Thursday, September 03, 2009

2009 Opponent Position Preview: Defensive Backs | by Kevin

Now up: Defensive Backs. Now that Game Week is upon us, portions of this preview may be leaner than were those covering quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive lines, defensive lines, and linebackers. Be sure to check back later today for the summary of all positions and where we think ND fits.

Do know this: these secondaries will not dictate the success or failure of Notre Dame's passing attack in 2009. If ND's receivers have made a few subtle but important improvements -- coming off the line cleaner, better blocking, running deeper, crisper intermediate routes -- they'll be impossible to stop and difficult to contain.


CB: Antoine Thompson.
Senior. Returning Starter.
2008 Stats: 36 tackles, 1 INT, 8 breakups.
CB: Isaiah Frey. Sophomore. Returning Starter.
2008 Stats: 23 tackles, 3 breakups.
FS: Jonathan Amaya. Senior. Returning Starter.
2008 Stats: 68 tackles, 4 INTs, 6 breakups, 2.5 sacks.
SS: Mo Harvey. Senior. Returning Starter.
2008 Stats: 22 tackles, 3 INTs, 4 breakups.

Nevada had the 91st-rated pass defense in the country last year, but all four starters return. Or should that second clause be "and all four starters return"? That's up to these four, all of whom accumulated surprisingly decent statistics on a team that surrendered more than 240 passing yards per game. Amaya and Harvey are a fairly dangerous duo, successfully defending 17 passes between them. Elsewhere on the depth chart are Senior free safety Cameron Bayne, true Freshman strong safety Duke Williams, Junior corner Doyle Miller and redshirt Freshman corners Thaddeus Brown and Khalid Wooten.


CB: Donovan Warren (#8).
Junior. Returning Starter.
2008 Stats: 52 tackles, 1 INT, 5 breakups.
CB: Boubacar Cissoko. Sophomore. New Starter.
2008 Stats: 15 tackles (all well below the waist).
FS: Mike Williams. RS Sophomore. New Starter.
2008 Stats: 18 tackles, 1 sack.
SS: Troy Woolfolk. Junior. New Starter.
2008 Stats: 15 tackles.

If the 2009 Michigan-Notre Dame game drills a pit into your gut, you're not alone. Both programs have everything to prove and everything to lose. Both have suffered through recent 3-9 seasons, both need to build confidence among players and fans, and both need to sustain essential recruiting momentum. Last but not least, both head coaches' jobs may be on the line. Michigan's youth and depth in the secondary should do little to calm nerves in Ann Arbor. Behind Warren are two Freshmen, J.T. Turner and walk-on Teric Jones. Backing up Woolfolk is someone named Jared Van Slyke, a walk-on transfer from Southeast Missouri State. Freshman Vladimir Emilien is the #2 free safety, and peering over Cissoko's head from the backup right corner spot is on J.T. Floyd. To summarize, Freshmen and walk-ons figure prominently in the Wolverine depth chart. If God listened to Michigan fans, I'd recommend they pray for the protection of the starters in the Western Michigan game.


CB: Chris Rucker (#49).
RS Sophomore. Returning Starter.
2008 Stats: 45 tackles, 2 INTs, 4 breakups.
CB: Jeremy Ware. RS Senior. New Starter.
2008 Stats: 31 tackles, 1 INT, 6 breakups.
FS: Dan Fortener. RS Senior. Returning Starter.
2008 Stats: 69 tackles, 2 INTs, 7 breakups.
SS: Marcus Hyde. RS Junior. New Starter.
2008 Stats: 31 tackles, 1 INT.

Behind Greg Jones -- should they choose to field the other ten defensive players -- is an experienced Spartan secondary. Rucker and Fortener are the big names, but the group is pretty deep. Ross Weaver is listed as neck-and-neck with fellow fifth-year Senior Ware, Sophomore Johnny Adams will spell Rucker, and fifth-year Senior Kendall Davis-Clark, returning after a shoulder injury in 2008, will see considerable time at safety -- he has played both the free and strong spots in the past. Sophomore Trenton Robinson is listed at #2 behind Fortener at the FS spot. A roster full of veterans and talented young guys is a good formula for success, and the State defense should help compensate as a young QB and RB fights their way through the learning curve.


CB: Brandon King.
RS Senior. Returning Starter.
2008 Stats: 48 tackles, 1 INT, 9 breakups.
CB: David Pender. Senior. Returning Starter.
2008 Stats: 32 tackles, 1 INT, 12 breakups.
FS: Torri Williams (#32). 6th Year Senior. Returning Starter.
2008 Stats: 83 tackles, 2 INTs, 6 breakups.
SS: Dwight McLean. Senior. New Starter.
2008 Stats: 36 tackles, 2 INTs, 3 breakups.

No Irv Smith pictures here: the Purdue secondary is to be taken seriously. The starting unit had an impressive 36 passes defended last season. Given McLean's considerable 2008 playing time, this unit essentially returns four starters. Both corners are risky bets for opposing quarterbacks, and both safeties are versatile defenders. They're not the #1 overall unit because they're a touch green further down the depth chart. Holding the #2 corner spots are Sophomore Charlton Williams and Freshman Josh Johnson. Backing up Williams at free safety is Sophomore Albert Evans, and behind McLean is Junior Josh McKinley.


CB: Quinton Richardson (#23). RS Sophomore. Returning Starter.
2008 Stats: 32 tackles, 1 INT, 6 breakups.
CB: Justin Glenn. RS Freshman. New Starter.
2008 Stats: N/A
FS: Greg Walker. RS Freshman. New Starter.
2008 Stats: N/A
SS: Nate Williams. Junior. Returning Starter.
2008 Stats: 76 tackles, 1 INT, 4 breakups.

Not since Lane Kiffin reported for work in Oakland has a former Southern Cal co-offensive coordinator stepped into a deeper crater of organizational rot. Nick Holt has his hands full with this secondary. Two players who have never played a snap in college football will man a corner spot and centerfield. For depth, UW may call on Senior corner Matt Mosley, who started three games last season, Redshirt Freshman corner Adam Long, Junior strong safety Victor Aiyewa, and talented Sophomore Johri Fogerson, whose promising Freshman campaign last year was cut short by injury.


CB: T.J. Bryant. Sophomore. New Starter.
2008 Stats: 7 tackles, 3 breakups.
CB: Kevin Thomas (#31). RS Senior. New Starter.
2008 Stats: 15 tackles, 10 breakups.
FS: Taylor Mays (#1). Senior. Returning Starter.
2008 Stats: 52 tackles, 9 breakups.
SS: Josh Pinkard. 6th Year Senior. New Starter.
2008 Stats: 39 tackles, 1 INT, 3 breakups.

Injuries are beginning to take an early toll on the Trojans, with receiver Ronald Johnson out for 6-8 weeks and quarterback candidate Aaron Corp hampered throughout fall practice. On top of that, bad grades have sidelines Shareece Wright, who would have started at corner for SC. What grade does one have to get to become academically ineligible at USC? An M? Anyway, Wright's out and highly recruited T.J. Bryant steps in. Such is life in Southern California -- a blue-chipper is always a bullpen call away. Bryant will get his chances -- opposing teams may not be too eager to throw at Kevin Thomas. Depth is aplenty: Brian Boucham, Marshall Jones, Daniel Harper at corner; Drew McAllister, Will Harris (Steele's #23 strong safety), and Shane Horton at safeties. Also keep in mind incoming Freshman Jawanza Starling. You may remember Starling from this past recruiting season, as he was rumored to be seriously considering Notre Dame before signing with the Trojans. Starling is the head-hunting type of safety Pete Carroll and USC love, and I would not be surprised to see him fight his way into playing time.


CB: DeLeon Gause. Junior. Returning Starter.
2008 Stats: 22 tackles, 1 INT, 1 breakup.
CB: Roderick Rollins. Senior. Returning Starter.
2008 Stats: 43 tackles, 2 INTs, 1 breakup.
FS: Wes Davis. Junior. Returning Starter.
2008 Stats: 60 tackles, 2 INTs, 6 breakups.
SS: Marcellus Bowman. RS Senior. New Starter.
2008 Stats: 31 tackles, 3 INTs, 1 sack.

This is a strong group, which should help make up for the unfortunate absence of linebacker Mark Herzlich. The veteran starters do stand between the Eagles and a young second team, which features true Freshman strong safety Jim Noel, redshirt Freshman free safety Okechukwu Okoroha, and a pair of Sophomore corners, Donnie Fletcher and Isaac Johnson.


CB: Brandon Jones
. RS Junior. New Starter.
2008 Stats: N/A
CB: Daniel Simmons. RS Freshman. New Starter.
2008 Stats: N/A
FS: Xavier Hicks. RS Senior. Returning Starter.
2008 Stats: 78 tackles, 2 INTs, 5 breakups.
SS: Chima Nwachukwu (#19). Junior. Returning Starter.
2008 Stats: 57 tackles, 1 INT, 2 breakups.

The starting safeties are pretty good. Otherwise, few defensive backfields in the country are less experienced than this group. Hicks alone prevents the Wazzu secondary from standing out as the soft spot of this team. His seven total pass interruptions stand out, given that Washington State largely took their blowout beatings on the ground. Hicks and Nwachukwu (Chima's brother Uzoma considered the Irish before picking Texas A&M) will both hold their own, but they better be in good shape. The Cougar depth chart is littered with inexperience: Freshman corner Terrance Hayward, Sophomore corner Aire Justin (great name), Freshman FS LeAndre Daniels, and Sophomore strong safety Tyree Toomer.


CB: Blake Carter. Senior. New Starter.
2008 Stats: 16 tackles, 1 INT, 1 breakup.
CB: Kevin Edwards. Junior. New Starter.
2008 Stats: Injured.
Rover: Wyatt Middleton. Junior. Returning Starter.
2008 Stats: 80 tackles, 1 INTs, 5 breakups.
FS: Emmett Merchant. Junior. New Starter.
2008 Stats: 41 tackles, 2 INTs.

"Gritty," "fiery," "determined," "disciplined": all components of the Random Navy Preview Generator. Add this one in describing the Midshipmen DBs: athletic. Led by Middleton and Edwards, these guys can get to the ball and the ballcarrier. While not as deep as the Pitts, BCs, and Purdues, Navy has some starpower in Middleton, who enters his third year as a starter. After 2009, Middleton will have started more than 35 games dating back to his Freshman year, in a career marked with highlights: two forced fumbles against Wake Forest in 2008; 14 tackles in the historic win against Notre Dame in 2007 (but not The Sack: that was Ram Vela); and 11 solo tackles in beating Rutgers last year. Navy uses Middleton as a "Rover," a position that typically looks like a hybrid between a middle linebacker and a strong safety. Penn State used a Rover in the Middle Period of the Paterno reign, roughly 30 years ago, and Notre Dame experimented an "Apache" when Rick Minter ran the defense. Middleton has shown the strength and speed to take on both tight ends, running backs, and receivers. At 6'2 and barely 210 pounds, that's quite a feat. I cannot stand the way sportswriters and fans often speak of Navy, Army, and Air Force, as if these teams were full of plucky charity cases instead of Division I athletes and future guardians of national security. Keep Wyatt Middleton in mind when you read such comments -- that he chose to play football at a service academy does not make him any less of a player. Nor is his desire to beat Notre Dame any less than Taylor Mays's or Aaron Berry's. He's a good player, and ND should respect him the only way football players can: by trying to stomp him and his teammates on November 7th.


CB: Aaron Berry (#65). Senior. Returning Starter.
2008 Stats: 41 tackles, 3 INTs, 10 breakups.
CB: Jovani Chappel. Senior. Returning Starter.
2008 Stats: 45 tackles, 1 INT, 2 breakups.
FS: Andrew Taglianetti. Sophomore. New Starter.
2008 Stats: 9 tackles.
SS: Dom DiCicco (#33). Junior. Returning Starter.
2008 Stats: 56 tackles, 4 INTs, 7 breakups.

Behind the top-rated defensive line on the schedule stand the top-rated defensive backfield. Aaron Berry and Dom DiCicco are elite players, guys who will challenge the ND run game and command perfection from ND's receivers. They did lose free safety Eric Thatcher from last year's 16-interception team, but the rest of that squad is back. Coach Wannstedt has done an excellent job recruiting and developing defensive talent at Pitt. Though the Peter Principle has thus far cast its shadow upon Wannstedt the Head Coach, he is a well-respected defensive mind. I expect this to be another tough game for the Irish. Depthwise, the Panthers are a little thin at corner, with Sophomore Antwuan Reed and Redshirt Freshman Ricky Gary. Blue-chip Redshirt Freshman Jarred Holley should work his way into the mix at safety, as will Junior Elijah Fields (Steele's 44th-ranked draft-eligible free safety).


CB: Robert McClain.Senior. New Starter.
2008 Stats: 30 tackles, 3 INTs, 5 breakups.
CB: Jasper Howard (#64).
Junior. Returning Starter.
2008 Stats: 60 tackles, 4 INTs, 9 breakups.
FS: Robert Vaughn (#16). Senior. New Starter.
2008 Stats: 67 tackles, 2 INTs, 3 breakups.
SS: Jerome Junior. RS Freshman. New Starter.
2008 Stats: N/A

UConn has not fared particularly well in some of these position previews. You may recall, for example, that Demetrius Jones's former backup is now their starting quarterback. He may be throwing to a Canadian tight end. The Huskies aren't nearly as weak in the defensive backfield. Jasper Howard is one of the stars of the team, and Robert Vaughn is no slouch himself. They are a man down at strong safety, following the indefinite suspension of Sophomore Aaron Bagsby. Injuries have taken a general toll on the Huskies and have specifically hit the DBs, knocking out Harris Agbor for four to five weeks and John Yurek for the season. They will need to lean on Junior safety Kijuan Dabney and a couple of Redshirt Freshmen, Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Dwyane Gratz.


CB: Richard Sherman (#62). Senior. New Starter.
2008 Stats: Played as a wide receiver.
CB: Corey Gatewood. Junior. New Starter.
2008 Stats: 4 tackles.
FS: Bo McNally (#5). RS Senior. Returning Starter.
2008 Stats: 76 tackles, 4 INTs, 1 breakups, 2 sacks.
SS: Delano Howell. Sophomore. New Starter.
2008 Stats: Played two games as a wide receiver.

Notre Dame fans have seen this approach before: with a lineup providing few clear answers, a coach moves players from offense to defense in hopes of fielding his most athletic team. Harbaugh was planning to do even more of this, using Hudsonville, Michigan, linebacker Alex Debniak as an occasional fullback before Debniak was injured during fall practice. Fortunately for Stanford, free safety Bo McNally is the leader of this patchwork crew. McNally is one of the better safeties ND will see this year. Depthwise, Stanford will call on Senior corner Kris Evans, Redshirt Freshman corner Quinn Evans, and Junior safeties Taylor Skaufel and Austin Yancy. Yancy in particular will push for playing time; also a former wide receiver, he played well at strong safety in 2007, with 49 tackles and five breakups, before missing 2008 with an injury.

2009 Opponent Defensive Backs Analysis and Rankings

Another preview, another illustration of how Notre Dame matches up favorably to the opposition. While Pat handled the most critical previews -- defensive and offensive lines -- and ND has some big question marks in those areas, I have been very encouraged by the passing game previews I've handled. ND will face some talented receivers and tight ends this year, and they'll see some good individual defensive backs. But no opponent, from this vantage point, appears complete or particularly deep. Such is the case with the defensive backfields. Even USC may have a couple holes -- enough that they're not ranked #1 below. Taylor Mays, who may be the best opposing player ND will see this year, will likely be a problem. But with Shareece Wright taking a seat for bad grades, and a new strong safety opposite Mays, the Trojan DBs should not overwhelm the Irish receivers.

While this is one preview in which Purdue stands out, I do not expect either of their corners to provide insurmountable challenges to Floyd and Tate, and I doubt their safeties will emerge unscathed against the Kyle Rudolph matchup nightmare. Nevada has everyone back, but that's also the bad news for a Wolfpack team that was among the worst in the country in pass defense last season. Pitt will be very tough, while Washington and Washington State may be in for more of the same.

Back to Notre Dame for a second. I will be surprised if Michael Floyd does not conclude his college career as best Notre Dame wide receiver since Tim Brown. He is already the most technically sound receiver on the team, he is built like a (tall) linebacker, and he is plenty fast. Considering he enters 2009 as only the second most-heralded Irish receiver, I like ND's pass/catch chances against each opponent. This is not a team or a season free of concerns, and 2008 was far from a successful year, but I don't feel irresponsible embracing an optimistic outlook.

1. Pitt - I think they're going to be an excellent defensive team this year.
2.Purdue - This hurts me more than it hurts you.
3. Michigan State - Even with Otis Wiley gone, I still expect a very tough Spartan defense this season.
4. Southern Cal - After another late injury, a few (talented) question marks fill out the Trojan backfield.
5. UConn - Likely the Huskies' best unit.
6. Boston College- Another experienced Eagle group. ND should win anyway.
7. Michigan - I heard these guys worked really hard in the off-season.
8. Navy - A very athletic, experienced Midshipmen group.
9. Stanford - Bo McNally is a proven talent; the converted wide receivers are a question mark.
10. Nevada - These veteran leaders will not allow repeated Notre Dame touchdowns to ruin their day.
11. Washington State - Decent safeties, but two newbies at corner.
12. Washington - Shockingly, they have talent and experience issues