In recent years, USF has had fickle luck with many spots on either side of the ball. Usually, though, fans have been able to consistently count on the success of one unit: the defensive line. With an all new staff and a bunch of fresh faces in new positions, it looks like the hopes of a positive Bulls' season will once again rest greatly upon reliable performance in the trenches. With a good amount of experience throughout the line, combined with the services of a once All-American, the D-line has all the potential to ensure that USF fans are not disappointed.
New defensive lines coach Eric Mathies, who followed coach Taggart from Western Kentucky, has expressed confidence in the line's ability to affect both opponents' pass game and rush game, with the right combination of guys on the field. On the outside of the line, USF returns three players who all saw a comparable amount of playing time last year in Tevin Mims, Julius Forte, and Ryne Giddins, who, provided that he has his injury concerns in check this season, should be the favorite to gain one of the two starting positions at DE. On the other end of the line, there is little doubt that Notre Dame transfer and freshman All-American Aaron Lynch will be the sure starter. In spring workouts, it was made visibly clear that Lynch, is a talent that could prove to be a significant game changer for the Bulls. He has already been compared to another familiar Bulls DE, Jason Pierre-Paul, and is already on watchlists for the Lombardi (Lineman of the Year) and Bronko Nagurski (Most Outstanding Defensive Player) awards.
On the interior of the line, senior Luke Sager returns for his final season, and he will be joined by veterans Todd Chandler, Elkino Watson, and James Hamilton. While Watson is definitely one of the more inexperienced members of the line, he has a chance to impress coaches this preseason and earn a spot in the interior, which will relieve Bulls fans who are waiting on a good bit of productivity from the once-surprise 4-star signee pulled away from Miami. Luke Sager was an integral part of the interior last season, holding down the tackle position for almost whole games. Mathies hopes to relieve Sager of some of that duty this year with more talent coming for regular rotations.
Among other players vying to break into the top of the lineup on the line are senior Anthony Hill, sophomore Eric Lee, sophomore Clavion Nelson, and senior Demi Thompson. A talented freshman class also rounds out the linemen, most notably Derrick Calloway. Other freshmen include Bruce Hector, Deadrin Senat, and Mike Love.
Last year, the Bulls' defense was embarrassingly inept in terms of forcing turnovers. The team's first interception didn't occur until the season was almost over. Much of that is attributable to the poor pass rushing abilities and lack of aggressiveness of Chris Cosh's defense. With Lynch and a seemingly healthy Giddins anchoring both ends of the line, that concern should dissipate on account of Lynch's speed off the ball and the brute strength of both. Just as important as a good pass rush is creating clear passing downs, which starts with containing the run. Again, with Cosh's passive defense, running backs were able to split the interior and break free or just as easily cut outside and up the field. Coach Mathies is providing a much stronger approach, which emphasizes the importance of stopping the run. The Bulls' line will be backed by a talented linebacking corps as well, which should provide a good supporting cast for containing the run.
Overall, USF should be expecting another pretty productive season from the defensive linemen in their first year with the American Athletic Conference. We've become accustomed to the line being the highlight of the team, with a good talent here and there, and this year should be no different, save for the potential for there to be two greats on the field, almost reminiscent of the Selvie/Pierre-Paul combo of 2009. As of right now, the main recipe for success in the trenches for the USF defense is to contain the run, create obvious passing situations, and, once those situations are generated, get pressure on the quarterback. All these things are obvious for any defensive line, but these three in particular are what was so uncharacteristically lacking for the Bulls' D-line last year.