North Texas Daily

Week 10 analysis: Defensive line looking to return to early season form

Week 10 analysis: Defensive line looking to return to early season form

November 01
22:52 2017

Head coach Seth Littrell has said numerous times the key to both sides of the ball starts up front, which doesn’t come as much of a surprise. The defense as a unit has given up over 37 points per game, but the secondary has already been discussed at length – it’s time to see what the defensive line has done thus far.

Defensive coordinator Troy Reffett runs a 3-3-5 scheme with a “jack” linebacker shading to the strong side of the formation. That spot is currently held by senior Joshua Wheeler, who acts as a more flexible defensive end to aid the three linemen.

Junior defensive tackles Roderick Young and Ulaiasi Tauaalo, senior Andy Flusche and sophomore defensive end LaDarius Hamilton have all had their moments to shine through the first eight games of the season.

“Those guys are doing really well, and coach [Marc] Yellock has them working very hard,” junior linebacker Brandon Garner said. “They’re executing their movements and stunts, and they’re penetrating on run plays.”

They started off the season as a more-than-capable run-stopping front line. The Mean Green always stress filling their gaps, and in the first half of the year, the group gave opposing running backs trouble — making life easier on linebackers.

In its first four games of the year, the North Texas allowed just 3.1 yards per carry.

“The biggest thing is that we focus on stopping the run,” Yellock said. “I think the strength [of this unit] is the kids work hard. About half the guys on the D-line are leaders on the team and that holds well for what we’re trying to do.”

Since then, the defense has allowed 5.9 yards per carry in four games — a major spike for opposing rushers.

The defensive line struggled at times against the University of Texas at San Antonio and especially against Florida Atlantic University. FAU put up 447 rushing yards on 48 carries and completely dominated the Mean Green up front.

The game against FAU brought glaring run defense issues to light, but the talented defensive front is more than capable of getting back to doing its part in the run game.

“We’ve done some really good things with our run defense,” Littrell said. “The [FAU game] was not a reflection upon that. We have to make sure guys are fitting their gaps, and we should be gapped out.”

The pass rush from the line has been more consistent from start to finish as far as production goes. North Texas has 14 sacks and has shown an ability to get to the quarterback, opening up gaps for linebackers to twist and stunt to confuse the offensive line.

Although the run defense remains the most proud part of the unit, the pass rush has been exceptional at times as well. However, they know they can still do a better job of squeezing the pocket late in the season.

“We need to get better,” Yellock said. “We have to get in better situations where we know the team is going to pass the ball. In this type of scheme, we’re slanting or doing something exotic.”

Yellock went on discuss how opposing quarterbacks have found some success against North Texas with quick throws and three-step drop-backs, forcing the Mean Green to change their approach.

In response, the defensive line has attempted to look for more opportunities to bat down balls at the line of scrimmage. The group has broken up six passes this year and three have been by Flusche, who intercepted a pass against Old Dominion University last week.

“We work on batting the ball down almost every day,” Yellock said. “On three steps, you’re not going to get pressure on the quarterback unless he holds it. If he resets we need to be there and those are the situations we have to continuously [create].”

The defensive front has had its share of success without the services of redshirt sophomore Bryce English, who has been out the entire season after getting injured in fall camp. The return of sophomore defensive end Tillman Johnson against UTSA helped bolster the group from top to bottom.

North Texas is getting some players back, but Flusche doesn’t see the depth as a strength just yet.

“We haven’t been very deep,” Flusche said. “We’ve played with four guys for a couple weeks in the middle of the season, but we are getting guys back. When you can have your wind in the fourth quarter, it makes everything easier.”

Now the task for the front three, along with Wheeler at jack, is to return to their earlier form of run defense and irritate quarterbacks even more with either pressure or batting down passes.

The defense’s ability to stop anyone starts up front. It’s a lot of pressure to put on three guys, but it’s a challenge the group continues to embrace.

“It’s the leadership of that group [that makes them good],” Littrell said. “Coach Yellock does a great job with that group, continuing to develop and get better every week. We have to get back to making sure we dominate the line of scrimmage.”

Featured Image: North Texas senior defensive end Joshua Wheeler hits the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s quarterback late in the game. Colin Mitchell

About Author

Matthew Brune

Matthew Brune

Matthew Brune is the Senior Sports Writer for the North Texas Daily, covering football and men's basketball.

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