When coaches and players were asked throughout the preseason what they felt the biggest strength of the 2021 team would be this season most pointed to the Eagle defense. With up to nine senior starters returning from a unit that was a strength last year it looked as though the Eagles would lean on their defense while the offense slowly caught up as Justin Tomlin continued to grow at quarterback.
Two games into the 2021 season that has not been the case. The Eagles had eight senior starters in Saturday’s game with Florida Atlantic but still yielded over 500 yards of total offense and 36 points to a team they held to only three points a year ago. Last year the Eagles held their opponents to just 20 points and 325 yards per game. Through two games that is up to 31 points per game and 472 yards per contest.
“I think our defensive line has played pretty well,” said coach Chad Lunsford. “At linebacker I think losing Todd Bradley-Glenn was a huge loss for us. He was not only a leader, but he could run the defense on the field for us. I don’t think there is a talent issue at linebacker as all those guys are good but not as much experience. I think the problem has been for all of us to play cohesively together.
The Eagles did lose Bradley-Glenn just prior to starting the 2021 season with a torn bicep. Defensive lineman Gavin Adcock has missed some time as well, and while the Eagles seemed pretty deep at most defensive positions in the preseason however that hasn’t translated to success on the field at this time.
“Some of the things we have to get better at on defense is out secondary playing with dirty eyes,” said Eagle defensive coordinator Scot Sloan. “Looking into the backfield and not seeing their reads and keys. That has led to some of the touchdown passes and deep balls we have given up. Derrick Canteen, Anthony Wilson and Darrell Baker and Justin Birdsong have all played significant snaps and that is not acceptable.”
“The thing I have talked to them about is they don’t have to press and make every play,” said Sloan. “Just because you may have some brand-new linebackers in front of you or any other new guys out there it is not up to you to make every play. They have to do a better job of letting the game come to them.”
With so many experienced players the question becomes how do the Eagles clean some of these problems up?
“There isn’t just some magic wand we can wave and fix everything,” said Sloan. “We have players like Kevon Glenn and Khadry Jackson who are both talented, but this is their first year playing here in our system. There is no substitute for those guys playing together. We have dealt with our fair share of curveballs from injuries in training camp to a guy like Marques Watson-Trent getting hurt in the first game. Hopefully we can weather the storm and start coming together.”
There are some bright spots in what has been a frustrating start to the 2021 season as the defensive line has been able to get some pressure on the quarterbacks at times and has been able to get through the line for some hits for losses as well.
“We are at eight sacks on the year,” said Sloan. “Last year we only had 24 the whole season. We also have 15 tackles for loss so that shows we are able to get some minus yardage plays and are able to affect the passer. The defensive line has been pretty solid for us."
If the Eagles struggled with Gardner Webb and Florida Atlantic, they are in for a true test this Saturday as they travel to #20 ranked Arkansas who is 2-0 and is coming off a 40-21 win over Texas last week.
The Razorbacks are led by dual-threat quarterback K.J. Jefferson who has thrown for 266 yards and one touchdown and rushed for 162 yards and two touchdowns. The Razorback's leading rusher is Trelon Smith who has 177 yards rushing and two touchdowns. One thing that could go a long way is forcing a turnover something the Eagle defense has yet to do this season.
“They are going to engulf us up front with how big they are,” said Sloan. “When they are playing with 6-5 and 6-9 guys who weigh over 350 pounds that is going to pose a problem. Their two running backs run extremely well, and their quarterback can run it or throw it. They will be a huge challenge and we are going to have to play our best and make some opportunities and create turnovers to give our offense the ball with a short field.”
Thursday afternoon the Eagles announced Canteen and Watson-Trent will miss the rest of the season due to injuries. Watson-Trent tore the ACL in his left knee, while Canteen suffered a torn right pectoral muscle against FAU. Khadry Jackson will move into Watson Trent's psoition while Tyler Bride will take over for Canteen. The Eagles also announce senior Najee Thompson will move from receiver to cornerback and Sam Kenerson will move from quarterback to receiever. Quarterback Connor Cigelske is expected back this week as well.