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August 20, 2013

Scouting the Sycamores: Cornerback race is tight

At least four Sycamores are vying for starting spot

MECCA — Consistency, experience, effort, confidence.

There are four Sycamores most likely to fill the open cornerback position left by standout All-American stopper Johnny Towalid.

Travis Starks (consistency), Alex Stowers (experience) and Tony Newman (effort) all had their own spin on what made them the right man for the job.

Oh … and there’s also junior college transfer Clay Guess. He would be the confident one.

“Confidence is everything, especially at corner. If you believe you’re the better man, it’ll show. If you’re timid because a guy has a name, it doesn’t matter what he did before. It matters what he did that night, that play and the play after that,” Guess said. “If a guy has been all-conference three years in a row? It makes no difference. I didn’t guard you three years in a row. Show me something. I like to bring that approach to the table.”

Whatever approach ISU’s next starting cornerback brings to the table, ISU coach Mike Sanford knows they have big shoes to fill. But he also knows they have a solid mentor on the other side of the field.

Calvin Burnett was a first-team All-MVFC selection in 2011 and a second-teamer in 2012. The man ISU claimed from the wreckage of Hofstra’s eliminated football program after the 2009 season has started in each of his previous three seasons. Burnett is also ISU’s leading returning tackler as he notched 60 in 2012. He helped lead an experienced secondary that helped ISU rank 14th in the nation in pass defense last season.

All of the Sycamores vying for a chance to join Burnett as a starter praised his leadership.

“Calvin is a great leader. I call him sometimes and ask about plays. I ask him a lot of questions. He’s a veteran and Calvin has a lot of technique he can pass on to us,” Starks said.

Burnett, 5-foot-9, won’t wow you with size, but Sanford noted that the Orlando, Fla. native does everything he expects a corner to do and plays bigger than his size. Burnett fits Sanford’s template for the ideal corner.

“You want ball skills first of all. You want a guy who can break on the ball and make plays. Who has catch up speed and can run. The ideal scenario is do all of the above with height. That’s hard to get at this level,” Sanford said.

None of the would-be starters is taller than 6-foot. Stowers has the most experience for the Sycamores as he had 12 tackles and played all but one game in 2012 as a redshirt. Stowers was given a scholarship by Sanford in the offseason. Starks also played in 2012 as he had three tackles in three games.

Newman did not play, but was on the roster as he sat out the season as a redshirt.

“I’m going to give going to give 100 percent. I go hard. I don’t accept the ball being caught against me,” Newman said.

Guess came to ISU from Orange Coast College. He had three interceptions in 2012 and had 46 tackles.

Of course, the competition is making all of the cornerback candidates better in the long run, or so they hope.

“I feel like with all of the corners that are trying to get that spot, it heightens how we play. We have to make sure we know what we’re doing and that we’re doing it right,” Stowers said.

Entering preseason practice, the concern over the second starting cornerback spot was mitigated somewhat by the depth ISU had at the safety positions. But that comfort zone went out the window when starting safety Larry King tore his ACL during the first preseason practice on Aug. 1.

King’s loss takes away 57 tackles (second among returning defenders) and three interceptions. King has always played smart and has the knack to force turnovers at key junctures.

“It was a huge loss to lose Larry King. From an ability standpoint, a leadership standpoint, a team camaraderie standpoint. He’ll still be with us, but it’s different when he’s not playing. That’s the bad news. The good news is that’s one of our deeper positions,” Sanford said.

Junior Donovan Layne returns after he was injured in the season finale at Youngstown State in 2012. Layne had 48 tackles. Sophomore Mark Sewall started on occasion and had one interception last year.

After that, the experience dries up. Sanford said redshirt freshmen Phil Wilson and Tsali Lough would get a chance. Both are likely to get playing time as well as special teams opportunities. Senior veterans Kamerin Mitchell and Othniel Harvey are also in the mix, along with freshmen Carlos Aviles and Jameer Thurman.

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