Sunday, July 5, 2009

Reviewing the Defensive Line

After a hiatus, this will continue the position group reviews of the returning players.

In many ways, high quality defensive line play is what separates championship teams from everyone else, if for no other reason than talented defensive linemen are perhaps the rarest of recruits. There are a handful every year, and they mostly sign with USC, Ohio State, Okla, Texas, LSU, and Florida. Not coincidentally, these are also the teams usually playing for the title.

That is one of the professed reasons Tedford and Gregory switched to the 3-4 - because it is easier to find athletes who can play various linebacker positions than it is to find players who can excel at defensive tackle or 4-3 defensive end. There just aren't that many DTs at or above 6' 300 lbs and DEs at or above 6'3" 250 who are strong, quick, athletic, built correctly for the position, won't take plays off (a big one), and can use their hands well.

With that in mind, ironically, now that they've gone to 3 instead of 4 down linemen, Cal finally has some legit defensive line talent, and they are finally playing with crazed relentlessness. I dare say Cal probably now has the players up front to run a solid 4-3. Nevertheless, these young linemen have shown very well in the new scheme, and are frankly ready to be the backbone of the defense next season.


First year coach Lupoi is already winning lots of accolades for his recruiting successes, including some impressive verbals from high level out of state recruits. Recruit after recruit, from California to New York, has been quoted as saying what a connection they've made with him, and how comfortable they feel with him. Similarly, his own players have all gone on record about the passion he coaches with, and the way he can relate because he was so recently a player himself. Tedford talks about Lupoi trying to outwork him. Lupoi says things like, "If Tedford isn't sleeping, I'm not sleeping." And in the few video clips of practice I've seen, the guy is as jacked up as you can be without putting on a helmet yourself and mixing it up with your own players. That's how a defensive line coach should be.

Clearly it rubbed off on these guys. Not only does their technique look better than ever, but they seem be playing a notch higher in terms of intensity. More than any other position, 280-300 pound kids plaing defensive line need motivation to fight through the fatigue and grind of five months of practice and games. Especially in the 3-4 where they are taking on double teams. In this sense, a fiery coach is more important at defensive line than anywhere else. Cal certainly found a gem in Lupoi.

The two burning questions about Lupoi going into year 2 are: (1) Can he get the most out of his players by finding the right roles, packages, and substitution patterns? and (2) Can he actually close on all these recruits he's gotten verbals from?

Some college d-linemen just aren't 3-down, 4-quarter guys. They fade late in games, and fade on 3rd down (or versus the run). A good d-line coach can evaluate what he has and mix up packages to be effective and get the most out of his players. We'll see how Lupoi does this year with that.

And as great as it's been to get all these early verbals, those are a double-edged sword with out of state recruits. Pressure on these kids to decommit from Cal and sign with the home school is going to be intense now. And Lupoi is going to earn his wings trying to hang onto these kids for 7 months. Coaches earn their reps as recruiters from signing day, not summer camp verbals. It will be great if Lupoi turns out to be a closer.

Grade: A. Heck of a first year.


Without question, Alualu is the most technically sound and fundamentally complete defensive lineman to play for Tedford, and frankly, in the entire conference right now. He is almost robotic in how well he uses his hands, how he maintains his pad level, how he fights through blocks as he slides down the LOS toward the ball, and the way he makes his move with each step (there is a technique to coordinating hand movements and weight shifting with each step forward when rushing the passer). It is without question a joke that he did not make first team all Pac 10 over Fili Moala. If Moala plays on any other team but USC, Alualu takes his spot.

In terms of grading his season, for a defensive lineman, I look at six areas: (1) gap control in run, (2) rushing the passer, (3) stunting, (4) play recognition, (5) pursuit, and (6) effort or motor.

Alualu is actually fairly easy to grade in all 6 areas. He's basically an A or A- player all around. His limitations in part come from the fact that he is a "tweener" in build. His skills are more suited for tackle, but be's not quite stocky enough for tackle, and not quite long enough for end. In the right system, he is probably the "dance" or active tackle in a 4-3 if he puts on 10-20 more pounds.

The other thing is that the coaches are asking him to play sometimes like an end and sometimes like a tackle, which is hard to do. He does pretty darn well at both, which is saying something. But his lack of true suitability for defensive end is probably the only thing holding him back from being flat out dominant. That said, the guy is a heck of a college lineman.

(1) Gap control in run: A. He holds his ground in the run game and rarely gets turned or blown out of the play. And he sheds run blockers to get his hands on the ball carrier better than anyone on the team.
(2) Rushing the passer: A-. Rushing the passer might be the one area Alualu could improve on for a DE, but this is being picky (and a bit unfair since he's not a natural DE). He is quick, but maybe not lightning quick enough to beat guys with his speed. His success as a rusher comes more with using his strength and leverage to bull rush his man, get him off balance and then using technique to fight through him or get by him. This works pretty darn well, but still, a bit more speed and suddenness at times could not hurt.
(3) Stunting: B+. Again, excellent technique as usual, but for a defensive end, a bit more quickness and suddennes would be ideal (for a 4-3 tackle, he'd be considered an A player for this). The way I measure a lineman's ability to stunt is how often does he make something significant happen on a stunt. Some guys seem to disrupt every time they run a stunt; other guys almost never do. In fairness, this is not really what the coaches expect out of Alualu. Jordan and the LBs tend to provide this more.
(4) Play recognition: A. Best lineman on the team at this. The coaches use him in a ton of ways because of his football smarts -- they will drop him in coverage, leave him home against the screen, and move him around.
(5) Pursuit: A. Pursues down the line and gets through the trash extremely well for a guy his size. Watch him do this some time. Pretty textbook.
(6) Effort and motor: A. Aside from his form and technique, this is maybe Alualu's signature trait. There are a lot of guys who are known as "crazy" or "intense" d-lineman, especially as pass rushers. But if you watch them on every single play, especially plays going away from them, you'll see them take plays off. (And at 280+ pounds, that is understandable.) Jordan, for example, still needs to work on this. And the crazy ones often play out of control. But Alualu doesn't really do either. He just goes 100% every play, but always plays within himself. Really a pleasure to watch.

Overall grade: A. I predict all conference for Alualu this season (along with DTs Price, Paea, and Guy). Here are some of his highlights from 2008, courtesy of Danzig:

Tyson Alualu Highlights from jack bauer on Vimeo.


The guy everyone is excited about. And for good reason. Jordan was born to play defensive line. He is the definition of a natural athlete at his position. He did things with his hands and coordination when he rushed the passer in his first two years that you just don't see out of guys as young as him. And he is flat out fast for a guy his size.

But...he needs to learn the other parts of being a defensive lineman, especially in the 3-4, in particular gap control and never taking a play off. If you watch Jordan on run plays, he still gets stood up, turned, or run out of the play more than occasionally. I know the coaches are working with him on that (Bob Gregory, for example, commented on Jordan needing to work on this). And he still tends to get lost on plays or seem to relax, especially when the play seems to go away from him.

That said, I think this will be a breakout season for Jordan. He'll finally be a full time starter, he'll be stronger (the guy really hasn't been a weight room warrior, but there have been quotes that this will change this year), and his play recognition will get better. And the sophomore to junior jump always seems to be a big one for ultra talented guys that are just missing some consistency.

(1) Gap control in run: B. Jordan has shown flashes of being able to hold his ground, shed and stuff the run. But he is still getting stood up and turned. Part of that is he seems more comfortable pushing downhill rather than standing his ground. But my guess is we see big improvement here this year.
(2) Rushing the passer: A+. Best on the team, and probably #2 or #3 in conference at this, behind Griffen and Davis right now. A pure pass rusher. If he were 2 inches taller, he'd be a no-brainer first round pick with his talent.
(3) Stunting: A+. Also an area where he excels. He always seems to make something happen when he gets in the backfield.
(4) Play recognition: B. This is an area where he struggled at times. In fairness, this is easier to do the more snaps you get, because it allows you to get a feel for the game. But on the DL, there is going to be a lot of subbing, so guys need to be able to do this cold off the bench. He clearly has good football instincts, grew up around the game with his father playing in the NFL, and has the speed to perhaps make up for the occasional misread. Plus, he rarely plays out of control the way a guy like Griffen does. So I see this area not only improving, but probably not holding him back much.
(5) Pursuit: A. Flat out can run. He can chase down RBs almost freakishly. In terms of pursuit down the line while hand-fighting, this could improve a bit, along with his gap control technique. But this will come.
(6) Effort and motor: B. If Jordan plays with Alualu's motor and effort, he will dominate every opponent, and it won't really be close. Guys with his talent always take some time to learn this, but the indications are he is getting it. When he does, he could be an All-American.

Overall grade: A-. I predict a first or second team all conference for him (along with DEs Griffen, Davis, and Te'o-Nesheim).


Hill is a bit of an enigma. A lot of things have happened that make him difficult to evaluate. Despite starting his first year in Tedford's doghouse, he had a decent freshman season and got a lot of minutes - to get as much PT as he did as a true freshman defensive tackle is pretty impressive (though there was quite a talent void at the position). But he came in mostly situationally.

Then the staff switched to the 3-4, which is a black hole for DTs in terms of stats and exposure. 3-4 DTs do a lot that never gets seen by fans and never shows in the stat sheet. Plus, it was his first season playing in the 3-4, mitigating what might have otherwise been some marked improvement after his freshman year.

Third, Hill is frankly not well-suited for nose tackle in a 3-4. It's not that he's bad per se, just that he's more of a quick, penetrating tackle, who slips blocks and disrupts plays. He's not a two-gap, run plugging, stand-your-ground tackle in the traditional 3-4 mold. He's not built that way, and he doesn't move that way. He has done a fine job acclimating to the position, but because he's not a natural NT, he plain and simple gets beat at times because he tries to gamble or freelance and gets turned, stood up, or rolled up. To his credit, the reason traditional nose tackles don't have that problem is they are too fat and slow to even think about trying to make the kind of plays Hill is trying to make.

I think this season, he will be much, much better. He has put on the weight and strength to be a NT, and now knows what is expected of him. You could see it in his build and movements a bit in the bowl game. Plus, he's going to get pushed big time for minutes by Payne, and that should bring out the best in both players. And there is more depth now at DT, so all guys will be fresher. Nowhere is that more critical than at NT where most of your job involves taking on double teams and fighting through piles. Lastly, he's making the sophomore to junior jump, and year 3 is typically where most DTs come into their own.

(1) Gap control in run: B-. Good at times, bad at times. Hill is always looking to make plays. While this is good thing, as a NT, you have to be very careful, because you are the pivot. If you gamble and lose, a lot of ground can get opened up in a hurry. At times, Hill gets blasted right out of the play because he gets caught turning or peeking at the ball too early. Other times he does a great job of staying home, blowing his guy up and making a pile. I expect he'll be better at manning his gaps this season, especially with more depth behind him and a year more of strength training, technique teaching and practice.
(2) Rushing the passer: A-. For a defensive tackle, Hill is pretty good at this. And if he does get drafted into the NFL, I see him being used on third down. When he is permitted to pin his ears back and go after the QB, he shows good ability to slip past his guy. While everyone can improve on everything, the one area of pass rushing he needs to improve on is the pure bull rush while keeping his pads low. He tends to try to stun guys with his arms and then slip by, rather than get under their chin and push them backwards a few feet by driving his legs.
(3) Stunting: A. Also an area where he does well. It is too bad the 3-4 does not give him more opportunities for this.
(4) Play recognition: B. This is tough to evaluate, since so much of what Hill does is operate in small spaces and just take care of his gaps. He has no edge to worry about. But two things are indicative here, one of being good at this, and one of needing work. First, the coaches will drop him into coverage occasionally (a nice twist on the zone blitz that I love about this defense), which tells me they trust him to diagnose plays. On the other hand, as I said, Hill gets caught peeking or choosing sides too early trying to guess at the play, and the result is often that he gets run out. This suggests poor recognition (or just failure to use his keys and read techniques the coaches gave him). But this area always improves with time. And last year was his first as a true NT, so I expect he'll get better at this.
(5) Pursuit: A-. Great for a defensive tackle. Moves really well for a guy his size.
(6) Effort and motor: B-. This is a bit hard to gauge given how difficult it can be to tell if a NT is trying hard half the time. When a guy gets double-teamed, and he holds his ground and then causes a pile, he may not do a lot of moving that would indicate effort, yet he may be working his tail off in a silent fit of rage. But when I have zeroed in on Hill and watched him on and off, I see a guy who, like Jordan, is inconsistent in this area. When d-linemen get tired, they start cheating, standing up, and reaching with their arms, rather than holding their ground and fighting through their men. I saw this from Hill more than every once in a while. Some of this is conditioning, and it will be helped by more depth this season.

Overall grade: B. I think Hill could actually end up having a breakout year. That would be very normal for a guy as touted as he was coming out of high school and entering his junior year. But for right now, he's still a B-level tackle.



Browner's big hurdle continues to be his weight and his ability to hold his ground in the run game. He looked bigger this year and the official site lists him at 268, and he did make some plays (notably deep in Mich St territory in the season opener). But he's still a third-down, second half guy at this point, unless he puts on more weight and gets more stout at the point of attack.

However, with his speed and energy, and a year more of experience, he could be a critical situational playmaker for this team late in games, especially in passing situations. Guys like that end up being important components to closing out games on defense. Plus he's a junior, so he could still be on the upswing. But frankly, of all the positions I worry about in terms of injuries, defensive end is #1 on the list (followed by strong safety). If Jordan or Alualu goes down, Browner is probably the first guy off the bench, followed by Guyton.


As I mentioned in the last post, Tedford said Payne had the potential to be a "household name" and compared him to Mebane. He made quite an impression on everyone in his first season last year. If he lives up to the hype, he and Hill could make a great 1-2 punch at NT. Depth is more critical at this position than any other on the field. If your NT starts getting tired and getting beat, things can get ugly in the 3-4, especially if your ILBs are not big run pluggers (which Mohamed and Kendricks are not). I haven't seen him play, but Tedford being that high on him is a good sign.


Barring what might happen with the JC guys, Guyton is the current frontrunner for second string at the other DE position. He's really built more like a stay-at-home or "plug" 4-3 tackle, but he's not really a NT and the staff played him at DE last season, so that's probably his home in this defense (that's what happens in the 3-4 - tackles become ends unless they can play nose). He has a nice big base and is really a space-eater type guy who is has the build to be a gap-control DE. He got some minutes this season, notably vs. Ore, and when he was in, I thought he did decently well for a freshman. He's still got a bit of a baby fat look to him so he should get even better as he firms up. But he holds his ground well. Not the quickest guy, but he has the chance to develop more in the Alualu mold - gap manager, bull rushing, good technique, lateral pursuit.


Anonymous said...

Great work as always - really tremendous coverage of our guys and the various aspects of being a DL.

But for the reserves, if you are going to detail Browner, what about Owusu and Tipoti? Owusu at least got a little playing time last year and both have gotten plenty of run in camps.

(OneKeg from BI)

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