Nine months ago, Portland State cornerback Aaron Sibley vowed the Vikings’ pass defense would be significantly improved over 2013 when PSU allowed a ghastly 288.7 yards per game through the air.
Indeed, Portland State demonstrated progress in 2014, albeit by a meager 6.4 yards to 282.3 per game.
This upcoming season, though, could see a significant reduction in passing yards yielded by the Portland State secondary as all seven defensive backs that started at least one game in 2014 are back.
Based on the current personnel – including a transfer from a Pac-12 school and another returning from an injury that sidelined him for the entire 2014 season – the Vikings could feature one of its deepest and most talented secondary groups in years.
“I definitely believe we improved in 2014, but the best thing is we didn’t lose anybody,” Sibley told Viking Tales recently. “We have everybody coming back, which is great because all those young players from before are now junior and seniors. This is definitely the most experienced group we’ve had in my four years.”
More experience on the field typically translates to greater success as far as wins and losses are concerned. Will that formula hold true for the PSU secondary in 2015?
“The expectations we have for ourselves as a group, we definitely expect nothing but success and excellence,” Sibley said.
Developing cohesiveness and chemistry in order to minimize mistakes in the fall were two important goals for the secondary during spring practice, Sibley said.
“We worked on playing together fluently,” Sibley said. “We made progress in that area. We have great chemistry on and off the field. That’s a big help.”
Sibley, who started all 12 games a season ago as a junior, is again expected to combine with Portland native Xavier Coleman (Jesuit High) at cornerback, with Chevy Walker, Max Lyons, Artuz Manning, Malik Cyphers and Kahlil Dawson in reserve.
“We have another four or five different corners we can rotate in and out after Xavier and myself,” Sibley said. “We have a very deep and solid group at cornerback.”
Walker started two games at cornerback last season (at North Dakota, Northern Arizona) when injuries struck the secondary and finished the year with 21 tackles, one interception and four pass breakups.
“The amount of talent we have (at cornerback) pushes Xavier and myself to be even better,” Sibley said. “We know at any given time one of the other guys can step up and become the starter.”
Could Sibley and Coleman, who intercepted a pass in the spring game, be the best cornerback duo in the Big Sky Conference in 2015?
“That’s a big title, but I know Xavier and I see ourselves growing and competing with one another,” Sibley said. “We go out there and compete with ourselves. If he gets a pick, then I have to get two picks. If I get a (pass) breakup, he has to get two breakups. That competition between him and I alone is going to fuel us to be the best.”
Sibley’s top individual mission for spring practice was developing into a better vocal leader.
“I’ve been more of a lead by example guy,” Sibley said. “Going into my senior year, I’m focusing more on being a vocal leader that people need to hear and see.”
The two safety spots, though, could be the subject of a battle royale in preseason camp as four players with at least four starts apiece in 2014 return to the Vikings. They will be joined by Walter Santiago (missed entire 2014 season with knee injury) and UCLA transfer Tyler Foreman.
Demetrius Jackson (started eight of nine games he appeared in last season), Beau Duronslet (started last six games as a freshman and finished sixth in tackles with 48), Patrick Onwuasor (53 tackles, started two games at linebacker due to massive injuries there) and Darien Washington (41 tackles, 1 INT, 4 PBU) all started at safety last season and all return in 2015.
PSU could start two safeties with Pac-12 backgrounds if defensive coordinator Malik Roberson chose to do so as Onwuasor (Arizona) and Foreman began their college careers with teams in the Power 5 conference.
“We love working with those guys,” Sibley said. “Tyler wasted no time when he came in. He fits in well with our program and what we’re trying to do. He understands our defense. Coming in from UCLA, he is a big addition to an already talented group that we had. The best thing is they all have experience playing. So, if somebody needs to come out, we have no problem at all subbing people in.”
Portland State interim head coach Bruce Barnum described Foreman as “quick as lightning.”
Sibley’s response: “He couldn’t beat me in a race.”
Santiago’s biggest hurdle is staying healthy. He redshirted in 2011 and sat out the 2012 season with an injury before finally stepping onto the field in 2013 and contributing at safety and safety teams in all 12 games.
However, his hopes of building on that solid season were derailed last August and his absence was felt as he watched the entire season unfold from the sidelines.
“Walter’s return is huge. He is our big energy guy,” Sibley said. “He is the one that comes out to practice screaming and yelling and getting everybody on their feet when somebody makes a big play. We love having Walter on the field.”
While all the players are the same from a year ago, the position coaches are different. Vernon Smith Jr., who graduated from Montana a decade ago, was hired as cornerbacks coach in February, and John Ely moved from running backs to safeties along with his recruiting coordinator responsibilities.
“We’re still getting to know each other for the most part, but since he has arrived we like the changes that are being made,” Sibley said of Smith Jr. “We like his attitude, his approach and his ideas to drive us to be successful. He is going to do anything to allow us to reach our full potential.”