At The Heart of the Crisis: The Defensive Line

Today we look at what, as the 2003 season approaches, is probably the most critical area of the Tulane football team.

Last year the pressure was on offensive line assistant coach Don Mahoney to patch together a young and inexperienced group. This year the pressure is on assistant head coach Giff Smth, who also coaches the defensive front, to replace huge losses both in numbers, experience and production and put a competitive, cohesive unit on the field.

An experienced defensive front, led by seniors Roxie Shelvin, Marlon Tickles, Kenan Blackmon, Floyd Dorsey and Chris Washington was a major part of the strength of the revived Tulane defense during the 2002 season. All five of those seniors, of course, have now departed.

Compounding Smith's graduation losses is the loss of sometime starter Brandon Rottmayer (now a student assistant coach), a defensive end who would have been a junior to a career ending injury as well as redshirt junior defensive tackle Lonnie Crayton, another sometime starter who has succumbed to a bad back.

Furthermore, the eligibility status of junior defensive ends Jay Ashton and Chris Williams is in doubt, although both are reported to be enrolled in summer school in an attempt to regain their eligibility. Both COULD return but the return of either remains doubtful until summer school results are known, although unofficial reports have consistently indicated that there is a greater liklihood of Williams returning than there is of Ashton returning.

These losses are the reason for the critical situation on the defensive front. Giff Smith was left to complete spring practice with six returning scholarship defensive linemen returning from the 2002 team, plus converted senior linebacker Daniel Nevil, 6'1 232, and true freshmen C.J. Davis, 6'1 288, an early enrollee who participated in spring practice.

Although the numbers are down, there's still fair talent here among the upperclassmen, but the crisis here is more than just about numbers. Other than the starters - Bam Mateen and Terrence Tarver - no other defensive tackle has played a down of college football. The backups are both redshirt freshmen. Behind the redshirt freshmen are true freshmen and there's little doubt that 2-3 of the true freshmen are likely to see action. No injuries here please! But even without a dose of the injury bug, this is a classic case for getting beaten up along the defensive front.

From another point of view, we had a similiar situation coming out of '97 and going into '98. Numbers were down and the subs were young and inexperienced. The defensive front performed fairly well in that magical season but may have worn down late in games, allowing opponents more opportunites to put up backdoor fourth quarter scores than one would have wished.

To Smith's probable relief when practice begins the Green Wave will add five more true freshman defensive linemen and will also reportedly look at incoming freshman linebacker Kelvin Johnson, who is expected to be one of the squads most physical players, at defensive end. But it's very dangerous to count on true freshmen in this area, so criticial in keeping control of the game against teams with veteran offensive linemen. A lineman who's been in a college program for 4-to-5 seasons will almost always be physically superior to a lineman fresh from high school. And the Green Wave defensive front will be matched against veteran, physical O'lines in the early season; especially against TCU, Mississippi State and Texas.

One offset that we have here is that Smith and defensive coordinator Eric Schuman substitute frequently, rotating fresh linemen in by groups. We always have fresh linemen in the game. But this strategy assumes that you have linemen whom you can depend on in game situations and Tulane's defensive front includes 11 players who have not yet taken a college snap as a defensive lineman. Given the youth that will have to be mixed in to the game rotation and you don't know much about what you've got up front.

One thing to keep in mind is even if our defense takes it's lumps early, we should improve and be a better defensive unit by the last half of the season. Given good progress we should match up fairly well at the end of the season against USM and East Carolina.

Last year the defensive front carried the linebackers in some respects, this year that table will likely be turned. The pressure from the front was a major help for the secondary. Last year's heat came primarily from the edges. All told, the defensive front accounted for 92 quarterback hurries, 33.5 sacks and 44.5 other tackles for losses. Given Schuman's aggressiveness, in 2003 you will probably see even more blitzing to generate pass pressure, especially early in the season. And with the loss of all 4 defensive backfield starters, the same type of pressure is needed again.

Let's take a brief look at each of the players individually.

The top hand returning from last season is without doubt junior Bam Mateen, 6'0 300. A sometime starter who reportedly has a mean streak, Mateen physically dominated the Green Wave's young interior offensive linemen in spring practice before breaking a foot in the final sessions. A complete recovery is expected and Mateen should be ready to go in August. Although a physically superior athlete, Mateen has not been consistently productive. A big junior season from Mateen is absolutely essential for success on defense.

Sophomore Michael Roberts, 6'3 250, came in and had an outstanding season, playing extensively as a true freshman. Roberts, who looks to be a rock for Giff Smith to depend on for the next three seasons, claimed a starting position in the spring and is one of the keys to the defensive front. How well he can bring pressure from the edge ala Floyd Dorsey and Kenan Blackmon last season is a key to the 2003 Green Wave defensive front.

Terrence Tarver, a 6'1 285 fifth year senior, looks to have a solid grip on the starting defensive tackle spot opposite Mateen. Extremely strong, Tarver's forte is the bull rush and he joined Mateen in dominating the young Green Wave interior offensive linemen during spring practice. Had a great spring overall and must follow with a stellar senior season for the Wave to be successful in the trenches in 2002.

Taurean Brown, 6'6 290, is a redshirt freshman who will not turn 18 until late spring. A young athletic type defensive tackle whose background in competitive sports is primarily in basketball, there are a lot of hopes pinned on Brown's early development. Unfortunately, he may still need more time to add upper body and overall strength and for the light to come on. At times he seems to have it and at times seems to have no clue. Prior to his senior season in high school he posted a 30.3" vertical leap and a 4.92 40.As he did not move up the depth chart past Tarver, it appears that he's still waiting for the light to come all the way on and stay on. If Brown can pick up the load for 25 - 30 quality snaps per game, the Green Wave D'line situation will be much healthier.

Daniel Nevil, 6'1 232, a fifth year senior who has converted from linebacker and will contribute as a pass rush type end. Probably too small to be an every down player at defensive end, Nevil will probably have fewer problems understanding system as an edge pass rusher than he did as a linebacker. Nevil's lack of size will have opponents drooling at the opportunity to run straight at him. How Schuman covers this size deficiency is one of the things to look for early in the season. On the other hand, Nevil's speed (reportedly sub-4.7) will cause more than a few problems for offensive tackles attempting to block him.

Jay Ashton, 6'3 255, a junior and a sometime starter, was reported to be in school this summer and could return although that's said to be an iffy proposition. If he returns Ashton could push Nevil for the starting defensive end spot opposite Roberts. If he wants to, of course. Ashton has also slid inside at times. The return of this quality player, who would probably be the Greenies top pass rusher, would be a major boost for a position that some fear could be on life support this September.

Laine Sambrooks, a 6'5 265 redshirt sophomore moved back to the defensive front after having been the backup tight end in 2001, Sambrooks shifted back to the defensive line in 2002 but redshirted after undergoing shoulder surgery. Defensive end may suit him better physically. A project who played only a limited amount of high school football, Sambrooks is very athletic but needs to dispell the notions held by some that he is not a football type athlete. If Sambrooks can make as much of a contribution in his third season as Mateen and Ashton did last year in their second seasons, it would be a big plus for Wave.

Junior Chris Williams, 6'3 237, is the second Green Wave player whose return is in jeopardy because of academic problems. A converted linebacker who has played sparingly the past two seasons, primarily in pass rush situations, injuries have forced the coaching staff to use Williams despite his desperately needing a redshirt season. Undersized but very athletic with good speed. Williams would most likely be used as an edge rusher in obvious passing situations.

C.J. Davis, 6'1 288, is a true freshman who enrolled in school for the spring semester and went through spring practice. Davis did not make much of a dent early but did get some reps at defensive tackle before suffering a knee injury that kept him off the field in the last weeks of spring practice. Limited upper body strength will probably keep him from seeing extensive playing time as a freshman, unless he makes a full recovery from injury and seriously improves strength-wise. Unless he has made major advances since spring look for Davis to redshirt.

Elijah Robinson, 6'3 260, although primarily a defensive end in high school, Robinson could see action at both end and tackle for the Green Wave defense as a true freshman. Physically stronger than the norm for freshmen linemen, Robinson reportedly moves very well also.Has an opportunity to make a major contribution tin 2003. How much slack he can pick up will be a major factor in the success or lack of success of the Green Wave defensive front.

Kelvin Johnson, 6'2 245, a linebacker by trade, Johnson will reportedly get a look at defensive end due to his reputation as an extremely physical player. As one observer said..." Tulane doesn't have many players like this.' Grayshirted last year while attemping to qualify academically. Optimism about Johnson's availability abounds and many think he can be an immediate help at either linebacker and defensive end.

Justin Wade, a 6'3 290 defensive tackle, ran a 5.12 40 and had a 27.8" vertical leap prior to his senior season in high school. Would benefit from a redshirt season to improve strength-wise. Could break into the game rotation with a strong August camp.

Alvin 'Freeway' Johnson, a 6'3 265 defensive end, reportedly runs a 4.85 40. Would benefit from a redshirt year but may wind up seeing some action because of a shortage of numbers along the D'line. Another freshman who could break into the game rotation with a strong August camp.

Tremell Jack, 6'3 265, defensive tackle, reportedly runs a 4.8 40. Slated to play tackle but has the quickness and ability to be a major edge rusher. Big issue will be work ethic. Needs to improve strength. Needs to redshirt to improve strength.

Billy Harrison, 6'4 220, could also line up at outside linebacker. Very athletic and reportedly runs a 4.6 40 and high jumps 6'2. Is most likely of defensive linemen to redshirt.

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