2007 Southern Miss Preview - Defense

Posted Jul 10, 2007

Preview 2007 Southern Miss Defense Preview

Southern Miss Golden Eagles

Preview 2007 - Defense

- 2007 Southern Miss Preview | 2007 USM Offense Preview
2007 USM Depth Chart | 2006 CFN Southern Miss Preview 

What you need to know: The “Nasty Bunch” defense that’s become the trademark of Southern Miss football under Jeff Bower should be one of the nation’s top ranked units in 2007.  It’s fast and experienced, and if Bower gets his way, about to become as physical as his vintage teams of the late 1990s.  The Eagles return nine starters, including the entire front seven and five players that earned all-Conference USA recognition in 2006.  Good luck moving the ball on this veteran group.  If there’s a weak link on defense it’s in the secondary, where two new starting corners will be broken in.  One way to help rookies Eddie Willingham and Michael McGee will be to get more pressure on the quarterback than last year, when USM was No. 81 in the country in sacks.        

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Gerald McRath, 104
Sacks: Robert Henderson, 4.5
Interceptions: Brandon Sumrall, 2

Star of the defense: Sophomore LB Gerald McRath
Player that has to step up and become a star: Junior CB Eddie Willingham
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DE Roshaad Byrd
Best pro prospect: Senior DT Martavius Prince
Top three all-star candidates: 1) McRath 2) Prince 3) S Brandon Sumrall
Strength of the defense: The front seven, the safeties, run defense
Weakness of the defense: The cornerbacks, getting to the quarterback

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: It has to be a little lonely these days for Sean Merrill.  The senior nose tackle is the only member of the defensive line that didn’t receive some all-Conference USA recognition at the end of last season.  That Merrill is the least heralded of the Southern Miss front wall is a testament to just how dominant this group could be in 2007.  He’s a very physical 295-pound tackle with a nasty demeanor, but has been slowed by injuries since arriving from junior college.  Although he broke his leg at the end of spring, Merrill will be back by August looking for a strong finish to his USM career.

Lining up next to Merrill will be senior Martavius Prince, a standout run-stuffer coming off a breakout campaign.  In his first year as a regular, he had 49 tackles, a team-high 15 tackles for loss and three sacks, laying the foundation for what’ll be an even better final season.

When senior end Matthew Chatelain was granted a sixth-year of eligibility by the NCAA, it ensured that the starting defensive line would return intact in 2007.  A one-time walk-on with a non-stop motor, he tied for the team lead with 4.5 sacks in 2006, but is even more valuable as a catalyst and an emotional leader of the line.

At bandit will be senior Robert Henderson, a 6-3, 280-pound pass rusher that has the size and strength of a tackle.  He had a career year in 2006, posting 59 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.  Now Henderson needs to emerge as a player that can track down the quarterback on a more regular basis.    

Projected Top Reserves: Developing depth this fall is going to be important, especially since the Eagles will be breaking in four new starters in 2008.  Now that he’s trimmed some fat and gotten in shape, redshirt freshman nose tackle Anthony Gray can expect to be a part of the rotation this fall.  He’s a low leverage guy that boasts a bench press of 490 pounds, tops among Southern Miss players. 

On the outside, the staff has high hopes for junior Eric Phillips and sophomore Roshaad Byrd.  At 6-7 and 291 pounds, Phillips is the biggest of the Eagle ends and a potential force as a run defender, but has yet to parlay all of that raw ability into results.  One of the program’s higher profile signings of 2005, Byrd is ready to begin contributing to the defense.  He’s added about 30 pounds since getting to Hattiesburg, but hasn’t lost the burst that should make him a valuable edge rusher.         

Watch Out For… Boise State’s Ian Johnson to be the only back to get 100 yards on the Southern Miss defense in 2007.  With good size along the line and every starter from the front seven back, there won’t be much running room for the Eagles’ opponents this fall.                                    
Strength: Experience.  It’s one thing to have four starters back, but it’s another thing entirely when those four starters have ten letters between them and enough talent to vie for all-league recognition.      
Weakness: …For all the talent on the Eagle line, it’d be nice if the unit could pick up a few more sacks this year.  The defense was 81st nationally at getting to the quarterback in 2006, and didn’t have a single player with more than five sacks.        
Outlook: While you might be able to pass on Southern Miss this year, forget about running the ball.  The front four is big and quick, and eager to show why it’s the best defensive line outside of the major conferences.         
Rating: 7.5


Projected Starters: By the program’s standards, last season was a bit of a rebuilding year at the position.  Now, with all three starters returning, Southern Miss will be home to the nastiest collection of linebackers in Conference USA.  Sophomore Gerald McRath was a revelation in 2006, returning from an injury suffered a year earlier, and then going on to lead the team with 104 tackles.  An instinctive defender, he gets to the ball extremely quickly and rarely misses a tackle.  At 6-3 and 213 pounds, McRath is on the road to becoming the next really big thing in a Golden Eagle linebacker. 

McRath’s wingmen will be junior Tokumbo Abanikanda at weakside and senior James Denley at strongside.  Abanikanda had 59 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in his debut as the starter, flashing excellent closing speed and toughness in run defense.  Built like a safety at 6-0 and 218 pounds, he’s especially dangerous coming off the blitz. 

A veteran of 28 games and 23 starts, Denley is the senior member of the unit and a solid, 238-pound run defender.  In last year’s second season as a full-timer, he finished third on the team with 63 tackles, including nine behind the line.             

Projected Top Reserves: Fully recovered from a knee injury suffered in junior college, senior Jerome Lyons proved to be a very valuable backup to McRath in 2006.  In fact, he started five games in the middle last season, finishing with 35 tackles.  As reserves go, a player of Lyons’ caliber is a luxury for the defense.  After spending the entire 2006 season on special teams, sophomore Brandon Davis will get gradually phased into the defense as Abanikanda’s backup.  He’s just 6-1 and 208 pounds, but moves with the quickness of a defensive back.                  

Watch Out For…: McRath to begin getting modest national attention as one of the better young linebackers in America.  Unlike last season when he caught some people by surprise, he begins 2007 as one of the higher-profile linebackers in Conference USA.                        
Strength: Experience.  With Lyons lurking on the second team, Southern Miss has four quality linebackers that started at least five games in last year’s nine-win season.             
Weakness: Depth at outside linebacker.  It’s nit-picking, but the team’s backups behind Denley and Abanikanda are very young and inexperienced beyond breaking wedges on punt and kick coverages. 
Outlook: McRath is the headliner of the unit, but he won’t be working solo.  Flanked by Abanikanda and Denley, the Eagle linebackers are a diverse group that will fly to the ball and make big plays the entire season.
Rating: 7


Projected Starters: If offenses want to put a dent into the Southern Miss defense in 2007, they might want to attack a secondary that will be working with two new starting cornerbacks.  The Eagles were terrific against the pass last year, but Jasper Faulk and Caleb Hendrix are gone, suddenly making the defense vulnerable to the pass.  Sophomore Michael McGee and junior Eddie Willingham are likely to be on the hot seat this season at field and boundary corner, respectively.  They’re a pair of undersized burners, but whether they can keep a Jarett Dillard or Duke Calhoun from completely taking over a game is the great unknown at this stage.  While neither saw much action outside of special teams, Willingham did start a couple of games as a freshman in 2005, which should somewhat flatten his learning curve.

The situation at safety couldn’t be more different, where seniors Brandon Sumrall and LeVance Richmond will be once again patrolling the secondary like wardens.  Entering his third season as the starting rover, Sumrall is an ideal blend of smooth athleticism and big hits.  For the second consecutive season, he had at least 80 tackles in 2006, while forcing a team-high three fumbles. 

In his first season out of Pearl River (Miss.) Community College, Richmond had 54 tackles and a program-best four picks last year.  He’s got the cover and athletic ability to support the young corners, especially in the early stages of the season.         

Projected Top Reserves: Junior Ivory Bradshaw will be in the hunt for playing time at cornerback all season.  A converted receiver with good size, all he needs is more reps to become a productive member of the secondary.  Free safety Eddie Hicks played in 14 games last year, starting twice, en route to a spot on the Conference USA All-Freshman team.  He’s big and fast, and ready to take over the position after Richmond graduates.         

Watch Out For… JUCO safety Gene Anderson.  The intriguing thing about Anderson is that despite being 6-0 and 205 pounds, he has the hips of a corner, which is exactly where he might used if McGee or Willingham implodes.  Wherever he winds up, he’s one of this year’s recruits that’s primed to make an immediate impact.                          
Strength: The safeties.  Not only will Sumrall and Richmond administer pain, but they can also cover which is especially important this season.  Led by Hicks and either Anderson or redshirt freshman Justin Wilson, the B team is good enough to start for a few Conference USA defenses.           
Weakness: The corners.  Yes, McGee and Willingham have upside and great jets, but let’s see how they hold up when they’re the targets of opposing quarterbacks, week-in and week-out.         
Outlook: Although the new cornerbacks will surely get burnt from time to time, they’re so well insulated from the surrounding talent, it’s not going to be the downfall of the 2007 defense.    
Rating: 6

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Last season, Britt Barefoot had to follow in the footsteps of All-American punter Lee Johnson.  Things don’t get any easier this season for the junior, who’s hoping to pull double-duties by succeeding Darren McCaleb, arguably the best kicker in school history.  As the Eagle punter in 2006, Barefoot was inconsistent, averaging just 38.6 yards and contributing to the Eagles’ No. 78 ranking in net punting.  While leg strength isn’t a major issue, he needs to dramatically refine his mechanics in order to get better in 2007.  Barefoot last kicked field goals in high school, and in the spring showed many of the same traits here as he does when he punts—big leg with lots of inconsistency. 

After averaging a pedestrian 21 yards a kick return last year, senior Brandon Sumrall will be stepping aside for redshirt freshman Ralph Turner and junior Ed Morgan, a couple of gnats that can lost behind the wedge.  Jasper Faulk’s graduation opens the door for senior Chris Johnson and sophomore Michael McGee to field punts this fall.     

Projected Top Reserves: Pushing Barefoot at kicker and punter, respectively, will be redshirt freshman Kyle Hopton and junior Brett Hicks.  Hopton has been a little more accurate than Barefoot, but beyond 40 yards, he’s going to struggle to connect.  A former junior college transfer, Hicks did not get on the field for the Golden Eagles in 2006.      

Watch Out For… Barefoot’s maturation in his second season as a regular.  He basically is the special teams this year in Hattiesburg, so if he tanks, the unit is going to go from very average to very scary in a hurry.
Strength: Barefoot on kickoffs.  Particularly in a year when kickoffs are being moved back five yards, Barefoot’s leg strength will be a big asset.  As the specialist last season, almost 40% of his kicks went for touchbacks and just one went out of bounds.
Weakness: Covering kicks.  Southern Miss needs work everywhere on special teams, but particularly on kick coverage.  The Eagles allowed more than 24 yards a kick return last fall, ranking them among the nation’s worst in 2006.
Outlook: Losing Johnson and McCaleb over the last two years is catching up with the Eagles, who no longer have any special players on their special teams unit.         
Rating: 5


Related Stories
2007 Southern Miss Preview - Offense
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  Jul 10, 2007
2007 Southern Miss Preview - Depth Chart
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  Jul 10, 2007
2007 Southern Miss Preview
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  Jul 10, 2007

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