BELTON, Texas- Defense has always been a significant part of UMHB’s success, and after a spring filled with learning experiences, the Cru look to be especially strong on that side of the ball heading into the upcoming 2021 season.
11 of the team’s 12 starters are expected to return, according to research conducted by True To The Cru. Cornerback Drake Johnson, who started at safety as a freshman, is the lone starter who will not rejoin the Cru in the fall, as he put his name into the transfer portal on June 11. Since then, he has received several offers, including one from Div. I FBS program Texas State.
Experience is somewhat plentiful at each of the starting positions on defense, though youth will still be a factor.
This spring, the Cru gave up more points than usual over a five-game span, 70, but also held opponents to a conference-best average of 246.8 total yards per game.
Much of that success began with the linebackers unit, composed of seniors Akeem Jackson, Jacob Mueller and Mikkah Hackett. Jackson led the ASC in tackles for loss (10.5), while Mueller earned our Defensive Player of the Year honor after tallying 35 total tackles and 2.0 sacks. Hackett led the Cru in total tackles, 46, this spring, and had 7.0 tackles for loss (TFL).
Having this level of experience is key to the success of the entire defense. Do-it-all players who blitz, drop back in coverage and defend the run, this unit of linebackers looks to be, in many ways, the backbone of this year’s defense.
Eli Huron, Nicholas McDaniel and Jackson Sennie were each backups at the three linebacker positions in the spring, and made a case for playing time, despite being underclassmen. Huron and McDaniel each saw action in all five contests, and Sennie appeared in four.
The highlight of Sennie’s season was an interception against Southwestern, that he returned for 33 yards and set up a UMHB touchdown. Though Sennie was listed on the two-deep depth chart at strongside linebacker, he is a defensive back according to the roster, and with Johnson’s departure, could compete for playing time in the secondary this fall.
Wayland Baptist transfer Casey Buck cannot be counted out either. The 6’1, 225 lb linebacker logged 42 total tackles at the NAIA school during the 2020-21 season, and also tallied an interception.
Heading into fall camp, the main position group to keep an eye on is the secondary, composed of the team’s cornerbacks and safeties. Though the majority of the linebacker and defensive line positions are secured entering the upcoming season, there is sure to be competition with the incoming talent and returnees in the secondary.
Headlining the newcomers is Deryn Taylor, a safety from Seguin, Texas who began his career at Abilene Christian, but transferred to Texas State prior to last season. However, he never appeared on the Bobcats’ roster, after being moved to linebacker and cut before the season began. A versatile defender who possesses tremendous athleticism and a knack for breaking up passes, Taylor may compete with junior Jayden Smith and sophomore Courtney Partridge-Lee for playing time at the Cru position, a flex safety position unique to UMHB’s defense. Where he is more likely to earn a starting spot, though, is at cornerback. Based on the depth chart released prior to the Hardin-Simmons game, freshman Jordan See is currently in line to take over the starting role with Johnson’s decision to transfer.
See, who is also on UMHB’s bass fishing and baseball teams, has just as much potential to start at cornerback as Taylor does, which will create for an interesting storyline throughout the first several weeks of fall practice. Taylor has not seen action in a college game yet, despite being in his third year as a collegian, and is unproven for the most part, with the exception of limited practice film from when he was at Abilene Christian. See played in four games for the Cru in the spring, tallying two solo tackles.
Elsewhere in the secondary, Jefferson Fritz is a lock to start at the free safety position, as the fifth-year senior earned All-ASC and D3football.com All-American honors last Monday. The UMHB record holder in career interceptions, Fritz extended his record to 22 during the spring, with three interceptions.
Across the width of the field at the other cornerback position, Titus Dunk, Deon Collins and Tavion Page will compete for playing time, though Dunk enters the fall as an overwhelming favorite to earn the starting job.
Dunk, who also started in 2019 for UMHB, was a five-game starter for the Cru this spring, registering eight tackles, an interception and four pass breakups. Page did not see action at cornerback after making the switch from receiver following the 2019 season, but did play in four games on special teams. Collins is also in the mix, as the former wideout switched to defense during the spring, but also had one rushing attempt for 18 yards against Louisiana College. At this point, it is unclear if the coaching staff plans to use Collins on defense or offense this fall, but if he does stay at defensive back, he will compete for the backup role behind Dunk. He played in two games on defense this spring, with one tackle.
And there is one additional player that flew under the radar last season but is a likely candidate to start at cornerback: Keith Gipson. The journeyman began his career at Div. I FCS Mississippi Valley State in 2014 before taking two years off from football. He then resumed his collegiate career at UMHB in 2017, and has separated himself as one of the ASC’s best, and most versatile cornerbacks. Though he was forced to fight through injury during the spring, the 6’2, 195 lb Gipson managed to see the field in all five games. He did not start in the spring, but that could change this fall. And quite frankly, there is an expectation that it will. Johnson’s departure left one of the starting cornerback positions wide open, and Gipson is far and away the most experienced of the group. If he is healthy, which he confirmed to True To The Cru that he is, Gipson should be in line to start UMHB’s season-opener on Sept. 4.
On the defensive line, junior Sante Parker Jr. leads the group. The Katy, Texas product started three games and played in all five during the spring, posting a team-best 11.0 tackles for loss. He started the season as the starter at one of the defensive tackle positions, but was moved to defensive end prior to the ASC Championship game.
Khevon Shepard, who started as a defensive end in all five contests, will also be back and provide the foundation for the front seven. Shepard had 15 total tackles, 6.5 for loss, and 1.5 sacks.
There is somewhat of a question mark at the two defensive tackle positions, especially if Parker Jr. remains at defensive end. Kobe Giles started three games, Tristan Green started two and Pete Smith and Josh Patteson each had one start during the spring campaign. It is too early to know who might be the leading candidates to claim those two starting spots, considering everyone in the mix expect for Smith is entering his second year of college.
At the other defensive end position, senior E’Monte Smith took over the starting job following the season-opening road win at Belhaven, and is in line to remain on the first-team this fall. Smith started four games, with 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.
To read our 2021 Roster Outlook: Offense, click here.