Spring Analysis: Defensive line

Perhaps the position loaded with the most talent, both young and experienced; is the defensive line. This group has the potential to be exceptional.

Defensive End
99 Pierre Woods 6-5 248 5th/Sr.
90 Tim Jamison(restricted) 6-3 230 So./Fr.
92 Will Paul 6-2 264 Jr./So.
66 Paul Sarantos 6-3 261 Sr./Jr.

Defensive Tackle
78 Gabriel Watson 6-4 333 Sr./Sr.
80 Alan Branch 6-6 326 So./So.
97 Will Johnson 6-4 285 So./Fr.
fall Terrance Taylor 5-11 285 Fr./Fr.
fall Marques Slocum 6-5 335 Fr./Fr.

Defensive Tackle
94 Patrick Massey 6-8 276 5th/Sr.
95 Marques Walton 6-0 275 So./Fr.
fall James McKinney 6-3 263 Fr./Fr.
w/o David Hull 6-1 264 Jr./So.

Defensive End
56 Lamarr Woodley 6-2 268 Jr./Jr.
91 Rondell Biggs 6-2 268 Sr./Jr.
50 Jeremy Van Alstyne (injury) 6-4 258 Sr./Jr.
fall Eugene Germany 6-4 260 Fr./Fr.

The transition from primarily a 3-4 front to the 4-3 alignment has caused some position shuffling. Former linebacker Pierre Woods was moved down to defensive end and Pat Massey slid inside next to Gabe Watson. Though the unit experienced some loss with to the suspension of Larry Harrison and early exit of Alex Ofili, the influx of talent thanks to position changes and the readiness of redshirt freshmen, makes this a position group to watch very closely this spring.

The return of Gabe Watson for his senior year was very critical. Watson is one of the toughest lineman in the entire country to block one on one, but he has a lot to prove despite a mild breakout season last year. He is rare in terms of his combination of shear power and quickness. The 6-4 330-pounder is the prototypical two-gap space eater that is also capable of penetrating to make things happen in the backfield. The key for him this year will be conditioning and sustained aggressiveness. Watson was often dominant during games in the first 2/3 of the year. However, he seemed to fade not only in the later stages the season.
Watson will be helped, in some regard, by the alignment switch. He won't be so worn down by getting doubled and triple teamed on every play as the nose man in the 3-4. That said, he will still attract a lot of attention, which makes his conditioning huge. The good news is It seems as though new defensive line coach Steve Stripling is just what the doctor ordered for Watson's continued progress.

Stripling has a navy seal drill sergeant like intensity and it was obvious in practice that his players take on his personality. His presence should elevate Watson's game in this his final season.

The success of Gabe Watson should help increase the production of 5th year senior Pat Massey. With big Gabe still the focal point of most interior blocking schemes, Massey should draw plenty of one on one matchups. At nearly 6-8, Massey doesn't have typical tackle size, but he can still create problems. The Cleveland native has great athletic ability and was much better at penetrating and using his length to affect plays last year (especially on field goal attempts). The key will be for him to maintain leverage despite his huge size and be able to anchor the line against the run. If he and Watson can stay healthy, they have the potential to dominate the middle.

Backing up Gabe Watson is Alan Branch. Branch saw a number of reps as a true freshman despite reporting a bit overweight. Even so, it was clear when he was on the field that he has all of the potential in the world. The key for him is adjusting to the new alignment…going from a 3-4 defensive end to a interior tackle. Branch has big time strength with excellent agility to boot. He will surely see an increased role this year. The ideal situation would be for him to spell Gabe Watson, who is at his best when he is fresh. The goal for him in spring is to get himself mentally ready for the new responsibilities and increased playing time.

One biggest physical changes we observed in a player this spring was that of Marques Walton. The big man dropped a significant amount of weight and looked a lot more agile. The compact Walton has upside as a pass rusher and could grow into a quality depth man but needs to elevate his game to the fullest to hold off the freshman. Will Johnson, who is still going back and forth between tackle and end, looked very aggressive as well. Johnson could see some playing time, but it won't be easy behind Watson and Branch. The goal for him this spring will be to stay healthy and not to injure himself while getting good reps and getting accustomed to the defense. Will Paul, who was a top notch recruit from 2002, is still finding his spot in the rotation. Paul has potential at defensive end and as a penetrating tackle, and is one of the players that could really make a move this spring, in this his 3rd season with the defense.

At defensive end the main question is how will the addition of Pierre Woods as a rush end work out. Woods was a defensive standout as a sophomore at strong side linebacker, but saw his playing time cut heavily as a junior because of injury and lack of production. He certainly has all the tools to be a rush end; very good size, quickness, and the ability to get off the ball. Coach Stripling should help to increase the array and polish of pass rushing techniques Woods has in his arsenal. The question will be is he strong enough to hold the line against offensive tackles. Woods will need to start off with a very good spring to reach the production he had from his sophomore year.

The back up for Woods has been sophomore Tim Jamison. The redshirt freshman, who saw action last season as a rush linebacker, suffered a knee injury and missed the second half of 2004. He is practicing on a limited basis this spring. Jamison should see a good amount of playing time this year, considering he is one of the best pass rushers on the team. He has excellent quickness and a first step that many cannot match. Like Woods, the question will be can he hold his own against teams that run the ball at him.

If there is one sure thing along the defensive front it's Lamarr Woodley. The 6'2 junior is everything you want in a lineman. He is strong, has good pass rushing ability, and is smart. Woodley is an excellent anchor against the run and also shows the ability to pursue from the backside of a play. He is an excellent force man against the run, doesn't get driven off the line of scrimmage, and is always in position on call side or backside contain. To put simply, he knows his assignments and has the ability to execute them. If both of he and Woods are rushing the passer well, the offensive protection will have to compensate for both of them evenly. That will spread out blockers and create easier matchups for both. If one of them isn't getting the job done, the offense can double the other with a tight end or running back combo.

Reserve Rondell Biggs has reportedly stepped up his game in practice. He will see increased reps this spring due to the limitations of Jeremy Van Alstyne and Tim Jamison.

Incoming freshman Eugene Germany Terrance Taylor, James McKinney and Marques Slocum could impact the depth chart in the fall. All three come in ahead of the norm in terms of strength. Slocum is one of the most impressive incoming lineman on either side of the ball in the entire country. Taylor doesn't have great size, but in terms of strength and leverage, he is not easy to handle one on one. The key as always with freshman is how soon they can pick up on the defensive terminology and packages.

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