The second unit on our list has a lot in common with the defensive line, but at the same time is completely different. We ranked the defensive line dead last on our list due in large part to a lack of clear talent and depth. The secondary gets their ranking not for lack of talent, but rather lack of experience, and again depth.
The unit returns 13 combined starts in the first string with seven belonging to second year corner Nigel Tribue and six belonging to senior Sam Richardson (the Mighty Mouse version). Expanding to the second string we get a whopping one extra start and that came from Ken Lynn last year against West Virginia.
All that said, we believe there is some huge upside in this unit. Nigel Tribune came in last year and experienced some growing pains, but showed the flashes that will potentially make him one of the best shutdown corners in the Big XII in the future. Safeties Kamari Cotton-Moya and T.J. Mutcherson have stood out early in camp to Wally Burnham, who noted their angles of attack and speed to the ball. Mutcherson should have less of an issue with the transition to starter due to his experience on special teams, but both men seem fast and talented enough to potentially be better than Jacques Washington and Durrell Givens, who I believe to be the two best safeties of the Rhoads era.
|DEPTH CHART: SECONDARY|
|1st String||RCB||Nigel Tribune||So||5'10"||183|
|LCB||Sam E. Richardson||RJr||5'7"||189|
|2nd String||RCB||Matthew Thomas||RSr||5'10"||168|
|The Rest: Qujuan Floyd (Jr), Trevor Hodge (RFr), Josh Jahlas (RSo), Matt Swoyer (RSo), and then a whole bunch of freshmen who won't see the field.|
Another reason that this unit ranks as low as they do in our rankings. Richardson could potentially be the leader of this group, but he's locked in a position battle on the left side with Lynn. At this point it's hard not to look at Tribune as the leader of the group; assuming his consistency improves this year.
Tribune is far and away the most talented player in the unit and has the prototypical size and physicality to make it to the next level. The staff already put him in man-to-man situations last year to free up the safeties to help in the running game, and given the weakness of the defensive line, it should happen again this season. Aside from some questionable calls against him last year he did just about everything right as a freshman. If you're looking for some comparisons to Leonard Johnson here are two of them:
1. He didn't pick up any senseless personal fouls last year. Johnson had that awful late hit call against UNLV in 2008, and Tribune's biggest transgression was beating up on Mike Davis in pass coverage.
2. Tribune is almost always on his man. Seldom last year did he get beat like Johnson did his freshman year, and if he's already capable of sticking with his man then the focus becomes on his technique when the ball arrives. Tribune may have got away with a lot of clutching and grabbing to stay close, but this is college football, if you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'.
The X Factor
Ken Lynn brings a mix of length and speed that would go a long way to the secondary matching up with the larger receivers in the Big XII. Richardson has had his chance to win the job outright over the past few years, but can't get over the proverbial hump and lock down his spot. Lynn showed sparks late in the season last year and has a better break on the ball than Richardson.
If the gap between the two has closed even more over the off season then it's quite possible Iowa State might be starting two corners close to six feet tall when the season starts. This will go a long way towards allowing the defense to play man coverage on the outside and keep the support of the safeties in the middle to aid against the run.
The New Guys
This group is young. On the two deep alone there is only one senior, three juniors, two sophomores, and two freshmen. Pushing further down the chart towards guys like Quajuan Floyd and converted quarterback Trevor Hodge you get a junior, two sophomores, a redshirt freshman, and a whole slew of newcomers. The unit is developing length though with the shortest of the incoming freshmen listed at 5'9".
The focus now turns to the new guys at safety, and as I mentioned above, the future looks pretty bright here. Mutcherson and Darian Cotton will have to make adjustments to play with the defense, but the speed of the game should be washed out at this point since both were heavy special teams contributors last year. Mutcherson tips the scales at 200 pounds and should have the size to fit into the box nicely in run support.
The Kamari Twins hold down the free safety spot and will be the ones to keep an eye on early this season. The free safety is responsible for setting the defense in Burnham's scheme, and Washington came up with spades when doing this the previous three years. How Cotton-Moya handles this responsibility from day one will be telling, and his life will be a lot easier if the group of linebackers in front of him can fit their gaps better than in 2013. Washington excelled at playing center field in this scheme, and to ease Cotton-Moya's transition into a starter it would help if he was able to do the same.
The Key to Success
A secondary is largely a product of the pressure generated by the front seven, but in certain cases the talent can be so great that an average pass rush will be good enough to let the back four shine. That's what I expect from this group, but maybe not this season.
Tribune has to progress quickly to a guy that can limit a team's top receiver to a few catches a game. If he can get there this season then a combination of Richardson/Lynn and presumed starting Nickel Jared Brackens can hold down the other side of the defensive formation.
Young safeties are always scary to deal with, but remember Washington started out as a redshirt sophomore in 2011 and was paired up with converted corner Ter'ran Benton. By the end of that season Washington was baiting Brandon Weeden into silly throws and being an all around nuisance in the deep part of the field. It helped he had two NFL linebackers in front of him, but never underestimate the power of an intelligent player raised in a system created by a veteran coach.
There will be growing pains with this group, but they might have the greatest long term upside of any unit on the roster.