Anenih and Turner after a 3rd down stop / Photo by Mario Puente

During the off week, I started watching film from this season focused on the defensive line. They’ve come a long way in 2019.

Although this the team, as a whole, has had quite a bit of drama (some drawing national headlines), this DL position group has remained relatively quiet. Through nine games, it is evident that this hasn’t quite been the season that everyone had hoped for. Having said that, it hasn’t been for a lack of effort – especially on the line.

After the first game, it was pretty obvious that the defense, up-front in particular, struggled with fundamentals. That hasn’t been the story for the rest of the season, however. In my opinion, most of the defensive struggles have come from the edges, forcing the defense to play sideline-to-sideline.

The secondary’s inability to secure tackles and the constant depth chart changes (mainly due to injury) have been major issues. On the line, gap control was a big red flag early on. It seemed as though the Cougars tried to do each others’ jobs rather than focusing on their own. And finishing at the quarterback was another big issue. Though we have good speed on the outside, running past the level of the quarterback was a norm. Inside, the pass rush was non-existent.

Personnel-wise, a lot of the same names mentioned at the beginning of the year continue to impress. Some have not come along quite as much as I had hoped but a lot of guys will return in 2020 and have the chance to improve with another year of solid coaching.

Outside Has Been Good

This won’t come as a shock to most of the Cougar faithful, but Payton Turner (98) has been, by far, our most impressive player along the defensive line. He keeps the edge against the run and, to me, he is the most effective pass rusher on the team. By using speed around the edge, along with power in his “long-arm” technique, Turner has been prolific for us.

The “long-arm” is when a player extends one arm to push the offensive lineman back, then releasing outside once the offensive lineman gets his footing. Similar to a push-pull technique.

Derek Parish (31) and David Anenih (12) have been a productive pair, too. Parish brings consistency and toughness to the group. He does his job and can move inside in certain packages to add some quickness. Anenih is still extremely raw but has been able to figure some things out. With his quickness to the edge, I’m really interested to see how he finishes the year and to see how he develops in the next 12 months. As the sack leader, his production is hard to ignore.

The four-man front / Photo by Mario Puente

Inside Needs to Keep Improving

There hasn’t been nearly as much production out of this group as I had hoped. Aymiel Fleming (5) has improved quite a bit since the beginning of the season. He seems to trust the defense more now.

What I mean by trust: when there isn’t trust on a defense, whether in the scheme or in the teammates, players try to do other people’s jobs. They try to make plays outside of their gap, trying to make every play whether it is their responsibility or not. This almost always backfires and makes things worse than what they were before. Fleming is trusting more and doing a good job controlling his gap with his hands.

Willie Smith III (23) intrigues me. He wasn’t even on my radar at the beginning of the year, to be honest, but has shown to be fairly consistent upfront and has very good hands against the run. Whenever you have two defensive tackles wearing low digit numbers (Fleming and Smith), they better be playing well (a pet peeve of mine). These guys have done that.

Olivier Charles-Pierre (90) and Logan Hall (92) have had some good plays but haven’t been nearly consistent enough to make a dramatic impact. The pass rush inside has still been poor (to say the least), and we get decent pressure only when Parish or Turner move inside during some pass-rush packages. Nonetheless, there has been an improvement overall.

This group has progressed pretty well throughout the year. Coach Brian Early has done an excellent job preaching fundamentals throughout the year which is evident due to their improvement since September 1st. I knew that this group would improve and they haven’t let me down.

Against Memphis, watch Coach Early yelling out the opposition’s plays before the snap. You’ll see a dedicated, focused coach that is putting in the hours to give his unit every edge possible. Overall, I’d say that the defensive staff is doing their part to get the most of the remaining schedule. Judging by the effort and improvement from this group, I believe that the front four will do the same.

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