Time to start up the position group previews for 2011. At TDG we like to look back at last year's group, compare it to this year's group and make a judgement on whether or not this position group will be an upgrade or a downgrade from last season. I'm going to kick off the series with what may have been the least productive position group on the team last year. Should be pretty easy to be an upgrade right?
At his opening press conference, Jerry Kill said his defenses start with two things. Getting pressure on the QB and having corners who you can rely on in one-on-one coverage. Unfortunately for him he inherited a defense that was easily the worst in the conference at getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
"I'm gonna have me a great defensive end that can rush the passer, and two good corners that can lock down people. Then you can do about anything you want."
Too bad for Coach Kill he does not have a returning end that would classify as a great defensive end. At least not one that has shown it on the field yet. Heading into the 2010 season the group of promising ends gave us some hope for an improved pass rush but it didn't play out that way and the 2010 ends provided little actual production on the field.
Anthony Jacobs, D.L. Wilhite, Matt Garin, Kendall Gregory-McGhee and Ra'Shede Hageman were names we most often saw playing on the end of the Brewster/Cosgrove defense. And those are the names you'll be seeing again this year. Jacobs did get one start and played plenty of snaps on the inside but he was a regular starter at end opposite Wilhite or Garin. Maybe there is a silver lining in the fact that all of those guys are a year older and are returning.
The one guy who was most productive last season was Anthony Jacobs. The versatile, upper-classman started 10 games and led all defensive linemen in tackles with 51 and was second in tackles for losses (6.5) and sacks (2.0). The Northfield native finally began to live up to what was expected out of the four-star recruit. The good news is that he is back and expected to be one of the linemen we can rely on to be productive this year in the new defensive scheme. But he is unlikely to be helping out the ends this year and I expect that he'll be starting alongside Brandon Kirksey at tackle.
Starting at both ends, I anticipate we will see Wilhite and Garin. D.L. Wilhite started eight games last year as a sophomore contributing 2.5 TFLs and one sack. Matt Garin was a freshman who appeared in all 12 games starting six of them. He had one TFL to his name in 2010. These guys got to spend a year learning on the job, getting stronger and figuring out how to be productive at the Big Ten level. Once again we are hoping that these guys are able to take steps forward and give the defense more production on an every down basis. Wilhite is very light for a B1G D-End listed at 237 pounds. If he is going to play at that weight then he needs to be that speed rushing end who is consistently in the face of opposing quarterbacks. Garin has adequate size at 6-5, 252 and the Eastview product just needs to be a more consistent performer who takes care of his responsibilities on the field.
Behind those guys are two more ends that we'd all like to see more from. Ra'Shede Hageman and Kendall Gregory-McGhee are both capable of giving us more than they did in 2010, and really both are capable of taking over as starters. Hageman earned a lot of Brewster accolades (Brewster-lades? Brew-colades?) during camp last fall and the big, athletic end failed to live up to the hype playing in only eight games and making five tackles. The size, athletcism and talent is there for Hageman to make a big jump in production and help anchor the line. If there is one player on the defense that I'm hoping the new staff gets significantly more out of, it is Hageman. Gregory-McGhee is also a nice sized and athletic end who is capable of more than he showed last year. He managed to record a sack last year as a freshman and he too may be moving up the depth chart to a starting position in his sophomore year with some marked improvement.
Behind those four we have guys who are less experienced and are likely not ready for Big Ten play. Ben Perry redshirted last year and will obviously have the opportunity to produce. He is listed at 6-5, 248 on the roster and the Texas native is a Mecahanical Engineering major! Leston Simpson was a late transfer last year who appeared in as 12 games as a sophomore but did not record any stats. Behind those guys are a few true freshmen that I assume will redshirt. Thieren Cockran and Michael Amaefula are both undersized at 210 lbs and 218 respectively, I'll be shocked if they played a snap this year.
So the equation of returning everyone who is certainly a year older, likely more experienced and potentially slightly better because of the additional year; this position has to be an upgrade. But more than that, I believe this will be an upgrade because of the new coaching staff. At Northern Illinois the Huskies were 6th in the MAC in total sacks the year before Jerry Kill arrived and that included having future 1st round draft pick, Larry English on the roster. In Kill's three years at NIU they never finished lower than 3rd in the conference in sacks. I am not expecting a top three finish but I am expecting increased production from everyone at the position and an overall improvement in quarterback pressures and sacks. Coaching can do wonders for a football player, I think we will learn that this year.
I know this post focused a lot on sacks and I realize that a defensive end is responsible for a lot more than just bringing down the quarterback with the ball still in his hands. But this unit in 2010 failed to produce very many tackles or tackles for losses. Jacobs did record 41 tackles, which was a nice number, but of the rest of the crew nobody recorded even 15 tackles for the year and they combined for just 4.5 tackles for losses. This unit produced very little and I expect all areas of measurable production to not just improve but dramatically improve.