Tom Amstutz can cite history and past accomplishments when he talks about his offense, his linebackers, or his secondary. For the University of Toledo football coach, those groups have significant track records and therefore are known
When the pre-season discussion reaches his defensive line, the language becomes much more speculative. Amstutz talks about what he expects and what he hopes to see, but the group hasn't faced a lot of live fire yet, so there is a high degree of guesswork involved.
The Rockets, picked by many as favorites in the Mid-American Conference race this season, are loaded with returning players most places, but the defensive line is extremely thin on game experience. Only senior end Phil Alexander has earned any stripes.
Alexander has started in nine games over the past three seasons, with three starts and 21 tackles last year. Alexander, who has also played three years with the UT basketball team, thinks a change in the makeup of the Rockets' defensive front might end up making it more effective.
"I think the group we have now is definitely a more athletic bunch, and we probably have better speed on the defensive line than we have had at any time since I got here," said the 6-3, 254-pounder from Chicago
Heights, Ill. "We've got guys who can flat-out run, and we haven't had that before."
Amstutz expects Alexander to be joined on the defensive line by two sophomores - Seth Thitoff, who has been moved from linebacker, and Tyree Pollard - and redshirt freshman J.P. Bekasiak. Among the three, they have a total of 10 tackles in college football games.
"They're a young bunch," Amstutz said, "but we really like what we see from them so far. Phil is a good athlete and he had a great spring for us. We're counting on him a lot. And after that we have some players who haven't had the experience yet, but they certainly have the talent to get in there and do what we need them to do."
The Rockets did not get a lot of stops from their defensive line last season, when they went 8-4 and finished tied with Northern Illinois for second place in the MAC West behind division champion Bowling Green. There wasn't a defensive lineman in the top 10 tacklers for UT last year, and Toledo was last in the MAC in sacks with just 10 in 12 games.
"We need to change that," Alexander said, "and get back to pressuring the quarterback and stopping the run like we used to when Toledo was one of the best in the country against the run. As a group, I think we've been challenged by all of the talk about the defensive line being this team's weak spot. We beg to differ with that, and we feel like we've got something to prove right now."
Amstutz said he will send out a defensive line that the opposition knows very little about when the Rockets open at Minnesota on Sept. 4, but he will not be as concerned about their performance as some are.
"Our opponents don't know about them yet, but I really like the guys we have," Amstutz said. "When I watch them in practice, those are the kind of big, athletic guys I'm looking for up front. These are all guys who can run, who can pursue the football, and get after the quarterback."
After Alexander, Pollard,
Thitoff and Bekasiak, Amstutz said he has another group of young players vying for backup roles.
"They are all learning the system, and as we go along we'll see where they fit in," Amstutz said.
The Rockets begin pre-season practice today after two days of meetings and organizational work.
The first double-session practice takes place Saturday.
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