The preview mags have hit the market and an overwhelming question has begun to form in my mind in regards to the defense. Coming out of last season there is a core of young talent with a season of experience behind them which provides a good starting point. Drew Frey, Dominique Battle, JK Schaffer, Walter Stewart, Derek Wolfe and maybe Brandon Mills are all battle tested and proven performers at this point. But there is one thing missing, a rock solid impact defensive end. Where exactly is the pressure going to be coming from this season.
Brandon Mills, and Dan Giordano are listed as the starting defensive ends coming out of spring ball. I like both of them, but in doses. Giordano played really well in the time he was given last year (roughly 25 snaps a game) and Mills was a trouble maker for opposing centers coming on in relief of Derek Wolfe at the nose tackle position. But I don’t think that either of them are every down DE’s at this level. That may be overstating it bit in regards to Giordano who seems perfectly capable of playing in a productive way full time. I just have doubts about his ability to be the lead pass rusher for a defense that is going to need to generate a lot of pressure to be effective.
The thing about Mills is that he is kind of position-less. I mean on the face of it where exactly should you play a 5’10” 266 pound* defensive lineman to ensure his productivity? He can be a disruptive force on the inside playing the nose provided he has a one v one matchup with a guard or a center. But if a team runs power plays at him when he plays inside they can easily overwhelm him at the point of attack. He is quick, much quicker than most guards and centers, but not quick enough to consistently beat tackles in pass rush. I think that the move back to a 4-3 is going to be a boon for the defensive line as a whole, but it is going to hurt Mills because he won’t be able to beat Wolfe at the nose, and he isn’t big enough to play the second tackle position which seems to be all John Hughes at the moment. Mills is listed as the starting defensive end for now, but I don’t see him holding onto that for long.
The fact of the matter is that the best, most consistent pass rusher on the roster seems to be destined to be playing OLB for Tim Banks. Walter Stewart really came out of nowhere last year to have a great red shirt freshman year. He was 6’5″ and about 220 when he entered the fray last year after Curtis Young went down in the Rutgers game. He showed up big in Corvalis notching a couple of big sacks as well as a forced fumble in the Oregon State game. He is a bigger and stronger player right now. It looked like he put on about 20 pounds between the Sugar Bowl and the spring game and looks like he should be more capable of holding his own physically than he was last year. If im honest it wasn’t all great last year for Stewart, there were plenty of times when he looked like a freshman, the UConn game in particular comes to mind. I know that the staff would like to keep him at OLB, but I have a sneaking suspicion that he will move down to take up Mills DE spot at some point. I just don’t think you can play your best pass rusher out of his more natural position, particularly when you don’t really have someone of his caliber playing in that position.
To be fair this is not a new concern for the program, UC has had to replace both starting defensive ends in each of the last three seasons and they have had people step up and produce in each of them. First it was Anthony Hoke and Angelo Craig in 2007, then it was Connor Barwin and Lemonte Nelms in 2008, last year it was Curtis Young and Alex Daniels the major difference between those units attempts to replace both starting ends and this years is that the Defensive lines in those years were much deeper than 2010’s, particularly at defensive end where it was pretty much an unbroken line of plug, play and produce defensive ends. The pickings are much, much barer this year and that is a big concern of mine heading into fall camp. The hope is that someone at DE makes a huge leap in the off season or that the staff struck gold in recruiting with one of their four 6’4″ 230+ lineman recruits. If I had to take a stab at who that golden ore may be I would say Cameron Beard but that it is just a hunch.