OSU SPRING PREVIEW: The defensive line

CORVALLIS -- Oregon State's defense benefitted greatly from a pair of senior defensive tackles last season but they're now gone. What will the d-line look like this spring for the Beavs, what challenges does the unit face and how do things measure up as the 2013 campaign gets underway in April with the start of spring drills? BF.C offers this wide-ranging look from Drew Wilson-McGrath…

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The Good
Oregon State returns with Dylan Wynn and Scott Crichton at defensive end, and both will be entering their third season as starters.

Numbers – Wynn had 49 total tackles, 22 solo with two TFL and just one sack, an altogether quiet sophomore season when compared to his counterpart on the left end. Crichton had 44 tackles total, 21 solo. However, Crichton amassed nine sacks and 17.5 TFL. He was a nightmare for less scrappy offensive linemen, and earned a spot on the Bednarik watch list because of it.* These two go into spring ball as locks to hold the starting gigs at defensive end.

*Reminder - there's a bit more to Crichton's success than the numbers will indicate. Alone, both he and Wynn are tough players. Combined, they are a swirling black and orange tornado of heartache for opposing offensive lines.

Wynn is consistently quicker into the backfield than Crichton, and his ability to get that early pressure forces QB's to move away from him, out of the pocket and toward Crichton.

This was perhaps the most often overlooked aspect of the OSU D-line's success in 2012, and I wouldn't be surprised if this occurs by design in a Mark Banker defense. In the long run, the mentality should be that a sack is a sack and it doesn't matter who gets it as long as the team wins.

Quantitatively, depth will be of little concern heading into the spring on the d-line. Oregon State weighs in heavy with ten defensive ends, three of them members of the 2013 recruiting class. The defensive tackle group swells with four draftees in addition to five incumbents.

The Bad
Rusty Fernando, Rudolf Fifita, Andrew Seumalo and Castro Masaniai are old news now, a rather grim reality for assistant coach Joe Seumalo and the interior portion of the OSU defensive line.

The Beavers will likely feel the most hurt at defensive tackle during spring ball following the departure of Masaniai and Seumalo, who combined for 61 tackles, 9.5 TFL and five sacks in 2012.

Statistics aside, the Beavs will miss the size and speed of Masaniai the most. Masaniai was listed at 6-3, 354 - a big boy who was very aggressive and uncharacteristically quick given his size. The only thing the Beavs have that comes close to that looking ahead to spring is Siale Hautau, a three star JUCO commit from Utah who measures at 6-1, 310.

Fernando was somewhat of an ancillary character in the grand scheme of things, and Fifita played effectively as a super sub, but his skill set should be easy to replace. As long as Wynn and Crichton stay healthy, the Beavs will not be feeling much hurt at defensive end.

But what is really lost? Beyond stats and body composition, Seumalo and Masaniai represented veteran leadership that will be hard to replace. Neither was very vocal, but their physical presence alone was something of a looming booster for the defensive line corps.

Headed into the spring, one can only wait and see if the ashes will indeed produce a phoenix. Will Wynn and Crichton step into roles as leaders in light of the recent departures? Or will JC talent like Edwin Delva step up and heed the call this April?

Keep your eyes/ears on
Joe Lopez. Built low to the ground, he has the skills to clog up the middle. The question is if the previous three seasons at OSU have him now ready to shine in the Pac-12 as a fourth year junior. (Note: Shortly after this report, Lopez made the decision to transfer to Portland State.)

Questions to Consider
A.) How crucial to the collective achievement of the Beaver defensive line was Rudolf Fifita in 2013? Specifically, was it the player or the role that he played that was ultimately responsible for certain successes?

B.) Can you expect a Top 25 rush defense?

A.) I would argue that the fundamental strategy behind any offense or defense is built upon the drawn plays, and not necessarily the players. Certainly, there are plays created by a coach that can only truly work if an athlete has the attributes needed to execute this blitz or that cut. But football remains a game of X's and O's, Y's and Z's. In this vein, Fifita's physical skills fulfilled "X" role to achieve "Y" effect, and I imagine Banker and Seumalo already have a candidate to fill that role in 2013. Who might that be this spring?

My guess is Devon Kell.

B.) Top 25 in rush defense? Not unless one of the incoming DT's is a miracle worker. Wynn and Crichton will be up to snuff, but questions linger regarding the size and - more importantly - experience OSU is capable of bringing to the middle of the line. Without at least one dominant DT at the moment, OSU will have to shift focus to stopping the run with ‘backers plugging up the middle lanes.

Still, this answer comes tentatively, because a spring session and fall camp can make all the difference in the world when it comes to football.

Waiting In the Wings
DT - I mentioned earlier that depth would not be an issue for the Beavs heading into the 2013 season, there are plenty of bodies. However, experience and talent may give cause for concern, especially when it comes to considering the interior of the line.

Mana Rosa has been injury plagued over the course of his career. Joe Lopez and Noke Tago are possible candidates for starting jobs, but combined they played a very minimal role in 2012.

Desmond Collins, Brandon Bennett and Blake Harrah have the size to make an impact, but all three redshirted in 2012 and Collins and Harrah may have continuing health issues. This leaves the door wide open for JC talent like Delva and Hautau to take a stab at a spot in that oh-so coveted starting lineup this spring. (Note: D-linemen Titus Failauga, Kyle Peko and Lyndon Tulimasealii will take their shots later this summer when they arrive at OSU in advance of fall camp.)

OSU desperately needs for the open competition to foster some really great play from a relatively young corps of defensive tackles.

DE – Oregon State has a little more slack here. They have Wynn and Crichton ready to go, eliminating that pressure to find a starter that can play up to Pac-12 standards right out the gate. Kell and John Braun will both be seniors, and rest assured they will be chomping at the bit to claim the super sub role should Banker and Seumalo continue to implement lots of rotation in the defensive schemes.

Akeem Gonzales who stands at 6-3, 236, redshirted last season and doesn't really boast the size to make an impact on the edge – unless it comes as a speed rusher. However, keep in mind that Oregon State has increasingly been taking a turn toward speed over size on defense. It will be interesting to see if Gonzales remains a in the DL platoon, or if he makes a shift to linebacker where his speed will be appreciated, and his size a bit more applicable.

This possibility of position shifting becomes even more likely when you consider the influx of defensive end commits. Will the acquisition of athletes like Charles Tuaau (6-4, 265 – runs a 4.90 40) stir the pot a bit? For now we wait.

Collins and Harrah remain questionable. They were injured for most of the regular season (Collins with a leg injury, Harrah with an arm injury) and remained on the sidelines for the majority of the Beavs' practices. Collins adorned pads during parts of OSU's preparation for the Alamo Bowl last December, but I feel that it is safe to say that both he and Harrah will need to work pretty hard to return to full form to make an impact in April.

BF.C's Projected Pre-Spring Depth Chart for the D-Line

LE – Scott Crichton, 6-3, 263
DT – Joe Lopez, 6-0, 273
DT – Mana Rosa, 6-3, 276 / Edwin Delva, 6-3, 295
RE – Dylan Wynn, 6-2, 265
Super Sub – John Braun, 6-5, 283

LE – Devon Kell, 6-4, 250
DT – Noke Tago, 6-1, 290
DT – Siale Hautau, 6-1, 310
RE – John Braun, 6-5, 283
Super Sub – Lavonte Barnett, 6-2, 245

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