The Montana State University-Northern Lights are predicted to have a very explosive offense in 2011. The fact the Lights return so many starters on offense has people talking.
But Northern’s defense is looking to make people talk as well. MSU-N comes into the 2011 season with several key defenders back, but also with plenty of new faces and some question marks.
Still, MSU-N head coach Mark Samson is excited about the potential of his defense this fall, and he believes as the season goes along, the Lights can turn some heads on that side of the ball too.
“Basically, we have six full-time starters back on defense,” Samson said. “So that also means we have five new kids starting and even more new guys as backups. So there’s always a process when you mix those two things together, but I my opinion, that process has gone very well. Our defense has had a very good pre-fall and I think there is the potential that we can be very good defensively.
“And in this league, if you want to succeed, you need to be a very tough, disciplined defense,” he added. “And that’s what we’re striving to be. To be good on defense in this league, you have to have confidence galore. When we had the great defenses in 2006-2008, those kids just had a ton of confidence. They knew they were going to go out and get the job done every week and they pretty much did. That’s what we’re trying to get back to on defense, and I think we’re getting there.”
Despite having an all-american defensive end, the leading tackler in the Frontier Conference, two defensive backs in the top three in the league in interceptions, and the third-best sack master in the country a year ago, Northern struggled at times on defense in 2010 as injuries really took their toll. MSU-N had a mix of everything, finishing second in the conference against the run, but fifth against the pass and fifth in scoring. MSU-N returns several star players this season and has brought in some excellent additions to the program, and as 2011 gets underway, Samson and defensive coordinator Jake Eldridge are both excited about what the Lights’ defense brings to the table.
“I think Jake (Eldridge) has done a really good job preparing this defense,” Samson said. “The biggest thing is our depth this year. While we do have some young kids playing, we are pretty deep at every position and that’s something we haven’t been able to say for a couple of years.
“I think, especially with some game experience, this defense can be pretty good this season and as long as we can stay healthy, you’ll see us get better as the season goes on.”
As Northern prepares to face pass-happy UM-Western on Saturday, here’s breakdown of the 2011 Lights on defense by position.
Up front, the Lights will have two new starters, but everything starts with NAIA All-American Will Andrews. Andrews (6-1, 235) came back strong from injury and had a monster junior season in which he was among the Frontier leaders in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks. Replacing the efforts of Travis Hjort at the other end will be difficult however, but sophomore Ryan Craig (6-0, 235) is poised to make an impact. Hjort registered double-digit sacks a year ago, but Craig has had a strong fall and will start opposite Andrews. Freshman Logan Nathe (6-1, 230) and senior Johnny Figueroa (5-9, 220) will also see plenty of action at end.
“Will is already a great player in this league,” Samson said. “And I think he’s only gotten better. He’s going to have a great season. But what’s really nice about our line is how many young guys have really stepped up, both last spring and in pre-fall. We are deep up front with a lot of good kids who can play.”
Indeed. The Lights also return senior Nick Weller, who’s started at every position on the front over the years. Weller will start at tackle, but Samson says he’ll play all over the defensive line this season. MSU-N will start sophomore Corey Budak (6-2, 260) at nose guard, but talented transfer Mike Carbone (6-2, 265) will also rotate in and play both tackle and end while freshman Nathaniel Schopp could also see playing time on the line.
If there is a full veteran presence on the MSU-N defense, it’s certainly at linebacker. The Lights are as deep as they’ve in some time, and the position is synonymous with senior Landry See. See, a three-time all-conference performer led the league in tackles a year ago and has started every game since he’s been in Havre.
“Landry is just as steady and as solid as they come,” Samson said. “Every week, he’s there and every week he gets the job done. He doesn’t make many mistakes and while you might not always notice it, at the end of every game he leads us in tackles. He’s just a very consistent, smart football player for us.”
Also returning are fellow starters A.J. Pasalo and Jordan Van Voast. Pasalo was among the league leaders in tackles a year ago, while Van Voast, a former Blue Pony was thrust into a starting role last season and performed well. He’s carried that over to this season, and that helped him win a starting job. Northern’s depth is also bolstered by the return of senior Anthony Tate. Tate was a starter a year ago but was lost to injury in the opening game of the season. MSU-N also added Montana State transfer Jared Rohrback, and while he’s been slowed by injury at times, he will certainly have a huge impact on the Lights’ defense. Others who will create even more depth at linebacker include Bozeman sophomore Todd Henrich and freshman Kaimi Kanehailua.
“I really like the depth at linebacker,” Samson said, “And we have a lot of leadership back there. We have a lot of guys who have played a lot of football there and that’s key. I think we are just very, very solid at linebacker.”
“The Lights have been seemingly rebuilding in the defensive backfield for several years now. Long gone are the days of all-american Marc Samson, Eldridge, Khalin Anderson, Marc McBryan and others. But Samson believes his secondary is coming together this fall, and while there’s some new faces to be sure, and plenty of youth, he also says there’s plenty of talent, toughness and athleticism.
“If there’s an unknown on this defense, it’s the secondary. But that’s only because we have some kids who haven’t had much game experience,” Samson said. “The fact is though, we have some talent back there. We have some very good football players and we’re very athletic in the secondary. I really like the group. But they lack game experience right now.”
The secondary has just one returning starter in cornerback Tanner Varner, who had two interceptions and started every game for Northern as a redshirt freshman. But junior safety Matt Reyant saw extensive time a year ago and will be the anchor of Northern’s new-look defensive backfield.
“Matt has become everything we thought he would be when we recruited him out of Helena,” Samson said. “He’s a great athlete, a really good football player and he’s a winner. He just gets the job done. He’s going to be the quarterback of our defense this season.”
With Reyant and Varner shoring up one corner and the free safety spot, the Lights will look to newcomers Chris Hamilton and Ralphael Huizar to complete the starting lineup. Hamilton will play corner and Huizar will play safety, and both are tremendous athletes who have had strong training camps. Northern is indeed young in the secondary, but the Lights have some talented backups as well. Junior Josh Baum will see plenty of action while freshman Hunter Chandler of the Class AA state champion Bozeman Hawks could add depth, as will freshmen Michael McCrary and David Wilson.
“This defense is a great group to work with,” Samson said. “We have a lot of potential, and their effort and attitude is incredible. They all work hard, they’ve really bonded together as a unit and I think they are going to be a big part of what gives a chance to be very successful this season. I’m very excited about this defense.”