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2008 Marshall Preview - Defense
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CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Apr 30, 2008


CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - Marshall Thundering Herd Defense

Marshall Thundering Herd

Preview 2008 - Defense

- 2008 CFN Marshall Preview | 2008 Marshall Offense  
- 2008 Marshall Defense | 2008 Marshall Depth Chart
- 2007 CFN Marshall Preview | 2006 CFN Marshall Preview 

What you need to know: First-year coordinator Rick Minter is implementing an aggressive defense that’ll make good use of Marshall’s depth and athleticism at linebacker by frequently lining up in a 3-4 set. In a conference that’s become increasingly reliant on the pass, Minter can take solace in inheriting eight defensive backs with starting experience, including leading tackler C.J. Spillman. As seasoned as the group is, it’s also quite beatable, which is why a player like redshirt freshman CB DeQuan Bembry could knock a vet out of the starting lineup. DE Albert McClellan is the type of edge rusher who’s going to make everyone around him more effective. Before getting injured last season, he was the 2006 Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year, racking up 19 tackles for loss and 11 sacks.             

Returning Leaders
Tackles: C.J. Spillman, 131
Sacks: Maurice Kitchens, 4
Interceptions: Maurice Kitchens, John Saunders, 1

Star of the defense: Senior FS C.J. Spillman
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore DT Johnny Jones
Unsung star on the rise: Redshirt freshman CB DeQuan Bembry
Best pro prospect: Spillman
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Spillman 2) Junior DE Albert McClellan 3) Senior LB Maurice Kitchens
Strength of the defense: The defensive ends, athletic linebackers
Weakness of the defense: The interior of the line, pass defense, run defense

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: Marshall never recovered from the season-ending ACL injury of 6-2, 259-pound Albert McClellan, finishing last in the league in sacks and tackles for loss. Well, he’s back for his junior year, looking to recapture the pass-rushing form that led to Conference USA Defensive Player of the year honors in 2006. When healthy, he’s a terror coming around the edge, racking up 19 tackles for loss and 11 sacks in a breakthrough junior season.

Senior Ian Hoskins has the edge at the other end position, poised to add a fourth letter to his Marshall resume. A 6-2, 256-pound grinder, he earned nine starts a year ago, making 38 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks. With McClellan expected to get a mess of attention, it’s vital for Hoskins to make opponents pay for not respecting him.

The onus of replacing last year’s starting tackles falls on 6-5, 289-pound sophomore Johnny Jones and 6-1, 311-pound junior James Burkes. Jones earned a letter and a start as a true freshman, picking up six tackles and laying the groundwork for a promotion. He’s got the size and quickness to be a factor once picks up some much-needed game experience.

When injuries struck the line, Burkes was thrust into a more prominent role, starting eight games and making 22 tackles. A former walk-on with limited upside potential, he can’t be counted on to be a consistent factor in the leaky run defense.

Projected Top Reserves: On the outside, the Herd has a fair amount of experience in 6-3, 253-pound junior John Jacobs and 6-4, 271-pound sophomore Michael Janac. Jacobs has lettered in each of the last two seasons, breaking through with 38 tackles, eight tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks in an injury-shortened season. A tireless worker coming off a solid spring, he still has time to earn a spot in the starting lineup.

Janac is one of the cornerstones of the future on the defensive line. Big and cat-quick, he made a splash in his first action, starting three games and contributing 37 tackles and four tackles for loss. Like Jacobs, he’s one big summer away from bumping Hoskins to the second team.

The Herd needs 6-3, 290-pound senior Montel Glasco to get healthy and make a run at a starting job. He started the first three games of 2007, making 13 tackles and impressing as a run stuffer, but injured his knee and never returned. Now, he’s torn his rotator cuff in offseason training and will miss at least the first two games.

Watch Out For … McClellan’s health. He makes everyone on the defense better, but only if he can cut and explode without any pain in his surgically-repaired knee. He was limited to light work in the spring, but is expected to be completely cleared for contact before the opener.   
Strength: The ends. With the return of McClellan, Marshall now has four defensive ends with starting experience in their careers. If he’s at full strength, Hoskins, Jacobs, and Janac all have the drive and talent to make life miserable for opposing quarterbacks. 
Weakness: Run defense. If you thought allowing 191 yards a game on the ground was bad last year, just wait until this season. Herd fans are going to long for last year’s results. The D is in dire straits at defensive tackle, a situation that reached a tipping point when Glasco returned to the injury list.
Outlook: If McClellan is about to reprise his role as Conference USA’s nastiest pass rusher, the ripple effect will reach every level of the defense. No matter how disruptive he is, however, it won’t solve the unavoidable problems with the run defense. Opponents that commit to the run are going to get little resistance from a defense that’s woefully understaffed on the interior.
Rating: 5.5

Linebackers

Projected Starters: Senior middle man Maurice Kitchens is determined to prove last year’s breakthrough first season as a regular was no fluke. He unexpectedly blossomed into a dynamite defender and a team leader, racking up 90 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, and four sacks. Well-sized at 6-3 and 247 pounds, he also has the range and closing speed to be a factor on the blitz.

At weakside will be 6-0, 252-pound junior Mario Harvey, who’s about to get a promotion after starting in three games and making 53 stops a year ago. A rugged run defender with a solid base, he’s able to shed larger blockers and still make a play. A top recruit a couple of years ago, he’s ready to fulfill expectations and be an impact player for the defense.

Although he played sparingly in his first season, 6-2, 223-pound sophomore Corey Hart is making a concerted effort for the opening at strongside. An outstanding all-around athlete, he’ll need to keep progressing in the summer in order to hold on to the top spot.  

Projected Top Reserves: The eventual successor to Kitchens on the inside will be 6-1, 255-pound junior Antawn Booker, who played in eight games, made 17 stops, and earned his first letter a year ago. Downright nasty at the point of impact, he hits with the ferocity that creates turnovers.

The Herd also has high hopes for 6-3, 224-pound redshirt freshman Kellen Harris, who can play either outside positions. A former wrestling champ in high school, he uses his hands well and spent last season getting bigger, stronger, and faster. On a defense that wants to attack, he has the requisite athleticism to fit right in.   

Watch Out For … Junior college transfer Andre Portis. One of the top JUCO transfers at the position, he has the 6-3, 240-pound size and experience to be an immediate factor on the inside for a unit looking for capable run defenders. He’s currently buried on the depth chart, but that isn’t going to last through the summer.
Strength: Size. Unlike many Conference USA defenses, which feature safety-sized linebackers, the Herd boasts a unit that’s loaded with defenders big enough to take on hard-charging guards and tackles.  
Weakness: Depth. The program is getting there, thanks to decent recruiting, but after Kitchens and Harvey, there’s a lot of youth and uncertainty for a defense aiming to use more 3-4 sets.
Outlook: Physically, this is a quality group of linebackers with the athletic ability to make plays all over the field. However, until the holdovers get more consistent support from the likes of Hart, Booker, and Harris, there will be lapses in pass coverage and the occasional missed assignments.
Rating: 5.5

Secondary

Projected Starters: Marshall has a ton of issues to contend with in the secondary. Senior FS C.J. Spillman isn’t one of them. He was one of the few bright spots on last year’s defense, posting a team-high 131 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, six pass breakups, and three forced fumbles en route to the All-Conference USA Second Team. A big hitter who can cover, the 6-0, 193-pounder has captured the attention of NFL scouts.

At strong safety, 5-10, 197-pound junior Ashton Hall is eyeing a big season in his second as a starter. As a seven-game starter, he finished fourth on the team with 66 stops, 2.5 of which were behind the line. He possesses the right blend of agility and physicality, but needs to improve as a pass defender.

While the Herd is in good shape at safety, the same cannot be said of the cornerbacks. Already a concern, the situation worsened after senior J.J. Johnson, a potential starter, was booted from the team. For the time being, the opening will be filled by 6-2, 185-pound sophomore D.J. Wingate, who started the final three games of his true freshman year, finishing with 22 tackles and four pass breakups. While still raw, he has the size and hips to develop into a good one over time.

Marshall could also go with youth at the other corner, provided 5-10, 174-pound redshirt freshman DeQuan Bembry is ready to win the job. Tougher and more physical than his size might indicate, he also has the speed, quickness, and fluid hips inherent to all top cornerbacks. The sky is the limit once the program breaks the seal on its prized recruit of 2007.    

Projected Top Reserves: Junior Zearick Matthews is in a dogfight with Bembry and Wingate for one of the cornerback jobs. While the 5-9, 186-pounder doesn’t have the upside of the underclassmen, he does have far more experience and a penchant for being a playmaker.

Senior John Saunders is exactly the type of player a defense likes having on the second team. A two-time letterwinner and five-game starter at strong safety in 2007, he was third on the team with 68 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss. He packs a punch at 6-0 and 192 pounds, and has keen instincts as a run defender.

Watch Out For … Bembry. Beyond just the physical attributes, he’s got something special that separates him from the rest of the Herd. He’ll get burned at times, but he’ll also make the kind of big plays this unit has lacked for years.
Strength: Experience. Although it hasn’t always been positive experience, Marshall is loaded with defensive backs that’ve started games and played important minutes during their careers. Unlike last year, the two-deep is nowhere near as green as the team colors. 
Weakness: Pass coverage. From picking off a nation’s-low four passes to allowing 260 yards a game, Marshall did nothing right in pass defense a year ago. Until a lockdown corner or two emerges, the Herd will continue to provide east access to opposing quarterbacks.
Outlook: Marshall has finished 100th or lower in pass defense in each of the last two seasons, a trend that should continue. Hope can be found in the young pups, such as Bembry and Wingate, but true progress will only come if the defense gets substantially more support up front. When quarterbacks have too much time to throw, the Herd simply doesn’t have the stoppers to contain quality receivers.
Rating: 5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: The graduation of unreliable Anthony Biswanger leaves the Herd looking for a new placekicker and punter. No one in Huntington is shedding a tear. The new kicker is likely to be junior Craig Ratanamorn, a junior college transfer, who doubles as the goalie on the Herd soccer team. While leg strength isn’t an issue, his accuracy and ability to deliver in the clutch are complete unknowns.

While Ratanamorn would also like to punt, he’s currently running behind sophomore Cody Ochoa and redshirt freshman Calvin Purchase. Ochoa is the man to beat for now, proving to be better at directional punts than pure distance and hang time.

The return game is in the good hands of senior Emmanuel Spann and sophomore Darius Marshall. Spann was the primary return on punts and kickoffs, averaging 10.2 and 19.5 yards, respectively. While he’s the steady option, Marshall provides breakaway potential on kickoffs, averaging almost 30 yards in his first season. Redshirt freshman DeQuan Bembry is to punts what Marshall is to kickoffs, showing an ability to hit a seam and go the distance.       

Watch Out For… incoming freshman P Kase Whitehead. One of the nation’s top punters coming out of high school, he wasn’t awarded a scholarship to watch a gaggle of walk-ons struggle at the position. If he’s ready, he’ll win the job in August.
Strength: The return game. Spann is a versatile special teams performer who doesn’t make mistakes and contributes in a number of areas. Marshall and Bembry are playmakers capable of changing the tempo of a game in less than 10 seconds.
Weakness: The situation at kicker. Ratanamorn has a fun story, but will he deliver when the Herd needs a three-pointer late in the fourth quarter?
Outlook: For the second straight year, uncertainty rules the day on special teams. The punter is new, the kicker is a soccer player, and the coverage units are below average. If nothing else, Marshall needs Whitehead to capture the job right away, giving some much-needed field position support to the maligned D.    
Rating: 5.5