A lot of C-USA positional play deviates from the norm associated with the NFL. It is not a League of drop back quarterbacks, tweeners dominate the receiving corps, road grader guards are absent, and safeties are not neatly divided into run stuffers, big hitters and coverage assets. But one big exception is the middle linebacker. Done correctly, the “mike” is right off the NFL drawing board.
Like the NFL, C-USA is a passing league with credible quarterback play. It is also a League that rewards getting to point of attack. Due to the spread, similar in concept to the NFL multiple-receiver set(s), it is hard to routinely bring reinforcements into the defensive tackle box. No team can consistently commit safeties inside, or to the run, whole covering four, five receiving options. Even a third linebacker is problematic; C-USA is a league that loves nickel corners to combat the extra receivers and mobile quarterbacks.
So the middle linebacker is alone. But, the absence of extra tight ends and fullbacks means less blocking at the second level. So, if you can cover and move to running back, there are plethoras of tackles to be made. And that is what linebacker done correctly is all about in the NFL and C-USA- accumulating stops.
For large stretches, mike was done correct at Tulane by the choice here for defensive MVP: Trent Mackey.
The Tulane defense really had two iterations this year- the not so bad early effort and the worn out late season mess. Mackey was the clear catalyst for the early renaissance. He leveraged some adequate defensive tackle play into lots of stops. He led the team is “assists”- only Alex Wacha was close (61 assists to 49)- because he brought that mobility inside. Guys would get that first hand on a skill player- and Mackey would clean’em up.
With a decent inside run defense, Tulane was able to, for the first time since Elpheage left, consistently commit safeties to cheat to other things. Since the safeties are pretty good, Tulane could create actual match-up problems. A whole lot of that Rutgers win was set up by Tulane’s ability to commit extra guys to pass coverage and pass rush: people were double covered, multiple blitzers were committed, outright creativity on defense possible- because Mackey was holding the fort inside.
Then the Army game happened, exposing the mess Tulane was away from Mackey in the second level, successfully attacking via run and pass the OLBs. Then, small for an inside player (almost a strong safety body), Mackey wore down- indifferent versus Rice, invisible versus UCF. After the Rutgers game, Mackey’s big play capacity evaporated over the final seven games: only had two “tackles for loss” (both versus Rice), no sacks or picks. The Wave collapsed.
I was very tempted to award this MVP to Shakiel Smith- certainly the most underrated member of the Tulane team. Smith was not the best player on Tulane’s defense for the whole season- but he was arguably the best player in the game they won. Both he and Mackey were fantastic in the Rutgers game- but Smith had a very valiant game (2 interceptions, 14 unassisted tackles, 18 total tackles) amid the defensive craziness and failures versus Rice.