We all have that memory of the Nebraska game still stuck in our head. Buffs scored quick, took a lead, Buffs kept scoring quickly, Nebraska controlled the ball and wore down the Buffs up front. I still have visions of Roy Helu running for five yards after five yards and asking myself, "Don't we have anybody that we can sub in for our tired defensive linemen?"
Clearly, the answer was "No."
That day, Nebraska had the ball for just under 40 minutes, nearly double Colorado's time of possession. The shorthanded Buffs stood no chance up front. Going into the 2008 season, we thought the combination of George Hypolite and Brandon Nicolas would be difficult to stop in the middle but both their tackle for loss and sack production declined from 2007. Maurice Lucas never really developed thus leaving us Buff fans craving a defensive lineman like Abe Wright who could get to the quarterback and wreak havoc in the backfield.
For me, this is the biggest question mark going into the 2009 season and it will be a primary question in spring ball; who is going to play and what should our expectations be of the front four or three? Right now we are dealing with the unexpected. Other than Curtis Cunningham (a true freshman last year who played well in limited action) and Marquez Herrod (who is the leading returning tackler on the defensive line with a whopping 14), I don't have a gauge on anyone. Even Herrod is too inconsistent for my taste and Cunningham played very sparingly each week, mostly for a set of 3 plays here and there. Due to this lack of depth along the line, the Buffs ran a 3 - 4 most of the time last year with Brad Jones flexing up filling a rush end role. With every single down linemen/rush end who had any impact gone next year and little known about the players off the bench, Buff's nation is very worried...and they should be.
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We hear great things about DT Conrad Obi and DT Lagrone Shields stepping up and possibly being impact players on the defensive line. Will Pericak, a former tight end redshirt freshman, is supposed to add athleticism to the line but once again, no proof at the college level for any of the three above. It will be interesting to see who gets the reps and who is taking control of the starting spots. The last thing we want to see as fans is a defensive line by committee which means no one has stepped up and assumed the starting position. Of course, substitutions are important but we need a few players to dominate and separate themselves. Right now, the only person who I believe has a starting spot is Cunningham. Shields, Obi, Pericak and Cunningham may all pan out to be good interior players with possibly Obi being more of a speed interior guy, but Buff fans still must wonder where the pass rush is going to come from. My guess is probably from players like B.J. Beatty, Michael Sipili and Marcus Burton from the linebacker spot/rush end. We might even see Sip and Burton permanently move to the line to assist with a pass rush.
A 3 - 4 may be a possibility but one of my other big pet peeves from last year was the use of the scheme. Colorado thinks of the 3 - 4 as a way to get 8 skill players on the field and drop them into coverage, letting opposing QB's like Todd Reesing stand in the pocket and develop plays. A 3 - 4 is supposed to be more dynamic than a 4 - 3 with blitz opportunities from multiple angles. Until Ron Collins and the defensive staff proves that it can be aggressive in the 3 - 4, I am not a fan of switching to it. Last year, it was an easy excuse to play prevent. But we may not have choice this year with the talent clearly favoring the linebackers.
Now, to the young bucks. Although they won't be at the spring session, you can bet that in every publication or conversation, you are going to hear the words, "Nick Kasa, Edward Nuckols, Forrest West and Nate Bonsu." Kasa and Nuckols might be the two players to emerge and get playing time right away if the veterans don't take care of business in camp. Even though we are very excited about the crop of defensive linemen that Hawkins and Co. have brought in this past cycle, all of us must hope that it doesn't come down to playing them. That generally doesn't go well especially in the Big 12 trenches. It is very rare to find a first year college player physical enough to step in and hold the line of scrimmage. The more we see Kasa, West, Nuckols or Bonsu, the more trouble we will probably be in.
For as good as the linebackers may be, an ineffective defensive line in front of them will not help them be elite in the Big 12. I wish the outlook was more rosy but we just don't know anything about what will happen up front.