We recently highlighted our incumbent starters Tyree Toomer and Deone Bucannon, and we know Bucannon is an all Pac-12 performer, but there’s more to the safety position than just these two playmakers. In fact, there are at least 2 other pieces to the puzzle at safety. Taylor Taliulu and Casey Locker are 2 very physical players that can make an impact on a game in different ways and are vying for a starting spot. Tyrone Duckett has had a nice Fall camp as well and might challenge for some playing time along the way. Each has their strengths and weaknesses though.
For Taliulu and Duckett, it’s youth more than anything. They have the skills to make an impact as freshmen, but they’ll have to mature quickly in a passing conference that targets inexperienced safeties. As the season nears, Taliulu is the more advanced of the two it seems, and hopefully Duckett can take a year and redshirt with the returning experience of the other guys. Casey Locker has the experience, and the skills, to make a difference for the Cougs. His biggest strength is a team downfall though. Like his brother, Casey loves the truck-stick and mashes it whenever he gets a receiver in his sights. Even though Casey is a relatively clean hitter (by the standards of what defines a clean hit, with head up and shoulder to shoulder blow), the force which he drives into receivers to jar the ball loose draws a parade of flags from the Pac-12 officials in almost every game. In fact he’s even crushed a couple of legitimate “runners” and his ferocity has called in the 15 yarder. The plus side is obviously that receivers start to look for him and other Coug defenders when they go to catch the ball, but the negative is that the drive continues. So Locker has to somehow do a better job of showing “cleanness” in his hitting style to make the desired impact for this defense.
My oh my, the cb position has grown and is looking quite a bit better than it has in years! In fact, I’d venture to say that the entire defensive backfield hasn’t looked this good since the Marcus Trufant/Jason David/Eric Coleman/Abdullah brothers days. That’s actually kinda sad, but at the same time it’s not at all sad. Demante Horton led the team with 4 interceptions last season on his way to all Pac-12 honorable mention, and the other corner position will be held by seniors Nolan Washington and Daniel Simmons, who have gone through their struggles but are battle tested and finally physical enough to hold their own on an island. It’s going to be really nice watching these two actually hold up this season as I presume they will.
Are they near the top in the conference or anywhere near the aforementioned Cougar stars? No, but they are a huge improvement over past dbs. Behind them are Sophomores Spencer Waseem and Tracy Clark. Each has had injury issues and hopefully won’t see the field too much due to our starters avoiding major injuries. But both players are promising prospects for special teams contributions.
Wow what an offseason for the presumed backups at linebacker coming out of last season. Backups no more, basically, as they will be thrust into duty and asked to hold up against the best the Pac-12 has to offer. After stud LB Alex Hoffman-Ellis graduated to the League, the other starting duo of C.J. Mizell and Sekope Kaufusi were booted swiftly and in one case, unfairly after charges for team no-no’s. That’s been well publicized, but what people don’t know is that the group that will be stepping in for those ex-players has the potential to be better in 2012 without them. It’s not a stretch to say that on a down-by-down basis, those two were un-predictable at best. Both had the ability to be superstars in the conference and clearly were superior athletes to what we have in their stead, but God only knows why they would disappear off the face of the planet for games at a time in 2011. There were just times when they were on the field and I literally could not find either one of them.
So here’s what we gain in their place. A group of young players that will give 100% on every play and fly around the field. How can I say that? The Leach and Breske recipe calls for this type of a player on every single play. It’s not always about position and knowledge and ability, because they mean nothing without effort. If you think these coaches will allow a player to literally be invisible while he’s on the field you’re not understanding the difference that this coaching staff is making. If you’ll remember, Leach called out superstar Marquess Wilson in Spring ball, so we’re going to see these players running around with their hair on fire.
Enough analysis though, let’s talk about the perceived starters and what they bring to the table. We’ll talk about Travis Long and Logan Mayes as defensive line, because at the new Buck position they will be essentially stand up Defensive ends that are allowed to make plays as “linebackers”. Sophomore Chester Su’a becomes the leader of the group, after he worked his way into a starting role in the second half of last season. Eric Oertel and Cyrus Coen will be jumping over from running back and special teams respectively, and they’ve really impressed (as much as possible) to this point. Either one could be the starter at Sam, but in the case of Coen, he also got some valuable reps at the end of last season and has a great athletic and coverage upside because he’s played safety in the past. Eric is no slouch when it comes to athletic ability either, moving from running back and putting on some weight to hold his own. And Darryl Monroe is a RS freshman from Florida who was looking at serious playing time last season before he got hurt in the first game and could never recover enough to play.
Looking at the backups, Justin Sagote is a Junior College transfer out of Santa Clara and looks the part, with speed and athleticism, but needs to learn linebacker skills quickly to match his good instincts. Junior Darren Markle has a chance to really use his age and maturity as a factor this season as he is in his 4th season and has plenty of experience. Jared Byers and Corey Laufusa step in to try and bolster the group’s overall athleticism and speed from the running back and fullback positions. And finally freshmen Jeremiah Allison and Keith Ewing are players who hopefully don’t have to do anything but redshirt this season but if depth becomes an issue could easitly be forced into action as the season progresses.
The D-line is going to be thin going into the season, but has the bonus of only needing 3 at a time in the 3-4 defense. Of course the headliner is All Pac-12 performer Travis Long, who will move around between Buck and D-end and hopefully will be as nasty as expected, but there are interesting story lines developing around him. Explosive sophomore Logan Mayes is coming into his own after 3 sacks in the Spring game and a nice Fall. He will spell Long, as well as bolster one side of the defensive side when Long is in his true Buck position. On the other side RS freshman Xavier Cooper is set to be an impact player over the next couple of seasons. He’s gained 20 lbs over the summer and really looks strong. Senior Leonard Williams has good experience and should be a good fill guy for the D-end spots, but unfortunately, due to lack of depth freshman Destiny Vaeao could be thrust into a role as a prominent backup here, and while he is not quite ready physically, may need to step up in key moments.
The recent dismissal of nose tackle Anthony Laurenzi does nothing to help the group, and the even more recent season-ending injury to big freshman Robert Barber is devastating. Sophomore Toni Poli looks to step in and claim that role, although he is a little bit light at only 277 lbs for the true position of NT. Senior Steven Hoffart should get some meaningful playing time, but Junior College transfer Ioane “Junior” Gauta is much bigger, 305, and could be a huge addition for the line and coach Salave’a this year.
Overall, the front 7 are not an extremely talented group of actual position players, but they are hard working and will fight for everything this season while they go through the transition growth of the 3-4 and in many cases, offense to defense. The athleticism is certainly there, but the Pac-12 offers a variety of high quality offenses which are predicated on exposing inexperience. We can hope that they grow quicker than anticipated, but it’s no small thing to have 4 and 5 guys trying to learn new positions and at the same time playing leading roles in this conference. Also, the youth of the group is unmistakably prominent, and I have a feeling it’s going to cost us several points as the season moves forward.
The back end is more solid than any in recent memory, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be perfect either. Top end speed is lacking, along with the experience up front to get constant quarterback pressure, so the d-backs and safeties will have to again be up to the task of making the most plays on the team. Lots of points will be scored on the defense, but they are nowhere near as bad as previous seasons.