New defensive backs help boost Weber State secondary that’s been together for years
OGDEN — The 2019 football season gave Weber State a challenge: could its growing reputation as a defensive power hold up when it started almost exclusively underclassmen, most of them freshmen, in the defensive secondary?
It didn’t help that junior and Boise State transfer Desmond Williams, slated to start at strong safety, tore his ACL in fall camp, either.
Junior safety Preston Smith anchored the group in experience, with sophomore safety Brody Burke offering some know-how and junior Dave Jones helping some as a running back-turned-cornerback.
Along with Smith, the bulk of reps went to sophomore corner Marque Collins, who saw some action as a freshman the season before, and a slew of freshmen getting their first college game experience: Eddie Heckard, Kam Garrett, Maxwell Anderson and Ja’Kobe Harris.
While it helps the pass defense to have a talented, experienced defensive line with ends like Jonah Williams and Adam Rodriguez, it’s still almost jaw-dropping how that defense turned out given the inexperience of the back-end. WSU was first in the Big Sky in scoring defense (20.8 points per game), total defense (345.3 yards per game), second in pass defense (225.2 yards per game), and fourth in pass efficiency defense.
The pass defense most notably stood up to frustrate heralded UC Davis quarterback Jake Maier, who threw 18 of 29 for just 160 yards in a 36-20 WSU road win.
The same group is still together heading into the 2021 fall season (though Jones has moved back to running back).
Unfortunately for Weber State, Williams again hurt a knee during the spring season and is yet to suit up for practice. His timetable to return is unknown.
The key both times was Smith, now a senior, who played free safety in his first two seasons. Williams’ injuries have moved Smith to strong safety, where he’s been just as effective.
“Preston is playing great. He’s playing his best ball I’ve seen him play since I’ve been here,” safeties coach Joe Dale said after practice Monday.
Smith has played 46 career games and has six career interceptions, by far the leader when it comes to experience in the secondary.
He’ll be backed up by sophomore Naseme Colvin, who is somewhat of a newcomer as he moved from linebacker to free safety in the spring but was limited by injury, and is now going to play strong safety. Also in the mix are juniors Aaron Sessions and Jemaurri Bailey. Sessions and Bailey have been with the team for multiple seasons but have played fairly limited defensive reps thus far.
Dale said Colvin is earning his trust more every day as he learns the finer details of playing safety, and said Bailey is a savvy player.
At free safety, sophomore Ja’Kobe Harris (16 games, three interceptions) is a returning starter. Dale said Harris and senior Braxton Gunther, who transferred from Utah State, will “head up” the free safety spot.
“He gives us great depth,” Dale said about Gunther. “He’s an emotional player. He loves the game and his energy is contagious, guys feed off his excitement and his passion. It’s been great to have him, he fits right in and all the guys love him.”
Dale also had good things to say about freshman Abraham Williams, someone who played quarterback at Salt Lake City’s West High School, as someone finding his role in the secondary.
Gunther is one of two newcomers who saw the field in the spring season in a limited capacity, mostly owing to the fact that they joined the program basically during preseason camp, when normally a transfer that early in the year would put them in town for two sessions of camp before reaching the next season.
The other such newcomer is senior cornerback Josh Olave, a transfer from Azusa Pacific.
“Josh Olave is stepping up and showing he can play out there,” cornerbacks coach Andre Dyson said. “He’s stepped up his game and he’s someone you’ll see this season.”
To label starting cornerbacks would land you on the junior Collins (31 games, four interceptions) and the sophomore Heckard (24 games, four interceptions). In Heckard’s first real action as a redshirt sophomore, he took over his corner spot, played all 15 games and became known as one of the toughest DBs in the conference.
“They bring that experience of being in games and understanding the system, and being good leaders,” Dyson said. “They work hard in practice, they’re good in the film room.”
The strength of WSU’s defense has been depth. Much like it’s been at defensive line, the corners don’t lose much, if anything noticeable, when Collins and Heckard are out, and gain a plus-defender when the Wildcats play a five-man secondary — which happens frequently against common spread offenses.
Those scenarios put sophomores Maxwell Anderson (14 games, two interceptions) and Kam Garrett (15 games) on the field, who have plenty of starts to their names. Anderson didn’t play in the spring season and will boost the unit’s playmaking ability.
“The guys behind them, I wouldn’t even say they’re behind them. We have four or five guys who will play a lot this year,” Dyson said.
Other names to know include sophomore LJ Anderson, Maxwell’s brother, who has been “playing well in camp,” Dyson said. He transferred from a junior college and was with the team in the spring.
Dyson also mentioned freshman walk-on Ty Barnett, a Weber High product who was with the team in the spring, as someone making big strides.
There’s also Jalon Rock, a true freshman from Texas. His talent has been apparent since he stepped on the field at Stewart Stadium, though it’s unclear if the rotation will allow him any reps immediately.
“He’s doing a heck of a job. He’s super fast, super competitive, and I think you’ll hear a lot about him in the years to come,” Dyson said.