But, it’s not like there will be a plethora of new faces either, as defensive coordinator Mark Banker substitutes freely with reserves. In all, 21 lettermen (3 starters) return.
“If you look at the roster breakdown on paper you would think that we lost a lot of production, and to some point we did,” Riley said. “But, we also have a number of guys who were in the regular rotation last year and who are ready to be those starters. I have a lot of confidence that we will continue to be a very good defensive team.”
The biggest question mark on the team, certainly on the defense, is the line. The Beavers lost seven lettermen from last year’s NCAA leading rushing defense crew, including a combined 90 starts. Three lettermen return who saw considerable action, including senior tackle Pernnell Booth, and senior ends Victor Butler and Slade Norris. Booth will miss spring practice with a foot injury, but is expected to be ready in August. He is the only player in the program with any real experience at tackle.
“We have a lot of unfamiliar names at the tackle positions,” Riley said. “Spring practice will be important to continue to develop players.”
The arrival of Snow Community College transfer Stephen Paea will bolster the tackle unit and he is at the top of the depth chart. He will be flanked by sophomore Mitchel Hunt, who has battled injuries in his two years in the program. Juniors Sioeli Nau and Latu Moala both redshirted last season after transferring from junior colleges, and redshirt freshman “Tonu” Tuimalealiffano and sophomore walkon Brennan Olander also figure to be in the mix. Greyshirts Jesse Fifita and Castro Masaniai bring another element.
“Stephen is a bit of an unknown quantity, but we feel he is a lot like Curtis Coker (two-year starter) in terms of strength,” Riley said. “We are also very excited about Mitchel and we will count on him heavily since he has been in the program for two years. I hope to form some depth this spring.”
The ends will feature experience in Butler and Norris, who combined for 19.5 sacks and 213 lost yards as third down pass rushers last season. The duo ranked nationally for sacks will be counted on as more of every down type players this season. Simi Kuli, the top junior college recruit in the nation out of El Camino Community College, will join the team following spring practice and is expected to make an immediate impact. Redshirt freshman Kevin Frahm is highly thought of as well and senior Keith Robertson will have a big opportunity.
“We know what Victor and Slade can do on third down; the biggest thing is how they adapt to being guys who play on first and second downs,” Riley explained. “We will lean on those guys and I think they will respond because they are among the hardest workers on this team on and off the field. Simi is coming in to be a starter.”
Among the best trio of linebackers has left the program in Derrick Doggett, Alan Darlin and Joey LaRocque, but there are several individuals who have played considerably. Seniors Bryant Cornell and Isaiah Cook, junior Keaton Kristick and sophomores Dwight Roberson, Keith Pankey and Walker Vave all figure to be potential starters. The group also includes up and coming players sophomore Keo Camat and redshirt freshmen David Pa’aluhi and Will Darkins.
“We have pretty good speed on the outside with Kristick, Pankey and Roberson,” Riley said. “We will lean a lot on Kristick, but the other two have seen a lot of action as well. Cornell brings us pretty good experience and depending how things shake out Kristick could even move inside.”
Once the youngest part of the team has developed into one of the most experienced groups in the Pac-10 Conference. Senior cornerbacks Brandon Hughes and Keenan Lewis have combined for 65 starts, while junior Tim Clark has another four starts. Junior Patrick Henderson and sophomore James Dockery also have seen action.
Redshirt freshmen Brandon Hardin and David Ross will also get a lot of reps.
Seniors Al Afalava, Bryan Payton and Greg Laybourn have combined for 33 starts at the safety positions. Afalava has started for most of the last two seasons and is considered one of the hardest hitters in the nation at the strong safety position. Payton and Laybourn team up to form the free safety position along with sophomore Suaesi Tuimaunei. The Beavers will also count on redshirt-freshmen Cameron Collins and Lance Mitchell, senior Austin Hall and greyshirt Josh LaGrone to also play roles.
“We have a very exciting group in the secondary with a lot of talent,” Riley said. “This group is really the strength of the defense on paper and will have to provide leadership for our younger players.”