Breaking down Sterlington's 2011 season in simple terms, the Panthers were 4-0 in games in which they allowed 30 or less points; 0-7 in games in which they surrendered 30-plus points.
In fairness, the porous defense wasn't the sole reason for the disappointing season. After all, the offense was shutout three times. But you get the idea — the Panthers are looking for drastic improvement on the defensive side of the ball in 2012.
Sterlington gave up 33.8 points per game and allowed 40 or more points in six of its 11 games.
“It was a rough go last year,” defensive coordinator Mark Sims admitted. “They're all a year older, a year stronger and a year faster and I expect different results this year.”
It should also be pointed out that the Panthers have now had a full year to learn Sims' system. When Sims joined the staff last summer, he became the program's fourth defensive coordinator in as many years.
Four returning starters — end R.J. Harrison, nose guard Jacob Yarbrough, linebacker Cody McGuire and safety Trent Raffray — bring experience to the unit. In addition, offensive starters JaQuarius
Douglas and QuenTerrius Gray saw significant time in the secondary and cornerback Derek Price returns after sitting out last year to focus on basketball.
“We have a good mixture of guys who saw a lot of playing time last year and some new guys,” Sims said.
Sims expects the ends to be one of the strengths of the unit. Harrison (33 tackles 1 sack in 2011) will start on one side. Junior DeMarcus Matthews, who has played basketball the past two years, has played his way into a starting position on the opposite side.
“DeMarcus is new to football, but he has that special talent. I think he's going to be a good one,” Sims said. “R.J. is technically sound, has a good motor and started every game last season. I think we're going to be OK at defensive end.”
Yarbrough will be asked to plug the middle in the 3-5-3 alignment.
Tyler Buffington and Jared Powell, a pair of starting offensive linemen, and Matthew Ausbury provide depth up front.
“Ausbury is probably the strongest kid on the team,” Sims said. “He'll be at the nose because he's hard to block.”
McGurie (48 tackles) is the leading tackler among the holdovers on the front seven. Casey Sutton, Jaylon Wade, Calvin Clay and Austin Haman are also expected to contribute at the linebacker spots.
Sutton starts at wide receiver. Clay rejoins the Panthers after spending the entire 2011 season on injured reserve.
“We're not that big, overall, but we're going to be pretty beefy at linebacker,” Sims said. “Jaylon Wade's not very big, but he's fast and can get to the football in a hurry. Calvin Clay's going to get a lot of playing time at inside linebacker. He's eager to play after missing last year. Austin Haman's a big, athletic kid who is going to help us.”
After recording only eight sacks last season, the Panthers are looking to solidify their pass rush.
Junior Trent Raffray (66 tackles, 4 fumble recoveries) was a bright spot for the unit last season, though Sims would prefer to have someone other than the free safety lead the team in tackles. As a sophomore, Raffray was the Panthers' lone first-team All-District 2-2A honoree.
Gray, Douglas, Devin Murphy and perhaps even quarterback Taylor Lockwood will figure into the secondary mix.
“I don't know how much we want to use (Lockwood) on defense, but, if needed, he'll be ready,” Sims said.
Sims, who also coaches the linebackers, is joined on the defensive staff by line coach Bucky Chandler and secondary coach DeMichael Dizer, a former Panther, who went on to play for Grambling and the Seattle Seahawks.
“Bucky and DeMichael are doing a good job,” Sims said. “They work hard and push the kids to work hard.”
Sims hopes to see that effort carry over to Friday nights.
“I just want the kids to play hard every play and do the best they can,” Sims said. “That's all you can ask.”