Memphis Football Preview: Defensive Backs & Linebackers

This is the 5th and final installment of The BarnBurner’s Memphis Football Preview Series. In this edition we take a look at the defensive backs and linebackers for the 2018 Tigers defense. Both of these units return numerous players who saw game action last season, and according to reports from fall practices both units look to be much improved this season.

Defensive Backs

The Tigers secondary was 121st in the FBS last season in passing yards allowed, on a defensive unit that finished 116th in the nation in total defense. Several injuries on defense forced young guys into roles they may not have been ready for, but the experience should prove invaluable. The Tigers return two starting cornerbacks, and return at least 5 players who saw a decent amount of snaps last season in the defensive backfield.

TJ Carter

Coming from Stratford High School in East Nashville as a 3-star recruit with SEC offers, big things were expected from TJ Carter. However I’m not sure anyone knew that Carter produce at such a high level as a true freshman, as he took home AAC Rookie of the Years honors and was named a Freshmen All-American by USA Today and ESPN, to go along with a spot on the All-AAC 2nd Team. As you can see in the graphic below, according to Pro Football Focus, Carter rated out as the 31st best FBS cornerback in 2017.

Carter recorded 69 tackles, good for 5th on the team, led the team with 5 interceptions and also contributed 11 pass breakups, 2 fumble recoveries, and a forced fumble. Not only was he consistent throughout the season, but the kid also stepped up and made plays. BIG plays.

First there was the interception from Josh Rosen, who was under duress from Austin Hall (who we’ll talk about later), that floated into Carter’s hands in the 4th quarter of the Tigers victory over UCLA.

Then there was the Houston game in which the Tigers completed an epic come from behind win. TJ forced a fumble with just under a minute remaining in the game to seemingly seal the deal for Memphis. Memphis’ offense then went 3 and out to give the ball back to Houston. Not a problem for Carter, as he then intercepted a pass to finally claim the win. That’s right 2 turnovers in less than a minute.

The only thing that will hold Carter back from being an All-American this season will be teams avoiding throwing the ball his way. He’s that good.

Tito Windham

Senior JUCO transfer, Tito Windham, started 11 of the 12 games he played in last season and appeared to get more comfortable as the season progressed. Windham finished his first season as a Tiger with 36 tackles, 11 pass break-ups, and 3 forced fumbles.

Two of his biggest plays came late in the season. Like Carter, Windham also made a big play in the Houston game when he sacked the Cougars QB and forced a fumble that was recovered by John Tate early in the 4th quarter. Then in The American Championship, Tito intercepted McKenzie Milton at the Tigers 1-yard line to halt a UCF scoring opportunity early in the game, which led to a Tigers score.

With a year of FBS experience under his belt I project that Windham will only improve on his performance from last season. Playing opposite of Carter probably means he will see a fair share of passing attempts thrown his way, and his ability to cover will be crucial to the Tigers success.

La’Andre Thomas

Thomas came to the U of M as a top 50 dual threat quarterback in the nation, but was moved to the secondary prior to his freshman season beginning last year. He appeared in 12 games in the defensive backfield making 11 tackles to go along with 3 pass break-ups and an interception.

Thomas has continued to improve over the course of the offseason and the sophomore was named as a starting safety when the Tigers released their initial depth chart earlier in the week. As I mentioned early, by most accounts the Tigers secondary has appeared to be much improved from a season ago and Thomas is a big reason for that. As he continues to learn the nuances of the position, he will only continue to get better.

Tyrez Lindsey

Lindsey could be considered the prize of the offseason. While the redshirt sophomore recorded 4 starts last season and appeared in 11 games, Mike Norvell has referred to Lindsey as one of the most improved players on the team coming into 2018.

Lindsey recorded 39 tackles last season, but the newly named starting safety is expected to be a major piece in this improved defensive unit. Tigers coaches and beat reporters have repeatedly brought up Lindsey’s name throughout the fall practices, so he appears primed for a breakout season.

Josh Perry

Another redshirt sophomore, Perry saw action in all 13 games last season and made 5 starts. Perry will be splitting time with the aforementioned Lindsey at the safety position this season. Perry’s biggest game last season saw him make 9 tackles and pickup a fumble recovery in the Tigers win over SMU.

Although Perry was not listed as a started on the team’s depth chart, he will no doubt have a major role in the Tigers’ secondary once again this year. There is no denying his talent and it just once again shows the depth that this 2018 team has.

Carlito Gonzalez

The former Auburn commit battled eligibility issues and joined the Tigers much later than the rest of the 2017 recruiting class. In high school, Gonzalez was listed as a top 50 safety prospect in the nation and lead his Georgia high school team to a 6A state title.

Gonzalez appeared in the last 7 games of the season and recorded an interception against Tulsa that warranted a carrying off the field by his teammates and some kind words from former teammate Anthony Miller.

University of Memphis defensive back Carlito Gonzalez
“It’s just because he’s a guy that works so hard and he never tells the coach no, he can’t do it,” Miller said. “He always plays really hard and for him to get that pick, it’s just hard work pays off.”-Anthony Miller on Carlito Gonzalez. Photo: Commercial Appeal

Jacobi Francis, who appeared in 12 games last season and redshirt freshman Tamaurice Smith are listed as the corners behind Carter and Wyndham. There is no doubt that they will see quite a bit of playing time throughout the course of the season and their ability to provide solid coverage alongside the starters will be much needed as the secondary looks to improve upon last year’s performance.

Another redshirt freshman, Sanchez Blake from Olive Branch, MS will be playing behind Thomas at the free safety position. Blake was ranked as a top 50 player in the state of Mississippi out of high school and has drawn praise throughout the fall.


MORE: Memphis Football Preview: Quarterbacks

MORE: Memphis Football Preview: Running Backs & Special Teams

MORE: Memphis Football Preview: Offensive & Defensive Lines

MORE: Memphis Football Preview: Wide Receivers & Tight Ends

MORE: Grit ‘n Gridiron Podcast: Memphis Football Preview


Linebackers

While the Tigers linebacking corps lost 2017 All-AAC First Team Defensive performer Genard Avery to the NFL Draft, this unit returns 4 players who have a significant number of starts under their belts and several others who will be able to provide quality depth. This is probably the group on defense I expect the most from heading into the season, as there are really no weak links amongst the linebackers.

Austin Hall

A returning 2-year starter at the STAR linebacker/safety hybrid position, Hall is a 2-time AAC Defensive Player of the Week and completed last season as the team’s 2nd leading tackler (84 tackles) and was the runner-up to TJ Carter with 3 interceptions.

Hall is really a do it all defensive player who is effective clogging up the run game and is also solid in coverage. In the Navy game last season, Hall was instrumental in slowing down Navy’s triple-option offense by making excellent reads and excelling at tackling in 1-on-1 situations. In the first video below you see Hall sniff out the toss and tackle the ball carrier for no gain.

But like I said, Hall is also effective in coverage as he shows in the below video when he intercepts Navy’s Zach Abey to begin the 2nd half and get Memphis some much needed momentum.

Hall finished this game with 10 tackles, 1 shy of his career high, in addition to 2 interceptions and a fumble recovery. Hall has 140 total tackles in his Memphis career and is a leader of the defensive unit because of his mental awareness just as much as his talent. 

It wouldn’t surprise me to see Hall join TJ Carter on the AAC First-Team Defense at the conclusion of the 2018 season.

Curtis Akins

After finishing 4th in tackles on the Tigers defense in 2016, Akins led last year’s unit with a team-high 88 tackles. That was good for 8th highest in the AAC, to go along with 4.5 tackles for loss, 2 forced fumbles and a recovery. The Byhaila, MS product was recognized by Pro Football Focus as his play earned him a spot on their AAC First-Team Defense alongside Carter.

Akins racked up all these stats while playing in just 11 of 13 games and making 9 starts. He is one of the unquestioned leaders of the defensive unit and the coaching staff trusts him with making the calls for the linebackers when they are on the field. If he stays healthy look for Akins to continue to lead the team in tackles and be near the top of the category for the conference.

Jackson Dillon

Finally, Jackson Dillon appears healthy coming into a season, after playing just one game in each of the past 2 years and being granted a 6th year of eligibility in mid-August. A 3-year starter from 2013-2015, Dillon has totaled 109 tackles, 20.5 TFLs, and 4.5 sacks throughout his time with the Tigers.

Dillon was huge in the Tigers win over #13 Ole Miss in 2015, and in the below video you can see what type of talent he has as he makes the tackle on back-to-back plays.

Dillon is another guy who’s name has constantly been brought up by the coaching staff and media members throughout the fall. Dillon can bring a much needed pass rushing force to the Tigers defense and an intensity level that the fans have missed seeing for the past 2 years.

Dillon has a very interesting life story that Geoff Calkins outlines in this column from his time with the Commercial Appeal, and made waves across social media with his new-look mullet and his thoughts on said mullet.

JJ Russell

Quite possibly the most pleasant surprise of the offseason, sophomore JJ Russell from Grenada, MS had the coaches raving about his performance all throughout the fall and was rewarded by being named co-starter at the WILL linebacker position.

Russell mostly saw action on special teams last year, but his speed and intensity level have gained the trust of the coaching staff and Russell will be asked to play a big role in this defense.

Tim Hart

Another sophomore and local product, Hart, who spent his high school career at Memphis University School, started 10 games last season and is listed as a co-starter along with Curtis Akins. Coach Norvell has repeatedly stated that he loves the teams depth at the linebacker position, and these young guys making an early impact is a big reason the Tigers now have this luxury.

Keith Brown is a junior college transfer expected to make an immediate impact, as he was listed as the co-started with Russell. Brown received several accolades at Northwest Mississippi Community College, where he finished last season with 94 tackles and 6 sacks. Bryce Huff, who made 3 starts last year and recorded 8 tackles in the Navy game will be there to spell Jackson Dillon from time to time. Nehemiah Augustus and Thomas Pickens both appeared in games last season and will provide depth behind Hall at the STAR position.

That’s all for the Memphis Football Preview Series, it is now time to watch it all play out on the field.

Give me a follow on Twitter (@BarnBurnerSlim) to keep up with my thoughts on the Tigers as the take on Mercer this evening. For more content from The BarnBurner, click HERE.

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