Preview 2008 - Defense
2008 CFN San Diego
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What you need to know: The
defense was supposed to be a problem last season, and it lived
up, or down, to the expectations finishing 115th in the nation
in yards allowed while giving up 34.42 points per game. The D
dominated throughout spring ball, but was that because of an
overall improvement or is the offense really that bad. (It's a
little of both.) The potential is there for a bit of a
turnaround under defensive coordinator Bob Elliott as nine
starters return led by Russell Allen and a good linebacking
corps. The key will be the pressure generated from a front four
that did absolutely nothing last season. The secondary has
decent veterans, but they never had a chance with opposing
quarterbacks getting ten days to throw. The front four has to be
stronger against the run to allow the linebackers to take more
Tackles: Russell Allen, 119
Sacks: Siaosi Fifita, Jonathan Soto, 3
Interceptions: Vonnie Holmes, Aaron Moore, 4
Star of the defense: Senior LB Russell Allen
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior DT
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DE B.J. Williams
Best pro prospect: Allen
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Allen, 2) Fifita, 3) FS
Strength of the defense: Experience, linebacker
Weakness of the defense:
Run defense, pass rush
The improvement on the line has to stat with senior Siaosi Fifita
after spending time playing several different positions. The 6-4,
250-pounder has seen time at linebacker and on the end, but he's the
team's best all-around lineman and will get the nod at tackle to provide
some semblance of an interior pass rush. He made 29 tackles, three sacks
and six tackles for loss, and while he'll get hammered on against the
run, he should be able to use his quickness to be productive.
Getting the start at the other tackle position, and providing some bulk,
will be 6-3, 300-pound sophomore Ernie Lawson
after making 17 tackles as a
reserve. He missed all of 2006 hurt and just now should be reaching his
potential. A leader and a hard worker, he needs to be the plugger
against the run.
Needing to provide more of a pass rush on the outside is 6-3, 265-pound
junior Jonathan Soto after making 35 tackles, three sacks and 4.5
tackles for loss. He has great size and a quick burst off the ball, but
he hasn't been consistent and he hadn't done enough to force his way
into the starting lineup until now.
Returning to his end spot is 6-3, 230-pound sophomore B.J. Williams
after a good first year making 45 tackles with 1.5 sacks and four
tackles for loss. A speed rusher who didn't do enough to get to the
passer, now he has to build on his solid effort and become the team's
signature lineman. A solid prospect with great speed, he has the
potential and the tools to be a major factor.
Projected Top Reserves: Working with Williams at
one end spot will be sophomore Eric Ikonne, a very raw, very
talented prospect who didn't start playing football until late in high
school. He's only 6-0 and 230 pounds, but he can move. Once he learns
what he's doing, he'll be dominant.
Considering Fifita isn't all that big, he'll
have to be part of a rotation to stay fresh. That's where 6-2, 260-pound
sophomore Neil Spencer comes in. After making 28 tackles as a
true freshman, Spencer was a top recruit who is a bit undersized for the
inside but is extremely active.
6-5, 285-pound junior Peter Nelson has been a key reserve over
the last few years but has mostly seen time on special teams. He's an
athletic big man on the inside who didn't see much of the field making
just three tackles in his limited time, but he has the practice
experience to become a factor in the rotation.
Potentially saving the day at end is Ohio State transfer Ryan
Williams, a 6-5, 250-pound junior who went the JUCO route to SDSU
and has the pass rushing potential to make noise behind Soto.
Watch Out For ... more production in the
backfield. It'll be hard to come up with fewer tackles for loss after
registering a mere 54 with 15 sacks. There will be more activity from
all four spots.
Strength: Quickness. There might not be a ton of size up
front, but everyone can move and everyone can get to the ball. If
nothing else, this group will be active.
Weakness: Production. The line was among the least productive in
America last season doing nothing to get into the backfield and less
than nothing against the run. Several players that stunk last season
have to be better in a hurry.
Outlook: The line might have been the worst in
college football over the last two seasons, but it'll be better. It's
not going to be special by any stretch, but it'll be stronger against
the run and a bit more active. Fifita has to grow into a big-time
producer on the inside and Soto and Williams have to start getting to
The defense might have been a disaster last season, but senior
Russell Allen did everything he could to save the sinking ship with
119 tackles, a sack, 5.5 tackles for loss and six broken up passes. The
6-3, 235-pounder is a strongside defender who can play any of the three
positions and always comes up with the stop. He has a whopping 261
career tackles, is an unquestioned team leader, and a good enough
athlete to end up playing on Sundays in the near future. If he played
for a better team he'd have a much higher profile and would be in the
Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year mix.
Back in the middle is third leading tackler Luke Laolagi after
making 94 tackles with 1.5 sacks and six tackles for loss after taking
over for Joe Martin. At 6-1 and 230 pounds, he has good size and
excellent range, but now he has to start making more plays on the line
and not seven yards down the field.
6-1, 220-pound sophomore Andrew Preston finished fifth on the
team with 72 tackles with a sack and seven tackles for loss turning in a
nice year on the weakside. He'll be part of a rotation, but he's the one
who'll play the biggest role at the position for the next three years
with a good blend of speed, athleticism, and now, experience. He's also
a good special teamer.
Projected Top Reserves: While Preston is a rising
star on the weakside, 5-10, 230-pound junior Jerry Milling is a
nice veteran who made 15 tackles in five games after breaking his foot.
He has the toughness to play on the inside and the quickness to be a
factor in pass protection, and if he doesn't take over the starting job,
he'll be a top reserve.
Playing behind Allen on the strongside will be former defensive end
Zach Clark after making eight tackles as a little used reserve. The
former JUCO transfer is 6-2 and 225 pounds with good strength and
toughness, but he won't see much of the field with Allen never coming
off the field.
The combination of sophomore Marcus Yarbrough and redshirt
freshman Miles Burris will back up Laolagi in the middle. The
6-2, 245-pound Burris is a big-time hitter who makes a difference when
he gets to the ball. The 6-2, 245-pound Yarbrough made nine tackles as a
reserve and could play on the strongside if needed.
Watch Out For ... Allen to finally get his due.
He's been one of the Mountain West's most productive linebackers over
the last three seasons, and while he doesn't make enough
difference-making plays, he makes every tackle he can get to.
Strength: Experience. This groups was crushing and
killing throughout the off-season and it should use its starting
experience to be the team's biggest strength. Preston, Allen and Laolagi
are good veterans who'll combine for well over 300 tackles. There's even
good depth to rely on.
Weakness: Tackles for loss. This was a problem across the board
for the Aztec defense. The linebackers had to spend so much time
cleaning up the messes left by the line that there was little room to
get into the backfield and try to be disruptive. Now the veteran corps
has to be turned loose.
Outlook: There's plenty of returning production
and plenty to get excited about as the linebackers will be the team's
shining unit. Now there has to be more meaningful plays against the run,
the group has to be far tougher, and there have to be far more plays
made in the backfield. Just putting up tackling stats won't be good
The corners are experienced, and now they have to be better. Junior
Aaron Moore has tremendous athleticism and good 6-0, 190-pound size
as the team's featured cover corner. Not only is he a good tackler,
making 59 stops, but he also picked off four passes and did a decent job
of getting into the backfield. He has to be even better against opposing
No. 1 targets and he has to do more when the ball is in the air on a
Starting on the other side will once again be senior Vonnie Holmes,
a 6-0, 170-pound former JUCO transfer stepped in and made 26 tackles
with four interceptions. While he's not the tackler Moore is, he's not
bad in the open field and he has the speed to stay with the quicker
targets. Now he has to do more to keep receivers from getting the ball.
Senior Corey Boudreaux is getting a sixth year of eligibility
from the NCAA after suffering a foot injury earlier in his career. The
former walk-on made 84 tackles with three interceptions and eight broken
up passes, and now, with his experience, 6-1, 220-pound size, and
tremendous speed, he should be one of the defense's top all-around
The one new starters in the mix will likely be 6-1, 215-pound sophomore
Martrell Fantroy as he takes over for Ray Bass at strong safety.
Fantroy was a good reserve making 17 tackles, and was a strong ball
hawker with three picks including one against UNLV for a touchdowns.
He's an athletic defender who could play free safety if needed.
Projected Top Reserves: Pushing hard for the
strong safety job is veteran T.J. McKay, a 6-1, 205-pound senior
who made 19 tackles in a limited role. He has had injury issues over the
course of his career, hurt mostly by a shoulder problem, and while he
has the range and talent to play free safety, he'll see most of his time
rotating with Fantroy.
Sophomores Jose Perez and Romeo Horn should be ready to
produce after being in the system for a few years. Perez originally
signed in 2003 before playing baseball in the New York Yankees' farm
system. He was supposed to be a factor on defense, moved to offense, and
now will be back on defense pushing for time behind Holmes.
The 6-0, 180-pound Horn made seven tackles as a reserve. The star
recruit of a few years ago has been a strong special teamer and will be
a key backup behind Moore.
Junior Nick Sandford is a special teams star and a good backup
free safety behind Boudreaux. He made five tackles and was going to be a
bigger part of the defense but was hurt, and now the 6-2, 205-pounder
will spend most of his time working as a top special teamer again.
Watch Out For ... the corners. Moore and Holmes
struggled way too much last year, even though their numbers were good.
Now they should do a better job in coverage and they should be more
Strength: Experience. This was a problem last year with
no veteran leadership to count on. Now there are three starters, plenty
of options at strong safety, and good depth all across the board. If
nothing else, this group knows what it's doing.
Weakness: Production. There are plenty of stats from all the
positions, but the secondary struggled to stop passing games short,
long, and everywhere in between. With all the returning experience, this
can't be the Mountain West's worst pass defense again.
Outlook: Last year there was a big problem with
experience, or a lack thereof, and there wasn't much production. The
bigger problem was a lack of a pass rush that allowed every quarterback
to throw at will. Now there should be a better push from the front line
and more pressure, and with the returning veterans at all four spots,
and the decent backups, there should be a big turnaround. This won't be
a brick wall of a secondary, but it'll be better.
Needing to replace PK Garrett Palmer is sophomore Bryan Shields,
a big legged prospect who has been a bit erratic. Palmer was tremendous
hitting 13 of 15 field goals last year, and while Shields can't do that,
he can provide some pop.
Also needing to be replaced is punter Michael Hughes after a tremendous
year averaging 43.9 yards per kick. Sophomore Brooks Beckman is a
walk-on with a decent leg, but he has some huge shoes to fill. He'll
have to work his way into the position.
Junior Mekell Wesley, a top receiver prospect, is the top return
man averaging a good 21.8 yards per kickoff return with a touchdown. He
only got two chances to return punts, but he averaged 21.5 yards per
Watch Out For ... Shields to be fine. He's not
going to be Palmer, who had a nearly perfect year, but he'll blast a few
long range shots and will be decent with more work. However, expect a
misfire from 34 yards here and there.
Strength: Wesley. He might turn out to be so valuable as
a receiver that he'll cut back on his return duties, but he's a
gamebreaker who'll take at least one kick or punt the distance.
Weakness: Kickoff coverage. The Aztecs needs as much help as
they can get on field position, and they have to do better than allow
22.1 yards per kickoff return.
Outlook: The kicking game went from good to
phenomenal, and now it's a huge question mark. The return game will be
solid with Wesley handling the work, but the coverage units could stand
to be stronger. Overall, the special teams should be fine, but they're a