Collin College Fall

Panthers secondary led by returning starters at safety

by | Aug 15, 2023 | Sports

Plano East’s defensive preview ends in the secondary, where the team is led by two experienced and talented safeties.

The duo, Andrew Earls and Desmond Smith return for their second year as a starting tandem. Smith, a multi-year starter entering his senior year, had 37 tackles and three interceptions last season.

Earls, a rising junior, started as a sophomore last season and had 32 tackles. The duo provides a strong framework for the defense, and head coach Tony Benedetto feels like they can be crucial pieces to the defensive success of Plano East.

“Desmond has been starting for three years and Andrew is coming back, and they’re experienced and come a long way still in the offseason,” Benedetto said. “We feel good about them, and we need those guys to be the backbone of our secondary.”

Smith is one of the most experienced players on the entire football team, and he’ll spend time operating as a running back, and returner while managing his duties as a defensive back. With all that burden he’s set to take on this season, he’s stepped up as a team leader.

“He’s been someone who’s learned to hold other players accountable on the field,” Benedetto said. “He sees the field as a safety so it’s easier for him, but he’s helping line up the cornerbacks and he knows if a pass is caught on us where the missed assignment was. Last year was a brand new defense, and this year he’s going to be very confident and instinctive.”

Part of Smith’s game that will be essential for the Panthers’ defense is creating turnovers. The team didn’t force a lot of takeaways last season but is working to address that issue before the new year. With Smith at the back, they know they have a safety who can make plays.

“Desmond needs to be the liaison from coaches to players,” Benedetto said. “We’re calling takeaways not turnovers, because we want them to take the ball away. We’ve been working through a circuit of takeaway drills and he just needs to make sure the guys are working hard through those drills and it translates to the field.”

Earls enters his junior year as the team’s second safety option, coming off a strong 2022 season with the Panthers. Despite starting at a young age, one thing that stood out to the Plano East coaching staff is he is not afraid to play.

“Andrew likes to hit, he will come down and hit you and not be afraid to sacrifice his body,” Benedetto said. “That’s part of the reason we brought him up so early, because we expect him to fit the box, and make tackles. He needs to take steps in his coverage skills and he’s put a lot of work into that this summer. Colleges are looking for that out of him too, so he’s got to show he can put it all together.”

He presents a nice duo with Smith, as Earls can step up and defend the run while Smith operates in the free safety role. As they lead the team in 2023, their chemistry will be key.

“They understand the defense and where the weaknesses are, but they have to make sure everyone is lined up and communicating with the team,” Benedetto said. “I know we usually say the middle linebacker is the quarterback of the defense, but it’s more of the safety because they can see the entire field and make the adjustments as needed.”

At cornerback, Plano East is evaluating four cornerbacks this fall for the final two starting positions on the team. Rammy Suliman joins the team after playing basketball for the last few years and already has an offer from Division III school McMurry University.

Coach Benedetto said Suliman impressed in the spring and will earn a chance to start in 2023 if he continues to impress in the fall.

“He’s super athletic and operates like you’d expect a basketball player to play,” Benedetto said. “So much of playing corner is like basketball, because footwork, quick feet and playing the ball in the air are all qualities that should translate to the field.”

Braylon Coleman and Malachi Simmons are both also competing for a starting job, along with other younger players on the Plano East roster. With just a couple of weeks until the start of the season, the team hopes one will stand out in the fall with reps in pads.

“We want to see who can make plays on the ball and have a short-term memory if things don’t go well,” Benedetto said. “We don’t want to make a lot of mistakes and we want to be a bend-but-don’t-break defense, so it’ll come down to who can limit those mistakes.”

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