Defensive line boosts Gophers

Murali Balaji

Forget about quarterback Billy Cockerham’s last-minute heroics in the Gophers’ victory over Michigan State last week.
And forget about the performances of receiver Luke Leverson and kicker Adam Bailey, both named Big Ten players of the week. If you want to know the key to the team’s resurgence, look no further than the defensive line.
Prior to the Michigan State game, the front four had produced all of seven sacks; against the Spartans, they got to the quarterback four times and helped clamp down on their offense in the game’s critical moments.
A consistent pass rush does two things for the Gophers’ defense: It allows defensive coordinator David Gibbs to put more players in coverage on passing downs, and it gives the team more chances to play zone coverage.
“We’re trying to play basic fundamental football,” defensive tackle Antoine Richard said. “You can’t run up the middle against us because we’ll just keeping filling the gaps.”
The front four’s recent play has certainly not been taken for granted by their fellow defenders.
“These guys have worked really hard and they made plays,” linebacker Parc Williams said.
Another key to the defensive line’s success has been the ability of defensive line coach Gordon Shaw to rotate his lineman in and out of every play. Reserves Rufus Smith, Josh Rawlings and Dyron Russ have seen extensive playing time throughout the season.
“We try to play more than four guys,” Shaw said. “As the game goes on, we try to spell them with as many guys as we can to keep (the starters) mentally and physically fresh.”
Richard, whose impact on the defense isn’t always reflected on the stat sheet, is the senior member of the line and is considered the leader of the group. But don’t expect him to be a vocal leader — it’s not his style.
“I like to lead by example,” he said. “I’ve been around too many years and have heard too many guys give speeches. I know that stuff doesn’t really work.”
What Richard does is set the pace for his linemates. The one who has benefited most is defensive tackle John Schlecht, whose four sacks are second on the team.
“He’s going to be a great pass rusher and a great player,” Richard said. “I love playing next to John. He’s just so quick and athletic, like (John) Randle.”
Richard may have been a little carried away with his analysis of Schlecht, but the point is the line is finally playing like it doesn’t miss All-American defensive end Lamanzer Williams (18.5 sacks last season), who graduated after last season.
“We’re doing better as a line without Lamanzer,” Richard said. One of the players finally emerging is sophomore defensive end Curtese Poole, who collected his first sack of the season against Michigan State.
“I think it was my best effort of the season,” said Poole, who converted from outside linebacker prior to the season. “It took me awhile to learn, but I’m getting a feel for playing and I can use my speed.”
Shaw seems optimistic about the continued development of his unit.
“I think they are definitely coming along real well,” Shaw said. “We really underachieved the last two weeks, but I think we’re putting it together.”
Poole, who will be counted on to continue his development as a pass rusher, agreed.
“We’re a young line. We’ve got a lot to work on, but we definitely got the players to get better.”