2015 Position Preview: Defensive Line

 Zach Shaw looks poised to have a big year for the Hoosiers in 2015 Photo Credit - Indiana University 

Zach Shaw looks poised to have a big year for the Hoosiers in 2015 Photo Credit - Indiana University 

Written By: Nick Holmes (@HoosierHolmes)

For the second straight day we are spending some time in the trenches, but now on the opposite side of the ball, looking at the many athletes responsible for helping this defense meet its potential this fall. 

It's year two in the 3-4 alignment and the defense looks to continue its rise towards respectability, which starts with the team's defensive line. It's been quite sometime since the Hoosiers could really boast about a talented, experienced group upfront on defense, but this fall it appears they'll be able to do just that. Despite the graduation of the team's sack leader in Bobby Richardson, this group will not only continue to improve against the run, but should also increase its effectiveness of getting to the quarterback, improving upon its 23 sacks from last fall which were good for No. 82 nationally.  

Entering his fourth and likely final season in the Cream and Crimson, Nick Mangieri finds himself back with his hand in the dirt at defensive end after a one year stint at Bandit. The play by his backup Zach Shaw at Bandit combined with the graduation of Richardson, prompted Wilson to move Mangieri back to his old position. "It's been pretty seamless," Hoosiers defensive line coach Larry McDaniel said about Mangieri's transition back to defensive end. "I think that he's comfortable down there. He's back with the group of guys that he's been with for his first couple years here. From the standpoint of him coming into the room and just fitting in like an old shoe, he's able to do that." In preparation for his move back to defensive end, the Illinois native has put on 15-plus pounds since last fall. His ability to generate consistent pressure on the opponent's quarterback could really go a long way in helping mask the secondary's youth. 

Former four star recruit Darius Latham has been one of the few players from the Hoosiers' highly-touted 2013 class to live up to the hype. The Indianapolis native is so versatile and agile he could legitimately line up in all three positions across the defensive front and thrive. In fact, he would probably be an upgrade in the front court on the University's basketball squad, but I digress. Having played in all 24 games he's been with the Hoosiers, you know exactly what to expect from Latham, consistent effort and borderline All-Big Ten play. Elevating his game to another level  will make Mangieri and the other defensive end's jobs much easier.  

As a member of Coach Wilson's very first recruiting class at Indiana, Adarius Rayner has seen quite a bit in his five years with the program. He redshirted during the team's 1-11 performance in 2011, Wilson's inaugural season with the school. He's been an active member on the last three squads that couldn't quite put all the pieces together, getting close but falling short of qualifying for the postseason. He's been a part of upsets over ranked opponents and he's left the field upset when the Hoosiers have been knocked off by lesser foes.

However, this year has all the makings of a special season and the Florida native hopes to be a big reason for that. Wilson named Rayner the most improved player during the spring and he would love nothing more than to live up to the billing and end his career on a high note. He has already started his senior season off on a high note, as he was one of three players sent to Chicago to represent the team at Big Ten Media Days. Rayner looks poised to be a starter in 2015 after starting in seven games last fall. 

The remaining spot upfront is that all so important and crucial position, Bandit. Zach Shaw, as mentioned above, was outstanding at times last season, making the decision to move Mangieri back to defensive end that much easier. This is a physically taxing position to play, asking a player to be stout against the run, be a proficient pass rusher, but they also must be nimble enough to drop back in coverage and pick up slot receivers, tight ends, and running backs. The former four-star recruit certainly possesses all the traits a coaching staff would looking for in such a position.  

However, the strength of this defensive line goes well beyond just its starting four, which is what makes the potential of this group so exciting. The Hoosiers frequently make wholesale substitutions of position groups throughout games, and while sometimes there is a noticeable drop off in skill or in experience, that will not be the case with the front four. The team returns multiple players who saw extensive action last fall as well as adding some very talented underclassmen to the mix.

Redshirt sophomore Nate Hoff was under-the-radar, putting it nicely, entering last season. A late addition to the 2013 class, Hoff made the most of his reps as a redshirt freshman in 2014, racking up some impressive stats and being named honorable mention on both the CollegeFootballNews.com Freshman All-American team and BTN.com All-Big Ten Freshman team. There's also a strong likelihood he too could be a starter, but at a minimum he will be a huge part of the team's four-man rotation on the interior of the defensive line.

The largest of the lot, Ralph Green III also brings extensive game experience to the defensive/nose tackle position. The redshirt junior will be looking for somewhat of a bounce back season in 2015, as he regressed statistically from his freshman to his sophomore campaign. I fully expect "Big Ralph" to play a large role on the interior of the defensive line this fall.

While it appears that Latham, Rayner, Hoff, and Green make up your two-deep at defensive/nose tackle, it's a greater mystery as to whom will be slotted behind both Magieri and Shaw. However, the team is certainly not short on options.

It looks like a two man race for the backup bandit spot between redshirt freshman Nile Sykes and sophomore Greg Gooch, who saw action at inside linebacker last fall. Sykes should have a leg up on his competition, as he has been getting reps at the position for far longer than the other contenders, but Gooch does have in game experience and knows first hand what it takes to compete in the Big Ten. It will be interesting to see how this one will play out, but I don't think the team can go wrong in either case.   

Predicting who might end up as the backup defensive end is a little more difficult, however it appears that true freshman Jacob Robinson could be in the mix. The Westfield native has been turning heads all summer and has caught the attention of some of the elder statesmen on the squad. "I've seen him grow a lot from the summer since he came in until right now, he's been doing a lot of great things on and off the field," said Rayner. "Also, he's going to help the d-line as a whole, just because of his pass rush and also his learning ability, (he is) able to learn plays very fast. So he's been doing great." 

Other candidates include redshirt junior Shawn Heffern and sophomore Robert McCray III, who was moved to defensive end after playing at Bandit last season. Heffern played well in 12 games last fall, so he has the experience factor on his side. McCray looked good during the team's spring game this past April, recording two sacks against the Hoosiers vaunted offensive line. Although, important to keep in mind that the officials were quick to blow plays dead when a defender got too close to the quarterback. There's a strong likelihood that all three could see playing time at differing points throughout the season, depending upon the down, distance, and which player(s) are better at defending the run verse getting to the quarterback. 

The Hoosiers remaining five scholarship options include redshirt sophomore Patrick Dougherty, redshirt freshmen Derrian Meminger and Michael Barwick Jr., and true freshmen Brandon Wilson and Joe Belden. Dougherty, Meminger, and Barwick will provide depth and help on the scout team this fall. Wilson has been practicing at Bandit, so it remains to be seen what type of impact he will have this fall, but the staff is high on his potential. Belden also looks to have a bright future with the Hoosiers, but seems like a candidate to redshirt this season.

74 Nate Hoff NT 6-2 303 RS SO 29 8.5 3.5
98 Darius Latham DT 6-5 300 JR 26 5.5 1.5 1 3
56 Nick Mangieri DE 6-5 275 SR 26 6 3 1 5 1
33 Zack Shaw BAN 6-3 253 RS SR 24 4.5 1.5 1 1
93 Ralph Green III NT 6-5 304 RS JR 19 4.5 1 1
53 Shawn Heffern DE 6-6 280 RS JR 18 1.5 2
99 Adarius Rayner DT 6-2 299 RS SR 12 2.5 1
49 Greg Gooch BAN 6-2 250 SO 11 1.5 1 1
47 Robert McCray III DE 6-2 280 SO 1
58 Patrick Dougherty DT 6-5 290 RS SO Did not play in 2014
35 Nile Sykes BAN 6-2 242 RS FR Redshirt in 2014
96 Derrian Meminger DT 6-4 265 RS FR Redshirt in 2014
51 Michael Barwick Jr. NT 6-0 290 RS FR Redshirt in 2014
91 Jacob Robinson DE 6-4 262 FR First year at IU
90 Joe Belden DL 6-2 250 FR First year at IU
95 Brandon Wilson BAN 6-3 252 FR First year at IU

The Hoosiers enter the 2015 season with plenty of talented, experienced options to employ along the trenches on the defensive side of the ball. This team will need the big guys upfront to set the tone and get to the quarterback early and often to help alleviate some of the pressure on the younger members of the secondary.