This is the fifth in a series of articles ranking the Sun Belt Conference’s football teams position-by-position.
The Sun Belt Conference is a league that is sometimes defined by its members’ spread offenses and the record-setting feats of the quarterbacks who run them. For that reason, it may not come as any surprise that the Sun Belt Conference does not boast a tremendous amount of defensive line talent.
SBC offenses may be in for more success this fall if the defenses opposite them cannot generate more pressure up front. Here, we rank the defensive lines most likely to do just that.
1. Middle Tennessee State
MTSU head coach Rick Stockstill named the defensive front seven as his biggest area of concern entering fall practice. It’s telling that the same line that “keeps [him] awake at night” could also be the best one in the Sun Belt.
After losing two solid linemen in Brandon Perry and the co-SBC Defensive Player of the Year, Chris McCoy, the Raiders do have some holes to fill.
The returnees are led by senior end Jamari Lattimore, who recorded 47 tackles (10 for loss) and 5.5 sacks playing next to Perry and opposite McCoy. How the 2009 All-SBC second-teamer produces while being the center of blockers’ attention will be a closely watched factor this season.
Senior tackle Dwight Smith is the other returning starter, beginning his third season in that position. Smith’s production declined from his sophomore year, dropping from 30 tackles to 22, and offseason injuries kept him out of spring practice.
Injuries also derailed the offseason preparations of tackles SaCoby Carter and Gary Tucker, interfering with their ability to stake claims on the other inside starting position.
Ends Jarrett Crittenton and Phillip Tinsley struggled with injuries as well, and may have cleared the way for senior Emmanuel Perez to take over McCoy’s end position. Perez recorded 31 tackles (five for loss) and 2.5 sacks in 2009.
Sophomores Omar McClendon and Kendall Dangerfield may see the field before Crittenton and Tinsley do. The Raiders have several bodies for depth, but most of them are unproven.
2. Arkansas State
Like MTSU, the Red Wolves lose a former Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year from last year’s line in Alex Carrington. Also like MTSU, ASU is led by a returning All-Sun Belt second team performer.
Senior tackle Bryan Hall (6’2”, 290 pounds) returns after a season in which he recorded nine tackles for loss among his 31 stops. He’s a third-year starter who has earned enough respect from the conference’s opposing coaches that he was named preseason Defensive Player of the Year.
Unlike MTSU, ASU returns only the one starter.
Junior Dorvus Woods projects to join Hall on the inside. Despite being undersized for the position at 265 pounds, he was second among last season’s interior linemen with 4.5 tackles for loss among his 23 tackles.
While Woods’ quick first step allows him to provide inside pass rush, 5’11” 305-pound fireplug Greg McCall will provide an anchor against the run. McCall, a junior, has recorded 17 tackles (three for loss) in 21 career appearances.
Juniors Justin Robertson and Jeremy Gibson are expected to man the end positions.
The 6’5”, 250-pound Gibson started only one game last season, but received enough snaps to record six tackles for loss and three sacks. Gibson has the ability to disrupt the backfield and force some turnovers, as evidenced by his 2007 freshman performance, in which he recovered two fumbles and forced one.
Robertson lacks Gibson’s exceptional size, measuring 6’2” and 250 pounds; he also lacks Gibson’s experience with only eight games to his credit since transferring from Jackson State.
Compared to most of the reserve options, however, Robertson’s a grizzled veteran. Junior college transfer Brandon Joiner and 6’5” sophomore Tim Starson appear set as the reserve ends. Starson recorded three tackles (one for loss) in nine appearances.
Joiner’s Juco teammate Blake Chavis is expected to make an impact at some point during the season as well. Originally a Texas A&M recruit, Chavis helped Navarro (Tex.) College to a No. 3 national ranking in 2009.
When ULL forced turnovers last season, they did well. The Ragin’ Cajuns were 6-2 last season when they forced two or more turnovers but 0-4 when forcing one or none.
Unlike most of the conference, they return experience on the defensive line and it’s going to take continued improvement from everyone involved for the defense to ascend to the top of the conference.
Their defense only recorded 16 sacks last season and 11 of them were from players who have now graduated. With that in mind, it appears that the tackles may be the strength of the line.
The Cajuns can go four deep at tackle, and three of them have starting experience. The one who doesn’t, senior Jordan Topp, is expected to beat seniors Jermaine Rogers and Sharrick Moore for a starting position this fall. Topp recorded 23 tackles and recovered three fumbles in his reserve role.
Junior Derreck Dean racked up 33 tackles and forced two fumbles. He may need to better those numbers for the defense to stop runners like North Texas’s Lance Dunbar and Monroe’s Frank Goodin.
Rogers and Moore provide depth that few teams in the league can match. Moore started the first seven games last season before missing two with a shoulder injury. Of his eight tackles, three were for loss.
Rogers recorded 19 tackles in his 12 games.
The end position seems a bit shakier: senior Terrell Richardson returns to his right end position, but he recorded only 19 tackles with no sacks. Richardson’s 6’5” frame allowed him to bat down a couple of passes last season but the coaches prefer that he drag down some passers as well.
Junior Nate Douglas missed the 2009 season through injury but if he can capture his 2008 form, he’ll be a disruptive force at the other end spot. Douglas recorded three sacks and six tackles for loss that season, despite not starting any games.
Junior college transfer Bernard Smith was signed to provide pass-rushing speed off the end. Junior Tyrell Gaddies will also figure heavily in a reserve role following his 22 tackles and 2.5 sacks last season.
Junior college transfer Chris Tucker has been able to get major reps at end in fall practice while Gaddies, Smith, and Douglas nurse injuries.
4. Florida Atlantic
The Owls’ defense was among the nation’s worst last season, especially against the run. So how does their line rank this highly?
Junior end Kevin Cyrille could be the engine to make the entire FAU defense go. He’s got the size (6’4”, 275) to be a reasonable run stopper and also made 11.5 tackles for loss last season. His three sacks don’t sound like much but they were a quarter of the entire team’s total for last season.
Another quarter of the 12 sacks came from senior tackle Dino Cox. He gives a solid interior pass rush and has bulked up 40 pounds from last season (to 280) to aid against the run. Like Cyrille, he showed an ability to crash the backfield and force negative plays, making five tackles for loss in 2009.
The other tackle spot appears to be held down by junior Jarvis Givens. The 305-pounder from Miami was frustrated by injuries last season and coming out of this spring’s practices but has apparently rebounded well this fall.
Right end appears to be a rotation between squatty 6’1” senior Daniel Joseph and the taller 6’4” junior Jamere Johnson. The two combined for 37 tackles last season, with 6.5 for loss. Both are considered quick linemen with pass rush potential that the Owls so desperately need.
Sophomore tackle Jimmy Jean will be a featured performer off the bench. His 290-pound build and mauling style made him a recruiting target for Louisville and several of FAU’s Sun Belt opponents. He can give FAU one more rock against opponents’ run game.
True freshman Cory Henry is not expected to redshirt. On a Howard Schnellenberger team, that’s a tremendous accomplishment. Recruited by the likes of Syracuse, Kentucky, and West Virginia, the 6’3” prospect could make an instant impact in FAU’s new, more aggressive defensive scheme.
5. North Texas
The Mean Green return five players with starting experience, but that experience wasn’t terribly pleasant for the line last season. The UNT defense was the conference’s leader against the pass last season but mainly because they surrendered almost 200 rushing yards per game.
Improvement against the run will need to start with the tackles: seniors Kelvin Jackson and Shavod Atkinson started 12 games between them last season but only started one of those games together—the two 300-pounders were both limited by injuries in 2009.
Atkinson racked up 33 tackles, 3.5 for loss. Jackson finished the season with 16 tackles.
Another side effect of opponents’ running success was a lack of pass rush opportunities. The Mean Green rolled up only 13 sacks and almost half of those came from junior end Brandon Akpunku.
Among Akpunku’s 47 tackles were 11.5 for loss and he also added six sacks. Despite being built more like a safety (6’1”, 226), Akpunku has had success beating tackles with his speed off the edge.
The even smaller K.C. Obi (6’2”, 214) is expected to take over on the opposite end. The sophomore struggled in four midseason starts, frequently being erased from plays by bigger, stronger blockers. He had 26 tackles, four for loss, but the coaches hope he can use his speed to penetrate the backfield more often.
Sophomore Tevinn Cantly started the last four games at tackle and is expected to make a contribution both inside and outside. However, he’s currently dealing with an unknown knee ailment, even being sent for an MRI last week.
Senior John Weber, like Cantly, has been moved between end and tackle. The 6’3” 288-pounder is considered to have a quick burst off the ball and may provide an interior push on passing downs.
Brandon McCoy, who’s pushed his way onto the two-deep roster, is an unusual kind of sophomore walk-on. The 24-year-old Iraq veteran, nicknamed “Sarge,” has garnered praise for his nonstop motor, and may make an interesting impact this season.
The Trojans’ entire front seven is in flux—the line was forced to replace all four starters, three of whom were All-Sun Belt selections. They’ll have to rely on athleticism to trump their inexperience.
Senior Mario Addison appears to be the best candidate to lead the unit. In a reserve and special teams role, Addison accounted for 32 tackles, 6 for loss, and 2.5 sacks.
Sophomore Jonathan Massaquoi, brother of Cleveland Browns receiver Mohamed, may be one of the smallest defensive ends in the Sun Belt (6’2”, 227), but he’s known for a tremendous burst into the backfield.
Likewise, the tackle position appears to be in relatively undersized hands. Senior Riley Flowers (280 pounds), senior Emanuel Dudley (286 ponds), and sophomore Tony Davis (a mere 242 pounds) will be rotating through the inside of the line.
Depth was thinned out with the dismissal of two linemen in May and another being suspended for the season, so Larry Blakeney’s club has to rely on players like junior Brandon Boudreaux and a group of freshmen at end.
At tackle, the reserve options are also a bit green, with redshirt freshman Aaron Williams and true freshman Tommy Stephens as main options along with LSU transfer Sidell Corley.
The Warhawks might have placed a spot or two higher if not for the dire news surrounding end Troy Evans. A spring practice back injury has the coaching staff worried that he’ll miss the entire season.
Evans’ production will be hard to replace, as he recorded 32 tackles, 8.5 for loss, and 6.5 sacks in 2009.
On the most recent depth chart, Evans’ place on the weak side has been filled by converted tight end Keavon Milton. The 6’4” 260-pounder hasn’t played defense in three years, since his high school career. He was expected to simply provide depth but has worked his way up to the top spot.
The opposite end position is filled by 270-pound junior Ken Dorsey. Dorsey broke his leg as a freshman in 2007, which has slowed his development ever since. With only six games of experience, the coaches are a lot more excited about his potential than his production to this point. Dorsey’s size and quickness are considered optimal for Monroe’s 3-3-5 defense.
At nose guard, 5’10” fireplug Aaron Moore made one start last season, against Arizona State. He was expected to get the full-time job this year, but once again, the Warhawk staff threw a curve and named sixth-year senior Bryan Glenn as the starter.
Glenn is another player with limited game experience, despite his five seasons of college and junior college football. He’s made 10 appearances and only three tackles in his career.
In comparison, Moore has made 24 appearances and recorded 16 tackles in his three seasons in Monroe.
Off the bench, 224-pound pass rush specialist Jordan Landry will rotate with Milton. Another converted tight end, redshirt freshman Emmanuel Jeffries, may see pass rush opportunities on the other side.
For an additional option in the middle, the coaches can turn to 273-pound senior Quantez Hunter. The former Grambling and JUCO transfer is expected to provide some inside pass rush.
8. Western Kentucky
The Hilltoppers are switching from a 3-4 defense, which couldn’t stop anyone last season, to a 4-3 system. How the players can adapt to the new system will be an important factor in the team’s efforts to end its 20-game losing streak.
Junior end Jared Clendenin is expected to be the chief beneficiary of the system change. The 258-pounder made 40 tackles last season but could only card one sack out of the 3-4 alignment. Coach Willie Taggart’s staff is anxious to see if he has the pass rush skills to make the defense more dangerous.
Sophomore Quanterus Smith has the potential to be a disruptive force on the left side. At 6’5” and 240 pounds, he presents difficulties for quarterbacks attempting to throw over the top. He made 12 tackles last season, primarily as a linebacker.
Sophomore tackles James Hervey and Cole Tischer lack the prototypical bulk for the inside, as neither top 270 pounds.
Tischer started 11 of the 12 games last season at end but has only produced nine tackles.
Hervey made only five tackles himself, but 2.5 were for loss and he added a sack to boot.
Another sophomore, 276-pound Kenny Martin, started as an end before starting the season’s final eight games on the nose. He failed to record a sack and had only one tackle for loss. He’ll need to become more disruptive to keep earning playing time.
Sophomore Korentheus Bailey is the biggest body on the line, at 297 pounds. His 12 tackles included three for loss and he may contribute the interior thrust that Martin has (thus far) failed to provide.
Ends Galation King and Bo Adebayo are expected to be factors as well. Adebayo has tackle size (6’4”, 270) and end quickness. He provided 14 tackles, four for loss, and 2.5 sacks last season.
Redshirt freshman King would have been more at home in the 3-4 but he could still contribute as a run stopper at end in the 4-3.
9. Florida International
FIU returns many part-time players from a defense that struggled to find any effective combinations in 2009. The Golden Panthers allowed almost 500 total yards per game last season, second-worst in the nation.
The defensive line is not without potential.
Sophomore Tourek Williams may have the star quality to anchor FIU’s line. The 6’4”, 255-pound Miami product made 28 tackles and five stops for loss as a reserve last season. However, he may have made his greatest impact on special teams, blocking two kicks.
Converted running back James Jones is considered a potential pass-rushing specialist, in large part because the coaches are unsure if his 230-pound frame can hold the point against rampaging run blockers. He made three starts last season but could only manage seven tackles.
Senior Jarvis Wilson may end up with the starting position ahead of Jones, as he was much more productive in his playing time. The converted linebacker recorded 35 tackles with 4.5 for loss, almost in spite of his 235-pound build.
The tackles, for the most part, are oddly built for their positions.
Sophomores Kasey Smith, Joshua Forney, and Andre Pound, along with senior Thatcher Starling, are all 6’3” or 6’4”, a bit tall to be able to gain consistent leverage against guards and centers. Pound is the heaviest at 285 pounds.
Smith is considered a solid run-stopper but spent very little time in the opposing backfield. Starling had no such problem, managing three sacks and 4.5 stops for loss among his 24 tackles.
There’s not a lot in the way of experienced talent on the Sun Belt’s defensive lines, but each team has some reason to be intrigued with the young players that will be dueling in the trenches this season.
Scott Henry covers the MTSU Blue Raiders on his radio show 4 Quarters, airing Thursdays at 10 AM Central on WMTS 88.3 FM in Murfreesboro and streaming live at wmts.org. Podcasts may be found at Starr*Rated.
You can also find the show on Facebook and follow Scott's ramblings on Twitter.
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