Demetrious Nicholson was the youngster of the DBs last year, but now he is the most experienced DB on the roster.
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It is apt that I would leave the DBs for last, because this is the unit with the most uncertainty. By this point, the starters and the 2-deep have been set. We know who the players are. What we don't know if how they will react when the lights are on. Obviously, the loss of All-American Chase Minnifield at CB was going to hurt. But losing two multiple year starters at safety may be even harder to handle. After all, the safeties are the last line of the defense, and uncertainly there changes the way the entire defense can play.
The leader of this year's secondary is sophomore Demetrious Nicholson, who started every game last year as a true freshman. A year ago, Tra was the kid of the group, the guy watching and learning. This year, he must be the teacher. The rest of the players are looking up to him. This isn't even a case of having veteran DBs who have been passed on the depth chart by the youngsters. There are no veterans, the elder statesman of the DBs is junior Rijo Walker, with all of 25 games played and 2 starts in his career.
Yes, the secondary is green. A number of players will be seeing the field for the first time. The question is, which of these young players will step up, and how will the unit as a whole play this season.
As I mentioned, Nicholson is the leader of the secondary. Despite being just a true sophomore, Nicholson has proven that he can play. Starting as a true freshman opposite an All-American, Nicholson was going to be picked on a season ago. Beginning with an interception in his first game, Nicholson was able to hold his own. Was he beaten at times? Of course, all cornerbacks get beat from time to time. But Nicholson finished 4th on the team in tackles, first in broken up passes and 3rd in interceptions. Now we'll see if he can handle the transition from understudy to leading role.
Opposite Nicholson, the question is still murky. Drequan Hoskey will start, but others will see time as well. The decision of who to play may often come down to matchups. Hoskey and Nicholson both weigh in at 175 pounds or so. That will make it difficult to match up against some of bigger WRs we're going to see this year. That opens the door for true freshman Maurice Canady, who at 6'2" and 180 lbs provides a different look. Canady opened a lot of eyes with his play during the spring, and he has earned his way onto the 2-deep. While Hoskey (a track star) is the faster player, Canady has outstanding athleticism and the added height makes him a better defender on deep balls.
The 4th CB this year is another true freshman, C.J. Moore. C.J. is one of three true freshmen named Moore who have made the season opening 2-deep. C.J. is another smaller player, at just 5'10" and 160 pounds, but he has outstanding speed. His entire family has outstanding speed. His aunt is Gail Devers, a 2-time 100m Olympic gold medalist. Still a little bit raw as a CB, Moore would ideally be given a chance to redshirt, but the lack of depth at the position has pushed him onto the 2-deep.
The picture at safety is no better. The starters will be a couple of true sophomores, Anthony ‘Ant' Harris and Brandon Phelps. Phelps was actually a CB last year, although much of his playing time was on special teams. Phelps is a bit bigger most of the CBs, at 6'1" and 180 pounds, and his experience at CB makes him a good option for covering TEs or RBs. Harris is kind of a prototypical FS. At 6'2" and 185 pounds, he is a bigger guy, but still has outstanding range. Harris is another guy who possesses very good cover skills and could be used against TEs and RBs.
The aforementioned Rijo Walker, the elder statesman of the secondary, backs up Harris. Walker is another guy who was originally a CB before moving to S. Walker is more compact than Harris, weighing in at 190 pounds, and with his CB experience, he also has very good cover skills. In fact, Walker is likely going to see time in substitution defenses as the 5th or 6th DB.
The backup to Phelps is likely going to be Pablo Alvarez. Alvarez missed all of last year with a shoulder injury, but has been in the program a while. He looks more like a safety than any of the other guys, at 6'3" and 205 pounds. Despite the added size, Alvarez is still more of a cover safety than a run support guy.
True freshman Anthony Cooper is also getting looks at SS, and in fact is listd as an ‘OR' with Alvarez. Cooper was given a look as a WR during training camp, but the depth there and the lack of depth at S prompted the move. That isn't to say that Cooper can't play S, because he can. He is big enough and will get bigger. He is just going to be a bit raw on the field. Barring injuries, I do not expect to see Cooper on the field with the defense on key plays early in the season. Later in the season, as Cooper progresses, that may change. In the long run, his raw talent may be too much to keep off the field.
All of our DBs are on the smaller side, and most are very inexperienced. Because of that, I see us playing a lot of soft zone, cover-2 and cover-3 defenses. At the very least, all of our DBs have cover skills, so the soft zones will hopefully keep teams from getting wide open receivers. Additionally, Nicholson's presence allows Jim Reid andto do a few things with the secondary, having confidence that Nicholson can take care of his man.
Luckily we have some very good LBs, because they DBs aren't going to be much help against the run. Our talented young DEs are going to have to get up to speed early, and get pressure on QBs, because if we give a QB time in the pocket, he will likely pick our secondary apart. Teams with bigger receivers, in particular, are going to give us trouble. As the season goes on, and the players gain experience, hopefully they will be more comfortable and the defense will come together. If not, we could be involved in some very high scoring games.