Experienced defensive front leads UC into season

University of Charleston defensive linemen and linebackers go through drills Thursday at UC Stadium.

As position battles start sorting themselves out with the season fast approaching, Charleston coach Pat Kirkland doesn’t have to put too much thought into who is going to fill out his defensive front.

That’s because seven players with starting experience are back to fill the three defensive line and three linebacker positions in Kirkland’s 3-3-5 stack defense this season.

The unit was solid during last year’s 6-5 campaign as it finished third in the Mountain East Conference in both total yards allowed per game (308) and scoring defense (19.2 points per game allowed).

Senior Justin Avery, a second-team All-Mountain East Conference selection last year and a second-team preseason All-America pick according to USA College Football this year, said he’s expecting much bigger things this year.

“I’m really excited,” said Avery, who plays the “Mike” or inside linebacker position. “We’re bringing back seven [returning starters] total, we have a lot of experience, and we have a lot of great, young guys stepping up and doing well. I’m really excited about this group, there’s some great things we’re expecting.”

Avery will be joined by “Will” linebacker Nathaniel Berry and “Sam” linebacker Matt Duncan, who was injured in the second game last season, clearing out a starting spot for Berry.

Matt Kelly, a first-team MEC selection last year, graduated.

Demetrius Reddick and Rockford Stone also each earned second-team preseason All-America from their defensive line spots, and Tucker Schaefer and Kendrick Davis also bring starting experience to provide a formidable four-man rotation.

Reddick was a first-team all-conference selection last year and said even though there is a sense of familiarity, everyone on the team is still learning.

“We’re always striving to get better,” Reddick said. “We have a lot of veterans returning, but each practice we learn a little more. It doesn’t hurt to go back and relearn everything we did last year to better ourselves for the season right now. It’s going to be a huge step forward.

“We’re learning from the mistakes we made last year and we’re making sure we don’t repeat those mistakes this year. It’s a mentality . . . everybody who’s here is willing to work hard and we understand what’s the job at hand and what we’re trying to achieve.”

What the Golden Eagles are trying to achieve is a conference title and a step forward after three solid seasons under Kirkland. Since he took over in 2012, UC is a combined 20-13, including a 9-2 mark in 2012 as the Golden Eagles fell just short of a postseason berth.

And while former running back Jordan Roberts and former quarterback Maurice Leak have stolen many of the headlines during his tenure, Kirkland’s team has taken on a defensive identity.

Avery said that a small lack of attention hasn’t bothered Charleston’s defensive players.

“I don’t know if it’s even a chip [on our shoulders], it’s just we understand what we’re capable of and we’re not really expecting anyone else to give us the credit,” Avery said. “We just do what we know we’re able to do, execute and do our job.”

In the 3-3-5, it’s extremely important for the defensive linemen to do their jobs first, taking on blockers and opening up lanes for the linebackers to make plays.

With a pair of preseason All-Americans in front of him, Avery feels pretty confident that he’ll be able to make plenty of plays this season.

“It’s a great thing, we have two great nose tackles and those two help me out tremendously with my job,” Avery said. “They set the tone really and we all play off of them.”

Reddick said that no matter who is piling up statistics, the unit as a whole is focused solely on stopping the opposing offense.

“We take a lot of pride in it — if we don’t do it, who else is going to do it?” Reddick said. “We have to have a lot of trust in each other to know we’re going to step on that field and do our job each play, each down, and give our best to accomplish our goals.”

Whether or not UC can accomplish its ultimate goal this season remains to be seen, but with the experience on defense and some important pieces returning on offense, including quarterback John Knox and yet another preseason All-American in offensive lineman Justin Johnson, Kirkland knows it may be the team’s best chance yet.

He hopes that yet another side product of that experience, the ability to get younger guys more reps in practice, will pay big dividends this year as well.

“What we didn’t do a year ago was stay healthy —we got so many guys beat up and injured,” Kirkland said. “I’m hoping we can get some depth through camp and get younger guys some reps so they can contribute.

“[Our experience] on ‘D’ has allowed us to move along a lot quicker with our install. Camp gets shorter and shorter every year and we’re opening with a conference opponent so we can’t afford not to pop the clutch and get it out of first early. We’ve been trying to drive that home with the guys, and thus far they’ve handled it pretty well.”

UC opens at West Virginia Wesleyan on Sept. 6.

Reach Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948, ryan.pritt@wvgazette.com or follow @RPritt on Twitter.

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