Headlining the battle-tested group is safety Avery Cunningham. A two-year starter, he has seen action in all 37 games of his collegiate career, totaling 218 tackles, including a personal best 88 in 2012. He also had a career-high two interceptions a year ago and blocked a punt in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, setting up CMU’s game-winning drive.
“I think the biggest thing about Avery is that he loves to compete,” said defensive coordinator Joe Tumpkin. “In everything he goes about doing, each and every day, it is always about competing. He likes to do well, he likes to have success in that competition, he likes to win. When you challenge him he really takes that challenge to heart and tries to get better. We challenge him to be a leader. We challenge him to be better on his one-on-one and man-to-man coverage. We challenge him to be more physical. Whatever challenge we give to him, he has accepted and embraced it and has done well with it.”
“He brings a quiet leadership in the back end. He is very respected by his teammates because of his work ethic and the way he goes about things. He has been here from the get go, so he’s been grinding the grind with us as a coaching staff. You never hear anything negative out of him; it is always how do we get better or how do we get to this situation.”
Also lending a veteran presence to the unit are juniors Jarret Chapman and Jason Wilson.
Chapman started 11 games in 2012, missing two only due to an injury and finished the season fifth on the team with 51 tackles. He will be an instrumental part of the CMU safety corps in 2013.
Wilson is locked in as CMU’s boundary corner after making an appearance in all 13 games last season, including seven starts. He had two interceptions in 2012, returning one 55 yards for a score versus Michigan State, and ranked second on the team with seven pass break-ups. Even though 2013 will only be his second year playing cornerback, Wilson has progressed rapidly, developing into steady force at the position.
Safeties Kavon Frazier and Brandon Greer, who are heading into their sophomores years, are young, in terms of their class, but each saw action in all 13 games in their freshman campaign and are being relied on for an increased workload in 2013. Denzel Wimberly, Kevin King, and Tony Annese, who redshirted last season, have each drawn praise for his play this spring and will be in the mix at safety.
Dennis Nalor, in his third year at CMU, and Jordan Fields, who redshirted in 2012, are contending for the cornerback spot opposite Wilson. Stefon Armstead, another third-year player and candidate at corner, “has shown a lot of improvement from the first couple years,” according to Tumpkin.
No matter who is in the line-up when the game begins, Tumpkin intends to use an assortment of players to get the job done in the defensive backfield and, with the talent he has at is disposal, is content with that approach.
“We have rotated very heavily around here in the past, and I would like to do that with our safeties. I would like to be able to play three or four corners and five or six safeties. We average around 86 snaps a game, not counting special teams. Your starters play 65 percent of the game and you would like the twos to play 35 percent of the game, depending on situations. That way, you have the opportunity to pull guys aside, calm them down, and let them see what is happening.”
“This might be the first time that I can sit here and say during spring ball I feel comfortable with my players.”
Another asset afforded the CMU defensive backs is the gifted group of receivers that they line-up across from at every practice.
“Every day that they are out there, they are probably going against the top four or five best receivers in our conference, if not in the Midwest,” said Tumpkin. “You have to figure out who is going to cover Titus Davis, Courtney Williams, Andrew Flory, Jerry Harris and Jesse Kroll. All those guys can run and catch.”
“Practicing against guys like that boosts our confidence. When our players go into a game, we want them to feel confident; like there is no one out there that we haven’t seen. What we do offensively is good for our defensive players because we have to learn how to make adjustments and match up players to make the most confident plays.”
In assessing the spring season thus far, Tumpkin gives the group passing grades in terms of both development and attitude.
“We are playing pretty well. I am very happy with our progress and where we are in the back end, especially the younger guys. We’ve had some young guys step up and the older guys have made a lot of improvements all the way around. I am really pleased, and I know Coach Enos is really pleased with where we are with that position.”
“We have great kids, with great character and high work ethic. They have improved and have a taste for getting better and are going to compete to be the best.”
CMU’s spring season will culminate with the annual Spring Game, which is scheduled for a 1 p.m. start on Saturday, April 13 at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.