The Lions appear to be stacked at the positions on the first two teams, but beyond that depth is a bit of a concern as Jerome Hayes will not engage in contact this spring as he continues to rehab from a torn ACL, Devon Still is coming back from the same injury (thought he sustained it much earlier) and Jed Hill is said to me moving on from the program.
Keep in mind that the strong- and weak-side personnel will shift (as opposed to staying on the left or right) based on the opponent. For example, against Notre Dame last year, Maurice Evans was primarily strong-side left and Josh Gaines was weak-side right. However, when Hayes replaced Gaines, Evans shifted to the right side of the line.
The current two-deep for the strong side defensive end spot this winter has Evans running first team. Evans started every game last season. On the year he racked up 54 tackles and a team-best 12.5 sacks.
The first team All-Big Ten pick consistently receives praise for his intensity and style on the practice field, with compliments like "he's a machine," "all-out on every snap" and "a player that makes his teammates better just by showing how it should be done." This winter Evans has been focused on improving his pocket pressure, taking in extra film sessions. As one observer explained, "He's really studied the tendencies of the [offensive line] he's up against. He'll go over pulls, rolls, max protect and split situations with [position coach Larry Johnson] to help his ability to gain penetration." Evans has also focused on tight end motion sets when the assignments shift.
As another observer said, "He had solid year, but he knows he could have done better. He's working on how to rip the coverage to make that corner." Last summer, Johnson called Evans the most fundamentally sound underclassmen he has coached.
Backing up Evans is Eric Latimore. Latimore saw second-team reps in practice last season despite redshirting and not playing in any games. "Physically, Eric is a massive load to manage," an observer said. At 6-foot-6, 265 pounds, he's a "handful" off the line and has the ability to "dig into the blocks and knock back [his assignment]."
Latimore has good quickness and with a four-inch advantage over Evans, "he brings a whole different look for the [offensive] line to handle." Latimore is working on his hand and "swim" technique, and also made improvements on "widening and lowering" his stance.
On the weak-side, the penciled-in starter is Josh Gaines, who, like Evans, started every game last season. Gaines had 40 tackles and 2.5 sacks on the year.
Gaines "really emerged this past season," one observer said. "He's not going to blow the doors off [anyone], but he has the ability to rip open a crack [in the line] to disrupt the pocket. He's improved his consistency and is one of those guys who really help other players make plays."
As the senior veteran of the unit, Gaines has been "pushing the younger guys with Mo [Evans]," and "put in extra weight sessions to help him improve his surge off the snap."
Backing up Gaines on the current two-deep is Aaron Maybin, "a real weapon off the edge." Maybin is "stronger and smarter — he's getting the nuances of the position, it's not just all out on every play. The more patient he gets the better his chances of breaking the pocket."
At about 250 pounds, Maybin's pass-rushing skills are seen as a "real weapon" for the defensive line. "Aaron will get brought in with Mo [Evans] opposite him for a fly package where they just speed-rush the pocket, but the outside 'backers are key here to pick up the inside routes in the flat."
Other players vying to fill out the position are:
Chimaeze Okoli: Okoli has shown good footwork, although he is still working on his engagement technique, particularly with his hands. "He's shown an aptitude to pick up the finer points of the defensive end position."
Some observers have indicated they feel that his massive wingspan and good footwork could eventually get him a look at the offensive tackle position, although that shift has not occurred yet.
Devon Still: If there was one player among the redshirt freshman who the smart-money was on to contribute last season, it was Still. That was until he tore his left ACL in the preseason, forcing him to redshirt. As one observer said immediately after the injury, "That [really] sucks. There is a ton of depth on this team, so there are not a lot of [freshman] players who were going to make an immediate impact, but Devon was among the few on the short list."
By mid-September Still was off crutches and without the heavy brace on his knee, but the coaching staff wanted him to redshirt to ensure a full recovery from the injury. Still is seeing serious off-season work with the team and, if given the thumbs up by the medical staff, is expected to see full contact during spring ball.
Kevion Latham: Latham saw his reps at scout team defensive end last season. He is quick off the line and has been working on improving his endurance. Latham has also worked his technique with Johnson and Maurice Evans, helping him to improve his footwork and fundamentals to "shed blocks and make the corner."
Latham has improved his game, but has "strides to make" in order to break into the two-deep, "particularly with Still on his way back and Hayes pushing to get healthy."
Jerome Hayes: Hayes is still recovering from the ACL tear he sustained during the game. Currently he is comfortable running on a treadmill and just recently began to do more serious work in Holuba Hall (under the trainers' supervision). Hayes will not have any contact this spring but hopes to be back near full speed by mid-May, when the players will be conducting their own workouts.
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