Grading The Defensive Line

Throughout my postmortum on the Bowl-less campaign of 2010 a couple of themes have begun to make their presence know. First among them is the stunning lack of general depth on the roster, while this deficit is visible at all positions, it is along the lines, both offensive and defensive where this issue came to bear most emphatically. Second was a series of errors in the personnel department. The primary goal of any coach should be to put his players in a position to succeed. In most iterations that phrase is about strategy and execution, about the more nuanced intellectual side of the game, the area in which coaches battle one another for supremacy using those 11 players on the field as their weapons. Last year UC couldn't play the game at that level because they made mistakes at the most basic level of Football Strategy, namely matching a given player and his inherent skills with the position on the field where he can have the biggest impact. UC didn't do well on either measure this past year, but the problems displayed by the defense are very much interrelated.

It is a hard thing to evaluate the performance of a given defensive line. Individual linemen don't generate a ton of stats, and the stats that they do generate, Tackles For Loss and Sacks only inform you of how a given person performs set against a very narrow set of criteria. To my mind the most important things to use when evaluating a defensive line are rushing yards allowed, either on a per game or per carry basis and the aforementioned stats, neither of which is confined to defensive lineman, but usually created by sound defensive line play.I think everyone can agree that the defensive line last year wasn't that great, either on a stand alone basis or in comparison to groups that came before them, but I would argue that they played better as a whole than the 2010 edition.

Rush Yards Allowed Per Rush Allowed Tackles For Loss Sacks
2010 135.42 3.49 77 37
2009 143.77

3.63

110 26

When you look at those stats the basic conclusion is that the difference in terms of defending the run is negligible, 8 yards and two tenths of a yard per carry isn't a statistically significant result. But the group last year was much better at rushing the passer than this years. That is a fair a assumption, after all it took a match up with Rutgers and the worst offensive line of the last 5 years to nudge the sack total above 20.

The biggest issue with the defensive line last year, in my opinion at least, was a catastrophic lack of depth, and that was something that became apparent pretty early in the season. For most of the season the defensive line rotation was cripplingly short. Derek Wolfe, John Huges and Jordan Stepp were the only DT's on the roster who saw action in double digit games, Hughes and Wolfe were iron men who started every game and they played 70 plus snaps a game. Among defensive ends it was just as bad, Dan Giordano started 11, Brandon Mills started 9, beyond those guys there wasn't a consistent contributor among the reserves, Rob Trigg and Monte Taylor played in 9 and 11 games respectively, but neither of them produced much of anything. So the defensive line went 7 deep last season. For a team to be successful they need to have more than seven people to play along the defensive line. A deep defensive line is the hallmark of any good team, and that is an attribute that could be applied to all of the teams from the three years prior to this last season. There is no single reason for this, there are some players who looked promising early in their careers who never quite panned out, like Trigg, there are others who seemed to have bright futures that left the team, like Ricky Harris but once you go through the signing lists from the last couple of years the biggest reason was the recruiting of Brian Kelly. Kelly reached on a lot of guys in his three recruiting classes particularly along the defensive line. BK had a very specific plan and a very specific set of criteria in terms of what he was looking for from offensive skill positions. He knew what he wanted to have, found the players that matched and went out and got them. That method worked well for the offense, even in a down year a team comprised almost exclusively with his guys led the Big East in offense again this year.

But where Kelly knew, in great detail, what he wanted from his offensive guys, he was pretty much clueless when it came to evaluating defensive talent, particularly along the defensive line. Kelly isn't a defensive coach, or at least he hadn't been in two decades when he walked onto campus. So it shouldn't be that surprising that he was out of his depth when it came to evaluating and projecting defensive talent. What Kelly had done for most of his tenure at Grand Valley State and Central Michigan was to just recruit frames. He would get these tall, lean, athletic kids lock them in the weight room wait for a couple of years then stick them on the defensive line and expect results. The truth of the matter is that you can only get away with that for so long. There are mitigating factors, like having multiple defensive coordinators and a change in scheme that constantly shifted what the coaches were looking for in a prospect. The bottom line though is that Kelly reached on a lot of defensive line prospects, he certainly didn't recruit that position group at a BCS level. He reached on a lot of kids, most of whom are likely to be back ups at best going forward.

That is one side of the equation, the part that Butch Jones and his staff were powerless to correct. That is the hand that they were dealt and they did what they could. That being said they also made a couple of errors on the personnel side of things, some of them understandable, another beyond their control, and one that was all on them. The depth situation being what it was they were hamstrung with some unfortunate conditions. Chief among them was Walter Stewart playing linebacker. I know why they had to do it, I do. Dorian Davis and Demetrius Jones were dismissed in the off season, both of them were major pains in the ass to the staff, both staffs actually, and it was better for the long term for the younger guys not to be subject to their personalities and various foibles. That said and acknowledged Jones and Davis were two seniors with lots of game experience who would have solidified that position and enabled Walt to play his natural strong side end position. Keeping those guys on the roster probably makes last years defense much better, malcontents though they were. Another hit was the loss of Travis Kelce to an academic suspension. Kelce was listed as a TE heading out of spring ball but was headed for DE by the start of fall camp, in fact that is where he will be playing this up coming season. So circumstances being what they are the staff was put in a tough position having to suspend a potentially very good DE in Kelce, someone who could have won the starting job opposite Giordano and play the best pass rusher on the roster, Stewart, at outside linebacker. So instead of Stewart or Kelce playing that DE spot they had to start Brandon Mills, all 5'10 240 pounds of him at defensive end in a BCS conference for 9 games. That is a bad spot to be in, but they didn't have any other options.

And this is not intended to be a slam on Mills, I like him as a player, I think he is dynamite coming off the bench playing on the nose. However he is not a consistent play in play out difference maker. Think about it Derek Wolfe is, in terms of raw talent, the best defensive lineman to suit up in the Red and Black since Trent Cole. As such he was singled out and double teamed by every single offensive line that played UC. Theoretically that should free up his mates to make plays, but no one could, particularly among the defensive ends. I know Mills led the team in sacks, but half of those came at the hand of Rutgers and their abysmal offensive line. If you look at it objectively if Mills has to start at any position along the defensive line it's going to have some issues.  By the end of the year the lack of talent and depth was just too much. The defensive line was absolutely gassed by the end of the year. We all saw it live, but just for a refresh here is Jordan Todman running roughshod over a battered and broken UC defensive line.

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