Spring game's on Saturday and it's time to finally focus on the less glamorous side of the ball. You know, the side that's been dominating the spring so far:
Who will replace defensive ends Brandon Bice and Jake Coffman
Both of these players were named 2nd team All-MAC this past year and were big time producers on the football field. Bice finished with 37 tackles (21 solo), 7.5 TFL, 5 sacks & 4 FF. Coffman finished with 39 tackles (21 solo), 13.5 TFL and 8.5 sacks of his own.
Enter scene left are sophomores Sean Progar and Alan Baxter, both of which received significant playing time this past year. Do you believe that Progar finished with 30 tackles (18 solo), 8 TFL, 6 sacks and 2 FF? That's a lot of production, as he got to start 7 games this past year when Coffman was either banged up or had to move to the middle of the line because of injuries.
In addition, Alan Baxter played more of a role of a run stuffer in every game and finished with 22 tackles (9 solo). Darnell Bolding appears like he will continue his role of a 3rd down pass rushing specialist as he finished with just 15 tackles this past season with 4.5 TFL and 2 sacks.
The unknowns include rFR Anthony Wells, who was ranked as one of the top players in Illinois coming out of North Chicago. Kill talked up Wells whenever he could this past offseason in terms of players that could have played if they didn't want to reserve their eligibility. And 6'4" Stephen O'Neal, who was actually more of a basketball star in high school.
Have you heard we have defensive line depth?
It's amazing what one year can do to the depth of just one position. Last year, a hand injury to Brian Lawson vs. Toledo caused him to miss most of the year, which forced Coffman to move inside away from his natural position. One more injury, and we may have been forced to pull a redshirt off because of necessity.
That was last year, this is now. Arguably the biggest story of the offseason is the fact that Mike Krause will be back after missing the entire 2009 season because of a heart ailment. Lawson is back from his injury, Nabal Jefferson was an absolute beast as a true freshman this past season and we finally get to see Zach Anderson after redshirting.
D.J. Pirkle will not participate this spring due to the fact that he is a badass and played the entire season with a torn labrum. Such depth has caused the following defensive linemen to move to offense: Adam Coleman to TE, John Hopkins to TE, Kyle Jenkins to LG.
Will the linebackers bounce back from mediocrity?
In one of the most intriguing moves of the spring, Coach Kill decided to slot Devon Butler as the starting MLB and move Pat Schiller outside and all over the place. Butler showed a lot of potential last year as a true freshman usually filling in on nickel situations. The Florida native was highly touted coming out of high school and brings an element of sideline-to-sideline speed and intensity that we haven't seen at the Mike since Kill has been head coach.
Senior Alex Kube will be manning the strongside as usual and will be one of the biggest leaders on this defense. All though the full stable of linebackers won't be available until fall practice, key backups include Kube's backup Tyrone Clark and Jordan Delegal, who could be fighting it out with Pat Schiller for the starting spot at the weakside. Delegal is one of the best athletes on the team, but was very raw and a bit of a loose cannon last year. George Rainey is another guy to watch out for at linebacker, as he worked all of last year to become eligible for a scholarship.
Secondary a year older, a year wiser?
Not having turnover in your defensive backfield is a very, very good thing. This year we don't have to break in any starters at CB, since Patrick George, Chris Smith and Kiaree Daniels are all returning. There's depth too, as Dominique Ware and Sean Evans need to see enough time this year to be ready for when they have to start games. Sometimes I forget that Tommy Davis also plays in the secondary, primarily as a nickelback.
The focus this offseason has been on forcing turnovers. Out of the 8 interceptions last year, only 4 were from DBs.
At safety you have Tracy Wilson as the stud on the strongside with Garrett Barnas sure to see a lot of playing time as well. Free safety will be a battle unsolved until the summer with Sobol getting hurt, but Jody Van Laanen and Demetrius Stone should get some early looks.
Will anything be solved this spring in the kicking game?
With punting, yes. Both Josh Wilber & Ryan Neir have been performing well this Spring. With kicker, nobody knows. Well actually we can guess pretty well: incoming freshman Matthew Sims will be our kicker. It's not like we gave him a scholarship for no reason. Longsnappers Nolan Owen and Adam Coleman are both hurt, so that just puts an extra monkey wrench in the situation.
Tommy Davis is still on our roster, so I assume he'll be returning punts. Davis and Crider on kickoffs I presume as well. Elementary.
What are you most concerned with and/or excited about this spring on the D?