March 18, 2008

Spring Preview: The Defensive Line

OUTGOING PLAYERS: Tyler Yenzer, Brian Jones

2007 SEASON STATS: Jones (5 tackles, 2 tackles for losses, 1 sack); Yenzer (2 tackles, tackle for a loss, 1 fumble recovery)

MOST DIFFICULT QUALITY TO REPLACE: Good practice competition

THE STARTERS: Brandon Williams (DE), Brandon SeSay (DE), Colby Whitlock (DT), Ra'jon Henley (NT)

THE COMPETITORS: Bobby Agoucha (DT), Jake Ratliff (DE), McKinner Dixon (DE), Richard Jones (DT), Clint Stoffels (NT), Britton Barbee (NT), Daniel Howard (DE), David Neill (DT), Sandy Riley (DE), Brandon Sharpe (DE)

THE OUTLOOK: It is not a stretch to say that never in Tech football history has the situation at defensive line looked any brighter. During my time following the Red Raiders, dating back to 1978, this unit has always been a sore spot. At best, Tech had a solid starting lineup but very little depth. Now the Red Raiders are so loaded at this position that an advanced degree in differential calculus from Cal Tech may be needed to figure out how to get the best players on the field without allowing good talent to languish needlessly on the bench. What a luxury!

For starters-so to speak-every starter returns from 2007. What's more, with the exception of Colby Whitlock, none of them is assured of starting in 2008. The infusion of new talent is that good.

That said, the returning starters are hardly slouches and it is conceivable that they all could start again this season. The best of the bunch is defensive tackle Colby Whitlock who started as a true freshman and garnered some Freshman All America notice. He is a prototype tackle, possessing all the strength, quickness, toughness and technique you could ask for from such a young player.

Not far behind Whitlock in the talent department is rush end Brandon Williams. He, too, is a bit of a prototype, and came on toward the end of last season, earning second team All Big 12 honors from at least one organization.

Nose tackle Ra'jon Henley, much like Williams, improved as the season progressed, and his caused fumble in the Gator Bowl turned that game around for the Red Raiders. Henley is also a team leader and an intelligent player.

Jake Ratliff was fairly solid at his defensive end position, and had a nice Gator Bowl, but that might not be enough to hold onto his starting position given the wealth of incoming talent. It is not impossible that he could be moved to the interior where he was actually quite effective as an undersized tackle early in his career. At six-foot-seven and 245 pounds he is built identically to former Red Raider stalwart Brad White who excelled at defensive tackle for Jerry Moore in the early 80s.

As noted above, there is depth aplenty for defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill to work with. And the best of that depth should be provided-at least initially-by new defensive ends Brandon SeSay and McKinner Dixon. Both are true blue chip recruits who come to Lubbock from the JUCO ranks and will press hard, not only for playing time, but for starting positions immediately. Although SeSay won't go through spring drills he would appear to be an almost surefire starter, while Dixon, who started as a true freshman for the Red Raiders in 2005, also has the ability to play inside.

THE PREDICTION: The five most talented players on the 2008 defensive line will be Whitlock, Williams, Henley, SeSay and Dixon. Obviously, all five cannot start on a week-in/week-out basis. Regardless of who starts, however, that quintet will garner the lion's share of the snaps and will be a nightmare for opposing offensive lines to handle. All five of those players are extremely quick and rugged, and will be disruptive in the extreme, perhaps to the point of rendering blitzes almost otiose.

But the Red Raiders have other rounds in the chamber besides Whitlock, Williams, Henley, Sesay and Dixon. Ratliff is a returning starter who, at the very least, will be an extremely valuable sub either at tackle or end. Daniel Howard is a pass rushing specialist at defensive end, who is dangerous off of the edge when healthy. Richard Jones is a very sound defensive tackle who is good enough to start for some teams in the Big 12. And massive sophomore Bobby Agoucha is a strong candidate to be one of the biggest surprises for the 2008 defense. He has bona fide talent, and now that he's weathered the difficult storm of his freshman year (most of it spent on the sideline with an injury), look for him to break out. You also don't really know what you have in Brandon Sharpe either.

That is nine maybe ten defensive linemen who are good enough to play for just about anybody. Coach McNeill is sleeping like a lottery winner; opposing quarterbacks will wake up every two hours and cry.

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