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2021 MAC Football Positional Previews: Ohio Bobcats front seven

It’s hard not to feel bullish about the potential of the Bobcats defense in ’21, led by a very deep, talented front seven.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 07 Ohio at Pitt
Super Senior DE Will Evans returns to Athens to lead some young ‘Cats on a journey to the 2021 MAC Championship
Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Ohio only played three games in 2020, but, despite a small sample size, the Bobcats showed that they have a deep group of established and promising young players heading into 2021.

The Bobcats do need to replace two key starters but have a deep well from which to draw replacements.

We take a look at the groups starting with defensive line.


Defensive Line

Ohio has one of its deepest interior lines in some time which bodes well for a very effective 2021, with six or more players potentially rotating on the interior.

Here are some of the key players.

The group starts with 2020 team captain DT Kai Caesar, who has appeared in 26 career games, with 57 career tackles and 1.5 sacks. Caesar has the physical tools to take his game to an All-MAC level, with good agility and quickness for a player weighing 310 and the size and strength to hold the line.

Without Caesar for most of the 2020 COVID season, Hutchinson Community College transfer Rodney Matthews emerged, appearing in two of three games. Following Spring 2021 practices, co-defensive coordinator Ron Collins praised Matthews’ continued progress, saying Matthews was “really coming on and had an excellent spring.”

Redshirt freshman Jeremiah Burton started two games in 2020 and showed he belonged, which bodes well for such a young player. Burton should be a defensive line staple for the Bobcats for years to come based on early success and playing time.

Sophomore Kyle McCracken figures to be the starter at nose tackle going into camp, with nine appearance and three starts in 2020. Like Burton, McCracken is a young player but he held his own in 2020 and should take a big step forward in 2021 with an additional year of offseason development.

Senior Zack Burks, a 2018 Coffeyville Community College transfer, has been an important rotational player, with 13 appearances since joining Ohio. Burks hasnt piled up the stats but does the dirty work in the trenches, securing his part of the line.

Freshman Chris Mayfield transferred from Michigan State this spring, and is Ohio’s eleventh-highest ranked recruit since 2010 according to 247Sports. If immediately eligible this year in accordance with ‘One-Time Transfer Exception,’ he would could find his way on the field early in 2021 given has high ranking and game-ready size at 6’2”, 285 pounds. Mayfield also has defensive end experience in high school.

Denzel Daxon’s debut has been highly anticipated by some ‘Cats fans since he was signed as part of the 2019 class, due in part to his prototypical size at six-foot-two, 335 lbs., and recruiting rank (Daxon was ranked the second-highest rated prospect since 2010 at the time of his signing, per 247Sports). At the end of spring practice, coach Ron Collins said Daxon was “a good player, with a little way to go because he hasn’t had a ton of reps, but I think he’ll be a good one.”

Redshirt freshman Dane Middlebrook looked promising in limited work in 2020. In goalline defense inside the five vs CMU, the 320-pound Middlebrook took on a double team, held his ground, and got in on a tackle to force a FG attempt.

The defensive ends should have a good rotation, though not perhaps as deep as the interior line.

“Super Senior” Will Evans anchors one DE spot and his experience and leadership will be invaluable for a developing group. Evans is a three-year starter, who was selected a team captain in 2019, and has been productive with 82 career tackles with 4.5 sacks.

Evans is a very good run defender and turned in some notable plays in 2020, as seen here, blowing up multiple blockers on the same play (at around the 9:45 mark).

The Bobcats have a starting defensive end vacancy in 2021 after losing Austin Conrad to graduation. Conrad was a special player, earning All-MAC, second-team honors in 2020. Conrad was perhaps their best pass rusher, finishing his career with 6.5 sacks.

Bryce Dugan and Michael Taylor are promising players who figure to battle for Conrad’s spot heading into fall camp, and both will play.

Dugan came on strong in 2020, earning a scholarship. The 2020 season opener vs CMU is all the film needed to see why Dugan earned a scholarship. He is a solid run defender, with some good pash rush ability, and is always hustling. Bobcats’ fans should be excited about his future.

Taylor transferred from Villanova and has two years of eligibility after sitting out 2020 due to transfer rules. Co-defensive coordinator Ron Collins said both Dugan and Taylor stood out in spring practices.

Vonnie Watkins and Bryce Stai should be in the mix time in the rotation, both appearing in 2020.


Linebackers

Ohio’s linebackers are perhaps one of the roster’s deepest, most talented units.

At least eight linebackers returning for 2021 played on special teams or defense last year and showed the kind of physical skills needed to compete in the MAC. The ‘backers have good size and several have very good speed.

As physically talented as the unit is, the linebacker group is also the most inexperienced in terms of career starts. The Bobcats return one starter in 2021 and the other two starters will be determined by fall camp battles, with the winner’s name written in pencil on the early season roster due to the amount of depth at the ready.

Sophomore Keye Thompson will man the weakside linebacker spot. In two seasons, he has nine starts and flashed some big play skills, for instance, against Akron last year with a sack and an interception.

Competition at the strongside spot starts with sophomore Jeremiah Wood and redshirt freshman Ben Johnson. Both players are athletic with very good speed.

Wood started the first two games last year until injured and replaced by Johnson, who got the final start of 2020. We’ll talk about Johnson more when we talk about special teams in a few weeks but suffice it to say Johnson stood out on special teams at times in 2020 and it will be increasing harder to keep Johnson off the field due to his hustle and speed.

Like 2020, safety Jett Elad could substitute at SAM in the nickel package in 2021.

Middle linebacker Jared Dorsa finished a very good career at the end of 2020, opting out of a “super senior” season (COVID year didn’t count for eligibility purposes). Dorsa started for three seasons, finishing with 166 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 7 passes defensed, and 2 interceptions.

Jack McCrory is another candidate to replace Dorsa. Since making his debut in 2018, McCrory has appeared in 19 games, many on special teams but some appearances with the starting defense, including a few starts for an injured Dorsa in 2019. McCrory finished 2019 with 20 tackles, 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble.

Redshirt freshman Cannon Blauser figures to get a shot to impress in fall camp at middle linebacker. A young player, Blauser has already appeared in five games in the last couple years and was one of Ohio’s top-rated recruits in 2019.

The linebacker group also has a number of other talented players who figure to get a chance to make an impact in 2021 on special teams, in players like Bryce Houston and Kyle Kelly.