Spring Football Preview: Defense
Chris Thurmond previews the Owls defense
By Chuck Pool (firstname.lastname@example.org)
(NOTE:This is the second of a two-part series of interviews with the Rice football coordinators previewing their thoughts on spring drills. Today's installment is with defensive coordinator Chris Thurmond).
We’re going back to make sure that we are unbelievably fundamentally sound. Our goals for the spring and for next season are we want create more takeaways and to give up fewer explosive plays. We want everyone one of our players to be a master at their position. We may do a little bit less than we have done in the past, especially early in the spring, so that we make sure we have something mastered before we move on to the next step.
We’ve got a lot of young guys coming back. The good thing is we have a lot of guys with experience, but the thing we’ve got to make sure of is that their experience goes into making us better and to improvement.
Sometimes with young players, improvement is not always easily apparent in terms of the scoreboard. Improvement sometimes is a slower exponential process. We did improve and did get a lot better last year as the season went on. Unfortunately while that improvement was happening we were still having people in and out of the lineup because of injuries. Not only were we dealing with young players, but with an unstable situation because we were never sure as to who was going to be in the lineup. That’s not an excuse; it’s just the reality of what we were dealing with. Again, you try to work through with what you have at any particular time.
There were games last year where we were not able to do what we wanted to do. We need to be able to be more of a takeaway producing team. We would play great for 10-12 plays and then we would give up the big play. The game is designed now for chunk plays offensively, that’s the game now. But we’ve got to do everything we can to eliminate those.
Linebacker is the strength of the team. We’ve got older players and quality players across the board, That is the deepest and most talented position group on the field, The thing we have to make sure we do everywhere on defense is to get our best 11 players on the field.
The move of Tabari McGaskey to strong safety lets us get our best 11 on the field and lets us do some things that we want to do. In our defense, our linebackers, strong safeties and defensive ends are combo type of players. They are a little bit of a run player and a little of a drop player. We’ve always asked them to be able to do those things.
The way the game is played now, you have to be two deep at virtually every position because you can’t play all the time. Especially early in the season, you’ve got to be able to rotate some guys in there. We’re going to be able to move some guys around and experiment some with some things with the linebackers to see what we can add to the package.
Alex Lyons is smart and steady. He’s a guy who is really a solid football player. Every year he’s become more and more of a leader. He needs to be that guy and he seems to have embraced it each year he has been here.
Emmanuel Ellerbee has been a good solid young player in his first two years. Physically he looks the part so we’re ready for him to step up and not be a part-time player but step up and play 70% of the snaps.
Nobody has really seen what Brandon Hamilton can do at safety since he was hurt right at the start of camp. No one realized what an impact that had on us right at the start of last year, because he had only moved there the previous spring. We’re excited about having him back. He can be a really good player for us out there. He’s tough and physical with great speed. He has a great approach and really wants to be a good player. We’re hoping he can stay healthy and have the kind of spring and the kind of season we’ve been looking for since he’s been here. Brian has been nicked up most of the time he has been here but he has ground through every challenge. He’s unbelievably tough and the kids respect him. It will be good to have him out there again.
Free safety and KAT are mirrored positions so we are going to see what comes out of the spring. JP Thompson played a lot last year and we don’t know how much Destri White will be able to go in the spring because he’s been hurt. Jorian Clark is a guy who could play corner as well as with the safeties. He will start out the year as our free safety and we will see what he can do there. We’re excited to see what Houston Robert and Christian Bertrand can do coming off redshirt years and Ford Corbett and James Sanft are two hard working kids who will get a lot of looks as well.
J.T. Blasingame has a chance to be really good. Unfortunately, J.T. has been hurt on and off a lot during his career. I think he might have only played a total of 5 ½ games last year, but he adds a lot when he is out there. He can take people out of a game when he is out there, he’s a good tackler and runs to the ball.
Justin Bickham and Brandon Douglas both played a heck of a lot of snaps as true freshmen. There’s never any substitute for trial by fire and they were both out there a lot. They know the package, they’ve been out there against Texas and Baylor and played everyone in the conference on the schedule and got a lot of snaps. Joshua Cummings redshirted last year and brings a lot to the mix. Lawrence Cimino is a great competitor who is also long jumping for the track team this spring.
V.J. Banks and J.T. Ibe both played a lot of games last year but will miss the spring as they come back from surgery. Between those two and Destri, that’s three guys who were starters and have played a lot of snaps. We’ll just have to catch them up when we get to fall camp.
Defensive end is another of our strongest positions this year. You’ve got Derek Brown, Brian Womac, Blain Padgett and Brady Wright. They are all guys who played a lot last year and then you add Graysen Schantz, who is a really good player but got hurt early in the year. They have all shown they can make plays in space and play the run.
For us to be good on defense, we’ve got to be able to stop the run on first down and then when you get them in third downs, you’ve got to be able to put presser on the passer. Those guys have shown they can do that.
Derek Brown has the physical tools to basically play anywhere; he’s just one of those athletes. What people might forget about Derek is that he was a high school quarterback and when he first came to Rice, he played receiver. The one thing that he’s got is an unbelievable motor, he runs fast to the ball and he loves to play. We’ve got him now where we think he’s got the best chance to shine not just for our team but for him as an individual. Derek has never had the opportunity before where he could put a season, a spring and then another season together.
Blaine is a talented player who doesn’t say a whole lot. He just comes to work ready to go and is fun to be around. As the season went on last year, he showed he has the ability to make flash plays, where he gets off a block and makes a play in space.
Zach Abercrumbia played as a true freshman as did Carl Thompson, but unfortunately Carl’s been hurt and we won’t have him in the spring. The hardest thing about true freshmen playing is adjusting to the speed of the game and part of the rite of passage when making the step up to the next level is learning how to play hard every single play in order to be successful and also to learn how to bounce back from bad plays. Both of them really made great strides in making that adjustment last year. We think we will get Cody Henessee back for at least some activity in the spring after shoulder surgery.
Preston Gordon played a lot of snaps last year and made steady improvement and I’m looking for some good things from him this spring. I am looking forward to seeing Roe Wilkins get into the mix after a redshirt year and Paine Matiscik is a great high-energy option when he gets on the field.