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2004 Defensive Line Preview

05/17/2004, 12:00am CDT
By Cory Doffing

Gopher Football

The Gopher defensive line definitely needs to improve in 2004 if the defense as a whole is going to take a step up. Last year brought significant improvements in the run defense, but in contrast it was very weak when it came to pressuring the quarterback. Most of the line returns however, so another year of experience, some positions shuffling, combined with a little bit of added strength should yield some better results.

Defensive Ends . . .

- Darrell Reid

The Gopher defensive line is led by 5th year Senior Darrell Reid. The experienced veteran has started all but one game in his three years so far as a Golden Gopher, and is the most polished linemen on the team. For the first time in a while Minnesota has a veteran defensive line, and Darrell will be counted on to lead the way.

When you look at Darrell's journey since arriving at Minnesota you can't help but notice the unusual path he has taken. He came into the Minnesota program as a 240 lb linebacker, but in 2001 the personnel situation demanded that he play defensive tackle. Being so undersized he really took his lumps for the first year or so, but then started to grow into the position. By the time last year arrived he had bulked up to 270 pounds and became one of the best players and leaders on the Gopher defense. (He is the only returning All-Big Ten player on defense) So going into his senior season big things were expected from him at defensive tackle. But"¦. At the Spring football news conference Mason announced the position change, so after coming into the program as a 240 lb defensive tackle, Darrell will finish his Gopher career as a 280 lb defensive end.

This move makes all kinds of sense and it's one I'm very excited about. Minnesota clearly needs to improve its pass rush this year. Mark Losli has done ok at defensive end, but rushing the QB was really not his primary strength. His switching with Reid will give Minnesota a completely different look at end. Darrell's blend of strength, quickness, athleticism & experience should make him one of the better linemen in the conference, and hopefully give our pass rush a MUCH needed shot in the arm. Sacks would be great, but just consistent pressure from him will do. (Besides playing defense, Darrell's other strength is giving interviews and creating bulletin board material for other teams!)

- Eric Clark

At the other defensive end is sophomore Eric Clark. Quite simply, the Gophers need Eric to become a big threat to sack the quarterback. In starting a handful of games last season Eric managed only 1 sack. Clark definitely has a good build for a pass rushing defensive end (6'4" 250 lbs), so with Montgomery in the middle and Darrell Reid anchoring the other side of the line, the opportunity is really there for Eric to cause some havoc. Though he had some struggles last year, what we have to remember is that Eric was only a freshman and may have been asked to do a little more than he was ready for. This is the Big Ten and there are some mean, nasty offensive linemen out there so it's definitely no picnic for any freshman playing on the defensive line. But with that said, the Gophers will need some improvement from Clark, especially with the pass rush, if the defensive is to take a step forward.

- Depth

The Gophers are pretty thin on depth at DE. The reserve with the most experience is junior Keith Lipka. Keith redshirted with the Gophers in 2001, transferred to a JC in 2002, but was back last year. Despite playing in 11 games, he had only 11 tackles and 1.5 sacks. Lipka is another guy who will be counted on to take a big step forward this year. After him, the only other returning scholarship player who played this position last year is Hopkins native Maurice Buchanan. Maurice hasn't seen very much action so far but it's his time to step up. Given the lack of experience here, the opportunity will really be there for the 6'3" 255 lb sophomore. Rounding out the backups are Chris Holden, John Scroggins and Pat McCarthy. All have been moved to defensive end recently because of low numbers. The Gophers did address this particular need in their recruiting class, signing four players to scholarship: Willie Van De Steeg, William Broady, Everett Pedescleaux and Matt DeGeest. Of the four, the Armstrong High School native Pedescleaux is the odds on favorite to step in and play this year if needed.


Defensive Tackles . . .

- Anthony Montgomery

Anthony Montgomery may have the biggest potential of anyone on defense. He's a huge man at 6'5" 315 lbs (as a true sophomore) and he has very good athleticism and quickness for a guy his size, as evidence by the fact that he played quarterback in high school. What you're probably asking yourself is "If he's so gifted, why hasn't he really produced?" I wish I knew the answer! Rumor has it that Montgomery was injured much of last year, but much of the disappointment probably stems from too many expectations. Remember, Montgomery was only a true sophomore last year, and he only played about a half-year as a freshman. While many freshmen in the Big Ten would've still be sitting on the bench learning the defense, Anthony was on the field learning on the job.

Going into this season, Anthony is my pick to be the most improved player on defense. He really has the potential to be a huge force in the middle. Like Reid, Montgomery is good at stuffing the run but has not been great at finding his way to the QB. It would be great for the team if he can get a little stronger (and healthier) and be able push his man back into the pocket to disrupt passing plays on a regular basis. Going into his junior season, it's no longer too much to expect that he'll become a more dominant player and a leader on our defense.

- Mark Losli

The other end of the Darrell Reid switch is junior Mark Losli. At defensive end last year he was at about 275 pounds, and this year makes the switch to tackle at 285 pounds. Mark is as dependable as they come, having started 22 consecutive games and beginning his third consecutive year as a starter. His strength is stopping the run (sounds like a broken record, I know!), but he was also Minnesota's top sack man last year (5) among the defensive ends. His move to defensive tackle makes sense. He is already 285 and will likely put on even more pounds by the time he finishes filling out. Darrell Reid can hopefully use his athleticism on the outside to create a rush, and Losli is a solid enough player against the run so that Reid's abilities in the middle should not be missed as much.

- Depth

Freshman Neel Allen is academically qualified and looks to be the top reserve for this unit. But after Allen there are serious questions surrounding depth. Should the need for another body arise, the most likely scenario would probably be to move Reid back over and have someone else fill in at end, but that is obviously less than ideal. If that doesn't work out, things could get interesting. Tony Brinkhaus and Brandon Harston both are former defensive tackles, but both appear to be solidly in place on offense. In any case, look for incoming freshman Nhemie Theodore to be the true freshman who will see some action (if he qualifies academically).


Around the Big Ten . . .

Wisconsin might have the best talent in the conference on the defensive line this year, but whether or not they can live up to that is another topic all together. They are led by senior Anttaj Hawthorne, who is maybe the best returning defensive player in the conference. Iowa should be nearly as solid this year as they have in the last several, but it will be tough to replace the outstanding duo of Matt Clauss and Howard Hodges. If he can keep his head on straight, Matt Roth is a force, but he will be keyed on this year with the departure of Iowa's two All-Big Ten performers. After Roth, Michigan State senior Clifford Dukes is the best returning Defensive End. Purdue and Ohio State are the teams hit hardest by departures, with each team losing 3 of 4 starters. Between the combined six lost players, five of them were All-conference performers. Michigan definitely wins the award for best "Prep All-American" defensive line. Gabe Watson, LaMar Woodley, Larry Harrison, and 6'8" monster Patrick Massey will have a chance to prove their lofty status as recruits.


Last Year . . .

Let's talk about the positives first. Coming out of 2002 the defensive line had nowhere to go but up. Reid was a sophomore and Montgomery and Losli were freshman; all started. Not surprisingly, the line got absolutely pounded by the power running teams in the conference. Last year those guys were a year older and a year stronger and the results showed. The running defense leaped to a respectable 5th place ranking in the conference. But for as much as the run defense improved, the pass rush (surprisingly) did not, as the Minnesota starting front four combined for only 13 sacks. That's not as bad as the Wacker years, but under Mason's tenure Karon Riley and Lamanzer Williams both have put those kinds of numbers on their own. That number of 13 sacks is as bad it sounds too; there's really no way to sugar coat it. In the moments where it was needed the most (notably vs. Michigan), the pass rush was noticeably ascent. Overall though, this was still a better unit last year than it was in 2002.


Bottom line . . .

The assignment is simple: RUSH THE PASSER! If Mason needs to start hypnosis now, all the better. We know one thing: We have a defensive line that can stop the run pretty effectively. When you think back to about two years ago, it's pretty remarkable how much progress has been made in this area. Anthony Montgomery, Darrell Reid and Mark Losli will help make up what should be one of the top run stuffing defensive lines in the conference. That's only half the battle though; the line also NEEDS to find a way to put pressure on the quarterback. The term "pass rush" was abscent from Dave Lee's calls last year, and looking at the roster you don't see anything jumping out at you that suggests they will be very much better this year. It's up to the players and the coaches to find a way to make it happen, and a good first step was moving Reid to the end. As was shown last year... You can stop a team's running game for three quarters, but if they decide to start passing and you don't have any kind of rush, it may all go for naught.

Talk about the 2004 defensive line on the Gopher Football message board.

Tag(s): Gopher Football