'To the moon': Pac-12 teams cast wide net for D-linemen
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Herm Edwards is back in college football for the first time since 1989, but the Arizona State head coach understands success starts with a dominant defensive front.
"The one that always holds up in defense is you've got to knock the quarterback down," Edwards said at Pac-12 media day. "You've got to storm the castle and hit the guy."
Defending Pac-12 champion Southern California led the FBS in sacks last season, tied with Clemson at 3.29 sacks per game. Washington, the preseason pick to win the conference this season in the annual media poll, averaged three sacks per game to rank in the top 15 nationally. Not surprisingly, where to find defensive linemen and edge rushers and how to refine their talents were major topics of conversation at the Pac-12's annual kickoff event in Hollywood.
First-year Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal's understanding of the importance of quality and depth in the trenches was reinforced during his time as an assistant at Alabama from 2013-16, watching fearsome defenses powered by the likes of Jonathan Allen and A'Shawn Robinson reach the College Football Playoff three times and claim the national championship at the end of the 2015 season.
But whereas the Crimson Tide have their pick of elite prospects from recruiting hotbeds across the South, the Ducks and other Pac-12 teams do not have nearly as many ready-made defenders to choose from. With that in mind, Cristobal has been extending offers across the country to address those needs in the 2019 and 2020 recruiting classes.
"You'll go to the moon to get defensive linemen," Cristobal said. "Wherever they are because they are hard (to find), man. Big bodies that are active, that can knock you back and take over. There's no answer for a great defensive lineman."
Utah has proven that axiom to be true during its brief time in the Pac-12 by placing an emphasis on player development.
Kyle Whittingham relies on his staff to find defenders with length and athleticism, trusting that power and mass can be developed once they arrive on campus. It is an approach that has helped the Utes produce seven first-team all-conference defensive ends and tackles since the conference expanded in 2011.
"We've got to project and evaluate," Whittingham said. "They may be underweight in high school, but we know in our strength program that a 240-pound guy is going to be 290 or 300 pounds."
Cristobal said the SEC has the edge in defensive line play, but the Pac-12 has enough talent available to make up for a lack of top-end contributors, citing Utah as a model for where he aspires to take Oregon.
"There are a good number of schools in the Pac-12 that have the kind of depth, the size and the girth and power, and everyone else is trying to get there, us being one of them," Cristobal said.
The quicker that happens could help address the perception problems plaguing the Pac-12. Oregon had that caliber of linemen in 2014 when it advanced to the CFP title game, securing the conference's only playoff win to date in the semifinal at the 2015 Rose Bowl over Florida State with future first-round draft picks Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner anchoring the defensive front.
The Oregon defense in 2014 isn't remembered as a dominant unit that smothered the opposition, but made up for the yards and points it allowed with takeaways and stops on third down and in the red zone. To Edwards, those are the measures to define success defending prolific spread offenses.
"You're not going to stop people from gaining yards. It's impossible," Edwards said. "And I say that when I went to Alabama and I watched some of these great defenses with six or seven NFL players, they don't stop people."
Only by stacking the deck with impact linemen and pass rushers can teams close the gap in the Pac-12, and help the Pac-12 close the gap on other conferences.
"That great quarterback with the awesome receiver getting down the field because he's wide open, he can't get the ball off if he's sacked," Cristobal said.
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