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2021 MAC Football Positional Previews: Miami RedHawks defensive line and linebackers

Ryan McWood and Ivan Pace are names to watch on a team that wreaked havoc in backfields last season.

NCAA Football: Miami (Ohio) at Central Michigan Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s a stat you probably didn’t realize: the Miami RedHawks led the entire FBS in sacks per game last year, registering 4.3 per contest. While really impressive on the surface, Miami (OH) didn’t have the largest sample size to operate with. The RedHawks tied with the Ohio Bobcats for fewest games played last season by only suiting up three times.

Still, Miami sat right outside the top 20 in this category the year prior, proving that the party in the backfield wasn’t just a fluke in 2020. The RedHawks feature a powerful pass rush and have the tools needed to be one of the better run stopping units in the MAC.

Defensive Line

The RedHawks’ defensive line showcases one of the strangest position changes in recent college football history. Dominique Robinson started at wide receiver during the team’s MAC title run in 2019. In the ensuing offseason, the 6’4” wideout bulked up and left a crowded receiver room to provide depth at defensive end. The results were stunning and Robinson produced two sacks and nine tackles in three appearances last year. His former experience at receiver adds interesting nuggets to his game, allowing him to possess more speed and a better understanding of coverage schemes than most defensive linemen.

The defensive end depth is rather stacked in Oxford. Ben Kimpler, a three-year starter at the position, added 1.5 sacks in the 3-game fling last season and should return to headline the rotation. Lonnie Phelps serves as an aggressive playmaker and is renowned for his big play abilities. Phelps blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown in 2019 while producing 4.0 sacks and a pair of forced fumbles on the season. He returned to wreak havoc in 2020 where he locked up Third Team All-MAC honors — an impressive feat considering Miami completed just half of its regular season schedule.

Those familiar with the RedHawks’ 2019 MAC title run should recall the impact of Kameron Butler. One of the premier pass rushers in the MAC, Butler produced 5.5 sacks that season before following it up with a team-high 2.5 in 2020. Entering his third year as a starter, Butler will look to rack up his third consecutive All-MAC selection. If Miami keeps things consistent, Butler and Kimpler will be the defensive end starters but Phelps and Robinson should earn plenty of time as the team frequently rotates its 4-man front.

The tackles on the interior are projected to be Austin Ertl and Josh Maize. Ertl became acquainted with a starting role last season after appearing in the lineup all three games. Maize has experienced on-field action since 2017, but season-ending injuries caused him to miss nearly the entirety of 2018 and all of 2020, thus limiting his availability. But with health restored, this fall could be Maize’s long overdue breakout season in red and white. One other name to know at defensive tackle is Anthony Collier, who started a pair of games as a redshirt freshman in 2020 and recorded his first three collegiate tackles.

Linebackers

The RedHawks’ 4-2-5 defensive scheme highlights the abilities of their defensive line, but the team has some valuable talent at linebacker. In fact, the duo of Ryan McWood and Ivan Pace Jr. is one of the top tier linebacking groups in the entire conference.

McWood was as prepared to play the 2020 season as anyone in the MAC. He stormed out of the gate on opening night with 14 tackles and secured the game-winning interception against eventual MAC champion Ball State. The star linebacker won MAC East Defensive Player of the Year honors and outside of McWood’s sensational night, nobody wound up beating Ball State for the remainder of the season.

He followed it up with another 14-tackle performance in the following week and closed the season with two tackles for loss and a sack in the finale. Sheer sample size was the only thing preventing McWood from a collision course with the All-MAC team. But eating up run defenses has been his thing for quite some time — he finished with 9+ tackles eight times in the 2019 season.

His partner in crime is Pace, who is an NCAA record holder for an important statistic. Pace is tied with former Western Michigan linebacker Ameer Ismail and former Louisville (and NFL All-Pro) defensive end Elvis Dumervil for most sacks in a single game. The outside linebacker registered six in a 20-17 win over Akron in 2019. That dominant performance alone catapulted Pace to lead the team in sacks that season.

While he didn’t schedule a meeting behind the line of scrimmage with a quarterback in 2020, Pace rose into a starting role and finished second behind McWood in tackles with 26. Adding Pace to the crew of pass rushers makes Miami as dangerous as any front seven in the conference. And Miami possesses trusted depth behind McWood and Pace in Luke Bolden and Camden Rogers. The two combined for 11 tackles off the bench last season and Bolden holds two games of starting experience to his name.

Outlook

Overall, the front seven did great things in 2020, but the stats were inflated by facing a struggling Akron offense. The RedHawks bottled up Akron to 4 rushing yards in their meeting last December — shredding the Akron offensive line with seven sacks in an afternoon and limiting the Zips’ starting running back to 1.7 yards per carry.

However, Miami handled All-American running back Jaret Patterson as well as any program in the conference did last year, limiting the MAC Offensive Player of the Year to just 73 yards on 20 attempts. But the pass rush didn’t reach the quarterback that night, allowing Buffalo quarterback Kyle Vantrease ample time to pick apart the secondary.

This year, producing the best pass rush in the conference should be a point of emphasis for Miami and it’s a feasible goal. The defensive end depth and the duo of McWood and Pace should allow this team to contend for a second MAC championship in the Chuck Martin era. Passing defense remains the biggest question, but the RedHawks should strike fear in opponents based on what they’re capable of in the box.