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Season Preview: Defensive line

On their own each unit of the 2007 defense failed.  The secondary covered poorly and couldn't break on the ball, the linebackers were often out of position and had trouble tackling, the defensive line struggled to shed blockers and get any pressure on the quarterback. 

Individually it was bad, but collectively it was worse.  When the defensive line was unable to penetrate the backfield, that meant the secondary had to cover for longer, advantage offense.  When the defensive line couldn't close or narrow running lanes by shedding blocks that left the linebackers exposed to second level blocking and left them to tackle in wide open space, advantage offense.  The linebackers and secondary had their own issues, but their problems were magnified by the poor line play.

I am excited to see the new look secondary and hopefully a more disciplined linebacking corp, but for them to succeed and show vast improvement it all starts up front.

Of the three defensive units this is the one that is receiving the least new help.  The addition of freshman Jewhan Edwards and JUCO Cedrick McKinley will certainly help but for this unit to succeed improvement from the returners will be critical.

Starters

DE - Willie VanDeSteeg - guaranteed starter and captain of the team.  WVDS had a breakout sophomore season with 10 sacks, but his junior campaign was a major disappointment as he fought through a broken hand on his way to a one sack season.  Some question the validity of WVDS' sophomore season saying the sacks were an abnormality and he did not play the rush very well.  Others believe last year's injury wrecked his season and 2008 will be a return to his Big Ten dominance.  Most likely he falls somewhere in between, regardless he needs to have a more productive season to really help the defense out.

DE - Derrick Onwuachi - DO started five games last year and finished stronger than he started.  He has been described as explosive and athletic but needs to be more productive from game one.  When camp started Onwuachi was listed behind JUCO transfer Cedcrick McKinley, but will be starting game one.

DT - Eric Small - Much has been said of Small this month.  A year ago Small was small, but he apparently bulked up 20+ lbs in the offseason and now looks more like a prototypical defensive tackle at 300 lbs.  Small appeared in all 12 games last year, starting six of them.  For week one Small is starting ahead of true freshman Jewhan Edwards.  Personally I'm looking for Small to maintain at the point of attack and plug up the interior.  His 18 tackles in 12 games played does not inspire me, but hopefully the added muscle/weight will allow him to hold his ground and make some tackles this year.

DT - Garrett Brown - is the final starter along this "experienced" line.  Brown also appeared in all 12 games, starting the final three.  He came on strong at the end and his numbers are slightly better than Small's but needs to improve.  Combined with Small we now have two DTs who fill out 300 lb frames.  While on paper this is nice to see, it doesn't exactly measure their footwork and their ability to make tackles.  They should however take up space and if one of them can occupy two blockers that should free up our linebackers to do their thing.

Backups

DT - Jewhan Edwards - With the recent attrition rate of our incoming freshmen, we should be checking hourly to make sure Edwards is still on the team.  Throughout the recruiting process this is one of the names I really wanted to see commit to the Gophers.  Edwards is large, has quick feet and should make an impact immediately.  He is a freshman and the Big Ten is no place for kids, but he should

DE - Cedric McKinley - originally signed with Troy out of high school, but ended up at Mississippi Gulf Coast CC along with staring safety Tramaine Brock.  The decision to sign with Troy out of high school doesn't get me all warm and fuzzy, but McKinley dominated at on a very talented JC that went 12-0 last year winning the JUCO national championship.  The U of M website describes McKinley as a "lethal combination of size, strength and speed."  CM may soon be starting but at the very least he'll be one of the three ends getting the majority of the defensive snaps.

DE - Raymond Henderson - former Tennessee commit and 4-star recruit, originally from Wisconsin.  In some ways he is the opposite of McKinley as he was highly recruited out of high school but has not lived up to expectations.  Henderson has the tools to be very good but has yet to showcase those skills.  He'll be fighting for playing time with senior, William Brody behind WVDS.

DT - Barrett Moen - In 2006 the kid from Bloomington as an offensive guard who was moved to defensive tackle in his sophomore season.  Moen was academic All-Big Ten as a sophomore and hopes to earn some recognition for his play on the field.  I'm not sure how much we'll see Moen play or what to expect from the former walk-on but he will see reps and he'll need to provide some depth.

DT - Anthony Jacobs - Jacobs was one of the prized recruits in Mason's last class.  He redshirted last year and many Gopher fans were expecting to see the 6'2", 288 lb kid bring something to the line this year.  But Jacobs has been buried on the depth chart and his name has rarely (read never) been mentioned throughout the fall camp.  I would love to see him make some noise but clearly he has to earn it.

DT - Brandon Kirksey - freshman who arrived to camp late due to admission issues.  But Kirksey is here and is pushing for playing time.  He is one I wouldn't mind seeing get a red shirt year to fill out his frame and learn to compete at the Big Ten level.

That covers pretty much everybody, I didn't say much about Brody but I know very little and I'm not sure how much the senior will contribute.  But ultimately this unit needs to step it up and it has to be several of them.  One guy going crazy with 12 sacks will be nice but if the other three continue to get no penetration then the rest of the defense still suffers.  We need a few of them to improve and make this defense as an entire unit better.