Do you know why I’m so excited to watch our Dawgs this year? It’s because we are absolutely loaded up and down the roster.
When I took this 30 Day Countdown assignment I thought this was going to be a walk in the park. “Our OL is stacked and that’s that” was pretty much along the lines of what I was thinking, but this was a surprisingly tough decision to make.
The longer I looked at the roster, the more angles I found to analyze each position. I settled on three areas to judge each position: quality of starters, depth of talent, and position-wide experience. Obviously having All-American starters at a position is the goal, but you’re always one play away from needing your back ups to step up. That’s why having talent across the depth chart is so valuable. However, even elite programs can struggle having to make a transition between their starter and a blue chip but inexperienced back up. Often times the only ways to develop seasoned depth are unfortunate injuries or the rare blow out, but if you have experienced guys you can rely on, coaches and fans can rest a little easier heading into game day.
Let’s take a look at the contenders:
The OL is a trendy pick this year by many fans because we return every starter, have a 6th-year center, All-Conference caliber LT, and we’re extremely talented across the depth chart thanks to Scott Huff’s strong recruiting. Last year’s starting line up of Kirkland, Ale, Wattenberg, Bainivalu, and Curne (LT to RT) was somewhat surprising in that it was not the most talented line up possible, nor did we expect Curne to be playing OT. However, considering that we were among the best in the conference in pass protection and very respectable in the run game, its hard to argue with the results. All this means that we have an abundance of talent waiting in the wings providing quality depth with 7 blue chips filling out the 2nd & 3rd strings.
Even more than most positions, continuity at OL is a major bonus because chemistry and cohesion is so important for successful play. However, this can be a double edged sword because the OL is only as strong as its weakest link, somewhat mitigating the advantage of having a standout like Kirkland. Ale was inconsistent at times last season and looks to be the least entrenched starter, and Wattenberg was sometimes bullied at the point of attack in our new downhill-focused run game. Any shuffling in camp could take away a major strength of this position group, even if its for the better over the long haul.
The OLBs would be a runaway pick if this past offseason hadn’t happened. Before the news of Laiatu Latu’s medical retirement and ZTF’s achilles injury, we would’ve been looking forward to having a 5-year contributor in Ryan Bowman, an All-American candidate in ZTF, an All-Conference caliber rotation player in Latu, our biggest recruit of the Petersen era coming off the bench in Smalls, and a few breakout candidates in Cooper McDonald, Bralen Trice, and Jordan Lolohea.
Unfortunately, the offseason happened, and we will be without the elite 4-man rotation at OLB that we had hoped. However, we’re still in an excellent position despite the attrition. Jeremiah Martin, a former top target and blue chip recruit, was brought in through the transfer portal to shore up the depth, and the slightly thinner depth has allowed the younger guys to get more reps and find their footing. Our starters might have a lower ceiling than we anticipated, but between Bowman’s returning production, and the combination of talent and experience gained from last year’s deep rotation at OLB, we might still have the best Edge group in the conference.
Running back this year is all about depth and experience. How many teams can you name with 4 guys who are proven options at running back? Kamari Pleasant was a (*hehehe) pleasant surprise in the RB room last year along side fellow 6th-year RB Sean McGrew. While neither have seized control of the RB1 gig, they each fill complementary roles in our rotation. Pleasant was the bigger back with utility in passing situations as both a blocker and receiver, and McGrew was the more explosive offensive weapon. Joining the rotation was the mercurial Richard Newton and extremely promising Cam Davis. Newton might be the best pure rusher in the stable, but his lack of polish in the other areas of his game seemed to hold him back. Davis on the other hand might be the best overall running back option, so his next move in the RB competition will be something to watch after making the most of limited carries last season.
With no clear leader in the RB room who can be the bell cow back, it’s hard to say we’ll have elite level play, but the depth of our talent and the experience across the board is unmatched in the conference. Someone will need to step up for this to be anything more than a high floor, low ceiling pick.
DBU. Enough said...
Just kidding, sort of. McDuffie and Gordon are arguably the most athletic CB combo in the country, McDuffie is an All-American candidate, and if everything clicks, Gordon could find himself being a dark horse candidate as well. While Gordon has had limited run as a sub-package DB, this will be his first shot at being a starting CB. Time will tell if he’s able to live up to his lofty billing. Behind those two, we have a a deep bench featuring former blue chip recruits Jacobe Covington.
Looking inside, Bookie Radley-Hiles seems to have the inside track at the starting nickel job, and the former top 40 recruit could be the next star at the position. With both nickel and safety versatility matched with arguably the most talent in the group, Bookie may be able to actually elevate the position despite the departure of Elijah Molden. If he isn’t able to find his footing as quickly as we hoped, we have another former blue chip recruit in Kamren Fabiculanan who has been making a strong push for playing time.
Safety is the portion of the DB line up with the least certainty, but its the best sort of problem to have. Alex Cook was the snap leader in the room last season, but he’s the least likely to keep his spot in the starting line up this year. Cam Williams and Asa Turner both earned snaps as freshmen, and both played well. However, neither played well enough to be locks at the position with talented upperclassmen Julius Irvin and Dominique Hampton both seemingly having taken the leap this past offseason. There’s talent and/or experience up and down the depth chart at safety, so there should be confidence in whoever wins the starting job.
There were a couple of other positions that I thought about considering but just didn’t quite make the cut. Tight end might have the best starter out of any of our position groups with Cade Otton back, but the rest of the group has yet to take the next step. Culp & Westover have some experience, but there’s little returning production outside of Otton. The more recent additions of Mark Redman and Quentin Moore bring elite talent to the position, but I’m not sure how ready they are to make an impact with Culp & Westover still in the lead to round out the TE rotation.
Defensive line is also a pretty strong position. The depth of talent is excellent with all 4 on the 2-deep being highly touted former blue chips (Tuli, Taki, Bandes & Tuitele) and even the 5th man (Ngalu) being a 3rd year player who has flashed in Spring & Fall practices. However, the starting duo of Tuli & Taki have yet to establish themselves in a way that suggests that they can be elite starters, and the rest of the position group is largely untested.
Coach B’s Pick: Defensive Backs
What is our strongest position group?
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