2009 Marshall Preview - Defense
Marshall LB Mario Harvey
Marshall LB Mario Harvey
Posted Jul 19, 2009

CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - Marshall Thundering Herd Defense

Marshall Thundering Herd

Preview 2009 - 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: The defense should be stingier than a year ago, especially since this will be Rick Minter’s second season as the defensive coordinator. The learning curve and the introductions will be a thing of the past, allowing the coach to further implement his aggressive, attacking system. The encouraging news around Huntington is that most of last year’s key players, sans LB Maurice Kitchens and FS C.J. Spillman, are back for another season. Each unit boasts a potential all-star; Albert McClellan up front, Mario Harvey at linebacker, and DeQuan Bembry on the last line of defense. If everything clicks and the pass defense stiffens, the Herd has enough parts to soar past last year’s dismal results.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Mario Harvey, 107
Sacks: Mario Harvey, 4.5
Interceptions: Multiple Players, 1

Star of the defense: Senior DE Albert McClellan
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore LB Kellen Harris
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore CB DeQuan Bembry
Best pro prospect: McClellan
Top three all-star candidates: 1) McClellan 2) Bembry 3) Senior LB Mario Harvey
Strength of the defense: The defensive line, overall depth
Weakness of the defense: Stopping the run, preventing big plays through the air

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: The Herd loses just one letterman from a line that could set the tone for the rest of the defense in 2009. All eyes are sure to be on senior DE Albert McClellan, the former Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year, who sat out 2007 with an ACL tear and played to mixed reviews in 2008. A 6-2, 252-pound beast coming off the edge, he earned a spot on the all-league first team, but only had 58 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks, modest numbers by his standards. The hope around Huntington is that he can approach the form that resulted in 19 tackles for loss and 11 sacks in 2006.

At times last fall, McClellan’s partner, 6-4, 278-pound junior Michael Janac, was even more disruptive on the other side. An honorable mention all-league selection, he had 46 tackles, six tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks. The biggest of the Herd ends, he’s an asset in run defense and has the quickness to be a real nuisance coming around the corner.

On the inside, Marshall boasts two more returning starters, 6-3, 296-pound junior Delvin Johnson and 6-5, 288-pound junior Johnny Jones. With good quickness for his size and an improving knowledge of the defensive system, he began to emerge a year ago, making 27 stops, three tackles for loss, and a sack. He’s being counted on to have an even bigger in run defense this season.

Jones has tremendous size, with room to add some weight, and the upper body strength to move his man back a few yards. After dipping his toe in the water as a true freshman, he started to blossom in 2008 with 19 tackles, two tackles for loss, and a sack. Despite adding considerable weight since arriving, he hasn’t lost much of the burst that helped earn him a scholarship two years ago.

Projected Top Reserves: The team’s top backup at defensive end will be 6-3, 241-pound John Jacobs, a blue-collar defender, who’s lettered in each of the last three years. While not the most dynamic athlete among the linemen, he’s got a knack for making plays and being involved in the action. In a reserve last year, for instance, he had 32 tackles, five tackles for loss, a sack, and a team-high five hurries.

At tackle, senior James Burkes is like having another starter on the roster. A former walk-on, he’s played a lot for the program, starting eight games as a sophomore and making 30 tackles a year ago. Like Jacobs, he’s another self-made player, who adds considerable value and depth to the defense.

Senior Montel Glasco missed all of last season with a torn rotator cuff, but has received an additional year of eligibility. That’s good news for a defense that likes his run-stuffing ability and was impressed with the way he started the 2007 season. At 6-3 and 295 pounds, he’s another big body who can occupy multiple blockers and clog running lanes.

Watch Out For… McClellan. For many players, that second year after ACL surgery is when all of the rust and self-doubt tends to disappear. Marshall hopes so. McClellan was a shell of himself in 2008, but still has one more season to go retro on Conference USA quarterbacks.
Strength: Veteran depth. The two-deep is going to be flush with upperclassmen, who’ve played a lot of football for the program. With such a deep rotation of players to call upon, everyone should be fresh when the other team’s offensive linemen are gassed in the second.
Weakness: Getting consistent pressure. The run defense is also a concern, but the bigger issue is getting to the quarterback, especially in a league with so many good aerial attacks. A linebacker led the team in sacks last fall, and opposing quarterbacks had way too much time to throw. Considering the speed of McClellan and Janac, shouldn’t this defense be much more disruptive?
Outlook: Obviously, as McClellan goes, so goes the Herd defensive line. If he’s able to command double-teams, everyone else on the line is going to benefit. Marshall may not be dynamic along the front, but with so many veterans and big bodies on the unit, it has a chance to be productive and, at times, even nasty.
Rating: 6


Projected Starters: The Herd loses MLB Maurice Kitchens, but otherwise should be in good shape at linebacker. Bucking for the opening in the middle will be 6-3 and 223-pound sophomore Kellen Harris, Kitchens’ caddy last season. A former high school wrestling champ, he’s tough, uses his hands well, and knows how to fight through traffic, but needs to become more instinctive. In nine games a year ago, he had 16 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks, showing off his lateral speed and quickness.

The star of the corps will once again be senior Mario Harvey, the team’s Defensive MVP and leading tackler. In his first full-time gig, he had 107 stops, seven tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries. A 6-0, 244-pound impact performer from the weakside, he plays with good pad level and rarely misses tackles. After only getting honorable mention recognition in league all-star voting, he’ll have a chip on his shoulder all year.

At strongside, senior Brandon Burns began last year on the third down, but quickly elevated up the depth chart and had an impressive debut with the Herd. A product of Pearl River (Miss.) Community College, he was fifth on the team with 69 tackles, adding 3.5 stops for loss, and five pass breakups. A good all-around athlete at 6-4 and 205 pounds, he moves with the agility and speed of a safety.     

Projected Top Reserves: Provided legal issues don’t get in the way, 6-2, 222-pound junior Corey Hart should be no worse than the first man off the bench. He’s already been suspended for the opener for a drug-related arrest, and no longer has any margin for off-field errors. An important part of last year’s rotation, he chipped in 33 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss.

Even though senior Andre Portis didn’t work out as planned in his first year out of junior college, there’s still hope for the 6-3, 235-pounder. He’ll try to unseat Harris in the middle, but can also backup Harvey at weakside. Considered one of the top transfers of 2008, he runs well and can really lower the boom as a run defender.

Watch Out For… the battle in the middle. The need to replace Kitchens makes this the most important position of the offseason. The job is Harris’ if he can continue to grow and become more intuitive. However, Portis has terrific raw ability and sophomore Tyson Gale isn’t very far down the pecking order.
Strength: The outside. In Harvey and Burns, Marshall harbors a pair of returning senior starters, who can make plays all over the field. From the weakside, Harvey is an all-star. From the strongside, Burns is in range of becoming one.
Weakness: The middle. Kitchens won’t be easily replaced after making 97 tackles and a team-high four interceptions. If neither Harris, Portis, nor Gale can fill the opening, an already sketchy run defense is going to pay the price.
Outlook: Physically speaking, this is a quality group of linebackers with the athletic ability to make plays from sideline to sideline. However, until a solid option emerges in the middle, it’s not going to be a complete unit. Harvey and Burns are fine. Harris, Portis, or Gale need to help make the ensemble complete.
Rating: 5


Projected Starters: The biggest concern this offseason will be developing a replacement at free safety for C.J. Spillman, a next-level performer. The favorite for now is 5-10, 178-pound sophomore Omar Brown, though he’s going to get plenty of competition. As Spillman’s understudy, he played in five games and had 14 tackles, playing an active role in run defense. Although he needs to add weight, he’s tough enough to handle a regular role.

Back for a third season as the starting strong safety is 5-10, 193-pound senior Ashton Hall. He possesses a nice mix of toughness and agility, but like so many of the Herd defensive backs, needs to evolve when the ball is in the air. During his junior season, he had 48 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and an interception.

The cornerbacks are set with the returns of sophomores DeQuan Bembry and T.J. Drakeford. Bembry enjoyed a breakout first season of action, consistently turning heads and earning Freshman All-American recognition. The gem of the 2007 recruiting class, he did not disappoint, making 80 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, and a Herd-best 11 pass breakups. Despite being just 5-10 and 173 pounds, he’s a very feisty defender, with the speed and hips to blossom into one of the league’s premier cover guys.

Drakeford was a big surprise in his debut, leapfrogging much older players, and performing like he belonged in the every-day lineup. Like Bembry, he’s a little undersized at 5-11 and 184 pounds, but compensates with tremendous athleticism and the confidence of a seasoned veteran. Yeah, he got beat at times, but always bounced back, finishing with 47 tackles, a pick, and nine pass breakups.

Projected Top Reserves: Depth at cornerback will not be an issue. In fact, there are so many veterans, some players are sure to be shifted to other need areas. Senior Zearick Matthews returns from a broken foot that curtailed his 2008 season. While the 5-9, 184-pounder doesn’t have the upside of the underclassmen, he does have a fair amount of experience and a knack for being a playmaker.

Junior D.J. Wingate is another cornerback, who’s played plenty of football for the program. A spot starter at times during his first two years, he played in 10 games last season, making 14 stops and breaking up six passes. At 6-2 and 180 pounds, he has the size to cover bigger receivers, a real plus in this league.

Sophomore Ahmed Shakoor is moving from cornerback to safety in order to compete with Brown. Highly-regarded coming out of high school, he turned down offers from Virginia Tech and Louisville to play for Marshall. He has great wheels, and at 5-11 and 195 pounds, enough pop to come through in run defense.

Watch Out For… Bembry’s status. The sophomore was arrested in March on charges of public intoxication, obstructing an officer, and underage drinking. Head coach Mark Snyder is reviewing the incident. As the budding star of this group, the Herd can ill-afford to lose him for any period of time.
Strength: Depth, especially at cornerback. It’s been a long time since Marshall had so many experienced bodies roaming around the defensive backfield. With so many lettermen back for another year, it gives the coaching staff the flexibility to move players around, like chess pieces, depending on where the greatest need exists.  
Weakness: Pass coverage. From picking off just nine passes to yielding more than 250 yards a game, the Herd still has plenty of issues that need addressing in the secondary. Bembry and Drakeford provide hope for the future, but until they become true lockdown corners, Marshall will continue to be vulnerable against the league’s better passing games.
Outlook: If the young corners progress at the same rate as they did last fall, there might be hope for the pass defense after all. The Herd will still give up yards and the occasional big play, but it won’t be so bad if they can’t start taking a few back the other way. Either Brown or Shakoor has big shoes to fill at free safety.
Rating: 5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Just about everyone is back on special teams, giving the staff a full deck to work with this fall. Senior Craig Ratanamorn returns as the placekicker, as does sophomore Tyler Warner, who filled in nicely when injuries struck early in the year. Ratanamorn hit 7-of-11 field goals in his first season of action, including a 50-yarder. Leg strength has never been an issue, but he still needs to prove he can be consistent.

Although sophomore Kase Whitehead won the punting job in his first year out of high school, he had a rocky debut, averaging just 38.7 yards and having two punts blocked. On a positive note, almost half of his kicks were fair caught, a product of good hang time, and he’ll only get better with more experience.

Watch Out ForDarius Marshall. Sure, he’s better known for what he does on offense, but he also a dangerous kick returner, something this unit sorely needs. Second to UCF’s Joe Burnett a year ago, he averaged a healthy 26.3 yards a touch.                    
Strength: The coverage teams. Marshall was well above average in both categories last year, allowing just five yards a punt return and less than 20 yards on kickoffs. A lot of the credit goes to Whitehead and Ratanamorn, respectively, for hanging punts in the air and putting a charge into kickoffs.           
Weakness: Inconsistency in the kicking game. While the Herd didn’t get destroyed by its kickers in 2008, it wasn’t elevated by them either. Ratanamorn and Warner were just 10-of-16, or 62%, on field goals, and their ability to deliver in the clutch remains a mystery.
Outlook: While the Herd special teams is on better footing than last year, it still has some holes, especially at placekicker. Whitehead, however, should begin to blossom, and Marshall is one of the league’s more dangerous return men.
Rating: 5.5


Related Stories
2009 Marshall Preview – Depth Chart
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  Jul 18, 2009
2009 Marshall Preview - Offense
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  Jul 18, 2009
2009 CFN Marshall Preview
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  Jul 19, 2009

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