CHARLESTON, S.C. – The Charleston Southern Sports Information Department is providing a position-by-position preview of the Buccaneers' 2017 squad. In today's edition, we take a look at the defensive line.
Projected Starters: Anthony Ellis, Johnny Robinson, Noah Oliver, Solomon Brown
Other Returners: Skyler Curry, Eishaun Funnye, Jacob Garibay, Ramel Hambrick-Crawford, Nick Sands, Mike Taylor
Lost: RaSean Ray, Gerald Turner
Additions/Newcomers: Ronald Freeman, Jonathan Glover, Shaundre Mims, Kenneth Spiller
Three Things to Watch from the CSU Defensive Line
From 3-4 to 4-3
The biggest change for CSU defensively is the switch to a base four-man front from the three-man look that had been its primary alignment the last four seasons. Although a new wrinkle, it is hardly foreign to a unit that head coach Mark Tucker estimates played close to 50 percent of its snaps last year in a similar format. The biggest adjustment, according to defensive line coach Josh Cooper, is becoming accustomed to attacking blocks instead of reading them.
"I don't know how different it is but that's something I have to stress every day – 'hey, we're attacking the line of scrimmage and trying to play in their backfield, not step with them and read with them,'" Cooper said. "It's more about coming off the ball and reacting to blocks so that's something we need to work every day."
Brown adapting to another hybrid role
Solomon Brown burst onto the scene as Big South Conference Freshman of the Year in 2015 and followed up with a stellar 2016, earning STATS FCS Third Team All-America honors. Brown led CSU with 70 tackles, including a season-high 13 against Wofford in the FCS Playoffs. After two production-packed seasons at 'Bandit,' a defensive end-linebacker hybrid spot, Brown is transitioning to play 'Buc' in CSU's new scheme. His football acumen has made that process relatively seamless.
"He played some on the line of scrimmage last year and he's one of the smarter guys on the team," Cooper said. "He takes everything in and he'll ask questions. Whatever adjustment it has been, he's done a great job with it and he's one of the leaders in that group."
Stars plus strength in numbers
CSU's defensive line has provided the foundation for one of the FCS's best defenses in recent years. One reason for that, in addition to stalwarts like Brown and Anthony Ellis, is the number of options the Bucs have in the trenches. Johnny Robinson and Noah Oliver are both returning starters at tackle, and others like Mike Taylor, Nick Sands and Ramel Hambrick-Crawford have contributed meaningfully. CSU has rotated as many as nine different defensive linemen in games during the last two seasons, and Cooper expects depth to show up again in 2017.
"We have a lot of depth," Cooper said. "For me, that's been one of the toughest things is we have a lot of good players on the d-line which is a blessing and a curse at the same time because you want everybody to get their time. We will rotate guys and try to keep 'em fresh because if you want guys to play at their top level, they gotta be fresh."
Player Spotlight – Anthony Ellis
What's in store for year four? After getting his feet wet among a veteran defensive line group in 2014, Anthony Ellis emerged as one of the nation's most disruptive forces over the last two years.
Ellis was named the 2016 Big South Defensive Player of the Year after pacing the league with seven sacks and 16 tackles for loss. He garnered All-America nods from the Associated Press and STATS FCS as well, making him an easy choice for 2017 Big South Preseason Defensive Player of the Year. Just this past week, Ellis was named to the watch list for the Buck Buchanan Award, presented to the FCS's top defender. The Apopka, Fla., native has been everything Cooper heard about when he took over the position group last spring.
"You look at him and sometimes you forget his size because he's so quick and so fast," Cooper said. "He'll run down a running back or a receiver and you forget he's a bigger guy playing d-line. He's another guy that does things the right way, whether it's squeezing blocks or taking a guy off a linebacker or whatever it may be. He's consistent in getting it right."
"It is a challenge but it's a welcome challenge. I think with the quality of young men that we have, they have handled it extremely well. Anything takes a little bit of time but they have given us a chance which is all you ask for, especially as a young coach. You ask for them to give you that chance to show them what you know and how we can all make this program better." – CSU defensive line coach Josh Cooper on working with an experienced, successful unit
62 – CSU's dynamic edge rushing duo of Ellis (36) and Brown (26) has combined for 62 tackles for loss in their careers. Ellis has 15.5 career sacks, while Brown has 10.5. Ellis is tied for sixth all-time in Big South history in both TFL and sacks, and is well within reach of becoming the third player in league annals with 40 TFL and 20 sacks.
1 – CSU led the Big South with 29 sacks last season, seven more than second-place Monmouth. The Bucs had three players – Ellis (1st), Brown (6th) and Taylor (10th) – among the league's top ten in that department individually.
CSU held its second full contact practice on Monday afternoon, and will do so again on Tuesday before conducting a situational scrimmage during the latter half of practice on Wednesday afternoon. Practice is set to start at 2:55 p.m.