Spring Position Preview: Defensive Tackles

Jackie Shipp talks about the return of Dusty Dvoracek (pictured right) this spring.

Former Sooner linebacker great Jackie Shipp was a great player at OU, but he is fast becoming an even better coach. Working with the defensive tackles, Shipp has developed one of the best groups in the country and each year it seems that OU is recruiting one of the top five defensive tackles in the country to add to that group.

That is a testament to Shipp and to the Sooner program — that playing defensive tackle at OU is such a prestigious thing and getting a chance to work with Shipp is one of the biggest plusses for any recruit.

"When I was at the combine and at pro day the pros were putting us through all kinds of drills, and none of them were hard for me because Coach Shipp had already taught us the technique that they use in the NFL," said 2004 starting defensive tackle Lynn McGruder. "Our positioning with our hands, the way we drive out of our stance, how we use our hands and how we gain our leverage at OU is the same way they do it in the NFL.

"Playing for Coach Shipp has been a big asset for me because he knows so much about what is going on in the NFL. He has prepared me for everything that I am facing. I am sure I will learn quite a bit from NFL coaches, but I am confident that I am well-schooled going into the league as well.

Sometimes a coach or an athlete has to be a little bit lucky. OU graduates a quality player like McGruder, but they get back an All-American candidate in Dusty Dvoracek, who was granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA after being suspended last year for violent behavior off the field due to alcohol abuse. Before his suspension, Dvoracek was the Sooners' best defensive tackle, team captain and one of the best defensive tackles in the country, and he should be able to jump right back into those roles this year.

"Getting Dusty back is a good boost for our defense," said Shipp. "You get a good player, who is an experienced football player. You get a guy who can be a leader and be a captain on your football team. He is going to be an experienced player on our team in an area where we have a few inexperienced players.

"Dusty has always been willing to work with our younger players and share his knowledge, and they will find that opportunity invaluable. It is good to get a player of his quality back for playing on the field and his leadership qualities."

Dvoracek missed a year, so the big question is will the lack of activity set him back or rob him of any of his skills?

"I don't think Dusty will have any problems. I think he will be fine," said Shipp. "I think through reps this spring Dusty will get his timing back. That year is now passed and once he starts playing I think he will be fine once he gets back into a groove of things."

Dvoracek has not done any interviews with the media since the suspension or the re-instatement, but he has always been nice to this reporter, and at the recent OU pro day he pointed out to me that he doesn't anticipate any problems coming back.

"I don't think I will have any problems at all," said Dvoracek. "I have worked hard to stay in shape. My weight is good and so is my strength. I am having so much fun that all this hard work doesn't seem like hard work. I can't wait to put on the pads and get after it again. I just don't think it is going to take me long to get back into the swing of things."

If you don't watch the defensive tackle drills closely, then you probably don't notice the technique drills that Coach Shipp puts his players through. They are constantly working on drills to improve or develop technique, and the spring is time to reinforce those that technique.

"The spring is an important time to work on techniques and fundamentals," said Shipp. "As defensive linemen we work on those things year around, but in the spring, since you are not preparing for an opponent, you do have more time to work on fundamentals. We do those things year around, but most definitely in the spring we work on fundamentals. It is also a time that you might experiment with different types of techniques and different types of drills."

Weight is always a big concern for the Sooner defensive tackles. Coach Shipp doesn't like huge defensive tackles, but he knows you can't be too small either. It is not a surprise then that Shipp pays close attention to what his players are doing in the offseason.

"I think Carl Pendleton is the lightest one out of the group. He and Cory Bennett," said Shipp. "They are both in the 270 to 275 range. Everybody else is either 295 or 300, but I think by the fall the two lighter guys will be bigger. Carl will be a 280-something pound guy come next fall, and Cory Bennett will also gain weight.

"I am not a big guy on guys being 320 or 330 pounds. If they can carry that weight that is fine, but I think you can be 280 to 290 pounds and play great defensively on the defensive line, as long as you have good strength.

Pendleton surprised many by earning a starting job once Dvoracek was suspended. Pendleton finished the year with 17 tackles, three tackles for losses and one sack as a redshirt freshman. Shipp's goal this spring for Pendleton is the same for the entire unit.

"Just like everybody else, I want all of them to get better at their fundamentals and technique," said Shipp. "Let's get better at pre-snap reads. Let's get better at playing the game of football. I want these guys to get to the point where if I am fortunate to have a five-man rotation. I would love to have that. I want good competition and those guys getting better to make our football team better. If they improve on fundamentals, learn to understand the game more and gain more experience then those things will happen.

"All of these guys have to improve on the same things and they are all going to be working on the same things. We just need them to get better and better, and who is doing the best and being the most consistent are the ones that are going to be playing.

"I am looking for the same thing form Cory Bennett, who is going through his first spring, or Dusty Dvoracek going through his fourth. I am looking for those guys to improve and get better to help our football team.

You know that Dvoracek will start over the nose and Pendleton begins the spring at the three-technique spot. Steven Coleman will get his chance inside and Remi Ayodele will battle Pendleton for the starting spot at the three. But watch out for Bennett, who knows how to play the game and plays with a great motor.

I didn't ask Coach Shipp about Moe Dampeer because he is not on the team at this time. And we didn't talk about the outstanding freshman class at defensive tackle because they won't to through spring. However, if Dampeer does talk to the Sooner coaches into taking him back he would bring size and talent to the defensive tackle group.

And when DeMarcus Granger, Brian Simmons and Billy Blackard arrive they will push for early playing time. It is almost certain if Granger lives up to his press clippings he will be a factor as a true freshman.

Some things will be settled this spring, but in reality the competition will also continue in the fall for one starting spot and the second line in Coach Shipp's rotation.

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