2008 Memphis Preview - Defense

Posted May 2, 2008

CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - Memphis Tiger Defense

Memphis Tigers

Preview 2008 - Defense

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

What you need to know: The strength of the defense resides at safety and on an experienced line that’s led by all-league candidate Clinton McDonald, a sneaky-good penetrator from the inside. The front wall will need to be extra special to compensate for a back seven that’s defenseless versus any passing game with a pulse. The Tiger defensive backs like to take chances and play aggressively, accepting the occasional blown coverage for takeaways that go the other way. Unfortunately for the defense, the corners get burned regularly, but the momentum-changing plays have been non-existent. New coordinator Tim Walton’s lofty goal for Memphis is to maintain that frenetic, high-energy personality, while improving its tackling and fundamentals.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Brandon Patterson, 77
Sacks: Clinton McDonald, 4
Interceptions: LeRico Mathis, Brandon Patterson, 3

Star of the defense: Senior DT Clinton McDonald
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior DE Demetrius Culpepper
Unsung star on the rise: Senior SS Tony Bell
Best pro prospect: Bell
Top three all-star candidates: 1) McDonald, 2) Senior FS Brandon Patterson, 3) Junior LB Greg Jackson
Strength of the defense: Veteran depth, the safeties
Weakness of the defense: Pass defense, the pass rush

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: Memphis keeps building its depth along the defensive line, with a particular emphasis at tackle. Carrying the banner for the unit will be senior Clinton McDonald, who’s coming off his best season with the school. Just 6-3 and 265 pounds, he used the quickness of an outside rusher to collect 55 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, and four sacks. The leader of the D, McDonald also became the first junior in over 15 years to be named team captain.

Next to McDonald will be senior Freddie Barnett, a more traditional run stopper at 6-2 and 300 pounds. A former Arkansas Razorback with a good base, his first season out of
Trinity Valley (Tex.) Community College included 33 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks. The staff expects even more from Barnett in his second season in the program.

There’s far more uncertainty at defensive end, a position that hasn’t produced enough penetration. Junior Greg Terrell will start on one side, looking to improve on last season’s 38 tackles, 5.5 tackles, and one sack. At 6-4 and 255 pounds, he needs to improve his explosion off the edge in order to turn more of those pressures into sacks. Terrell had five sacks as a freshman, but wasn’t nearly as productive in 2007.

He’ll be joined by Corey Mills, a senior that’s yet to approach expectations when he was signed by Ole Miss out of high school. The 6-4, 260-pounder was a part-time starter, producing just 23 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and a sack, numbers that make him vulnerable to some of the kids on the B team.

Projected Top Reserves: Contending for more playing time on the outside will be junior Jada Brown and sophomore Tommy Walker. Another former Ole Miss Rebel, the 6-2, 265-pound Brown had 27 tackles, three tackles for loss, and a pair of sacks, but disappeared late in the season. He has an exciting blend of power and quickness that should warrant an increase in production.

Walker was one of just four true freshmen to play in 2007, and represents an important part of the future for coordinator Tim Walton. Big enough to play the run at 6-3 and 270 pounds, he made seven tackles in 10 games, while impressing the staff in practice.

At tackle, depth will come from senior Brandon Douglas and junior Steven Turner. The 6-3, 270-pound Turner split time in the lineup with Barnett, making 24 tackles and seven tackles for loss. Most of his big plays came against the softer opponents on the schedule, which is why Barnett got the majority of the reps late in the season.

After a table-setting sophomore year, the 6-3, 291-pound Douglas faded a year ago, making just 12 tackles and becoming an afterthought in the rotation.

Watch Out For ... Demetrius Culpepper. A 6-4, 255-pound transfer from East Mississippi Junior College, he’s exactly the type of speedy edge rusher that the Tigers have lacked for years. Culpepper arrives this summer with lofty expectations.
Strength: The tackle tandem of McDonald and Barnett. Coming off solid seasons, both senior linemen are capable of shooting the gap and making stops behind the line of scrimmage.
Weakness: Getting to the passer. Tiger defensive linemen had just 13 sacks a year, and only four from the ends. If the line is going to support a flimsy secondary, it has to make life a lot more uncomfortable for opposing quarterbacks.
Outlook: Although the defensive line has a ton of experience and nine players that have lettered, it doesn’t have the size or the playmaking ability to make life much easier for the seven defenders in the rear. Run defense will continue to be a problem against physical lines that commit to the ground game.
Rating: 5.5


Projected Starters: The Memphis linebackers are being bolstered by the returns from injury of junior Greg Jackson and sophomore Winston Bowens. Jackson was all set to follow up on a solid sophomore campaign, but went down with a knee injury in Week 2. Undersized at 6-2 and 205 pounds, he moves well from sideline-to-sideline and can be used on the blitz from his outside position. In the offseason, Jackson cranked out a career-best 4.3 in the 40, a testament to his straight-line speed.

The strongest of the linebackers, Bowens is the favorite to man the middle, much the way he did before also suffering a knee injury at the mid-point of the year. At 6-0 and 250 pounds, he flashed good instincts and a nose for the ball, making 39 tackles, including nine in his Tiger debut against Ole Miss.

A 12-game starter at defensive end, junior Josh Weaver is moving to outside linebacker in order to get his speed and athleticism out in space. At 6-3 and 210 pounds, he had 32 tackles and two sacks, but will now be in a better position to make far more plays provided he returns from a spring shoulder injury in time for the opener.

Projected Top Reserves: Junior Jeremy Rockette has as much athletic ability as any Memphis linebacker, which meshes well with coordinator Tim Walton’s desire to attack from all angles. A sure tackler at 6-3 and 220 pounds, he filled in nicely when injuries hit the corps, starting the final three games and finishing the year with 37 tackles. Rockette is the guy on the outside if Weaver is unable to make it back from his injury.

At inside linebacker, 6-3, 245-pound senior Tommy Phelps is going to mount a challenge for Bowens’ starting job. A heavy hitter with a hot motor, he had 31 tackles and three tackles for loss in his first year out of Butler (Kan.) Community College. Phelps had his best game in the New Orleans, which Tiger coaches hope will be a springboard into this season.

Watch Out For ...Weaver. He was too good of an athlete at 210 pounds to be doing hand-to-hand combat with offensive tackles. At one of the outside linebacker positions, he’s capable of flourishing in a new system that encourages defensive players to roam the field and make plays.
Strength: Depth. The bright side of last year’s plethora of injuries is that it forced backups, like Rockette and Phelps, into the starting lineup. Now that Jackson and Bowens are healthy, the Tigers have five players that can step on the field and not be lost.
: Size on the outside. Jackson and Weaver are built like rangy safeties, which is going to become noticeable when either is forced to cover tight ends downfield or take on guards that get loose on running downs.
Outlook: Assuming they side-step the injury bug, the Tigers will have a nice collection of athletes for Walton to turn loose. The combination of Jackson and Weaver on the outside has the potential to goose a pass rush that’s been dormant for too long.
Rating: 5.5

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters: The rebuilt staff’s biggest challenge in the offseason will be to get more from a secondary that’s been abysmal the past couple of seasons. First, the good news. Seniors Brandon Patterson and Tony Bell will form a capable pair of safeties that can fill lanes and support in run defense. The 6-1, 195-pound Patterson had 77 tackles and a team-high three picks, showing off the ball skills and athleticism of a former cornerback.

At strong safety, Bell is a 6-2, 215-pound thumper that patrols the secondary like an enforcer and moves with cornerback quickness. After scratching the surface of his potential with 40 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and two picks, the one-time Auburn Tiger is on the verge of a breakthrough season in his final year of eligibility.

Now, the troubling news. Memphis is a mess at cornerback, rarely having the athletes to match up with some of the league’s better wide receivers. Senior LeRico Mathis was the best of a weak group a year ago, his first out of junior college. At 6-1 and 185 pounds, he’s a nice blend of size and speed that began his Tiger career with 48 tackles and a team-best three interceptions.

Competing for the other starting job will be a pair of juniors, Deante’ Lamar and Alton Starr. Lamar is a 5-9, 180-pound speedster that’s played sparingly up until now, but is coming off the best spring of his career and has the slight edge. While bigger at 6-0 and 195 pounds, Starr lacks Lamar’s agility and catch up speed. He is more experienced, however, making 58 tackles and breaking up seven passes, and has tremendous leg explosion.

Projected Top Reserves: Not to be forgotten at cornerback is sophomore Darius Davis, one of a select group of Tigers to play as a true freshman. While mostly a special teams contributor, Memphis believes he has a bright future in the secondary.

Backing up Bell at strong safety is sophomore Malcolm Jones, a 6-2, 210-pounder that can deliver the payload. He played in all 13 games a year ago, making 14 tackles and taking the first step toward being the starter in 2009.

Watch Out For little improvement from the Tiger secondary. Not much has changed about the cast that allowed opposing quarterbacks to throw 25 touchdown passes and complete 63% of their passes, so why should the results be any different?
The safeties. Patterson and Bell stand out in a secondary that lacks star power. While Patterson is a borderline all-leaguer, Bell is good enough to attract the attention of NFL scouts. Both can separate a receiver from the ball with one sudden wallop.
Weakness: Pass coverage. The Tiger corners made modest improvement a year ago, but still allow way too many long gainers downfield. They’re risk-takers that rarely reap the rewards of game-changing picks or timely batted balls.
Outlook: The more that Conference USA evolves into a passing league, the grayer Tommy West’s hair becomes. Unless the front seven suddenly gets ornery, it’s going to be another rough year for the Memphis pass defense.
Rating: 4.5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: The Tigers welcome back both of last year’s specialists, junior K Matt Reagan and senior P Brent Sutherland. Reagan had an uneven sophomore season, missing just one chip shot, while going 7-of-13 beyond 30 yards and topping out at just 38 yards. Until proven otherwise, he’ll be considered a liability from long distance.

Sutherland averaged just 40.7 yards and had three of his punts blocked, giving way occasionally to QB Matt Malouf on pooch punts. While it wasn’t all his fault, he shares the blame for Memphis finishing 115th nationally in net punting.

After leading Conference USA in kickoff returns as a sophomore, junior Michael Grandberry was a disappointment, averaging a mere 21.8 yards and failing to break off a return longer than 50 yards. He’s being counted on to ignite a return game that tailed off in 2007.

Watch Out For ... Tommy West to take a lot of chances on fourth-and-short in opposing territory. Beyond 40 yards, Reagan is just 3-of-9 for his career, so the Tigers probably have better odds of converting a fourth down and continuing a drive.
: Grandberry. While it wasn’t evident last season, Grandberry is still an explosive returner that can change the momentum of a game when he gets a timely block or a seam to exploit.
Weakness: Coverage teams. Special teams coach Garret Chachere might be out of a job if the Tigers continue to cover kicks the way they did a year ago. Memphis was 117th nationally on punts and 63rd on kicks, allowing a couple to be taken back for touchdowns.
Outlook: For a program that’ll need to do the little things well to win the East Division, special teams is going to be a nagging problem that won’t go away quickly. Anything from a missed field goal to a blocked punt is going to cost Memphis at least one game in 2008.
Rating: 4.5