2008 UNLV Preview - Defense

Posted May 12, 2008

CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - UNLV Rebel Defense

UNLV Rebels

Preview 2008
- Defense

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

What you need to know:
New defensive coordinator Dennis Therrell will try to get his defense to sell out against the run after yet another tough season against good ground games. He has the tackles in Malo Taumua and Jacob Hales to revolve around, but the smallish, yet potentially good linebacking corps should be quick enough to clean up plenty of messes. The big problem could be in the overall fit. There are plenty of good athletes, like UNLV always has, and there's more talented depth than usual, but there aren't a lot of stars and the size of the back seven could be a big problem. Getting into the backfield on a regular basis is a must after finishing 117th in the nation in tackles for loss, and JUCO transfer Heivaha Mafi could be just the tonic.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Daryl Forte, 94
Sacks: Jacob Hales, Malo Taumua, 3
Interceptions: Quinton Porter, 2

Star of the defense: Junior LB Starr Fuimaono
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior CB Geoffrey Howard
Unsung star on the rise: Junior DE Heivaha Mafi
Best pro prospect: Mafi
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Fuimaono, 2) S Daryl Forte, 3) Mafi
Strength of the defense: Safety, tackle
Weakness of the defense:
Run defense, back seven size

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: With Jeremy Geathers jumping early to the NFL, the Rebels needed instant help at one end,and got it with JUCO transfer Heivaha Mafi, a 6-1, 255-pound junior who's more like a linebacker playing end than a true defensive lineman. He's a speed rusher who'll be turned loose from the word go to try to help a defense that did nothing behind the line. Any production against the run will be a bonus.

Ready to start on the other side is senior Thor Pili, a former Oregon Duck who was a decent reserve making 12 tackles, but he didn't get into the backfield and rarely generated a pass rush. At 6-3 and 275 pounds he needs to be like a third tackle against the run, and he has to be just enough of a threat to get to the quarterback to take the heat of Heivaha Mafi on the other side.

The tackles might be the strength of the defense. Former Southern Utah transfer Jacob Hales is the anchor up front making 36 tackles and three sacks, but stats don't tell what he's worth. He needs to occupy several blockers and let everyone else produce, and if he can use his quickness to get into the backfield, fine. He's 6-5, 290-pounds, very strong, and very old. Having served on an LDS church mission and being out for a few years, he'll be 26 this season. The big question will be his commitment. Extremely close to quitting football, he stayed in shape and decided to keep playing.

6-0, 295-pound Malo Taumua was going to be an instant factor on the line as a freshman before suffering a knee injury. The sophomore was fine last year and ended up starting 11 games as the team's most consistent run stopper making 36 tackles, three sacks, and 5.5 tackles for loss. His improvement and development could be the key to the team's season.

Projected Top Reserves: Ready to step in at end in the rotation with Thor Pili is sophomore Preston Brooks, a transfer from Washington State who dominated at times on the scout team last season. While he's not as big as Pili, he's a big 6-2 and 260 pounds with good pass rushing skills.

Combining with Heivaha Mafi at one end spot will be sophomore Daniel Mareko, a good 6-2, 230-pound prospect who's extremely raw  but extremely athletic. He was supposed to be a pass rusher from day one, but he suffered a broken leg and was out for the year. If nothing else, he'll be a key playmaker in the rotation.

6-3, 300-pound Isaako Aaitui is the biggest lineman in the regular mix. The sophomore got a little time making ten tackles and two tackles for loss, but he's just scratching the surface. Quick enough to play end, he's more needed at tackle.

Watch Out For ... Heivaha Mafi. A high-energy, long-haired defender who can make offensive coordinators worry is just the ticket to help a UNLV defense that never made plays behind the line.
Tackles. Jacob Hales and Malo Taumua are rocks, and Isaako Aaitui and Perry Eppenger are good-sized, backups. The Rebels can't help but be better against the stronger inside running teams.
: Getting into the backfield. The Rebels should be better as coming up with tackles for loss, but they were the third worst team in the country at coming up with plays behind the line with a mere 53. That has to change.
Outlook: There are several issues which should be solved, at least improved, with more experience at tackle and some good newcomers at end. Step one will be stopping the run. The line wasn't awful at it, but it could be better. The sack production should increase with more athleticism on the outside, but the big key will be to make more big plays. This line should be able to do it.
Rating: 5.5


Projected Starters:
So how does UNLV possibly replace Beau Bell, the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year? Getting back junior Starr Fuimaono will ease the pain after he finished second on the team with 68 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss. He's not big for a strongside defender at 5-11 and 215 pounds, but he's a tough hitter who's all over the field. He was having a monster season before missing the final few games with a shoulder injury, and that's going to be the problem. Can he hold up over the course of an entire season? Part safety and part linebacker, he'll have to be even more physical as a full-time linebacker.

As part of a combination in the middle, Mississippi State transfer Jimmy Miller will get a look bringing his 230-pound size and great potential to the inside of the Rebel D. A major recruit for MSU, turning down places like Penn State, Florida State and Alabama, he saw a little bit of time as a true freshman before sitting out a year to join the Rebels. He has the talent to be one of the team's leading tacklers, but he'll have to shake off the rust.

6-3, 215--pound junior Jason Beauchamp will start on the weakside after making 43 tackles and a sack as a spot starter in the middle and backup on the outside. A steady tackler over the past few season, he'll go from being a key fill-in to a full-timer and he should be able to use his athleticism and experience to put up huge numbers. He'll be all over the place.

Projected Top Reserves: Pushing for the starting job in the middle is sophomore Ronnie Paulo, a Las Vegas product with 6-1, 230-pound size and fantastic tackling ability. A big, physical presence who saw a little bit of time as a true freshman making seven tackles. While he doesn't have the upside of Jimmy Miller, he'll grow into a top run stopper over the next few years.

One of the team's brightest new stars is true freshman Nate Carter, a grayshirt who'll push Jason Beauchamp for time on the weakside. A great practice player who has been all over the place, he got bigger in his year off to get up to 230 pounds, and he should grow into a role over the year as a top backup and a spot starter.

6-3, 210-pound redshirt freshman Bryce Saldi came to UNLV from the monster Southlake Carroll High in Texas as a top defensive end prospect. While undersized, he has tremendous speed and is a pure pass rusher. He'll have to be a top strongside backup behind Starr Fuimaono, and he plays more physical than his size.

Watch Out For ... The backups. The reserves might be more talented than the starters, but they need time. Nate Carter, David Blair, Travis Trickey, Ronnie Paulo and Bryce Saldi form a nice young nucleus for the future.
Talent. Even with the loss of Beau Bell the Rebel linebacking corps should be great if the backups emerge as viable options early on. There are several good talents and good prospects working around Starr Fuimaono.
: Proven all-around production. The defense all but went into the tank when Fuimaono suffered a dislocated shoulder, and there isn't a lot to count on right away if there are any big injury problems. This will be a good overall corps, but it'll take time.
Outlook: There are some good talents, like Miller and Fuimaono, and there's a good veteran on the outside in Beauchamp, but everyone is sort of in a holding pattern until all the great young prospects are ready to shine and provide viable options in a rotation. More needs to be done against the run and there need to be more disruptive plays, but the corps should turn out to be good.
Rating: 5.5

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters: Last year the secondary had to replace Eric Wright, and Mil'Von James stepped up and broke up 19 passes and came up with a pick. Now it'll be up to Geoffrey Howard to be the regular defender and a difference maker, and he has the potential to do it. The senior is the leader of the secondary, but he needs to do more when the ball is in the air after making just one interceptions and breaking up four passes, with 27 tackles, as a spot starter. While he's not huge at 5-10 and 195 pounds, he hits like a much bitter player.

5-9, 185-pound sophomore Quinton Pointer hits like a safety, but his size makes him a corner. He had a decent year starting for most of the season before giving way to Geoffrey Howard late, but he still finished with 50 tackles and two interceptions. Incredibly fast and very physical, he has the skills. Now he has to be a consistent cover-corner and not just a big tackler.

Safety Daryl Forte is coming off a huge season finishing second on the team with 94 tackles with a sack, an interception, and two tackles for loss. The junior has been productive from day one with great hitting ability and nice range, and now he'll have to be more of a leader. While not big at 5-11 and 185 pounds, he plays much bigger and he doesn't miss and stops.

Sophomore Rico Thomas will take over for Tony Cade at safety after making three tackles as a reserve. He needs to use his tremendous speed and all-around athleticism to be all over the field and he needs to use his talent to be a steady starter. He'll have to fight to earn on to the spot, but he has too much upside to be on the bench for long.

Projected Top Reserves: It'll be a combination of options to push Geoffrey Howard for playing time at one corner spot. former wide receiver Lorenzo Bursey Jr. isn't big at only 5-8 and 175 pounds, and he isn't going to hit anyone, but he's fast. Redshirt freshman Will Chandler is a promising speedster who was a top receiver in high school and should be used from time to time as a kick returner.

At 5-11 and 210 pounds, junior Michael Johnson is one of the team's biggest safeties. He doesn't have any real experience, making just two tackles last season, but the former high school linebacker and wide receiver is a pure athlete who should be fast enough and physical enough to become a presence in the defensive backfield.

Watch Out For ... the corners to come up with a great year. If Geoffrey Howard is ready to take a step up in his overall development, he'll combine with Quinton Pointer to form one of the Mountain West's better corner tandems.
Tackling. Everyone, including the corners, is able to hit and able to provide a nice pop when needed. This group, overall, will be a strong last line of defense against the run and won't miss many stops in the open field.
: Size. It would be nice to have one 6-1, 210 pound intimidator, but there isn't. This is a secondary of 5-10, 190-pound players who can move, but will have problems with the bigger receiving corps.
Outlook: The secondary improved last season giving up just 203 passing yards per game, and it was even stronger against the efficient passers. However, it's not like the Rebels played a who's who of passing teams. Colt Brennan and Hawaii did whatever they wanted to, and BYU was too busy running the ball to start bombing. This is a good secondary, but it's hardly one of the Mountain West's best, and it needs a steady pass rush to be effective.
Rating: 5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Sergio Aguayo was an all-star last year hitting 17 of 22 field goal attempts while Brian Pacheco had a nice year averaging 42.1 yards per kick and putting 20 inside the 20. Junior Kyle Watson will get the first look at both kicking jobs. The walk-on transferred from Texas Southern and while he has a decent leg, he doesn't have a big one. He'll get pushed by sophomore Ben Jaekle, who hit two of four short field goals when thrown to the wolves as a sophomore, for the placekicking gig, while JUCO transfer Zach Davis and quarterback Dack Ishii will be in the hunt for the starting punting job. The issue might not be settled until early fall.

Star receiver Casey Flair will once again be the main punt returner after averaging a mediocre 8.4 yards per try. CB Quinton Pointer will handle more of the kickoff returns to add more of a burst after Lorenzo Bursey averaged just 19.6 yards per attempt.

Watch Out For ... a big, big problem. The team was spoiled by Sergio Aguayo for the last few years and the punting of Brian Pacheco was more than solid. It's going to be a long task to find the right combination.
The potential of the return game. Flair is a veteran punt returner who should do more, while the speed of Porter should add more flash to the kickoff returns.
: Coverage teams. The kicking game is going to be an issue, but the Rebels' biggest problem is covering kicks average allowing 26.7 yards per kickoff return and 9.1 yards per punt return.
Outlook: A major plus could quickly turn into a mega-weakness if the punting and kicking situations aren't settled early on. The return game will be serviceable, but not special, while the coverage teams have to improve after a disastrous 2007.
Rating: 4.5