DT: Travis Raciti (graduate student) and Tony Popovich (JR) have been very good inside. They are active players who usually beat their man and clog the middle, allowing the LB to clean up. I think both are having all conference-type years and Raciti is a next level guy. He may not be putting up huge stats, but, as a tackle in the 4-3 he's doing his job very well. Nate Falo (JR) lost too much weight and isn't getting much time. Foloi Vae (SR) has played decently as a sub.
DE: This position had trouble early in the year containing. The pass rush has not been there all year, but this last weekend Adrian Blake (SR) pressured pretty well and played well overall until his health scare. Garrett Guanella (SR) has been getting more time and has made some plays. It seems Eurgene Taylor (SO) is not getting as many snaps here, at least less than he was earlier in the year. Sean Bacon (SR) has been in and out of the lineup, but did have a sack and some pressures. Navy will be a challenge for this group; need discipline, as does the entire D, of course, when defending the option.
LB: Christian Tago (SO) has been excellent. He may be the first half defensive MVP. He flies around the field, makes plays and is getting better. Isaiah Irving (SO) manned the other side, but this weekend Brad Kuh (SO) was getting some time also. Vince Buhagier (graduate student) is back in the 4-3 and is a good leader. He and Tago are a very good tandem and are often cleaning up inside in dime/nickel packages. Tago's play flat out offsets and gives this group a bump in grade. He's going to be one of the best LBers since, well, Keith Smith. This group is getting better against the run, and if it weren't for a 50 yd run by Wick where the entire D was playing the 4th and 1 dive, and Wick slipped by for 6, they would have held WYO to about 100 yards. Still, Wick was held under 100.
CB: Cleveland Wallace (SO) and Jimmy Pruitt (JR) have been exceptional. Team's aren't challenging them because, bottom line, they're good. Both play the ball well and have good enough speed to man up a lot. Dasheon Frierson (SR) has also played well in certain packages. Now, we need some picks and big plays back there in the 2nd half. Wallace dropped a pick to open the game on Saturday against Wyoming. Also, both have been sure tacklers and have helped against big run/catch and run plays.
SS/FS: Forrest Hightower (graduate student) is the senior leader back there and has done a very good job. He's played much better in defensive coordinator Robinson's scheme and they send him on the blitz often; he's elusive and gets to the QB very well. Also, his tackling has dramatically improved, especially for an undersized kid. Akeem King (graduate student), I thought, had his best game against Wyoming. He's had up and down moments this year, but his run defense was very good on Saturday. Maurice McKnight (FR) is a flat out stud who we see in certain packages. He can play and has big play potential. A very nice addition and somewhat of a surprise to see how good he is already, and will become.He may be our best sure tackler; he certainly is in the secondary. He's also a great cover guy with ball skills.
Overall Defense: B+ - Overall, this defense is getting better and better. Tough competition early (especially Auburn) and giving up 59 points can't figure here too much. That's just a flat out top team and that game got out of hand quickly. Even with giving up 59 points this team has dropped the average points against to top three in conference. Giving up 10, 10, 20, 21 and 24, respectively, are very beatable numbers if the O could have found the EZ a few more times. Certainly well enough to be sitting at 3-0 in conference. It's a nationally ranked D in passing yards against and total D.
The D is solid and will be the remainder of the way. If the O comes alive and starts to score, look out; every game is winnable. But, if this D continues to keep opponents out of the EZ, earns an A over the last six games, even with an inconsistent O, this D is good enough to get the Spartans to a bowl.
QB - Well, we're grading two QB's here, so we'll come up with a combined grade. Blake Jurich (graduate student) played well against North Dakota and decently at times against Auburn. Minnesota was a poor game. Joe Gray (JR) played decently against Nevada for his first start, but made a critical mistake. He was much better against UNLV and very good against Wyoming with the exception being the fumble (gotta secure the ball). He has 0 picks in the last two games.
Gray gives us the best shot to win and is pretty comfortable back there. He throws a nice ball, accurate, and runs the ball control O very well. He runs well and has a good feel for the pocket; he's quick. But, the coaches will have to open it up some in the 2nd half of the season. Controlling the clock is great, but it must end in points and the margin for error is greater when you go on 15 play drives. This team needs some easy, big play TDs, so the psychological (uh oh, we're now in the RZ) doesn't start wreaking havoc.
RB - Tyler Ervin (JR), Jarrod Lawson (SO, done for year), Limihai Hifo (FR), Tim Crawley (SO), and Brandon Monroe (FR). It's been RB by committee to a degree, but we will see mostly Ervin the rest of the way. Ervin is a big time threat when he has space. He's not going to break a lot of inside tackles, but give him daylight and he can certainly help our RZ woes. Hifo looks like a talented big RB. Crawley can be slippery and Monroe, if he hits the hole, has talent. The rush game yields about 150 per contest which is good enough, but I look for the number to improve if Ervin stays healthy. A game like the one coming up against Navy is where a much more athletic Ervin could go off against a step slower Navy D.
OL - Jeremiah Kolone (FR) getting hurt is not a good thing as he, Wes Schweitzer (JR), and David Peterson (graduate student) have been playing very well and the left side of the line has been solid. Nate Velichko (FR) played pretty well this last weekend and Evan Sarver (SO) has had his moments, but these youngsters are still a work in progress. Pass protection has been less than stellar. However, a young line with new players takes awhile to gel and should get better as the year progresses. A.J. Samataua (FR) looks to be a good young replacement with run block skills, but he is going to have to protect the QB and rush in the middle, so hopefully he has the feet to do so.
TE - Billy Freeman (SO) seems to be getting better in the run game, and is a threat as a receiver (although he dropped a TD this weekend). Andrew Vollert (FR) has developed nicely. The freshman, a converted WR out of HS, has a long frame (needs some filling out) and is a threat as a receiver. RZ plays to these TE's could assist in the scoring struggles.
WR - Tyler Winston (SO) is having some trouble getting open. Facing the other teams best corner, with help often from the safety, has made if more difficult for him as the teams #1 receiver (he misses C. Jones). Average per catch is way down. But he's still be reliable in the pass game and Gray has to trust him more like Fales did with him and his WR's. You get one on one with a tall Winston, keep the ball in play, and trust he can go up and get it like he did to win the game Saturday. Hansell Wilson (JR) has made some plays and is a deep threat. Jabari Carr (graduate student) has not been given much opportunity but he's another guy that can go up and get it if Gray keeps him in bounds and trusts him (of course the coaches have to trust him also and give him opportunity). We've seen flashes of Jordan Soares (FR) and Daniel Bradbury (SR), but not much opportunity for either thus far. The WR's need to be in the game plan more; slants, deep balls, etc. The Spartans need more explosive plays and deep balls as 15 play drives are great, but that's also a lot of work being done for a shot at points when you can get some cheap ones if you take some shots down field.
Offense as a whole gets a C. They've run the ball pretty well (although the average per carry needs to improve), passed with efficiency, put up big yards, and dominated TOP.... BUT.... a lack of scoring keeps this grade down, and the bottom line, when thinking of offensive production, is the amount of points a team puts up. The Spartans need dramatic improvement in the RZ and on the scoreboard. The encouraging thing is, as noted, SJS controls the clock and drives from 20 to 20 with great success, so the offense has potential to put up points in the 2nd half of the season and will need to if they want to bowl.