TATUM -- The Tatum Eagles have question marks on offense but the defense figures to be the strong point of this 2012 team, and it all starts in the middle with linebacker Kiano Lucas.

Lucas, who racked up 135 tackles and five sacks a year ago, will be joined at linebacker by sophomore Keyshawn Smith, who was called up to varsity during the playoffs and led the Eagles in tackles.

Keeping offensive linemen off the linebacking duo will be Darius Whiting and Tristan Durden.

Whiting (6-0, 265) started on the offensive line last year and will do so again this season, but will also start on defense at nose guard. Durden, who is receiving interest from schools such as Baylor, figures to be a piece to the defensive puzzle. Agile for his size (6-4, 292), he can play any position on the front.

Both of these mammoth linemen think the defense will be the strong point of the team.

“A new scheme is hard to understand at first but we are working hard every day in practice on it,” Whiting said of the defense which the players have nicknamed X-Gang. “Once we get it down, we should have a great year.”

Added Durden: “We will be the strongest group on the team. We got some newcomers but we got head captain Kiano Lucas back.”

C.J. Whitaker, a speedy two-year starter at cornerback, believes speed will be one of the reasons the Tatum defense will be good.

“The speed of our defense is something serious,” Whitaker said. “Speed kills and we will have plenty of it.”

The defense isn’t just replacing seven players; the Eagles are also replacing the defensive coordinator. Bryan Price is the new Tatum DC, taking over for James Conway, who is now the head coach at Timpson.

Price brings a hard-nosed, no-nonsense attitude on that side of the ball for the Eagles, something that should help improve a defense that yielded 18 points per game last season.

“Coach Price is laid back but if you mess up he will get on your butt,” Lucas said. “With him, we know to take coaching when coaching is given. I love his style.”