Monday, April 02, 2007

Spring Positional Battles: The Front Seven

Because this is a discussion of spring ball, I've included the names of incoming freshman without any discussion of their potential contributions. Therefore, the talented incoming players could throw a wrench into the works here.
I'm excited about the front seven this year, though. The switch to the 3-4 has given us a lot of depth at all of the positions, whereas under the 4-3 we would have been loaded at defensive end, but short on both DTs and LBs.

In the 3-4 the most important characteristics of the nose tackle are size and strength. In order for the system to function smoothly, the nosetackle's job is to take up space and blockers on the inside of the line, allowing the players around him to fly to the ball and make tackles.
Chris Stewart Sophomore 6'5" 340 lbs.
Scout 4-star (OL), Rivals 4-star (OL)
One of last year's most highly touted O-Line prospects, Stewart is literally a man-beast. He came to campus at 6'5" and somewhere between 360 and 375 lbs. He's lost a lot of weight in Ruben Mendoza's strength and conditioning program, but he has size and strength in spades. Right now he's listed at 340 lbs, and some people have placed him as low as 320. With all of the young depth available on the O-line, moving Stewart to nose is a no-brainer. As a matter of fact, I told several of my friends when Corwin Brown was hired that I thought they should move Stewart to nose tackle. If he works out as well as he is capable, he is exactly the type of anchor we need for this defense to work.
This is good, because the drop off in size from Stewart to the next D-lineman is significant. Next in line is projected starter at DT, Trevor Laws, who comes in at 295 lbs. Therefore, any of the depth at the DT position below could be moved here, but for now, this is Stewart's job to lose.
Pat Kuntz Junior 6'2" 272 lbs.
Scout 3-star (DT), Rivals 3-star (DE)
Kuntz has the physical skills from all reports, but some people have wondered about his motor. He is apparently a really nice kid, and there is some question whether he can develop the nastiness and aggressieness needed for this system. If there were a game today, Kuntz would start at nosetackle ahead of Stewart. However, I expect by the end of spring (or at latest this summer) to have him penciled in as a starter at the DE position, as he is considerably smaller than Stewart at 6'2" 272 lbs. He might back up Stewart at the nose, in addition to starting at end.
Derrel Hand Junior 6'3" 287 lbs.
Scout 3-star (DT), Rivals 3-star (DT)
Hand could challenge Kunz for one of the DE positions, but because he has more size, I'd like to see him move in to NT to back up Stewart instead of Kunz. However, with our depth at end, both Kunz and Hand could stay inside, pushing Stewart, leaving the defensive end battle to the players listed below.
Ian Williams Freshman 6'2" 294 lbs.

Defensive End
This position in the 3-4 refers to the other two down linemen in the base system. They need to be able to play actually three positions. Their primary job is that of a traditional defensive tackle - take on linemen, shed them and stuff the run. On passing downs with no blitz, they may become defensive ends. Also, in some blitz packages, they need enough mobility to drop into underneath coverage.
There will probably be a considerable amount of rotation at this position to take advantage of the depth we have. Under the 4-3, we would have very little depth on the line, as the
Trevor Laws 5th year Senior 6'1" 295 lbs.
Scout 4-star (DT), Rivals 4-star (DT)
A returning starter from last year's squad, Laws is a solid starter at the defensive end. Listed at 6'1", he's a little short. Under the 3-4, his height could be a problem in some zone bliz schemes - he just can't hope to cover a 6'5" tight end or receiver on a crossing route. However, I expect the blitz packages to largely revolve around the other DE, allowing Laws to be almost a NT/DT hybrid instead of a DT/DE hybrid, helping Stewart plug up the middle.
Paddy Mullen Sophomore 6'5" 285 lbs.
Scout 3-star (TE), Rivals 3-star (TE)
Listed as a tight end coing out of high school, Paddy Mullen has been moved to defensive line due to the sick level of depth at tight end. He has good size, and his tight end background means he will excel at dropping into pass coverage in zone blitzes. Mullen has great speed and a good motor for a kid his size, and could push for playing time sooner rather than later, depending on whether he can pick up the defensive mentality. In fact, if Mullen continues to grow, he could move inside and become one of the most athletic noseguards I've ever seen.
Dwight Stephenson, Jr. 5th year senior 6'2" 257 lbs.
Scout 3-star (DE), Rivals 3-star (LB)
A fifth year senior, Stephenson came back to the team for a reason, and that is because he expects to start or at least play a significant amount of time. As a veteran, he has the most experience and development of any non-starter, but the new system levels the playing field between veterans and younger players somewhat. I expect him and Mullen to battle for the starting end position opposite Laws if Kunz stays inside. However, despite Stephenson's experience, I expect Mullen's athleticism to push him ahead on the depth chart
Kallen Wade Sophomore 6'5" 240 lbs.
Scout 4-star (DE), Rivals 3-star (DE)
One of the defensive jewels of Weis' first full class, Wade hasn't yet broken into the starting lineup. However, he is an excellent athlete, and his presence goes a long way to improving the overall depth and athleticism of this unit. He'll play a lot on special teams, and will wait patiently in the wings for his turn to shine.
John Ryan Sophomore 6'5" 244 lbs.
Scout 3-star (DE), Rivals 3-star (DE)
Ryan wasn't the best defensive end prospect in his class, and has several more highly touted players sitting ahead of him on the depth chart. I haven't heard much about his development, and am unsure whether he'll ever see the field on defense. He will be a productive special teams player, though.
Justin Brown Senior 6'3" 255 lbs.
Scout 2-star (DE), Rivals 2-star (DE)
One of the last remaining players from Willingham's incredible shrinking class, Brown is a big underdog in terms of athleticism, being only a 2-star recruit. However, the mere fact that he is still on the team at this point shows that he has heart and dedication, which I'll take over athleticism any day of the week. He may not start, but at this point he has earned the right to contribute.

Outside Linebacker
If nosetackle is the cornerstone of the 3-4 defense, the outside linebacker is the mortar. They are asked to do a lot more than a traditional 4-3 OLB. These guys are generally DE/LB 'tweeners, although depending on the interior personnel you could go almost into a safety/LB hybrid as well.
Anthony Vernaglia Senior 6'3" 233 lbs.
Scout 4-star (LB), Rivals 4-star (ATH)
The crown jewel of Willingham's Incredible Shrinking Class, Anthony Vernaglia (much like the rest of his recruiting class) has underperformed to date. Although Darius Walker, Maurice Crum, and Terrail Lambert all have started considerably more than Anthony, none of them were as highly touted out of high school. Last year, after struggling through all of the changes in the program, Vernaglia was finally pushing for playing time when he injured his knee. Now fully healed, this is chance to redeem himself. Corwin Brown actually recruited Vernaglia when he was at Virginia, and has had nothing but praise for him this spring. Vernaglia should start at outside linebacker, and could be the breakthrough athlete on the team this year.
His overall athleticism (he was listed as an athlete by Rivals) should make him a superb 3-4 OLB, where he would have struggled anywhere in a 4-3.
Morrice Richardson Sophomore 6'2" 235 lbs.
Scout 3-star (LB), Rivals 3-star (DE)
The mere fact that one of the major recruiting services placed Richardson at defensive end and the other placed him at linebacker tells me that he is the prototypical 3-4 outside linebacker. Equally capable of rushing the passer as dropping into coverage, his relatively untouted skills at either of the traditional positions makes him a standout at the 3-4 OLB.
Scott Smith Junior 6'3" 244 lbs.
Scout 3-star (LB), Rivals 2-star (LB)
Steve Quinn Junior 6'2" 231 lbs.
Scout 3-star (LB), Rivals 3-star (LB)
Part of Weis' abbreviated first class, Quinn and Smith weren't very highly touted out of high school. Neither has really showed themselves to be a standout at this point, but there was a reason that Weis gave them scholarships. Weis was very selective with his scholarship offers in that shortened year, preferring to hold on to scholarships for his first full class rather than simply bringing in bodies. I don't have a sense yet for how either will contribute, but I'm hesitant to count them out.
Steve Paskorz Freshman 6'1" 215 lbs.
Aaron Nagel Freshman 6'1" 215 lbs.
Kerry Neal Freshman 6'3" 234 lbs.
Harrison Smith Freshman 6'2" 205 lbs. [more likely at safety, but could grow]

Inside Linebacker
The 4-3 requires their inside linebackers to be big and strong, and not necessarily quick. However, under the 3-4, there are two inside linebackers, and they aren't primarily responsible for the A gap on every play, as the nose tackle takes on that task. This allows the inside linebackers to be more like the outside linebackers in a 4-3, quick to the ball and sure tacklers.
Maurice Crum, Jr. Senior 6' 225 lbs.
Scout 3-star (LB), Rivals 3-star (LB)
The returning starter from last year's team, I complained quite a bit about Crum being stuck inside in the 4-3 scheme. Under the 3-4, though, it doesn't bother me. He built up enough strength playing inside last year, but he can also use his speed more from the ILB in a 3-4, especially on zone blitzes. The more I think about Crum in this position, the more excited I get.
Joe Brockington Fifth year Senior 6'1" 235 lbs.
Scout 3-star (LB), Rivals 3-star (LB)
Brockington started to impress the coaches towards the end of last year, and continues to develop well going into the spring. Brockington has quietly played his role for the last few years, as the Irish churned out quality linebackers ahead of him. Crum passed him on the depth chart, but he continued to work hard and try to improve. Now, he is in position where the position is his for the taking. I expect him to be penciled in as the second starter coming out of the spring, but he will be pushed hard by Toryan Smith. I know he doesn't want to get passed again, and Toryan Smith's presence should push him to be the most improved player on the team this year.
Toryan Smith Sophomore 6' 244 lbs.
Scout 3-star (LB), Rivals 3-star (LB)
Although only a three star recruit, the buzz and expectations about this kid sound more like a 4 or 5 star recruit. Everyone is talking about him pushing for playing time and impressing the coaches. I think he'll play a significant amount of time this year, but won't start. He'll allow the other inside linebackers to get breaks and stay fresh throughout the game. This position could be one of those areas where Weis names three people for two starting positions rather than two clear starters and a backup.
Kevin Washington Junior 6'1" 240 lbs.
Scout 3-star (LB), Rivals 3-star (LB)
Washington was equally as touted as T. Smith coming out of high school, but for some reason has not generated a lot of buzz. He could push into the rotation at linebacker, but I haven't heard his name mentioned by any of the coaches in a while.
Brian Smith Freshman 6'2" 230 lbs.


Anonymous said...

John Ryan is listed as an OLB and as of right now, I believe he is rumored to be working with the first team.

Wacko said...

You're right, they moved him to outside linebacker.

I hadn't heard that he was working with the first team, though.

He did get mentioned briefly in one of Coach Weis' press conferences, though, so he may be developing better than I thought.