It all starts on the D-line

Originally Published: September 24, 2003
By Bruce Feldman | ESPN The Magazine

Next summer if you're trying to figure whether your school has what it takes to make a BCS run, look at their D-line. That, more than a great QB or even a favorable schedule, is the ticket to the top. Want proof? Just look at the Top 10: Oklahoma (check); Miami (yep); USC (definitely); Ohio State (no doubt); LSU (sure).

A dominating defensive front is the one common denominator all these top teams have. Maybe the best example of this is down in Tallahassee where the 'Noles seems to be back at their attacking best. They led the ACC in total D, rushing D and pass efficiency D. Opponents have only managed two field goals in five trips inside the red zone.

The biggest difference for FSU this year is that their trademark speed-rushing ends are back to the form of the Peter Boulware/Jamal Reynolds. The FSU DEs already have 10.5 sacks this season, 3.5 less than they had all of 2002. The star of the group is Eric Moore, who coaches call a Reynolds clone. A huge LB recruit four years ago, Moore showed just how far he's come three weeks ago against Georgia Tech, when he faced Jacket stud Nat Dorsey, a massive OT who basically made his rep off neutralizing Julius Peppers a few years back. The 6-foot-4, 248-pound Moore took over, making 2.5 sacks, four hurries and forcing a fumble.

Last week, a different 'Nole DE shined. Kamerion Wimbley, a fleet long-strider with a great motor who was thought to be maybe a year away, had eight tackles, four TFLs and two sacks against Colorado. Wimbley's rise rounds out as good of an eight-man rotation as there is, especially given the way DTs Darnell Dockett, Broderick Bunkley and Jeff Womble have been playing.

Speaking of great DTs, Oklahoma's Tommie Harris is all the way back from injury. Last season, Harris battled a pelvic injury that limited his explosiveness and quickness -- and as a result hindered the Sooner defense since the 290-pound tackle is such a presence. But Sooner D-line coach Jackie Shipp says Harris is playing better than ever these days, and that's also showing up in improved performance of DEs Dan Cody and Jonathan Jackson.

Shipp also reminds us not to get caught up in Harris' somewhat pedestrian stats. (He has been credited with six tackles, four TFLs and one sack in four games.) "If you study the film you saw how he draws so much attention and disrupts blocking schemes and they don't keep stats for that," says Shipp.

Random Notes

  • We're not predicting an upset here, but the game we think most NFL scouts may be tuned into this Saturday is Tulane against Texas. We've seen pretty much every big-time QB throw in person (short of Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Walter) and none are more impressive than Green Wave QB J.P. Losman. The 6-3, 225-pound Losman has the body of a linebacker, a cannon for an arm and great wheels. He's also brash, loves the spotlight and, as he showed against TCU, tough as heck. His numbers weren't great last season, but, after seeing him this summer, we'd scream it from the mountain tops that he is legit. Of his 10 picks in 2002, six came after his receivers couldn't hang onto the ball, according to Tulane offensive coordinator Frank Scelfo. This season, Losman -- just as he predicted -- has been tearing it up. He's averaging 339 yards per game, completing 64 percent of his passes and has 15 TDs against just 3 INTs. Check him out, he's as good as he says he is.

  • Sure, the Notre Dame QB situation is hurting, as is the new Irish O-line, but there is some reason for optimism in South Bend. Rangy sophomore WR Rhema McKnight is blossoming into a star. He grabbed eight passes for 104 yards against Michigan State, while freshman DE Victor Abiamiri, the guy we thought was as talented a recruit as there was in the country last season, got his first start at ND and had seven tackles. The 6-6, 245-pound Abiamiri will give the Irish a much-need boost as a pass rusher.

  • It's no secret that USC's playmaker on D the past few years was Troy Polamalu. Now, that the hard-hitting strong safety is in the NFL, Pete Carroll is showcasing short OLB Matt Grootegoed. The 5-11, 215-pound tackling machine, who just has a great nose for the ball, has been moved from SLB to WLB enabling him to freelance more.

  • Since there aren't a lot of marquee matchups this weekend, keep an eye on the Navy-Rutgers game. One of these teams is gonna be 3-1 by the end of Saturday night. And if it's the Middies, it would be their best start since 1996, the last time they went bowling.

    Give credit to an improved, faster Navy D that whupped up on a team from the MAC, Eastern Michigan, 39-7 last week. The Middies switched to a 3-4 this season to get more speed on the field and it's really paying off. Through three games this fall, Navy has only allowed 34 points (Navy averaged giving up 36 per last season.) The Middies plus-2.33 turnover rate also is tops in I-A.

  • Oregon's upset win against Michigan might just help the Ducks' chances to land the nation's top CB recruit Theodore Ginn Jr., a world-class sprinter from Cleveland. Ginn apparently was very impressed by the way the Ducks took it to the Wolverines. Ginn is looking Michigan, Ohio State, Tennessee and USC and is planning on going to a school with a strong track program.

  • Reggie Bush, Demetris Summers and Austin Scott may be the freshman tailbacks getting all the attention, but don't forget San Diego State's quick-hitting Lynell Hamilton. The Aztecs back has run for 509 yards (9th in the nation) -- 117 more than State's leading rusher in 2002.

  • One touted freshman we won't be seeing this season is Moe Dampeer. The big DT showed up at Oklahoma weighing 325, but Shipp, the Sooner D-line coach reports that Dampeer is down to 305 now. "He has a chance to be special," Shipp adds.

  • New Jersey's Brian Toal is widely considered the top linebacker recruit in the Northeast, but you might not wanting him visiting your school. Toal, whose older brother is a fullback at Boston College, was in Chestnut Hill for the Eagles game against Miami. The Eagles got blown out, making it the fourth time Toal has taken a visit and the host has lost. Earlier this season, he visited BC when it lost to Wake Forest and Penn State when it lost at home to BC. Last year, Toal visited Notre Dame and the Irish lost that game too.

    Bruce Feldman covers college football for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at bruce.feldman@espnmag.com.