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2009 Memphis Preview - Defense
Memphis LB Greg Jackson
Memphis LB Greg Jackson
CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Jul 22, 2009


CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - Memphis Tiger Defense

Memphis Tigers

Preview 2009 - Defense

- 2009 CFN Memphis Preview | 2009 Memphis Offense
- 2009 Memphis Defense | 2009 Memphis Depth Chart
- 2008 Memphis Preview | 2007 Memphis Preview | 2006 Memphis Preview

What you need to know: The Memphis defense suffered an unexpected body blow in February, when defensive coordinator Tim Walton bolted for the Detroit Lions after one year on the job. He brought a fresh energy and an extensive resume coaching up defensive backs. In his place steps assistant Kenny Ingram, who was promoted from linebackers coach. Ingram’s linebackers, a deep and talented crew, won’t be a problem in his first year on the job. The coach’s bigger concerns will be to generate a more consistent pass rush, reduce the number of big gainers, and get a slew of newcomers acclimated into the system.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Alton Starr, 90
Sacks: Greg Jackson, 4
Interceptions: Multiple Players, 1

SStar of the defense: Senior LB Greg Jackson
Player that has to step up and become a star: Junior DT Justin Thompson
Unsung star on the rise: Junior LB Jeremy Longstreet
Best pro prospect: Jackson
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Jackson, 2) Senior SS Alton Starr, 3) Junior CB D.A. Griffin
Strength of the defense: The linebackers
Weakness of the defense: Pass defense, the pass rush, poor tackling

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters: While the line welcomes back a lot of familiar faces in 2009, it needs those mugs to be a little more visible throughout the season. By far, the biggest loss on the line will be All-Conference USA DT Clinton McDonald, who’ll be supplanted by senior Steven Turner, a starter in at least one game for the last three years. Quicker than he is powerful at 6-3 and 270 pounds, he’s played some end and knows how to get penetration. In a reserve role last year, he had 20 tackles and a team-high three fumble recoveries.

Battling to line up next to Turner at the nose is 6-6, 300-pound junior Charlie Bryant. A little-used backup and special teamer up to this point, he’s the biggest of the defensive linemen and a candidate to clog lanes and occupy more than one blocker. He lettered in 2008, but registered no tackles.

Creating pressure from the outside will be a couple of battle-tested senior ends, Greg Terrell and Jada Brown. After logging starts in his first two years, Terrell got bumped to the second team in 2008, making just 13 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss. Much more is expected from the 6-4, 255-pounder, who quickly raised expectations with five sacks as a freshmen.

The 6-2, 265-pound Brown is a returning 12-game starter and a better overall athlete than Terrell. He’s quick off the snap, uses his hands well, and has an extremely powerful base. He had 24 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and a pair of sacks last year, but needs to do much more as a senior.     

Projected Top Reserves: The program is ecstatic about the arrival of DT Justin Thompson from El Camino (Calif.) Junior College. The rare five-star gem to make his way to Memphis, he originally signed with Oregon, and should be in the starting lineup before very long. At 6-4 and 290 pounds, he has the strength and explosiveness to be a success right out of the gate.

Last year’s JUCO prize, DE
Demetrius Culpepper, is hoping to explode in his final year of eligibility after opening with a quiet debut. He’s a 6-5, 245-pounder with the speed and overall athleticism to be a force coming around the edge.

Although senior Josh Weaver started five games at outside linebacker last year, Memphis likes to use him as a situational speed rusher at defensive end. Also built like a linebacker at 6-3 and 220 pounds, he has a good burst off the snap and the hops to obstruct the passer’s line of sight. A veteran of 38 games and three letters, he had 25 tackles and just a half-sack as a junior.

Watch Out For ... Thompson. If he’s ready to work and learn the system, Thompson is a unique talent with tremendous upside. Players from California with his blend of size, speed, and strength usually wind up in the Pac-10, which is why the staff is so giddy about getting his signature.
Strength: Experience. The two-deep is likely to consist of eight upperclassmen, who’ve played plenty of football over the last few years. Turner, Terrell, Brown, and Weaver have all started games in Memphis, which will benefit the newcomers.         
Weakness: Getting to the passer. Now that McDonald is gone, the rest of the linemen have to get more pressure on the quarterback. No Tiger defensive end had more than two sacks in 2008, which is inexcusable.          
Outlook: The Tiger defensive line is long on potential and short on rock-solid production. The keys to 2009 are being held by the ex-JUCO linemen, Thompson and Culpepper. If they can’t deliver, this is an ordinary unit that’s prone to being controlled by the league’s better fronts.                 
Rating: 5

Linebackers

Projected Starters: All three starters and some exciting newcomers will fill out the depth chart, giving Memphis a deep corps of linebackers. Senior Greg Jackson is the team’s reining defensive player of the year, making 52 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, and four sacks in 10 games. While undersized at 6-2 and 212 pounds, he moves well laterally and has the explosive speed to make a ton of plays behind the line of scrimmage, especially on blitzes. 

Flanking Jackson on the outside will be 6-1, 205-pound junior Jeremy Longstreet, one of last year’s pleasant surprises on defense. A starter for the first time in his brief career, he finished second on the team with 80 tackles, adding 5.5 tackles behind the line and a couple of forced fumbles. He plays bigger than his size and possesses the athletic ability of some of the Tiger skill position players.

Back in the middle for a third straight year is junior Winston Bowens, who chipped in with 55 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, and a couple of sacks. While not the fastest of the Memphis linebackers, at 6-0 and 250 pounds, he’s tremendously strong in the lower body, plays with good pad level, and is difficult to move off his base.    

Projected Top Reserves: Behind Bowens in the middle is the veteran of the B team, 6-3, 225-pound senior
Jeremy Rockette. A terrific all-around athlete when he gets on the field, he had 11 stops in 13 games a year ago, contributing to the defense and the special teams.

Challenging the starters and bolstering the depth at the position are a pair of SEC imports, 6-2, 202-pound sophomore Derrick Odom and 6-0, 230-pound junior Jamon Hughes. Odom began his career at LSU, and was a top recruit from the class of 2006. In a similar mold as Jackson, he’s got great closing speed and overall agility. He had off-field problems in Baton Rouge, which leave little room for poor decisions in Memphis.

Hughes was a little less heralded from that recruiting class, but was still a coveted prospect when he signed with Mississippi State. While he’s not in Odom’s league athletically, he plays aggressively and has the upper body strength to miss very few tackles. Both transfers have sat out the mandatory season, making them eligible for 2009.     

Watch Out For ...the new guys. Odom and Hughes have the skills to take a good set of linebackers and help make it the most dangerous in Conference USA. Odom, in particular, is a cut above athletically, and, at worst, will push his teammates to make them better.                        
Strength: Depth. The Tigers are now in the enviable position of going at least six-deep with linebackers who can start, including 6-2, 235-pound sophomore Lester Lawson, who isn’t even on the two-deep. The program has long favored using plenty of players and keeping everyone fresh. This group won’t make them pay for that strategy.                  
Weakness
: Size. Memphis doesn’t mind occasionally trading girth for speed in order to get as many special athletes on the field at one time. It will, however, catch up with them at times, especially when facing physical offensive lines and rangy receivers.                         
Outlook: If there’s a strength on a so-so Memphis D, this is it. The Tigers have depth, speed, and experience at linebacker, which will allow the coaches to employ a few different wrinkles. While they don’t need Odom and Hughes to be great, it sure wouldn’t hurt if they perform like former SEC players.
Rating: 6

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters: The inability to halt quality passers is a recurring theme in Memphis that just won’t go away. Hope can be found in a handful of returning lettermen and a couple of transfers. One of the unit’s most important pieces, senior SS Alton Starr, missed spring practice recovering from knee surgery, but is expected back for the opener. He led the team with 90 tackles, adding six tackles for loss and five passes defended. While just 6-0 and 195 pounds, he’s one of the strongest defensive backs and a solid open-field tackler.

At least for now, 6-3, 190-pound junior Curtis Echols is in line to win the job at free safety. A former wide receiver, he played in nine games a year ago, mostly on special teams, and made five tackles. As one of the most athletic players on the roster, there’s hope he can parlay his size, speed, quickness, and leaping ability into big plays on defense.

Battling for another starting engagement at cornerback will be 5-9, 180-pound senior Deante’ Lamar and 5-11, 185-pound junior D.A. Griffin. In his first season out of junior college, Griffin turned 64 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and four passes defended into All-Conference USA honorable mention recognition. He’s a physical, bump-and-run type corner, who needs to improve his coverage skills. 

Although Lamar is a burner, too often he’s using those jets to track down a receiver. Because of his diminutive size, he can also struggle to shut down taller receivers. In his first year as a starter in 2008, he was in on 35 tackles and broke up seven passes.

Projected Top Reserves: If Starr has any issues getting back on the field, 6-0, 190-pound junior Darius Davis is ready to slide into the vacancy. He played in all 13 games last year, starting versus SMU in the nickel, and collected 15 tackles. He has the athleticism of the corners, yet can still pack a wallop.

Also pushing for playing time at safety are a pair of transfers, 6-3, 210-pound sophomore DeRon Furr from Auburn and 6-0, 200-pound sophomore Tremaine McKenzie from College of Siskiyous. A blue-chip quarterback recruit of the Tigers in 2007, he has a ton of physical ability and a starting assignment waiting for him when he’s ready.

McKenzie joins his brother Jermaine, a receiver, in Memphis, where he’ll be looking to climb the crowded depth chart at strong safety. Lightly-recruited out of high school, he has safety size, yet can also play some cornerback.

The most experienced backup cornerback is 5-10, 185-pound Lavaris Edwards, who lettered and played in eight games as a true freshman. While he needs to spend more time getting bigger and faster, the potential is there to make an even bigger contribution in 2009.

Watch Out Forplenty of changes in the depth chart as we get closer to the season. The two-deep is hardly set in stone as the Tigers exit spring, meaning the battles at safety and cornerback are sure to rage on right through the summer.
Strength
:
The safeties. Starr and Echols bring a level of experience and athleticism that’ll benefit the beleaguered secondary. Plus, if either Furr or McKenzie develops, quality depth will not be a problem this season.            
Weakness: Pass coverage. New year, same story.  The corners made some improvement a year ago, but are still too soft in coverage and  allow way too many long gainers downfield. They’re risk-takers that rarely reap the rewards of game-changing picks, intercepting just balls a year ago.              
Outlook: The more that Conference USA evolves into a passing league, the grayer Tommy West’s hair becomes. Although the Tigers have some decent athletes and better depth than in the past, they’re still going to be vulnerable against quality quarterbacks and experienced receivers.            
Rating: 4.5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Assuming he can hold off the competition, senior Matt Reagan will be wearing two hats at the team’s placekicker and punter. Entering his third year as the regular kicker, he’s money on the chip shots, but highly inconsistent from longer range. A year ago, he nailed 8-of-11 attempts, but only 3-of-6 from 30 yards and longer. That kind of inconsistency opened the door for sophomore young Vinny Zaccario, who showed better leg strength and hit on 6-of-8 tries.   

Until someone says otherwise, Reagan is also the top candidate to do the punting now that Brent Sutherland has graduated. Sophomore John Booker is also on the roster, and Will Hudgens is applying for a sixth year of eligibility. Better known as a quarterback, he also averaged 47.6 yards a year ago, while pinning four of his seven punts inside the opponents’ 20. 

Watch Out For ... KR D.A. Griffin. The Tigers need a spark in the return game, which Griffin is bucking to provide. He shared time with—and was better than—Michael Grandberry last fall, but still needs to do a lot better than just 21 yards a return.

Strength:
Coverage teams. The Tigers did an about-face on special teams last year, reversing some awful results from 2007. Memphis was third in Conference USA in punt coverage, allowing just 5.6 yards a return, and in the upper half of the league in kickoff coverage.      
Weakness: The return game. For the last two seasons, Memphis has lacked a returner who can bust through a seam and go the distance. It still might be searching for that guy after finishing 79th nationally in punt returns and last in the league in kickoff returns.    
Outlook: For a school 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 missed field goals or blocked punts to a weak return game could cost the Tigers at least one game in 2009.            
Rating: 4.5