Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in a nine-part series outlining the 2019 Ohio Football roster, and the first focusing on the Bobcat defense. The series will break down nine parts of the program in the coming weeks, with a look at who returns, what’s changed, and what’s to come at each position. The series continues today with a look at the Ohio’s defensive line.
Pete Germano has been doing this football coaching thing for a while.
Germano, Ohio’s defensive line (ends specifically) coach, has worked on Frank Solich’s staff with the Bobcats for more than a decade over two separate stays in Athens. He’s had a stint out west at Fresno State.
But he’s never returned an entire unit, intact, from one season to the next, before. But that’s the situation for Germano and his host of defensive ends in 2019.
“It’s certainly rare, and it’s a bit of luxury,” Germano said this spring. “But it doesn’t change the goal.
“We’re still trying to get better. We have to do a little more.”
On the edges, the only question for Ohio is how deep to the Bobcats want to go with a regular rotation? Every defensive end that played meaningful reps there in 2018 is returning.
That includes the starting tandem of junior Will Evans and sophomore Amos Ogun-Semore. Evans graded out well a year ago, and Ogun-Semore had his moments after being thrown into the first as a redshirt freshman.
Also expected to play are junior Austin Conrad, and seniors Sam McKnight and Chukwudi Chukwu. The trio all embody the kind of high-motor guys that Germano cultivates. All three played with, or after, injury to some degree in 2018, but should be close to 100 percent when fall camp opens.
Ohio will want more impact plays from the group, however. The five defensive ends tallied 8.0 sacks combined a year ago. But with another developmental year under their collective belt, Germano wants more.
“We did some good things, and made some big plays,” he said. “But we were just a step off from a lot more too.”
While the defensive ends return intact, it’s on the interior where the questions are more abundant. Ohio lost both starting defensive tackles from last season in nose guard Andrew Payne and 3-technique starter Kent Berger. Berger had the best season of his career, led all defensive linemen with 34 tackles, and finished with a team-high 5.0 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss.
Replacing Berger and Payne in the starting lineup will likely be fifth-year senior Brian Arp and senior Cole Baker. Arp and Baker combined for 2.0 sacks and 5.0 TFL a year ago and were part of the 10-player rotation Ohio used on the DL.
How well will Arp and Baker adjust to an increased role? Will the quality depth they provided last year be replaced with younger pieces on the roster? Those are the questions head coach Frank Solich hopes to have a better grasp on during fall camp.
“We got good interior play last year, and really the last couple of years,” said Ohio’s veteran head coach. “We’ve got to keep getting better there, especially with the depth.”
The goal, like in the previous 3-4 seasons, is for the Bobcats to shuttle in upwards of 10 players on the defensive line. For that to continue, however, Ohio will need some younger players at DT to win those roles in fall camp.
Junior Zach Burks — a junior college transfer in 2018 — was hampered by injury last fall. Ohio would love for him to claim a spot in the rotation in August. Then there’s a pair of third-year sophomores — Marcus Coleman and Kaieem Caesar — who should be next in line.
Caesar worked in during 2018, but missed the entirety of the spring after off-season surgery. Coleman, who has dropped upwards of 40 pounds since coming to Ohio, made an impression in spring camp.
“He took some strides, yes,” Solich said. “We need more of that.”
Two redshirt freshmen — former DE Antrez Baker and Kyle McCracken — will also get a chance to compete. And Ohio is hoping that 2019 signees Denzel Daxon and Jeremiah Burton are capable of providing an instant impact this fall.
“You can’t be a great defense if you don’t have good play in the middle,” Solich said. “We feel good about our linebackers and our safeties.
“We just need to be strong, again, on the interior. We think we have the ability to be just that, but we’ll see how it plays out.”
2019 Ohio Football
Starters — DE Will Evans (R-Junior, 6-2, 250), NT Brian Arp (R-Senior, 6-3, 209), DT Cole Baker (Senior, 6-2, 280), DE Amos Ogun-Semore (R-Sophomore, 6-5, 235).
Evans was Ohio’s best, and most consistent, DE in 2018. He still has more upside to display however, and led the unit in ‘near-miss’ sacks. Ogun-Semore was thrown into the fire a year ago as a starter, held his own and came on toward the end. He could be in line for a big jump. Arp and Baker were the second set of DTs used by Ohio last season. Neither has played high reps however, and it’s uncertain how well they’ll hold up on the interior.
Gone — DT Kent Berger and NT Andrew Payne.
The duo formed a solid starting pair on the DL a season ago. Berger, much like Arp and Baker this year, took over as a starter for the first time and blossomed with team-high 5.0 sacks. Payne, a former walk-on, was dependable and held up well at the point of attack.
Backups — DE Austin Conrad (R-Junior, 6-2, 255), DE Sam McKnight (R-Senior, 6-3, 265), DE Chukwudi Chukwu (R-Senior, 6-1, 258), DT Zach Burks (R-Junior, 6-1, 287), DT Kaieem Caesar (R-Sophomore, 6-2, 305), DT Marcus Coleman (R-Sophomore, 6-4, 265).
All except Burks and Coleman played substantially a year ago in a 10-man rotation on the defensive line. Conrad, a former TE, might have the most potential of this group to be a disrupter. McKnight and Chukwu — who have both battled knee issues in the last year — are veteran, high-energy guys. Caesar put his development on hold this spring after surgery, but Coleman made huge strides this spring. Coleman is 40 pounds lighter than when he arrived, and might find himself in the mix this fall.
Depth — DE Amir Miller (R-Junior, 6-5, 258), DE Bryce Dugan (R-Freshman, 6-1, 228), DE Bryce Stai (R-Freshman, 6-3, 245), DE Juan Watkins (R-Freshman, 6-4, 230), DT Antrez Baker (R-Freshman, 6-3, 253), DT Kylen McCracken (R-Freshman, 6-3, 294), DT Michael Massinople (R-Sophomore, 5-11, 250).
Miller has had major knee injuries in each of the last two fall camps, and is an unknown factor moving forward. Dugan, a walk-on, had more impact plays in live action scrimmages in the spring than any other defensive lineman. Stai came on toward the end of 2018 but will find reps tough to come by with the depth in place. Baker moved from DE to DT this spring and will take time to adjust. Watkins and McCracken both missed substantial time in 2018 because of injury/surgery.
Incoming — Jeremiah Burton (6-2, 280) and Denzel Daxon (6-2, 335).
Ohio didn’t sign a single DE in the 2019 class, but grabbed two tackles. It’s clear Solich is looking for more, or better, depth on the interior.
And the Bobcats may have have found it. It’s thought Daxon — the highest rated player in the class and a former Louisville commit — can come in and complete for playing time as a true freshman.