Depth of UT defensive line tested

10/2/2012
BY RYAN AUTULLO
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Ben Pike emits no sheepish vibes when asked to recite the outcomes of the three games that his high school football team played Jayrone Elliott's.

"Three-and-oh," Pike boasted Monday of Mentor's record in 2006 and 2007 against Cleveland Glenville.

Contests waged by two of the premier Division I programs in northeast Ohio often are a source of needling between the University of Toledo junior defensive ends, who beginning this week will be thrust into featured roles to offset a litany of injuries on the line.

The success up front, and the defense as a whole, figures to hinge heavily on the play of two high school rivals, both of whom have played extensively but have yet to start a game in their careers.

"It gives us a little extra motivation to prove to the rest of this conference we have the depth and we're still going to be a good d-line," Pike said.

Gone for the season is All Mid-American Conference senior end T.J. Fatinikun, whom Campbell confirmed tore his Achilles tendon early Saturday in a win at Western Michigan. The prognosis of a knee injury suffered by another end starter, senior Christian Smith, ranges on the spectrum from season ending to day-to-day, with physicians being unable to render a determination until swelling settles. Add Danny Farr's knee to the ever growing list of ailments, and the possibility exists Toledo could be without three starters on the line for this Saturday's homecoming affair against a Central Michigan team that Campbell submits "maybe [has] the best offense we've played to date."

The Chippewas, which fell by 31 points at Northern Illinois, average 399 yards per game — seventh best in the Mid-American Conference. 

Toledo's company motto for handling injuries: Next man up.

"I'm pretty sure we'll be fine," said Elliott, who recorded all three of his team-leading sacks the past two games. Elliott, whom Campbell calls dynamic yet inconsistent, will assume Fatinikun's roles on the punt return and punt coverage units. 

With the elevation to Elliott, Pike, and fifth-year senior Hank Keighley (2.5 tackles-for-loss), a slew of fresh faces are being groomed for membership in a revised rotation. In line to make his college debut is sophomore Grant Pleasant (6-foot-3, 230 pounds) and true freshman Allen Covington (6-2, 272).

Campbell said the coaching staff had entertained the idea of playing Covington, a three-star prospect from Tampa, even prior to the besetting of the depth on the line.

"He's got some talent," Pike said. "He's just probably going to have to use it a little sooner than we initially thought."

Says Elliott, "When he got up here in the summer, I told coach he needs to play now."

Another reinforcement soon could become available. Keenen Gibbs, who tore his ACL in the spring game, is a week or two from being cleared, Campbell said.

Depth, calculated by sheer numbers, is not a concern. When Gibbs returns, he will be among six or seven ends. Whether that crew can replicate the impact made by Fatinikun, and perhaps Smith, is the answer that could hold the key to the team's championship aspirations.

"With a combined effort, I think we can fill that void," Pike said.

SHORT YARDS: Linebacker Dan Molls, the nation's second leading tackler, was named MAC West defensive player of the week after making 13 stops at WMU. In five weeks, UT has garnered four such distinctions, each time with a new player. ... Toledo has allowed the most penalty yards in the MAC — 73.2 per game — a feat of infamy that does not bother Campbell provided the penalties are an act of aggressiveness rather than stupidity. An illegal shift Saturday that voided an Alonzo Russell touchdown catch was the result of stupidity by players and coaches, Campbell said.