New Hampshire Football Report

UNH has young defensive backfield

Allen Lessels
UNH Insider

DURHAM – The coaches with the University of New Hampshire football team’s defense knew going into last season that they were going to be working with a young and inexperienced group in the backfield.

And then their group got a whole lot younger and less experienced.

By the third game of the season, cornerback Prince Smith, Jr. and safety Pop Lacey – a pair of true freshman – had entrenched themselves in the starting lineup. At times, the Wildcats were playing Smith, Jr. and Lacey alongside redshirt freshmen safeties Michael Balsamo and Rick Ellison in the backfield with senior cornerback Casey DeAndrade.

DeAndrade, a four-year standout now looking for work in the National Football league, has graduated and the Wildcats are looking at a defensive backfield that is still young, but much more experienced than a year ago.

The depth chart going into Saturday’s Blue-White Spring game – listing two cornerbacks and the three safeties UNH uses in the defensive backfield – has five sophomores, including Isiah Perkins at cornerback.

UNH’s spring football session concludes with the annual Blue-White Spring Game at noon in Wildcat Stadium

It’s extremely rare that a true freshman steps in and plays regular time in the UNH defensive backfield. Lacey and Smith, Jr. both did it and were very productive last season.

“At times they were outstanding and then at times. . . . That happens,” said John Lyons, the defensive coordinator, who works specifically with cornerbacks. “When we broke down we were inconsistent. You just have to keep trying to eliminate those types of plays. Both kids have a good understanding of what we’re doing. There’s a lot of things going on back there and a lot of things that have to happen at once. Everybody’s got to be on the same page and make sure we’re playing things the proper way.”

Lacey led UNH in tackles with 82. Smith, Jr. had five interceptions, the most for a Wildcat since 2011 and the third best in the Colonial Athletic Association. Smith, Jr. was the CAA Defensive Rookie of the Year. Lacey was third-team, All-CAA.

Both players have improved as they’ve gotten more familiar with the defense and what the team is trying to accomplish, Lyons said.

“Prince really plays hard,” Lyons said. “He’s very quick, very explosive as far as his ability to change direction. I think he likes the challenge of being out there and playing a man one on one. . . . That type of thing doesn’t bother him, where some guys kind of back away from that, he doesn’t. A couple other things, too. When he is in coverage, you’re going to get beat. He never panics. He’s patient. If the receiver is ahead of him he’s going to run and play him, where some guys start looking around and they get all screwed up. He doesn’t do that. He keeps his composure that way.”

Lacey served as the “quarterback” of the secondary.

“Pop is a tremendous athlete,” said assistant coach Scott James, who works with the safeties. “He’s intelligent, both on and off the field. He’s engaging. He’s engaging with his teammates, he’s engaging with his coaches. He has a great football IQ, so giving him things, whether its new assignments, new adjustments, whether it’s giving him new focus points as an individual, it’s easy for him to wrap his head around it, it’s easy for him to grasp. He doesn’t lose sight of how it all works together.”

Lyons and James and the rest of the staff are excited about the defense overall and the young backfield – including Balsamo, Ellison and Perkins – in particular.

Redshirt freshman safety Evan Horn draws high praise from the coaches, too, and is expected to play a key role, as is redshirt freshman cornerback Alonzo Addae.

Seniors D’Andre Drummond-Mayrie, Geno Miller, Marquis Carr and Nick Marino add valuable leadership and experience to the mix.

“We have some pretty good competition at cornerback,” Lyons said. “At the safety spot, all of those guys played, which is a big plus because they’re all better than they were.”

The group has impressed overall.

“Last year was certainly a unique year, in that we played so many freshmen as a defense,” James said. “That experience has lent itself to this year where we’re seeing a lot of growth, fast growth in formation recognition, schematic recognition, it can put a lot more on their plate. . . . The best thing about the group is that they are engaged in what we’re doing, they’re easy to coach, they manage themselves in terms of motivation. . . . It’s a tremendous group.”

Follow Allen Lessels on Twitter: @UNHInsider.

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