As spring practice continues, fans are anxious to see what their Blue Raiders will bring to the field this fall.
One area that will see a lot of new faces is the defensive line.
Coach Palermo and new defensive coordinator Steve Ellis will certainly have their work cut out for them.
They have the tough task of replacing three starters, one of them being Jamari Lattimore, the Sun-Belt Conference Defensive Player of the Year. The other two seniors, right tackle Dwight Smith and defensive end Emanuel Perez, were valuable as well.
The three seniors led a unit that produced 22.5 sacks, 51 tackles for loss and 20 quarterback hurries.
Keep in mind that these numbers came from a defense that was almost constantly on the field. Middle Tennessee was last in the conference in time of possession, often only giving the defense a minute or two before they had to be back out on the field.
While the time of possession can be remedied this season, one problem that will remain is a lack of experience.
This year’s line will only feature one senior, Sacoby Carter. As a defensive tackle, Carter had a solid ’09 campaign, but saw a significant reduction in his stats last year, producing only seven tackles.
Joining Carter on the interior, I expect Derrek Upshaw, Paramore Tapa, Jesse Kirkland and Patrick McNeal to all see the field.
Upshaw is a redshirt sophomore that produced well in the 11 games that he played in last year. In addition to blocking two kicks on special teams (one in the bowl game), he contributed nine tackles, 2.5 for loss and a forced fumble.
Tapa was a late signee this spring, but put up great numbers in junior college. As a sophomore, Tapa registered 43 tackles and 3.5 sacks.
Like Tapa, Kirkland is a transfer from the California junior college ranks and turned in 32 tackles in ’09, before taking a redshirt season last year.
McNeal is another tackle that I expect to do well this year. He started hot last year, racking up three tackles against Minnesota, but an injury in the Austin Peay game led to a medical redshirt. A monster three-star recruit coming out of high school, I expect a fully a healthy McNeal to make a big impact for the Blue Raiders this year.
The defensive ends have some big shoes to fill and will be in the shadow of Jamari Lattimore.
Omar McLendon is the natural successor, playing in all 13 games last season as a backup for Lattimore and Perez. McLendon put up solid numbers, receiving nine winning grades from the coaches and registering 18 tackles.
Joining him this season, I expect Dearco Nolan, Jimmy Staten and possibly Morris Moore to see playing time.
Nolan is a redshirt sophomore who played in 11 games last year, racking up six tackles, two for loss and a sack; also a redshirt sophomore, Staten saw action in all 13 games, picking up five tackles and six winning grades from the coaches.
Moore is an unknown, but after a redshirt his freshmen year, the 6-4, 270 pound defensive end has a lot of potential.
Another x-factor is three star recruit Alexandro Antoine. A local product of Antioch, he put up solid numbers his senior year and has the potential to suit up on Saturdays for the Blue Raiders.
Replacing talented players is never an easy task, especially when experience is lacking.
Thankfully, Palermo is a talented coach and if the players can match Steve Ellis’ intensity, the Blue Raiders will be just fine.