Holding the line

Portland State football fans shouldn’t worry too much about next year’s defense. While defensive coordinator Greg Lupfer’s boys are somewhat inexperienced on the front line, they are coming off a dominating spring game featuring big plays by the loaded Viking secondary and linebackers.

“I feel pretty good right now,” Lupfer said. “We’re definitely better in those spots than we were last year.”

Part of the secondary’s improvement lies in the return of veteran players like senior Charles Manigo, a deep safety who had two interceptions in the May 13 spring game.

Also returning are senior strong safeties Steve Shinen and James Abdullah and sophomore free safety Jordan Senn, who had a 40-yard interception return for a touchdown in the spring game. Anchoring the defense will be senior Joey King who was second on the team in tackles last season with 63. Health has been an issue with the slight King, who is 5-foot-10 and 205 pounds and routinely takes on hulking offensive linemen.

“He beats his body up pretty good,” Lupfer said, “but he’s a tough, tough kid.”

Lupfer wanted to move King from his natural linebacker position to strong safety to protect his body and utilize his speed, but a spirited spring training competition between Shinen and King led Lupfer to reconsider. For now King goes back to outside linebacker, though Lupfer won’t have a clear decision until the fall.

What is clear is that by far the weakest area of the Viking defense is the defensive line, which lost outgoing seniors Chris Berg and Chuck Jones who had been cornerstones of the line. Lupfer stressed that the incoming transfers have to immediately fit in and play well.

“The D-line players have to be good,” he said, adding that the Viks’ current linemen are talented but lacking experience. UCLA transfer CJ Niusulu, who has been a Pac-10 starter, should be able to come in and produce immediately.

Niusulu is a risk, though. He has had a litany of injuries and he wore out his welcome in Los Angeles. In 2003 he served 120 days in jail for misdemeanor battery charges after he punched an under-aged man once, breaking his jaw and injuring his shoulder. Allegedly, the victim wouldn’t let Niusulu and his friends into a drive-in movie theater for free and when he called Niusulu, a Samoan, a derogatory name, Niusulu responded by punching him in the face.

Niusulu’s most recent run-ins have been repeated violations of UCLA team rules after an injury-plagued junior season. Still, he is an effective weapon against the run and recorded 24 tackles and 1.5 sacks in seven starts last season.

Though there are few secrets to what the Vikings do defensively, Lupfer has no plans to change anything dramatically.

“Teams have a pretty good idea of what we do as far as how we line up in coverages,” Lupfer said. “But we’ll try and throw something different at them each game.”

At this early point in the year, it is still unclear what the Vikings defense will ultimately look like Sept. 3 when the Viks open their season in Corvallis as they take on Oregon State. They are stacked in their secondary and at linebacker, but there are huge question marks and literally gaping holes to fill on the defensive line. Even so, Lupfer is optimistic.

“We have every opportunity to be as good as last season,” he said.