* Previous All-ACC first team selection
As in any spring practice, the defensive unit was stronger in the beginning days. Usually the offense will catch up at some point but generally the defense stays ahead for most of spring. This spring I felt like the Georgia Tech offensive line caught up to the defensive line and then blew past them. This was surprising given the losses on the OL (Hugh Reilly & Nat Dorsey to the NFL) and the defensive line returning all (okay not exactly all) of the players from an overachieving bunch from last season. Okay, technically the entire starting DL unit did not return because starting DE Gerris Wilkinson was moved to linebacker although he's still on the defense. Gerris is a very good player but his moving back to LB can't be the only reason for the drop off this spring. But I think I do know a major reason for it…
Travis Parker. No, he didn't start playing poorly but when Gerris was moved to LB, Parker was moved out to DE in order to shore up that vacated spot, while Anoai made the move to the inside. By doing that, we likely weakened the middle of the defense… at least temporarily. Parker has been and will continue to be a force on defense and he has an NFL body for a DE. It's going to be a good career move for him and it gives us high quality bookends on the line.
The other bookend is an apparent secret weapon, Eric Henderson. Despite being first team All-conference last season, he still does not get the hype and respect around the league that he deserves. This spring he continued to show why most consider him our best defensive player. He was a holy terror. We would be out of quarterbacks if he were allowed to hit them this spring like he could have. He's fast, strong and quick to balance out his lack of prototypical size. It's really too bad that we just missed seeing him ever teamed with Tony Hargrove or Greg Gathers in the starting rotation. I just can't imagine some of the pain that combo could have inflicted on an offense. We don't know yet if Parker will be what those two were at DE but he is a very good player in his own right. He will have no problems out muscling and/or out running some tackles in this league. I feel good that our staring two can contain the outside while providing heavy pass rushing ability.
Lack of depth is the reason Travis is now at DE from a team perspective. Adamm Oliver is an unproven redshirt freshman and Chirod Williams, the only senior on all of the defensive line, has put in the time and effort but as of yet has been used very little. Chirod is a serviceable backup but I feel like the drop off from one of the starters would be great if one of Parker or Henderson were to get injured. Oliver has looked pretty solid to me in practice. I think he'll get on the field a good bit this year based on what I saw in spring and last fall. This just goes to show how little we have here long term wise in respect to talent and numbers. We landed a blue chip DE in Darrell Robertson, so he should help down the road but his slight build means we would probably like to redshirt him this year. I wouldn't just assume that's going to happen though because he could be needed sooner than we may want if we experience many injuries at this spot. A.J. Smith is another with good long term potential but is also not being counted on to contribute early. Because of that you can see how it would be conceivable to see one of a number of things happen at DE. Number 1 – A DT could move over here in a bind. Number 2 – Adamm Oliver will play a bigger role than many thought he might this early on. Number 3 – We may not have the luxury of redshirting the highly touted Robertson and have him grow into the position. This should also give a clue as to why I have some concerns about the defensive line this season. And I haven't even talked about the more concerning area… defensive tackle.
Don't get me wrong, I love both of our starting defensive tackles but both guys are true sophomores and we're leaning on that inexperience to hold down the middle of the field on defense. Not only that, Joe Anoai appears to be a bit light to be a starter right now. He's a good football player and I certainly love having him in the rotation but I'd like to see more experience or meat (or both) in the starting role. Joe is relentless in his efforts and is a tough guy. He won't back down to anyone and he rarely gets pushed around. I just think that a good offensive lineman can sustain a block on him just long enough for a back to get through. I think we have to use more stunting and moving around to get Joe in the best place to make a play. Most times he's solid, I just think his lack of pounds and experience right now leaves us somewhat vulnerable in the middle. I think the offensive line caught onto this over time and exploited some of their mismatches in later practices. Plus we have such good backs that they really don't require much room to wiggle in order for them to find daylight. I think the combination of our line and backs were about as tough of a test as this defensive line could see for a few weeks span. There's no doubt that this work will make things seem easier by the time we play other teams.
Mansfield Wrotto had an interesting spring. I think we were as concerned about toughening him up as we were in his results. There was a knock last year that he lacked some emotion and fire needed to be a big time tackle. I could swear there was a concerted effort from guys on the offense and defense to take it to Wrotto. Offensive linemen like Andy Tidwell-Neal regularly tussled with Mansfield. Early on he didn't fight back hard so Andy would go at him harder. Finally, Wrotto would lash back and you could see a transformation going on with his demeanor. Andy and crew weren't the only ones on Wrotto either. Other defensive players including who I consider the leader on D, James Butler, would regularly get on Wrotto to fire him up or encourage him after a scrape. Notice the ones working on Wrotto the most were top seniors on the team. That's why I think there was a general effort to get this out of him. But enough of my conspiracy theories! We want Wrotto on that line. We need Wrotto on that line. Like Anoai, he's young, but Mansfield started all of last season and he has many more pounds on Joe. I don't think his spring performance was always stellar also but I think we accomplished a different goal with him [wink wink]! He'll be a solid player in 2004.
Like defensive end, our depth at tackles is eerily similar. We have a guy that is a little used veteran and a young unproven guy that make up the depth chart. Except in this case the roles are reversed. I see the older guy (Omar Billy) getting in the rotation a good bit and the younger guy (LeShawn Newberry) as a lesser factor. Omar isn't real tall or exceptionally heavy for a tackle but he's experienced and is one of the strongest guys on the team. I could see him jumping over Anoai if he begins fall practice as he finished spring. Billy has always played with a lot of emotion. He's a guy you like to root for so it's good to see him finally earning some time in the rotation. Newberry has been sidelined because of his torn ACL from last year. Because of it, we really haven't seen what he can do. He struggled in his first few weeks before his injury last season, so I'm not really looking for too much from LeShawn until I can see him accomplish some things in practice. This leads me to the place we are very likely to get help at either tackle or end or both… highly touted true freshmen.
You hate to rely on true freshman at any position but our depth here may require that we lean on them some. And it's a good thing that this was the area that Chan Gailey recruited the best this past season. Defensive line is the one position that I gave an A+ to in recruiting. The guy with all of the talent, hype and size to be a big contributor is Darryl Richard. I really don't see a scenario where he does not enter the rotation as long as he's healthy and even close to what his press clippings say about him. Like Calvin Johnson on offense, the expectations are not what I would call fair but the expectations are there for good reason. He's supposed to be very good. Since Newberry hasn't played but a few weeks, he would basically be on equal footing with the incoming freshmen. So I don't really see an experience advantage he would have over the incoming players. And you want to play with at least four tackles ideally. I will be a little surprised by the first game if Richard were not getting on the field. Another option is Elris Anyaibe. But as I've said before, I believe he'll end up on the offensive line. Of course I said the same exact thing about Wrotto this time last year. So let's assume for a minute that he'll stay on defense. Elris is roughly the same size as Billy. It's doubtful that he's stronger at this stage but he could be quicker. If Anyaibe is as fleet as he appears on film then he's a guy that could help out with depth issues at either DT or DE. He's probably the player I'm looking most forward to seeing in the first fall practice. I'm as curious and unknowing of where he'll actually end up as anyone. The recruiting class didn't stop there though. David Brown is a blue chip prospect at DT as well. He's lighter than Anyaibe but I'm pretty sure he's not a DE type. He looks like a tackle all the way from seeing his film. He's lighter but wide and has the frame that will pack on tons of weight. I don't see him having much of a problem getting to 280 in his first season. He reminds me somewhat of Alfred Malone when he got to school but with a higher potential. If Darryl is what I think he'll be, we probably won't need Brown as much this season. It still wouldn't shock me if he got into the rotation as well though. He's going to be quite a player. He requires some serious attention from offensive linemen. He's strong as a bull and persistent. I can see him too growing into a dominant player but it may take a little more time.
Overall we have an overachieving unit that almost completely returns from last season. Many went through some battles last year and passed so it would be foolish to count them out. At the same time though, they have some work to do in order to get better. With the talent on the way, I see this position being the strength of the defense in a couple of years but for now, they'll have to go through another season of holding their own. Chemistry wise the unit seems pretty close. And that helps as well. I think that the freshman impact on the line will be key in determining whether we step up a notch or just hold their own as they did last season.