That's right. The biggest key to a successful season in 2009 may be something that we haven't had to worry about in quite a while: secondary play. We've been blessed with a bevy of talented athletes in the secondary over the past several seasons. Many of them are now in the pros. However, after losing four competent corners and safeties to the NFL this past off-season, we're now as thin in the defensive backfield as we've been in quite some time.
This isn't to say that we don't have talent at corner and safety. Chris Culliver will likely be one of the conference's better safeties, and whether he's at safety, corner, or spur, Darian Stewart will also vie for all-conference honors. Highly recruited corner Stephon Gilmore and safety DeVonte Holloman will make big contributions. Guys like Akeem Auguste, Addison Williams, and C. C. Whitlock all have the potential for breakout years.
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However, other than Culliver, Stewart, and, to a much lesser degree, Auguste, none of these players are proven quantities. Gilmore and Holloman are freshmen. Williams is the most experienced of the group but has been inconsistent throughout his career. Whitlock played some receiver last year but has yet to see game time at corner.
And the lack of proven experience among the main guys in the rotation isn't the only problem. Perhaps even more worrying, this is group is razor thin; it's these guys, a few other even more unknown quantities, and after that there's not much of anything. If many guys go down with injuries--and Auguste and Williams are nursing minor injuries already--things could get really ugly. Unfortunately, in the high-speed, hard-hitting world of the secondary, injuries happen all the time.
This isn't to say that all is lost. We do have some talent, and if we can escape injury, that talent could carry us through the season. Moreover, we also have lots of talent on the sidelines in the form of Ellis Johnson and Lorenzo Ward. If these guys can't get a good year out of our secondary, no one can.
That said, I'm still thinking secondary is the biggest variable in whether or not this team has a big year. We'll need the secondary to perform against top passing teams like Ole Miss and Arkansas. If they fold, those possible wins could become blowout losses, and we could be looking at another six- or seven-win season, if not worse. If the secondary comes together, it will make our goals possible to achieve.