Senior Patrick Henderson, who will compete for a starting spot at cornerback, had his first career interception last year vs. UCLA. James Dockery and Tim Clark are also in the mix at the corner positions. (Lori Shepler/Los Angeles Times)
Let's keep the discussion we started on Tuesday going by looking at the secondary, another unit that is surrounded by a lot of questions heading into fall camp. The situation is perhaps more dire in the defensive backfield than it is in the offensive backfield, as the RB's boast the returning Offensive Player of the Year, but depth is an issue. Depth is also an issue in the secondary, but finding four starters is of the utmost importance right now.
At first glance, it looks like the Beavers are starting over in the secondary. They graduated four-year starters at both cornerback positions in Brandon Hughes and Keenan Lewis. Safties Al Afalava, Greg Labourn, and Austin Hall are gone, exposing essentially a group of backups who will be expected to hold down the fort this season.
We'll start at the cornerback position, where Tim Clark and James Dockery are the early frontrunners to be starters come September 5. Tim Clark is the veteran of the group and has 11 pass breakups in his career. He also has six starts in the past two years, which includes the game against No. 2 Cal in 2007 where he basically called out the likes of LaVelle Hawkins and DeSeason Jackson-- and came out of Berkeley with a win. Clark has the athleticism needed to compete with the Pac-10's best WR's, and he's got the hard-working mentality (he shared the Lunch Bucket award with Taylor Kavanaugh in 2007) to keep honing his skills this season. But if there is a corner who will be picked on this season, it's probably going to be whoever is playing opposite Clark.
Right now, that figures to be James Dockery, a 6-1 junior. Dockery played in every game as a redshirt freshman but missed his entire sophomore season due to a pre-season knee injury he suffered in the weight room. He had a strong spring and has the edge at the left cornerback position, partially due to the size advantage he holds over veteran backup corner Patrick Henderson. Dockery isn't the fastest guy in the secondary, but he has the wingspan and enough speed to rattle Pac-10 WR's.
If you want to talk about size and speed, look no further than Brandon Hardin, the man who emerged as a great gunner on the punt team last season. Toughness isn't a problem, either, if the broken wrist he played with all of his freshman year is any indication. He had off-season surgery on that wrist, and is expected to challenge James Dockery for a starting spot. He may be a more natural safety, however, but he's needed at cornerback at the time being.
Suaesi Tuimaunei has quietly racked up a lot of game experience at safety in his two years at Oregon State-- he's played in 25 games and recorded 21 tackles. But that may be because of the similarities between himself and former teammate Al Afalava, who is now with the Chicago Bears. Not only did Tuimaunei and Afalava go to the same high school, but they're cut out of the same mold. He's a few inches taller than Afalava at 6'1, 207, but has the speed, and was a four-year letterman as a sprinter in high school.
Lance Mitchell looks to continue to hold down his spot opposite Tuimaunei at the other safety position. The sophomore from Santa Monica brings size (6'2, 205) and athleticism to the table, and holds an edge over Cameron Collins, who hasn't really done anything yet to separate himself. Collins seems like an early candidate to fill the Austin Hall mold-- fifth secondary guy in guaranteed pass situations and reliable backup.
The fact that that Pac-10 figures to be a run-happy conference helps out the secondary a bit, but there still may be some baptism-by-fire side effects. The defensive line, who will be breaking in three new starters, will also be an important piece to this puzzle, as some extra pressure on what will be some inexperienced Pac-10 quarterbacks will never hurt.
But really, the question here is if defensive coordinator/safeties coach Mark Banker and cornerbacks coach Keith Hayward can reload on the fly. Banker did it last year when the entire front seven needed to be replaced and came away from the season with the Pac-10's second best defense, behind USC.
Can this year's secondary be part of a defense that ranks #2 in the Pac-10 come season's end?