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UK Football Position Preview 2016: Defensive Tackles and Ends

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Today we finish the discussion of the defensive line by previewing the defensive tackles and ends. There's more reasons for optimism that most seem to think.

Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

The defensive line enters 2016 with lots of questions. The departures of CJ Johnson, Melvin Lewis, and Farrington Huguenin hurts to varying degrees. At first blush, 2016 looks to be similar to 2015 with no proven stars and no returning pass-rusher. Perhaps worse, the run defense has yet to be even average - though 2014 was close according to S&P+ rankings - over the span of a season under Mark Stoops and that partly lies at the feet of these positions.

Is 2016 the season the defensive line rebounds to 2014's levels of overall execution? I tend to think so, but first let's talk scheme and personnel.

Defensive Line Techniques and UK's Scheme

In UK's base 3-4 defense, the defensive end and the defensive tackle positions typically aligned head-up on the offensive tackle in what is known as 5 technique as in the image below. They are responsible for the gaps (B and C gaps) on either side. This is why you may sometimes hear the term "Two-Gapper" applied to defensive linemen in a 3-4 defense.

Gaps

However, on probable passing situations (e.g. down and distance or an offense substituting in more receivers) UK typically switches to a four man defensive front. Now the linemen no longer have two-gap responsibility, and are no longer aligned in 5 technique; instead, they are shaded towards one side of an offensive linemen with the goal of bursting through  the A, B, or C gaps listed above in pursuit of the quarterback and sow destruction.

How UK plays its defensive ends and 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.

General Scheme On Passing Downs

The following are a few examples of UK expecting a pass, and how the defensive linemen's roles change as a result. The first is atypical but I wanted to include it to show that the coaches mean it when they called the defense "multiple." The nickel package isn't always a four man front.

Here UK stays with three defensive linemen, but has subbed out the nosetackle and moved CJ Johnson to be head's up on Florida's center. Johnson will shoot for a single A gap while a blitzing Josh Forrest will take the opposite A gap.

coryjohnson1

Here against Vandy you see the more traditional pass-rushing look. Here, CJ Johnson is on the outside shoulder of the guard in "3 technique" while his compatriot is in "3 technique" on the other side.

CoryJohnsonAligned3

Here's an alignment where the defensive linemen appear to be in 1 technique from the side angle.

UK 4-2-5

These are only three examples, undoubtedly there's more, as the linemen and inside linebackers will shift around to various techniques to increase havoc opportunities. It's part of gameplanning to identify weak links along the offensive line and exploit them. One week could see players aligning in one technique heavily to create a mismatch, while the next week they may avoid that technique altogether.

General Scheme On Rush Downs

UK's defensive linemen function differently on run downs. 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. 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.

Below, UK has Mississippi State in 2nd-and-10, and 10 Personnel, which usually means a pass is coming, but MSU likes to spread defenses out, and then run quarterback draws with the mobile Dak Prescott. UK has scouted their tendencies and so UK decides to stay in its base 3-4 (notice defensive linemen head-up on the offensive linemen across from them) in case its a draw or read option. Most teams would do the same that aren't Alabama with insanely talented personnel.

Forrest Off Edge

In the next picture against Auburn, you can see what occurs after the snap on rush downs. At the snap all three defensive linemen punched into the offensive linemen across from them, established leverage, and tried to diagnose the play while controlling two gaps. This play occurred in the third quarter against Auburn last season which was likely the best stretch of defensive play against SEC competition in the Mark Stoops era.

3QRunSupport

Depth Chart Discussion

Below is the depth chart published by UK on July 10th. The order may change after fall camp, and it's likely the Kengera Daniel versus Alvonte Bell battle for Courtney Miggins back-up is a tight one.

Depth Chart Name Year 2015 Stats
1 Courtney Miggins (DE) SR
11 games, 12 tackles. 0.5 tackles for loss
1 Regie Meant (DT) RS JR
10 games, 31 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 sack 
2 Alvonte Bell (DE) RS JR
N/A
2 Adrian Middleton (DT)
RS SO
4 games, 8 tackles
3 Kengera Daniel (DE) SO
3 games, 1 tackle
3 Kordell Looney (DT) FR
N/A

Courtney Miggins

The JUCO transfer was forced into action last season given UK's depth at defensive end. Miggins reportedly signed with UK over Mississippi State near NSD in 2015 to the delight of many. With Huguenin graduated, Miggins must now take on a larger role.

Based on historical precedent, Miggins very likely follows the "JUCO Jump"(™) pattern under defensive linemen coach Jimmy Brumbaugh's tutelage. Under Stoops and Brumbaugh, JUCO defensive linemen Za'Darius Smith, Melvin Lewis, and CJ Johnson each saw vast improvement in their second seasons. So far, UK has found eventual success with their JUCO defensive linemen signees. The hope in the football offices is Miggins makes them four-for-four.

Regie Meant

In 2015, Miggins backed up a red-hot CJ Johnson who led the SEC in tackles for defensive linemen. Johnson production was good for everyone except Meant's playing time, and yet Meant had his best season to date.

In 2014, Meant had 18 tackles in 11 games. In 2015, his production increased despite backing up Johnson, and playing in one fewer game. His production must continue to rise, at a steeper trajectory, for UK's overall defensive efforts to improve. Meant is not a natural pass-rusher, and will likely not develop into an adept one, but a stout run defender is what is mostly required from his position. Defensive tackles who are also good pass-rushers are a luxury that tend to get drafted early.

Alvonte Bell

Bell was originally a Joker Phillips commitment who was Phillips' highest rated recruit prior to his firing in November 2012. After high school, Bell went the JUCO route and emerged two years later as a NSD surprise in 2015. He originally came to UK as an outside linebacker, but was moved to defensive end by the end of fall camp. He was promptly redshirted to build the body needed for his new position. He's another player that UK hopes makes the "JUCO Jump" in his second season in the program.

Adrian Middleton

The Bowling Green, KY native enters his third season in the program. Middleton contributed mostly last season as Matt Elam's back-up at nose tackle after Melvin Lewis was injured. A bit undersized as a nose tackle, Middleton is back as a defensive tackle this season. Of all the players listed above, Middleton had the highest recruiting rankings, according to 247 Composite, which speaks to his potential.

The Rest of The Merry Band

The rest of the group is comprised of two young players which are probably the best two defensive linemen UK has signed under Stoops. Daniel played sparingly last season, but was an early enrollee who has now had two full off-seasons in Lexington. He reportedly chose UK over Alabama for its exercise science program.

Looney is an athletic freak that UK had to fight off several suitors for to keep him on NSD. He only played two years of high school football.

These players each have the potential to be NFL players in a few seasons, but very likely won't make significant contributions in 2016. It'll be interesting to see if Looney redshirts or works his way up into the two-deep. That would be a meteoric rise for someone who wasn't playing organized football four years ago.

Outlook

Media and most fans expect little from UK's defensive ends and tackles this season. They note the lack of returning production, point out how that worked out for UK the last few seasons, and assume nothing will change. They neglect to notice three differences.

The first is the "JUCO Jump (™)". Previous JUCO defensive linemen Za'Darius Smith, Melvin Lewis, and Cory Johnson all got much better their second seasons. Miggins and Bell have each hit that window. If their second year performances reach near those other players' second season levels they will be contributors.

The second is "The Farrington Huguenin Model(™)" named after the defensive linemen who in his third season in the program had a sharp uptick in production. Due to Joker Phillips' non-redshirting policy and other roster quirks, UK has had to sign JUCO defensive linemen at a higher rate than other positions as a stop-gap measure, but now Meant and Middleton have reached that plateau. Meant had an uptick in 2015 in his third season, and this year will be Stoops' first four year defensive linemen at UK. Three years in a S&C program, eating right, and being coached by Brumbaugh tends to see linemen improve over time.

Thirdly, the cumulative impact of both these factors contribute to the all-important issue of depth. In 2015, UK's defensive front gave up more average yards per carry as games and the season wore on. Talented depth was an issue as first quarter successes did not last into second halves. UK has five seasons of game experience among the players listed above to start the season. UK had three seasons of game experience to start 2015 and 2014.   The numbers go even higher in 2016's favor if nose tackles are added (2016: seven seasons; 2015: five seasons; 2014: no change).

This unit is likely not talented or deep enough to develop a consistent interior pass-rush, or be ranked higher than the tenth best SEC defensive line, but they probably don't need to be in order to achieve the modest goal of six wins. It's not like the SEC East projects to have good offensive lines this season.

In short, it's probably safe to raise expectations for this group in 2016. They probably won't be the defense's weakest link, which is good because they'll need to pick up the slack for an inexperienced linebacker corps at both the inside and outside positions.