Until Saquon Barkley leaped his way into our hearts last season, the most recognized “leap” in our storied history belonged to a guy named LaVar, and folks, he was as big a foe of an opponents offense as there ever was. Of course, I’m talking defense now and this year’s D seems to be flying a little under the radar. All this talk of JoeMo, up-tempo, and no huddles has us all a little jaded, but I’m here to change that perception. I’m here to tell you there truly is life after AZ, AJ, and The Ultimate Underdog and it all starts up front with a crew that’s known for its bite as much as its bark: the defensive line, a.k.a. The Wild Dogs.
It’s hard to believe that just a little over two years ago there was a Facebook page floating around demanding that then athletic director, Dave Joyner, take the interim tag off of longtime D-Line coach Larry Johnson and make him the man in charge. Of course, that never materialized as LJ ended up a member of the dark side in Columbus and James Franklin came to Happy Valley with most of his assistants in tow from Vanderbilt, including his defensive line coach, Sean Spencer. He introduced himself to us all as Coach Chaos and not long after the moniker “WildDogs” was born. The combination of Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson in the middle and a mix of Deion Barnes, CJ Olaniyan, and eventually Lombardi Award winner, Carl Nassib, made for a seamless transition over the last two years. A fan base that dreaded the loss of such a huge part of success when LJ left town was able to breathe a sigh of relief thanks to Coach Chaos and that appetite for destruction he instilled in his unit. With all of them now gone, including the three drafted into the NFL this past April, the WildDogs enter 2016 as the unknown commodity on defense. But don’t be mistaken folks, they are no less hungry than they’ve always been.
After spending last season buried in the shadows of his linemates, redshirt junior Garrett Sickels returns to man his spot at defensive end and has been pegged as a candidate primed to have a breakout season. Sickels heads into this year as the unquestioned leader and voice of the WildDogs. Beyond him is a hodgepodge of new faces and inexperience. Evan Schwan is the lone senior and is battling Torrance Brown for a spot opposite Sickels. It’s impossible to imagine anyone duplicating the type of year Nassib had in 2015, but Schwan and Brown both have game experience and will give it their best shot. Behind them, redshirt freshmen Shareef Miller and Ryan Buchholz look to join the rotation. True freshman Shane Simmons comes in highly touted and could make an immediate impact at the one position shy on depth.
At defensive tackle, the job of replacing the dynamic duo of stalwarts Zettel and Johnson appears to be spearheaded by an entire committee, which seemed to be the case even when those two were playing. Parker Cothren and Curtis Cothran come in with the most on-field game experience, as does Antoine White albeit mostly in mop up duty. The star of spring ball, Kevin Givens, looks to continue his emergence as a stout run stopper in the middle. And a name that keeps being mentioned, but one we have yet to see play, is Robert Windsor who continues to impress in the early stages of training camp. Ellison Jordan is a name to remember as well, although he appears headed for a redshirt year. JUCO transfer Tyrell Chavis had some minor eligibility issues this summer but is now on campus and in the process of getting up to speed after missing the entire summers weight training sessions. Once he catches up, Chavis could make a major impact in the rotation and has two years of eligibility left to do so.
With the exception of Sickels, the third edition of the WildDogs is a smorgasbord of the unknown, much like it was in 2014 when Coach Spencer first landed in Happy Valley. The only difference this year is that we now know what the coach himself brings to the table. Intensity and an appetite for destruction. You may not be familiar with the names just yet, but with Chaos in charge, it’s not a matter of rebuild, but a matter of reload, and these WildDogs are hungry to prove their worth.