Positional Preview: Defensive Line

When Ted Roof first took over as head coach in 2004, his first order of business was to make Duke more competitive in the trenches. The thought process was that is that if Duke could compete up front, they would have a chance in just about every game. The 2005 recruiting class included a banner haul of defensive linemen which most recruiting analysts believed to be among the best in the country.

The 2006 recruiting season was more weighted toward the offensive line; however, the defensive line was not neglected as Roof signed five more players to beef up the ranks. Duke must replace two multi-year starters from the 2006 squad in Eli Nichols and Casey Camero. Despite the losses, the present and future of this unit has not been this bright in quite some time because of Roof's success in this area of recruiting.

The headliner of the group is redshirt sophomore Vince Oghobaase (6'6", 300), Duke's first 5-star recruit in quite some time. He sat out his first year with a knee injury and battled through nagging injuries throughout most of the 2006 season. Now as one of the veterans of the defensive line, he is poised to fulfill his promise as Duke's best defensive lineman in a long, long time. He has the size, agility and innate strength to overpower almost any offensive lineman he engages. If Oghobaase can put it all together and stay healthy, he should command a double-team on just about every snap which will free up the other players to do more damage.

Junior Cliff Respress (6'5" 275) will start along side Oghobaase at the nose. Respress is not as physically imposing, but he has great speed and agility for an interior lineman. Now in his 3rd year, his natural growth and increased strength should allow him to better deal with the strength and skill of ACC-caliber defensive linemen.

The best news for the Devil defense is Duke finally has enough bodies to rotate in to spell the starters. Sophomore Brandon Harper (6'3", 320) struggled last season as he was forced to play as a true freshman. The experience, along with a full off-season off practice, will pay big dividends for Harper. He has great strength and his short, squatty frame makes him difficult to move off the ball.

Swedish import Pontus Bondeson (6'6", 275) is still getting adjusted to the competition level in the United States. But his natural size and brutish strength will allow him to spell the starters in spot duty.

Sophomore Kinney Rucker (6'2" 300) has moved from the defensive line to the offensive line and now has return to the defensive line. He is a good athlete for his size and will compete for minutes as a reserve. Incoming freshman Charlie Hatcher is a highly regarded prospect out of Ohio, but will most likely redshirt.

Similar to tackle, the defensive ends will be manned by a group of relatively inexperienced yet talented players. At SDE, sophomore Ayanga Okpokwuruk (6'4", 255) will step into the role vacated by departed senior Casey Camero. He was able to get his feet wet last year as a top reserve and is the most experienced end on the Duke roster. "Ayanga", as he is called, is a high-energy player with great straight line speed and strength.

Redshirt freshman Wes Oglesby (6'6" 250) will likely be the top reserve at strong-side end. Among all the players that had good springs, Oglesby might have had the best. He was a constant nuisance to the offense during scrimmages, recording sacks and tackles at an impressive clip.

At the other end spot, sophomore Ryan Radloff (6'4" 260) is the likely starter. Radloff will see plenty of action on defense as well as serving as the long-snapper for place kicks. When at end, he has good two-way skills as a run defender as well as a pass rusher. If he can stay healthy this season, he will likely be among Duke's sack leaders.

Redshirt freshman Patrick Egboh (6'4" 250 lbs) will most likely be the top reserve here. Egboh showed his wares during the spring game, recording a sack and pressuring the QB into bad throws on at least two other occasions. Egboh is a very fast defensive end that is best suited as a pass rush specialist for the time being.

While junior Greg Akinbiyi (6'2" 250) is listed as a linebacker on the roster, he could end up at rush end again this fall. Akinbiyi was somewhat productive last season, but his production was overshadowed by a few untimely personal foul penalties, one of which resulted in an ejection. For Akinbiyi to see more playing time, he must learn to play under control and keep his temper in check. Incoming freshman Eriks Reks will redshirt to give him a chance to gain weight and strength.

Positional Strengths:

1. Numbers – For the past few seasons, the Devils have been undermanned along the defensive front because of numbers as well as a plethora of injuries. In 2007, the Devils appear to have at least two, if not more, players for each of the four line positions. In the past, the Devils have often relied on players to play more than one position to hide depth concerns. During his career, departed senior Eli Nichols played every defensive line position at one time or another, because he was the only player capable of filling in capably. Unless the Devils suffer massive along the line, this position shifting should come to a halt. The depth will allow Duke to give the first-teamers more rest during the game and be reasonably confident the players on the field will perform. Just as important, the Devils will, for the first time in quite a while, not be required to rush any true freshman into action before they are ready.

2. Talent – While individual recruiting rankings can sometimes be inaccurate, as a whole they do provide a good general gauge for the overall talent level of the recruits coming into a football program. Before Ted Roof took over, Duke was lucky to get more than 2-3 three star players per class. With Roof at the helm, however, these numbers have improved dramatically. This fall, six of the eight defensive linemen on the two-deep were at least 3-star recruits. The one thing a coach cannot coach is talent. Along the Duke defensive line, Duke has it.

3. Athleticism – Duke has had problems getting the "full package" type linemen. Often they are fast but small, strong but small, or big but not strong. With the current crop of linemen in the fold, the Devils have a crop of athletes that they have not fielded along the defensive line in quite some time. Oghobaase, Respress, Okpokwuruk, Radloff and others have good size with speed and ability to boot.

Positional Question Marks:

1. Experience – The numbers do not lie. With the departures of Nichols and Camero, the Devils are nearly bereft of upperclassmen in the trenches. Looking at the roster, the Devils will start the season with two juniors, 4 sophomores and 5 freshmen. The good news for the Devils is that every player expected to see the field is at least in their second year at Duke. The inability to redshirt freshmen is a trend that Roof was determined to reverse. Along the defensive line, Duke has finally reached this point. Most of the two deep has at least seen game action, but are still not upperclassmen. This will probably become issues against the better offensive lines on Duke's schedule. Experience counts, especially in the trenches.

2. Pass Rush – One of Duke's primary defensive failings of a season ago was the inability to rush the passer without blitzing. The returning defensive linemen recorded only 1.5 sacks combined for the entire 2006 season. Pass rushing potential exists among the returning players. With the increased playing time, the Devils need these players to show their skills this fall and get pressure on the quarterback. With the uncertainty surrounding the cornerback position, the pass rush is vital to the defenses' ability to stop their opponents.

3. Leadership – Another possibly unnoticed factor that needs to be replaced is the senior leadership provided by Camero and Nichols. Neither players was a "rah rah" type, but they did lead by example with their work ethic. Now the 3rd and 4th year players like Oghobaase, Radloff, and Respress need to be the leaders for the younger players and show them how to perform at the college level.

Bottom Line:

Duke ranked below 100th nationally in total defense in 2006. Some people might think the notion that the defensive line could be considered strength is crazy. Still, there is plenty of talent and ability within the ranks of the Blue Devil linemen to be a force in 2007. Vince Oghobaase is as talented as any defensive lineman in the ACC. Many teams would love to have guys like Ryan Radloff, Cliff Respress and Ayanga Okpokwuruk in their line rotation. The bad news for Duke though, is talent does not mean much if that talent does not produce. Ted Roof has said that by the time a player is in their 3rd year in the program, they should be ready to play. The defensive line will be an empirical test of his theory. There is no reason this unit should not be better than a season ago. They lost some pretty good football players, but the talent level along the overall line is better than last season. Duke was able to redshirt four out of 5 defensive linemen from the 2006 class and these players all look ready to contribute. If the unit lives up to expectations, they will be significant contributors to Duke victories this fall.


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