Sabb, 71
Eric Walden, 3
Interceptions: Bradley Robinson, 4
Star of the defense: Senior LB J.K. Sabb
Player that has to step up and become a star: Junior CB
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore NG Jonathan Presley
Best pro prospect: Sabb
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Sabb, 2) CB Bradley
Robinson, 3) FS Jonathan Harris
Strength of the defense: Secondary
Weakness of the defense:
Size up front, experience on the front four
The line was amazing last year allowing a mere 136
rushing yards per game, but now it'll be a work in progress. On the plus
side, there should be a more consistent pass rush with Erik Walden, Sean
Mosley, and former linebacker Tavares Jones working on the ends. Trevor
Jenkins has all-star potential at one tackle spot, but the other spot
needs work with 310-pound Brandon Perry needing to get healthy and in
shape to rotate with the 240-pound Jonathan Presley.
The key to the unit: Somehow be as effective against the run as
last year's line while getting into the backfield on a more consistent
Defensive Line Rating: 4.5
- DE Erik Walden, Jr. - 33 tackles, 3 sacks, 8.5 TFL
A pass rushing specialist early in his career, Walden turned into a
decent all-around end after getting the starting nod over the second
half of last season. He saw a little time at linebacker to fill in when
injuries struck, but the 238-pound junior is better on the line.
- NG Trevor Jenkins, Soph. - 11 tackles, 1 TFL
The 270-pound sophomore started to come on late last year as a true
freshman and should be the anchor on the nose. He's a great athlete
who's expected to eventually become an All-Sun Belt caliber pass rusher.
- DT Jonathan Presley, Soph. - 5 tackles
Presley saw a little bit of time as a true freshman and now needs to
handle the job on the inside. He's only 240 pounds, but he should be far
quicker than most linemen he'll go up against. At his size, he'll have
to rotate with the bigger Brandon Perry.
- DE Sean Mosley, Jr. - 25 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 TFL
The star of the line, Mosley has been a fixture for the last two
seasons. At 250 pounds, he's the team's biggest end with the quickness
to be used at linebacker if absolutely necessary. Now he needs to become
a steadier pass rusher.
- DE Tavares Jones, Jr. - 19 tackles, 1 TFL
The 6-3, 238-pound Jones is being moved from linebacker to end in an
attempt to generate more of a pass rush. Mostly a backup and special
teamer so far, he should be a dangerous reserve behind Sean Mosley on
the right side.
- DT Brandon Perry, Soph. - 5 tackles, 1 sack, 2 TFL
The line needs the bulk of the 310-pound sophomore. Perry can play
either tackle position and needs to get past an ankle injury to reach
his full potential. He's size is also a bit of a problem; he'll be more
effective at around 300 pounds.
No place takes a bigger hit than the linebacking corps
after losing Dennis Burke and Jonathan Bonner. J.K. Sabb needs to repeat
his fantastic first year and be the leader and top tackler on the
weakside, while former JUCO all-star Chance Dunleavy has to step up his
play in the middle. Marcus Brandon and Lonnie Clemons are undersized
strongside linebackers who need to use their quickness to make plays
against the run.
The key to the unit: Chance Dunleavy has to live up
to his potential and Marcus Brandon has to be productive right away.
Linebacker Rating: 5
- Marcus Brandon, Sr. - 15 tackles
While not the most talented Blue Raider defender, the
216-pound senior has been around long enough to get significantly more
playing time on the outside. The key will be his ability to hold up
against the run after being used mostly on third downs and passing
- Chance Dunleavy, Sr. - 31 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 TFL
The former JUCO All-American didn't set the world on fire in his first
season, but he has the size and pass rushing skills to be a major factor
this year. At 238 pounds, he's the team's biggest linebacker with the
strength to be a rock against the run.
- J.K. Sabb, Sr. - 71 tackles, 2 sacks, 13 TFL, 1 interception, 5
broken up passes
Sabb lived up to his JUCO hype leading the team in tackles and tackles
for loss. He's a big-time hitter with great timing and closing ability
once he gets a bead on a ball-carrier. He'll have to battle with for
time on the weakside, but he'll find a spot at all times in the corps.
- Justin Rainey, Sr. - 7 tackles
The former JUCO all-star saw a little bit of time over the first three
games before tearing up his knee, which appears to be fine going into
the year. He's a strong 215 pounds with excellent athleticism on the
Lonnie Clemons, Soph. - 3 tackles
A special teamer in his redshirt freshman season, the 215-pound
sophomore will need to quickly become a key reserve on the strongside
behind Marcus Brandon.
There are a few question marks, but all in all this should
become one of the team's strengths if Roy Polite can shine at one of the
corner spots. Bradley Robinson is on the verge of first team All-Sun
Belt status at left corner, while Jonathan Harris is an improving
veteran at free safety. The return of Kevin Copeland from a foot injury
is a huge help to the overall talent level. There's speed and depth,
even if the reserves don't have a world of experience.
The key to the unit: Play like last year and keep
improving. Despite all the experience, this is still a young group with
the potential to get even better.
Secondary Rating: 5
- CB Bradley Robinson, Jr. - 41 tackles, 5 interceptions,
7 broken up passes, 2 TFL
Robinson had a tremendous season earning a few All-Sun Belt honors
showing he can do a little of everything well. He's not all that big at
5-10 and 170 pounds, but he's great in run support and was also one of
the league's most dangerous covermen with his technique catching up with
- FS Jonathan Harris, Jr. - 37 tackles, 1 interception, 2 broken
up passes, 1 sack, 2.5 TFL
Back for his third season as the starter, Harris hits like a ton of
bricks and improved his play in pass coverage. He needs to use his
experience and range to be more of a big play performer and needs to be
even more intimidating against the pass.
- SS Damon Nickson, Jr. - 35 tackles, 3 broken up passes
Nickson turned into a good starter over the second half of last season
after moving over from corner. He's not huge at 6-0 and 177 pounds and
isn't the best coverman around. He's a far better fit at safety where he
should be in for a productive season.
- CB Roy Polite, Jr. - 23 tackles, 1 interception
A fantastic athlete with good size at 6-1 and 188 pounds, Polite needs
to finally become a steady starter after spending the last few years as
a great reserve. He has the talent and the all-around athleticism; now
he has to put it all together.
- S Kevin Copeland, Sr.
Will he immediately take back a starting spot? Copeland was one of the
team's top playmakers in 2004 and then missed all of last season with a
foot injury. He's one of the team's pass defending safeties and is one
of the team's fastest players.
- CB Craig Harris, RFr.
The high school quarterback also served as one of his
team's better defensive backs. His athleticism and ball-hawking
potential will be too much to keep off the field. He'll start out behind
Bradley Robinson at left corner.
Colby Smith is great as a punter and needs work as a
field goal kicker. Matt King will push for some of the placekicking
duties. Taron Henry will be the main man on kickoff returns after seeing
a little bit of work last season averaging 18.9 yards per try, while
Bradley Robinson will once again handle the punt returns after averaging
9.2 yards on 18 returns.
The key to the unit: More is needed on field goal
attempts and there could stand to be a little more production from the
Special Teams Rating: 6
- PK/P Colby Smith, Sr. - 7-16 FGs, 26-26 extra points,
59 points, 2,484 yds, 42.1 yards per kick, 19 inside the 20
Smith is a fantastic punter and a not-so-hot field goal kicker
lacking consistency with four misses inside 40 yards and showing little
to no range. He has the leg, but he has to prove he can make more 40+
yarders. There's no questioning him as a punter as he should be among
Sun Belt's best.