What you need to know ...
It'll be a surprise if this isn't one of the Sun Belt's
best defenses thanks to a tremendous back seven led by All-Sun
Belt safeties Tyrell Johnson and Khyyam Burns. The linebacking
corps goes from being experienced and decent to experienced and
tremendous thanks to the return of star Josh Williams in the
middle after being suspended last year. The run defense has to
be far more effective, and that'll start up front where the
tackles have to be more consistent. A pass rush has to be found
from the ends with starters Brian Flagg and Jonathan Najm
nursing knee injuries.
Brian Flagg, 5
Interceptions: Tyrell Johnson, Koby McKinnon, Dominique
Star of the defense: Junior LB Josh Williams
Player that has to step up and become a star: Junior DE
Unsung star on the rise: Junior NT Prince Hickman
Best pro prospect: Williams
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Williams, 2) SS Tyrell
Johnson, 3) FS Khayyam Burns
Strength of the defense: Linebacker, safety
Weakness of the defense:
Run defense, ends, corners
This could be an issue. It might have been
one of the team's strengths had Brian Flagg and Jonathan Najm not
suffered knee injuries last year, but now there's a concern with the
ends and whether or not they can come up with a consistent pass rush.
Stopping the run is the bigger concern. Jamarrow James. Prince Hickman and Curtis Bonds
have to hold up better against power running teams and more depth needs
to develop to form a good rotation.
The key to the unit: Be better against the run and find a steady
Defensive Line Rating: 4.5
- DE Brian Flagg, Jr. - 32 tackles, 5 sacks, 7 TFL
The former linebacker turned into a killer of a pass rushing end last
season, but he suffered a knee injury late in the year and now will
likely be out of the mix for at least a little while. He's listed as the
starter on the left side coming out of spring ball and should turn out
to be fine with more rest this summer.
- DT Jamarrow James, Jr. - 30 tackles, 2.5 sacks
The team's best returning lineman is a good presence on the inside and a
solid pass rusher. He has to get used to handling all the blockers
trying to knock him around and keep him from being his disruptive self,
but he'll get into a few grooves where he'll blow up play after play. At
275 pounds, he's big enough to start being more of a factor against the
- NT Prince Hickman, Jr. - 17 tackles, 2 TFL
Hickman has been a decent reserve, but he needs to blossom into a more
dominant run defender. He's the biggest player on the line at 289 pounds
and will be a key to the line needing to become an anchor on the nose.
- DE Brandon Rollins, Jr. - 24 tackles, 1 sack, 5 TFL
Rollins has been a big of a disappointment having problems with academic
issues and injuries to go along with a horrifying accident a few years
ago. He has the size at 6-5 and 257 pounds to be a major disruptive
force, but he has to develop into more of a consistent pass rusher.
- DE Reggie Green, Jr. - 14 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 4 TFL, 2
Green stepped in late last year and turned into a nice surprise showing
good pass rushing ability. He's a good sized playmaker at 6-5 and 255
pounds, and now he'll have to come up with a strong start to the season
until the rest of the ends get 100% healthy.
Jonathan Najm, Sr. - 30
tackles, 3.5 sacks, 5 TFL
Najm was just growing into a top player when he tore his ACL and was out
for the year. He'll be a starter if he can make it back this year, but
it might be a while before he's 100%.
- DT Curtis Bonds, Jr. - 12 tackles, 1 sack
Bonds stepped up when he had to turning into an invaluable anchor of the
line late last year. At 6-4 and 289 pounds, he's an imposing defender on
the inside. His continued development will be the key to the line as his
emergence needs to help take some of the attention away from Jamarrow James.
It'll be a shock if this isn't the Sun Belt's best
linebacking corps. There were problems last year with inexperience and
even bigger problems handling good running teams, but that won't be a
problem this year thanks to the return of certain All-Sun Belt selection
Josh Williams in the middle after he was kicked off the team last
season. His return allows big, fast Devrett Wade to move to a more
natural outside position. Now the hope is for Koby McKinnon to grow into
the strongside role after a rocky freshman season. Ben Owens and Elias Ellis could
both start at some point.
The key to the unit: Hope for Josh Williams to be
even better than he was as a star freshman.
Linebacker Rating: 6
- Koby McKinnon, Soph. - 55 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT, 3
The former safety had a good first year at linebacker,
but he was a bit inconsistent on the strongside. To be fair, he was
thrown into the job, but he showed he can handle himself in pass
coverage and occasionally was able to get into the backfield. He's a bit
light at 215 pounds so there will have to be a good rotation to keep him
- Josh Williams, Jr.
Williams had a fantastic first season leading the team in tackles and
was the nation's best freshman tackler with 110 stops, but he was kicked
off the team last season for "conduct detrimental to the team." He was
allowed back on the team as a walk-on this year, and he has been a
terror in the weight room looking to get hi NFL caliber career back on
track. He's up to 255 pounds and if all goes as planned should be the
Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year. He'll add a nasty element to the
run defense that was missing last year.
- Devrett Wade, Sr. - 87 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 13 TFL
The former JUCO transfer is a big 231-pound playmaker on the weakside.
He's strong enough to hold his own against the run, and fast enough to
be a tremendous pass rusher. He played in the middle last year and
should be dominant now that Williams is back on the inside and he can go
to the outside.
- Ben Owens, Soph. - 5 tackles, 2 TFL
Owens is technically the starter in the middle, but that's just window
dressing before Josh Williams is fully back in the mix. He's very fast
and has good size to play on the inside, but he could end up seeing time
on the outside so he can get on the field. He'll also play on special
- Elias Ellis, Sr. - 41 tackles, 3 TFL
Ellis has battled with diabetes early in his career and has had a hard
time staying in the starting mix, but he's an experienced enough tackler
to see plenty of time behind Devrett Wade on the weakside.
The secondary only allowed 192 yards per game
last year finishing 27th in the nation, and now it welcomes back the
league's best safety tandem in Khyyam Burns and Tyrell Johnson. The
concern is at corner needing Montis Harrison's shoulder to heal and for
Dominique Williams to be more consistent after a good, but occasionally
rough freshman season. There's decent depth and great competition for
the corner jobs.
The key to the unit: Find the two best corners early
on and hope one can become a true shut-down defender.
Secondary Rating: 6
- CB Dominique Williams, Soph. - 21 tackles. 2 INT, 7
broken up passes
A bit inconsistent after being forced into action, Williams still showed
plenty of promise that he'll grow into a top corner. He'll get beat a
little too often, but he's not afraid to take chances and go after the
ball. He'll get the start on the left side.
- FS Khyyam Burns, Jr. - 89 tackles, 1 sack, 4 TFL, 6 quarterback
Burns has been a solid defender for the past two seasons with the
versatility to play either safety position without a problem. He's good
at flying to the ball in pass coverage and should be an All-Sun Belt
performer if Tyrell Johnson doesn't take all the recognition on the
- SS Tyrell Johnson, Jr. - 112 tackles, 2 interceptions
One of the Sun Belt's best players, Johnson is a tackling machine
highlighted by an incredible 25 tackle game against North Texas last
year. He's big and extremely athletic with good range and tremendous
hitting ability in the open field. The two-time Sun Belt honoree will be
in the mix for Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year honors.
- CB Darren Toney, Sr. - 18 tackles, 1 interception
Mostly a special teamer and nickel back so far, Toney will have to hold
down the right side in place of top starter James Johnson. One of the
stars of the ASU track team, Toney is one of the team's fastest players.
- CB Montis Harrison, Jr. - 30 tackles, 1 interception, 2 broken up
Can Harrison come back after his shoulder problem? The junior is a good
hitter and was just starting to develop into a top coverman. Now he'll
have to get healthy and fight to get his starting job back.
- CB Kelvin Cox, Sr. - 10 tackles, 2 quarterback hurries
Cox is a slightly bigger option on the right side than Darren Toney and
has more than enough experience to take over a starting spot. He can
play safety if needed and is a good special teamer.
- SS Marcus Brown, RFr.
Speed, speed and more speed. It'll be hard for Brown to see too much
playing time playing behind Tyrell Johnson, but his speed will be too
much to keep off the field in nickel and dime situations.
The kicking game will go
through an overhaul losing do-it-all kicker Eric Neihouse, who took over
for Jared Little's punting duties. The return game was no big deal last
year, but there's plenty of speed to add more pop with Gary Vincent the
main punt returner and Kevin Jones taking over the number one kickoff
returner role after averaging 22.4 yards per return last year.
The key to the unit: Better coverage is needed on
punts, and the new kickers have to be reliable from the word go.
Special Teams Rating: 5.5
- PK Ryan Hoorman, RFr.
It'll be Hoorman's job to take over for Eric Neihouse who hit 13 of 22
field goals last year. Hoorman had a broken foot this off-season, but
he'll be the main man this fall with a big leg. Accuracy will be the
- P Brett Shrable, Soph.
The former linebacker and fullback will take
over the punting duties. He's 226 pounds and tough with a good leg, and
he can't make things any worse than they were last year when the Indians
netted fewer than 32 yards per punt.