The Enemy, Ranked: Defensive Line

Submitted by Ace on August 28th, 2017 at 9:45 AM

Previously: Quarterbacks, Running Backs, Wide Receivers & Tight Ends, Offensive Line


OSU brings back their whole dang D-line. [Bryan Fuller]

Before Brian's previewpalooza begins this afternoon, let's get one more opponent position preview out of the way. Just like yesterday, Ohio State has the best group in the trenches; this time on defense, and this time there aren't any weak points to attack.

Details on the statistics used in this post can be found here; I've added Havoc Rate (the percentage of plays in which a defense or defensive unit recorded a tackle for loss, forced a fumble, or defensed a pass (intercepted or broken up) for the defenses.

1. Ohio State

Returning Starters Adj. Line Yards (Rank) Opportunity Rate (Rank) Power Success Rate (Rank) Stuff Rate (Rank) Adj. Sack Rate (Rank) DL Havoc Rate (Rank)
4 136.2 (4) 31.0% (5) 41.85% (1) 28.1% (1) 92.0 (78) 7.0% (19)

The talent was already quite impressive last year and Ohio State doesn't lose a single contributor. The Buckeyes boast a group of four defensive ends—Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard, Nick Bosa, and Jalyn Holmes—who would star on just about any team in the country; they'll even play all four at once on obvious passing downs. Lewis was the defensive player of the year in the conference last year; Hubbard is a great run defender who's still developing and Holmes is nearly as good against the run; Bosa looks very much like a Bosa. Incoming five-star freshman Chase Young looks ready to play but he's going to have a very hard time finding snaps.

Perhaps even more worrisome, from an opponent perspective, is that OSU still has plenty of room to improve at getting to the quarterback. Meanwhile, they were beastly against the run. Tackles Dre'Mont Jones and Robert Landers had really impressive debut seasons, and with the return of Tracy Sprinkle from injury Landers isn't even projected to start. They'll get an early-season boost when Michael Hill returns from suspension, too.

[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the list.]

2. Wisconsin


Wisconsin's space-eaters give their LBs open lanes to make plays. [Eric Upchurch]

Returning Starters Adj. Line Yards (Rank) Opportunity Rate (Rank) Power Success Rate (Rank) Stuff Rate (Rank) Adj. Sack Rate (Rank) DL Havoc Rate (Rank)
3 111.7 (24) 32.4% (9) 58.3% (14) 21.5% (37) 106.9 (53) 2.2% (120)

Ignore the piddling Havoc Rate for this group. Wisconsin runs a true 3-4 defense and they feature their great linebacker play. The line has the underappreciated task of taking on blocks to keep those linebackers clean, and they do that job very well.

The standout is senior end Conor Sheehy, who has the strength at 288 pounds to slide inside and hold up surprisingly well at nose tackle when called upon. He hasn't had to do that as much since the emergence of 340-pound nose tackle Olive Sagapolu. Chikwe Obasih, another solid end with a knack for batting passes, rounds out the starting lineup, and Alec James provides depth behind him. The accolades and counting stats will go to the linebackers; they owe a lot to the pluggers up front.

3. Penn State


Parker Cothren is a strong run defender at the nose. [Upchurch]

Returning Starters Adj. Line Yards (Rank) Opportunity Rate (Rank) Power Success Rate (Rank) Stuff Rate (Rank) Adj. Sack Rate (Rank) DL Havoc Rate (Rank)
2 112.1 (21) 37.4% (43) 64.4% (40) 22.8% (23) 116.6 (36) 6.5% (25)

PSU brings back an impressive group at tackle. Similarly named to the point of utter confusion, starting DTs Parker Cothren and Curtis Cothran complement each other nicely; the former is a rock-solid plugger, the latter a more disruptive pass-rusher. They frequently insert Kevin Givens, whose per-snap pass-rush production and size give off an early Mo Hurst feel. This group should be stout against the run and generate a solid amount of interior pass-rush.

The question is on the edge, where PSU loses both starting ends. Other than Torrance Brown, who had six TFLs but only half a sack last year, nobody has significant playing experience. There's plenty of talent among the younger players, most notably redshirt freshman Shane Simmons, but a couple players are going to have to grow up fast.

4. Minnesota

Returning Starters Adj. Line Yards (Rank) Opportunity Rate (Rank) Power Success Rate (Rank) Stuff Rate (Rank) Adj. Sack Rate (Rank) DL Havoc Rate (Rank)
2 113.9 (16) 34.7% (23) 75.0% (102) 24.3% (14) 114.9 (38) 5.6% (43)

While DT Steven Richardson isn't quite as good at Maurice Hurst as an all-around tackle, he's right up there with anyone as an interior pass-rusher:

Recording 31 quarterback hurries, seven sacks and three quarterback hits, Minnesota’s Steven Richardson ranked No. 3 among returning Power 5 defensive tackles with 41 total pressures.

Having such a disruptive presence on the inside makes the entire line better. Minnesota needs to replace their best pass-rushing end and a solid starting tackle, however, and this line got pushed around a bit when opponents ran the ball in short-yardage situations. I have the Gophers ranked this high because Richardson is going to be very hard for anyone to block this year, but concerns about the run defense are valid.

5. Florida


CLICK THROUGH JUST TRUST ME ON THIS

Returning Starters Adj. Line Yards (Rank) Opportunity Rate (Rank) Power Success Rate (Rank) Stuff Rate (Rank) Adj. Sack Rate (Rank) DL Havoc Rate (Rank)
2 108.5 (36) 38.7% (56) 67.6% (69) 23.4% (18) 122.7 (28) 6.7% (21)

As usual, Florida has plenty of highly touted recruits on the line. They also have a lot to replace. Disruptive DT Caleb Brantley left early for the NFL after fellow starting tackle Joey Ivey had already exhausted his eligibility. Junior CeCe Jefferson, a former five-star end and the subject of the video you really have to watch that's linked above, is probably going to have to spend a lot of time playing on the inside; while he's undersized, he's got the strength and talent to hold up there and make some plays. Still, depth at tackle could be an issue; freshman TJ Slaton—yes, the massive one-time Michigan recruit—is expected to see the field at DT early.

Depth won't be an issue at end, where Jefferson should still get a fair number of snaps. He's joined by Jordan Sherit, Keivonnis Davis, and Jabari Zuniga. That group is still developing and provided a solid pass-rush last year without requiring much in the way of blitzes.

6. Maryland


[Fuller]

Returning Starters Adj. Line Yards (Rank) Opportunity Rate (Rank) Power Success Rate (Rank) Stuff Rate (Rank) Adj. Sack Rate (Rank) DL Havoc Rate (Rank)
3 76.4 (128) 42.3% (101) 62.3% (29) 18.1% (29) 141.2 (14) 6.3% (31)

The adjusted line yards and opportinty rate figures above don't match the rest of the stats or individual talent on the Maryland line, which I think is as much a product of poor linebacker play as anything else. The Terps were excellent at making plays behind the line and stopping short-yardage situations, and they also kept the pressure high on quarterbacks.

The line is led by end Jesse Aniebonam, an overlooked talent who had nine sacks last year, and nose tackle Kingsley Opara, the rare nose who makes frequent plays in the backfield (11.5 TFLs, three sacks). Those two need more help and they might get it; DJ Durkin brought in a pair of four-star freshman tackles to help shore up the run defense. 

7. Indiana

Returning Starters Adj. Line Yards (Rank) Opportunity Rate (Rank) Power Success Rate (Rank) Stuff Rate (Rank) Adj. Sack Rate (Rank) DL Havoc Rate (Rank)
3 107.1 (37) 33.7% (18) 60.9% (24) 21.8% (33) 108.8 (47) 5.5% (44)

A surprisingly good group from a year ago has some key players to replace, namely penetrating tackles Ralph Green III and Patrick Dougherty. The return of nose tackle Nate Hoff, who had six TFLs last year, helps in that regard; filling out an entire rotation could get tricky.

The pass-rush took a serious hit when Nile Sykes (DL-best five sacks last year) went down for the year with an injury. The other returning starter on the edge, Greg Gooch, recorded only one sack a year ago, and there isn't a proven edge-rusher around.

8. Michigan State


There are some serious holes on the MSU DL. [Fuller]

Returning Starters Adj. Line Yards (Rank) Opportunity Rate (Rank) Power Success Rate (Rank) Stuff Rate (Rank) Adj. Sack Rate (Rank) DL Havoc Rate (Rank)
3 103.2 (54) 35.2% (29) 64.4% (40) 21.9% (30) 49.9 (124) 3.6% (96)

This group didn't make many plays at all last year with supremely talented (if not supremely dedicated) Malik McDowell playing everything from nose to weakside end, and there's nobody like McDowell to take his place. State should have a decent pair of starting DTs in Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk. As you might expect after this offseason, there's little in the way of proven depth.

Meanwhile, there's little to like about the ends. Demetrious Cooper had a massively disappointing season in 2016, recording only 2.5 sacks, a figure that somehow led the team. The players who were expected to step in and get to the quarterback are gone; other than maybe cornerback, this is the position group that got hit the hardest by unexpected attrition.

9. Cincinnati

Returning Starters Adj. Line Yards (Rank) Opportunity Rate (Rank) Power Success Rate (Rank) Stuff Rate (Rank) Adj. Sack Rate (Rank) DL Havoc Rate (Rank)
4 90.6 (103) 38.2% (50) 65.9% (54) 19.5% (59) 75.5 (105) 4.2% (77)

The Bearcats return most of their contributors from last year's line, including all four starters. End Kevin Mouhon is a really good run defender, getting all but one of his 9.5 TFLs against the rush; that also says something about his pass-rushing acumen. Cincinnati has plenty of depth but the top-end talent just isn't there.

10. Purdue

Returning Starters Adj. Line Yards (Rank) Opportunity Rate (Rank) Power Success Rate (Rank) Stuff Rate (Rank) Adj. Sack Rate (Rank) DL Havoc Rate (Rank)
2 85.7 (121) 40.0% (79) 72.0% (92) 21.0% (41) 91.0 (82) 5.1% (54)

A bad line loses an All-American level talent in DT Jake Replogle, one of PFF's favorite players from the last two seasons. Gelen Robinson, GRIII's younger brother, could find his way into the draft as a versatile lineman capable of playing inside or out. It's still difficult to see this line not taking a step back without Replogle, who was great against both the run and pass while consistently drawing double-teams.

11. Air Force

Returning Starters Adj. Line Yards (Rank) Opportunity Rate (Rank) Power Success Rate (Rank) Stuff Rate (Rank) Adj. Sack Rate (Rank) DL Havoc Rate (Rank)
0 121.6 (8) 25.9% (1) 66.7% (58) 22.7% (25) 93.0 (74) 1.9% (123)

Ignore most of the numbers, which are the product of a high-risk defensive scheme designed to keep randomness high. The first number—zero returning starters—is the one to focus on. Air Force is going to blitz like crazy to try to make a big negative play or force a turnover; Michigan should be able to run right at them and get plenty of movement if they're not trying to go over the top.

12. Rutgers

Returning Starters Adj. Line Yards (Rank) Opportunity Rate (Rank) Power Success Rate (Rank) Stuff Rate (Rank) Adj. Sack Rate (Rank) DL Havoc Rate (Rank)
1 88.4 (111) 43.7% (115) 76.4% (116) 17.4% (90) 94.2 (73) 5.4% (45)

A Rutgers line returns one starter. I don't think I need to explain further.

Where Would Michigan Rank?

It's damn close between Michigan and Ohio State for the top spot. The Buckeyes have the advantage at defensive end because of their ability to throw four NFL-caliber players out there, though ultimately none (save perhaps Nick Bosa) may be as talented or disruptive as Rashan Gary. The Wolverines have the best defensive tackle in Maurice Hurst, but again OSU has an edge in depth. While I think Michigan has the slightest of advantages when comparing the starters, OSU gets the #1 spot by a hair because there's little-to-no dropoff going to their second unit.

Comments

m1jjb00

August 28th, 2017 at 10:01 AM ^

That Jefferson video was aWESoMe.

I'd flip Florida and Minnesota, even put them ahead of PSU.  And it's just really hard to compare Wisconsin to anything.

Michigan4Life

August 28th, 2017 at 10:04 AM ^

CeCe Jefferson isn't considered to be Florida's best DL. It's Jabari Zuniga. He has a chance of rising up to 1st round two years down the road. He lines up at LDE which means Michigan's biggest weakness on offense is at RT.

Ace

August 28th, 2017 at 10:16 AM ^

I'm probably underestimating Florida a little here. I just really like Steven Richardson. UF's next men up to replace starters are going to be better than Minnesota's.

Hail-Storm

August 28th, 2017 at 11:09 AM ^

look that we will beat OSU this year. Although it is nice to have you think Michigan is as high in as many categories as they are after all the attrition and young players stepping up. 

I love that the BIG10 East looks to be a power conference (sub conference?). 

dragonchild

August 28th, 2017 at 11:31 AM ^

Despite getting thrashed by Clemson and outplayed by Michigan, they are still consistently one of the top programs in the country.

If they have a weakness it's one that doesn't show up in these sorts of write-ups; schematically they're vanilla.  In a lot of ways they are the manifestation of Hoke's vision; set aside I-form vs. shotgun and they're a power running team that beats you to death with execution and talent, except there it actually works*.  Defensively they run a Cover-4, just with oodles of talent that inevitably creates problems wherever you can't match NFL talent with NFL talent.  They don't have Don Brown; they go 4-DEs on passing downs because they can, and not to dismiss the effectiveness of it, but in all seriousness a 10-year-old can think of that.  They'll eventually adjust, Meyer's second to none at that, but you can keep them off-balance for about a half assuming you don't implode first.  So, with a healthy and confident QB, even an average one (Speight's problem being that he was either brilliant or terrible), Harbaugh can manufacture a couple TDs by digging into that bag of tricks, which would've paid off the last couple games except twice now we've played them with a wounded QB.

*Unfortunately the addition of Wilson means they'll likely stop being vanilla on offense.

Rdog

August 28th, 2017 at 11:18 AM ^

unanswered points agains them.    I still believe that had our offense not turned over the ball that OSU would not have scored a touchdown against Michigan last year.

However, our poor running performance versus OSU can somewhat be explained when looking at OSU's defensive stats.