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2023 Ohio Bobcats Positional Previews: Defensive front seven

Heading into 2023, the Bobcats feature an All-MAC-caliber core with some opportunities to contribute.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 30 Barstool Sports Arizona Bowl Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The ‘Cats defense was one of most intriguing MAC stories of 2022 and a vast improvement in explosive play production over the 2021 defensive production.

Early on in 2022, the crew showed flashes of explosive play making but struggled with points and yards allowed at times with a high watermark of 52 points surrendered to Fordham in week four and 736 total yards in week five against Kent State.

Then a mid-season turnaround not typically seen happened; while the explosive plays continued or increased, the points and yards allowed evaporated as opponents struggled against an ever-improving defense.

In the final eight games, the ‘Cat defense held six of eight opponents under 20 points per game and allowed no more than 390 total offensive yards in a game (Buffalo had 24 points with a pick-six).

When it was all said and done, the 2022 ‘Cats proved to be one of the more explosive units in the conference, finishing second in total sacks with 36 and tied with Western Michigan for second in takeaways with 25. The explosiveness was a major upgrade over the 2021 Bobcat production which finished second-last in the MAC with 17 sacks and 127th nationally with just eight takeaways.

Several proven players from that group return to anchor the 2023 squad with some opportunities for new or maturing guys to grab their share of playing time.

With that, let’s take a look at the 2023 Ohio front seven.

Down linemen

Austin Peay v Pittsburgh Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images


  • Jack McCrory (graduation)
  • Kai Caesar (graduation; UDFA with Baltimore Ravens)
  • Bryce Dugan (graduation)
  • Michael Taylor (graduation)
  • Bryce Stai (graduation)
  • Aiden Malenchek (graduation)
  • Denzel Daxon (transfer to Illinois)
  • Kylen McCracken (transfer to Marshall)
  • Jeremiah Burton (not listed on 2023 roster)
  • Kalos Farrior (not listed on 2023 roster)


  • Kwame Sutton (transfer from Austin Peay [FCS])
  • Kaci Seegars (transfer from Liberty [FCS])
  • Tristan Cox (transfer from Purdue)
  • Ryan Logan (transfer from Hocking College [D-II]
  • Kobi Gorman (incoming recruit)
  • Kadin Schmitz (incoming recruit)
  • Owen DiFranco (incoming recruit)
  • Jay Crable (incoming recruit)
  • Danny Novickis (incoming recruit)
  • RJ Keuchler (incoming recruit)
  • Austin Mitchell (incoming recruit)
  • Gino Williams (incoming recruit)


  • Vonnie Watkins
  • Bradley Weaver
  • Shane Bonner
  • Dontay Hunter II
  • David Patterson
  • Rodney Mathews
  • Rayyan Buell
  • Bralen Henderson
  • Jordan Jones
  • Chris Mayfield
  • Dane Middlebrook
  • Joey Woolard

Ohio’s defensive end group is led by second-year starter Vonnie Watkins. The six-foot-four, 240 lbs. D-lineman from Lusby, Maryland terrorized opposing backfields on perhaps a level not approached by a debut Bobcat starter since current Cincinnati Bengal Tarrell Basham recorded 7.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles-for-loss in his 2013 campaign. Last year, Watkins racked up 4.5 sacks and nine QB pressures while leading the squad with 14 tackles-for-loss.

On the other end of the line, the ‘Cats will need a starter to replace graduate and third-team All-MAC performer Jack McCrory as well as continuing to develop some guys to spell the starters. Here are some of those candidates at DE.

Kwame Sutton, graduate transfer from Austin Peay, will need to adjust to an upgrade in competition but the former Governor should be ready as he is very experienced with 47 college games played with notable production of 4.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles-for-loss in 2022 alone.

Bradley Weaver returns for his third season in Athens and has 10 appearances and one start in his first two years. At around 270 pounds, Weaver could play an end or possibly slide into the interior line on any given play if desired.

A couple of other Bobcat Veterans in the mix are Dontay Hunter II and Shane Bonner, who played in 22 combined games last year with Bonner recording two sacks and 2.5 tackles-for-loss.

Anchoring the interior is Rodney Mathews, who returns for his fourth season with the ‘Cats, an experienced starter with 26 games under his belt in just the past two seasons. Mathews has a shot to be a key defender for the ‘Cats because down the stretch in 2022 Mathews not only did the dirty work in the trenches but flashed some big-play ability against quality offensive linemen in the Miami, Toledo, and Wyoming games, finishing with seven tackles-for-loss and 1.5 sacks.

Next to Mathews, the Bobcats need a new interior starter and some rotational guys with the loss of starter Kai Caesar and key rotational player in Bryce Dugan. Several guys are in the mix here but a place to start is Rayyan Buell, who appeared in nine games in 2022 in his first Bobcat season. Third-year Bralen Henderson is also in the mix after logging a half-dozen appearances last season.

As for new players, Purdue transfer Tristian Cox transitioned from linebacker to defensive tackle. True freshman Kobi Gorman decommitted from rival Miami to join the Bobcats for Spring and may get an early shot at some snaps as one of Ohio’s top rated recruits in the 2023 class (per 247sports) and the need on the interior.


MAC Championship - Toledo v Ohio Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images


  • Cannon Blauser (transfer to South Dakota [FCS])
  • Kyle Kelly (transfer to Eastern Kentucky [FCS])
  • CJ Hankins (not listed on 2023 roster)


  • Michael Molnar (position change from tight end)
  • Andrew Marshall (incoming freshman)
  • Jack Fries (incoming freshman)
  • Brady Sestilli (incoming freshman)
  • Lukas Stiles (incoming freshman)


  • Bryce Houston
  • Keye Thompson
  • Caden Campolieti
  • Dylan Stevens
  • Shay Taylor

Head coach Tim Albin has said a few times this offseason just about all that needs to be said about his starting linebackers Bryce Houston and Keye Thompson: that they are the best tandem in the country when considering everything they bring to the table as a pair. Houston was all over the field last year with 76 stops, 11 tackles-for-loss, and 5.5 sacks. Thompson led the squad with 96 tackles and also contributed 6.5 tackles-for-loss.

Behind Houston and Thompson, the ‘Cats continue to develop depth here as key, game-tested reserves Cannon Blauser and Kyle Kelly transferred after 2022 to pursue starting opportunities. Last year Blauser started in the bowl game and also started most of the games in 2021 while Kelly and Blauser had a combined 62 tackles, seven tackles-for-loss, and a sack in 2022.

Caden Campolieti, Dylan Stevens, and Shay Taylor all return and, after appearing in most games last season on special teams, figure to be at least regular contributors in that capacity.

Finally, someone new to keep an eye on going forward is true freshman Andrew Marshall who, according to 247sports, was tied with defensive lineman Kobi Gorman as the highest-rated 2023 recruit and had nine offers.

This is the fourth entry in a series of Ohio football previews. The next piece will focus on the defensive backs. Please look forward to that! If you missed any other entries, please check out our preseason previews storystream here.

Ohio kicks off their 2023 campaign Saturday, August 26th at 7 p.m. ET, as they travel to San Diego, California to face off against the San Diego State Aztecs.