Yesterday, I took a look at how the special teams and the offense looked. To be honest, that was pretty easy. The special teams were horrible, and the offense was pretty good.
Today, I'm discussing the defense. This is a little bit more difficult to analyze, and not only because of the modified rules of the spring game. The "no contact on the QBs" rule makes it difficult to determine how good the pass rush is going, and how well the LB contain is against a mobile QB such as David Watford.
Still, we're able to get a good look at the new secondary and the LBs, plus we can judge how the DL played against the OL.
Once again, please allow me some leeway as the camera work for ESPN3 was poor. Jump for the full analysis.
Once again, injuries played a role. Missing from the first team defense was two starters, who play important roles. The first is MLB Steve Greer, who only calls the defensive plays. Not a big loss, really. The second is DE Billy Schautz, who is probably the best pure pass rusher we've got on the DL. Both were missing from the bowl game and we saw how that turned out. Schautz was missing from the VT game, and that certainly didn't help.
The strength of the defense in 2012 is likely to be the DL. The two DTs on the first team are Will Hill and Justin Renfrow. Again, it is difficult to judge because of the rules, but the two of them were in the QBs face all game long. If they can continue that production (and I have every reason to believe that they can), it will go a long way towards having a successful defense. The quickest way to throw off an offense's timing is to collapse the pocket from the inside.
Vincent Croce also had a highlight (and a lowlight) as he picked off a deflected David Watford pass and looked ready to rumble into the endzone, before being stripped of the ball by
Don Beebe Clifton Richardson. David Dean was also involved in a few plays and spent a lot of time in the offensive backfield. We have some quality depth at DT.
Jake Snyder was the one DE who seemed to make an impact on every play. He was consistently beating his man and getting into the face of either Rocco or Watford. I think he had 3 "sacks". On the other side, Brent Urban had pretty much zero impact on the game. While the performance of Snyder is encouraging, the truth is that he was going up against a freshman RT, while Urban was facing Morgan Moses. Moses has shut down much better DEs than Urban, so it isn't necessarily anything to be concerned about. Come September, Snyder and Schautz will be lined up at DE, and Urban will be the next DE on the field. Keep in mind also that Urban, with his size and strength, is a good run stopping DE, and there were precious few runs in this game. In passing situations, Brent Urban will not be on the field come September.
Rob Burns had the deflection on the aforementioned Croce interception, but otherwise was a non-factor. The only other DE that I noticed at all on the field was Diamonte Bailey. I didn't notice Stephen Lawe, although I believe he played. Interestingly, I also did not notice converted LB Ausar Walcott, who has a lot of ability as a pass rusher. I the the problem was that the defenses played a relatively bland game, and almost exclusively in the base package, whereas Walcott is going to be used primarily as a pass rusher in the substitution defenses.
As I mentioned, the LB corps was missing a key contributor in Greer. Still, they impressed overall. LaRoy Reynolds was all over the field. Not surprisingly, I think. Reynolds has moved around so much, that you almost feel sorry for him. He played very well last year at the Will spot, and finally gets to spend a second season at the same position. I am expecting big things from Reynolds this season. DaQuan Romero started at the Sam and wasn't nearly as impressive. He was around the ball a few times, but I remain unimpressed with Romero as an every down LB. Henry Coley played MLB, and looked solid in underneath pass coverage. But we didn't get much chance to see Coley read and react to misdirection running plays or play action, two things which killed him in the
Peach Chick-Fil-A Bowl.
For the 2nd team, the most impressive LB was Caleb Taylor. Taylor made a few plays in coverage in the flats, and also made tackles both inside and outside. Taylor is best suited for MLB, but with Greer, Coley and Kwontie Moore coming in, Taylor may end up moving to the outside. I could see Taylor replacing Reynolds at the Will in 2013.
Tucker Windle was also around the ball a lot, which is a good sign for a rising senior who has spent his entire career at LB. If Romero struggles at SLB, I think Windle will be the one to replace him (the other option is Walcott, but the coaching staff seems set on keeping him at DE). DJ Hill and Darius Lee also played LB for the 2nd team defense, but neither of them did much to impress me. That isn't a knock on either of them, as they are both in just their 2nd year on grounds and are not expected to contribute this year, other than special teams.
That takes care of the front 7, which was largely made up of known quantities. The secondary, on the other hand, was a big question mark coming in. Other than Tra Nicholson, the secondary consists of first time starters. Even when including Tra, the secondary is very young. The 4 starting DBs have a combined 5 years of experience, and much of that experience comes on special teams. We know Nicholson is going to be good, and he was on Saturday. Coverage as a team wasn't great, but that was simply part of the game plan. The defenses played a lot of soft underneath zone and just attempted to avoid giving up big plassing plays. Nicholson was able to come up and make some tackles, which is something he struggled with early last season.
The 2nd CB was Drequan Hoskey, who is fighting with Brandon Phelps for the starting nod. Hoskey has superior speed to Phelps, but Phelps is bigger. Given that neither of them is particularly big, we may well see one of the incoming freshmen lining up against some of the bigger WRs on our schedule this season. Hoskey was good, getting involved underneath and also being able to make some plays on deep balls. Phelps also had some moments. I'm still a little bit disappointed that Phelps hasn't come on more than he has. Given his HS career and his overall talent, he should be light-years ahead of a walk-on like Hoskey. That is no knock on Hoskey, who has looked very good during his opportunities, and certainly has speed to burn. One more note on the CBs, on Khalek Shepherd's 75 yard TD run, walk-on CB Brendan Morgan very nearly chased him down from behind. Given Shepherd's speed, that was impressive. Morgan may not see the field much, but he impressed me nonetheless.
Again, given the prevalence of 2-deep coverage, I wasn't expecting much from the safeties. By and large, I was correct. Although Anthony Harris and Rijo Walker were both consistently around the ball both on passes and runs. I am pleased by that. The play of the safeties this season may well determine the overall success of our defense. If Harris and Walker can play smart and keep everything in front of them, we should be ok.
Mason Thomas looked good for the 2nd team, as he was constantly involved and was all over the field. I also liked what I saw from Pablo Alvarez, who I had high hopes for when he came in. Alvarez has prototypical side and speed for a 2-deep safety and still has 3 years of eligibility left, so there is time for him to make his presence felt, but it is telling that he's basically been passed on the depth chart by Ant Harris.
I can't say this enough times, but the results of these types of scrimmages must be taken with a grain of salt. The game is more about seeing what players are capable of that it is about trying to be successful play in and play out. Furthermore, one of the main goals of these situations is to ensure that nobody gets hurt. The defenses were bland, and the offensive playcalling wasn't much better. Still, we can make some judgements based on what we saw, and what we already knew coming in.
It is safe to say that our offense will be strong going forward. We have all the tools, and simply need to maintain a solid OL. Michael Rocco and the offense may break any number of school records this year. The defense is still somewhat of a work in progress. Obviously, the injuries were a problem, but it was clear that the offense is well ahead of the defense at this point. If we can't get pressure with our front 4, our defense is likely going to be in trouble.
And what can I say about the special teams. This has been a problem for a while, and it doesn't appear to be getting much better. I'm less concerned about the FG kicking unit, because we have a number of talented candidates, so I'm confident somebody will step up. The punt return unit is going to kill us this year, and we simply must find a punter who can consistently give us more than 41 yards gross per punt.