We kicked things off (figuratively) yesterday by focusing on the Racer offense, so now naturally the focus shifts to the souls saddled with the unenviable task of keeping train horn sounds inside Papa John's Cardinal Stadium to a minimum this evening. We'll also take an extremely abridged look at Murray State's special teams.
Positives are generally few and far between when you're coming off of a season that saw opponents score more than 30 points seven times, but having the leading returning tackler in the Ohio Valley Conference is certainly a start. Senior Mike linebacker Nathan Williams averaged a league-best 11.1 tackles a game in 2006, and finished the season in triple digits with 100 total stops.
The Racers will show a variety of looks on the defensive side of the ball, but each will possess the common theme of being designed for the linebackers to make plays. Because of this, having more than one capable body in the middle is huge, which is why the presence of sophomore Tamar Butler is so important. The heir apparent to Williams as the leader on defense, Butler recorded a team-best 9.5 tackles for loss a year ago as a freshman, and led the OVC and finished tied for sixth in the nation with an average of 0.36 forced fumbles per game while starting all 11 games.
Tennessee-Martin transfer Wade Peters has been impressive enough this summer to lock up the third starting linebacker position. Peters' work ethic was praised throughout the offseason as he beat out Roderick Jackson for the starting spot at the Rover position.
Having a bunch of experienced guys starting on your defensive front four is ordinarily good news. The exception occurs when you have a bunch of guys whose experience includes allowing 602 yards of rushing in a single game.
The quartet of sophomores Tyler Sinclair, Will Roach, Danny Blakemore and Blake Booth are the ones being trusted to improve on Murray's average of 231 yards per game allowed on the ground in 2006. Roach, Booth and Sinclair were all starters in that season, with Roach owning the most impressive stats of the group after recording 37 tackles and 5.5 TFL.
Most reports have stated that the offense has gotten the better of the defense for the most part this summer, and this young and undersized Racer defensive line is going to have to grow up in a hurry if they hope to avoid the same fate once OVC play begins.
The good news for Murray State's secondary in 2006 was that it didn't rank last in the OVC in pass defense. The bad news was that it still ranked a lowly seventh out of nine teams.
It's usually not a good sign when a defensive back is near the top of a defense's leading tacklers list, and such was the case a season ago when free safety Taylor Lanigan ranked third on the team with 73 stops. Lanigan is the biggest and most physical member of the secondary, and the one most likely to be utilized in blitzing situations.
Senior cornerback Derrick Parrott led the squad in pass breakups a year ago with six, and head coach Matt Griffin says that he's playing as well now as he's ever seen him. Parrott provided one of the biggest highlights of the first Racer scrimmage when he picked off a pass and took it the distance for a score.
True freshman John Jean-Baptiste surprised a lot of people by beating out returning starter Koji Farrington for the other starting cornerback position. Baptiste stands just 5-10, but he's from Tampa and has shown a level of athleticism that Murray desperately needs in order to better defend the pass.
Despite starting just five games in '06, strong safety Will Werner finished tied for fifth on the team in tackles with 42. He's missed a lot of practice due to injury, but is slated to be the starter tonight. If he can't go, then promising freshman Marvin Robinson will take his place.
Expect to see a solid amount of Lexington native Sean O'Brien this evening. The sophomore averaged just 29.7 yards per punt in limited action last season.
O'Brien will double as the place kicker, a position where he's seen no collegiate action. Art Carmody is your father Sean O'Brien.