After an offseason in Everett Withers' program, Texas State's defense started to look like an FBS unit. In season two they started to play like it. Progress is never assumed, but if Texas State's trajectory continues, we might see some depth on the defensive roster.
In 2016 Randall McCray's group went out bear hunting with a stick. The Texas State noseguard was the size of a large safety, and the defensive ends looked like linebackers. After an offseason of peanut butter sandwiches, those 230-pound bodies shot up to 280 and 300 and the results were evident.
McCray's young charges improved by a yard plus in rush defense, improving into the top 40 among FBS units, a 46 slot jump over 2016. Texas State's points allowed per play, the current en vogue stat for defensive efficiency, dropped from .557 to .496 from year one to year two. As a unit the defense improved on third down, bettering their 2016 positioning from 91st to 43rd. We wrote a little about the 'Cats third down package last season.
If you can stop the run, get off the field on third down, a hit the magic median number on points per play, you're well on your way to performing like a decent FBS defense. After 2016, decent seemed like a dream for the Bobcat's defense. The 2017 numbers could have been better, but that depth issue raised its ugly head.
The teams best pass rusher, Easy Anyama, missed time, when he came back, Ish Davis was out at defensive end, arguably the best edge down lineman on the roster. With Davis out, Jordan Mittie moved from his defensive tackle or three-technique position to the true edge. Dean Taylor filled in, and so on and so on until November when Arkansas State gashed the Bobcats for 233 yards and a week later the Troy hit 'em up for almost five yards a carry. In November the Bobcats' third down numbers rose as well.
You can't make a team immune from injury unless you hire Tom Brady's fitness guru, so depth is essential. A bi-product of injury is forced depth. Young players like Caeveon Patton, Gjemar Daniels, Nikolas Daniels, Clifton Lewis and John Lilly saw live action in 2017. Players like Jakharious Smith and Nick Wilkins can grow into their positions via redshirt season.
On the field, where can Texas State improve? Let's start by intercepting a pass; the Bobcats went 0-for 2017. The past two seasons Texas State's been -14 and -15 in turnover margin. That's a recipe for a 4-20 record. Every defensive coordinator in America is going to tell you about creating turnovers. Statistics will tell you that turnovers are by in large luck. It's time for Texas State's luck to turn.
Pass defense as a whole is an issue as the 'Cats finished dead last in the Sun Belt and 127th in the FBS defending things that fly through the air.Even if they didn't catch any footballs, Texas State defenders weren't great at getting their hands on footballs either, finishing 119th in passes defended. Oddly the Bobcats improved their sack total by thirteen in 2017, but opposing offenses found the going easy through the friendly skies.
Opponents averaged 9.0 yards per attempt through the air, a full yard worse than 2016's output. In 2016, opponents could do whatever they wanted against Texas State. This season, with improvements in run defense, opponents found the going much easier via the pass. Big tough PAC 12 squad Colorado ran for just 2 yards a carry, but threw for 339 yards at 9.4 yards an attempt. Texas State must make throwing the ball a riskier proposition for their 2018 opponents. With three of four starters back, including both corners, improvement is possible.
The Bobcats can also work to limit splash or explosive plays. Texas State allowed 64 plays of twenty yards or more in 2017, one worse than in 2016 and 90th in the FBS.
McCray knows defense; he's coached it at a high level at places like Wisconsin and Pitt. His Gardner Webb units ranked in the top 20 twice in three seasons in total defense, once in the top five. Those teams, like Texas State, weren't offensive juggernauts.
Texas State took a step forward in a couple of key areas last season, in 2018, the Bobcat defense should be bigger, more athletic, and deeper than it's ever been and the continued development on the field is critical. Maybe the 'Cats can even intercept a pass.