Time to look at the 2012 MAC football season. We're going to preview the conference unit by unit, ranking the teams one through 13 at every position and facet we can think of. Today: the defensive lines.
Defensive line is not one of the premier units in the MAC, but there were a couple of teams that stood out. It's still a conference where, if you know how to run block and sprint downfield, you can do well. I tried to factor in players returning, how many tackles for loss they had and what they did against the run last year.
1. Kent State — Last year's top rushing defense in the MAC also returns, arguably, the best defensive line. The conversation begins and ends with Roosevelt Nix, who had another great season with 17 tackles for loss, 4½ sacks, three broken up passes and three forced fumbles. Joining him on the front are ends Jake Dooley (10½ TFL, 5 sacks, 3 FF) and Mark Fackler (5½ TFL, 3 sacks, 2 FF). Dana Brown (4½ TFL, 1½ sacks) will probably start at nose guard. Richard Gray will add second-string depth. And as previously alluded, they allowed 3.45 yards per rush.
2. OHIO — They do lose about one-and-a-half starters in Jeff King and Curtis Meyers, but they were not very high on the stat list for the Bobcats. Returning is Tremayne Scott (8 TFL, 3 sacks, 2 FF) on the defensive end, and this alone is comforting, but they also bring back senior defensive tackles Neal Huynh (4 TFL) and Carl Jones (3 TFL). Corey Hasting (6 TFL, 3½ sacks, FF) ought to start at the other end position. Also, Nic Barber and Antwan Crutcher add some experience on the second-string. It's a deep line that was fourth in yards per rush allowed (4.02) a year ago.
3. Northern Illinois — They did lose Ron Newcomb (12½ TFL, 4½ sacks, FF, blocked kick) and Kyle Jenkins (4½ TFL, 1½ sacks) to graduation, and promising sophomore Frank Boenzi was dismissed from the team following an arrest. But you're always in capable hands when you still feature Progar The Barbarian. Sean Progar (11 TFL, 5½ sacks, FF) and Alan Baxter (12½ TFL, 5½ sacks, FF) might be the two best set of ends in the conference. Inside they are still experienced with nose guard Nabal Jefferson (5 TFL) and Anthony Wells (5 TFL, 2 sacks). Throw in Stephen O'Neal (4½ TFL, 3 sacks). Allowing only 4.03 yards per rush was fifth best in the MAC, and that might be even better in 2012.
4. Bowling Green — Their lone lineman departing is Kevin Moore (2 TFL, 1½ sacks). I haven't been "excited" for a BGSU defense in quite some time, if ever, but simply Chris Jones (14 TFL, 8½ sacks, 3 FF) is enough to salivate. Joining him is seven other players with experience: Ronnie Goble (4 TFL, 1 sack), Jairus Campbell (3 TFL), Zach Colvin (2 TFL, 1 sack), Ted Ouellet (1½ TFL, 1 sack, 1 FF), Hunter Maynard (1 TFL) and Bryan Thomas, who missed most of the year to injury. The Falcons also list Charlie Walker as a defensive lineman (4 TFL). Sure. Next on the agenda: improving on the 4.92 yards allowed per rush and the second-worst 24 rushing touchdowns allowed.
5. Toledo — Malcolm Riley, Johnathan Lamb and Johnie Roberts gave the Rockets a combined 17 TFL, eight sacks and three forced fumbles, and they're all gone. Leading the way on returners is T.J. Fatinikun (7½ TFL, 2½ sacks) at defensive end. Christian Smith (5½ TFL, 2 sacks) will cap the other end. Inside the defensive line, they expect to move Ben Pike and his five sacks inside with Elijah Jones. Keeping opposing rushers under four yards per carry is pretty impressive, and despite all the fabled points the Rockets gave up last year, the DL should be one of their strengths yet again.
6. Miami — There are a lot of productive players coming back for their senior year. They do lose C.J. Marck, Will Diaz, Jordain Brown and Na'eem Outler, who combined for 16 TFL and 4½ sacks and 2 forced fumbles. Marck is the biggest loss but their top TFL man is Jason Semmes (9½ TFL, 4½ sacks, 1 FF) who will man the line along with fellow seniors Austin Brown (8½ TFL, 3 sacks), Mike Johns (6½ TFL, ½ sack) and Wes Williams (1½ sacks, 1 INT). Adding to depth is Wes Williams, who played in three games last year, and Mwanza Wamulumba, who missed all but one game because of an ACL injury. They were square in the middle of the pack by allowing 4.17 yards per rush.
7. Eastern Michigan — They improved in one year from 6.11 yards allowed per rush to 4.14, but the question is: can the replacements keep that up? EMU is losing a load of talent, including second overall CFL draft pick Jabar Westerman, Brad Ohrman, Brandon Slater and Javon Reese, who totaled 22 tackles for loss and 12½ sacks. Starring on the line now is Andy Mulumba (7½ TFL, 3½ sacks, 2 FF), Devon Davis (3½ TFL, 1½ sacks) and Kalonji Kashama (3½ TFL, 1½ sacks). The only other defensive end listed on the roster is Devin Henderson and a pair of juco transfers from Glendale, Arizona: Travis Linser and Cy Maughmer.
8. Buffalo — Really, their job is to open up holes for Khalil Mack to disrupt the backfield, but if they get in there too, no sweat. Say goodbye to Richie Smith (5½ TFL, 1 sack, 1 FF) and Gordon DuBois (3½ TFL, 2 sacks). Returning is the versatile junior Colby Way (7½ TFL, 3 sacks) who also was a special teams force and was involved in a couple returns. Steven Means (3½ TFL, 2½ sacks, 1 INT), Kristjan Sokoli (4 TFL, 1 FF) and Wyatt Cahill will round out the group of experienced linemen. Last year they were eighth in yards allowed per rush (4.27)
9. UMass — Bonus news about the Minutemen is they return three players with substantial defensive line experience: Charles Thompson (4 TFL, 3 sacks) started all 11 games last year; Brandon Potvin (4½ TFL, 1 sack) played in all 11 and started seven; and Kevin Byrne (1 sack) started/played in eight while also landing third team All-CAA. Also adding depth will be CMU transfer Galen Clemons. Last year this line allowed 3.93 yards per rush, 47th out of 120 in FCS. If you're looking for one unit to be a strength of the Minutemen, take the D-line. The one concern is their roster only lists seven defensive linemen, and they're a 4-3 defense. I'm hoping they'll push some linebackers up there.
10. Central Michigan — I didn't realize how many freshmen played on the line last year, but that bodes well. They do lose Jason Chomic (5 TFL, 1½ sacks and John Williams (2 TFL, 1½ sacks), and freshman Dorian Dawson (½ TFL) transferred after his grades suffered. Seniors Joe Kinville (5½ TFL, ½ sack, FF, INT) and Darryll Stinson (5 TFL, 1 sack) look to be their top line players. Throw into the mix Kenny McClendon, Matt Losiniecki, Leterrius Walton, Caesar Rodriguez, and Chris Reeves as the list of players who recorded at least one TFL last season. Having many familiar names should at least bode well for improving on an 11th best 54 tackles for loss and ninth-best 4.54 yards allowed per rush and 23 rushing touchdowns.
11. Western Michigan — Gone is MAC Defensive Player of the Year Drew Nowak from the line, and despite being second in the MAC in sacks, one of the worst teams at stopping the run needs some help. Freddie Bishop (12 TFLs, 5½ sacks) is still there from the left defensive end. Alongside him is the stout, wide-bodied sophomore nose guard Travonte Boles (4½ TFLs, ½ sack, 1 FF) and Paul Hazel (3½ TFL, 2½ sacks, 3 FF, 1 blocked kick, 4 broken up passes). One question mark is Deauntay Legrier (5 TFLs, 2 sacks, 2 FFs). He's not on the spring depth chart but is on the roster, and there's some question about his eligibility.
12. Akron — The D-line only mustered seven sacks last year, and men representing five of those (Oren Wilson, Dan Marcoux, James Harvey) are gone. But they do return two starters, Nico Caponi and J.D. Griggs. But who else? Isaiah Williams had a standout spring game, although nobody else has any game experience. Lots of opportunities here. They can't get much worse; last year they allowed 4.92 yards per carry and a MAC-worst 33 rushing touchdowns.
13. Ball State — Guh. 5.07 yards allowed per rush was second worst in the MAC. They are also losing seniors Andrew Puthoff, Ryan Hartke and Adam Morris, who totaled 18½ tackles for loss and 5½ sacks. So their returning D-linemen have a total of five varsity letters. The depth may not be there but a couple of potential playmakers are. Junior defensive tackle Nathan Ollie (7½ TFL, 4½ sacks, 1 FF) remains the lone starter while nose tackle Donovan Jarrett (2 TFL) saw time in 11 games and Joel Cox played in all 12, but didn't record any TFLs although he blocked a kick. The depth will be helped graduate transfer Brandon Newman from Notre Dame, who only saw action in one game as a senior last year. For all other teams: keep running the ball against them until they stop you. (Note: I forgot to add Johnathan Newsome, a transfer from Ohio State. But like Newman, he didn't play much for them so it's tough to gauge.)