Spring Review: Defensive Line

The defensive line made the switch to a 3 man front swimmingly, and Owamagbe Odighizuwa looked like he is poised to make an impact this season...

The defensive line was the toughest unit to project, heading into spring practice. With the change to a three man front, the need for a nose tackle, and the loss of Damien Holmes and Keenan Graham, it was impossible to slot any starters in with any certainty, except, perhaps, for Datone Jones. If there was one unit where there'd probably be some mixing and matching, we figured, it'd probably be the defensive line.

Naturally, then, the defensive line had the most consistent depth chart of any unit during the spring. Datone Jones, Brandon Willis, and Cassius Marsh got almost all of the reps with the 1's. Owamagbe Odighizuwa, Seali'i Epenesa, and Iuta Tepa got almost all of the reps with the 2's. At various points guys would work in an out for a rep here and there, but generally speaking, those were the lines.

Before practice, we thought there'd be some trial and error to find a nose tackle, but it's pretty clear that Angus McClure had his guy in mind in the weeks before spring ball. When I talked with McClure prior to the beginning of practice, Willis was still listed as a defensive end, but Willis' was the first name he mentioned when talking about potential nose tackles. And it's pretty clear why. Willis looks like he's a solid 285 or so, and he's extremely strong and quick for his size. All those botched snaps, and the poor play from the centers throughout the beginning of camp was due in large part to the disruption he was able to create inside. With Ellis McCarthy now slated to play defensive end, it's pretty clear that Willis has found a position.

Jones was having a quiet camp until the last couple of weeks, struggling to make much of an impact from the five technique. Last year, after it was clear that he wasn't going to be unblock able from the defensive end position, UCLA moved him inside to the three technique defensive tackle, where he did a much better job. With the new position change, and scheme change, he has to play a slightly different role, looking to eat up blockers more often than he's looking to get into the back field, and it seemed like he struggled with that at the beginning of the spring. Toward the end of April, though, he began to get more comfortable in the scheme, and by the time the spring game came around, he had figured out how to be an effective pass rusher from that spot. He and Marsh look like they'll be used as the two defensive tackles in the nickel front, with whichever outside linebackers are in the game operating on either side of them. They mixed and matched with the nickel, but that looked like the most consistent front.

Marsh is the one guy in the first unit that you might consider a little out of place, not because he had a bad spring, but because Odighizuwa had a really good one. Owa, if anything, looks like even more of a physical freak than he did last year, but the big change for him is with technique. There was some discussion this spring about how Owa would adapt to playing a 3-4, and it looks like it was an ideal fit for him. In one on one drills, he was extremely tough to block, and if we had to guess how things shake out in the fall, he and McCarthy are going to be rotating in pretty much evenly with Marsh and Jones, regardless of which two are with the 1‘s and which two are with the 2‘s.

Marsh looks like he put on a little bit more weight, after getting a bit skinny toward the end of last season. Marsh is another guy with good athleticism who went through a process of learning how to play end in this system. He's a pretty good pass rusher from the end spot, and he's also improved his attitude greatly from where it was last year. If one of the ends were to lose his spot to either McCarthy or Owa, though, Marsh would probably be the guy. He's not as strong as either of those two, and right now, it seems like experience is the main factor keeping him in front.

The craziest thing about the defensive line is not that it's so deep, because switching from a four man front to a three man front naturally increases depth, but that it was so bad last year, considering the amount of guys who looked good this spring. Epenesa, Tepa, and Carter all played well in the spring, with Carter working at both end and tackle. With those three, Jones, and Marsh (and even Holmes and Graham) it's crazy to think that the previous coaching staff couldn't put together a serviceable defensive line.

If the team needed more outside linebackers, which it doesn't, Tepa would probably be an option to move, just because he's still not very big. But he was surprisingly effective, even at his size, in getting to the quarterback. The big thing for him in staying at defensive end will be not getting pushed around in run blocking.

Epenesa held down the second string nose tackle reps for most of spring ball, and looked generally pretty decent. Willis probably can't play every snap of every game, so Epenesa is going to get some time, and he looked like he held up well. He doesn't have Willis' quickness, or strength, but he's bigger, and he plays more of a space eater role. It's also tough to say exactly how good he'll be, because he was matched up against some combination of Kody Innes (who's probably about 280 pounds) and Tre Hale (who was a defensive end until the second week of camp) most of the time.

Senior Donovan Carter started off the spring a bit slow, and at defensive end, which was curious, since he seemed more suited for the nose, and kind of buried on the depth chart. He then started getting more reps, and took some at nose, and played decently -- well enough that he could definitely provide depth at both spots.

In terms of the young guys, the coaching staff really seems to like McReynolds. He even worked in a couple of times with the 1's and 2's during spring ball, although not for very extended periods of time. The big thing for him to improve going forward is technique: where to put his hands, how to place his feet, how to play with good pad level. It's probably too much to expect him to get much time with this unit, just given the depth, but the future is seemingly pretty bright for him.

Sam Tai was hurt for most of the spring, and didn't do much work when he got back, mostly running with the third stringers. Brandon Tuliaupupu was also hurt for most of the spring, and just made his way back as the spring was ending. Wesley Flowers got more time, and he looked like he was practicing with some newfound vigor.

There were obviously some concerns about McClure coaching the defensive line, given that he's never coached a college defensive line before, and the jury is still decidedly out on how everything will go there. But the early results look positive. His personnel moves have been successful, and by leaving Willis as the first string nose tackle all spring, he showed that he's not going to be married to playing seniors like last year's staff. We've heard good reviews about his technical teaching as well, but that proof will be most decidedly found in the proverbial gelatinous snack.

While the defensive line is clearly a deep unit, and we can safely say that it's the strength of the defense, it's hard to say exactly how good it will be because it was matched up against UCLA's abysmal offensive line all spring. The one big concern is how easily the offense ran the ball all spring, but much of that can be pinned on the linebackers, who lost so many guys to injury. Still, for the defensive ends especially, the main goal for fall camp is almost certainly going to be improving run defense.


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