Before the start of spring practice, my primary positions of worry for the defense were tackle and linebacker. As I had an opportunity to read accounts of the defensive productivity, watch the final scrimmage, and the spring game, a new concern emerged: defensive end. Dadi Nicolas is the only proven commodity at end (assuming, based on his outstanding spring at nose tackle, Corey Marshall stays inside). Ken Ekanem is a very talented player who had an outstanding spring, but has next to no game experience. Both should be productive players, but in Bud Foster's system there's a critical need for solid depth along the defensive line.
Dooley's Debut on the Two-Deep
Seth Dooley began spring as the co-number one with Ekanem, but ended as No. 2 behind him. In the two scrimmages I watched, he wasn't a disruptive force in the backfield, and sometimes appeared to be reading the play instead of attacking his assignment. On the opening drive of the Maroon–White game, the white offense ran a fake dive end around to Demitri Knowles. On the play, the scheme isolated Dooley in space.
The run action shows a zone stretch right with a crossbuck motion by the flanker. On the base zone stretch play, that flanker would likely chip Dooley to open up a cutback lane, and then float to the left flat for a bootleg pass. Dooley squeezes inside, but with both linebackers crashing inside, somebody (possibly Dooley) has bootleg-reverse contain responsibility. Knowles instead gets the hand off and gets outside leverage on Dooley. He looks a little awkward in his recovery effort (and isn't helped by a badly missed tackle by Der'Woun Greene).
Against the pass, Dooley, who created tremendous pressure last fall camp against lower tier personnel, didn't generate much rush. I noted a series of plays on obvious passing downs where Dooley essentially tried to bull rush or speed rush Mark Shuman and failed to generate any pressure. Here is one example (Dooley is at the right defensive end).
Dooley attempts to bull rush. He doesn't appear to use any kind of leverage throw or rip. Later, in the scrimmage there were two passing downs in a row where Dooley tries a speed rush. On both plays Shuman eats him up.
Dooley was solid against the run at the point of attack and has the physical ability to be a solid defensive end. His brain appears to be tying up his feet on passing and option and/or influence plays. I expect him to improve with more experience. The next game he plays in will be his first. As of right now though, Dooley is going to have to perform better in order to be trusted in the defensive line rotation, and the defensive coaches need him to take that next step.
Dewayne Alford spent much of the spring injured. The most eye-popping performance from a defensive end in the Maroon–White game came from walk-on Jeremy Haynes. Haynes (6-3, 222) who started spring practice defensive tackle, moved to end after Alford's injury and generated several big plays.
Haynes showed excellent speed and leverage moves on the edge. On this play, Brenden Motley had tight end Bucky Hodges wide open on a post route. However, Haynes' used a quick hand slap to beat right tackle Parker Osterloh, which pressured the passer, and forced a quick and inaccurate throw from Motley.
Haynes notched a sack using a combination of speed and a hand slap on Osterloh.
Haynes could be a surprise, but he was not as dynamic in the running game. Keep an eye on how fall camp progresses to see if he gets an opportunity to shake up the two deep.
Melvin Keihn as a Defensive End
After watching Melvin Keihn's film, I thought he looked most effective as a blitzing middle linebacker, similar to Bruce Taylor who excelled stopping the run guard-to-guard and blitzing off the edge from the 46 defensive alignment. With Clarke, McKinnon, and excellent prospect Raymon Minor all at the backer position, Keihn could find himself challenging Andrew Motuapuaka at Mike, or he could be used to address the immediate need at defensive end. You will recall, Taylor played some end as a redshirt freshman in Blacksburg.
From a defensive end perspective, Keihn has raw natural ability. He demonstrates excellent down the line speed (critical for the defensive ends blocking off cutback lanes on running plays).
Much like Dooley, Keihn is naturally strong at the point of attack. Here, he maintains his gap fit, keeping his outside shoulder free for contain.
He goes beyond his assignment. Coach Wiles calls for his defensive linemen to not only complete their assignment, but also be playmakers. Keihn has the strength to collapse the block without losing his gap fit.
When it comes to pass rush, Keihn's technique is a raw. His best pass rush move looks to be a very subtle push-pull technique, where he bull rushes and then gives a little to create separation. His best weapon is a tremendous motor. He doesn't give up on the play, and several of his sacks on his highlight reel are plays where he is initially blocked and then recovers to make the tackle after the quarterback leaves the pocket.
I enjoy how Bud Foster uses players with unique skill sets and incorporates those skill sets into his defensive scheme. For example, Alonzo Tweedy was used as a speed blitzer. Bruce Taylor found a niche as an edge rusher from the 46. Keihn's special skill at backing into coverage could enhance Foster's ability to zone blitz.
On this play, Keihn is aligned to the boundary. As I'm sure you recall, over the years the boundary corners are usually attacked with short curl routes and double moves. Keihn steps forward in pass rush mode, and then jab steps and drops into a short zone. The quarterback reads off-man coverage and throws the short curl to the boundary. He doesn't see Keihn dropping into his throwing lane, and Keihn demonstrates the ball skills to make a tough interception. He also has the athleticism to make a big play on the return.
Keihn will be a work in progress at end. I thought he played more instinctively at linebacker and looks like a tremendous blitzer. However, the need at defensive end (coupled with the likelihood that Kevin Bronson will continue to play defensive tackle) could mean that the shortest route to the field for Keihn will be playing defensive end.
Foster's other options are limited. Perhaps Marshall could swing outside. Vince Mihota could get another look at end. Perhaps Ricky Walker, who played some end and middle linebacker during his senior year, has enough quickness to play end along with tackle like Jim Davis. One thing is certain. For the defensive line to play to its highest level, Foster must have four dependable defensive ends when the Hokies roll into Columbus if they hope to beat the Buckeyes and Urban Meyer's version of the single-wing spread.