After losing seven starters, the Owls will need to replenish the defense at key positions.
Despite losing six starters, including four All-Mid-American Conference honorees, the Owls’ defense is set to have significant depth for the 2011 campaign. Coach Steve Addazio and defensive coordinator Chuck Heater said the defense should develop further and improve its growth.
“You can never have enough depth,” Heater said. “You could be one play away from suddenly realizing you don’t have that much depth. But on paper, we have some guys that we can rotate, which is great because that’s a position with high energy, effort and finish and it’s hard to do that when you’re playing all 70 plays.”
Last season the team was ranked atop the conference in pass defense, as opponents averaged less than 180 passing yards per game and scored a conference low of 15 total touchdowns. But after losing several notable starters, including would-be senior defensive tackle Muhammad Wilkerson and free safety Jaiquawn Jarrett to the National Football League Draft, and others were signed as undrafted free agents. The team will need to reload those positions.
“I’m a big believer in learning how to play every position,” Addazio said. “You don’t know what the injury situation is going to be. You have to be able to handle that you can’t wait for that to happen.”
Addazio has stated that the defensive line has solidified during training camp and that is a “real strong point” in terms of proven depth for the defense. He has been most impressed with the duo of seniors at defensive end, Adrian Robinson and Morkeith Brown.
“I think [Robinson and Brown] will be two of the better defensive ends in the conference,” Addazio said. “They’re both relentless in their work ethic.”
Robinson, a two-time, first-team All-Mid Atlantic Conference honoree, said he is “ready to lead” the team and especially the pass rush. When asked about the strengths he brings to the team, he said, “Pass rush, pass rush, pass rush.” The Harrisburg native played in all 12 games last season and recorded 38 tackles, including four-and-a-half tackles for a loss and three-and-a-half sacks.
“The best thing I can say is leadership,” Robinson said of his attributes to the team. “I really think I’ve been trying to lead right and do the right thing.”
Newly converted defensive player, Brown, who started nine games at tight end last season, will play opposite side to Robinson on the line. The transition for Brown worked seamlessly, as he started his collegiate career on the defensive squad.
“It’s been good, it’s like going back home,” Brown said. “I’ve always had a defensive mind.”
Senior Morris Blueford and junior Marcus Green are expected to compete for time behind Robinson and Brown. The two backups played in a combined 15 games last season.
At tackle, the Owls will rely on several players to use their experience from last season, including sophomore Shahid Paulhill and junior Kadeem Custis who both played in all 12 games in 2010.
“[Paulhill and Custis] are playing well,” Addazio said. “I like their attitude, demeanor. I like the way [Paulhill] has developed, he’s really taken on to hard coaching.”
In addition, sophomores Kamal Johnson, who played in 11 games last year, and Levi Brown, who appeared in 10 games last year, are both expected to bolster the line corps. Redshirt freshmen Jaimen Newman, along with several others will be looking for playing time.
“The younger guys are playing like older guys right now honestly,” Brown said referring to training camp. “They aren’t making a lot of mental errors out there on the field. They are playing well right now.”
The top returning tacklers from last season’s linebacker squad are seniors Tahir Whitehead and Stephen Johnson, who both played in all 12 games and combined to make 87 tackles. Whitehead, who also added seven-and-a-half tackles for a loss and two sacks last year, is one of 51 players nationally to be named to the 2011 Collegiate Butkus Award Watch List, which is awarded annually to the best linebacker in the country.
Whitehead said that the defensive schemes from last year under former head coach Al Golden are “similar” to this year’s game strategies.
“Things are mostly the same,” Whitehead said. “There are little differences, but not many.”
Last year’s conference opponents averaged three yards per rush and about 100 rushing yards per game, which ranked fourth in the MAC. However, the team is without its top linebackers, Amara Kamara and Elijah “Peanut” Joseph, who combined to make approximately 140 total tackles in 2010.
Addazio said he spent time during training camp shuffling players around among the linebacker squad, but he believes it’s a talented group.
“I think we have a lot of good linebackers and I think it is a benefit,” Stephen Johnson said. “We’re all just trying to get better.”
Also expected to see considerable playing time is senior Quinten White, who participated in 11 games with two starts last season. White contributed last year with 24 total tackles, including four tackles for a loss and fumble return for a touchdown in the win over Bowling Green.
During training camp, junior Ahkeem Smith made the transition from running back to inside linebacker for the upcoming season. Before training camp, Smith was listed as the second running back on the depth chart after playing in 17 career games at the position.
The underclassmen who are expected to receive playing time are sophomores Olaniyi Adewole, Gary Onuekwusi and Blaze Caponegro. All three players were used in at least two games last year.
“The [underclassmen] are developing well,” Stephen Johnson said. “Just trying to learn something every day and get better every day.”
“Just seeing them develop through the spring and this fall camp, they’re very promising,” Whitehead added. “Even though that they’re young, they’re bright and smart players and physical. I expect a lot out of them this year.”
Perhaps the most experienced group on the Owls’ defense is its secondary. While senior Kevin Kroboth, who started six games at strong safety in 2010, will move to free safety, junior Justin Gildea returns to start at strong safety, and starters senior Kee-ayre Griffin and junior Maurice Jones will both be at the cornerback position. Junior free safety Vaugn Carraway is also expected to play as he saw action in all but one game last season.
“We’re experienced on the field,” Kroboth said. “It’s not going to be a shock when we’re all out there playing. I think the chemistry that we had all spring and then summer, we’ll really come through.”
“[Jarrett] has taught us so much throughout the years,” Kroboth added. “I’ve been helped by Dominique Harris  and having Jaiquawn back there for three years, we learned so much.”
Gildea said the defensive backs have focused on learning the new playbook that Addazio has implemented throughout the training camp.
“We want to up our interceptions,” Gildea said. “We always make plays around the ball, but sometimes we drop some passes. We really worked hard on that this summer and during the spring. We just want to play the best we can [with] no mental errors.”
This year, the Owls will look for younger players to step up, including redshirt freshman safety Brian Burns, sophomore cornerback Zamel Johnson and redshirt freshman cornerback Anthony Robey. Freshman Daquan Cooper is expected to see playing time as well at cornerback.
“Cooper is a great defensive back,” Griffin said. “He’s a great athlete, he’s fast, and he’s learning the playbook pretty quick. As a player, he’s really impressed me this training camp.”