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2008 Eastern Michigan Preview - Defense
Eastern Michigan DT Josh Hunt
Eastern Michigan DT Josh Hunt
CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Apr 23, 2008


CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - Eastern Michigan Eagle Defense


Eastern Michigan Eagles

Preview 2008 - Defense

- 2008 Eastern Michigan Preview | 2008 EMU Offense
- 2008 EMU Defense | 2008 EMU Depth Chart
- 2007 CFN EMU Preview | 2006 CFN EMU Preview 

What you need to know: The defense gave up 424 yards and 31 points per game, but major improvements were made. All the way around, last year was a bit of a step back to potentially take a nice leap forward with a youth movement underway. This is still a very, very young defense, but at least some key sophomores like corners Kevin Long and Arrington Hicks, FS Ryan Downard, DT Tyler Palsrok and DE Adam Brockman are now ready. The defense revolves around senior MLB Daniel Holtzclaw, who'll be in the hunt for MAC Defensive Player of the Year. There needs to be more of a steady pass rush and the run defense needs to be stronger. Part one of that is possible with plenty of speed and quickness on the front seven, but part two will be a problem with a woefully undersized linebacking corps (outside of Holtzclaw) and a relatively light front four.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Daniel Holtzclaw, 125
Sacks: Andre Hatchett, 2
Interceptions: Ryan Downard, 6

Star of the defense: Senior LB Daniel Holtzclaw
Player who has to step up and become a star: Redshirt freshman DT Brandon Slater
Unsung star on the rise: Redshirt freshman DE Brad Ohrman
Best pro prospect: Holtzclaw
Top three all-star candidates: 1)
Holtzclaw, 2) DT Josh Hunt, 3) FS Ryan Downard
Strength of the defense: Experience, Holtzclaw
Weakness of the defense:
Size, defensive end

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: Step one on the line will be to replace Jason Jones, a tremendous interior pass rusher who finished fourth on the team with 70 tackles. Looking to fill the gap is 6-3, 273-pound redshirt freshman Brandon Slater, who was a top high school defensive end and a decent tight end option. While he beefed up quickly, he ran track early in his high school career and has the quickness to grow into an interior pass rusher.

Helping to ease the loss of Jones is senior Josh Hunt, a tough 290-pound veteran who made 30 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss. Decent against the run, but not anything special, he's a tough interior defender who's at his best when he can use his quickness to get into the backfield and be disruptive. Not only did he come up with three fumble recoveries, he tied for second on the team with two interceptions. He missed two games last season with an elbow problem, but it's fine now.

Back on the outside is 6-1, 240-pound senior Spenser Smith after making 35 tackles, a sack, and six tackles for loss. While he's a great athlete and he's fast around the edge, he's not a natural pass rusher. Lacking the last step to actually come up with the sack, he's decent at generating pressure but isn't a closer. He has to be a more consistent threat in the backfield, but first he has to get over an off-season hamstring injury.

Replacing Eric Young, the team's defensive MVP, on the other side will be junior Brandon Downs, one of the team's only experienced backups before breaking out this spring. He saw action in every game last season and made five tackles, and while he didn't do too much against the run, he was decent at getting into the backfield in his limited time. At a linebacker-like 6-0 and 257 pounds, he's quick enough to be a situational pass rusher, if nothing else.

Projected Top Reserves: True sophomore Adam Brockman is a promising 6-3, 244-pound prospect who made 13 tackles and a tackle for loss. More like a linebacker playing on the end, he's an active player who should grow into the team's best pass rusher. There's a good chance he can become the breakout star with more time and more seasoning.

6-3, 273-pound sophomore Tyler Palsrok after making three tackles and a sack as a reserve. One of EMU's big defensive recruits last season, Palsrok is a smart, quick player who should be in the backfield on a regular basis.

Another top recruit from last year was 6-4, 244-pound end prospect Brad Ohrman, who'll see time on the end behind Spenser Smith. A tackling machine, he could be the line's best athlete and with a little work should be a dangerous pass rusher. He has a little more room on his frame to add weight, but he should be a key factor as is.

Watch Out For ... more of a pass rush. The Eagles were second-to-last in the MAC in sacks despite having two tackles who could get into the backfield. With the expected emergence of young players like Ohrman, Brockman and Downs, there will likely be more than 17 sacks on the year.
Strength: Young prospects. EMU paid special attention to the defensive line in the last few recruiting classes, and it should pay off with several promising players ready to shine. There's more athleticism than usual on the Eagle front.
Weakness
:
Proven production. Hunt is a decent tackle, but that's about it. Smith hasn't been anything special and all the young players have yet to actually get the job done on a full-time basis. Things might get a tad worse before they get a lot better.
Outlook: The key will be the run defense. There are several promising young pass rushers who'll pin their ears back and get into the backfield, but can the Eagles stop someone's running game? After giving up 196 yards per game, now the line has to replace Jason Jones and doesn't have enough beef to be a brick wall against anyone with a little bit of power.
Rating: 4.5


Linebackers

Projected Starters: The star of the defense will once again be senior Daniel Holtzclaw, a tackling machine with 330 career stops. He led the team with 125 tackles and five tackles for loss as one of the MAC's most consistent and productive defenders. At 6-1 and 246 pounds he has good size and fantastic range from his spot in the middle. Not just a run stuffer, he has the quickness to seamlessly drop into pass coverage with two interceptions and four broken up passes. He's tremendously strong and doesn't miss a tackle, while he showed off the range to get to everything last season.

While his return isn't a a sure-thing, junior Andre Hatchett should end up on the strongside, replacing Darran Matthews, after missing spring ball to work on his studies. The 5-11, 215 pounder was third on the team with 98 tackles to go along with two sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss, and while he's not all that big, he's tough against the run. He's fast enough to do far more against the pass and get into the backfield on a more regular basis.

Looking to step in on the weakside is 6-2, 207-pound senior Jermaine Jenkins, a safety by nature who was moved over to linebacker this off-season. He didn't start last year but he made nine tackles as a star on special teams. Speed isn't an issue and he's plenty tough, but to be effective at his size he'll have to be a disruptive force in the backfield and a rock in pass defense against the quicker tight ends.

Projected Top Reserves: Getting the work this spring on the strongside with Andre Hatchett out was sophomore Tim Fort. At 6-0 and 214 pounds, he's not all that big, and he doesn't have a ton of experience making four tackles in seven games of backup action, but he's a hard worker and has a good motor.

Being groomed for the 2009 middle linebacker job is true freshman Steve Brown, a woefully undersized 6-0, 208-pound prospect who nevertheless is expected to do big things. A tremendous high school safety, he made 181 tackles in two years and was an excellent running back leading the way to a Virginia state high school championship.

Working behind Jermaine Jenkins on the weakside is promising 6-1, 209-pound redshirt freshman Marcus English
. Considering he's more like a safety than a linebacker, he should be strong against the pass and he should come up with some big plays with his with huge hitting ability.

Watch Out For ... Holtzclaw to be the MAC Defensive Player of the Year. He has the reputation now as one of the league's most feared defenders, and he's really that good. This will be the year he gets his just recognition.
Strength: Quickness. By design, the linebacking corps is full of safety-sized players, not counting Holtzclaw, who should fly to the ball and be disruptive. However ...
Weakness
:
Size.  By design, the linebacking corps is full of safety-sized players, not counting Holtzclaw, and it can be steamrolled over late in games by anyone with a big, strapping line. Considering the defensive line isn't full of big bodies, there needs to be a consistent rotation in the linebacking corps to hold up.

Outlook: The linebackers on the EMU defense have to spend far too much time cleaning things up against the run, and while that's fine, they're not able to use their one big advantage, quickness, to wreak more havoc in the backfield. Holtzclaw is one of the nation's most productive middle linebackers, and now everyone has to start doing more around him. Hatchett, Brown, Jenkins and English form a very small, very speedy group that has the potential to be good. It just might take a while to jell.
Rating: 4.5

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters: Cornerback was a relative strength last season and it should be a big positive going into this year. Returning to the Field Corner spot (the corner who takes the wide side of the field) is sophomore Kevin Long after he took over the job late last season. At 6-1 and 196 pounds, he has excellent size and good enough speed to handle himself against more quick receivers. He took a few lumps learning on the fly as a true freshman, and he didn't pick off any passes, but he made 21 tackles and broke up four throws.

At the Boundary Corner (the short side of the field) will be true sophomore Arrington Hicks, who took over a starting spot for the last two games last season and finished with nine tackles and a broken up pass. One of the team's fastest players, he was a Florida high school track star as one of the state's best hurdlers. He's not going to be too physical at 5-10 and 166 pounds, but he can move.

Both starting safeties return led by 5-11, 197-pound senior strong safety Jacob Wyatt, who finished fifth on the team with 65 tackles to go along with two interceptions and three broken up passes. An experienced veteran who made 89 stops as a sophomore, he's a good run stopper and is a solid open field tackler. While he's not lightning fast, he's extremely physical.

Back at free safety is 6-1, 201-pound sophomore Ryan Downard after making 43 tackles and a team-leading six interceptions. The coaching staff raved about him before last season, and they were right on the money as he turned into an excellent playmaker when the ball was in the air highlighted by two picks against Vanderbilt and two against Western Michigan. Now he needs to be more consistent against the run; he wasn't in on nearly enough plays.


Projected Top Reserves: With the emergence of the true sophomores at corner, veterans were pushed to backup roles. That's not a bad thing considering senior Lyle Garrison and junior Derrick Hunter
combined to start 18 games last season.

The 6-0, 184-pound Hunter is a speedster who finished sixth on the team with 49 tackles, but he only came up with one interception and three broken up passes. His highlight came on a fumble return for an 80-yard score in the loss to Ohio. He's a much bigger option on the Boundary side than Arrington Hicks, but he doesn't have the same cover skills.

Garrison is a 5-8, 167-pound plugger who has excellent quickness and is able hold up against the run from time to time. However, he just doesn't make things happen and was passed up by Kevin Long on the Field side. Even so, he's a good veteran who made 28 tackles and picked off a pass.

5-10, 200-pound senior Chris May is great when he's healthy, but he hasn't been able to stay on the field. After making 89 stops as a sophomore, he overcame a broken arm and played in eight games last season at free safety finishing with 35 tackles. Now he'll play behind Jacob Wyatt at strong safety.


Watch Out For ... more production. The secondary took a necessary step backward late last season to get the promising freshmen on the field, and now the experience should pay off. This is a far more talented EMU secondary than the program has had in a long time.
Strength: Potential. EMU hasn't been known for its shut-down corners or all-star safeties, and only time will tell if the promising young starters will live up to their promise, but there's speed, size, and hope for this to be the best Eagle pass defense in the Jeff Genyk era.
Weakness
:
Interceptions. Downard came up with six, but he wasn't enough of a ball-hawker over the second half of the season. LB Daniel Holtzclaw and DT Josh Hunt each came up with two picks meaning the corners didn't do nearly enough to help the total.
Outlook: It's not like the pass defense was awful last season, but it allowed 200 yards or more six times over the last seven games. Part of the problem was a youth movement that should pay off big-time with sophomores  Long and Hicks looking good at corner and Downard a potential star at free safety. With the emergence of the young players meant a shoving aside of some long-time veterans, and that means there's tremendous depth to count on, especially at corner. This won't be a brick wall of a secondary unless the pass defense improves, but it'll grow into a good group as the year goes on.
Rating: 5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Junior Zach Johnson handled all the kicking duties in a phenomenal season. EMU finished sixth in the nation in net punting helped by a booming 42.1-yard average. Johnson also dropped 24 inside the 20, forced eight fair catches, and put it in the end zone just once. He has a huge leg and has turned into a special placekicker nailing five of seven shots after taking over midway through the year. He nailed a 50 yarder, but he has to be consistent inside the 40 to win back the job from sophomore Sean Dutcher, who made two of five kicks. Dutcher is the start going into the year, but he has no deep leg and wasn't consistent.

The return game could use some help. EMU averaged a mere five yards per punt return and an average 20.92 yards on kickoff returns. Dontayo Gage is an excellent kickoff returner averaging 23.1 yards per pop last season, while Nate Beard has to do more than last year if he's going to be the punt returner.

Watch Out For ... Johnson to have to play second fiddle in the MAC. He might be one of the nation's best punters, but Ball State's Chris Miller is likely to get most of the All-America love.
Strength: The punting game. Johnson has bailed out the Eagles over the last two years with 44 kicks put inside the 20. He's the team's best weapon.
Weakness
:
Punt returns. For a mediocre offense that needs field position, averaging five yards per try won't cut it.
Outlook: Johnson is everything for the EMU special teams if Dutcher struggles again. Not only is Johnson a special punter with tremendous accuracy, he also proved he could handle the placekicking duties on a regular basis. Getting more pop from the return game would be nice. The coverage units have improved over the last few years and should be fine.
Rating: 6.5