Spring Football Preview: The Defense
March 18, 2013
On Wednesday, March 20 Old Dominion University football will begin spring practice. The Monarchs went 11-2 in their last season in the CAA and will begin transitioning to FBS in 2013.
The defense will be led by new defensive coordinator Rich Nagy. Nagy joins the Monarchs after spending last season as the defensive boss at Western Michigan.
"The two biggest things is effort and to compete. I'll harp on those two all the time," Nagy said. "Those are two things you can control, there are certain things you can't control, but those are two that you can, and that's something I want to see from everyone."
This will be Nagy's first chance to coach the Monarchs on the field and implement his defense.
"Working with them this spring is extremely important. The players need to understand what we're trying to accomplish," Nagy said. "Once they understand the concept of the defense, everything else will come easier."
The Monarchs lost two starters from the 2012 CAA Championship team, including All-CAA performer Chris Burnette and Erik Saylor, who played both defensive tackle and end. Dominique Guinn-Bailey started six games and his elevated play allowed ODU to move Saylor to the outside. A native of Portsmouth, Guinn-Bailey recorded 52 tackles en route to All-CAA honors.
"Dom has a lot of ability, it started to surface as the season came on. He matured and started to understand the concepts of the defense," defensive line coach Bill Dee said. "He finished strong and had a great year. We look for the same improvement this year."
Preston Smith returns after starting 11 games as a sophomore at defensive end. He recorded 50 tackles and notched three sacks.
"As the year went on, he started to show some signs of where he can be. His best football is ahead of him, I hope this spring we speed up the improvement," Dee said. "We're looking for him to let it go. If he does that, the ceiling for him is really high."
Junior Alex Johnson recorded 40 tackles while making four starts, fellow junior Nate Barnes played in 12 games and also had a strong off-season in conditioning workouts. Freshmen Andrew Everett and Galen Evans saw action at defensive end and tackle, respectively, in their first seasons. Everett recorded 19 tackles and two sacks and played in all 13 games, earning two starts. Evans' season was cut short due to an injury, but recorded 16 tackles and two sacks.
Mid-year transfers Chris Smith (Santa Rosa JC) and Malik Gumbs (Nassau CC) will battle for playing time at defensive tackle while Gary Scruggs (ASA College) and Kanyia Anderson (Oscar Smith) will compete at defensive end.
"Will see how they progress. We will have a lot of competition, which will be good. I think that competition always makes you better," Dee said.
ODU returns its second and third leading tacklers from last season but loses the schools all-time leader in just about every defensive category in Craig Wilkins. The Monarchs will look to a plethora of players to fill the void but also count on Caleb Taylor and John Darr to pick up the slack.
Taylor finished second last year in tackles with 87 and tied Wilkins with a team-best 13.5 tackles for loss. He took over the starting linebacker role in the fifth game of the year and had four games with double-digit tackles.
"Caleb played really well for us this year. He started taking more command of the position as the season went along," linebackers coach Corey Hetherman said. "He did a great job in the off-season condition program. We're asking him to step up and be a leader of the unit. This is a big spring for him."
Darr started all 13 games and was the third leading tackler on last year's squad with 75 tackles and 10.0 tackles for loss.
"Last winter and spring he really stepped up and made big improvements in the weight room. The biggest thing was his football knowledge, he has a firm knowledge of the whole scheme and that made him a better player," Hetherman said. "John played well for us last year and played almost every play for us last year."
Larry Alston III is penciled in to start at the third linebacker spot but there will be several players competing for playing time
"Larry worked hard in the weight room, he put on some good weight. He's the guy right now but that position is wide open. Larry is very athletic, physical. When it starts to click he plays fast, and when he plays fast we can be a very good defense," Hetherman said.
Rob Mahan and TJ Ricks are two guys who will vie for playing time. Mahan appeared in five games last season while Ricks redshirted. Ricks was able to put hard work in the weight room and film room and looks to put that on the field for the spring.
D.J Simon was brought in as a mid-year transfer from Navarro College while T.J. Armstrong graduated from Clarion Area High School (Pa.) early to enroll in January.
"We brought D.J. into compete for a starting position. We see him as an inside linebacker so he'll compete with John and Caleb, but that being said, if there the best three, we'll find a way to get all three on the field," Hetherman said. "We expect him to play on defense and special teams. This is a big spring for him."
Armstrong was a two-way star for Clarion Area and earned all-state honors.
"T.J. Armstrong graduated early and has put on good weight since he's been here. This is a very different defense for him, so it will be good for him to get a jump start on everything."
"Its all about competition, we're raising the bar in how much we compete on a daily basis. I think we did a great job in the weight room, the strength coaches did a great job there. Now its time to take all of that work to the field," Nagy said.
All five returners at the safety position played in at least nine games during the 2012 season. Senior to be Paul Morant has the most experience of the group, has he played in all 13 games last year, including three starts. Morant had 50 tackles last year including a career-high tying 11 tackles at James Madison. Andre Simmons played in nine games and had two starts. He recorded 31 tackles and had the game-clinching interception in the win over New Hampshire.
"There are a lot of kids that played, unfortunately there were lapses in judgment at times that we have to get better at," Nagy said. "We've had guys that have had good off-seasons. They all did good things in workouts. They want to do a good job and want to be the leaders out there."
True freshmen Fellonte Misher and Malique Johnson contributed on both defense and special teams. Misher played in all 12 games, recording a start at Richmond while Johnson appeared in 11 games and started three. Redshirt freshman Brandon Bacchus played in nine games, playing primarily on special teams.
The Monarchs return both starting corners in T.J. Cowart and Eriq Lewis while returners Aaron Evans and Reggie Owens received a lot of playing time. Cowart led the group with 39 tackles and an interception while Owens had 31 stops and recorded two sacks, both coming in the Villanova game. Evans tied with Cowart for a corner back best three pass breakups.
"I expect it to be a confident group with so many guys that have seen game action," secondary coach Marc Bacote said. "We're looking for them to add some leadership. The system is there for them to play fast, to be in the right spot and make a lot of plays."
Jevon Neal was a mid-year transfer from Blinn College and ran a 4.39 40-yard dash in off-season conditioning, a team-best. Rob Thompson also came in during the mid-year and is from St. Joseph's High School in New Jersey.
"Jevon brings a certain toughness and confidence, he's a guy that is going to push the others and that just makes everyone else better," Bacote said. "Rob is very athletic, he has the height and length, being an early enrollee from high school, he has to get used to the speed of the game."
Stay tuned to ODUSports.com for tomorrow's preview on the Offense.