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2022 MAC Football Positional Previews: Ohio Bobcats front seven

The Bobcats will look for bright spots in the heart of the defense for a campaign which starts uphill.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 04 Syracuse at Ohio Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Bobcats enter the season looking to bounce back from a 3-9 record in 2021.

Last season, with issues such as linebacker inexperience and massive personnel turnover in the secondary due to injury or otherwise, the ‘Cats struggled at times in stopping the run and opponents on third downs. Ohio also mustered few big plays, finishing near the bottom of the MAC in sacks and turnovers gained.

Looking to rebound in 2022, the ‘Cats face major changes to their defensive coaching staff created by the retirement of defensive coordinator Ron Collins at the end of the 2021 season. The Bobcats plucked Collins’ replacement from rival Miami, naming former RedHawk co-defensive coordinator Spence Nowinsky as Ohio’s new DC.

Nowinsky is coming off one of Miami’s finest defensive statistical seasons in the Chuck Martin era. In 2021, the RedHawks finished second in the MAC in point allowed per game (23.1), third in third-down conversions (37.3%) and rushing yards allowed (1,897), fourth in turnovers (17) and fifth in sacks (37).

Nowinsky inherits a lot to work with in Ohio’s front seven with, for instance, a good rotation at DT and LBs that may prove to be among the MAC’s best starting units.

Here are some of the major players that Nowinsky will call on to turn things around in 2022.

Defensive tackles

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 04 Syracuse at Ohio Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Ohio’s interior line looks like a team strength heading into ‘22 with experienced starters and solid depth. With enough talent to field perhaps three units, the ‘Cats should be able to stay fresher over the long season.

The core starts with Kai Caesar (25 tackles, 1.5 tackles-for-loss and sacks in 2021), Rodney Mathews (23 tackles, three tackles-for-loss, 1.5 sacks), and Kylen McCracken (14 tackles), who have appeared in a combined 68 games for the Bobcats.

The Bobcats also return key players like Denzel Daxon (eight tackles, two tackles-for-loss, one sack), a rotational guy in 2021 who appeared in all 12 contests and showed he is stout against the run.

To help offset the loss of rotational player Zach Burks, the Bobcats brought in another JUCO standout, NW Mississippi’s Rayyan Buell. The former Ranger appeared in 18 games over the past two years and was named to the second-team All-North Conference roster for 2021.

Defensive ends

Syndication: LafayetteIN Nikos Frazier | Journal & Courier, Lafayette Journal & Courier via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Though returning some familiar faces, the edge group will undergo the most changes of the Bobcat’s front seven this season.

Will Evans, a staple of Ohio’s defense for over 50 career games, has graduated, taking his team-leading 4.5 sacks with him.

While Evans exits, Bryce Dugan returns and should be ready to play his best ball with 15 games under his belt, logging 42 career stops and two sacks to his credit.

The Bobcats also bolstered the group via the transfer portal with the addition of Purdue prospect Dontay Hunter II. After spending three-years in the Boilermakers’ system as a backup, Hunter II brings impressive size at six-foot-five, 250+ lbs to Athens, Ohio.

The ‘Cats appear poised to use a ‘JACK’ this year, a hybrid LB/DE, and one candidate to fill that role is the aptly-named former linebacker Jack McCrory. While the exact role remains to be seen, at around six-foot-one, 240 lbs., McCrory is big enough to hold up on the line while athletic enough to rush the passer or drop into coverage.


COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 09 Ohio at Eastern Michigan Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Bobcats begin 2022 in a lot better position than in 2021.

Last year, due to the injury of Keye Thompson and loss of Jared Dorsa to graduation, Ohio began the campaign with two talented linebackers without starting experience.

Throughout the course of the 2021, the linebacker group make big strides led by Bryce Houston, who was recognized in his first year year as a starter as third team All-MAC. Houston’s 104 tackles led the Bobcats and he also added eight tackles for loss and two sacks. Houston notably had a nose for the ball on third and fourth downs in short yardages, snuffing out multiple opponents’ runs.

Cannon Blauser also emerged in 2021, finishing with 86 stops and a team-leading 10 tackles for loss. A younger player, it looks like the best is yet to come for Blauser as he has multiple years of eligibility remaining.

Houston and Blauser, coupled with the return of Thompson, give Ohio a talented and experienced core of linebackers to execute Nowinsky’s base 4-2-5 defense.

Ohio also has some experienced reserves to spell the core group like Kyle Kelly, a two-time Academic All-MAC selection who has appeared in 17 games, primarily on special teams and depth defensive work.

In our last 2022 Bobcat preview, we take a look Ohio’s secondary.