Thursday, September 3, 2009

season preview: the defense

Part one, the offense, is here: link clicky. You can click on that or you can just, you know, scroll down, it was only one post ago.

Defense has nearly always been our stronger suit, and that's to be expected because Al Groh is a defensive coach at heart. So it's weird to be more confident in the offense than the defense going into a season, but that's exactly what I got going on here. As with the offense, I'm not going to do a position-by-position breakdown because you can find those at my Examiner writings. As with the offense, it's question-and-answer time.

1. The depth is kinda iffy, isn't it?

Yes, yes it is. Iffy does not begin to describe it. Only in the secondary can we rotate players in and out that have plenty of game experience. And then it's still only a three-man rotation at each position. Brandon Woods and Chase Minnifield can rotate in behind the starters at safety and corner, respectively, without much if any drop in production. The fourth at each position is a major dropoff, especially at safety where Trey Womack has been a special-teams guy his whole career.

In the front seven though.....eyyyoucchh. Defensive end is a freshman party. Our backup nose tackle is 245 pounds. The backup inside linebackers combined for a grand total of two plays last year, because one of them wasn't even eligible.

The starters are all solid. Especially on the line. But injuries anywhere up front would be just deadly. Don't even want to think about it. Here in the preseason we all like to think this or that player is some kind of stud because the coaches might say some nice things, but the reality of this is that the backup front seven is, as a whole, woefully inexperienced, and it'll show all too clearly if injuries strike the starters.

2. No Clint Sintim, no Chris Long. Will there be a pass rush this season?

Sure, with of course the already standard caveat that health is a must. One thing that was nice to see last year was Matt Conrath and Cam Johnson getting plenty of time on the field, because they're it now. They're the guys. It'll be interesting to see if this experiment of putting John-Kevin Dolce out there at nose tackle in pass rush situations works, because if it does, look out. Conrath and Johnson have Holy Terror potential on the outside and if Dolce flushes a hapless pocket quarterback out of his pocket, these guys can clean that up no sweat. All three of those guys are physical and athletic.

3. OK, so three of four starting linebackers are new to the gig. That's bad. But four of four starters in the secondary are awesome. That's good. Which outweighs the other? Should we be worrying about the linebackers more than we brag about the secondary, or vice versa?

That depends entirely on the opponent. Take Georgia Tech. Last year they just shredded us on their first two drives. It was awful. Tech had nine possessions in the game and they got 45% of their yards on those first two drives, both of which resulted in touchdowns. Then our defense adjusted and suddenly our linebackers were there to make all the plays. That's what happens when three of them are seniors. Can a much less experienced unit make the same adjustments? I really worry about the GT game for that reason. North Carolina is another team with a powerful rushing attack that might cause problems.

On the other hand, certain opponents play right into our hands. Maryland has a good but not great running game and a quarterback that's neither great nor good. Bad quarterbacks play right into our hands. We can make Maryland completely one-dimensional. If we can open up a lead on them it'll be that much harder for them to come back.

The linebackers are not bad, but as a whole they're not much more than capable, either. But a really good set of safeties can help cover up some mistakes. And I think I like it better this way than the reverse - if we had stud linebackers but inexperienced and slightly undertalented defensive backs. A good secondary can take away the passing game in a way that linebackers cannot, and help support the linebackers in the run game too. And it's not like the linebackers are bad. Denzel Burrell has a year of starting experience and the coaches (and me, on occasion) rave about Steve Greer. We're going to cringe at times about our linebackers, but on balance, we're in good shape.

4. Predictions?

Yeah, OK.

- The run defense was pretty good last year, giving up 3.7 yards a carry. That was 40th in the country. It will not be as good this year. Our linebackers are neither supremely talented nor experienced. They are, as I said, at best capable. If I had to pick one coach in the country to coach up a set of inexperienced linebackers, I'd want Al Groh. But the coaches can't make the plays or the reads for the players. Inexperience is going to cause those reads to come a hair slower no matter what, and good running teams will generally be able to take advantage.

Plus, things are going to happen like, teams running draw plays once they figure out we have a 245-pound nose tackle in passing situations. I really hope that does not bite us in the ass.

- The pass defense was also pretty good last year. It will not get worse and most likely, it'll get better. The ACC does not have a lot of good wide receivers, and choosing between Cook's or Dowling's side of the field to throw at is a scary proposition. Or you could throw over the middle which is the territory of the player Al Groh has talked up the most this offseason; that'd be Rodney McLeod. (Actually, the ACC has a lot of good secondaries and not a lot of good quarterbacks, so we're not the only team with this happy situation. Passing yards may be hard to come by in this conference.) But after doing all those season previews, I like our secondary matched up against any in the ACC. Assuming we have a pass rush, and we will if the primary pass rushers are healthy, we'll be very stingy when the opponent's quarterback drops back in the pocket.

- Steve Greer will live up to most of the hype. He's not big and will get exploded by the occasional fullback. But by all accounts he's smart as hell, and that's a lot more important than athleticism at inside linebacker.

- Matt Conrath will pick up at least five sacks.

- Will Hill won't be the only true freshman defensive end to find his way on the field. At some point this season, we'll also hear from Brent Urban, who is a big, big man. However, the line is the only place we'll see any members of the recruiting class of '09 on the defense this year.

- Like I said yesterday: 7-5.

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