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2016 UTSA Season Defense Review

A young superstar in the making turned a solid UTSA defense into an impressive unit.

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NCAA Football: New Mexico Bowl-New Mexico at Texas-San Antonio Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

By any reasonable measure, the 2016 season was a roaring success for the UTSA Roadrunners. The university administration made a late coaching change last January, replacing former head coach Larry Coker with then-LSU running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Frank Wilson. Despite having little time to gather a full recruiting class, Wilson was able to bolster his roster by attracting graduate transfers and instant-impact recruits.

While Wilson didn’t have any previous collegiate experience as a coordinator or head coach he was able to guide the Roadrunners to their best season since 2013. UTSA was granted their first ever bowl bid, tying the NCAA record for fastest program to reach a bowl game after they lost to the New Mexico Lobos 20-23 in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl.

We’ve reviewed the Roadrunners’ season by breaking down their offensive and defensive performance. This is the second half of our season review in which we’ll take a close look at each position unit on the defense. You can find our offensive review at the link below.


Statistical Summary

  • Fewest points allowed: 13
  • Most points allowed: 63
  • Average points allowed per game: 27.9
  • Turnovers created: 18
  • Third down conversion rate: 40%
  • Defensive efficiency rank: 55 out of 128
  • Opposing offense explosiveness rank: 84 out of 128
  • Final S&P+ rank: 91 out of 128

Defensive Line

Just as UTSA’s offense saw a drastic schematic redesign in 2016, the Roadrunners’ defense underwent a striking makeover in the off-season. Defensive coordinator Pete Golding ushered in UTSA’s first-ever odd man front on the defensive line as he sought to implement a more attacking defense. While every position unit shouldered the change, no group was more affected than the defensive line.

The move to an odd man front forced defensive linemen to change positions or play out of position yet they responded to the challenge with gusto. Sophomore Kevin Strong may be the best example of this fact. A promising freshman talent at defensive tackle, Strong was asked to make the move to defensive end to give UTSA’s defense some beef against the run. Strong struggled to adjust to the position initially but adopted well as he acquiesced to the finer points of the position. He finished the season with 24 tackles with 6.5 tackles for loss, one sack, two forced fumbles, one recovery, and two blocked kicks.

UTSA’s best defensive lineman Marcus Davenport didn’t technically change positions in the odd man front but his responsibilities did alter considerably. Davenport mostly played as a nine technique end which means he was mostly charged with patrolling the outer edge of the field from an upright stance. Davenport was once again UTSA’s best pass rusher, finishing the season with 68 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, eight quarterback hurries, one forced fumble, one recovery, and one pass break up.

NCAA Football: Texas-San Antonio at Colorado State The Coloradoan-USA TODAY Sports

Seniors Vontrell King-Williams, Ben Kane, and Romario Napoles didn’t turn in many plays in the backfield but they were all extremely sound against the run and provided a great bridge to UTSA’s young crop of defensive linemen. Redshirt freshman Baylen Baker showed impressive strength in the trenches in his debut as he started in most of UTSA’s games this season as a nose guard. Baker totaled 19 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, one sack, one quarterback hurry, and a pass breakup, all while keeping opposing linemen off of UTSA’s linebackers.

One of the biggest surprises of the season has to be the sudden and unexpected emergence of redshirt freshman defensive tackle King Newton. Despite weighing in at just 6’1”, 275 pounds, Newton was nearly unblockable through several stretches of the season, ripping through would-be blockers by using his leverage and quick feet. Newton totaled 31 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, one sack, four quarterback hurries, and two forced fumbles while also causing countless running backs to alter their path after seeing Newton burst through the line of scrimmage.

True freshman Eric Banks might be UTSA’s most promising prospect on the defensive line. The 6’5” former quarterback flashed incredible athleticism at the nine technique, racking up 19 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, one sack, one quarterback hurry, and one pass break up in limited snaps. As Banks adds muscle onto his lengthy frame he should be able to replace Marcus Davenport’s pass rushing ability once Davenport graduates.

Defensive ends Solomon Wise, TJ King, and Jarrod McLin didn’t play a ton of snaps this season but all three made impacts when provided with opportunities. This was already UTSA’s deepest defensive line ever and it should only improve as the roster has time to physically adjust to their new roles in the off-season. If the young guys are able to develop into consistent pass rushers then they’ll be able to raise this grade to an A in 2017.

Grade: B

Linebackers

Welcome to the Josiah Tauaefa era at UTSA. The 6’1”, 230 pound middle linebacker of Afakasi decent became the program’s first-ever freshman All-American after turning in the single best season of any Roadrunner football player ever. Tauaefa played with graceful violence in his freshman campaign, displaying sheer aggression and a natural football intelligence with the pliability and lucidity of a figure skater mid-pirouette. The freshman broke the UTSA record for tackles in a single season with 115 while also causing havoc with nine tackles for loss, six sacks, seven quarterback hurries, and two pass deflections. Most notably, he did this:

It was such a forceful opening campaign it leaves limited room for improvement. If there is one area where Tauaefa could take a step forward it is in his pass coverage. A defensive lineman and situational running back at Lake Dallas High School, Tauaefa did show some struggles in pass coverage, specifically in UTSA’s 5OT loss to UTEP. If Tauaefa is able to refine his ability to drop back into coverage it will further improve the Roadrunners’ ability to get off the field on third down as defensive coordinator Pete Golding will have the luxury to implement more exotic zone blitz packages.

Tauaefa was so exceptional it caused one of the most disruptive linebackers in Conference USA to go mostly unnoticed through the season. Junior college transfer La’Kel Bass lived behind the line of scrimmage this year, bringing down ball carriers in the backfield 11 times with five sacks and three quarterback hurries. He also forced a fumble and recovered two more. That’s a damn good season by any measure. Both guys will return to terrorize the opposition in 2017.

UTSA also received valuable depth from junior Marcos Curry and LSU graduate transfer Ronnie Feist. Both guys deserve a lot of credit for their contributions this season. Curry was a starter during the 2015 campaign while Feist certainly must have expected to be an instant starter after transferring from an SEC program. Although Tauaefa and Bass won out the position battles for the starting spots, neither Curry nor Feist let it prevent them from playing great football. Feist finished his career with 35 tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack and two quarterback hurries while Curry pitched in 30 tackles, two tackles for loss, a forced fumble, and was a clear stand out on special teams.

Grade: A

Cornerbacks

Perhaps the biggest difference in Pete Golding’s defense as opposed to that of previous defensive coordinator Neal Neathery is that Golding plays single-man coverage on the outside. A lot of it. Mostly preferring to blitz over utilizing a second deep safety, Golding left his cornerbacks on islands repeatedly with mixed results.

The change in strategy dictated a change in personnel. In the search for physical corners with range and wingspan, the staff elected to move Baylor transfer and former safety Austin Jupe to the cornerback position, one of their best decisions of the season. Jupe took to the position immediately, using his size and strength to create a huge pass breakup on third down in his first game as a corner against Old Dominion. It didn’t take long for Jupe to take a stranglehold of one of the starting positions as he earned starting duties in the final nine games of the season. Jupe ended the season with 22 tackles and five pass breakups but failed to come down with an interception.

Jupe’s ascension came at the cost of N’Keal Bailey who started at the position in the first few games of the year. Bailey isn’t a bad corner by any means but he struggled with jamming bigger receivers off the line of scrimmage, a crucial trait for man coverage. Fortunately UTSA was able to find two cornerbacks able to fill the role in their previous recruiting class.

True freshman Teddrick McGhee burst onto the scene in his first collegiate season, showing future all-conference potential. McGhee started in eight games as a freshman as his natural athleticism and length gave him a leg up over the competition at his position unit. Turning in 25 tackles on the season, McGhee went toe-to-toe with elite wide receiver talent without batting an eye. He certainly made his fair share of mistakes and lacked the strength to stay on the field against run-heavy offenses but it’s hard to look back at his interception against North Texas without spinning up lofty expectations for the young athlete.

McGhee lined up in zone coverage on the boundary side of the field and watched the only receiver on his side of the gridiron run out of the play on a nine route. McGhee slid to the middle of the field, following UNT quarterback Mason Fine’s eyes to the far sideline. McGhee read it perfectly, knowing the limitation of Fine’s arm. Fine floated it down the sideline, missing a streaking receiver short as McGhee leaped up to snag it. It was one of the most savvy plays a UTSA defender turned in this season and a true freshman was the maestro.

Junior college transfer Devron Davis was a bit slow to find his footing in UTSA’s defense but once he came into his own he impressed with his hard-hitting physicality and ball skills. Davis first made his presence felt in the program after delivering a bone-rattling hit on Arizona State’s quarterback in the Alamodome.

Davis was UTSA’s best cornerback against the run as he turned in 25 tackles, two tackles for loss, five pass break ups, and one interception on the year. He showed why he was such a highly sought-after recruit as he played his best game of the season against Texas A&M by physically matching up with arguably the best wide receiver unit in the nation. Davis only started in the final three games of the season but it seems clear to me that the staff is going to find a way to keep him on the field more often in 2017. I wouldn’t be surprised if he becomes UTSA’s nickel corner, partially filling Michael Egwuagu’s role in the defense.

Overall UTSA’s cornerbacks were as good as the program has ever seen but a relative lack of interceptions held the unit back from being a top tier position group. With all the main contributors returning in 2017 I wouldn’t be surprised to see them pick off more balls next season.

Grade: B

Safeties

UTSA returned a strong and experienced group of safeties and they played up to expectations in both the run and pass game. Senior Michael Egwuagu turned in the most versatile defensive season I’ve ever seen, providing exceptional play as a pass rusher, deep safety, nickel corner, and hybrid linebacker. Egwuagu was graded out as the best slot defender in college football by Pro Football Focus for the second straight year which should lead him towards some opportunities at the next level if he tests well at the combine. Egwuagu is an extremely special athlete that UTSA will not be able to replace— the scheme must simply evolve past his contributions.

Egwuagu turned in 83 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, an interception, eight passes defended, two quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and a half sack. It’s amazing to think back on Egwuagu’s illustrious career at UTSA and realize that “Egg” nearly doubled his career production in his senior season. He recorded 128 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 1 forced and recovered fumble, five interceptions, and 12 pass breakups in his first three seasons of eligibility. That’s a damn good 2016.

Free safety Nate Gaines was right behind Egwuagu in production as Gaines continues to establish himself as one of the best safeties in Conference USA. Gaines was asked to cover more ground in 2016 as UTSA utilized more blitzes and man coverage. The junior responded well to the challenge, more than doubling his career totals despite playing in 10 games in both 2014 and 2015. Gaines wrapped up his season with 80 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, one interception, eight pass deflections, and one forced fumble.

NCAA Football: Texas-San Antonio at Colorado State The Coloradoan-USA TODAY Sports

LSU graduate transfer Jordan Moore made waves after arriving on campus at UTSA, turning heads with video clips of his physical play in practice and outwardly-confident interviews circulating through social media. Moore ended up being one of the most divisive players on the roster as fans seemed to teeter between loving and hating the guy with every game. There’s no doubt Moore had every physical tool to dominate as a strong safety but his mental rust from being away from the defensive side of the ball for so long was evident repeatedly throughout the season. I don’t have statistics to track it but I’m quite certain that Moore led the team in missed tackles, several of which led to touchdowns. Moore also got lost in coverage repeatedly due to over-pursuit or ball watching. Dropping a few gift-wrapped interceptions certainly didn’t help matters either.

That being said, he also brought abundant speed and strength to the defense despite pretty pedestrian production (49 tackles, one interception, half tackle for loss, four passes deflected). While Moore was a polarizing figure, the truth is that he did a lot more good than bad for this defense, improving tremendously throughout the season. It’s a shame UTSA won’t have another season of his services but the track and field champion should find a landing spot at the next level thanks to his premium athleticism.

UTSA’s depth at the safety spot was evident in 2016 as C.J. Levine, Carl Austin III, Andrew Martel, and Darryl Godfrey all looked impressive when afforded playing time. With another year in the weight room these guys should be prepared to step up to replace the old guard in the following seasons.

Grade: A-

Coaching

Defensive coordinator Pete Golding put his stamp on the program in his first season as an FBS coordinator. The defense changed substantially for the better without time to recruit players that fit ideal personnel demands. UTSA should only move forward on defense in 2017 despite losing their best player in the secondary in Egwuagu. Golding’s schemes were effective, often causing confusion and frustration for young quarterbacks, notably Mason Fine of UNT and John Urzua of Middle Tennessee.

Defensive assistants Eric Henderson (defensive line) and Jason Rollins (linebackers) deserve a ton of credit for their development of outstanding young athletes. We’ve seen freshmen like Josiah Tauaefa, Eric Banks, Baylen Baker, and King Newton all establish themselves as potential three or four year starters thanks to the tutelage of their position coaches.

I have no doubt that UTSA has a terrific coaching staff on the defensive side of the ball. UTSA will likely need to be aggressive in retaining them over the following years as UTSA’s defense begins to turn more heads across the nation.

Coaching grade: A

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Texas-San Antonio Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Summary

It’s rare for me to disagree with advanced metrics but the product I saw on the field simply doesn’t match up with the 91st out of 128 ranking the S&P+ aggregator spit out for UTSA this season. While UTSA certainly could have used more “havoc” plays— sacks, tackles for loss, interceptions, forced fumbles, etc. I thought they were one of the best defenses in the conference despite a few down games.

Folks eyeballs will be understandably drawn to the 63 points the defense allowed against Louisiana Tech but let’s not forget the Bulldogs scored two touchdowns on special teams and were aided by an interception on the UTSA 31 yard line that led to another Bulldog touchdown. The 52 points allowed against UTEP is also misleading as the UTSA defense held the Miners scoreless in the fourth quarter after allowing just 28 points in the first three quarters.

In context, this defense was often left out to dry by an offense that stalled out way too often in 2016. Sure, UTSA’s defense could have turned in a Herculean effort and held opponents to low scores despite having to face a high number of snaps but that’s a reality that’s typically reserved for SEC programs with five star depth. UTSA’s defense has clear objectives to improve on but very few defenses out there could have seen the success UTSA did while playing so many freshmen. It’s hard for me to gauge the unit’s efforts as anything less than an encouraging success.

Overall grade: B+