A Look at the 2007 Secondary
Aug. 31, 2007
NACOGDOCHES - The one position on the field that had tons of depth and plenty of experience, last year was the secondary. How odd is it that in 2007 it is one of only two positions (tight ends) where the Lumberjack coaching staff has been forced to replace a number of veterans due to attrition.
The secondary showed vast improvements in 2006, compared to the previous season under secondary coach Matt Graves. But Graves, who is heading into his third season on the 'Jacks' coaching staff, may have his toughest challenge ahead if the 'Jacks are to show a similar type of improvement this season.
"One of our biggest challenges with a group this young is making sure that they know what they are doing at all times on the field," said Graves. "Without experience, this game comes at you very fast. For those with experience, the game slows down, and it just comes more natural to you. My challenge is to get them to understand what they are doing every snap, so the game can begin to slow down sooner."
The 'Jacks enter the 2007 season looking to replace four seniors from their secondary last season, and a total of five players from the depth chart heading into the final game of the 2006 season. One of the biggest concerns dealing with such a young group, is not wondering if mistakes are going to happen, but how will the players respond to those moments.
"One the biggest fears, I think you can have as a coach, is how will they handle adversity," said Graves. "If something goes bad, typically younger guys struggle to put it behind them, where veteran players understand you have to get back up, get back in the huddle and move on."
With all that said, the 'Jacks are not entering the season with the cupboard completely bare. SFA returns four veteran players with starting experience, which they will be relying on for leadership in the secondary. The two elder statesmen of the group are senior corners Johnny Thacker and Stephan Rhea.
If there is only going to be two seniors in the secondary, then the best place for them to be is at cornerback. Two of the faster corners in the league, both Thacker and Rhea are members of the Lumberjacks track & field team. Between the two, they bring 25 games of starting experience to the field.
"It helps having seniors at corner, because those are higher pressure situations," said Graves. "As a corner, your put on an island by yourself covering receivers, and you want guys with confidence and a little bit of swagger to them. That's what Thacker and Rhea bring to the team. They are two of the fastest guys on the field, and you know every snap they are going to lineup and play hard."
It is a similar situation for the Lumberjack safeties, returning two solid veterans, but the 'Jacks will be relying on a handful of talented rookies to step into the rotation and produce. Sophomores Jonathan Botley and Cory Barlow are entering their third season on campus, after redshirting the 2005 season.
Botley is a 5-10, 180-pound athlete who came to SFA from LaGrange High School in Lake Charles, La. Botley battled through injuries to record four starts last season, and finished the year with 11 tackles and two pass breakups.
"We've moved him from corner to safety this year, and he's done a good job," said Graves. "He has the ability to cover, and he is a very physical player for his size. He's not afraid to throw his head in there and take on a ball carrier. He's not quite as big as Cory, but I would say he is more versatile."
Known for his vicious hits, Barlow has also battled some injuries during his time in Nacogdoches, but was utilized as one of the main reserves off the Lumberjack bench last season. He recorded 15 stops on the season and was also credited with a sack.
"Barlow is one of those players who just finds a way to get the ball," said Graves. "In our last scrimmage he did an outstanding job. He was in on nine or 10 tackles, picked off a pass and forced a fumble during the game."
One of the biggest advantages the 2007 squad has over its predecessor's from a year ago is speed. Graves likes the overall speed of his current squad, compared to that of his team from a year ago.
"Our guys last year were a little bigger, and maybe more physical because of their size," said Graves. "But the guys we have this year are fast, and Coach (Dan) Eason did a great job during the off season getting them ready to play. I'd take speed over size any day. As a coach you would like to have both, but if I had to pick one or the other, I would take speed because that helps you overcome a lot."
With so many new faces in the secondary, don't be stunned to see Graves send a variety of player combinations onto the field during the early part of the season.
"As the season goes along, I plan on playing two or three different guys at a position," said Graves. "I'm going to be looking to see who is comfortable in certain situations, and who is making plays, because there is a lot of unknowns with such a young group. All of our freshmen are pretty much on the same level in terms of experience, so we're going to stick them in there, and see what they can do."