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2015 Position Preview: Defensive Tackle and End

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It's Chapter Two of ASoB’s position previews. Today we finish the discussion of the defensive line by previewing the defensive tackles and ends.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Today we'll complete the preview for the defensive line, by turning our focus to the defensive tackle and defensive end positions. This is a group that lost seniors Bud Dupree (in certain sub-packages), Mike Douglas, and Za'Darius Smith. What remains is somewhat untested, but does possess a respectable "contribution to game action" ratio. Can this group remain consistent with significantly more game action is the great unknown.



In UK's 3-4 defense [Note: UK's coaches probably term their defense "multiple" instead of 3-4, but we're going to simplify.], the defensive end and the defensive tackle positions typically aligned head-up on the offensive tackle in what is known as "4 technique", but sometimes seemingly aligned on the outside shoulder of the tackles in "5 technique" as in the image below. Regardless of where they aligned, they are responsible for the gaps on either side of them on most rush downs. This is why you may sometimes hear the term "Two-Gapper" when applied to defensive linemen.

3-4 Okie

Image courtesy of Bleacher Report

On running downs, these players are expected to defend an offense's power-running plays, defend cut-backs, and hopefully draw a double team from a guard, tight end, or running back. Being above average pass-rushers is usually considered a bonus. In the 3-4, it's ideal for the defensive linemen - nose tackle included - to soak up two blockers thereby diminishing the offensive personnel available to block the linebackers. Contrast that to a 4 man front, which UK showed mostly in their nickel package in 2014, where defensive tackles and ends get more glory by schematic design as they are typically assigned a single gap, and told to penetrate it and sow disruption. Typically, it's easier to compete for a single gap than two, in other words.

To highlight some of the arbitrariness between these two positions for UK last season (defensive end and defensive tackle), consider Za'Darius Smith's role. On running downs he played like a typical 3-4 defensive end head-up, maybe shaded, on the offensive tackle. At the snap he punched into the tackle, established leverage, and tried to diagnose the play while controlling two gaps. However, on passing downs he shifted out to the 5 technique, and rushed off the edge more like a traditional 4-3 defensive end.

How UK plays its "defensive ends" and "defensive tackles" with this year's crop of personnel is something to note. Will UK stick to the same principles this season, gain complexity, or neither? We know Mark Stoops and DJ Elliot would mix up UK's fronts, and personnel last season when facing an empty or one-back backfield, for example. Yet, this year's personnel won't include the three departed seniors, and will bring different strengths and weaknesses. Also, don't forget that the skill sets of the outside linebackers will also play a role in this as well. More on them later this week.

The coaches will probably adapt, at least somewhat, to their personnel. For we plebeians, though, this group is difficult to project in terms of production and scheme. We can make predictions, but they'll just be more guessing than usual. UK may have more flexibility with its top three guys than many think, but they'll still only have one season of significant playing time to date.

Depth Chart Discussion

This may come back to haunt me, but given the assumed interchangeable nature of UK's defensive tackles and ends in the wake of Za'Darius Smith's departure, I'm going to group both positions together for the following projected three-deep.

(Projected) Depth Chart Name Year 2014 Stats
1 Farrington Huguenin SR 18 tackles, 1 TFL
1 Cory Johnson SR 10 tackles, 4 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 PBU
1A Regie Meant RS SO 18 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 sacks
2 Courtney Miggins JR N/A
3 Tymere Dubose RS FR N/A
3 Adrian Middleton RS FR N/A

Farrington Hugenin

Huguenin was Za'Darius Smith's back-up last season. He mostly played running downs, and Smith was typically subbed back in when a pass-rusher was required. Here's an example (1:59:49 mark if you need to replay) of Huguenin aligned head-up against UofL's left offensive tackle, taking on the block, maintaining decent leverage, and then delivering a strong solo tackle. It's a good thing too because inside linebacker Josh Forrest had over-run the play, and that ball was run through Melvin Lewis' gap. Huguenin to the rescue.

Later in the same game, here he is doing nearly the exact same thing (2:20:11 mark) against the left offensive tackle who this time is third round draft pick Jamon Brown. He gets a little high out of the snap, but displays his strength to still keep position, muddy the hole, and allow the linebackers to disrupt the play. Huguenin still nearly finish the play. He's proven capable of being a run defender.

Importantly, I think, Huguenin developed into the type of player reliably capable of make positive plays by the end of the 2014 season. He already has NFL size, he's coming on three seasons of tutelage by Jimmy Brumbaugh, and he's got some momentum heading into the season. A question is will Huguenin have developed into a threatening pass-rusher this off-season?  He's a load patrolling the inside gaps, but his value increases exponentially if he's a viable off the edge. This was Stoops' thoughts in April:

I really like the way Farrington's been playing, even going into last year, he had some good players in front of him, but he really came in and always gave us some quality reps and now he's getting more and more play. I really think he has a chance to have a really good season.

Cory Johnson

Johnson and Regie Meant both saw the field quite a bit last season playing behind Mike Douglas. Johnson appeared to play more on passing downs suggesting UK's staff viewed him as the stronger pass-rusher of the two in 2014. The coaches liked to scheme around his ability. Look at the various ways Johnson aligned in obvious passing situations:

CoryJohnsonAligned1

Above he is lined up over the center. UK probably hoped his speed, combined with a linebacker blitz would force Florida's tackles to block Smith and Dupree solo. His credible pass-rushing abilities added to the whole attack.

CoryJohnsonAligned3

Here Johnson is aligned on the guard's outside shoulder, or "3 technique" just before stunting across the center's facemask. That's a long way to go for most defensive linemen, but the coaches were confident he could pull it off. How about one more?

CoryJohnsonAligned4

Finally, here is Johnson seemingly aligned head-up on the offensive guard. He was used in multiple ways last season against the pass, and expect that to carry-on this season too.

He clearly benefited from enrolling early at UK, as he was very open about how hard the adjustment was in the spring. By the end of the season he had improved as a technician, specifically using his hands better. More credit for the player development on the defensive line as overseen by Jimmy Brumbaugh. May he coach UK's defensive line 'til Kingdom come.

Regie Meant

Meant might project as a better player than Johnson in the long-run based off their respective performances last season (even more so if the 300-pounder is actually running a 4.7 forty!). Meant was used a bit more traditionally given his immense frame last season. He was there to draw attention, plug gaps, and yet he still put up a very respectful stat line for a redshirt freshmen. He also performed well considering he split game reps with Douglas and Johnson.

His development will be measured this season by producing against SEC foes, and not just non-SEC competition. Meant was injured during the spring, but is expected to be ready for this fall. When Meant makes plays this season recall the coaches were bragging on him as far back as the fall of 2013. He's definitely one of the more exciting underclassmen on UK's roster. Whether or not this is his break-out season, his future is a bright one.

Courtney Miggins

Miggins is a class of 2015 JUCO transfer who reportedly chose UK over Mississippi State. His highlight tape - anecdotal evidence alert! -  from junior college suggests he played in a four man front where he had the responsibility for one gap instead of two gaps. Most of the highlight tape shows him playing a "3 technique." One can safely assume UK coaches trust Miggins can learn to play a two-gap scheme, but not enrolling until fall camp very likely prevents him contributing at least early in the season.

I'm curious to hear about his performance in fall camp. If his performance there is on par with the horde of redshirt freshmen, don't be surprised if he is redshirted. That's not an indictment of him, but rather a statement about how hard it is for JUCO's to contribute immediately if they don't enroll early. Unlike, say Ryan Flannigan last season, UK may be able to get away with redshirting him since defensive tackle in 2015 is deeper than insider linebacker was in 2014.

The Rookies

Finally, Tymere Dubose and Adrian Middleton probably round out the projected three-deep. These redshirt freshmen probably won't see much game action this season, unless one or both of them surpass Miggins on the depth chart. If injuries do occur, these two add an additional personnel layer to prevent UK from taking off the redshirts of the incoming true freshmen. That is certainly a good thing, and will allow them all another year for maturation.

"Known Unknowns"

To paraphrase a former Secretary of Defense, there are some things "we know that we don't know" for the players at this position. Presumably, the coaches have a far better idea, but we, the public, are largely in the dark - especially prior to the season. Here's a few "known unknowns" for your consideration.

  • Which individual from this group will be the stand-out player this season?
  • Can this group improve against the run while at least maintaining last season's pass rush?
  • Will the redshirt freshmen break into the rotation at least by the end of the season barring injury?
  • Can Miggins contribute this season?

Outlook

Times have changed and the defensive line will have several new faces. Predictions for this unit aren't easy. This time last year, this unit comprised of: a redshirt freshman, a JUCO transfer, and a junior who backed-up a 4th round draft pick. And those are only the players returning. It seems unwise to judge their play last season based on that reality. Nonetheless, it makes projecting their performances this season impractical in July.

This season will see increased responsibilities and subsequently increased expectations. Has another year of development prepared them for 2015? Can they replicate the pass-rushing strengths of the departed seniors while also establishing their own legacy of an improved run defense?

Don't look at me for the answers.