Football Preview: The Defensive Line
First in a series of stories looking at the 2012 Rockets by position.
Toledo's defense has made significant strides over the past few years, thanks in part to its improved depth. Nowhere is that depth more noticeable than on the defensive line. The Rockets had enough numbers on the line last year to survive the loss of three starters to injury and still win the Military Bowl. The 2012 season should be similar, as eight returning linemen have at least some experience in the trenches.
Leading the way is two-time All-MAC defensive end T.J. Fatinikun. Fatinikun, a senior, was enjoying an outstanding junior season when he went down with an arm injury midway through the year, missing the final six games. He still tied for the team lead with 7.5 tackles for loss and earned third-team All-MAC honors. Fatinikun sat out during spring practice but says he is 100 percent healthy and looking forward to a big year. Head Coach Matt Campbell agrees. "T.J. is as good a defensive end as there is in our league," he said.
Joining Fatinikun at defensive end is junior Christian Smith (27 tackles, 5.5 TFL), a starter in six games in 2012 who came on strong toward the end of the year. He may not get the same attention as Fatinikun, but he may be just as valuable. Said Campbell, "Christian doesn't get a lot of pub, but when you break down the film, he might be one of the most consistent players on the team. If you ask our defensive coaches who holds our defense together, it might be Christian Smith."
Another junior, Jayrone Elliott, is also back. Elliott was a key reserve in 2011 and made the game-saving play in Toledo's 42-41 win over Air Force in the Military Bowl by forcing a fumble on a two-point conversion attempt with less than a minute left to play.
Senior Hank Keighley, sophomore Grant Pleasant and redshirt freshman Keenen Gibbs are all solid candidates for playing time at defensive end and will be eager to show what they can do this fall.
The defensive tackle spot is also loaded with experience and talent. Junior Elijah Jones (23 tackles, 3.0 TFL) saved his best for last, making a career-high five tackles in a clutch performance in the Military Bowl. A pair of experienced seniors, Danny Farr and Phil Lewis, are also back. Farr stepped in and made three tackles in the Military Bowl when both starting tackles were injured on the same play in the first half. Lewis is a junior college transfer who is now in his third season in the program. Junior Ben Pike, who had five sacks as a defensive end in passing situations last year, will also see time at tackle this fall.
"Danny Farr and Elijah Jones were key to how well we played defensively in the second half of the Military Bowl," said Campbell. "They turned that game around when they came in. Having that kind of depth will be crucial for us again this season."
Tomorrow: The wide receivers
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