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Preseason Opponent Preview: Weber State’s defense

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Weber State v California Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Coming off the heels of a historic 2017 campaign where he led his Weber State Wildcats to the FCS quarterfinals and a 5th place final ranking in the FCS coaches poll, Jay Hill makes his return to Rice Eccles Stadium for the first time since 2013, when he left to accept role of head coach with the Wildcats. He brings with him a bevy of defensive talent that is hoping to build upon last year’s unparalleled success and again challenge for an FCS title.

​While last year’s team claimed a share of the Big Sky title with in-state rival Southern Utah, this year’s squad was recently picked to finish second in the conference by both the media and coaches during Big Sky media day. If they plan on upsetting current favorite, Eastern Washington, it will likely be done on the back of a gifted core of returning defenders.

​Despite losing first team All-American, Taron Johnson to the NFL this off-season, the Wildcats defense returns several key performers from last years’ squad, including HERO Sports pre-season All-American second team selection, senior linebacker LeGrand Toia.

​Toia led the team last season with 79 tackles, including a career high five sacks on the season. Fellow veteran linebackers Auston Tesch (junior) and Justus Brown (senior) will likely see increased roles after senior Landon Stice left the program during Spring camp due to several concussions. Tesch especially looks primed for a big season after amassing 39 total tackles, two fumble recoveries, one blocked kick and one forced fumble last season.

Even without a single senior on the roster, the defensive end position is in good shape with returning junior Adam Rodriguez. Rodriguez steadily improved upon his freshman year where he recorded 21 tackles, including three for a loss. Last year, he finished with 58 total tackles and eight tackles for a loss. With his current trajectory, his junior year could be something truly impressive.

​The Wildcats appear to be stacked at cornerback, highlighted by Jordan Preator and Keilan Benjamin, both returning for their senior seasons.

Preator finished fifth in the Big Sky for total interceptions, recording four on the season, along with 56 tackles. Benjamin’s 2017 stat sheet boasts two interceptions, eight pass breakups and 54 total tackles, including 9 tackles against FBS foe, Cal in the second game of the season.

Rounding out the secondary is a group of safeties without a clear-cut starter. Seniors Jantz Arbon and Jawian Harrison Jr. could be pushed by redshirt freshmen Brody Burke and Ty Hinds for playing time (the latter is a 200 lb former track star from Davis High, who won the 5A 100 meter state title). They’ll face competition from sophomore Preston Smith, whose freshman campaign included 28 tackles, four pass breakups and an impressive 4th quarter interception against Eastern Washington that helped seal their eventual victory against the then 12th ranked Eagles.

One thing is for certain, this isn’t the same Weber State team that was decimated 70-7 the last time they faced the Utes. Thanks to Jay Hill and company, they’re quickly becoming a respected force within the FCS ranks. Featuring a stout defensive line and a ball hawking secondary, these Wildcats can’t be overlooked.