Sunday, Aug. 26, PART 1 OF 3 (overall outlook): Season Of Change
Monday, Aug. 27, PART 2 OF 3 (defense by position): The Fast And The Furious
Tuesday, Aug. 28, PART 3 OF 3 (offense by position): Blocking Goes Big-Time
The 2012 Azusa Pacific football season outlook is presented in a three-part series, with the Cougar defense broken down by position in Part Two.
The defense returns just five starters from last year’s squad, but the veterans who return were among the most productive on that side of the ball. The Cougars return four of their top five tacklers from a year ago, including the team tackles leader last year in middle linebacker Sean Barber (106 tackles), and several impact players from seasons past have been thrust into starting roles to form the nucleus of one of the fastest, most athletic defenses ever seen at Azusa Pacific.
“We’re certainly going to be a little bit younger, but we’ll definitely have a lot of athleticism and speed,” head coach Victor Santa Cruz said. “When you have that, it can be a double-edged sword. You don’t want to limit what’s great about being young, which is their passion and enthusiasm, so finding that right balance between schematic responsibility and athleticism is going to be the challenge with this young group.”
OUTLOOK BY POSITION – DEFENSE
Returning Starters (1): Matt Moody (DE, Jr., 6-1, 220)
Moody was one of seven players on the defensive side of the ball who started all 12 games last year, tallying 33 tackles while ranking second on the team in QB hurries (six) and fourth in tackles for loss (8.0). Although the line lost sack machine Jake Jones to graduation, the Cougars do get to plug in another experienced upperclassman in senior Mike Willis, who returns from a medical redshirt season. The 6-foot-2, 247-pound end appeared in all 10 games during his junior season in 2010, recording eight tackles and a sack along with two QB hurries. Now in his third year in the program, Willis has developed into one of the team’s strongest and most well-respected leaders.
Anchoring the center of the line is senior Manako Tuifua, a 5-foot-11, 305-pound nose tackle who started five games during a breakout junior year. Tuifua registered 38 tackles, including 7.5 for loss along with 2.5 sacks, and he returned for his senior year in what coaches described as the best shape of his life.
Backing up Tuifua at nose tackle is sophomore Luke Siwek, a 6-foot, 298-pounder who is noted for improved explosiveness after he gained his first collegiate experience with appearances in four games as a true freshman a year ago. Chris Auxier redshirted last year and has filled out to 6-foot-3 and 249 pounds, adding weight and strength in the offseason as he enters the mix on the line. The Cougars feature quality depth at the position with the addition of two other massive freshmen in 6-foot-1, 280-pount Talaisi Taueli and 6-foot-2, 300-pound Jaylen Crutchfield, both of which could fight for playing time as the season develops.
The depth chart features several quality reserves at the ends, as well. Sophomore Greg Ehrhartwas a special teams standout who appeared in nine games and was credited with a pair of blocked kicks as a true freshman a year ago, and 6-foot, 221-pound newcomer Ryan Adams joins the program on defense as a sophomore transfer from NAIA program Concordia (Neb.). Adams was the team’s No. 2 rusher, gaining 387 yards on 90 attempts as a true freshman at Concordia in 2011. Junior Api Foumai (11 games, 10 tackles) and senior Erik Bonn (5 games, 1 tackle) exemplify the experienced depth Azusa Pacific has at the end position, while true freshmen Matt Hackett and JoJo Bones have the size, speed and athleticism to potentially make an immediate impact.
Returning Starters (3): Sean Barber (MLB, Jr., 6-1, 225), Spencer Danielson (ROV, Sr., 6-0, 215), Jake Henderson (OLB, Jr., 6-1, 226)
The most veteran group defensively is the linebacker position, which brings back three stars from last year’s defense as returning starters while plugging one of last year’s most productive backups, junior Ethan Danielson (6-2, 225), into the other starting spot at outside linebacker. Each member of the quartet is similar in size, stature, and smarts to the others in the group, and they will be supported by another set of athletic reserves who provide quality depth to the position.
Barber (106 tackles) and Spencer Danielson (82 tackles) were both 12-game starters who ranked first and second, respectively, in tackles last year, while Henderson was an 11-game starter who was the Cougars’ No. 5 tackler. At middle linebacker, Barber represents the brain activity of the defense, directing traffic and putting the defense in position to make plays while possessing the type of speed more typically found in a safety. Spencer Danielson was a starter in 2009 and sat out the 2010 campaign as a medical redshirt before returning to the starting lineup in 2011. He flourished in his return, notching eight tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, two interceptions, six QB hurries and a fumble recovery, and his presence as a fearless defender provides energy for the rest of the defense surrounding him.
Henderson, a fluid, balanced defender equally tough against the run and pass, is now a third-year starter and a seasoned veteran who registered 52 tackles (four for loss) last year. Ethan, the younger of the two Danielson brothers, registered 18 tackles in 10 games of action, but a player described by coaches as a “wrecking ball” was still among the team leaders in tackles for loss (6.0) and sacks (4.0).
There’s also no shortage of depth at linebacker, with seniors Troy Mouton (5-11, 200, 4 games, 8 tackles) and Noah Peterman (6-1, 220, 9 games, 12 tackles) each bringing a veteran presence into their final collegiate season. Junior Marcus Mendillo (5-11, 210, 8 games, 8 tackles) and sophomores Cameron Villalobos (5-11, 190, 10 games, 15 tackles) and Devan Hussey (5-8, 195, 10 games, 6 tackles) were key reserves a year ago, and true freshman Samuel Flemming (5-11, 206) had an eye-opening camp as one of the most pure natural athletes in the linebacker corps.
Returning Starters (1): Silas Goma (CB, Jr., 6-1, 200)
On paper, the Azusa Pacific secondary would appear to have the most holes to fill, with just one returning starter in Goma, who ranked as the Cougars’ third-leading tackler (59 tackles) with one interception last year. However, the reality is that the secondary could easily prove to be one of the defense’s greatest strengths in 2012. Not counted as a returning starter is senior CB Darrell Wilson (6-1, 210), who started all 10 games in 2010 and redshirted the 2011 season before returning to the squad at full strength this year. The size and experience of those two on the outside of the defense will help ease the transition into new starting roles for Azusa Pacific safeties Tyler Thornton and Nick Grunsky.
Thornton (5-8, 178) played in 11 games as a true freshman last season, and his combination of speed and strength at free safety gives the defense the range to cover sideline-to-sideline in a way it hasn’t done in several years. Grunsky (5-10, 190), a junior strong safety, also played in 11 games a year ago, and he rates as a fast, fearless athlete who has proven his dependability. Senior Jake Mittel (6-0, 185) is an intelligent safety who started four times last year, notching 29 tackles along with a team-high three interceptions, and he will figure heavily into the mix for playing time in the secondary.
Senior Chris Romero (5-9, 190) has gained notice for his consistent development within the program, and he may contribute along with junior David Smith, a 6-foot, 190-pound cornerback who transferred to Azusa Pacific in the spring and has shown the ability to step in and provide an immediate contribution.