FLORENCE — It wasn’t hard to identify the area North Alabama’s defense needed to improve upon most during spring practice.
The Lions proved vulnerable to the run in 2012, particularly in the second half of the season when injuries had taken a toll on their depth.
Improving at stopping the run and becoming more physical were the main goals this spring for defensive coordinator Chris Willis. The Lions will complete their third week of spring practice this morning with a scrimmage at Braly Stadium, and Willis has been pleased with the progress of the defense.
“We’re a much tougher and more physical defense this spring,” Willis said. “Our league has turned into more of a running league in the last two years, so it’s really important to be able to stop the run.
“We made a few adjustments with our scheme and that has made a big difference. It’s not a major change, but we like the results so far. We’ve had nine or 10 guys running to the ball and delivering some blows.”
UNA brought in three defensive line transfers in January. Willis likes what he has seen from defensive ends Willie Bland, John Lattimore and former Hazlewood and Muscle Shoals standout Jalen Jones, a transfer from Eastern Kentucky. Sophomore Rock Slaughter has also been impressive at end.
At defensive tackle, Jeremiah Booth has been one of the spring standouts after seeing limited playing time last season.
“Booth got himself in good shape and is having a really good spring,” Willis said. “Taylor Carney is playing more tackle now and is really quick off the ball. We feel much better about our defensive line.”
One experiment this spring is the move of Tavarius Wilson to outside linebacker. Wilson led the Gulf South Conference in tackles last season at middle linebacker.
Wilson’s move allowed sophomore Eddrick Harris to get plenty of reps at middle linebacker, and the former R.A. Hubbard standout has taken advantage of the opportunity.
“Harris has had a heck of a spring,” Willis said. “He is our hardest hitter and I’m really proud of the progress he is making.”
Returning starter Brion James has been solid at the other outside linebacker post, while converted safety Jerome White is the top backup.
UNA has added depth at cornerback. Lamar Smith, who played running back for first nine games in 2011, moved to corner for the final game and appears to have found a home.
Former Washington State cornerback Terrance Hayward transferred in January and has shown the potential to help this fall. Willis said returning starters Jalen Reedus and Delvin Ervin have each improved.
“Lamar Smith, along with Harris, has been the surprise of the spring,” Willis said. “He is showing he can be a good corner. Hayward is still knocking the rust off after not playing the last two years, but he should be ready to go in September.”
Willis admits he is more comfortable in his second spring as defensive coordinator. The entire defensive staff returned, and that enabled the defense to pick up where it left off.
With one week of spring remaining, Willis is looking for a strong finish.
“Usually you have a lull late in the spring but this group has not let that happen,” he said. “We’ve had great competition, which has created more depth. The guys are practicing with a sense of urgency. They’re expecting a good season this fall.”
Jeff McIntyre can be reached at 256-740-5737 or jeff.mcintyre@TimesDaily.com. Follow
@TD_JeffMcIntyre on Twitter.