Mathies: More rotation, wrinkles on defensive line
Defensive line might be the strength of USF's 2013 football team, both in talent and depth, and defensive line coach Eric Mathies said his priority is finding the best combination and rotation of players to lead the Bulls' defense.
"My biggest concern, and our biggest challenge, is figuring out who plays when and in what situations," Mathies said Monday, preparing for the start of preseason camp Aug. 4. "As the game goes, if we're up on people and it becomes a passing game, I want to be able to say 'I'm putting my best pass-rushers on the field.' I'm not really worried about the run. Or if it's a tight ballgame, I want to be able to put my best run guys on the field. We've got the numbers."
Rotating players in, both at end and tackle, is crucial to having the same level of pressure on opposing quarterbacks at the end of games, something USF struggled with last season in losing several leads in the closing minutes.
"Where it's going to count is in the fourth quarter," Mathies said. "Whoever's hot, at that point, that's who I'm going to go with in the fourth quarter. Those are the big-time reps. We've had some situations here in the past, where maybe we didn't finish ballgames great and lost some games in the fourth quarter. That very well could be attributed to maybe not being as fresh, to not playing enough people. But these guys have to earn our trust."
Mathies has four solid ends in returning starters Tevin Mims and Julius Forte, both pushed by Notre Dame transfer Aaron Lynch and senior Ryne Giddins, who has been slowed much of the past year by shoulder issues. The leader of the line might be senior tackle Luke Sager, and the interior has promising options in players like Elkino Watson, Todd Chandler and James Hamilton, with depth beyond the initial four. With much the same cast as last year, Mathies wants a different ending than what the Bulls saw too often last year.
"There were a number of games last year when they let guys off the hook," Mathies said. "There are some older kids in that group that hopefully have pride enough, where if we get in those situations, we're not going to let that happen."
-- Here's where it gets interesting: Mathies is looking into a package with three or even four ends on the field at the same time -- the Giants used such a line in clear passing downs, calling it their "NASCAR" package; South Carolina had a "Rabbits" package with four ends, including Jadeveon Clowney, last season.
"The beauty of this group right now is I think I have two legitimate defensive ends that could go inside and play tackle," Mathies said. "That gives us flexibility. Julius Forte is tough enough and strong enough that in situations, he can go inside and play three-technique (tackle). Mims is the same way. I could potentially have four. I could have Giddins and Lynch and Forte and Mims on the field at the same time. We're going to look at it. We're going to experiment. It's a third-down package. We have the body types and mentality to get away with it."
-- Back to substituting, Mathies said Sager has been one of his most consistent players, but when he watched tape of him from last season, one thing stood out to him. "I told him 'Luke, you played too many plays.' I looked in one game, and I'm charting it as I'm evaluating last year's film, Luke played 70-something plays in a game. You're a defensive tackle, playing 70-some plays, you're getting pounded. You can't be good in the fourth quarter, no matter how tough that kid is. The body's only going to do so much."
Who else will see significant time at defensive tackle? Watson "has to continue to mature. I still think he's a young guy. He was put in a situation where he had to play early. Mentally, he's still a young guy." He's excited about Hamilton, and also about Chandler, who missed most of spring with a foot injury. "He's doing great, from everything I understand," Mathies said. "No setbacks. Knock on wood, he'll be ready for camp."
-- Who else can push for spots in the top eight? Mathies mentioned Eric Lee and Daniel Perry ("Right on the cusp. They may break into that top-four rotation. I might play five of them") at defensive end. There are returning backups at tackle like Anthony Hill, Demi Thompson and Clavion Nelson, and there's a strong group of true freshmen, led by Manatee's Derrick Calloway. Mathies said his decision on playing time will be very much determined by production in practice.
"You can be great during the week, great in one-on-one pass rush, but when we go 11-on-11 and it's live and we're tallying stats, keeping track of technique grades, and you disappear, well, that's not my fault," he said. "You've got to do something, or the next guy's going to pass you by. That's why I'm excited. We have some guys who are hungry."
Like other Bulls assistants, Mathies has been blunt about players with limited production, saying he has to judge players by what they are able to do on the field in games.
"A lot of these guys, I told them you can't go on who you think you are. Stats are real," he said. "You can tell me as good as you think you are, but when I look at the stats, and you have 2-3 tackles on the season and you don't have a sack, don't tell me that you're good. You had opportunities to prove you were good."
-- Mathies is aware of the high expectations on USF's defensive line -- he's seen national rankings that have it as high as 12th-best in the country. He still looks at last year's numbers -- with essentially the same cast of players -- and sees only 14 sacks by defensive linemen, only three quarterback hurries and only one forced fumble.
"Can I send you the stat sheet from last year?" he said. "In my eyes, that's not warranted. In my opinion, they're doing that on the potential of one kid. They're doing it on the potential of Aaron. Aaron hasn't played in a year in a half. Those guys weren't productive like they needed to be. That's my challenge to them."
Lynch has turned up on several national watch lists for defensive awards, with excitement from his freshman year at Notre Dame, when he earned Freshman All-America honors in 2011 before transferring and sitting out last season.
"He's probably the most dangerous situation as a coach, because he has so much potential," Mathies said. "As a coach, it's your job to get him to live up to that potential. He knows. In the grand scheme of things, when you break everything down, he's still just a redshirt sophomore. This was his first real offseason winter, spring, summer where he's completely in the mix and he gets what's going on."
Defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan said Lynch may start out as a third-down pass-rusher, but Mathies says he sees Lynch evolving into a complete player at his position.
"People say he can't play the run that well. I think it's because he's not confident in his strength yet," Mathies said. "It's not that he's a coward or he's not tough. It's him still growing physically. He's still not strong like he needs to be. It's going to continue to develop. He's been great. He's an amazing kid."
-- So how is Giddins' shoulder, which limited him much of last season and even in spring? "He's ready to go," Mathies said. "If it was the fall, we could have gotten away with playing him if we had to. But it was spring. We didn't need to. Let him rehab his shoulder. He's going to be ready to go, which is big for me. I've heard things. He was banged up last year. One of our GAs said 'He was really good two years ago.' I went back and watched it, and he was pretty dang good."
-- Mathies said if the defensive line is the key to USF's defensive resurgence this fall, then his position has to start with an ability to stop the run, or other things won't matter very much.
"If we don't stop the run, then all the stuff we're trying to do with different packages, everything we think we can take advantage of with our personnel, we're not going to be able to get it done if it's always second and 3, third and 2," Mathies said. "We've got to be able to stop the run. I think we're pretty solid in the box. The support we're going to get behind us at linebacker is going to help us, too."