The future is now for the back end of the Southern defense.
Nearly half of the players on the two-deep at defensive back and linebacker are either true freshmen or redshirt freshmen.
It’s partly by design — talented players ready to contribute — and partly out of necessity — ineligible players. It has led to occasional breakdowns but also accelerated the development of young players.
“It’s a good thing and a bad thing,” secondary coach Marty Biagi said.
Freshman Danny Johnson of East Feliciana is in a rotation with senior De’Andre Woodland and junior Kevin King at the top of the cornerback depth chart.
“He’s done exactly what we recruited him to do — come in and make plays, learn the playbook quickly and be able to, when his name is called, go in there and compete,” Biagi said of Johnson. “We have a nice rotation. If somebody messes up, they know their head is on the chopping block and the next guy is ready to come in and compete.”
The next three guys in line at corner are redshirt freshmen Ki-Jana Curtis, Jamar Mitchell and Justin Bethancourt.
At safety, Ryan Anderson, like Johnson, is a true freshman who made an interception in the season opener at Louisiana-Lafayette. Anderson emerged as the starting free safety after Renaldo Thomas was declared academically ineligible.
“He’s done a great job,” Biagi said. “As a free safety, his job is to protect the post, and he’s earned that spot, because he’s disciplined.”
Biagi said the depth at safety isn’t as settled as it is at corner, but it’s coming. After senior strong safety Dionte McDuffy there’s sophomore Blake Monroe.
Senior Jonathan Martin, who backs up junior Rhaheim Ledbetter at nickelback, and freshmen LeMar Martin are next in line, due in part to the absence of senior Jaleel Richardson, who is still awaiting academic certification.
This week the pass defense is facing a Northwestern State offense that had 331 passing yards and three touchdown passes in a 55-14 victory against Southern in Natchitoches.
“We’re young, but we’re talented,” head coach Dawson Odums said. “These guys will get up for it and they’ll be ready. We’re learning what these guys can and cannot do. I think that’ll be something to watch — our DBs against their receivers.”
Academic ineligibility claimed two senior linebackers in Daniel Brown and Detrane Lindsey. That has required young players to fill in around junior Javon Allen and sophomore Demetrius Carter.
“The good thing about having young backers,” linebackers coach Lorick Atkinson said, “is we have two good veterans in front of them in Javon and Demetrius.”
Freshman Aaron Tiller, brother of Trae’ Tiller, who played nose tackle before graduating after last season, was the third starter last week. He missed an assignment on the only touchdown the defense allowed in a 56-14 victory against Central Methodist.
“Aaron has been thrown to the fire a little bit, but he’s growing up,” linebackers coach Lorick Atkinson said. “It was just his second college football game. He plays hard and he’s a physical presence.”
Tiller is sharing the strongside position with a junior, Dorsey Bindon, but Bindon hadn’t played before this year.
Freshman Kentavious Preston is backing up Allen in the middle and sophomore Roshaud Turner is backing up Carter.
“Preston made some plays,” Atkinson said, “and he’s really starting to grasp it a little bit.”
Biagi said the defensive backs and linebackers spend a lot of time studying film together, acting as though “they’re all one unit.”
“We know we need them and they need us,” King said. “To be successful in the passing game it can’t just be the secondary or just the linebackers. So we’ve come together as one big brotherhood.”