Linebacker looks to be pretty set as we head toward the 2016 season. Redshirt junior Jerod Fernandez will start at middle linebacker for his third season, and junior Airius Moore, who led the team in tackles last year, will start alongside him. Moore started all 13 games last year, including four at middle linebacker in relief of the injured Fernandez. Moore should once again carry the role of starting weakside linebacker and backup middle linebacker
Riley Nicholson started four games toward the end of last year and had some good showings, including a nine tackle game against Syracuse. The sophomore was also the leading tackler in this year’s spring game. He’s a high energy guy that’s probably deserving of more snaps this season, but the question is how many will be available with the two proven commodities ahead of him.
Redshirt junior Ford Howell will be the guy to round out the two-deep. It more than likely would have been safety convert Germaine Pratt if not for an injury that should force Pratt into a redshirt. Howell has earned the right to be there though, working his way to a scholarship after coming into the program as a walk-on. Howell played mostly on special teams last season.
The Pratt injury is obviously disappointing given how many people wanted to see him moved to linebacker. There wasn’t likely to be a lot of playing time available this year, so perhaps a redshirt season might have helped him acclimate to his new position and have more opportunities to play later in his career. Seeing the redshirt come because of an injury though is always going to be terrible.
The secondary was supposed to be the strongest unit on the defense last season, but it gave up way too many big plays and didn’t live up to what was expected. Now the Pack must find replacements for the best corner on last year’s team in Juston Burris and safety Hakim Jones. That’s the bad news. The good news is that replacing those two won’t involve sticking a true freshman or a guy with no game experience into a starting role.
Senior Jack Tocho and junior Mike Stevens shared starts opposite Burris in 2015, and both should be expected to start at cornerback in 2016. The combination gives State two players with a lot of experience at the top of the depth chart, but pretty much everybody after those two is young and/or unproven. Jonathon Alston and Sean Paul are upperclassmen corners, but Alston has been playing offense his entire career and he’s redshirting anyways. Paul’s been so plagued with injuries over his career he’s basically never played at all. Freddie Phillips is listed as a cornerback now after playing nickel last season, but he saw just four snaps last year as a freshman.
Then you’re down to the true freshman that were part of the 2016 recruiting class. Some of them could be ready to fight with Sean Paul and Freddie Phillips for a spot on the depth chart this year, which would be nice given the lack of depth at corner. Nick McCloud is a guy whose name is consistently mentioned among the most impressive freshmen this fall. He’s tall for a corner at 6’2" and, like a few other freshmen, could probably play safety as well, but corner appears to be where he’ll end up.
Bryce Banks and James Valdez are two other freshmen probably worth a mention. Banks is a tall lengthy guy that, like McCloud, could fit in at either corner or safety. He also enrolled early which would theoretically give him a leg up on other new guys. Valdez is a corner that I thought would be a favorite to play early before fall camp started. He was supposedly one of the more polished players in the recruiting class, but neither Banks nor Valdez have been talked about with regards to playing early like McCloud has.
Josh Jones is back for his redshirt junior season at safety. He’s looking to bounce back from a somewhat disappointing season last year. Jones was on a lot of those "players to watch" and "dark horse defensive player of the year" type lists before last season, but it just didn’t quite come together for him. Shawn Boone was the guy that was starting to take reps from Jones in the back half of last season. His sophomore campaign was derailed by injuries though and he didn’t play in four of the last five contests.
This year both players should be atop the depth chart at opposite safety positions. Other than Boone and Jones, there isn’t another safety on the team with significant game experience, which is pretty similar to the situation at corner. Jarius Morehead and Dexter Wright will have their chance at cracking the two-deep. Morehead redshirted last season as a freshman and Wright played exclusively on special teams as a redshirt freshman. True freshman Isaiah Stallings should have a shot also. The big physical safety has reportedly been pretty impressive this fall.
Nickel should look exactly as it did last season. The only difference is that Dravious Wright and Niles Clark are both in their final year of eligibility this time around.
Things are pretty straightforward with regards to who will start in the secondary, but the noticeable lack of experience at corner and safety leaves the remaining spots on the depth chart up for grabs.
That concludes the position previews and just in time for the season to start. I hope you all are super excited to go 15-0 and win the national championship. Or maybe just go 6-6 and go to the Quick Lane Bowl. Is that even a bowl anymore? Why is it called a bowl anyways? Did they used to actually play for a bowl of fruit of something? That seems like a crappy prize. What am I talking about? I have no idea. Vote in this poll.