The defensive problems that hovered over the Temples Owls in the 2012 season were glaring.
The front of the defense struggled against the run and at putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. However, the front seven has at times this summer looked stouter against the run, and coach Matt Rhule has made intensifying a pass rush that produced just 25 sacks one his top priorities.
However, a shaky secondary – one that is still especially unsettled at both safety positions - clearly is a major concern for the Owls, who open the 2013 season at Notre Dame on Aug. 31.
“We are completely unsettled at safety,” coach Matt Rhule said. “We don’t know who the starters are going to be and that’s a function of no one has really quite stepped up to be a starter yet, not that it’s a great competition.”
Last season the Owls finished ranked 90th nationally in total defense, allowing 199.8 yards rushing (100th nationally) and 237.4 yards passing (66th). But while the run defense was as susceptible as the pass defense to be gouged for unacceptable numbers, the Owls front has returning depth that the secondary does not.
Both starting cornerbacks from last season – Zamel Johnson and Anthony Robey – return, although Johnson has been slowed this summer by some nagging injuries. However, the competition at safety is wide open.
Some of the front runners include redshirt freshman Nate L. Smith at free safety and true freshman Jihaad Pretlow, who has looked as good as any of the potential strong safeties in camp. Junior Chris Hutton, who had one of the Owls’ four interceptions last season, has been setback by injuries that have kept him off the field, is also firmly in the mix.
Rhule is hopeful that others from a group that also includes redshirt freshman Stephaun Marshall, sophomore Will Hayes and fifth-year senior Abdul Smith will be ready to contribute at some point during the Owls’ season. Because of the uncertainty, as he has done with numerous other positions, Rhule has been making sure that all of the candidates are getting reps with the first- and second-unit defense.
“Nothing is etched in stone,” Rhule said. “It kind of changes day by day, which can be a good thing or it can be a bad thing. Right now it’s probably in the middle. So we are trying to push through and get those guys play at the level of starters.”
Rhule has made it clear that he will not hesitate to play freshman deserving of the nod, which is something that Pretlow and others are fully aware of.
“The coaches have made it clear that they are looking for guys to step up and take the jobs,” Pretlow said, “and I don’t think they care who it is long as you can get the job done.”