Throughout training camp, a high point of emphasis for the Govs is improving a defense which allowed opposing teams to pile up yardage in the rushing column. With that said, It certainly doesn’t hurt to have two returning linebackers for their sophomore seasons.
One was second on the team in tackles in 2013, while his tag team partner emerged late in the season as a consistent player. But it’s not about what they did last season. The goal for Antonio Turner and A.J. Gray is turning this defensive unit into one that will finish at the top of the conference.
Turner, who recorded 67 total tackles last season, is expected to be the man in the middle of the front seven. This allows Gray to line up behind the defensive end to help pressure the edge, and has taken on a leadership role in his second season. In practice Tuesday, Gray was in the center of the huddle calling the play, which is a positive as head coach Kirby Cannon watches his young players grow.
“They’re good players and they have some experience now,” Cannon said regarding Turner and Gray. “They played scared, I guess, as freshmen, and sometimes that will help you. I hope they mature another notch. They both have great hearts and have the ability to be leaders on this defense.”
Turner and Gray both totaled 13 tackles in the final game last season at Tennessee Tech, so it’s clear they meshed out well after a full slate of games. Carrying that momentum over will be important as they try to cut down on the 44 rushing touchdowns allowed, but another could be a different look on the defensive line. The Govs will pack more punch up front, which will help the linebackers in slowing down ball carriers.
“We have a bigger line now, so that’s going to help out a whole bunch more,” Gray said. “We were short on the line last year, (but) now we’re healthy and ready to go.”
Early on, it’s been a process for Cannon in teaching the system to inexperienced. Much of the basic packages have already been put in, but over the course of this week, the Govs plan on adding both goal line and dime sets before a team scrimmage on Saturday.
Every team is going to have off days where players are slow and don’t bring the right mindset to the field.This was the case early in practice Tuesday on the defensive side. During a drill, players weren’t focused and in the wrong spots on the field, so Cannon expressed his displeasure by telling them to run a couple laps. Cannon referred to it as a game in which they fall down 14-0, then rally back, yet still are going to lose.
However, the defense led by Turner and Gray responded by bringing a higher intensity level to make some stops against the offense in an 11 vs. 11 segment. More of this will need to come as camp continues in order to reach the goal on the linebackers’ minds.
“It got the defense fired up,” Turner said. “We’re supposed to be the number one defense in the conference, and that’s what we’re aiming for.”
Photo: Antonio Turner (L) and A.J. Gray (Corey Adams/The All State)