Spring Ball Primer: Defensive Line

Matt Akers

Head coach Tim DeRuyter will kick off his first year of spring football at Fresno State next month. The last few years, spring practice has been held in April but with the spring scrimmage set for March 25, it will be the earliest start to spring ball in recent memory. Check inside for an early look at the defensive line…

Tim DeRuyter signed 15 recruits last Wednesday in his first recruiting class as the head coach of Fresno State. However, none will participate in spring football practice that begins next month.

The transition to the spread offense and 3-4 defense will be showcased on March 25 for the annual spring scrimmage. With an abundant of returning talent on both sides of the ball, DeRuyter inherits a team capable of winning 8-10 games in 2012. However, the success will hinge on certain players making transitions to new positions on the defensive line.

Defensive Tackles

While on the surface there appears to be a lack of depth and a lack of a prototypical 3-4 nose tackle, the unit does have the players to make the transition – at least the coaches believe.

DeRuyter heavily recruited a few JUCO defensive tackles with no success. He may still sign a defensive tackle late in the process but there are no guarantees he will land a 6'2, 330-pound mammoth to occupy the middle.

The roster lacks big defensive ends and will have to move current defensive tackles to the outside. Anthony Williams is easily the best pass rusher with the most experience to play on the strong side.

He returns this year after sitting out the 2011 season. His presence is likely the key to the 3-4 defense. He had a solid sophomore campaign in 2010 backing Logan Harrell at the three-technique defensive tackle. Williams has the size and the strength to be a nose tackle in the 3-4, but his pass rushing skills and quickness fit better at strong side defensive end.

Nikko Motta also missed last season. If he can stay eligible, he will have a big role in the defense this season. At 6'3 and over 280 pounds is the most natural "big" defensive end after playing the position in 2010 and being an All-Valley standout as an end at Sanger High School. He can play either strong side or weak but will likely battle Williams for playing time.

Tyeler Davison is the only returning nose tackle after having a decent redshirt freshman season last year sharing time with Chase McEntee. Maurice Poyadue was expected to play last season but he redshirted. He is better fit for the three-technique in the 4-3 defense but can play the nose.

Andy Jennings showed promise as a redshirt two years ago, however, injuries have slowed his playing time. He played defensive end in high school but made the transition to defensive tackle at Fresno State. Depending on his spring, he could play the nose or strong side defensive end.

Mershad Dillon is a wildcard. He ran an 11.2 100 meters, played quarterback, and defensive line in high school. Last season, he made the move to the three-technique. While he doesn't have the length DeRuyter likes to play on the outside, Dillon is easily the fastest d-lineman and could play weak side defensive end.

Defensive Ends

Fresno State returns four defensive ends with playing experience. Matt Akers, Nat Harrison, and Tristan Okpalaugo played mostly strong side last season, but not in the 3-4.

Donavon Lewis played a significant role last year as a pass rusher on the weak side. But he likely will be tried out at pass rushing outside linebacker in the spring. Lewis has been compared to former Bulldog defensive end Chris Carter. Carter tried to make the transition to linebacker as a sophomore in 2008 but it wasn't effective. Lewis, like Carter, is best with his hand on the ground using his quickness and get-off to beat opposing offensive tackles.

Akers and Harrison are weak side defensive ends that played on the strong side by default last season. Both are about 6'2-6'3 and can play at around 260 pounds without losing much of their speed and quickness. Okpalaugo at 6'5 and 240 pounds has the length DeRuyter covets on the outside. If he can play at 270-280 pounds with the same speed and aggressiveness, he is the perfect strong side d-end. However, him gaining that much weight while maintaining the same speed is unlikely.

Redshirts Ronald Ussery, Todd Hunt, and Suli Faletuipapai are kids that will probably make the transition to outside linebacker. Hunt, however, does have the size to play defensive end in the 3-4. Ussery was a standout high school linebacker at Crespi that transitioned to d-end last season. Ussery and Hunt are the ones to watch as both look to have the skill set to be an effective pass rusher out of the two-point stance.

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