March 11, 2008

Spring Preview: The Secondary

OUTGOING PLAYERS: Joe Garcia and Chris Parker

2007 SEASON STATS: Garcia (79 tackles, 6 tackles for a loss, 3 pass breakups, 1 forced fumble); Parker (36 tackles, 2 tackles for a loss, 1 sack, 1 interception, 11 pass breakups, 1 fumble recovery)

MOST DIFFICULT QUALITIES TO REPLACE: Garcia's leadership and Parker's coverage skills

THE STARTERS: Anthony Hines (SS), Darcel McBath (FS), Jamar Wall (CB), Marcus Bunton (CB)

THE COMPETITORS: Daniel Charbonnet (FS), Steve Harris (SS), Franklin Mitchem (SS), Lance Fuller (SS), Jordy Rowland (FS), DeShon Sanders (CB), Pete Richardson (CB), Jarell Routt (CB), Laron Moore (CB), Brent Nickerson (CB)

THE OUTLOOK: Tech's secondary is the unit hardest hit by graduation, but that's not saying very much. And although the defensive backfield has lost half of its starters, there's no reason it cannot be just as good or even better than last season's exceptional group.

The player headed for stardom if not superstardom is junior cornerback Jamar Wall. There was rejoicing throughout the Tech football camp when he originally signed with the Red Raiders because everybody in West Texas who knew anything about football knew that Wall could play. And after a rough couple of games early in the 2007 season, Wall has proved just that.

Wall does not have crazy speed, but he is extremely athletic, has tremendous instincts and a natural feel for the game. Consequently, he is an outstanding pass defender who improves in run support with each and every game. Wall is still flying under the national media radar, but by the conclusion of the 2008 season may well be recognized as the Big 12's best cornerback.

The other returning starter is senior free safety Darcel McBath. The Gainesville product is not flashy, but he is extremely competent. McBath is a good quarterback for the secondary and rarely makes mistakes.

Expect senior Anthony Hines to take over for Garcia at strong safety, but he'll face a stern challenge from Steve Harris. Hines is a graceful and fluid player who also has good size-he's six-foot-one and 210 pounds. With extensive playing time, expect Hines to emerge as a force in the secondary. In all probability, he will actually be an upgrade over Garcia, particularly in coverage.

The cornerback position opposite Jamar Wall is a source of concern. The competitors are myriad; the talent and experience are questionable. Marcus Bunton has the most experience of all the candidates (he has even started a few games), and therefore is the safe bet to be in the starting lineup for the season-opener. Bunton is a tough player and a good tackler, but is also a bit undersized and his coverage skills are a matter of debate. If cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell decides to go with raw talent instead of experience, Laron Moore or DeShon Sanders could get the call.

THE PREDICTION: On the whole, this will be a talented, deep and experienced secondary. Jamar Wall could very well make some All American noise, and Anthony Hines could easily turn out to be the surprise player of the year for the Red Raiders. And if he plays as I expect, look for the NFL brass to take notice. Hines has that sort of ability.

He will need every bit of that ability because Steven Harris is a young phenom. Inexperience kept him off the field defensively last season, but he was sheer murder on special teams. Harris' explosiveness and play-making ability were obvious for all to see. He will play a great deal in 2008 and will turn many heads, in addition to knocking several off.

McBath will be his usual self and should be the glue that holds it all together back there. And incidentally, if Marcus Bunton, Laron Moore and the other cornerback candidates prove unfit for the starting job, look for McBath to get a shot there. He's got the speed and athleticism to play the position, and indeed, cornerback was his original position when McBath arrived as a freshman.

Moving McBath to corner would allow Harris to slide to free safety in tandem with Hines. That could be a devastating setup. But will the defensive coaching staff initiate such a radical shakeup? Will they move a solid starting safety to a position he has not played for years, and move a very inexperienced player into his old spot? Coaches are cautious by nature and value experience above practically all else. The feeling here is that Brian Mitchell, Carlos Mainord and Ruffin McNeill will decide that Bunton or Moore is good enough to start, and will leave McBath and Harris where they are. Whether or not the staff stays that course for the entire season is another question altogether.

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