In college football, strength one year can automatically become a weakness or question mark the following year through graduation, injury or early departure for the NFL.
This spring, the defensive ends fall into the question mark category after quite possibly being the strongest and deepest position on the field in 2006. The Sooners fielded three players they considered starters in seniors Larry Birdine, C.J. Ah You and Calvin Thibodeaux. Juniors Alonzo Dotson and John Williams also saw considerable playing time in 2006, and all five players played well throughout the year.
In Birdine, the Sooners lose a player who started 14 games during his career, but who played and contributed in 41 games. With Ah You, OU loses a player who started from the first day he was on campus and played a big role on passing downs as well. Thibodeaux led the Sooners in sacks with 10 his junior season — the fifth-best mark in Sooner history —and finished with 18 starts and played a major role in 42 different games.
When a college team loses three players considered starters at one position you would think that position will be depleted the following year. And that will be the case this spring as rebuilding the depth at defensive end will be a major emphasis.
"I think our biggest concern on defense is at the defensive end position," said defensive coordinator Brent Venables. "Developing the depth that we need at defensive end and finding out who our top four or five guys are going to be a real battle in the spring. Overall, we need to get our guys to play consistent, play hard and improve our overall level of physicalness. We need to play with more consistency across the board."
However, Birdine feels that OU will be just fine at defensive end next season.
"All of us (seniors) knew that we better play well at practice and during games or we wouldn't be playing," said Birdine at the Fiesta Bowl. "Those guys behind us are great players. Every time that ‘Zo' (Dotson) or John got on the field they made big plays. We can see their potential and there are some young guys who weren't playing this year who are very good too. I hope we played well enough to be missed, but to be honest I think the guys who are back next year will pick right up where left off and hopefully they will play better."
The Sooners do return Dotson and Williams, who were both in the rotation last year. Dotson played in 10 games and made eight tackles and two sacks, while Williams played in eight games and finished with four tackles. An illness forced Williams to miss the Fiesta Bowl, but he will be back 100 percent for the spring.
Without question, the graduation of the three seniors has opened up the position in the spring.
"What we are looking for more than anything are clear-cut guys who will separate themselves as starters," said OU defensive coach Chris Wilson. "Right now, going into the spring, this is the first year in two years that I have been here we don't have a clear-cut guy. I say that because you have to put Tim Johnson into that mix, Auston English and Alan Davis, along with the guys who have played before. So that is going to be big that we at least come out of here with at least a quality two-deep. Those starters are really going to have to separate themselves from everybody else."
Both Dotson and Williams have shown tremendous promise at various times throughout their career, but going into the spring that will not necessarily give them a heads up for a starting position.
"That doesn't guarantee them anything," said Wilson. "That is the great thing about our place, as far as competition is concerned. We want guys to compete. There is no ‘I am next' and all of a sudden they are the guy. You have to go out and earn your position."
Nothing may be guaranteed to Dotson or Williams, and they will get pushed for sure, but the fact that they have played, and at times played well, certainly gives them the first crack at the starting defensive end positions in the spring.
"I think John, in his limited role, played well, "said Wilson. "He had a more scaled-back role than Alonzo toward the end of the year. I really like his potential, but we have been talking about that for three or four years. The biggest thing for him is that he makes a lot of gains this offseason. That is going to be critical for him. This spring is going to be critical for him. Hopefully we can see some of that potential come to fruition.
"Alonzo played a lot, which was big for him. So there is some confidence there for us with Alonzo. However, there is a big difference in being a backup and now a guy who is the guy that you are going to count on for maybe 40 to 50 snaps in a game."
For Dotson, finally getting on the field last year was like a dream come true. After battling academic issues for a couple of seasons, he proved he can be a playmaker. Against Baylor, Dotson had two sacks and was very strong in the Sooners' goal-line defense against Texas A&M.
"I was just so happy to finally help my teammates on the field," said Dotson. "Even when I wasn't getting on the field, I tried to do everything that I could to help the team. I worked on the scout team, worked out with the guys and just did everything I could to remain a member of the team.
"This past year has been a rebirth of my career, so to speak, and proved to me that I can help this team on the field. I can play a lot better than I did and that is the big reason why I am looking forward to the spring. I know I will have an opportunity to earn a starting job, but I know I am going to have to work for it. We still have a lot of great players at defensive end, but I hope to make it my time to show what I can do."
English redshirted this past year, but worked on the scout team and drew rave reviews. He is considered a player who has the talent to be the next great defensive end at OU. Tim Johnson broke his leg his sophomore year at NEO, where he redshirted. He continued to rehab the leg this past season and spent the year learning the defense.
Both have the ability to make things interesting at defensive end in the spring.
"They are big, athletic guys," said Wilson. "They are guys who can run and change directions, and they know those are key things that we ask our defensive ends to do here. They are big, strong guys and guys who I feel can be a physical presence.
"Auston is strong and explosive and Tim is a big, physical presence. He is very similar to C.J. Ah You. What we want to do is make sure that we do a great job of playing not only with great athleticism, but even being a more physical presence on our football team."
Davis, who will be a junior next season, spent this past season working at fullback but will move back to defensive end in the spring. Another player who might be a factor is redshirt freshman Jeremy Beal, who will get a look at both middle linebacker and defensive end.
"When we recruited Jeremy initially we thought he had the potential to do both," said Wilson. "We have to shorten the learning curve for him. That is the biggest thing. When you look back, he worked throughout the entire season with us as a defensive end as far as taking reps. The bowl preparation practice was huge for him as he took a lot of reps at defensive end during those times."
Finding some dynamic players at defensive end in the spring will be one of the biggest priorities for the defensive coaches. For the defense to operate at a high level, they must be good off the edge. Most of the pass rush up front needs to come from the defensive ends.
A new era starts in the spring with the graduation of the three seniors, but tremendous optimism still operates within the position because of the potential still on the roster going into the spring.
Spring Position Previews: Defensive Ends
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