Super-sleuthing Claeys’ mystery reserve players

Speculating who will be backing up 2018 defensive starters



Redshirt sophomore linebacker Dillon Sherman after a drill during practice Tuesday.

JACKSON GARDNER, Evergreen reporter

The Cougars’ defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys gave us a bit of a mystery to solve when he singled out five to six of his reserve players who are ready to contribute.

“The offense is way ahead when it comes to our two’s versus their two’s,” Claeys said. “However, there are five kids, probably six, in that second group that can play and help us, but when you put a whole second group out there without all the one’s, [the offense is] just ahead of us.”

When asked about whom those players in the second group were, Claeys didn’t give any names and said he needed to see the film first.

It is impossible to know exactly which players Claeys was referring to, but it’s a good opportunity to put on my Sherlock Holmes hat and let the speculation commence.

  1. Junior cornerback Marcus Strong

Strong is one of the few defensive players who can be considered in the second group for now, because he has seen starting time before. I say “for now” because it is within the realm of possibility that Strong beats out senior cornerback Darrien Molton to start alongside senior defensive back Sean Harper Jr.

But for all intents and purposes, we will assume the six-time starter, who appeared in 12 games and tied Harper for a team-leading six pass-breakups along with an interception last season, is among the six players Claeys is comfortable with if his number should be called.

  1. Redshirt sophomore linebacker Justus Rogers

Like Strong, Rogers played a lot of meaningful time in 2017. Rogers played in all 13 games in 2017 and started four games in lieu of three senior linebackers who were sidelined with injuries.

Rogers lives up to the Speed D title the Cougar defense adopted because he particularly shines in pass coverage. In addition to his experience on the field, I think his skillset in pass coverage is a reason to be included in Claeys’ group of playable reserves.

  1. Redshirt sophomore linebacker Dillon Sherman

Just like before, you can pretty confidently assume Claeys was referring to Sherman as one of the six guys ready to go, and that is simply because he has done it before. Sherman played in all 13 games last season, initially appearing in special teams and then as a linebacker as the injuries mounted.

But the trust given to him last season was from a different defensive coordinator. This is a new season and a new defensive coordinator, and it is not a guarantee Claeys sees the same contributor that former defensive coordinator Alex Grinch saw.

I think it is safe to include Sherman as a guy Claeys is confident with, but not quite as safe as Strong and Rogers. I may be splitting hairs here, but the emergence of sophomore linebacker Dominick Silvels could put Sherman’s role in jeopardy.

  1. Redshirt junior rush linebacker Tristan Brock

Here is where the true speculation begins. Anyone could have told you the three guys above were poised to contribute to the Cougars’ defense just by looking at the 2017 statistics sheet. Now we are getting to guys who could potentially break out this season.

During spring camp, Brock was still competing with fellow rush linebackers redshirt senior Chima Onyeukwu and redshirt sophomore Mason Vinyard, but the projected starter Onyeukwu is reportedly injured and Vinyard has since fallen down the depth chart.

At 6 feet tall and 240 pounds, I like Brock as a healthy backup to redshirt freshman Willie Taylor III because of what he brings in the run game. As a former defensive lineman, he is a bigger body than Taylor, who converted from safety to rush linebacker this offseason, and has more experience defending the run at the line of scrimmage.

I think there is more on Brock’s horizon in 2018 than just a special teams player as he has been in the past two seasons.

  1. Sophomore safety Chad Davis Jr.

Davis is a junior college transfer, and since arriving this fall adds some sorely-needed depth at the safety position.

As of now it is safe to say junior safety Jalen Thompson’s counterpart at safety is redshirt sophomore Skyler Thomas. But Davis has the size Thomas lacks, and that could prove to be beneficial in short yardage situations and in the red zone — an area of the field Claeys has put emphasis on defending since his arrival in January.

Davis was inactive for the scrimmage where Claeys made his remarks about his reserves, so who knows if Davis was actually on his mind when he singled out six players. But if Davis can be the guy in the red zone that I think he can be, he will be liked by Claeys.

  1. Freshman nickelback Patrick Nunn

Nunn is my dark horse for Claeys’ list of reserve players who are ready to go.

Every once and a while there are freshmen who show up to fall camp and don’t play like freshmen — running back Max Borghi is an excellent example — and that was the case with Nunn. I think Nunn’s tangible skillset can make up for any intangible shortcomings that often can be found in freshmen. At 6 feet 4 inches he is absurdly lengthy, which will help him in pass coverage, and his 205-pound frame will help him handle the physicality in the box.

I’m hesitant to include Nunn in this list just as Claeys was hesitant to add a sixth guy to his initial five. But Nunn has performed well, and if there is a freshman that will contribute to the Cougars’ defense in his first year, Nunn would be that guy.