While South Dakota’s offense enjoyed its most prolific FCS season to date, the Coyote defense experienced a very different ride in 2017.
There were games when USD looked very good (North Dakota/Indiana State), games they didn’t finish (Northern Iowa/South Dakota State), and those that they’d rather just plain forget (Illinois State/North Dakota State/Sam Houston State).
Injuries, inexperience and extenuating circumstances all contributed to that inconsistency, although none were ever used as an excuse. The Yotes fell short of their own standards and have taken steps they believe will ensure improvement in 2018.
The biggest change is scheme-related, but it is not a full-on switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4. Defensive coordinator Brian Mohnsen says there will be elements of both alignments in what he refers to as a more multiple defense. The idea, according to him, was to simplify things for his players while simultaneously creating more confusion for the opponent. In other words, fewer calls and better disguises.
As far as the personnel working within that system, USD remains on the youthful side. However, there’s no denying the significant uptick in both speed and athleticism on that side of the football. Here’s a look at how things are shaping up within each position group this season.
Projected Starters: #44 Darin Greenfield (Jr. | Sheldon, IA), #92 Kameron Cline (Jr. | San Diego, CA)
One of the biggest strengths of the defense will be on the edge. The Coyotes believe they have, potentially, the premier pass rushing tandem in the Missouri Valley Football Conference in All-American Darin Greenfield and Kameron Cline.
Greenfield, a former walk-on, is coming off a breakout season that saw him pile up 19.5 tackles-for-loss (1st MVFC/5th FCS) and nine sacks. He’s been named to both the STATS and HERO Sports Preseason All-American teams, as well as being one of 25 players nationally on the Buck Buchanan Award Watch List (Top Defensive Players in FCS). He is the unquestioned leader of South Dakota’s defense.
“Greeny” will be a marked man for sure and it’s possible that no one will benefit from that more than Cline. The San Diego native has always possessed the physical tools (6-4, 255), but coaches believe this will be the year he puts it all together. Cline had a tremendous offseason and looked borderline unblockable in fall camp.
Next Men Up: #48 Jake Richardson (Soph. | Kansas City, KS), #50 Spencer Hopkins (Sr. | Sioux Falls, SD), #91 Riley Peters (RFr. | Vermillion, SD), #95 Nick Kramer (Soph. | Plymouth, MN)
Interior Defensive Line
Projected Starter(s): #47 DeValon Whitcomb (Jr. | Omaha, NE), #93 Luis Peguero (Jr. | Wellington, FL)
The situation is much different on the interior, where the Coyotes remain light on both experience and depth. Last year’s freshman standout Nathan Schultz (8.0 TFL/5.0 Sacks) remains sidelined and his status for this season is questionable at best. Pair that with the graduation of Taylor Lambert (10.5 TFL/5.5 Sacks) and it’s fair to question where the production is going to come from.
DeValon Whitcomb is one guy that will be depended on to help fill that void. He saw limited action on the defensive line in 2016, but missed all of last season with a knee injury. Whitcomb the size (6-3, 280) and athleticism – he’s a former state wrestling and football champion at Omaha North – to be an effective gap-plugger and he impressed coaches with his performance this fall.
Like Whitcomb, Luis Peguero is another guy that’s entering his fourth year in the program. Peguero transitioned to defense last year after spending the previous two years at tight end. He made an immediate impact in a reserve role, recording three tackles for loss and two sacks in 10 games. An added bonus with Peguero is his versatility. He actually has the ability to play all four positions on the line.
Next Men Up: #51 Jacob Headlee (Soph. | Harrisburg, SD), #52 Braden DeBoer (Jr. | Sioux Center, IA), #62 Peter Klug (RFr. | Overland Park, KS), #70 Sammy Byrd (RFr. | Circle Pines, MN), #90 Jackson Coker (RFr. | Cedar Rapids, IA)
Mike (Strong Side) Linebacker
Projected Starter: #39 Jack Cochrane (Soph. | Mount Vernon, IA)
The Coyotes are extremely excited about what they’ve got cooking at linebacker, a position Mohnsen says is the deepest it’s been since Bob Nielson and his staff arrived at USD.
Jack Cochrane leads a trio of sophomores at the Mike. Injuries thrust Cochrane into the lineup in 2017 and he made the most of the opportunity. He played in USD’s final 7 games finishing with 11 tackles, including 2.5 for loss. Plus, coaches love his physical nature and the way he communicates on the field.
Next Men Up: #43 Joe Kordus (Soph. | Menasha, WI), #33 Jake Matthew (Soph. | Omaha, NE)
Will (Weak Side) Linebacker
Projected Starter: #22 Alex Gray (Sr. | New Lenox, IL)
Alex Gray is coming off back-to-back solid seasons, which featured a combined nine tackles for loss and three interceptions. Gray sat out spring ball with an injury, but has returned to form this fall.
Next Men Up: #5 Brian Woodward (Sr. | Phoenix, AZ), #56 Conner Thiele (Soph. | Oakland, NE)
Projected Starter: #20 Alex Coker (Sr. | Washington, IA)
The other senior at linebacker also happens to be the most experienced player in the group.
Alex Coker has played in 33 of 35 games over the past three seasons with 21 starts. He doesn’t boast anything overly flashy in terms of statistics, but that’s not always the greatest indicator of value. With that said, the word used to describe his play during fall camp was “tremendous,” which would indicate that he may have saved his best for last.
Next Men Up: #19 Clay Fisher (Sr. | Omaha, NE), #23 Jonathan Joanis (RFr. | Orlando, FL)
Projected Starters: #29 Isaac Armstead (Sr. | Broken Arrow, OK), #24 Mark Collins, Jr. (Soph. | Overland Park, KA)
The biggest question surrounding South Dakota’s defense is at cornerback. For starters, the Coyotes frankly don’t have a whole lot of them on the roster. They opened camp with eight, lost one to injury, then moved Michael Frederick over from running back. Needless to say, there will be a lot of baptisms by fire going on here.
The good news is two players – senior Isaac Armstead and sophomore Mark Collins, Jr. – have emerged as the clear front-runners.
Armstead is proof that good things happen to those who grind. After redshirting in 2014, he saw action in just four games over the next two seasons. He secured a more prominent role last season, but didn’t initially appear to be anything more than a contributor. That all changed in late October when he was suddenly thrust into the starting lineup. He responded with seven tackles and his first career interception in the 42-0 win over Southern Illinois. He’d go on to start USD’s final six games and comes into this season as the number one guy.
Collins’ impact was more immediate. He registered his first collegiate interception on the second play of his career, setting the tone for what was a solid redshirt freshman season. Coaches says he has really matured since then and has embraced a teaching role within the group. He’s also improved his speed and technique.
Next Men Up: #3 Jordan Sommerville (RFr. | St. Louis, MO), #8 Rodney Sivils, Jr. (Fr. | Largo, FL), #12 Tre Jackson (Fr. | Wellington, FL), #14 Michael Fredrick (Sr. | Miami, FL), #17 Cam Tisdale (Fr. | Clearwater, FL), #37 Gabe Montgomery (RFr. | Wildwood, MO)
Projected Starters: #9 Andrew Gray (Sr. | New Lenox, IL), #2 Mike Johnson (Jr. | Clearwater, FL)
The back end of the of South Dakota defense appears to be developing into a strength, which is good news for a team that proved susceptible to the deep ball a year ago.
The competition within this group looks to be among the toughest on the team, which should help eliminate any kind of complacency. And considering the depth issues lingering over other parts of the defense, that’s a really good thing.
Andrew Gray is entrenched at free safety. After battling injuries early in his Coyote career, Gray has developed into a bigtime playmaker. He led the team in tackles last season and also set a school record with a 97-yard interception return against Southern Illinois. He earned All-MVFC second team honors in 2017 and a first team preseason selection.
Iowa State transfer Mike Johnson was a little up and down during his first season with the Coyotes, but he looks much more comfortable now. With that you can clearly see all the things that made him a Big 12 football player. The only bad news here is that he’s currently on the shelf with a hand injury – and his status for the season opener against Kansas State is uncertain.
Next Men Up: #4 Elijah Reed (Soph. | Denver, CO), #21 Phillip Powell (Soph. | Chicago, IL), #27 Jakari Starling (Fr. | Riviera Beach, FL)