HOUGHTON - The Michigan Tech football team had the second-best run defense (118.3 yards against average) in the 16-team Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference last season, but the second-worst pass defense (245.2 yards).
Those stats bear out the Huskies' priorities in stopping the run first, but addressing concerns in the secondary is one of the primary objectives this spring.
Tech will have to replace its second-leading tackler in free safety Emmett Bjorn, and while both starting cornerbacks return from the fall, the Huskies are experimenting with a variety of different formations and roles.
Teammates congratulate Jeremy Mims (6, with ball)?after an interception during a September game against Findlay at Sherman Field. Mims returns at one of the cornerback positions in the Huskies’ secondary.
"That right now is all still a work in progress," Tech coach Tom Kearly said. "Free safety right now has been a three-way battle."
Derek Ferris played in eight games during his freshman season, Josh Siler did not see action as a sophomore and Derek Cingel has shown promise entering his second year on the team.
"We think (Cingel) is very, very talented and needs reps and needs to play. We think his upside is there," Kearly said. "We have several young people in that secondary that we feel will be good football players, but they're not there yet."
Tech's two young returning cornerbacks have shown flashes of solid play, but need to work on consistency. They'll also be filling slightly different roles this fall.
DeShawn Nelson, a 5-foot-10 corner, had 49 tackles, a GLIAC- and team-high five interceptions (no other teammate had more than one), nine pass break-ups and 14 passes defended as a sophomore last fall.
Jeremy Mims, a 6-foot-2 corner, had 34 tackles, an interception, three pass break-ups and four passes defended as a sophomore.
"Mims and Nelson are both back, but we've flopped them a little bit," Kearly said. "We've put DeShawn in the boundary (basically outside linebacker positioning) and we're playing him with (Brett) Gervais into the boundary. We can do a lot of things with those two because they're both similar type of guys."
By using the two almost interchangeably, and with both playing cornerback last year, it will create challenges for opponents to identify coverages.
"We can play back and up, up and back, show some different looks there, and not give somebody the clear indication of who's got coverage, who's coming, where the support is - all the things we want to do there," Kearly said.
While linebackers do not typically count as secondary, since Tech usually only uses one safety, the outside linebackers - or "alley" players - factor into covering receivers in several formations. A more detailed analysis of Tech's linebackers was in Thursday's Daily Mining Gazette.
Mims will be the primary wide cornerback, which will allow him to utilize his size in jump-ball situations. Cedric Jones, who saw action in all 10 games as a freshman last year, and Roth Mendoza are the back-up cornerbacks in spring practice.
According to Kearly, Gervais can also move out to play corner, like he did as a freshman, and Mims can play safety. There will be plenty of shuffling before the team takes the field this fall, and possibly even then. While that could create confusion internally, Tech at least hopes the mix of personnel and coverages will create confusion for opponents, too.
Editor's note: This secondary feature is the third in an eight-part series breaking down the Michigan Tech football team position by position leading to next Saturday's annual spring game at Sherman Field. Wednesday looked at the defensive line, Thursday at Tech's linebackers and Saturday will examine special teams. Next week Tuesday through Friday will break down the offense.