Joe Burnett (Reinhold Matay/AP)
One of the strengths for the Knights entering the 2008 season was their defensive backfield made up of four-year starters Joe Burnett, Johnell Neal, Sha’reff Rashad, and Jason Venson. The Knights will have to replace all four starters in 2009 and will do so with younger, inexperienced guys.
"I think if we had guys that didn't play, that's always different, but we have a bunch of kids back there,” Knights head coach George O’Leary said in his end of the year press conference. “Emery Allen was out there a bunch, Weams, Baldwin. There's kids out there who have played. I'm not overly concerned as I would be if we didn't have any with any experience back there. We have guys who have played a lot and guys that have been waiting for their turn. They're going to get their turn real quick this spring."
Junior Emery Allen recorded 18 tackles, two sacks, and two tackles for loss, and a forced fumble in his junior season, and some feel that the slightly undersized 5’9”, 176 lb. corner may have been more talented than starter Johnell Neal a year ago. Allen saw the field mostly in nickel situations and spot duty and there really isn’t much of a drop off that’s expected next year.
Sophomore safety Reggie Weams had most of his action in 2008 on special teams. The 6’0”, 187 lb. Baton Rouge, Louisiana native posted 11 tackles and recovered one fumble this past season. Weams is a punishing hitter who could be a solid replacement for departing senior Jason Venson.
Sophomore defensive back Darin Baldwin’s primary contribution in 2008 was as a kickoff return man, as the speedy 5’11”, 190 lb. back averaged nearly 20 yards per return. Baldwin saw some limited reps at corner, where he recorded 12 tackles. He is expected to compete for a starting job in the secondary.
If Coach O’Leary can’t find one or more suitable replacements on the current roster for the defensive backfield, there is always the possibility of the program going the route of a JUCO transfer.
"The only junior college kid that I'd look at is a defensive back that would be ready right now to play,” O’Leary said. “I think any JC kids that are going to come in have to be here now. I don't want them coming in after spring ball. If you go the JC route, you've got to play right away. You don't bring one in to sit and watch. You bring them in to play right now. Right now we're involved with one JC defensive back and that's it. The rest of the positions all have two deep coming back already. I think with the offseason program and working at the things we need to work at, we'll be fine there. We'll be much better on both sides.”
The Knights secondary was probably the most talented group in school history in 2008, but they may be more effective next season, as the offense is likely to be better (can it really get worse?), and the secondary should be on the field less. Another offseason of improvement for stud defensive linemen Torrell Troup, Jarvis Geathers, and Bruce Miller will also provide more pass rush to help out the inexperienced youngsters.
"I still think the MVP on defense was the middle guy, Troup,” O’Leary said. “Everybody gets all the other talk about Miller and Burnett, but the guy, when you talk to most offensive coaches, the biggest problem was Torrell. He took two guys to block him which left somebody else to make a play. He's the guy when you say you're strong up the middle. That's what you like coming back up the middle, guys like him."
O’Leary spoke about Miller and Geathers—
“I think he (Miller) ended up going there and really being a sound player. I think he led the conference in tackles for loss and was up there in sacks. I think what he did was it gave a kid like Geathers a chance to really come out and he ended up being a heck of a football player as far as sacks and tackles for loss. It gave another kid a chance to play who was very productive. But I don't know. It depends on what we want to look at as far as the inside. I think Bruce is a little light inside. I think he was a better athlete than the guys blocking him and that's why I think he made some hay in there. I think his natural position is one wider out at end. It's nice when you can put a guy in there and have some flexibility at that position."
The young secondary will have their work cut out for them as they are trying to replace a few players who will likely play on Sundays, but the Knights pass rush will assist them greatly in that task.