That a sophomore safety who couldn’t get on the field until midway through the season and didn’t start until the 10th game led FIU in interceptions speaks to defensive depth.
It also begs the question, where was Justin Halley earlier in the season?
“At the beginning of the year, I really didn’t know the defense that well,” Halley said. “Coaches kept telling me they couldn’t trust me unless I knew the whole playbook.
“So I just tried to study hard in the film room and in practice, just go as hard as I can.”
Also, Halley weighed in the 180-pound range at a long-limbed 6-2. Great if you want to be the next Michael Spinks. Not so great if you’re trying to be more like Ed Reed.
“With him, it was a matter of being able to put enough muscle, functional weight on his body as he learned the system,” FIU coach Mario Cristobal said. “When you come out of high school and you’ve got to learn what we do defensively, as demanding as it is mentally and physically, it takes a little bit. What he showed every day in practice is tremendous instincts. He has a great feel for the game. Amazing range. He can go from center field to the sideline in a second. He’ll throw his body around.
“And now it’s a good thing because he’s approaching that 200-pound mark. You saw elbows, knees and all kinds of bones all over the place when he ran around. That baby giraffe has filled in.”
Halley also figures the added size will help in playing the run. He certainly knows how to play the pass. Led by Halley’s four interceptions, FIU picked off 13 passes over the last eight games of the season, 12 of them by the secondary. Officially, Halley broke up six passes last season (unofficially, it could be 10 or more).
“I’ve always been confident in myself,” Halley started then paused “… but my coaches put me in the position to make the plays. I guess after I started to make a few plays I trusted myself a little more, and it makes me play faster.”
In some ways, Halley’s the prototype for the kind of defensive player, especially defensive back, FIU has been trying to stockpile: athletic (4.4 in the 40, 4.0-4.1 in the shuttle, 37-inch vertical leap) and long. Defensive coaches like long the way carnivores like Smith & Wollensky.
Last week’s three defensive back commitments to FIU all measure at 6-0 and above, topped by Carol City’s 6-4 safety Simeon Thomas. It was a focus in this year’s recruiting class, as well.
“Good offenses create really effective spacing,” Cristobal said. “The more space you can gobble up, six inches here or there or on the other side with a long lean linebacker, [the better]. ... All of a sudden, you make it difficult to expose those windows. You shrink those windows for the offense.”