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Talented group hopes to make a splash in MSU secondary
Upside versus experience: it’s a lingering question Montana State has been trying to answer in the defensive secondary during fall camp.
MSU lost three starters on the back line of its defense, including captains/safeties Michael Rider and Jordan Craney from last season’s squad. But defensive backs coach and co-defensive coordinator Noah Joseph and the MSU coaching staff have talked all August about how the newcomers to the secondary have tremendous athleticism and upside. Now, with the season-opener at the University of Utah just a day away, it’s time for the group to start realizing that potential.
“They just have to play; they just have to go out and get there ears wet and go play,” said MSU head coach Rob Ash. “We are so young and so different back there. We lost three seniors (Rider, Craney and Arnold Briggs) who were fixtures. We have young guys, new guys, true freshmen, redshirt freshmen, all sorts of inexperience. It’s exciting because they are extremely talented, but it’s unpredictable too. But I have a lot of confidence coach Joseph and coach (Jamie) Marshall (MSU’s defensive coordinator) will have them ready to play. Now it’s just baptism by fire.”
The lone returner in the secondary is Darius Jones, a junior. Jones, who had a team-high 11 pass breakups (fourth in the Big Sky Conference) last season, will start at MSU’s “field” cornerback spot. In MSU’s scheme, the field corner plays on the narrow side of the field, meaning the ability to filter things toward the middle and the importance of being able to excel in one-on-one coverage are essential. In 2010, MSU forced 24 turnovers (eight interceptions), but committed 24 turnovers as well. The Bobcat secondary enters 2011 with a play-making mentality and hopes to help the team win the turnover margin battle. As far as replacing Rider and Craney, Jones said it’s a role he and his running mates hope to grow into.
“We are going to get more turnovers for sure,” said the 5-foot-10, 180-pound Jones. “As far as being leaders, it’s something we have to grow into because we weren’t those guys. We learned from those guys, but it’s different seeing it than doing it.”
The secondary welcomes new full-time starters in junior Joel Fuller and sophomore Stephen Bethley at safety and sophomore Sean Gords at “boundary” corner. Three new starters led to skepticism about fall camp competition as the unit was faced with trying to slow MSU’s passing attack, a unit that was in the top 10 in the nation in yards per game a season ago. But the secondary thrived during fall camp, allowing just one passing touchdown during two intra-squad scrimmages.
“We expected to do well so we aren’t surprised,” Jones said.
“I have a lot of confidence in these guys,” added Marshall. “They’ve played well throughout this fall camp the last three weeks. I think we have a solid group back there. I think we will be able to continue on from where we were last year. The new guys are good. We might have a few growing pains early, but by second, third, fourth game, shoot, we should be veterans back there.”
Although Jones is the only full-time starter returning (he started all 12 games last fall), Bethley saw action in nine games, making 10 tackles. Gords played in all 12 games, starting two, making 29 tackles. Fuller played in 11 games, starting three and is MSU’s fifth-leading returning tackler after making 34 stops as a sophomore.
“Joel needs to surface here as a leader of this team, and I think he is beginning to do that a little bit,” Ash said. “Darius Jones has been around too. Those two guys need to show the way so to speak. Joel, being a safety and being in the heart of everything, has got to be a great communicator and has to be the guy who gets them all in the right spots. He has all the tools to be a great safety, so we are expecting great things from him.”
The starting four players in the ‘Cats secondary have game experience. But most of the backups do not. True freshman Jamarcus Darden will back up Jones. Redshirt freshman Robert Marshall and true freshman James Nelson will back up Fuller. True freshman Deonte Flowers will serve as Gords’ back up. Fuller and Jones are confident in the second tier and said the communication from the juniors to the first-timers will be of paramount importance.
“We came a long way this past month and it’s all started with communication,” Jones said. “Communication is everything. You have to know what you’re doing. Helping the younger guys, just letting them know what to do. They all have the athleticism, it’s all about doing everything right.”
“Just being comfortable out there together, learning the defense was the most important thing we did this camp,” added Fuller. “We gained confidence, learned how to play fast. That’s big for young guys especially.”
Two captains depart from the secondary, but Marshall said he wants the secondary to strive to be game-changers, a spot where last year’s secondary fell short. Defensive tackle Zach Minter led the team in interceptions and interception return yards. MSU doesn’t have a player in the defensive secondary returning with a pick. Fuller said the key to the crew’s success is changing all that.
“Forcing turnovers is going to be huge for this group,” Fuller said. “Being able to get interceptions, force turnovers will let us get our offense back on the field to score more points. We just need to ball out, make plays, that’s going to be huge.”
By Colter Nuanez, The Bozeman Daily Chronicle