As glowingly as I described the four departing linemen from last year, the lone returning starter, Derrick Morgan, had perhaps the most impressive numbers of the entire group last season. He had the same number of sacks as did Michael Johnson and Morgan had more tackles – topping all linemen. Certainly teams focused a lot of attention on the three senior starters allowing Morgan to run freer, but he is clearly not a step down in terms of his talents.
The other defensive end starter, though not as clear cut as Morgan on the other side, seems like a pretty strong bet to be Robert Hall as spring begins. He has played at end in every game last season and was a strong contributor on special teams. He's been a big part of special teams ever since he arrived on campus in 2006, playing as a true freshman. He missed all but three games in 2007 before making the strong comeback last season. Though he'll be asked to significantly add to his 11 total tackles from last season and become disruptive enough that teams won't feel the need to focus solely on Morgan.
Jason Peters is another interesting choice to push Hall for playing time. Peters was a highly touted recruit from the 2007 class. He redshirted his first season then saw limited action last year. In the time he did play he managed two sacks and he'll certainly have more opportunities to add to that total next year. With Peter's size, around 6'4", 275 pounds, he could find himself playing tackle as well as end this season.
Anthony Egbuniwe, a redshirt junior transfer from Tulsa, has been a college athlete for three years now but 2008 was the first time he had the chance to actually play in a game. He redshirted for Tulsa in 2006 then sat out 2007 due to his transferring to GT. Anthony didn't make a significant contribution in his first season as an eligible participant and now will be asked to fight off guys like Hall, Peters and Emmanuel Dieke for playing time.
I'll go into more detail on Dieke below but with him being the only player in the class to enroll early, he'll factor in on the depth chart right away this spring.
Osahon Tongo, who I listed last week in the linebacker article, now appears to be headed for defensive end. Tongo, who has struggled with health, may have finally grown out of the LB position. Hopefully the move closer to the ball will work out well for him.
Finally, Antonio Wilson will be in the competition after redshirting his freshman year last season. He has a similar build to the aforementioned Darrell Robertson when he was a young player for Tech. Wilson, like Robertson, is tall and wiry. He was a signing day defection last year from Vanderbilt and is an interesting dark horse in this competition for playing time.
At defensive tackle spring will provide the opportunity to solve many unanswered questions. DT will be missing one very critical element as the Yellow Jackets head into a new season – experience. The spring roster includes the following scholarship players: a RS freshman, a RS sophomore, a RS junior and a RS senior. Combined, the group has not started a single game at defensive line and has an aggregate total of four career tackles.
The RS freshman, T.J. Barnes, is the one fans seem most intrigued about. At 6'7", 325 pounds, Barnes is the largest player on the team. The hype has built up around him after a redshirt year on campus where he's received glowing reports on his potential. The biggest fear with Barnes right now is that he won't be able to sustain his level of play for all downs. Coaches are looking for him to lose a little weight as a preemptive effort to solve that potential stumbling block to his game. Despite his size, it's been suggested that he actually carries a reasonable percent of body fat. It will be interesting to watch how his conditioning holds up in spring because if that is not an issue, he could step in and be quite a force.
Ben Anderson is the junior. He's the most experienced of the bunch. Like Anyaibe, he played minutes in every game backing up Richard and Walker. But unlike Anyaibe, Big Ben will have the chance to realistically compete for a starting spot on the 2009 team with the two future NFL tackles moving on. Ben redshirted in 2006 and fought his way into some playing time by the end of 2007. With a 2008 season in which he saw a lot of action, he has continued to grow and improve with each season. This could truly be a coming out party for Anderson this spring. We'll have to see how he and others react with the spotlight turned to them now.
Logan Walls got off to a slow start so far at Tech thanks in large part to a hereditary heart issue that has slowed him since his redshirt season in 2007. The heart issues Logan has is shared with his brother Levi who is a RS senior long snapper. After noticing a rapid heartbeat in 2007, Logan had to wear a heart monitor for a time before doctors allowed him to remove it. But a frightening incident last spring eventually led to a heart procedure on Logan (and Levi as well). Logan was cleared to play this past season and didn't seem to have any issues. He saw limited action, only playing in three games. Understandably, many fans have yet to get a really good feel for what Logan can contribute at tackle. Walls has good size and could be ready for a lot more action. Fans will first pray for his continued healthy but will also be rooting for him to make a name for himself on the field.
Finally, senior Jason Hill appears to be moving back to the defensive side of the ball – where he began his college career. He came to GT as a defensive end but was moved in his first season to offensive line. He has grown to around 300 pounds since then so this move back to defense will require him to be an interior lineman.
Current Depth Chart:
DE: Derrick Morgan, Emmanuel Dieke, Osahon Tongo, Euclid Cummings
DT: Jason Peters, Logan Walls, Albert Rocker, J.C. Lanier
DT: Ben Anderson, T.J. Barnes, Jason Hill, Izaan Cross
DE: Robert Hall, Anthony Egbuniwe, Antonio Wilson, Chris Crenshaw
Review, Preview, and Predictions:
Spring served to answer some questions about the defensive line while others will remain into the season. The biggest remaining question is just how this group will fare as a unit. Many view this position as perhaps the biggest question mark coming into the season since the three big starters are in the NFL now. Coach Paul Johnson noted the losses as well recently, "We didn't lose many players except for the defensive line." Let's see what spring did reveal to us.
The biggest question to me was answered when Jason Peters was taken away from the competition at end and allowed to focus on tackle. Many guys from the highly rated Tech recruiting class of 2007 have already made a name for themselves. Peters may be the next to do so. He just bloomed a little later. A former four-star defensive end prospect, Jason is finally realizing his potential and will move into a starting role at tackle.
T.J. Barnes is the guy everyone, including me, was counting on to fill one of the starting spots at tackle. The switch of Peters to tackle and solid play from Ben Anderson means that TJ can be in the rotation but not be depended on yet for a high number of reps. In looking for reasons why Barnes hasn't show consistent play, perhaps weight is the issues as sited by Coach Johnson in the following quote last week. Coach didn't mention names but TJ is the heaviest in the group so that could be who he was referring to. When asked if there will be more of a rotation at DL this year, Coach Johnson said, "It just depends. I could see that possibly. We'll see how it unfolds. We still have two weeks before they report to camp. I'm worried about a couple of guys and their weight. It's not what we talked about. We'll see. It may open up a spot for those young freshmen."
Derrick Morgan, the lone returning starter, had some positive things to say about Barnes, "T.J. is doing good. He's had a good offseason. He still is getting better in some categories. I think he'll help us out this season."
Ben Anderson was solid in spring and played his way into a starting role. Logan Walls also figures to be in the rotation at tackle early on in the season. "I can compete for a starting job for sure," said Walls in mid-July. "If I'm not starting, then I want to be in the rotation and get some playing time."
Without a lot of experience at tackle still, expect the coaches to mix-and-match and rotate guys in to find the right combination and keep guys fresh. Morgan he thinks that will be more of the case versus last season, "I think there will be more of a rotation at tackle this season."
Rounding out the tackle rotation right now will be Albert Rocker, a former linebacker, and Jason Hill, a former offensive lineman. Both guys are just looking to finally find a niche on the team. Hopefully they can find a good home at tackle and become contributors this season.
As with the wide receiver group, I think that the door has been left open enough at defensive tackle to allow one, maybe two guys get a chance to earn their way onto the depth chart. The one that instantly comes to mind is J.C. Lanier. I predict he'll prove too valuable to redshirt. He'll be in the rotation. It's to his advantage that he's not entering a group where guys have been starting or racking up big minutes over two or three years. He's not starting that far back in the hole. Derrick Morgan couldn't give any clues as to the likelihood of someone like Lanier making an early run on the depth chart. "We really don't workout with the freshmen that often," said Morgan. "I really couldn't give you an answer right now as far as that goes."
Another one to watch out for is Izaan Cross. Cross is still listed as an end but I predict he'll be destined soon enough for an inside position. Like Lanier, if he stands out and can handle the tackle position, he too could add to the competition.
In all, Coach Johnson, commenting on the talent level, was fairly positive about the defensive line. He touched on the tackles and made it sound like replacing the seniors might not seem like such an insurmountable task. "We lost three seniors that were good football players, but I think we'll be fine," said Johnson. "If you go back and look, Vance was really consistent but he played the last part hurt. Darryl was consistent but I don't think he had any stats that jumped off the wall at anybody. We lost some good players, but I think we have some guys that can play."
At defensive end, there is no secret that Derrick Morgan is the man to start on one side. He's the only returning starter and one of the most talented players on the team. Robert Hall likewise did his job in spring and held off the competition at the other starting end spot.
When speaking about Hall and Anderson replacing starters from last year, Morgan had some good things to say. "We have guys like Robert Hall and Ben Anderson that can step up and do their part," said Morgan. "They made a lot of progress. They realize that they have to step up and fill some of the holes that were left by the three seniors. They're taking that responsibility and they're doing a good job. They're trying to better themselves and better the team."
One reason the coaches were comfortable moving Peters to tackle was the emergence of several other guys at end. One of them was the lone new addition to the team in spring from the 2009 recruiting class Emmanuel Dieke. Dieke, who stands 6'6", has done quite a bit of growing since he arrived. He told Rod Mackenzie a few weeks back, "I came in at 216 and now I weigh 253. I did this by working out, changing my diet, and eating four or five times a day." There is zero chance of Dieke redshirting. He's good enough to be in the rotation right now. Giff Smith indicated as much to him, "I met with Coach Smith and he said I had a good chance of playing. I'm 100% back from my injury in the spring that slowed me down." Dieke's decision to enroll early seems to have paid off. "Yes I'm glad. I'm a step ahead. I've been able to pick up on things."
Coach Johnson talked about Dieke's progression. "I think he had an okay spring," said Johnson. "He worked hard. I don't have the depth chart in front of me. Once you get past the first group over there, it could have been anybody. He's worked hard. He's had a good summer and he's put on weight so we'll see. I know Derrick Morgan will be a starter. Robert Hall had a good spring. After that, it's kinda... Anthony Egbuniwe did some good things."
Others looking to fight it out for the other opening on the two-deep include: Anthony Egbuniwe – as Coach mentioned above, Antonio Wilson, and Osahon Tongo. Egbuniwe, who has great size, saw a lot of playing time in spring and did well enough to get the other backup role. If he can show consistency, he could be in line for more playing time. For now he'll be rotated in for a healthy amount of plays but has the ability to earn more.
Antonio Wilson is still growing and learning the position. I think he could be a late bloomer like Peters was at tackle but I see him being a solid contributor in time. Osahon Tongo, like Rocker has moved closer to the line of scrimmage and outgrew his previous position of linebacker.
I currently have no expectations of freshmen like Euclid Cummings or Chris Crenshaw needing to break into the depth chart at end. I see both redshirting unless one comes out on fire then they would be tougher to have to wait on.
For the line in general Derrick Morgan talked about how the group needed to improve overall over last year. They'll not only have to overcome losses of key personnel but they had to make strides even over what they were able to do last season. "The first seven games, we came out there and put on some good performances," said Morgan. "The last part of the season, I'm not going to say we fell apart, but we relaxed in certain categories. We're just trying to concentrate on getting better and not being a first half defense but a full four quarter defense."
Overall, the depth and talent at defensive end looks better than expected pre-spring. Even with the departure of Michael Johnson and the move of Peters to the inside, I think the group will be able to at least hold their own. I have a lot of respect for the play of Robert Hall, who doesn't get a lot of recognition typically.
At tackle I'm still very concerned about the depth and experience. Peters will bring stability to the line but I think we're back to a level of needing help from true freshmen to solidify the rotation at tackle. With guys like Walker, Richard, Anoai, and Oliver over the past few years, depth and experience hasn't been an issue. It's kind of a rebuilding year at tackle but the team has enough amazing pieces at other positions that there just isn't time to wait for this position to build up. Guys are going to be thrown into the fire of a season with an ACC Championship as the realistic goal, so they're going to have to find a way to make it work. As Coach Johnson was quoted above, overcoming that gap between last year's group and this year's may not be as daunting as some think. I don't expect the star power to be there in name but I think this group will get it done this year as a unit. With lower expectations from tackles versus previous years I think people may actually be pleasantly surprised at some of the upcoming performances. The line will play with a chip on their collective shoulder. I'll give Walls the last word, "I just want to…prove to everybody that we can play."
Defensive ends Osahon Tongo and Emmanuel Dieke scowl for the camera!