Preview 2007 - Defense
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What you need to know:
A disaster last year, especially
against the pass and at getting into the backfield, the defense
is undergoing an almost complete overhaul with several newcomers
taking over for established veterans. The 4-3 needs to start
making more big plays behind the line, and the hope will be for
a steady rotation of players to keep everyone fresh and be more
productive. The key will be the play of corners LaKeitharun Ford
and Michael Grandberry, who need to beef up a secondary that
allowed 231 yards per game and finished 116th in the nation in
pass efficiency defense.
Greg Terrell, 5
Interceptions: Brandon Patterson, 3
Star of the defense: Junior LB Greg Jackson
Player that has to step up and become a star: Senior CB
LaKeitharun Ford & Junior CB Michael Grandberry
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DE Josh Weaver
Best pro prospect: Junior DT Freddie Barnett
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Jackson, 2) LB Tommy
Phelps, 3) DT Freddie Barnett
Strength of the defense: Depth on the front seven
Weakness of the defense:
Projected Starters: Memphis is deep and diverse
along the defensive line, which is a very good thing considering
the coaching staff switched back to a four-man front last
September. The rotation, especially at end, will cycle
regularly and keep legs fresh. Sophomore end Jada Brown
used March and April as a springboard to a starting job and
recognition as the Tigers’ Most Improved Defensive Player.
Originally an Ole Miss Rebel, he’s an impact player with the
strength to play the run and the quickness to get after the
Like Brown, Josh Weaver is a sophomore end who matured
since the close of last year. At 6-3 and 210 pounds, he’s a
pure speed rusher who can also drop back into coverage, but will
need to bulk up to be more of a factor against the run.
Inside, Memphis is counting on juniors Freddie Barnett
and Brandon Douglas to plug the holes that were often
gaping in 2006. Barnett comes via Trinity Valley (Tex.)
Community College where he played much faster than his 6-2,
300-pound size would indicate and brings a fresh energy to the
defense. A top prep prospect that initially signed with
Arkansas, he’ll be counted on heavily in his debut season in
blue and gray. As a part-time starter last season, Douglas
chipped in 28 tackles, three tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks,
playing in all 12 games. To enhance his worth to this unit, he
must get regular penetration and become a more effective run
Projected Top Reserves: Two of last season’s key
contributors at defensive end, sophomore Greg Terrell and
junior Clinton McDonald, could play back up roles in
2007, a sign that the depth is beefing up. An end in an outside
linebacker’s body, Terrell had 43 tackles and a team-high five
sacks in 2006 en route to a spot on the Conference USA
All-Freshman squad. Regardless of who starts games, he’ll play
an integral role as third-down pass rusher and is way too
disruptive to keep on the sidelines for very long. Although
McDonald was a starter as a sophomore and registered 41 tackles,
he rarely pressured the quarterback, making him vulnerable to
faster ends, such as Brown and Weaver.
Redshirt freshman Charlie Bryant has fully made the
transition from offensive line to defensive tackle and is ready
to see action in 2007. At 6-6 and 310 pounds, he’s easily the
biggest Memphis lineman which will make him an appealing option
on obvious running downs.
Watch Out For… junior defensive tackle Corey
Mills. Mills isn’t currently listed on the two-deep, but
that’ll change the moment he’s healthy enough to put pads back
on. A ten-game starter a year ago, he has the quickness and
technique on the inside to offset a 260-pound frame.
Strength: Depth. Now that he has enough capable
bodies to fill out a depth chart, West will find it infinitely
easier than a year ago to run the 4-3 system that he so desires
for his Tigers.
Weakness: Run stoppers. After allowing 178 yards
a game on the ground in 2006, Memphis is going to need Mills to
be completely healthy after shoulder surgery and Barnett to play
as if this isn’t his first year at the I-A level.
Outlook: The Tigers go two-deep at every position
and are on their way to giving Tommy West his best rotation of
defensive linemen since arriving at the school six years ago.
Projected Starters: The Tiger linebackers haven’t
cut it the last few seasons, opening the door for change and
open competitions for every job. That’s great news for junior
Tommy Phelps, who’s flourishing in the new climate in his
first year out of Butler (Kan.) Community College. A 6-3,
240-pound thumper that flies all over the field, he’s edged
ahead of last year’s second leading tackler Heath Grant
at middle linebacker.
Senior Jake Kasser is built like a free safety at 5-10
and 195 pounds, but is technically sound, very tough and rarely
out of position. As a part-timer in 2006, he had 46 tackles and
was actually second on the team with 3.5 sacks.
Junior Greg Jackson is coming off a solid season in which
he was fourth on the team with 69 tackles and tied for first
with seven tackles for loss. He pursues well and has good
lateral quickness, but at only 205 pounds, really struggles when
he has to shed linemen or bigger tight ends.
Projected Top Reserves: As the defense is
currently constructed, Memphis will have a second team that
comprises two former starters and 159 tackles from last year.
That may be bad for the three backups, but it’s terrific for the
team’s depth. Grant had 81 stops in 2006 and will be a great
veteran to have as a reserve, however, he lacks the size,
athleticism and big-play ability of Phelps.
Senior Quinton McCrary has had a long and very productive
career in Memphis with 170 tackles and 23 starts. A good
athlete at 6-2 and 232 pounds, he rebounded well last year after
suffering a devastating leg injury in 2005, and won’t back down
quietly from the challenge he’s getting from Kasser.
Sophomore Jeremy Rockette has as much athletic upside as
any Tiger linebacker, but needs more reps with the defense after
spending most of his maiden season on special teams.
Watch Out For… Phelps. Memphis needs someone to
step up in run defense, and Phelps has the instincts and sure
tackling skills to be that guy.
Strength: Depth. Whether or not Grant and McCrary
can recapture their starting jobs, it’s already clear that new
defensive coordinator Rick Kravitz has four or five experienced
players that he’s comfortable slotting into the lineup.
Weakness: Star power. While the Tiger linebackers
should be more consistent than last year, the unit still lacks
that one player that creates turnovers and takes over games by
regularly disrupting plays in opposing backfields.
Outlook: While a lot is riding on whether Phelps
is prepared to become the star of the group, it already looks as
if the 2007 linebackers won’t drive West batty as frequently as
last year’s unit did.
Projected Starters: It’s highly likely the defense
will spend the entire year trying to compensate for a secondary
that allowed 24 touchdown passes and almost 14 yards a reception
in 2006 and was gutted by graduations. Get ready for a complete
overhaul and plenty of new faces in the Memphis defensive
Relatively speaking, the veteran is junior free safety
Brandon Patterson who started games at corner and safety a
year ago, making 47 tackles and picking off three passes.
Because of the inexperience surrounding him, he’ll be expected
to emerge as a playmaker and one of the unit’s leaders.
Making a strong push at strong safety will be junior Dontae
Reed, an Ole Miss transfer who has the 6-2, 210-pound frame
to make receivers shy away from crossing patterns. A tough,
dedicated student-athlete, he works as hard on the field as he
does in the classroom.
The corner jobs will be handled by junior Michael Grandberry
and senior LaKeitharun Ford. Grandberry is an intriguing
player who shifted from wide receiver last October, and caught
on quickly, making 28 tackles and breaking up a couple of
passes. A terrific athlete at 5-10 and 171 pounds, he’s still
learning and prone to getting burned twice for every big play he
makes. Ford is in his second season since transferring from
Mississippi Delta Community College. He started five games in
2006, but was more a part of the problem than the solution in
pass coverage, struggling at 5-9 to slow down opposing
Projected Top Reserves: Junior free safety Tony
Bell comes to Memphis from Auburn where he played two
seasons with the Tigers and was a highly-regarded recruit. At
6-2 and 215 pounds, he hits like a linebacker and moves real
well in space, a combination that’ll earn him a ton of playing
time in 2007. It’s imperative that a couple of corners emerge
to provide depth and help fill out the team’s second unit.
Sophomore Alton Starr is a former receiver that needs to
become more than just a special teams player that gets reps in
blowouts. He’ll be pushed by sophomore Deante Lamar,
sophomore Bernard Key and redshirt freshman Bryan
Wright, none of whom has distinguished himself to this
Watch Out For… Junior college transfer LeRico
Mathis. Few schools in America offer a quicker path to
playing time for corners than Memphis which has put out want ads
for quality cover men. Mathis is a speedy, 6-1 and 185-pound
defender with the skill set to win a job shortly after he
Strength: The safeties. Patterson was one of the lone
bright spots from 2006 and the two SEC imports have a chance to
be impact players early in their Memphis careers.
Weakness: Pass coverage. It’s sort of obvious,
but the Tiger corners are too small and too inexperienced to
have a prayer this year against offenses dedicated to picking on
Outlook: The secondary is a major work-in-progress
that’ll have no answers against the better passing teams while
forcing the Tigers to take part in a ton of high-scoring
Projected Starters: The glass will be half full
with the Memphis special teams, which welcomes back sophomore
kicker Matt Reagan and elusive junior kick returner
Michael Grandberry, but will take a hit from the graduation
of punter Michael Gibson and must locate a punt returner.
Reagan led the Tigers in scoring in 2006, earning Freshman
All-America honors and doing a decent job of succeeding Stephen
Gostkowski. For the year, he hit 12-of-17 field goals and all
but one of his 26 extra points, but only hit 4-of-8 outside the
30. Junior Brent Sutherland was signed out of Hinds
Community College to handle the team’s punting duties in 2007
and beyond. At 6-4 and 200 pounds, he has good leg strength,
but is even better at hitting directional kicks and pooch
Projected Top Reserves: If Reagan regresses or
suffers through a sophomore slump, Tommy West could turn to
Joey Mack, a senior who sat out last year after transferring
from Southern Utah. Sutherland’s only competition at punter
will be Reagan who averaged 40 yards a kick when he last punted
as a senior in high school.
Watch Out For… Reagan’s development on distance
kicks. Yeah, he was an ace on the chip shots, but if the
sophomore is going to blossom into one of the league’s better
kickers, he has to nail the 42-yarders with more consistency.
Strength: Grandberry. As a sophomore he led
Conference USA in kickoff returns and was just one block away
from taking a couple of kicks back in the second half of the
Weakness: Punting. It’s not as if Sutherland
can’t become a solid punter, however, the drop-off from Gibson
is inevitable and Memphis is a defensively challenged team that
desperately needs to win the field position battle.
Outlook: While Reagan should take the next step in
his maturation as a kicker, the key is Sutherland who’ll set
back the defense if he disappoints.