Wednesday, August 30, 2006

2006 Opponent Preview - Defensive Backs | by Pat

Here's the final position preview, with a look at the defensive backs on the schedule for the 2006 Irish. In case you've missed any, here are the links to the quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight end/offensive line, defensive line, and linebackers previews. The same defensive stats abbreviations are used, and as usual Phil Steele's position rankings (if any) are indicated in parentheses.


CB - Kenny Scott. (#24 - CB) 56 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 INT, 5 PBU, 1 FF. Returning starter.
CB - Pat Clark. WR in 2005. New starter.
SS - Jamal Lewis. 13 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU. New starter.
FS - Djay Jones. 11 tackles. New starter.

Kenny Scott (right) is the only returnign starter on the revamped Tech secondary and brings plenty of experience and the benefit of having to cover Calvin Johnson in practice everyday. At 6-2, he's a very tall cornerback and will be assigned to cover the best WR on the other team. Pat Clark assumes the starting spot at the other corner position after playing as a wide receiver in 2005. He did have the advantage of working at corner during spring ball so he's not completely new to the position. Still, it might take some time to get used to starting. At safety, Jamal Lewis assumes a starting spot after moving from cornerback. He started as the Tech nickel back for a game last year and did fill in for Kenny Scott when he went down with an injury. Free safety Djay Jones is similarly inexperienced and will need to show he can handle a starting gig. Depth: Battling Pat Clark for one of the starting cornerback spots is Jahi Word-Daniels and either one could start against Notre Dame. Word-Daniels hasn't played yet, but has the athleticism to turn into a good corner. Tony Clark played both corner and safety in the spring and the sophomore might turn up at either position if the starters aren't getting the job done.


CB - Justin King. (#10 - CB) 11 tackles, 2 PBU. New starter.
CB - Tony Davis. 4 tackles, 1 INT. New starter.
FS - Donnie Johnson. 8 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PBU. New starter.
Hero - Nolan McCready. 9 tackles, 1 INT, 1 FF. New starter.

There might not be a more athletic cornerback on the schedule than Justin King (left). An all-everything recruit, King played corner and wide receiver last year but now will focus exclusively on corner and while he's still an inexperienced sophomore, King will draw the opponent's toughest receiver. The other corner, Tony Davis, takes over the starting job after being a backup under Alan Zemaitis and will probably be picked on until he proves he can slow down his man. Hero-back Nolan McCready and free safety Donnie Johnson also rise up to the level of starter after being backups the past few years. Johnson did play as the nickel back at times last year so he does have more experience than the other new starters in the secondary. Depth: Listed as a co-starter with McCready at the hero position is sophomore Anthony Scirrotto. He played in 11 games last year, but still will be pretty inexperienced if he grabs the starting job. Lydell Sargeant played wide receiver last year as a freshman but has since been moved to corner, where he will back up Justin King. An extremely fast redshirt freshman, Knowledge Timmons, is only 3rd on the depth chart now, but might rise as the season progresses.


CB - Leon Hall. (#5 - CB) 61 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 TFL, 4 INT, 5 PBU, 1 FF, 1 FR. Returning starter.
CB - Charles Stewart. 4 tackles, 1 PBU. New starter.
FS - Brandent Englemon. 42 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 TFL, 3 PBU, 2 FR. Returning starter.
SS - Jamar Adams. (#13 - SS) 27 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 PBU. Returning starter.

Leon Hall(right) is probably the most highly touted corner on the Irish 2006 schedule and should be in the running for All-American honors this year. He led the team in interceptions last year and is in line for a solid senior campaign. Both of his 2 sacks last year came against ND, where he was named ABC Player of the Game. Charles Stewart played in 10 games last year, but it was mainly on special teams. Now as a starter, he'll have to get ready as teams will probably throw to his man in an effort to stay away from Leon Hall. Free safety Brandent Englemon started 10 games last year, but it was as a strong safety. This year he has been shifted over to free safety, but his experience should ease the transition. Strong safety Jamar Adams came on strong during the 2nd half of the 2005 season as he started the final 6 games. Expectations are high that Adams will turn into a very good safety over his final two years of eligibility. Depth: Listed as a co-starter at free safety with Englemon is Ryan Mundy (#11 - FS), a very talented player who was lost for the year in 2005 with a shoulder injury in the first game. In 2004 he started every game at free safety so he certainly has experience. He might even regain the starting job for the ND game. Morgan Trent (#56 - CB) started five games last year at corner as a redshirt freshman and now will provide very capable backup for Leon Hall. One time ND commit Brandon Harrison has shifted back to corner from safety and now is listed as the backup to Charles Stewart along with fellow sophomore Johnny Sears.


CB - Greg Cooper. 48 tackles, 1 sack, 3 TFL, 1 PBU. Returning starter.
CB - Demond Williams. 29 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU. Returning starter.
FS - Otis Wiley. 18 tackles, 1 sack, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 1 FR. New stater.
SS - Nehemiah Warrick. JUCO transfer. New starter.

The Spartans should have quality safeties this year, but their cornerbacks will be in question until they can prove otherwise. Technically Greg Cooper is a returning starter, but he was moved from free safety to corner in the spring and will have to get used to the new position in a hurry. He's a strong player, but corner skills are different from safety skills. The other corner, Demond Williams, returns as the other corner for the Spartans but really wasn't all that productive last year. At safety, the big name is transfer and JUCO All-American Nehemiah Warrick (left). With an impressive spring, Warrick is poised for a very strong debut season. Free safety Otis Wiley enters the starting lineup at free safety and the sophomore will need to overcome any inexperience quickly in order to make an impact. He is extremely fast though and has the potential to be a decent ball-hawking free safety Depth: The depth chart took a big hit when experienced backup corner Ross Weaver went down with a wrist injury. He might be back later on in the season, but will miss the ND game. In his place, Jelani Nantambu is the backup corner and probably the most likely nickel back on the roster. Other than him, there isn't much depth with little to no experience.


CB - Aaron Lane. Walk-on transfer from St. Francis. New starter.
CB - Zach Logan. 43 tackles, 1 sack, 2.5 TFL, 5 PBU. Returning starter.
FS - Brandon Erwin. New starter.
SS - Torri Williams. Out in 2005 with injury. New starter.

The Boilermakers are undergoing a revamping of their secondary and will field a lot of inexperience to start the year. Zach Logan is the lone returning starter after starting the last nine games of the year for Purdue. He's fast, but it will be tougher on him this year when he has to face the #1 WR for the other team. Aaron Lane is a bit of a surprise starter after walking on to the team as a running back transfer from the University of St. Francis. Torri Williams (right) missed all of 2005 with a broken leg, but is fine now and has high expectations that he'll turn into a very good strong safety for the Boilermakers. Brandon Erwin is another bit of a surprise starter as he' s a true freshman who wasn't very highly ranked coming out of high school. Depth: Of the four players listed on the Boilermaker 2nd string, only one, cornerback Fabian Martin, has played a down at Purdue. And even he didn't record any statistics. The other backup corner, Royce Adams is a true freshman. The backup strong safety, Adam Wolf, is a walk-on while the backup free safety, Justin Scott, is a JUCO transfer. Scott was productive in junior college though so he might be able to add some decent depth.


CB- Brandon Harrison. 67 tackles, 2 TFL, 3 INT, 4 PBU, 1 FF. Returning starter.
CB - Nick Sanchez. 71 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2 INT, 4 PBU, 2 FR, 2 FF. Returning starter.
FS - Trevor Hooper. 40 tackles, 4 PBU, 1 FF. Returning starter.
SS - David Lofton. 35 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 PBU. New starter.

The Cardinal return a veteran unit of sorts, although a few players have moved positions. Brandon Harrison has started the past two years at strong safety but now moves over to the corner position. Harrison is a solid, veteran player, but the transition from safety to corner sometimes takes a few games. Nick Sanchez is another veteran who started every game at corner last year. He was 2nd on the team in tackles, but it's not always a good thing when a corner has so many tackles. Sometimes it can mean he's spending his time tackling the receiver who just beat him for the reception. Free safety Trevor Hooper has 17 career starts under his belt, although 11 of them came in 2003 as a strong safety. Last year battled through some injuries before starting the final five games at free safety. David Lofton started five games last year at free safety when Hooper was down with his injury and now Lofton will slide over to strong safety and take over the starting role. At 6-4, 220 pounds, he has the size to be very effective against the run. Depth: Tim Sims is listed as a co-starter for the Cardinal at cornerback with Nick Sanchez. Sims has had very limited playing time as a career backup but if he's pushing Sanchez he must be improving as a player. Junior Wopamo Osaisai had a very strong fall camp and is arguably the fastest player on the Stanford team. As he gains experience at the corner position, he could see more and more playing time.


CB - Trey Brown. 53 tackles, 1 INT, 10 PBU. Returning starter.
CB - Rodney Van. 22 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 1 FF, 1 FR. New starter.
FS - Dennis Keyes. (#27 - FS) 57 tackles, 2 sacks, 8 TFL, 6 PBU. 1 FR, 2 FF. Returning starter.
SS - Chris Horton. 26 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 PBU. New starter.

Trey Brown is the veteran of the Bruin secondary after starting all 12 games at cornerback last year. His 10 passes broken up is a pretty impressive number and Brown should be even better with an additional year of experience. Rodney Van was a backup last year but did get into every game and play at least 20 snaps seven times. Still, now that he's starting he will have to prove to opposing offensive coordinators that he's not a weak link in the secondary. Free safety Dennis Keyes (left, top) started nine games at the position last year and the hard hitting safety is one of the leaders of the Bruin defense. Chris Horton had a wrist injury that kept him out of the first half of the 2005 season and limited his play for the rest of the year. Now that he's recovered, he will take over the starting strong safety spot and add a solid run-stopping ability to the Bruin defense. Depth: Michael Norris saw some time last year as a backup and expects to do the same again this year. He might be the choice when UCLA goes into the nickel. If not Norris, then freshman Alterraun Verner. Verner isn't very big at 5'10, 160 pounds, but the coaching staff is high on his potential. Depth at safety isn't experienced at all as all four backup strong and free safeties are either freshman or sophomores.


CB - Jeremy McGown. 63 tackles, 1 TFL, 4 PBU, 1 FF. Returning starter.
CB - Keenan Little. 73 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 2 INT, 8 PBU, 1 FF. Returning starter.
FS - DuJuan Price. 62 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 INT, 3 PBU. Returning starter.
ROVER - Ketric Buffin. 19 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT. New starter.

Navy returns a veteran line but the loss of Greg Thrasher, who left the team to concentrate on academics, means that Jeremy McGown will shift over to corner from his usual safety spot where he has started 21 games. One of the best athletes on the team, McGown should be able to make the transition without too much of a problem. At the other corner spot, Keenan Little (right) returns to the same position at which he started all 12 games last year. Last year he was 4th on the team in tackles, which again isn't always a great sign for a cornerback. Free safety DuJuan Price started every game last year at free safety for Navy and returns as yet another veteran member of this experienced secondary. The only new starter, roverback Ketric Buffin, will find it easier with all of the experience around him, but at 5-7, 165 pounds, he might have trouble with some of the bigger running backs and tight ends that he will face. Depth: If Navy needs more height at the cornerback spot, 6-2 Greg Sudderth will be available to help out. Last year Sudderth actually tied for the team lead in interceptions with two. If Navy wants more size at the rover position, Dell Robinson has that at 5-11, 205 pounds. However, he is inexperienced as injuries kept him on the bench for most of last season.


CB - Jacoby Watkins. 19 tackles, 3 PBU. Returning starter.
CB - Quinton Person. 36 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 INT, 4 PBU. New starter.
FS - D.J. Walker. 9 tackles. New starter.
SS - Kareen Taylor. 61 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 4.5 TFL, 2 INT, 2 PBU, 1 FF. Returning starter.

The strength of this Tar Heel secondary is strong safety Kareen Taylor (left). He has made 15 starts as the free safety spot and now moves over to the strong safety position due to the injury to Trimane Goddard. His physical, agressive play has made him an All-ACC candidate for 2006. D.J. Walker will try and replace Taylor at the free safety spot, but he is very inexperienced other than his work on special teams. At corner, Jacoby Watkins started every game in 2004 and was doing the same in 2005 until he broke his leg and was forced to miss the rest of the season. The injury also forced him to sit out spring ball. He's back in the starting lineup now and while he may be a bit rusty, should be back to normal by the ND game. Quinton Person filled in for Watkins last year and ended up starting 4 games. Now he's a full time starter without much starting experience, but has collected a decent amount of game experience the past two seasons. Depth: If D.J. Walker struggles at the free safety spot, sophomore Cooter Arnold will waiting in the wings. Arnold, who played running back last year as a freshman, is new to the secondary but is a very good physical athlete. Also, while Walker has dealt with some minor injuries in fall camp, Arnold stayed healthy and got valuable experience running with the first team defense. Kendric Burney also turned heads in fall camp and while the freshman is only 5-9, he has coaches and fans excited about his future at UNC.


CB - Garret Rybak. 6 tackles. New starter.
CB - Chris Sutton. 47 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 2 INT, 9 PBU. Returning starter.
FS - Bobby Giannini. 92 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 3 INT, 2 PBU, 2 FF. Returning starter.
FALCON - John Rabold. 36 tackles, 1 sack, 2.5 TFL. New starter.
FALCON - Julian Madrid. 27 tackles, 1 sack, 1 TFL, 1 PBU. New starter.

Bobby Giannini (right) is the major, and really only, star of this Falcon defense. The returning team leader in tackler, Giannini is a hard hitter and one of the best safeties in the Mountain West conference. The other returning starter, cornerback Chris Sutton was moderately productive last year as a starter and should be even better this year due to the additional experience. Joining Sutton at the cornerback position is Garrett Rybak. He took the starting job with a solid spring practice campaign, but will need to be ready for a lot of attention as opposing quarterbacks test him early and often. Falcon backs John Rabold and Julian Madrid are both new to the starting lineup too and will need to work hard if Air Force wants to improve it's 94th ranked pass defense. Depth: Carson Bird has some experience and is a decent backup at the falcon position. He played corner last year so he can also help out there. Nathan Smith is perhaps the team's fastest corner and will back up Rybak to start the season. If Rybak falters, Smith could step into the starting role.


CB - Kevin Opuko. New starter.
CB - Sean Grevious. 3 tackles, 1 PBU. New starter.
FS - Jordan Murray. 3 tackles. New starter.
SS - Caleb Campbell. (#21 - SS) 97 tackles, 2 TFL, 5 INT, 3 PBU. Returning starter.

Caleb Cambell (left) is the best player in the Army secondary and one of the better strong safeties that the Irish will face. He'll have a lot of weight on his shoulders as the rest of the Black Knight secondary is extremely inexperienced. Jordan Murray fills in at the starting free safety spot after a very strong showing in the spring. He hasn't only played in a few games, but has impressed the coaching staff with his development so far. The corners are about as green as they come with Kevin Opuko, a former Army walk-on, getting his first taste of Army football once he steps on the field as a starter. Sean Grevious played in a handful of snaps last year but did win the Army's "Most Improved Player" award for his work during spring practice. Depth: Markenson Pierre has earned high expectations for his work in practice but the sophomore, like many of the Army backups, is very inexperienced and will need playing time in order to develop.


CB - Cary Harris. 9 tackles, 1 PBU. New starter.
CB - Terrell Thomas. 5 tackles, 1 PBU. New starter.
FS - Josh Pinkard. (#12 - CB) 54 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 1.5 TFL, 2 INT, 7 PBU, 1 FR, 2 FF. Returning starter.
SS - Kevin Ellison. 6 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 1 FF. New starter.

The Trojans feature a revamped secondary this season, but there is a lot of young talent, albeit untested, lininup in the USC defensive backfield. Josh Pinkard (right) is the lone returning starter, but after starting 6 games at corner last year, he'll have to get used to starting at his original position of safety again. Kevin Ellison was contributing on special teams and as a backup safety before injury sidelined him for the season. He's back and although only an inexperienced sophomore, will look to stay healthy and keep the starting strong safety spot. Terrell Thomas also was sidelined early in last season and was put on the bench for the remainder of the season. He appears to be fully healed from knee surgery and ready to play. He'll probably be rusty for a bit, but should be back to form by the time ND plays the Trojans. Cary Harris was a backup corner last year as a freshman and now the sophomore has earned the starting job for now. Depth: Fighting Harris for that starting spot is another sophomore, Kevin Thomas (#37 - CB). Like Harris, Thomas was a backup corner last year and now is looking at possibly starting. Two freshman are the backups at safety and have a world of potential. The biggest is Antwine Perez, who is already pushing returning starter Josh Pinkard for the starting spot. An all-everything recruit and ferocious hitter, Perez is already a Trojan fan favorite. Meanwhile, Taylor Mays is looking at taking over the free safety spot. Mays has linebacker size at 6-4, 225 pounds and may not be a safety for long, but for now he's impressing everyone with his mix of size and speed.

2006 Defensive Backs Analysis and Rankings.

The first thing that strikes me while writing this is just how inexperienced the 2006 opponent defensive backs are. After looking at the veteran linebackers and wondering how Darius's rushing yardage will be affected, now I look at all of the rookie corners and safeties and wonder if Quinn and his recievers are licking their lips.

Consider that 8 of the 12 opponents are replacing at least 2 starters in the secondary. The only exceptions are Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford, and Navy. And considering that Michigan State was 85th in the country in pass defense last season and Stanford was 110th, returning players aren't always the solution. I kept thinking that a certain team would be low in my rankings due to lack of production and experience, only to find that most of the rest of the teams were in a similar situation.

Thinking about Rhema McKnight, he'll likely be matched up with most team's #2 cornerback. Looking back at this list, there are only three games this year (Michigan State, Stanford, Navy) where he'll be covered by a returning starter. The rest of the time he'll be marked by a largely inexperience first time starter.

And of some of that returning starting experience, a fair number of those players are converted safties trying their hand at cornerback. And given the difficulty going from a safety spot where you rarely turn your back on the QB to a position like cornerback that requires much more one-on-one individual skill, I do expect some of those newly minted corners to struggle.

I'm not predicting that Quinn will throw for 500 yards a game, but given the quality of the linebackers on the schedule and the relative inexperience of the accompanying defensive backs, I think Weis will be content to let his Heisman Trophy candidate sit back and throw the ball. To wit, look back at all of the high Phil Steele rankings for the linebackers and compare that to the relative lack of Steele rankings for players on this preview. Would you run all the time if you could pass against players like this? I'd also look for a fair number of draw plays to Walker if opposing teams try to aid their weaker secondaries with numerous blitzes.

Now then, on to the rankings. Normally there are few clear cut winners and losers. But this really is a crapshoot save a team like Michigan that has a decent amount of returning talent. The difference between, say, #2 and #9 isn't really all that great. And of course, depending on how the new corners perform, these rankings could be crap starting with the first set of games this Saturday.

1. Michigan - Leon Hall leads a quality collection of talent and experience.
2. Stanford - A decent group that gets a high ranking based on the returning experienced players.
3. Southern Cal - More potential than any team on this list, but also lots of inexperience.
4. Michigan State - Average returning talent, but Nemehiah Warrick could be a difference-maker.
5. Navy - I really wanted to rank this veteran unit higher, but just couldn't do it.
6. Georgia Tech - Kenny Scott is a solid corner, but the rest of the starters are question marks for now.
7. UCLA - Keyes is the leader and this unit could be better if the new players adapt quickly.
8. North Carolina - Not much experience and not much production outside of Taylor.
9. Penn State - Justin King might be a star. The rest of the group will need to produce or struggle.
10. Air Force - Outside of Giannini, there isn't much in the way of experience or depth.
11. Army - Only the presence of Caleb Campbell keeps the Black Knights out of the last spot.
12. Purdue - When walk-on running back transfers take a starting spot, you're in trouble.

Coming tomorrow....Position preview summary