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2022 MAC Football Positional Previews: Miami RedHawks defensive front seven

Miami’s front seven experienced as much loss as any MAC position group. How can a healthy Ryan McWood and company reinvigorate the unit?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 31 Miami OH at Iowa Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Outside linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. etched his name into exclusive company. He is one of three record holders for most sacks in an FBS game. Pace also ranked top 10 in the FBS in total tackles in 2021 and fittingly earned First Team All-MAC honors. Kameron Butler accomplished impressive feats as well, generating eight sacks and similarly earning First Team All-MAC designation. Defensive end Lonnie Phelps, the team’s leader in sacks with 8.5, saw his contributions recognized in the form of a Second Team All-MAC selection, while defensive end Dominique Robinson — a former wide receiver — impressively reached status as a Third Team All-MAC defensive end after undergoing the unorthodox position change.

All four of these players, in addition to defensive end Ben Kimpler, produced at least four sacks on an aggressive unit which tied for 23rd in sacks per game last year.

But there’s one problem. None of these players are currently participating in summer camp in Oxford, OH. Miami is faced with the challenging task of replacing all of that production in one offseason.

The front seven was a major strength for the 7-6 RedHawks last season, which enforced their defensive presence in a 27-14 Frisco Football Classic victory over North Texas to conclude the year. Now, development of the next batch of talent is the focus for Miami, which was still selected as the MAC East favorite at the conference’s media day despite the immense turnover.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 23 Frisco Football Classic Bowl - North Texas v Miami (OH)
OLB Ivan Pace Jr. transferred to Cincinnati to play with his brother Deshawn. The MAC’s leading tackler is one of many talented defenders the RedHawks must replace.
Photo by Steve Nurenberg/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

One prize the RedHawks return is inside linebacker Ryan McWood, who was injured in the season opener last year and never stepped on the field again. The sixth-year senior might be the conference’s most accomplished player without an All-MAC bid, averaging 11.3 tackles per game in a pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign and posting 99 tackles in Miami’s 2019 MAC championship season. In the 17 games spanning those two seasons, McWood also tallied 8.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, three pass deflections, an interception, and a forced fumble. Having the quarterback of the defense for one more season should be a blessing for a team which missed his services dearly last fall.

Miami typically starts two pure linebackers and an edge rusher in its 4-2-5 scheme. Thus, a vacancy is created in the spot next to McWood. Fulfilling that obligation is likely Dominic Nardone, who expanded his role toward the end of his freshman season. Nardone witnessed the bulk of his production in November and capped off the season with a career-high seven tackles against North Texas — creating the perfect springboard into 2022.

Camden Rogers is another name in the linebacking group who the RedHawks will welcome back with open arms after missing the majority of the 2021 season. Rogers saw action in every game during 2020, so his presence on the field is expected to skyrocket given Miami’s current depth situation. In the transfer portal, Miami landed Indiana linebacker Ty Wise, who operated as a recurring special teams contributor in Bloomington.

Other than Rogers and Wise, no other linebacker has witnessed ample playing time on a collegiate gridiron. Thus, it’s very plausible for Miami to rotate their litany of true freshmen and redshirt freshmen into the lineup — especially during that Week 2 contest against Robert Morris of the FCS. That way the RedHawks can clarify their depth chart as MAC play approaches.

To round out the linebacker discussion, Matthew Salopek garnered Second Team All-MAC honors last season. While he’s built like a linebacker, hits like a linebacker, and lines up in the position from time-to-time, he’s more of a safety. We’ll expand on his presence in the defensive backs preview.

There’s a lot of maintenance on the defensive line after the departures of aforementioned stars like Butler, Phelps, and Robinson — who was a 2022 NFL Draft selection. Miami retains its interior presence, though, and holding onto both starting defensive tackles is a strong starting point. Austin Ertl and Anthony Collier have such a commanding presence inside, allowing defensive ends to feast in the backfield and clog the stat sheets. Ertl, who is switching to No. 0 this season, still accumulated his fair statistical share with 37 tackles and 1.5 sacks in 2021.

Collier played roughly over half the season, but injuries forced him to miss substantial time. While Collier’s presence was missed late in the season, it spurred the development of Kobe Hilton, who recorded seven starts in relief of Collier. Hilton wound up with 20 tackles and three tackles for loss, and he’ll add much-needed depth to a rebuilding defense.

NCAA Football: Miami (Ohio) at Cincinnati
DT Kobe Hilton first appeared for the RedHawks during the 2019 season. Hilton played in four games that year, including the crosstown rivalry matchup vs. Cincinnati.
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

On the edges is where it gets tricky. After losing Butler to Virginia and Phelps to Kansas in the transfer portal, the RedHawks hoped to soften the blow by luring a transfer back to Oxford. They obtained Iowa State defensive end Corey Suttle, who recorded four tackles last year with the Cyclones.

Suttle is certainly a possibility in the starting lineup, as is Nasir Washington who recorded his first career sack in a 13-point victory over Akron in October. Sophomore Caiden Woullard is another candidate for a starting defensive end role after registering five tackles last year — the most of any returning defensive end. Looking further on the depth chart, Marlon Dawson Jr. and former Rutgers recruit Brian Ugwu are players who could see a ramp up in action, especially when factoring in Miami’s affinity for rotating their defensive linemen frequently.

The extreme inexperience of the defensive ends will be balanced by the veteran presence at defensive tackle. Miami’s line may not start out as strong as it did last year with this younger group, but the RedHawks haven’t missed a beat developing backfield invaders in the past few seasons. Reinserting a tackling machine in McWood into the inside linebacker spot is essential to sustaining the MAC’s third ranked run defense, so the RedHawks should be solid at that position as they look to claim their second conference championship in four years.