Spring practice begins in just 3 more days. Earlier this week we asked 8 questions on the offensive side of the ball and today we take a look at the other side of the ball going through perhaps even more transition.
Tuitt, Nix, Shembo, Fox, Calabrese, Schwenke, and Jackson are gone. There are a lot of holes to fill for a new defensive coordinator but some promising young talent to work with.
Where is Hounshell After 2 Years of Injuries?
We're in a bit of a scary spot with Hounshell. We're expecting (perhaps optimistically relying?) that he can at least be a steady two-deep player this season. However, he's only played in 8 career games and all of his career tackles (4 total) came in one game against Air Force back in 2011. He had a couple nice moments as a freshman but he's still painfully inexperienced and is behind 5 other returning linemen in terms of career snaps.
Of course the back-to-back shoulder surgeries is another thing to worry about. Let's hope he can stay healthy and figure out exactly where he fits with this defense.
Can Jarron Jones be a Rock in the Middle?
Jarron Jones was a very interesting case last season. He went from someone who was having his work ethic challenged and not expected to do much once August rolled around to finding a spot in the depth chart by mid-season and playing at a fairly high level with starter minutes by the end of the season.
We know the talent, size, and physicality are there with Jones. Can we expect him to take a big step forward in his second season on the field? Being able to bring some consistency might be the biggest issue right now, but I think it's possible that Jones exits this spring as a de-facto starter on a 3-man front alongside Sheldon Day.
Does Ishaq Bring a Different Dimension than Shembo?
If there is one veteran X-factor on defense it could be Ishaq Williams. He's had a nice career thus far but he's been stuck as a backup for 3 years and now has the opportunity to shine as a starter. Although his raw stats are humble (45 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 1 sack in 35 career games) he probably has led the team in near big plays over the last couple seasons.
Can Williams turn those handful of sack opportunities and make them a reality in 2014? Perhaps even more importantly, Ishaq has the opportunity to bring more versatility to the edge than Prince Shembo. Instead of a pure pass rusher it'd be nice to see Ishaq dropping back in coverage from time to time, using his length to disrupt passing lanes, all while making Brian Van Gorder's new defense a little more complex. Judging by Kelly's press conference on Friday morning we may see Williams in a more traditional pass rushing role though. Either way, he'll need to step up.
Kendall Moore: Spring Placeholder or Fall Starter?
We often speak of now or never situations with players but it's absolutely true for Kendall Moore. Coming up with Manti Te'o, Dan Fox, and Carlo Calabrese eating 85% of the playing time it's been difficult for Moore to break through as a starter so much so that we weren't sure if he'd even be invited back for a fifth year of eligibility.
Te'o is now done with his rookie NFL season, Fox and Calabrese are gone, and Jarrett Grace will be missing the spring nursing his broken leg. Literally by default Moore should be working with the first team at inside linebacker starting Monday. It may be tough to surpass Grace once he comes back from injury so keep an eye out on Moore's battle with Deeb this spring. The less favored of that duo might be heading into fall camp as a backup.
What's the Next Step in the Evolution of Jaylon Smith?
Have we been talking enough about Jaylon Smith this off-season? As a true freshman working a difficult position the Fort Wayne product totaled 67 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 4 passes defended, 1 forced fumble, and 1 fumble recovery. Let's go to the highlights!
I'm completely with Larz in that BVG needs to find a way to make Smith more of an asset and weapon on defense. Whether that's moving him to the middle on occasion, making him more active on blitzes, or playing him closer to the line scrimmage there are a lot of tools to work with here. He's certainly a great player in space and in pass coverage and you don't want to completely take that part of his game away but I think Jaylon has 20+ tackle for loss potential this fall.
Who is the Top Corner Opposite Russell?
My standard for a shut down corner is Patrick Peterson at LSU circa 2010 and while KeiVarae Russell has had a nice 2 years at Notre Dame I don't think he's been good enough to earn the SDC designation. Be that as it may, he's still the top returning corner, emerging leader, and possible captain for the team. We don't have to worry about Russell this spring.
We do have to find another starting corner and the players in the spring will have to battle it out and hope that incoming 5th-year transfer Cody Riggs doesn't steal their thunder when he arrives in the summer. Based on playing time last year Cole Luke (15 tackles, 2 passes defended) looks to be the favorite with Devin Butler (5 tackles, 1 pass defended) the main challenger. We'll see if Jalen Brown (didn't register a tackle last year) can resurrect his career or if Rashad Kinlaw hits his stride after a redshirt.
Safety: Collinsworth & Farley or Others?
Here's a preview of everyone scouting the safeties this spring...
Following Kelly's spring presser we've already seen a shakeup at safety. Farley has moved to corner. Turner is switching to linebacker. Now, Onwualu is switching from receiver to safety.
Are we going to see a swift and clean break from the past as Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate step up as the go-to players and most athletically gifted safeties? Will Eilar Hardy build off his impressive 2013 breakout season? Are we sleeping on Nicky Baratti? So many questions at safety!
What is Brian Van Gorder Going to do Differently?
The million dollar question. The good news is that the coordinators will be available to the media more this spring in the past so we should get some good info out of Van Gorder whereas in the past we'd be relying on Brian Kelly mentioning vague comments about a player or two and that's it.
We'll also get some info out of the players in spring interviews and they should divulge a little bit of information (we're blitzing a lot more, for example). Obviously, moving some players around will be something to keep an eye out for specifically at those former Cat & Dog outside linebacker positions. How are these positions being tweaked under the new system?
What are your questions for the defense this spring?