Prior to the start of the 2002/03 season, the Michigan staff lauded the defensive front as one of the top position groups on the team, and maybe even one of the top in Michigan history. The level of talent returning this year should garner similar acclaim.
"The starters will be Alain Kashama at Shantee Orr's spot, Grant Bowman and Norman Heuer (out for the spring due to a cyst being removed from his knee) in the middle, and Larry Stevens at the other end. It's a good group."
The defensive end spots were filled with experience last year. However, the departures of senior Dan Rumishek and junior Shantee' Orr, along with the move of Pierre Woods to linebacker, have diminished the numbers and experience. That said, Michigan has no shortage of talented candidates at D-end. The group will be led by 6-3, 265 pound senior, Larry Stevens. The one-time safety did not make as many stops behind the line of scrimmage last season as some had expected, but he may have been the Wolverines' best end against the run. He became proficient in the techniques of maintaining outside contain. In his senior campaign the expectations will be increased and this fiery veteran has the potential to meet them all. He is no stranger in the weight room, so we can expect him to go into fall ball both bigger and stronger. That along with his experience will give him a great chance to improve upon the nine tackles for loss and four sacks (45 tackles overall) that he registered last year.
Alain Kashama will probably man the other starting end spot. This Canadian athlete is probably the most talented 'edge player' Michigan has had since David Bowens. Still, the language barrier and unfamiliarity with American football has hindered his development somewhat. His playing time had decreased significantly since his freshman campaign. However, he came on extremely strong at the end of last season, culminating in an outstanding Outback bowl performance against Florida. Kashama lived in the Gator backfield, registering two tackles for loss, a sack, a forced fumble, and countless hurries (including the one that led to Victor Hobson's game-clinching interception). That was the type of performance the staff has been waiting for this immensely talented player to turn in since he showed up on campus three years ago running 4.5 forties and doing gymnast back flips. He now measures in at 6-5, weighs over 265 pounds, and hasn't lost any speed. Of all the potential improvements next year by players in this position group, Alain's may be the most substantive and the most important.
The next factor in the DE rotation is Jeremy Van Alstyne. This redshirt freshman received a great deal of praise from both teammates and coaches last year for his outstanding practice performances. JVA's wrestling background (heavyweight champ in the state of Indiana) has presumably aided him in leverage techniques and increased his effectiveness off of the line of scrimmage. His 6-4, 250 pound frame still has room for increased weight and muscle, but his improvement up to this point has been enough to wreak havoc upon his offensive counterparts in practice. If he continues to do that, he'll be in position to attempt to imitate those efforts on the Big House playing field.
The final pieces to this puzzle should not be underestimated. Defensive end Rondell Biggs, though not highly acclaimed, has impressed some within the walls of Fort Schembechler. The 6-2, 260 pound Southfield native continues to improve and could surprise some in the spring game. The other player that may factor in here IS highly acclaimed. Mark Ouimet has speculated that Lamar Woodley could see time at DE due to depth issues. He played a lot of end in high school, and played there almost exclusively during his junior campaign (which coincidentally was his best year, with 112 tackles and 16 sacks). Lamar made it clear to me that he would play whatever position would get him on the field the fastest. That may be linebacker, but it just as easily could be defensive end.
Alex Ofili (6-3, 270 lbs.) and Pat Massey (6-8, 265 lbs.) will both get time at both DT and DE in the spring. We will discuss them later in the article.
"At the ends, Alain and Larry are both in their last year. They are both very athletic, they can both get to the quarterback. Kashama is one of fastest guys on the whole team; he has beaten Chris Perry in the 40 yard dash. Kashama and Stevens will force things up front -- they create a challenge for offensive tackles. The backups at defensive end are Jeremy Van Alstyne and Rondell Biggs. Van Alsytne is like Glen Steele, physical, a hard worker, a 'blue collar' player. Jeremy has a great future ahead of him at Michigan. And I'll comment on Lamarr Woodley a little later."
Larry Stevens (AP Photo/Paul Warner)
Despite losing senior leader Shawn Lazarus, the defensive tackle spots will still provide the strength up the middle that Michigan has become accustomed to. The tackles handle all of the dirty work for the defense, while not getting the accolades of many of the other positions. A large part of their functionality involves occupying blockers or maintaining gap integrity in order to allow the linebackers to make the stops. Two seniors, Grant Bowman and Norman Heuer, will spearhead the center of the 03/04 defense. The 6-1, 285 pound Bowman is coming off of an excellent season where he registered eight tackles for loss and four sacks. Known as one of the strongest players in the team, Bowman has drawn comparisons to former Wolverine defensive lineman Rob Renes. Grant provides the same type effectiveness against the run that Rob did, but he's a much better pass rusher. He's quick off of the ball and has a good handle on some of the well-known pass rushing techniques like the spin, arm-under, swim, and seat-roll. It would not be surprising to see this battle tested veteran increase his numbers this season.
Bowman was pressed into an increased amount of action last season due in large part to an early season knee injury to Norman Heuer. That was a setback for the 6-5 290 pound senior to be, after coming off of an outstanding sophomore campaign. He sat out three games and took a while to return to his pre-injury form once he returned to the line-up. Notwithstanding his limited number of snaps, he still turned in five tackles for loss and three sacks (17 tackles overall). He has been further slowed this spring by a cyst on his knee. The problem has been taken care of and he should be 100% in the not too distant future. Heuer is a player who, barring injury, will certainly increase his production in 2003.
The aforementioned two will be backed up by a talented group of underclassmen, the most heralded of which is Gabriel Watson. After receiving All-American accolades coming out of high school, big Gabe expected a lot of playing time. However, his weight (pushing 370 lbs.) at the start of the 2002 fall practice curtailed those intentions and led him to spend most of the season getting into the shape. In his limited time we saw a few flashes of his big play ability. His biggest play came in the form of a huge stop on a third and short play late in a very close contest with PSU. After viewing Gabriel in the opening spring practice, it's obvious that he has spent a great deal of his offseason time on conditioning. He has dropped considerable weight and looked to be around 330 pounds. Gabe has the potential of bringing an added dimension to the group by providing an immovable force with his great size and strength. Those attributes are complemented by superior quickness as well. He will get every opportunity to make an impact this coming season.
The others that will challenge for playing time are redshirt sophomore Pat Massey, Alex Ofili and redshirt freshman Larry Harrison (6-3, 300 lbs.).
Larry Harrison's efforts in practice last season (his freshman year, in which he was redshirted) were mentioned frequently. He came into the Michigan program with very good size. In spite of that, he also has spent the offseason in the training room and looked in the first spring practice to be considerably bigger than he was last year. His efforts in practice should reap huge dividends and allow Michigan to not only utilize a four-man rotation, but also use Pat Massey exclusively at defensive end.
"Bowman and Heuer will clog things up and stop the run, and put pressure up the middle. They'll clog it up so the linebackers can get through there. Heuer is out for the spring so that will create reps for Gabriel Watson and Larry Harrison."
Grant Bowman (AP Photo/Paul Warner)
Norman Heuer (AP Photo/John F. Martin)
Alex Ofili (6-3, 270 lbs.) and Pat Massey (6-8, 265 lbs.) will both get time at both DT and DE in the spring, with Ofili starting out at end on the depth chart and Massey at tackle. Ofili was slowed by a torn chest muscle last year and will be looking for his first extensive playing time in 2003. In limited action last year, he showed the ability to play both tackle and end. It is expected that the majority of his time this season will come at tackle this season. Ofili brings an element of quickness to the table that is a tad better than that of his contemporaries. That could lead to a few more tackles behind the line of scrimmage for the young man from Ypsilanti.
Pat Massey's versatility will be a huge asset regardless of the spot he ends up listed at on the depth chart. He's a unique athlete in that his coordination, quickness, and speed aren't negatively effected by his extreme height (6-feet-8). He looked a good ten pounds heavier than last season in the first spring practice and should be in the 265-pound range right now. The continued emphasis on diet and training will undoubtedly leave him even more physically prepared in the fall. He proved to be an extremely effective edge player in high school and if that translates, Michigan fans will be in for a huge treat.
"Patrick Massey and Alex Ofili will work out at both tackle and end. With experienced starters, these two guys can be moved around in the spring. So they are liable to flip-flop all spring, getting a lot of reps at both. They will settle in somewhere in fall. In case of injuries, too, they may have to go either inside or outside in the fall."
"As far as incoming fall freshmen. I think Lamarr Woodley will play defensive end, where he might be able to come in and play some right away, like Alain did. Woodley reminds me of Shantee Orr. Shawn Crable will start out at outside linebacker but with his body he could eventually play defensive end."
"Next year by the way, the competition for starting spots will be fierce. Gabe, Larry Harrison, Massey and Ofili may have a head start for the starting spots, but Woodley and Van Alstyne will be ready to step up as well. And incoming freshman Will Paul will be there too."
Spring Preview: Defensive Line Part Two
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