We continue our Conference USA preseason position reviews by looking at the defensive line in C-USA. The grading categories: “Great Shape,” “Good Shape,” and “We’ll See.”
To elaborate on the grades, "We'll See" means exactly what it means. We don’t know if that position is going to turn out to be a positive due to a lack of proven contributors and questionable depth. At this time, there’s no way to know.
“Good Shape” means known commodities are at the position but there’s still room for improvement. Depth is probably decent at the position but an injury could be catastrophic.
“Great Shape” means all-conference performers are at this position or there is good-to-great depth. You definitely want your team to be here.
With our offensive previews done, we now shift our attention to the defense. C-USA is seen by many as an offense-first league but that doesn’t mean there’s been a lack of difference makers on the defensive line. This year is no different as we should see a few of these guys playing on Sundays in the near future.
1. Old Dominion: Defensive ends Oshane Ximines and Bunmi Rotimi are the faces of an ODU D-line that ranked 20th in DL Havoc Rate (an advanced stat that measures how disruptive defenses are via tackles for loss, forced fumbles, or tipped passes) in 2016. Behind them are juniors Tim Ward and Daniel Appouh, who racked up a combined 11 TFLs and seven sacks. Suffice to say, ODU is loaded here.
2. Louisiana Tech: After having the best defensive lineman two years ago in Vernon Butler, the Bulldogs have arguably the best defensive lineman in the conference again in Jaylon Ferguson. Opposite Ferguson will either be a former four-star recruit (Willie Baker) or an experienced contributor (Deldrick Canty). Defensive tackle should also be a plus as juniors Jordan Bradford, Cedric Johnson, and Keonatye Garner should at the least be solid.
3. Western Kentucky: New defensive coordinator Clayton White inherits a great duo in seniors Chris Johnson and Derik Overstreet along the line. Julien Lewis and Tanner Reeves looked solid in limited duty last season too. WKU has recruited really well along the defensive line so I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt by placing them here.
4. UTSA: Marcus Davenport is the face of a unit that ranked 53rd in DL Havoc Rate in 2016. The Roadrunners need to find an end opposite Davenport with Ben Kane’s graduation, and Kevin Strong Jr. seems to be the guy (6.5 TFLs, one sack, and two forced fumbles last year). Nose tackle is a question mark but two freshmen played last year and Wilson brought in two three-star tackles this year to join them.
5. Southern Miss: Southern Miss ranked 10th in DL Havoc Rate last year. 10th! Dylan Bradley is now on the Minnesota Vikings but Xavier Thigpen returns to hopefully lead a more consistent defense that gave up far too many big plays last season. LaDarius Harris - a former three-star - was solid in limited action and figures to see a bigger role.
6. Marshall: The Herd don’t have any stalwarts returning on the line but boasts several solid contributors for 2017. Ryan Bee, Blake Keller, and Ty Tyler combined for 17.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. Doc Holliday has recruited well here so talent abounds.
7. Rice: The silver lining when injuries devastate a team is that more players earn playing time. Rice had 11 linemen see the field last year and ten of those linemen return. Rice’s DL Havoc Rate ranked a solid 51st last year and though they lack size, they have some speed on the edge to make up for it in Graysen Schantz and Brian Womac.
8. FIU: Fermin Silva is a nice pass rusher for the Panthers but no one else on the D-line is worth fearing. Imarjaye Albury and Marques Cheeks leave a huge void at the tackle spot but those two players underachieved for the most part. Perhaps new blood will be good for the Panthers. Butch Davis brought in three three-star defensive linemen so talented reinforcements are on the way.
9. North Texas: The Mean Green don’t have too many contributors back from a defensive line that was pretty bad (111th in DL Havoc Rate). Like FIU, perhaps new blood will be good for UNT. Former three-star recruit and Kansas State player Bryce English is a potential All-CUSA performer.
10. UTEP: The Miners use a 3-4 defense so they aren’t like their peers where many linemen will see the field. Still, the Miners don’t have any difference makers as they had a tough time getting to the quarterback and stopping the run in 2016. Sophomores Christian Richardson, Gene Hopkins, and Denzel Chukwukelu saw a lot of snaps last year so the line should improve this year.
11. Middle Tennessee: The Blue Raiders will undergo a complete rebuild with Scott Shafer running the defense. Six linemen recorded more than 15 tackles last year, and MTSU must replace five of them this year. Former three-star recruit Justin Akins was supposed to be relied on heavily this year but was dismissed for animal cruelty. Shafer inherits a line that doesn’t have many guys with experience.
12. FAU: The Owls had one of the worst defenses in the country last year and that was with an All-CUSA performer on the line in Trey Hendrickson. Hendrickson’s now gone, and left behind is a line with zero proven playmakers. Lane Kiffin brought in four three-star linemen and two are from the JUCO ranks so an influx of talent and experience could make for a better line this season.
13. Charlotte: Charlotte must replace perhaps their best player in school history in Larry Ogunjobi on the defensive front this season. Only unknowns reside along the line. One of Brad Lambert’s best recruits in last year’s class is three-star end Chrishawn Wilson. Wilson held some P5 offers so perhaps he becomes an immediate contributor this year.
14. UAB: The Blazers will field a defensive line that is littered with former JUCO players. Some are former three-star recruits but the spring game was worrisome. The line looked small and was pushed around for the majority of the game. Using a glorified scrimmage to judge a unit is a fool’s errand but that’s all we have right now.