I had fully intended to wait a few days after breaking down the back seven of the defense yesterday, but since I can't seem to make time advance to 9:00 tonight any faster I thought I would just barrel on with my crude positional breakdowns. Today: defensive and offensive linemen.
Strongside Defensive End
Starter (returning): Marcus Rush, RJr
Backups: Joel Heath, RSo; Jeremy Gainer, RSr
If you were to try to construct a depth chart from, for example, the one the program listed before the bowl (like this one- http://grfx.cstv.com/photos/schools/msu/sports/m-footbl/auto_pdf/2012-13/misc_non_event/bowl-gamenotes.pdf), my projections would just look wrong. But, as you'll see in the weakside projection, it turns out that in reality, Shilique Calhoun is Gholston's heir apparent on the weakside, not Rush's backup on the strongside. That said, to my eyes it really isn't clear on which side Heath would end up playing if/when he gets significant playing time. He and Denzel Drone are both built more for the weakside, but something tells me the coaches probably don't want Jeremy Gainer as the first man in if Rush goes down. Thus, it's possible that Drone, not Heath, is the true backup here. But either way, Rush is the comfortable starter, and the Cincinnati Moeller product will be counted on for a big season up front in both leadership and production with Gholston and Anthony Rashad White departing.
3-Technique Defensive Tackle
Starter (returning): Tyler Hoover, Sr-6
Backups: Micajah Reynolds, RSr; Lawrence Thomas, RSo
Before you ask, yes, Hoover was a senior last year, and yes, he'll still be with us this fall. The NCAA granted his medical redshirt request to get him a 6th year, which seems fair considering the amount of time he spent dealing with his back issues. Hoover and Reynolds have both been decent against the run, but I think the only way our defense returns to its elite, high-impact 2011 form is if Lawrence Thomas comes into his own at Worthy's old position. He has the size and speed to slice into the backfield and grab ball carriers or QBs in an instant; developing his technique and anticipation should be new DL coach Tom Burton's top offseason priority. He'll also need to find some future depth, perhaps shifting one of the nose tackles, as Hoover and Reynolds both depart after the season.
1-Technique Nose Tackle
Starter (projected): James Kittredge, RJr
Backups: Damon Knox, RSo; Mark Scarpinato, RSo; Brandon Clemons, RSo
Though it hasn't been much discussed, nose tackle could be a big problem for us this season. A.R. White didn't become the world-beater we thought he could be after the Outback Bowl, but he clogged enough blockers and running lanes to allow the run defense to function properly. According to the bowl game depth chart linked above, White was at 330 lbs and Kittredge was at 272. That's rather small for a nose tackle, and none of the backups were listed over 280 (Clemons was hurt all of last season). This group needs to make some serious progress in the weight room, and the cafeteria, if we want our run defense to maintain its recent elite play. Thankfully, other than Notre Dame and maybe Nebraska, Iowa or Michigan, the schedule doesn't look to be loaded with punishing offensive lines. It's possible we'll see a reserve offensive lineman like Henry Conway moved over to this position to bring some needed size, but as with the 3-tech, we need one of the many candidates to step forward as a difference-maker.
Weakside Defensive End
Starter (projected): Shilique Calhoun
Backups: Denzel Drone, RSr; Jamal Lyles, RFr
Calhoun has looked impressive in limited time spelling Gholston, and should be ready for a full-time role. Someone mentioned in the comments yesterday that Lyles has put on enough size for a move to the line; this is a welcome development, since behind Calhoun there's only career backup/Delta package nose tackle Drone and incoming, super-raw freshman Demetrius Cooper. My only potential concern is that Calhoun is just a tad on the small side, but he's shown enough technical skill to match up well with any tackles we'll face not named Zach Martin or Taylor Lewan.
Starter (returning): Dan France, RSr
Backups: Donavon Clark, RSo; Michael Dennis, RJr
The tackle situation is going to be interesting to watch. Our best guy at the position, Fou Fonoti, is returning from season-ending injury. Both of the returning starters, France and Burkland, have some major limitations; France can't run-block, Burkland is a mediocre pass-blocker. Still, those two and Fonoti are the top three tackles, so the question becomes how the lineup shakes out.
I ultimately think Burkland stays behind Fonoti on the right side, since his strength is run-blocking, and takes over for Fonoti in 2014; the other two tackles who saw the field, Clark and Dennis, thus figure to be front-runners to back up France on the blindside. Clark, at least, has seen time there, so he should remain as the backup; Dennis is more of a guess on my part, since his limited PT was largely as a 6th OL in certain jumbo packages and thus involved no pass-blocking. Of course, it's possible a youngster like Jack Conklin crashes the party, upends the apple cart (I see you HT), or whatever other cliche floats your particular boat, but with the premium placed on experience at OL it's less likely than at other positions.
Starter (returning): Blake Treadwell, RSr
Backups: Nate Klatt, RSr; Benny McGowan, RFr
As a returning starter and senior with a lot of playing experience, Treadwell is as safe a bet to keep a spot somewhere as you'll see. Klatt is my choice for 2013's McGaha-Ruhland Memorial Offensive Line Super-Sub Fellowship, meaning we'll pencil him in here for now, but if/when AMSUOLHG rains sulfur and leg injuries down on us, he'll probably end up plugged in at no less than three other spots, where he'll be better than a walk-on but still make you gnash your teeth a little about what the line was supposed to be versus what is left. From practice reports, I expect McGowan to be the future of this spot, as his skill set is said to feature excellent pulling capabilities and we all remember how much Joel Foreman was used in that capacity when running the power O.
Starter (kind of returning): Travis Jackson, RJr
Backups: Jack Allen, RSo; Nate Klatt, RSr
This point may get some controversy, but I actually think Allen could stay at center, with Jackson sliding into the right guard spot vacated by Chris McDonald. I have nothing to support this conclusion other than my observation that towards the end of the year, Allen was playing every bit as well at center as Jackson ever did, and moving around on the interior line can be done with an offseason to practice. That said, if Jackson is the starter here and gets hurt again, Allen immediately slides over from RG and another guy steps into that spot.
Starter (kind of returning): Jack Allen, RSo
Backups: Nate Klatt, RSr; Connor Kruse, RJr; Zach Higgins, RFr
Oh hey, it's Nate again. I'm telling you, guys: if we need another interior lineman, he probably gets the first nod. That's what the Fellowship gets you. Kruse is a career backup, unlikely to see the field except in an emergency. Although the staff has supposedly moved Higgins inside, in the event of an injury here but health at the tackle spots I would look for Donavon Clark to step in here as well. Clark's height is more suited for the interior line, and I believe his current listing at tackle was a function of the string of injuries we had last year. Given a chance to reshuffle, I would view Higgins as a tackle and Clark as a guard.
Starter (kind of returning): Fou Fonoti, RSr
Backups: Skyler Burkland, RJr; Michael Dennis, RJr
Again, the tackle spots are a bit murky. The staff has expressed a lot of confidence in Burkland's potential in the past, and after he started for most of a season, they might find it hard to sit him. Still, I don't know how you could take someone with his pass-blocking deficiencies and sit a 2-year starter on the blindside, and Fonoti is hands down our best lineman, so he can't ride the pine either. Again, I'm sure AMSUOLHG will at some point descend upon the Skandalaris Center and resolve these questions for us, so. There's that.