Back to rush defenses: a trivia question to lead. Which team was the MWC's best in rush defense in conference last season? Hint: it wasn't TCU. Next hint: it wasn't Utah or Air Force, either.
Answer: BYU was the MWC's best rush defense in 2010, keeping MWC foes to 96 ypg. TCU? 97 ypg. However, BYU replaces two or all (depending on how you count 'em) of its d-line, while TCU returns 75% of its front. So TCU takes the first spot in the '10 pre-season rankings.
TCU does have a big pair of shoes to fill at DE, and a trio of talented ends vying to fill them. While Jerry Hughes cools his heels with the New England Patriots, redshirted Stansly Maponga, redshirt sophomore Ross Forrest, and junior Braylon Broughton compete to start in his place. The rest of the line, tackles Kelly Griffin and Cory Grant, and end Wayne Daniels, are senior returning starters. Look for another year of domination from the Frogs' defensive front. Behind them the Frogs start only two linebackers, and once again replace NFL talent, in 2nd round pick Daryl Washington. Tanner Brock, last season taking out two SMU Mustangs head-first, and helmetless, will start. Kenny Cain has impressed, however, and may split time with one of the starters, much like Washington did with Robert Henson in '07 and '08. Bonus: if Braylon Broughton follows Hughes' trajectory, look to him for the next Frog superstar. Broughton is 6-6 and over 270 lbs., and even faster than the departed Hughes. Hughes' broke out in his junior year; Broughton hasn't shown yet that he will, but if he does: look out!
Colorado State returns a heavily experienced line, and one of the conference's best linebacking corps this season, making it a surprise #2 pick in the Wimple's '10 pre-season rank. Zach Tiedgen, Guy Miller, Ty Whittier, and Cory Macon return up front, and Ricky Brewer's suspension is over behind them at linebacker. Mychal Sisson and Alex Williams join him, in an all-returning starting LB team. 2010 should see the Rams improve their rush defense again, notwithstanding the team begins the year hoping to stop a 9-game losing streak.
New Mexico's strongest unit in 2010 will be its defensive line, with second-team all-MWC Johnathan Rainey returning at DE, shock-signee Calvin Smith challenging senior Peter Gardiner for one DT spot, and Illinois transfer Reggie Ellis anchoring the other. Returning starter Jaymar Latchison is the other DE. Nowhere does Locksley's recruiting prowess show brighter than the line. The Lobos return only one starter behind them, but he's as good as they get. Carmen Messina led D-1A in tackles last season (162!). He's flanked by Joe Stoner and Terel Anyaibe, who both saw significant PT last season.
BYU returns just two starters to its defensive front seven. Last year’s crew held opponents to only 110 ypg on the ground, second-best in seven years in Provo. DT Romney Fuga will again anchor the d-line, and LB Jordan Pendleton returns. Journeyman Vic So’oto, who came to the Y to play tight end, and did as a freshman, will play his third year at DE in 2010. Opposite him, junior Matt Putnam will start at DE, if freshman Bronson Kaufusi doesn’t beat him out.
Behind them, the linebacking corps is in considerable disarray with the graduations of Cougar fixtures Shawn Doman, Coleby Clawson, and Matt Bauman. Replacing them may be two true freshman (Zac Stout and Kyle Van Noy) and a transfer, Uona Kaveinga, who, being from USC, need not sit out the year. Van Noy and Kaveinga participated in spring drills, and impressed, Kaveinga especially. Although they’re inexperienced in sum, this is the most talented group of linebackers at the Y in years, if not ever. Expect little dropoff.
San Diego State saw significant improvement in its defense in Rocky Long's first year as coordinator. All of the d-line returns, with top-notch JUCO transfer Perry Jackson competing for starting snaps at DE. Look for this group to improve again, in tandem with improvement behind them. The linebacking corps is suddenly deep. Miles Burris is the veteran and star. Marcus Yarbrough played almost as much as a starter in '09, and starts this season. Backups Shumate and Nick Tanehaeff impressed in spring. The weakest link, if you can call it that, is Logan Ketchum, the third starter. Program-watchers say he's poised for a breakout year. If their predictions come true, the Aztecs will challenge New Mexico for most improved defensive front.
Utah returns three starters, DE Shelby and DTs Siliga and Kruger who were effective run-stoppers last season. Replacing Koa Misi, a first team all-MWC and 2nd round NFL pick may fall to senior Christian Cox, an all-conference pick himself. There's a lot of inexperience behind them, as all three starters in '09 were seniors, and one projected starter (Nai Fotu) is out for '10 with a torn ACL. So shallow is the two-deep, in fact, that an incoming freshman who did not early enroll may start in '10: V.J. Fehoko. Chad Manis (a converted QB) and J.J. Williams may start as well, but Boo Anderson and Matt Martinez are in the mix. They each practiced with the first team in the spring.
Air Force is counting on Ryan Gardner (all of 240 lbs.) to replace 1st team all-MWC Ben Garland in the middle, who may have been the team's best linemen on either side of the ball in 2009. Also new up front will be Wylie Wikstrom at DE. Only Rick Ricketts returns, at DE. This new line will have an experienced LB corps behind it, with Wale Lawal, Andre Morris, Ken Lamendola, and Patrick Hennessey roving behind them. Junior Brady Amack may start ahead of Hennessey, indicating the depth AFA has at the position.
Wyoming is changing schemes in 2010, trying to get more playmakers on the field. Instead of replacing all three seniors on its d-line, it's switching to a four-man front, and moving two LBs up to play DE: juniors Gabe Knapton and Josh Biezuns. The duo brings 36 starts and 286 tackles with them from the LB spots. DTs Mike Purcell and Alex Stover will plug the middle; Purcell has significant starting experience. LB Brian Hendricks is the sole returning starter at linebacker for the team, but sophomore Ghaali Muhammad is a very experienced backup and impressed in spring. Devyn Harris redshirted last season, but will start this year. In all, there is not a single senior starting in Wyoming's front seven, and a dominant rushing defense may be another year away in Laramie.
UNLV has the opposite situation: the Rebels' roster of defensive front starters is senior saturated, even with the loss of Malo Tuamua. Only one lineman, JUCO transfer B.J. Bell, who redshirted last year due to injury, and LB Chris Jones, are not seniors. (Both are juniors). DTs Ramsey Feagai and Isaako Aaitui are both senior returning starters. LBs Starr Fuimaono and Ronnie Paulo are both senior returning starters. DE Preston Brooks is a senior, transferred from Washington State. This vastly experienced group of starters will usher in the Kraig Paulson defense, under new head man Bobby Hauck, himself a defensive coach. Look for improvement, as each of these players stands to benefit from improved coaching, which Hauck and Co. clearly bring. Unfortunately, improvement may only mean less-bad, because UNLV has been truly awful and increasinly awful defensively for several years. 2009 featured new lows: 229 ypg, 5.7 ypc. There's nowhere to go but up in Las Vegas.