Georgia State struggled mightily on defense in 2011 and the issues stemmed from poor play from the defensive front. The Panthers were gashed by opposing running attacks to the tune of 180 yards per game, which would have ranked them next to last in the CAA in 2011. The porous run defense led to long drives that gassed the Panther defense and directly resulted in opponents averaging more than 31 points per game.
The poor performance of the defense led many to call for action, including the possible firing of defensive coordinator John Thompson. But Thompson left Atlanta to take the same position at Arkansas State University, and Georgia State promoted defensive backs coach Anthony Midget to head the defense. Along with changing coordinators, the Panthers also changed defensive schemes and will run a 4-2-5 defense this fall. The idea behind the change is that the defense will be more athletic and be able to contain opposing offenses. However, this scheme will put a lot of pressure on to the defensive line. In addition to promoting Midget, the Panthers hire Ricky Thomas to coach defensive ends. Thomas has 15 years of NFL experience and has been a tremendous addition to the staff. But coaching can only go so far, and it will be up to the Panthers front four to step up to the challenge if the team is to have a better season.
That will be no small task for a group that lost defensive end Christo Bilukidi who became the first Panther to ever be drafted in the NFL draft in April. In addition to Bilukidi, Georgia State lost defensive tackles Kalan Jenkins and Khiry Karriem, who provided valuable depth on the inside, to graduation. Furthermore, the defensive front received two major blows this spring when defensive ends AJ Portee and Roderick Thompson were both dismissed from the team. The Panthers had so little depth on the defensive line during spring camp that offensive guard David Huey switched to defensive tackle and linebacker Qwontez Mallory to defensive end and coach Midget instantly said both could start at their respective positions. Georgia State did get some good news with the transfer of Kentucky lineman Nermin Delic to Georgia State, but the Panthers will rely heavily this season on players who have never played a snap for GSU.
Nermin Delic- The Bosnian national comes to Georgia State after two seasons at the University of Kentucky, one of which he missed due to number of injuries. Delic had to have surgery on his groin as well as his shoulder. He also battled blood clot issues and had a rib removed in order to help alleviate those problems. Now he is reportedly healthy and excited to join to former Kentucky teammates, Donald Russell and Alex Smith, here in Atlanta. Delic's transfer could not have come at a better time after the dismissal of Thompson and Portee. He can play defensive or defensive tackle and will likely be one of the more talented players on the defensive line this season.
CJ Stephens- Stephens saw time at both tackle and end last season and was rather productive in his reserve role, collected 12 tackles. His best game came against South Alabama where he recorded his lone sack of the year and three tackles. Stephens is athletic for his size and is probably better suited to play defensive end. However, the lack of depth at defensive tackle forced him to play there. He is reportedly moving back to end and will compete for a starting position there.
John Kelly- Kelly transfered to GSU last fall from the University of Nevada but did not see the field in 2011. But that did not stop him from being one of the more impressive players on the team for the first two weeks of spring practice. He was constantly around the ball during the team drills and was one of the better performers in the one on one drills as well. When asked about halfway through camp to identify who his starting front four would be, Midget identified Kelly as one of the starters at defensive end. But an injury kept him out for about the last week and a half of spring, and Kelly will definitely need to have added some weight in the off season to be ready for a starting spot this fall.
Qwontez Mallory- Mallory came to Georgia State from Georgia Military College last season and was a significant contributor at linebacker for the Panthers, collecting 27 tackles throughout the year. He moved to defensive end this spring and was very impressive in the spring scrimmage. But he is listed at just 215 pounds currently. That is just simply too small to be productive at this position with the level of competition the Panthers will face this year. If he can get up around 230 at least and still keep the speed that allowed him to be productive in spring camp then he could be a pass rushing machine in 2012.
Terrance Woodard- Woodard has shown glimpses of brilliance in his two years as a backup defensive tackle. He has a great knack for getting to the ball as evidenced by his five tackles against South Carolina State and four tackles and a forced fumble against Campbell. For a defensive tackle that is very good production and at 320 pounds he is by far the largest defensive lineman on the team. He looked to be in much better shape in the spring and was very productive. However he had a minor setback when he was withheld from practice for a few days for violation of team rules. There is no doubting that Woodard has the size and the talent to the be a dominating force in the middle, but the question has always been if he was in good enough shape physically and mentally to be a major factor on the for the Panther's defense.
David Huey- As mentioned previously, Huey moved from guard to defensive tackle a few practices into spring after taking a redshirt last fall. The result was immediate impact at a position where the Panthers were desperate for help. He was praised for his high motor and was consistently seen penetrating in the backfield. At 272 pounds he is one of the most physically ready to contribute at his position this fall, but will need to continue to work hard in the weight room to improve his burst and overall strength. He will likely be in one of the major players in the defensive line rotation.
McClain Head- Head also took a redshirt in 2011 and could be a darkhorse candidate for a starting spot in the fall. At 255 pounds he is a bit undersized for a defensive tackle, but he makes up for that with a tremendous high motor and relentless work ethic. He plays with a fiery determination and is quick enough to get past bigger opponents. However, the level of competition he will face this fall will be substantial, so it remains to be seen if Head is physically ready to be an impact player. He will likely be a rotation guy this fall, but has a lot of upside and four more years of eligibility.
Marcus Stetzer- The former walk-on received significant reps this past spring with the depleted depth at defensive tackle and made the most of his opportunity. He received the praise of coach Midgett and was in very much in the conversation with Head and Huey. Stetzer will need a big fall camp to hold off some of the new faces, but he has shown before that he can rise to the challenge.
Jon Marshall Sauls- Sauls has bounced back and forth from offensive line to defensive line throughout his time as a Panther and has yet to really form his niche in either. He is currently listed on the defensive side of the ball but will need to dramatically improve to crack the rotation in 2012.
Melvin King- King is a physical specimen at 6'3 and 220 pounds. He certainly has the frame to add some more muscle weight, and he might need to take a redshirt in order to do so. But he is a very promising prospect that could overcome is lack of size with incredible talent. He was identified by coach Curry on signing day as a freshman that could contribute right away, so keep an eye out for number 99 this fall.
Tanner Strickland- Strickland is a north Georgia product that is probably one of the most physically impressive players to have ever signed with the Panthers. At 6'3 and 250 pounds he has the athleticism of a linebacker. Coach Curry even said as much when he made quite the comparison regarding Strickland. He said that the prospect reminded him of Dick Butkus because of his size and how he moves despite that size. Curry also praised Strickland for his hitting ability. While Strickland's future could end up being at inside linebacker, he could instantly compete for a starting spot at defensive end, which is an area of greater need. He is a project type player, but you can't teach size and pure strength, of which Strickland has enough to spare.
Joe Lockley- Lockley was a highly sought after recruit that signed with the Panthers February 1st despite having coaches from Mississippi State in his home just the week before signing day trying to get him to switch his commitment. That kind of attention from an SEC program is enough to get Georgia State faithful excited about the Portal, Ga product, but rumors of his performance in the weight room this fall have left fans salivating. The Panthers have yet to have a dominant defensive tackle in their short history, and it appears they may have found one in Lockley. He was one of the few identified by Curry as potential contributors and there is a lot of buzz that he could be a day one starter for Georgia State.
Jahmai Davidson- Davidson was on the same team as quarterback Ben McLane that won a state championship at Brookwood High School, so he knows what it takes to be a championship caliber team. That kind of work ethic was clear when he attended the spring scrimmage and had his head in every play, dissecting his future teammates techniques and critiquing their decisions on the field. He was ready to suit up then and there, but had some work to do in the weight room this summer. He is listed at 274, but he reportedly is up to 285 and has been a workout warrior this summer. Davidson is a type of player that Georgia State has had too few of in their first two seasons with his tremendous knowledge and love for the game of football. If some of the returners don't perform then Davidson is more than capable of surprising and earning a starting spot.
The duo of Lockley and Davidson will be the anchors in the middle for the Panthers over the next four years and by the time they are done will likely be a force to be reckoned with, but they are not content with waiting around for that day to come. They are two of the hungriest players on the team and will push their older teammates and their level of play.
Summary- The defensive line has to play better in 2012. The importance of the addition of Delic can not be understated. He will be a key part to this unit in this fall and Georgia State has plenty of young talent around him. Nonetheless, it is very worrisome that the Panthers do not have a single player along the defensive line that have played at a consistently high level in their careers. In fact, it is questionable whether or not they even yet have the personnel to be productive. I personally am a fan of this group, particularly the freshmen, and believe they will step up to the challenge and become a strength of the team. But it doesn't make Panther fans rest any easier to rely so much on unproven talent.