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FHSU preview '13 -- Deep Tiger defense looks to continue improvement

By NICK McQUEEN

nmcqueen@dailynews.net

Third-year Fort Hays State University football coach Chris Brown doesn't necessarily want things to go wrong.

However, he is wanting to find out how the Tigers' defense, in its second year under defensive coordinator Cooper Harris, will react when things don't go its way.

That hasn't been the case in the preseason. For a group that boasts just four returning starters, but a wealth of talented newcomers, things have looked good and the Tigers are confident and ready to go.

"Our defense has done a pretty good job of really shutting our offense down, and making some great plays," Brown said.

The progress made last season in the 4-2-5 set under Harris has carried over somewhat into 2013, despite numerous new faces in starting roles. After allowing 34.7 points per game in 2011, the Tigers shrunk that number to 29.3. In addition, against the offense-heavy MIAA, Fort Hays, which improved from 4-7 to 5-6, gave up 442.8 yards per game in 2012. That was down 30 yards from the previous season.

"We're not where we want to be," said Harris, who came to FHSU from Washburn University. "It's a process. We don't really look too much back. We're really looking forward to this year."

While it's a relatively new defensive team for the Tigers, several saw time in reserve roles.

Sophomore defensive lineman Jesse Trent, senior end Basil Bandy, senior bandit back Stephen Marcotte and junior safety Michael Jordan all return as starters. Jordan is the only returning all-MIAA player and is in his third year at safety, second as a starter. Junior linebacker Michael Terry played in all 11 games and started three, and senior Andreas Ashwood played in 10 with one start. Sophomore linebacker Justin McPhail made an appearance in all 11 games, as did sophomore tackle Johnny Hubbard and senior linebacker Shane Smith -- all in reserve roles. The Tigers lost seven of their top 12 tacklers and six of their top eight.

Still, Harris believes the Tigers have more depth and more overall team speed, and things should continue to improve.

"(The depth) is one things I've been really happy with, compared to last year," Harris said. "We have a lot more competition for each position.

"That's pushing the players and making them better. That's going to provide use depth throughout the year."

Up front, the Tiger 'D' made a habit throughout camp of knocking down passes at the line. With Bandy, 6-foot-2, redshirt freshman Noah Debban, 6-6, and junior transfer Joita Te'i, 6-4, the Tigers are tall and long on the ends. The four defensive tackles on the depth chart --  Trent, junior Kedric Johnson, junior Brandon Walter and Hubbard, average 267 pounds.

"We definitely have more depth at that position than we have had," Harris said of the D-line. "Those guys have all come in and done a great job. There's about seven or eight guys on our D-line that are going to get significant playing time."

The fast, physical play of the defensive line, drew the praise of Tiger third-year offensive coordinator Justin Schreiber.

"When you play in this conference, the defensive lines are real strong, physical and athletic guys," he said. "Fortunately, we've been against our defensive line and we feel good about our line."

FHSU surrendered 183.5 yards on the ground a season ago, down nearly 45 yards from 2011.

"Going against them has really prepared us for our league," Schreiber added.

At linebacker, Terry, McPhail, Smith and junior Steven Koenig all will see time. Terry and Smith ranked 11th and 12th on the team in tackles with 35 and 33, respectively, a year ago. They also combined for three sacks.

The group of defensive backs includes Jordan, Marcotte, Ashwood and sophomore Raheeme Dumas as returners, along with junior Zach Nash. It's the most experienced unit on defense.

Jordan, who was honorable mention MIAA last season, finished second on the team with 87 tackles. Marcotte made nine starts last year and ranked seventh on the team with 42 tackles. Marcotte enters his fourth year on the field, after redshirting in 2011. He played as a freshman in 2009, and as a sophomore in 2010. Nash returns after sitting out all last year after an injury in the season opener. He took a medical redshirt. He played in 10 games as a redshirt freshman in 2010, and played all 11 games with four starts in 2011. Dumas played in nine games and had 12 tackles, plus returned an interception for a TD. In addition, the Tigers recruited an athletic duo of sophomore Daniel Lindsey, and junior Nathan Lindsey, twin brothers who transferred from Eastern Arizona College.

"Our defense has a lot of confidence right now," Brown said. "If one thing goes bad, I just want to see how they react.

"But this group is amped and ready."