Coming into this season, there seems to be two primary problems that preseason magazines are focusing on: interior line play and linebackers. This makes sense, of course, as we lost all 6 starters in those two positions. However, there are more than just two potential holes on this team. This week, we'll be documenting all of these "mini-issues", if you will, with closing out the series today by taking a look at the defensive end position.
Why It's a (Potential) Problem
This was a tough one. I had thoughts about doing the entire defensive line, but figured it would be too much to handle in one large spoonful. I thought about making a mini-mini-series out of this mini-series, focusing just on the defensive line, but that just seemed like it would be overkill. Then, I had to decide what to cover; defensive end or defensive tackle.
While our defensive tackles were underwhelming last year, we still have a bunch of talented bodies at the position. Darius Parish
, Jamal Greene
, Richard Johnson Jr., Caleb Blakesley
, etc. etc. So, instead, I decided to focus on the defensive end position. Now, with our new 4-2-5 defense, run defense will be at a premium, making the defensive tackles more important in theory. But, after watching the Chiefs last season, I entirely understand the relationship between lack of a pass rush and sucky defense.
Even with 5 people out there in the secondary, pressure is absolutely necessary. And, people are kind of overlooking the problem. I mean, sure, I like Quintin Woods. He looks like he's going to be a good player. I hope he is. But, behind him and incumbent starter Jake Laptad
, there isn't a whole lot. I've bought into Max Onyegbule too many times in the past to expect much out of him. Jake Wheeler has never fully developed his pass-rushing potential. And the other d-ends are young and, most likely, not ready to contribute immediately.
I'm worried. Pass rush is essential, and while we have all of the pieces to create one, it isn't a sure thing. Not by a long shot.
The Potential Solutions
Like I said, there are plenty of "solutions" here. All of them are really talented, too. While we survived in the past two years while playing always-in-the-right-place players, like Russell Brorsen
and John Larson
, they didn't provide enough pass rush. Mangino switched up the recruiting strategy, instead going after better athletes who, potentially, could consistently get to the quarterback. Most of that talent is still young, but two juniors (Laptad and the JUCO transfer Quintin Woods) will be depended on the most.
All specific players listed after the jump...
The best defensive end we had last year, easy. He got to the QB enough to be a primary pass rusher, but not when matched up across Russell Brorsen, or someone like that. Still, he should be improved; perhaps good enough to be all-Big 12. Maybe. He certainly has the potential. And, he isn't awful against the run, either; but he's clearly a pass rusher primarily.
With him, though, it's still mostly potential. He has to get better against the run, particularly with only 2 LBs. If he can be a bigger factor in the run game while maintaining similar production in rushing the QB, it should be OK. If not, then we'll be in trouble. He's good enough to blow my small expectations out of the water; it's just a matter of if he does it, or not.
And when the most proven commodity at the position has potential surrounding any potential production, it usually isn't a good thing. I mean, it can be; that's what potential means. But if he busts out, or just performs the same as last year, it won't end well.
Huge fan of his. Original Michigan commit, but then he didn't qualify out of high school and had to go the JUCO route. Still just as talented, has just as much potential, all of that wonderful stuff. Could be a real star. Of course, here we go again with that potential bug. And given our, um, not-so-hot record with the junior college transfers, I'm trying to keep my expectations at a reasonable level. Ideally, given the fact he's a pass rusher first-and-foremost, you would just throw him in there on obvious passing downs. Kind of like Jake Laptad's usage his freshman year. But, with Woods at least experiencing some form of playing time beyond high school, even if it was just in JUCO, he becomes the de facto starter. So, his progression is the absolute key to this entire position.
Either he picks it up, plays at a high level, provides Laptad ample production on the other side of the line and isn't completely destroyed in the running game, or he doesn't. If he does, we're all happy, and our defense is miles better. We can wean in the freshman-or-two that we don't redshirt along with D.J. Marshall
, who both could pick up a couple sacks of their own. Our secondary can be more relaxed. Our linebackers can just focus on the running game. We're a much better team with two really good defensive ends. It's obvious.
Given last year, I think we can all be fairly certain Laptad can be depended upon. But Woods, or anybody else at the position? Nuh-uh. At the very least, they shouldn't be treated as guarantees. Someone, anyone, will have to step up, though. And Woods is the best option.
For the rest of the ends, I'll just break them into two camps. One is the veteran reserve role, consisting of Max O and Jeff Wheeler. Both were the third-down pass rushers that were brought in obvious passing situations in the past, with mediocre results at best. Now, less will be expected of them, but they are probably the second and third "surest" things, respectively, left at d-end. If everyone flops, they'll have to step up. Even if not, and someone like Quintin Woods emerges, they'll be depended upon to be a steady, veteran presence.
It's likely too late in their careers for either of them to take a huge leap, which is needed if either becomes the consistent presence opposite Laptad. But, both of them should be good enough to be decent off of the bench, particularly in getting to the QB. Depending on how things go with Woods and the freshmen, that may get them considerable PT or it may not. As long as they provide some baseline for the newcomers to reach, I'm happy.
That's really the key with Onyegbule and Wheeler. Provide some baseline of production for the Marshalls and Youngs and Sellers of the world to reach, or they don't see the field. That way, we at least have decent players go out there, plus it creates competition, bladdy bladdy blah.
D.J. Marshall, Kevin Young, Tyrone Sellers
I listed them in order of likely appearance in games, based mostly off of time-in-the-program. Even though Kevin Young tried his best to be Xavier and C.J. before it even happened, he was here for the spring semester. Sellers wasn't, while Marshall spent a year last year redshirting, getting bigger, learning techniques, all of that fantastic stuff. So, while Marshall is often overlooked, I think he's the most likely to see the field. Most likely in some kind of third-downs-only, pass rushing type. Or something.
All of them have, you guessed it, potential. Loads of it. A bunch. It's just a matter of when it comes out. I'm pumped beyond belief for all three. Particularly Kevin Young, who I think could be just as good against the run as against the pass.
So, The Solution Is...
Well, as scary as it may be, we pretty much have to depend on Jake Laptad providing production. Given the immense uncertainties of every other defensive end on the roster, his half-sure-thing is going to have to do as if he was Julius Peppers or something. And, someone else is going to have to step up.
Quintin Woods is the favorite, but really it doesn't much matter. As long as someone steps up opposite Laptad, it's a success. Combine that with the two veterans, Onyegbule and Wheeler, and you can survive the season with an average pass rush. Or whatever. If any of the freshmen can step up and provide much of anything, it's just an added bonus.
Really, I'm actually not that worried about the pass rush. Of all of these "underrated problems", I'm least worried about any potential pass rush. I think we're going to be fine. Laptad can be awesome, Woods is going to provide something, and the seniors will be good enough to get 5-10 snaps a game. Or whatever.
So, don't freak out entirely.
Planning on doing an Underrated Strength mini-series, probably starting next Tuesday. Hopefully all of the negative will I've built up in this year's team will go away when we go over the strengths beyond just the passing game.