The challenge is on for Johnson, d-line

<b>AT THE BEGINNING of the 2002 season, defensive line coach Mike Walker and Rien Long set up a little challenge. If Long could tally double digit sacks -- a boatload from the tackle position -- Walker would get an earring. Long ended up with 13 and the Outland Trophy, the Cougs went to the Rose Bowl and Walker sat down to get his ear pierced. Flash forward to 2005. Another Cougar defensive lineman thinks that's a pretty good story -- and so the challenge is on.

Aaron Johnson has a goal this season -- double digit sacks. Playing in 9 games last year (7 starts), Johnson had 5.5 tackles for loss, including a sack. Johnson is but a sophomore and the bar is set high, but don't count him out.

"I told him that's a big challenge for a d-tackle to get into double digits," said Walker. "Rien did it and got 13 -- so it can be done. But the challenge is on.""He's going to need a great spring and he's right there."

If Johnson, (6-6, 310) racks up ten or more sacks, Walker will get either another earring or a tattoo on his arm. Johnson and the defensive line have a chance to be special this year, said Walker. The starting four of Johnson, Ropati Pitoitua, Adam Braidwood and Mkristo Bruce will be made even more effective because the Cougs this year look to have the one thing they haven't necessarily had in the past -- depth.

"We've got some guys," Walker said. "We've got depth. In past years, if somebody went down we were kind of hurting."

Odell Howard looks to be an integral part up front with a chance to see plenty of turns this season, said Walker. Howard had 3.5 sacks last year, playing in all 11 games with 2 starts.

After a redshirt year, the slimmed down Matt Eichelberger hopes to use these spring sessions to vault into the rotation at d-tackle. "He's going to need a great spring and he's right there," said Walker.

Incoming freshman Fevaea'i Ahmu and JC transfer Bryan Tarkington each could have a chance to play early, and Joseph Townsend also comes into the fold this summer. Bryan Olson and Jon Conlin lend even more depth on the inside.

Out on the edge, the Cougs are loaded behind Braidwood and Bruce.

"As far as ends go, we've got Adam West, Reyshawn Bobo and Paul Stevens," said Walker. "And Matt Mullennix is coming off the knee injury but he should be in the rotation also."

West last year looked like a natural pass rusher after moving over from offense -- he's continued to progress this spring. The Cougs are hoping Bobo, who's spent considerable time in the weight room this offseason, becomes the speed rushing specialist they envision while Paul Stevens saw action in 9 games last year.

Jason Roberts has been turning heads this spring and Michael Graise will also be competing for turns at defensive end.

Mullennix is expected to be 100 percent by fall camp and could be in line for plenty of playing time this season. Before the injury in Week 4, the Spangle, Wash., native was fast becoming a disruptive force.

AS FOR THE STARTERS, Walker points to Pitoitua's and AJ's strength gains this offseason as one reason to feel confident.

"Aaron's about 310 and Ropati is up to 300 -- he's gained like 25 pounds," said Walker. "I feel ready good about our front four. They'll be pretty good."

Another reason is that they're all battle tested and then some. Braidwood, the lone senior, has 37 games under his belt and started all 11 contests last year. Mkristo Bruce also started all 11 games, leading the Cougs in sacks (6.5) tackles for loss (11.5) and tied for fourth in tackles with 60.

"I feel really good that we have four veterans," said Walker. "Ropati and Aaron have one year but they played (a lot) -- they got their feet wet and that's all they needed to do."

If the defensive line performs to their capabilities this season, Walker feels it likely that Robb Akey, who also coaches the line in addition to his defensive coordinator duties, will head skyward often this season.

"Man, he gets up there, doesn't he," said Walker. "I think everybody comes to the games to see how high he can jump. He's our energy and the kids love it. I'm the low key guy and Akey's the fired up guy. We work well together."


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