Football Depth Chart Analysis: Defense

4 Returning Starters

Although the 25 points per game the Marshall defense allowed in 2019 was more than the past two individual seasons, the defense remained one of the best in the conference.

Considering it was the defense’s third coordinator in three years, the continued high level of play over the past three seasons has been impressive.

Defensive coordinator Brad Lambert will be entering his second season as coordinator. 

In his first season, Lambert was able to come into the program and admirably deal with a ton of losses in the interior of the defense. It became an even more difficult task to manage when linebacker Jaquan Yulee was lost for the season in game one. 

Due to the many losses at both defensive tackle and linebacker, the run defense took a hit, but it still maintained a middling level of play. 

The passing defense, on the other hand, continued almost the exact same level of play from the past two seasons. With former safeties coach Mike Treier moving onto a defensive staff position with the New York Giants, Lambert will take over the additional role of coaching the safeties. (He coached the linebackers last year). 

Former cornerback coach Chip West also moved up the coaching ladder, landing at Syracuse with the same role. In his place, Marshall hired Patrick Bastien, a former UAB linebacker and most recently the Assistant Director of Player Development at the University of Georgia.

The last piece to the 2020 defensive coaching puzzle is new linebacker coach Jordan Hankins. Hankins takes over the linebacker spot from Lambert after spending the last 10 years at UT Martin. 

Although the defensive coaching staff does not have many starters returning, there is not a void of talent. 

On the defensive line, the Herd does return its best pass rusher, redshirt junior Darius Hodge. With seven sacks and 8.5 TFL, Hodge led the team in both categories a season ago. 

The crazy thing about Hodge is that he has only begun to tap into his potential. If he can combine an even more consistent and explosive pass rush with a better run defense disruption and technique, his game will explode.

As far as the other ends go, redshirt junior Koby Cumberlander and redshirt sophomores Sam Burton and Owen Porter are the names to know in the two-deep. 

After racking up 4.5 sacks in 2019, Cumberlander was emerging throughout the early portion of fall camp and seems poised to take on a starting role this season. 

The interior of the D-line is not as flashy as the ends, but it returns two experienced players from a year ago, redshirt juniors Rodney Croom and Jamare Edwards. Behind them, the depth is not proven and needs to be developed and fleshed out. 

Less than two weeks before the season, the two players that probably fill out the two-deep are redshirt sophomore Arak McDuffie and redshirt junior Kyron Taylor, barring they are both healthy. 

It will be important for the tackles to step up if the run defense wants to get back to the level of 2018 or even 2017. However, equally important to the success of the run defense will be the linebackers.

After Yulee went down in the VMI game, the linebacker core was thin on depth. Fortunately, Tyler Brown and Omari Cobb both stepped up well to fill the void, and in a lot of ways, they exceeded expectations.

However, Cobb and Brown are gone. Thus, new names will be in the lineup for the Herd. There will be a mainstay, though, and that is Tavante Beckett. 

Beckett will stay at his Will (weakside) linebacker spot, where he thrived a season ago with over a hundred tackles and 7.5 TFL. 

The Mike (middle) linebacker spot is looking for a starter to replace Cobb. The early leader, who has a good chance to be the starter for game one, is sophomore Eli Neal. Neal made 12 tackles last season.

Delaware State graduate transfer Brian Cavicante is cross training at both Will and Mike and will push for playing time. It is possible there could be a rotation at inside linebacker like there was in 2018.

Lambert mentioned after an early fall camp practice that redshirt junior Domenick Murphy was another player who was working hard and showing flashes at linebacker.

At Sam (strongside) linebacker, junior JUCO transfer Charlie Gray has put himself in good position to take over the spot with his rangy athleticism on full display.

The secondary has tons of depth and players all over the place, some of which can play both safety and corner.

Last year’s starting corners Chris Jackson and Kereon Merrell are gone, but with junior Steven Gilmore and redshirt senior Jaylon McClain-Sapp at the ready, the job for new cornerback coach Patrick Bastien is a little bit easier.

Gilmore specifically is a great player to have in your position room. With two interceptions, he actually led the team in INTs. He also added four pass breakups and two TFL.

The two most versatile players in the secondary are redshirt senior Nazeeh Johnson and sophomore Micah Abraham. Both were the starting safeties for the majority of last season, but both can also play corner.

A more specific position that both could play is nickelback, which is basically a corner who is used when the defense puts five or six defensive backs on the field at the same time.

Abraham could also play a more traditional corner role, giving McClain-Sapp or Gilmore a breather. The other candidates to keep the starters fresh are mostly young and unproven.

Junior JUCO transfer Josh Bowers is the one of the most probable candidates along with freshman Cameron Moore and redshirt sophomore Keylin Roach.

Moving to the last line of defense, the safety position has a lot of interesting players. Perhaps the two most intriguing ones are redshirt juniors Naquan Renalds and Derrek Pitts.

Renalds began his career at receiver, but he was moved to safety last year during fall camp. So far in this year’s fall camp, he has showed a growing prowess in play recognition and explosiveness, even taking a lot of first team reps.

Pitts is a great downhill player who has the talent to start for the Herd, but it all lives and dies with him in his discipline in coverage. If he gets it all put together, he could be the Herd’s best overall safety.

Sophomore EJ Jackson, redshirt freshman JoJo Evans and even freshman Kerion Martin are all players who have made impact plays in fall camp, not to mention redshirt senior Brandon Drayton.

As mentioned earlier, the defense does not lack talent; they have always had good talent under Doc Holiday. The key, as it is with any team, is the ability of the coaches to develop said talent and a commitment from the players to be docile in the coaching they receive.

Ultimately, it should always come back to the coaches when a team underachieves based on its talent, because it is the coaches’ job to establish a culture and bond where the players want to heed instruction and stay disciplined.

With the current culture that is in place, it should be expected for the defense to perform on par with what it did a season ago. However, the best defensive coordinators find a way to maneuver the defense around the year in and year out changing skill sets of its players.

Will we see a defensive improvement in year two under Brad Lambert even with the loss of seven starters?

It is certainly possible; we shall see.

Grant Goodrich can be contacted at [email protected].