North Texas Daily

With depth intact, Reffett and defense aim for breakthrough season

With depth intact, Reffett and defense aim for breakthrough season

North Texas junior linebacker E.J. Ejiya lines up for a snap against Southern Mississippi University. Courtesy | Mean Green Athletics

With depth intact, Reffett and defense aim for breakthrough season
August 08
12:55 2018

Matthew Brune | Senior staff writer

Defensive coordinator Troy Reffett was optimistic leaving practice on Tuesday. It is now his second season as the lone defensive coordinator, and his defense is coming off of a rough and inconsistent year in 2017, but he sees something different in this group.

While Reffett lost key players in safety Kishawn McClain, cornerback Eric Jenkins and defensive end Andy Flusche to graduation, what he now has is something he’s yearned for since he became the co-defensive coordinator in 2016.

“For the first time since we’ve been here, we’re three deep with scholarship players at almost every position,” Reffett said. “That brings more competition, so you have guys that have to go out and perform well because there’s someone behind them that can come in and take their job.”

That depth across the defense is a huge factor in the defense’s ability to stay consistent throughout the year. At times last year an injury or a long series would deplete a lot of positions of quality depth and lead to a difficult series.

Now, with a few recruiting classes under head coach Seth Littrell’s belt, the depth has shown vast improvement, which was on display in the early practices.

“With the depth this year, there have been a lot of guys stepping up,” senior linebacker E.J. Ejiya said. “There are guys who want to play and who want to compete, and to have that depth is a little relieving so the starters get a break and not everyone is winded.”

The Mean Green’s offense has blossomed into one of the best in the conference under Littrell, but the defense has been tougher to jump start. This year, though, Littrell is excited to see a smarter, deeper and more complete defense once the season kicks off.

“There are a lot of guys who have a lot of experience within the system,” Littrell said. “Now you’re starting to see them come together and understand the defense and understand what we’re trying to get accomplished. They’re playing faster and without hesitation.”

One of the primary concerns — especially in the first half of the 2017 season — was giving up the big play, primarily through the air. The secondary had their woes initially but improved as the season went on before Brandon Silvers, the quarterback of Troy University, dismantled them for 305 yards on 24-of-31 passing in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.

Now, the senior tandem of Nate Brooks and Kemon Hall will be tasked with showing the improvement necessary to be reliable in this man-heavy scheme Reffet runs.

While Reffett has been hard on the defensive backs in the past, he is impressed with the constant work the unit has put in over the offseason.

“We’re getting better,” Reffett said of the secondary. “We’re understanding everything better, and we’re becoming more fundamentally and technically sound. In the secondary, your technique is what wins for you.”

Safety Khairi Muhammad started last year at the position and always admitted he was learning under strong safety Kishawn McClain. With McClain graduating, it appears that junior Taylor Robinson will be filling that second safety slot beside Muhammad.

Muhammad was second on the team in solo tackles last year, only behind Ejiya, and looks forward to gaining even more of a prominent role this season.

“It adds more fuel to the fire,” Muhammad said. “I just have to step up and be that leader of the defense. Taylor Robinson is right [next to] me, and he’s playing a big role in this defense, so I feel comfortable with all the DBs.”

As for the front six in this 3-3-5 defense, two down linemen and two linebackers graduated, but the depth on the defensive line appears stout with the addition of junior Bryce English and the returners including seniors Roderick Young, Ulaiasi Tauaalo and junior LaDarius Hamilton.

Ejiya stands besides senior Brandon Garner in the middle linebacker spots with sophomore Joe Ozougwu in the outside Jack linebacker position. Ozougwu, or “Joe Joe” as the team calls him, showed flashes last year but did not get a lot of playing time as a freshman. This year, Ejiya sees him stepping into his new role in a big way.

“Joe Joe gained about seven or eight pounds, so he’s looking faster and stronger,” Ejiya said. “His pass rush is definitely coming along. He’s our best pass rusher.”

The defense will need all hands on deck as they look to finally break onto the scene as a solid unit for the first time in the Littrell era. Their first test comes right off the bat against Southern Methodist University in about three weeks, but their progress is enticing and even promising.

“[The defense] is more comfortable in [the system] this year, and they’re executing it better,” Reffett said. “They did a great job over summer continuing to run the defense and work on all the movements and the calls, so we’re farther ahead this fall than we’ve been.”

Featured Image: Courtesy | Mean Green Athletics

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North Texas Daily

North Texas Daily

The North Texas Daily is the official student newspaper of the University of North Texas, proudly serving UNT and the Denton community since 1916.

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