Spring Football: Defense working to make smooth transition from lost personnel
There are two notable pieces missing: Last year's captains Avery Cunningham and Shamari Benton.
Benton was second team All-MAC and 2013 CMU Defensive Player of the Year. Cunningham started 43 consecutive games at safety and was the third-leading tackler last season.
Many dependable and productive players are back, however, along with many new and young faces looking to step up and fill roles this season.
Fourth year defensive coordinator Joe Tumpkin said he likes the way the team is working this season.
“We (have) got some guys back with experience,” Tumpkin said. “We’re playing fast and they’re starting to understand what we’re looking for and they’re playing with effort and toughness and I think that’s a big thing I’m seeing out there. We are working on getting better at our fundamentals. “
Seniors Justin Cherocci and Jason Wilson are veterans leading the charge on defense.
“I think we have some young guys but we have a lot of depth and they’re all stepping up,” Cherocci said. “There is a lot of competition, so I feel like there won’t be any falloff from last season.”
Cherocci was the most productive linebacker last season for CMU. He recorded 121 tackles in 2013 with four sacks.
Wilson started all 12 games at cornerback. He finished tied for the team lead in interceptions with three, and was fifth on the team with 61 tackles.
“Shamari and Avery were big parts of our defense, but we (have) got a lot of younger guys who can play, so I feel like we can fill those roles good and we will be fine,” Wilson said.
Tumpkin said filling the gaps left by Benton and Cunningham will be put on the shoulders of the senior class, including Leterrius Walton, Cherocci, Wilson, Jarret Chapman and Kevin King.
"Then you look at some of the underclassmen like Blake Serpa, who is playing well right now," Tumpkin said. "Shafer Johnson (and) Jabari Dean will be key guys upfront, as well as guys coming up and developing like Kavon Frazier and Brandon Greer at corner.”
CMU has a good mix of new and established talent at defensive back.
Although the starters have impressed Tumpkin this spring, the young guys are in need of some improvement.
Wilson said things are different in spring camp this year among the defensive backs.
“We’re doing a much better job this spring than we have before at just doing our jobs and competing every day in practice," Wilson said. "Everything’s not going to be perfect in the spring, especially with new guys, but I think we’ve shown the ability to compete really hard and I’ve liked that.”
Junior Kavon Frazier is another name standing out this spring. He started nine games last season, ranking fourth on the team in tackles and tied for the team leader in interceptions with three.
Tony Annese, who won 2013 CMU Defensive Player of the Year, played in all 12 games last season and made an impact in his first season, catching two interceptions.
The group with the most experience is the linebacker corp, led by Cherocci. Six of the eight linebackers on the spring roster are upperclassmen with a total of 103 games of combined experience.
“They hit hard, they know what they’re doing and they come out everyday ready to work," Cherocci said. "Everyone’s been really physical and flying to the ball.”
Tumpkin said the group is not only the most experienced on defense, but it has more athleticism than in years past.
“I think we’re getting more athletic, especially with our younger guys," Tumpkin said. "You look at guys like Jeff Perry and Nate Ricketts. Those guys are moving around making plays. They’re coming along and playing hard and that’s the biggest thing. That athleticism has made us better tacklers out here.”
Junior linebacker Nathan Ricketts doesn’t have the statistics some of the others have but he brings experience. He appeared in all 12 games last season.
The third biggest gap on defense is along the defensive line.
In his first and last season at CMU, Michigan State transfer Jeremy Gainer was a productive talent upfront. Gainer was named CMU’s Defensive Upfront Co-Player of the Year, starting every game while leading all linemen with 41 tackles, 22 of which were solo.
In his absence, three key players are working this spring to fill his absence.
Walton is the most experienced lineman returning for CMU this season. He started all 12 games in 2013, ranking second on the team with 9.5 tackles for loss.
At the defensive end position, junior Louis Palmer is coming off a season in which he finished second among defensive linemen in tackles with 34.
Sophomore defensive end Joe Ostman was the lone true freshman to play for CMU last season, appearing in all 12 games on defense and special teams.
Tumpkin said this is the strongest group of defensive linemen in his four years as defensive coordinator.
“I’m very pleased with the defensive line group as a whole,” Tumpkin said. “The older guys are playing really good and the younger guys are starting to improve every day so I’m excited about this group.”
CMU has five practices remaining before the spring game at 1 p.m. on April 19.