Coach Kaufman is a disciple of the Jimmy Johnson Miami 4-3 school. He likes his defenders to single gap and try to use upfield penetration in order to disrupt the offense. This strategy will concede the occasional big play in exchange for pressuring the offense into making mistakes or giving up negative plays. From a personnel standpoint, there's more of an emphasis on speed than bulk. We reviewed this scheme in more detail this past spring.
As much as one could expect defensive improvement via the time-honored adage of "well-it-can't-get-worse," it's the personnel issues which cloud any sort of reasonable projection. And just to make things interesting, we've also got new positions coaches at each level of the defense: Fred Tate(DL), Garret Chachere(LB), Greg Burns(DB).
Coach Tate has previously helped Coach Kaufman resurrect defenses at Texas Tech and Cincinnati, so that familiarity should be a huge plus right out of the gate. Last year, Coach Chachere played out of position coaching the defensive ends. Although he's been versatile and diverse with his previous coaching experience, his natural position is with the linebackers.
Coach Burns may not speak with a Texan drawl, but at least he's definitely here. A highly regarded veteran with plenty of Pac-10 experience, he is best known for his stint of developing All-Americans and NFLers during USC's dynasty teams during the early 2000s.
As far as the players themselves go, might as well write up the depth chart in pencil; we don't know yet who will be back from injury and at what level of effectiveness. Depending on who we have available, there's a large delta between "competitive" and "here we go again."
Post Spring Dline Depth Chart:
DE: 17 Brennan Scarlett(Jr*), 41 Todd Barr(Jr*)
DT: 92 Marcus Manley(So*), 91 Trevor Kelly(So)
DT: 80 Harrison Wilfley(Sr*), 97 Tony Mekari(Fr*)
DE: 13 Kyle Kragen(Sr), 75 Puka Lopa(Jr*), 99 Sione Sina (Jr*)
Preseason Dline Depth Chart:
DE: 17 Brennan Scarlett(Jr*), 41 Todd Barr(Jr*)
DT: 92 Marcus Manley(So*), 54 Austin Clark(Sr*), 91 Trevor Kelly(So)
DT: 80 Harrison Wilfley(Sr*), 90 Mustafa Jalil(Jr*), 97 Tony Mekari(Fr*)
DE: 13 Kyle Kragen(Sr), 75 Puka Lopa(Jr*), Jonathan Johnson(Jr)
DE Brennan Scarlett (return from injury)
DE Sione Sina (return from injury)
DT Mustafa Jalil (return from injury)
DT Trevor Kelly(JuCo)
DT David Davis(JuCo)
DE Jonathan Johnson(JuCo)
DE James Looney(Wake Forest transfer)
DT Chris Palmer(Fr)
DT Jacobi Hunter(transfer to Sam Houston State)
DE Ted Agu
Circle this position group as the biggest question mark on the team. IF Jalil, Scarlett, and Sina are healthy and can live up to their recruiting accolades, we might have something. It's mildly concerning, but too early to panic about Sina being bumped from the depth chart. The new scheme should also be a better fit for Kragen and Barr's skill set. Even so, we're awfully light at defensive tackle. Marcus Manley is an untested youngster and Harrison Wilfley is a converted tight end. Our JuCo trio of Kelly, Davis, and Johnson have promise, but it usually takes a year to adjust to Div-I ball. It's still unknown when or if transfer James Looney will hear back from the NCAA with regards to his eligibility for this season.
Brennan Scarlett was singled out by Coach Jeff Tedford as a player that he really regretted not having the opportunity to coach. He has linebacker speed, defensive end size, and could be pass-rushing threat we've been searching for. Mustafa Jalil has been given 100% medical clearance and should solidify one tackle position. He was good enough to earn starts as a true frosh.
Can we find a combination of bodies that will let us field an effective defensive line?
Will the new attacking scheme play to our strengths and compensate for our relative lack of size?
Are we capable of generating a pass rush?
Post Spring Linebacker Depth Chart:
OLB: 46 Drew Bryant(Fr), 9 Jason Gibson(Jr*)
MLB: 8 Michael Barton(So*), 32 Edward Tandy(So), 22 Nathan Broussard(Jr*), 47 Hardy Nickerson(So*)
OLB: 7 Jalen Jefferson(Jr*), 31 Raymond Davison(Fr*), 1 Devante Downs(Fr)
Preseason Linebacker Depth Chart:
SAM: 7 Jalen Jefferson(Jr*), 31 Raymond Davison(Fr*)
MIKE: 22 Nathan Broussard(Jr*), 32 Edward Tandy(So)
WILL: 8 Michael Barton(So*), 1 Devante Downs(Fr)
OLB Jason Gibson(return from injury/position switch)
MLB Nathan Broussard(return from injury)
MLB Hardy Nickerson(return from injury)
OLB Raymond Davison(position switch)
OLB Devante Downs(Fr)
Once a position of strength with experience and depth, this corps has suffered a considerable amount of off-season attrition. For those remaining, it's primarily a young group. But there were plenty of guys who flashed potential at times last season. The big depth chart changes from post-spring to preseason are a reflection of how few healthy linebackers we had available for spring ball.
Jefferson is the steady old vet who is versatile enough to cover slot receivers. Barton played well enough to split snaps at OLB with Khairi Fortt last year and went back to his natural MLB spot this spring. If Nathan Broussard or Hardy Nickerson can return to form at MLB, Barton's versatility lets him stay on the field at OLB. Pre-injury, both Gibson and Broussard were getting snaps as starters. Broussard, in particular, was singled out at Pac-12 Media Day as someone who has impressed the coaching staff.
New position coach Garrett Chachere has to pick his starting MLB early and get them as much experience as possible. Since spring OLB starter Maximo Espita may not be available, Cachere has to decide whether to keep Barton inside or shift the former De La Salle Spartan back outside. If he can't coach up the young OLBs to cover, do we play more big nickel and swap in a third safety?
Post Spring Secondary Depth Chart:
CB: 3 Cameron Walker(So), 37 Cedric Dozier(So*), 29 Vachel Samuels(Sr), 18 Joel Willis(Jr*)
S: 4 Avery Sebastian(Jr*), 26 Griffin Piatt(So*)
S: 5 Michael Lowe(Sr*), 27 Damariay Drew(So*)
CB: 2 Darius Allensworth(Fr*), 10 Caleb Coleman(Fr*), 23 Trey Cheek(Fr*), 21 Stefan McClure(Jr*)
Preseason Secondary Depth Chart:
CB: 3 Cameron Walker(So), 37 Cedric Dozier(So*), 23 Trey Cheek(Fr*)
SS: 5 Michael Lowe(Sr*), 4 Avery Sebastian(Jr*),
FS: 21 Stefan McClure(Jr*), 26 Griffin Piatt(So*)
CB: 2 Darius Allensworth(Fr*), 10 Caleb Coleman(Fr*), 6 Darius White(Jr)
CB Darius White(JuCo)
S Avery Sebastian(return from injury)
CB Stefan McClure(return from injury)
This was a shell-shocked and demoralized unit by the end of last season. Perhaps more so than any other position, attrition via injury hit this group the worst. We had walk-ons gamely trying to check 5* recruits, converted WRs pressed into service, and a true frosh corner playing safety for the first time. But from this crucible we hope there emerges battle-tested players who have taken their lumps and are ready to answer with interest.
Having Avery Sebastian back restores the soul to a defense that had lost its way. He's an impact player who can be absolutely dominant in run support. McClure's return offers a lot of versatility. Besides bringing cover skills to the other safety spot, he can line up at corner or nickel as needed. And for a position group that was thin last year, there's actually plenty of young talent...at least on paper.
Will JuCo transfer Darius White adapt quickly enough to Div-I ball to be in the mix?
We're still very young at corner. Which of the youngsters will step up and solidify the two-deep?
Can our returning starters stay healthy and resume a high level of play?
At the very least, our young defenders should be stronger and more experienced from being thrown in the fire last year. With a simpler and more instinctive scheme taught by veteran coaches who know how to re-build a defense, look for a marked improvement if our health holds up.
Moving past X's, O's and personnel, this is also a defense who had to mourn the loss of one of their brothers during the off-season. Backup defensive end Ted Agu passed away this past February after experiencing shortness of breath during a training run.
Players and coaches alike were understandably shaken by the unexpected tragedy. How this affects the team and defense as a whole remains to be seen. But with leaders like Sebastian and McClure, expect this group to rally and come together with renewed focus.