Tulane Spring Preview: Defense

Tulane Spring Preview: Defense

The move of Brandon Spincer, who moved to strong safety prior to the 2004 season, back to linebacker does help to solidify the starting group, giving defensive coordinator Eric Schumann and linebacker coach Garrett Chachere three solid senior starters

Overall, Tulane's defense has a pretty good outlook for 2005. The youngsters who were pressed into action over the past two seasons are growing up and two key performers who missed 2004, safety Tra Boger and defensive tackle Alvin 'Freeway' Johnson, have returned to action. The 2004 defense showed some improvement over the 2003 defense, which featured a patchwork defensive line. We'll start our spring overview of the defense with a look at the defensive line.

Defensive Line
As spring practice 2005 opens, it appears that the Green Wave may have finally recovered from the loss of a very successful senior heavy unit in 2002, which, compounded with the total loss of the next generation of d'linemen to injury and academics, forced defensive coordinator Eric Schumann to field a d'line unit composed almost completely of true freshman, linebackers, converted wide receivers and offensive linemen in 2003.

The trend towards using young players along the defensive front - not a healthy situation, as far as the old won-lost record goes - continued in 2004 as six of eight true freshmen defensive linemen played, with two starting all 11 games.

Here's a snap shot of freshman participation along the d'line in 2004:
Antonio Harris: played in all 11 games and made11 starts at defensive end.
Ryan Johnson: played in 2 games and made 1 start at defensive tackle.
Frank Morton: played in all 11 games at defensive tackle.
Reggie Scott: played in 1 game.
Julian Shives-Sams: played in 3 games.
Avery Williams: played in all 11 games and made 11 starts.

Johnson has since transferred to S.F. Austin. Two other 2004 freshmen defensive linemen, Julian Lowe and Mike McCabe, have also chosen to leave the program.

Scott and Shives-Sams were both injured early in the early season and received medical hardship redshirts.

Youth notwithstanding, the rushing defense stiffened a bit in 2004, despite the loss of Alvin Johnson to academic problems.

Here's a quick view of the early spring defensive line depth chart:
57 Antonio Harris 6-2, 271, So.
91 Craig Morris 6-2, 240, Jr.
AND 98 Michael Purcell 6-1, 275, Jr.-R.
93 Taurean Brown 6-6, 280, Jr.-R.
90 Alvin Johnson 6-3, 300, So.-R
54 Taylor Bertin 6-2, 255, Jr.-R
56 Avery Williams 6-0, 282, So.
99 Frank Morton 6-2, 303, So.
96 Tremell Jack 6-3, 291, Jr.
42 Billy Harrison 6-4, 243, Jr.
97 Julian Shives-Sams 6-2, 266, Fr.-R.
53 Reggie Scott 6-3, 252, Fr.-R.

Among the other returnees, Michael Purcell is a heart warming story. Playing on bad knees, Purcell managed 33 tackles, including 9 tackles for losses and 1.5 sacks Purcell trailed d'line tackles leader Antonio Harris by only 2 tackles and had 2 more tackles for losses than Harris,

Williams (30 tackles, 5 tackles for losses, 3.5 sacks) has phenomenonal quickness and should bve a four year starter.

Morton (19 tackles and .5 tackles for losses) is a solid run-clogging lineman.

The return of sophomore tackle Alvin Johnson will be a big boost to the effectiveness of the Green Wave defensive front, as will the continued maturation of the young players. As a true freshman, 'Freeway' totalled 39 tackles, 4 tackles for losses, a sack, 6 pass breakups, 8 quarterback hurries and was considered the best defensive lineman on the squad that season.

Getting consistent play from the extremely talented Taurean Brown would also be a big boost. Brown has as much physical ability as any player on the Tulane defense. Over the past 2 seasons Brown has totalled 68 tackles, 9 tackles for losses, 4 sacks, 6 quarterback hurries, 3 pass breakups and an interception.

Veteran defensive ends Craig Morris and Billy Harrison both disappointed to a degree in 2004. Neither seemed able to get off blocks easily. Morris recorded only 1 sack and Harrison none. Harrison's effectiveness fell off alarmingly from his freshman season when he totalled 65 tackles, 7.5 tackles for losses, 3 sacks, 1 interception, 2 breakups and 11 hurries.

Junior Tremell Jack, 6-3 291, has totalled 21 tackles, 3 tackles for losses and 2 sacks over the past 2 seasons and could press for a starting job.

Junior defensive end Michael Roberts, 6-3 250, remains on the roster but it appears that his playing days have ended because of a series of injuries.

The Green Wave signed two freshmen defensive linemen: defensive ends Sean Carney , 6-3 240, and Matt Slocum, 6-5 255. Both are pretty advanced physically and both could press for playing time come August. Slocum has unparalleled quickness, and his other physical test results are among the best at the position. Slocum may eventually grow up enough to slide inside.

The second youth wave of 2004 showed improvement against the run over the 2003 team's rushing defense stats.

In '03 the defense allowed 4.9 rushing yards per carry, in '04 that was reduced to 4.4 yards per carry; in '03 opponents averaged 243.7 yards rushing per game, in '04 that has been slashed to 194 yards per game; also, in '03, opponents scored 33 rushing touchdowns, while in '04 the total of rushing touchdowns slipped slightly to 29. 2005 should see even more improvement in the Green Wave's defense against the run.

But the defense did not accomplish as much in 2004 as in the preceding season as far as pressuring opposing quarterback's are concerned, although the sack total did increase from 15 to 27. Eleven of those sacks came against Floorida A&M, a woefully weak 1AA team.

In retrospect, linebacker appears to have been the weakest unit on the defensive side of the football in 2004 and chances for improvement in 2005 seem somewhat problematic. And this with the player who is arguably the team's best defensive player, Anthony Cannon, lining up as part of the unit. The move of Brandon Spincer, who moved to strong safety prior to the 2004 season, back to linebacker does help to solidify the starting group, giving defensive coordinator Eric Schumann and linebacker coach Garrett Chachere three solid senior starters.

However, the probable departure of reserves Patrick Benford and Michael Cox, aggravate the underlying problem: lack of numbers, which equates to a lack of experienced depth. The numbers issue may have finally been addressed with the signing of 5 'backers in next season's freshman class.

It was expected that Johnson would stake his claim on the Mike spot out in preseason camp last August. However, Johnson reported to preseason camp last year out of shape and unprepared to practice in the New Orleans climate and spent much of the season in the dog house Johnson's woes ultimately forced the move of AC inside to middle linebacker. Hopefully that particular issue is water under the bridge for 2005.

Here's a quick look at the early spring depth chart:
39 Antonio Mason 6-0, 222, Sr.-R
15 Terrence Peterson 5-11, 215, Jr.-R
11 Anthony Cannon 6-0, 233, Sr.
33 Kelvin Johnson 6-2, 274, Jr.
48 Jeff Willis 5-10, 216, So.
5 Brandon Spincer 6-2, 213, Sr.-R
34 Jimmy Coleman 6-0, 205, Fr.-R

The move of Cannon to middle linebacker puts a player (many feel he projects as a strong safety in the NFL) with superior quickness inside and improves the run support on plays at the edge and outside. It also makes it difficult for teams to run away form Cannon, who when playing Will linebacker lined up on the side opposite the tight end. However, AC's size makes it difficult to project this move as a happy game-after-game solution for next season.

Ideally, the best thing that could happen would be for 'Ferg' Johnson to move up and establish control of the Mike-backer spot, allowing AC to move back outside. And doubts linger as to Johnson's academic availability for the 2005 season.

Johnson's struggles last season were discouraging, as there's no one comparable on the Green Wave football team as far the impact brought to a tackle is concerned. And he's not shown any difficulty in locking up and bringing ball carriers down. A complete return to the good graces of the coaching staff for 2005 will do much to provide the Green Wave with a physical, run stuffing pounder at the Mike linebacker and ensure the return of AC to a more natural position at Will linebacker.

As far as production goes, Cannon was once again the leader in 2004 with 107 tackles, 7.5 tackles for losses, an interception, 2 passes broken up, had 4 quarterback hurries and forced four fumbles.

Mason was a solid second with 70 tackles, 5 tackles for losses, 2.5 sacks, 1 pass breakup, 1 fumble forced and 1 fumble recovered. In limited action, Johnson totalled 17 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, .5 sacks and an interception.

Spincer contributed 39 tackles from the strong safety position.

Redshirt freshman Jimmy Coleman and Terrence Peterson,a redshirt sophmore who is being converted from strong safety, add spring depth but obviously more than one of the Green Wave's five linebacker signees will get chances to play as true freshmen.

As far as contributing at the linebacker position early, the favorites are Jordan Ellis, 6-1 235, in the middle and James Dillard, 6-1 220, probably at strong linebacker.

The key at linebacker in 2005 will be Johnson. If he returns to the form of the second half of the 2003 season, the Wave will field a solid linebacker corps, highlighted by Cannon, who's a potential All-American. Depth will still be virtually non-existent except for Jimmy Coleman, Peterson and the freshmen.

Lack of quickness at linebacker is becoming less of an issue other than with the middle-backers. Eventually solid linebacker play will make Schuman's defense less vulnerable at the edge and outside and will allow greater opportunities to jam the middle of the box.

There's been so much shifting in the secondary that it's going to be hard to tell who fits where. Strong Safety Brandon Spincer has moved back to linebacker.

Trawick Boger returns after a redshirt year but is listed on the early spring depth chart at free safety after spending most of his career at strong safety.

Sean Lucas, who has played every position in the secondary, has been moved back to the corner from free safety.

Starters Jeremy Foreman and Israel Route are competing for the starting berth on the side opposite Lucas. Carlis Jackson moves from corner to free safety.

As spring practice began, Tulane head coach Chris Scelfo was quoted as saying that one of the most important things he hoped to accomplish was to improve the physicality of his secondary.

With the return of Boger, an early season starter who was lost for the season after playing in two of the first three games and chose to redshirt, the Green Wave safety unit will field both experience and numbers in 2005 and looks to be a position where the Green Wave will be strong in 2005, fielding both experience and numbers in 2005.

Boger led the team in tackles in 2003 and has been an extremely productive player throughout his career, as illustrated by his 18 tackles in only two games of 2004.

Route, the nickle back at the beginning of the season, replaced Lucas at corner when the senior moved to free safety and has proven to be a revelation, starting the final five games and leading the team in pass breakups with seven and having one of the team's six interceptions. Route's a rare combination of hitter and cover guy. A goodly portion of the predicted improvement in the defense has to do with the size of Izzy Route's heart.

Youmans has seen extensive action as both a starter and a reserve and in nickle and dime situations but has never been able to hold onto a starting job.

True freshmen Josh Lumar, 5-11 165, and Renovell Hill, 6-1 183, who both redshirted in 2004, will join the free-for-all for playing time in spring practice.

The early spring secondary depth chart looks like this:
30 Darren Sapp 6-0, 211, Sr.-R
18 Joe Goosby 6-0, 203, So.
2 Tra Boger 6-1, 223, Sr.-R
35 Renovell Hill 6-1, 193, Fr.-R
14 Carlis Jackson 6-0, 178, So.-R
31 Sean Lucas 5-11, 202, Sr.
OR 20 Bruce Youmans 5-10, 190, Sr.-R
21 Jeremy Foreman 6-2, 172, Jr.-R
OR 4 Israel Route 5-9, 184, Jr.
12 Josh Lumar 5-11, 165, Fr.-R

Sapp has played both strong and free safety. The move of Boger to free safety, if it works out, could put Goosby in a position to move ahead of Sapp. Goosby looks like an absolute madman on the field.

True freshman corner Matt Harding, 5-11 185, a speed merchant who reportedly possesses sub-4.3 speed for the 40-yard dash, will press for playing time. Safety Cory Sonnier, 6-0 190, may be a factor in 2005 if only on special teams.

Other than more physical play, the key to actual improved coverage from the corners is going to be the degree of improvement the defensive line shows in toughening against the run and generating a higher order of pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the most important factor in creating turnovers.

However, the decline in Tulane's turnover margin from +22 in 2002, to +5 in 2003 and -6 in 2004, probably reflects the state of the defense as far as the limitations on capability imposed by lack of experience. As the team regains an on-the-field experience advantage at a majority of the 11 positions, the turnover margin should begin to increase on the positive side.

Opponents passing stats show a decline: from 2,651 total passing yardage for the 2003 season to 2497 yards passing in 2004; interestingly, yardage per catch declined 1.5 yards per catch; while yards per pass did the opposite, increasing slightly from 7.4 to 7.5 yards per pass. Opponents passing touchdowns werereduced from 19 to 14.

In summary, the improvements in pass defense haven't been at the cost of opponents throwing less because they're having more success on the ground, but are probably indicative of a substantial change in the direction of the pendulum for the Green Wave defense.

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