THE STAR: Jaleel Johnson is a star, simply put, and he's in line to be a first team all-conference selection this year. He was very good last year and should be even better this season. He should be a second or third round draft pick as well. The kicker is whether or not he can be as effective in the last four games as he is the first eight. Last year there was a clear difference between the two and depth will probably determine that. It's already taken a hit with Jake Hulett and Michael Slater injured.
They have more than just one star on the team but he's more of the future and will be a star down the line, and we're not even talking about A.J. Epenesa.
THE FUTURE: The future is extremely bright at defensive line. I think Cedrick Lattimore is a stud and a future high NFL draft pick. He'll play this season but more in relief for Jaleel Johnson and Nathan Bazata. But he's going to push hard for even more playing time I believe. And in the future, he's going to be a stud and one of the best in the conference, if not the country. Combine him in the future with Epenesa, and the fact that there's still multiple years of eligibility and development that remains with both Nelsons and Parker Hesse and this should be the strength of the team in a year or two.
That's not even counting out Bazata who still has a year left, Michael Slater if he can get healthy and stay healthy, and then Romeo McKnight and Chauncey Golston that I think have a chance to be pretty good players in their own right.
THE OUTLOOK: This year I would call it a work in progress but they're strong up the middle. There will be growing pains with Parker Hesse, Matt Nelson, and Anthony Nelson in terms of a pass rush. Hesse will be steady and be a solid contributor but he's not a supreme edge rusher and I think that is clear to people. But he is the type of guy you need because he'll be a consistent producer. But they are a work in progress in terms of getting after the quarterback but they're only going to get better.
Inside they're stout but they need more depth. I've been told to expect a very, very good year out of Faith Ekakitie though and I think that Cedrick Lattimore has the ability to solve a lot of the depth problems for the defensive line.
FINAL THOUGHTS: How good is the pass rush is going to be the heavily discussed topic for the season on the defensive side of the ball. Don't expect them to blow you away or just prove everyone wrong, at least out of the gate. But towards the meat of the Big Ten schedule, they just may figure it out. But it's going to take patience and understanding from a fan's perspective. This is a group that is a year away in the same vein that the offensive tackles were a year ago. But they held their own and performed more than admirable. I think the same can be expected from the defensive ends this year.
What do they do to mitigate those problems? Anthony Nelson is one answer because he'll likely not start but is a better pure pass rusher than both Matt Nelson and Parker Hesse. They're also going to have to manufacture it in other ways and that may be sending Ben Niemann off the edge and he had some flashes where he showed he could do that when Drew Ott was sidelined with an injury earlier in the year. I would not be shocked if they try to use Aaron Mends in the same way despite him not being able to hold off Bo Bower for a starting spot.
But that's a different position. For now, exercise caution and patience when it comes to pass rushing in regards to the defensive ends.