For Better or Worse: Defense
Yesterday, we took at the expectations for the offense. Can they be better than last year's disappointing unit? That wasn't all that difficult a task. Beating the 87th ranked unit in the nation isn't a tall order. Today, we're looking at the defense. This unit finished 22nd in the nation last year, and improving on that seems unlikely.
The loss of Eli Harold can't be overstated here. While he was just 3rd on the team in sacks, he was first in TFLs. He was also doubled teamed on nearly every play, and this opened up things for other players. The rest of last year's DL returns a year older, but none of them have the ability that Eli had.
Except, maybe Andrew Brown does. The #5 overall recruit in the nation a year ago, Brown was felled by injuries last year and didn't have much impact on the field. However, he looks even stronger and quicker now than he did coming out of HS and has a year under his belt. He could be the playmaker on the DL that this team needs.
David Dean and Mike Moore are solid DLs. Each had 8 TFLs last year, despite not playing every down. They should improve this year. There is depth behind them. But without Eli Harod, the DL is likely to see a drop in production.
This is the easiest section of the entire feature. Last year's starting linebacker trio had 7 years of experience coming into the season. This year's has 0. The entire group of starting linebackers from last year moved on. Max Valles (Raiders) and Henry Coley (Saints) are currently in the NFL and DeQuan Romero is a graduate assistant for the Hoos.
We've heard good things about Micah Kiser and Zach Bradshaw. C.J. Stalker, Mark Hall, Jahvoni Simmons and others all have plenty of talent. But there is no way to make up for the loss in experience and leadership.
Similar to the DL, the secondary lost its best player. Safety Anthony Harris was one of the on-field leaders of the defense. He finished 2nd on the team in tackles, third in INTs, 2nd in pass breakups and chipped in a sack and 2 TFLs. His loss will be felt.
However, by the end of the season, he wasn't even the best safety on the field for the Hoos. Quin Blanding had taken that crown away from him. Blanding is bigger, faster and picked up the defense so quickly that he led the team in tackles, one of just 2 freshmen in the nation to lead their team in tackles. He was also named to the preseason watch list for both the Bronco Nagurski Award and Chuck Bednarik Award, each given to the nation's top defender.
Add to that the return of both starting CBs, Maurice Canady and Tim Harris. Canady, in particular, is a reason for optimism in the defensive backfield. He's become the top CB on the team, and one of the top CBs in the nation. As a senior, he's going to be expected to shut down the opposition's top WR threat on most plays. He's got good cover skills, a nose for the ball, and he's good in run support. A big year from Canady could push him into the first round.
Finally, the return of CB Demetrious Nicholson will also help. Tra, as he's known, may well pass Harris for the starting gig. Either way, he's going to play in the nickel packages, and the Hoos are likely to spend a lot of time in the nickel, due to the inexperience at LB. As noted on ESPN.com, Nicholson has returned for his 6th season, after missing most of the past 2 seasons with turf toe. Nicholson started the first 30 games of his career, and totaled 27 passes defended and 3 picks over those games. Even with Canady around, Nicholson is the best pure cover guy on the team.
This secondary could be scary good.
A year ago, the front 7 was the strength of the Hoos defenses, creating havoc in the backfield and making things uncomfortable for opposing QBs. Eli Harold, Max Valles and Henry Coley were all in the top 60 in the nation in sacks. They forced 6 fumbles, recovered 3, broke up 16 passes, picked off 2 passes and scored 2 TDs.
All three are gone. This changes the dynamic of the defense. Now, instead of the front 7 being the strength, the back 4 will be the strength. The DL is still going to be very good, even with Harold's departure. The key will be the LBs. Early on, expect struggles. The secondary is good enough that they can limit the damage from any mistakes made by the young LBs.
Until the LBs get up to speed, this defense will not be nearly as good as last year's. However, once those guys are up to speed, this defense could be every bit as good as last year's.
So, the offense should improve. The defense may drop off a bit, but should still be pretty good. Will that be enough to improve overall on last year? Will it be enough to make a bowl game?
The schedule works out reasonably well for the Hoos. Yes, it is a difficult schedule. But the first two games, against UCLA and Notre Dame are likely not winnable. They will, though, be great learning experiences. By the time the heart of the ACC schedule arrives, in October, the youngsters should be up to speed. The new offensive game plan hopefully will have come together.
There are enough winnable games in there to be optimistic about the season.
The one unit we didn't consider in this piece is the coaching staff. They must improve over last year (and the previous 4 years) for the Hoos to have a successful season. They are coaching for their jobs. Some of them are coaching for their football lives. How well they adapt to this year's team will determine how far the team can go.