|Jake Ryan led the team in tackles as a redshirt sophomore|
The strongside end is perhaps the biggest question mark on the team this spring, at least from a fan's perspective. Craig Roh graduated, and there are backups, potential position-switchers, and redshirt freshmen all vying for the vacated spot. Will it be last year's primary backup, redshirt freshman Keith Heitzman (7 tackles, 1 tackle for loss)? Will it be senior Jibreel Black (20 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks), who played 3-tech defensive tackle last year? Will it be a junior position-switcher from weakside end, Brennen Beyer (19 tackles) or Frank Clark (25 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 2 sacks)? Will it be one of the redshirt freshmen, Chris Wormley or Tom Strobel? Heitzman seems like a good fit if Ryan Van Bergen and Roh are the prototypes, but we have yet to see Wormley or Strobel on the field. The weakside end spot seems a little easier to sort out. Clark is too much of a playmaker - and not disciplined enough - to be a candidate for SDE, making him likely to stick at weakside end. Sophomore Mario Ojemudia should be bigger by now, and he made a few nice plays last season.
Others to watch: Redshirt freshman Matt Godin hasn't created much buzz, but he's a big body who has the size to play the SDE spot. Freshman early enrollee Taco Charlton is tall, long, and pretty lean, but he's also very raw.
One starter is almost certain, and that's fifth year senior Quinton Washington (32 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 1 sack). Other prognostications are murky. The second-best defensive tackle might be sophomore Ondre Pipkins (7 tackles), but he was overweight last year and seems best suited for Washington's nose tackle spot. Black and redshirt freshman Willie Henry would both be capable of playing the 3-tech position, and Wormley could end up there, too, if he's not playing strongside end.
Others to watch: Redshirt juniors Richard Ash and Ken Wilkins have been mired on the bench mostly and totally, respectively. It's tough to see either one garnering a ton of playing time this year, since both were surpassed by an out-of-shape Pipkins. Heitzman and Godin could also see some reps at 3-tech.
The strongside linebacker position is locked down by redshirt junior Jake Ryan (88 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks), and his backup is pretty solid in the form of fifth year senior Cam Gordon (17 tackles, 3 tackles for loss). The inside linebacker spots will be filled by two of three guys. My guess is that junior Desmond Morgan (81 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss) will move from weakside linebacker to the middle, while sophomore James Ross (36 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss) steps in at WILL. Sophomore Joe Bolden (30 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 1 sack) is the other viable candidate at MIKE, and he also has the skills to be a backup at SAM.
Others to watch: Fifth year senior Mike Jones has been a backup his entire career, and that probably won't change. Redshirt sophomore Antonio Poole sat out last season with an upper body muscle injury. Sophomore Royce Jenkins-Stone is behind a couple good ones at MIKE, and redshirt freshman Kaleb Ringer missed the season due to a knee injury. When the spring roster is released, don't be surprised if some defections from this group are made known.
The biggest question isn't so much about the talent at the position, but about whether redshirt sophomore Blake Countess is healthy after tearing his ACL in the season opener against Alabama. Countess was good as a freshman in 2011 - with an occasional lapse - and should reach that level again with modern medicinal practices, but it might be too early to go hard for spring practices. I wouldn't be surprised to see the coaches hold him out of contact drills. The other outside spot appears to be junior Raymon Taylor's (45 tackles, 2 interceptions) to lose, and the nickel corner position has belonged to senior Courtney Avery (19 tackles, 2 tackles for loss) for the past couple seasons. All three are returning starters if you count Countess from prior to his injury.
Others to watch: Junior Delonte Hollowell and sophomore Terry Richardson both played sparingly in 2012; both are small-ish and seem destined for nickel corner, field corner, or maybe just special teams play. One of the freshman early enrollees, Ross Douglas, was recruited to play nickel corner, too, but all of these guys may bounce around and play multiple positions because of low numbers.
One of the starting safeties will be fifth year senior Thomas Gordon (81 tackles, 2 interceptions); the question is, Which one? The departure of Jordan Kovacs leaves a void at strong safety, and Gordon's tackling, size, and speed make him a better fit at that spot than free safety. Meanwhile, the other safety to earn significant playing time last season was rising sophomore Jarrod Wilson (8 tackles), who had his share of troubles, as young safeties often do. Wilson is a 6'2" ball hawk and fits better at free safety. It would seem to make sense that Gordon moves to SS and Wilson gets inserted at the FS spot. Also in the mix are senior Marvin Robinson and true freshman early enrollee Dymonte Thomas, and I could see a scenario in which Gordon/Wilson are the free safeties and Robinson/Thomas are the strong safeties.
Others to watch: Redshirt junior Josh Furman (8 tackles) hasn't shown much in spring practices past or in limited playing time. Redshirt freshman Jeremy Clark has the size and speed to be a good one at free safety, and classmate Allen Gant is more of an in-the-box strong safety; both seem to be a little ways down the pecking order right now.