Last season, the Owls went to their first bowl game in 30 years, surprising the college football world with a 9-4 record and a 7-1 record in the Mid-American Conference. The spotlight is bigger and the expectations are higher for this year’s team, yet coach Al Golden said there is less pressure than there was in previous years.
“I believe in the process, and I believe in preparation, and I believe in having a strong foundation of core values, and I think those things alleviate pressure,” Golden said. “Having expectations of having a winning team or a winning organization? That’s not pressure. Pressure was 54 scholarships trying to play Penn State, Clemson and Louisville, and then 63 scholarships and getting our face kicked in by Buffalo with everybody booing you and asking what’s wrong.”
“I’m glad the stakes are higher now,” Golden added.
One of the things that will help the team build on its success is a defense that was one of the best units in the MAC. As fourth in the conference, it allowed 20.6 points per game, boasted the top run defense in the conference with an average allowance of 81 rushing yards a game, and allowed only five rushing touchdowns the whole season. The team’s secondary allowed the most passing yards by averaging 269.2 yards yet had the most interceptions in the conference with 13.
The defense remains mostly intact despite the departures of program mainstays, such as defensive tackle Andre Neblett, linebacker Alex Joseph and safety Dominique Harris, who all went on to be undrafted free agents in the National Football League. Eight starters return to defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio’s unit, and the rest of the positions have been filled in internally through various means.
The defensive line remains loaded with talent as it returns with the reigning MAC defensive player of the year in junior defensive end Adrian Robinson. Robinson earned this honor with a breakout performance last year with 46 tackles, including 14 for negative yardage, 13 sacks, which was tops on the team and in the MAC.
Robinson enters this season on the watch lists for the Chuck Bednarik and Bronco Nagurski awards, the awards given for the nation’s top defensive players.
“You can’t look at it all, you just got to keep your head forward and stay humble,” Robinson said.
Some teams have even game-planned for Robinson and will likely do so again this year.
“I saw a few double teams [last year]. I don’t know what is going to happen this year,” Robinson said. “[Junior defensive tackle Mohammed Wilkerson] is pretty good too. He got some double teams. One of us is going to be able to make a play.”
The 6-foot-5-inch, 305-pound Wilkerson started every game last season with 61 tackles including 10.5 for a loss and seven sacks. Starting alongside Wilkerson is the 6-foot-3-inch 288-pound senior tackle Elisha Joseph.
A pattern began to emerge with the Owls’ starting senior defensive tackles and the NFL. Last April, Andre Neblett signed as an undrafted free agent with the Carolina Panthers and the year before that, tackle Terrance Knighton was drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars. But Joseph isn’t looking that far ahead yet.
“I don’t know. If that happens, that would be good, but right now, I’m just focusing on this next game and the small things right now, and trying to get better,” Joseph said.
Another new addition to the Owls defensive line will be on the sidelines in defensive line coach Jethro Franklin, who was hired last spring after he worked the same job at the University of Southern California.
“I love Jethro Franklin,” Joseph said. “Ever since he got here, he brought a lot of energy and passion to the game. I look up to him as a coach and a father figure.”
The linebacking unit remains solid with two of last year’s starters returning in junior Tahir Whitehead and senior Elijah “Peanut” Joseph, the twin brother of defensive tackle Elisha.
“Peanut” was an All-MAC selection last season with 63 tackles including 6.5 for a loss and two sacks. In a Sept. 26 game against Buffalo, he had one interception, which he returned 95 yards for a touchdown. It was a career first for Elijah Joseph and a school record.
The final linebacker spot is taken by senior Amara Kamara, who spent the previous year as a defensive end. Golden began filling holes in his lineup halfway through last season by converting players from one position to another and continued to do so throughout the spring and summer.
“Right now it’s about the team, and our guys are beginning to understand that, and they really didn’t get it until halfway through last year,” Golden said. “Ultimately, why does a player make a move? Because they trust the coach, and it takes a long time to get to that point.”
Position changes are something players have come accustomed to and even embraced.
“You have to be ready for anything. There can be situations where someone can go down, and you have to fill their role,” Kamara said. “You got to take it as an opportunity to learn more about the defense or different aspects of football.”
Leading the secondary is one of the constants of the unit: senior free safety Jaiquawn Jarrett. Jarrett was another All-MAC selection, as he was second on the team in tackles with 76 and three interceptions.
After Jarrett, things begin to get tricky.
At strong safety, the projected starter is junior Kevin Kroboth, who spent last season as a cornerback. The starting cornerback spots have been an open competition for all of spring practice and the summer, and the players vying for those spots have come from unlikely places. Senior Marquise Liverpool, who finished last season with 38 tackles and three interceptions, is one of the more experienced corners.
Sophomore Maurice Jones figures into the conversation as well, but two former offensive players may also grab a starting spot. Junior Kee-ayre Griffin begins the season as a cornerback after switching from running back in the Nov. 13 game against Akron last year.
“I feel more comfortable back there in the secondary. Over the summer I learned the defense more thoroughly, and I feel comfortable with Jaiquawn and the rest of the secondary at my back,” Griffin said. “What made it easy for me was that we all combined and were all ready to learn and teach each other.”
The other offensive player to make the switch is junior James Nixon. Nixon spent last season catching passes and returning kicks, but now he has to add defending passes to his list of duties. Coach Golden plans to still use Nixon as a kick returner and occasionally on offense.
“I think we have to – he’s the fastest player on the team, and I think we have to continue to find ways to get him the ball, and even if it’s just a few plays a week, we’re going to continue to do that,” Golden said.
Nixon has experience as defensive back from his days at the Hyde Leadership School in New Haven, Conn.
“It’s way different [from high school], the speed of the game is a lot quicker and in high school you just play man[-to-man] or Cover 3. Now there’s all different types of defenses and schemes. It’s a lot more complicated,” Nixon said. “Coming here, I never played receiver before, and it’s a whole different ballgame – you have to read defenses. I wasn’t really good at route running and all that, but with defensive back, I have some training because I played that in high school on a regular basis.”
Golden has been impressed with how well Nixon has adjusted to playing multiple positions.
“James is very talented,” Golden said. “He’s got very good flexibility in his hips, a lot of good lateral mobility, he’s longer than most corners so he can really jam, and obviously he’s got high end speed. I don’t think he’s been beat deep once all camp, just because of his long speed.”
Despite being involved in all three phases of the game, Nixon isn’t concerned about wearing himself out.
“I’d be too excited to get tired from playing in all three phases of the game,” Nixon said. “It’s like high school again – you get to run all over the place.”
Brian Dzenis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org