Senior defenders ready to take charge, lead unit
Published: Monday, April 16, 2012
Updated: Monday, April 16, 2012 12:04
The Knights finished the 2011 season ranked ninth in the country in total defense.
Still, it was an area head coach George O’Leary expressed disappointment in and said needed improvement over the offseason.
With eight returning starters, the defense has used spring practice to return to the natural feel of the game and become even stronger as a unit.
Saturday’s Spring Game was the perfect showcase for that progress.
“I feel like as a defense, we got better each day this spring,” senior linebacker Jonathan Davis said. “We came out today to prove that we did get better and just have fun out there.”
Davis led the defense with nine tackles and two sacks, commanding a linebacking corps that lost veteran starter Josh Linam to graduation.
“We had a lot of young guys start last year … so we just got caught in the fire,” Davis said.
Senior Ray Shipman and sophomore Terrance Plummer will look to make an impact at linebacker along with Davis this season and will be able to do so, he said, because of their increased knowledge of the playbook.
“Last year we didn’t really know what was going on as far as the system goes – we were just playing,” Davis said. “This year, we know our assignments. We know what the defensive backs [are] doing, [and] we know what the linemen are doing. So this year we really learned the concept of the defense.”
In contrast to Davis’ physical play, one of the defensive leaders on Saturday never wrapped up and tackled anyone.
Senior A.J. Bouye wore a no-contact jersey during the spring game – a precautionary measure coaches take to ensure that players recovering from injuries will not undergo serious contact – but did not let it affect his game.
Bouye managed to pick off two of redshirt senior Rob Calabrese’s passes.
“He’s a 6-foot-1 kid that has range to him,” O’Leary said. “He’ll be a good field corner. I think the big thing for him is to get healthy in the next three months.”
O’Leary has used the spring to feel out the strength of his defensive line, a unit that features senior Troy Davis, last year’s team leader in sacks.
Troy and redshirt junior Victor Gray both recorded a sack on Saturday, leading a defensive line that Gray said will be much improved from last year.
“We have progressed a lot, especially with learning from Blaise Winter. He is a great coach,” Gray said. “He has taught us a lot about football and life, and we take it all of his philosophies and put it out on the field, so I think you’re going to see a big difference.”
Gray has been flexible with his position on the line throughout his career, switching between defensive tackle and defensive end. He said that he will be happy to play wherever O’Leary puts him, but was relieved to see less double teams at defensive end Saturday.
Gray was able to tell the difference in the team’s chemistry from a year ago.
“Last year I said around the same time the team chemistry wasn’t there,” Gray said. “We’re clicking a lot better right now, offensively and defensively. We’re always going to be friends, but the chemistry of playing with one another is a lot better.”
With the passing of the spring game, the Knights have a stretch of a few months to get stronger and learn the playbook, a period that O’Leary stresses as being critical for a team’s success.
As a redshirt junior, Gray understands the importance of keeping momentum rolling into the offseason.
“I felt like we had really good focus this spring, so we need to keep that focus and carry it all the way through summer.”