Defensive Clarity

Sep 30, 2020

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We're not learning much about training camp. Don't really know anything about depth chart battles, really. No media is allowed at any of the practices, so the first string offensive line could be all wide receivers right now and no one would know unless Lovie came out and said it on a Zoom call.

Because of this (because of Covid, really), we don't really know much about player rotations at certain positions. But Lovie does hop on Zoom call every day, and I attend each one (look ma, I even ask questions!), and from the answers he gives, I think we can begin to see how he envisions this defense. Just today he came out and said that he sees Roderick Perry as the starter at nose and Jamal Woods as the starter at 3-tech. So I think I now have a really good idea what the defensive rotations will look like. Want to know what I think? I'll tell you what I think.

Defensive Line

I was probably a little too negative when I wrote about the DL yesterday. It's the key to the whole thing, and we lost four starters, but there are some players there (and a few impact transfers) so it's probably not as bad as I made it sound. Here's what I mean:

With Lovie more or less naming his starting defensive tackles today, I kind of feel like the starting defensive line is fully set? Isaiah Gay at weakside defensive end, Jamal Woods as the 3-tech DT, Roderick Perry as the nose guard/nose tackle/defensive tackle shading the center, and Owen Carney at strongside defensive end. Yes, all four starters from last year are gone, but Carney has eight career starts, Gay has 10, and Woods has 12. 30 starts for those three guys plus Roderick Perry who, although it was a lower level, had three years starting at South Carolina State. Losing four starters is rough, but hopefully all of that starting experience for last year's backups helps soften the blow. (It's also worth noting the year in school for the four players mentioned there: three seniors and a redshirt junior who would be a senior if it wasn't for his injury in 2018.)

Backups are the big question marks, though. I'll give you a battle for each backup spot. The two players I believe will be battling for the second string spot:

SDE: Keith Randolph (rs-FR) vs. Tre'Von Riggins (FR)
NDT: Calvin Avery (JR) vs. Anthony Shipton (JR - juco transfer)
3DT: Deon Pate (JR) vs. Chinedu Udeogu (SR - Cal transfer)
WDE: Marc Mondesir (rs-JR) vs. Seth Coleman (rs-FR)

If I had to guess, the way Lovie has rotated defensive linemen in the past, all 12 of the players listed above will play in every game. And I feel pretty good about saying "final answer" when asked if I want to look that over again and sub in/out a few players. Maybe I don't need to see training camp to figure out the rotations.


Lovie surprised me in a presser a few weeks ago when he said that Milo Eifler would be weakside and Khalan Tolson would be strongside (given that Eifler was strongside last season). That's a move for Tolson as well because he started the last four games at Will linebacker after Jake Hansen's injury. So everyone is moving - Hansen from Will to Mike, Eifler from Sam to Will, and Tolson from Will to Sam.

The reason? Not sure yet. I asked Craig and he has some theories, but we won't really know until the Wisconsin game. With Hansen replacing Dele Harding inside, maybe they see Eifler as the best candidate to replace Hansen on the weakside? And then Tolson gets the third spot after that? Just spitballing here.

Those are the three starters, I think. The fourth guy is either Tarique Barnes (who played last season, mostly on special teams) or Shammond Cooper (who redshirted last year). Cooper is the future, and Eifler and Hansen are both seniors, so I'm going to guess the Cooper is the fourth guy. Maybe he grabs snaps at Will when Eifler needs a breather and snaps at Mike when Hansen comes out. Just kidding. Jake Hansen won't ever let anyone take him out.

I think Delano Ware will be Tolson's backup at Sam, so really, the six linebackers who will rotate in and out of the game seem to be set in stone. Eifler-Hansen-Tolson, Barnes-Cooper-Ware (or Cooper-Barnes-Ware). Done and done.


With Tony Adams moving to safety, it feels like we have clarity here as well. The only question mark (and probably the only true camp battle for a defensive starting spot): will the starting cornerback opposite Nate Hobbs be Devon Witherspoon or Marquez Beason?

Won't matter much - I think both will play a lot. The Eifler-Tolson flip might indicate there will be a little more nickel this year than last year (and when they only have two linebackers on the field, they want an athlete like Eifler to be one of them), and if that's the case, I'm guessing Beason is the nickel and Witherspoon is the cornerback. That's an exciting secondary right there. At least on paper.

I wrote this spring how the deepest position was corner and that all four cornerbacks showed potential to play beyond college. If Lovie does go to the nickel more? Then he found a way to get all four on the field at the same time. Tony Adams moves to safety, Beason plays nickel, and presto, Hobbs-Adams-Witherspoon-Beason all playing at the same time (with Syd the Kid).

And I like the theory behind that. If TreSean Smith had completed his transfer from Louisville then I'd say keep Adams at corner. But without him, the best way to get the best players on the field at the same time is an arrangement like this.

I'll say it like this. Ask me to name the 12-best defensive players for the 2020 season and I'd say Gay, Woods, Perry, Carney, Hansen, Eifler, Tolson, Hobbs, Witherspoon, Beason, Adams, and Syd Brown. Heavy on corners, light on safeties. So a defense that arranges itself like that (and rotates Beason for Tolson in passing situations) seems to be the best way to put the best players on the field. Your fourth-best cornerback is better than your second-best safety? Here's a solution for that.

Obviously, having a great college defense is a lot more than just that. The pieces have to fit together, the technique has to be there, and the playcalling has to be spot on. This is not "I see twelve great players we should be totally fine".

My point is that I have a lot of questions about the offensive depth chart right now (right guard? tailback rotation? top-5 receivers?) but very few questions about the defensive depth chart. I think we know the names already. We just don't know how they're going to perform. Lots of clarity on how it all fits together but no idea on the result.

(Please let the result be "surprises everyone and wins the Big Ten West".)


PosterNB12 on September 30, 2020 @ 08:04 AM

I agree with most of the above. However, I believe Lovie has mentioned Newton (and not Riggins) as someone who has flashed so far. Many viewed Newton as our best recruit last year and I think he is the only true freshman in the DL rotation.

Robert on September 30, 2020 @ 08:53 AM

Lovie did mention Newton yesterday, but he talked about him at DT, not DE. I'd love to see him at DE, but apparently that's not the case right now.

That's the main reason I have Riggins as the third SDE. I think the only four players at SDE are Carney, Randolph, Riggins, and Davis (although Davis could be WDE with Ezekiel Holmes at SDE - not sure).

PosterNB12 on September 30, 2020 @ 10:56 AM

And with the Cal DL leaving, you are right and Newton takes his spot on the 3 deep.

Robert on September 30, 2020 @ 11:54 AM

I actually have Okpala moving into that third string spot for now. Would love to see Newton push past everyone and start, but freshmen DT's need so much lower body strength work (as Okpala proved last year).

ajreinert on September 30, 2020 @ 08:09 AM

I think they might give the freshman Newton a shot at SDE this year before he moves inside in the future. Think he would be ahead of Riggins and would battle with Randolph for snaps.

Chuck on September 30, 2020 @ 09:42 AM

Sounds like Udeogu has left the team.

Robert on September 30, 2020 @ 12:52 PM

Yep. Change that to "Moses Okpala".

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