NEWPORT, R.I. — In Luke Sager's first year at USF in 2009, the Bulls had a dominating defensive line, with an All-American in George Selvie on one end and a future first-round draft pick on the other in Jason Pierre-Paul.
That relentless pressure and harassing presence in opposing backfields hasn't been there the same way for USF in three seasons since. But as Sager enters his senior season, he's confident the Bulls can get back to their old ways on defense, starting with a defensive line that may be the team's deepest and strongest position.
"I think it's going to get back to how we were, when our defensive line really controlled the game," said Sager, who started every game at defensive tackle last season, totaling 26 tackles. "I think we have the ability to go out there against any team we play and really dominate and set the tone for our team."
That would be a stark contrast to 2012, when USF's defensive line couldn't create consistent pressure, giving opposing quarterbacks time to make plays, especially late in games. Unable to force bad throws, the Bulls totaled two interceptions as a team, and the defensive line's statistics weren't much better: 14 total sacks in 12 games and just one forced fumble.
"We know we failed last year as a defensive line," said Sager, who likes what he sees in veteran ends Tevin Mims, Ryne Giddins and Julius Forte, as well as promising talent in Notre Dame transfer Aaron Lynch, who was a freshman All-American in 2011, leading the Fighting Irish in sacks.
Throughout spring practice, Sager's name consistently came up as first-year coach Willie Taggart discussed the emerging leaders on his team.
"Definitely, one of my personal goals was to become a leader on this team," said Sager, who earned his undergraduate degree in communications last year and is working on a Master's degree in entrepreneurship. "Especially how we've been the past two seasons, lacking leadership, I made up my mind to come out every day and give 100 percent. I'm trying to lead by example."
Defensive line coach Eric Mathies said as he evaluated last year's game tapes, he saw too much of Sager, charting him for as many as 70 plays in a game. Relying too much on starters may have contributed to the Bulls' late-game struggles on defense, something he hopes to avoid this year with better rotation.
"You want to have fresh legs," said Mathies, who coached Taggart's defensive line at Western Kentucky. "You're a defensive tackle playing 70-some plays, you're getting pounded. In the fourth quarter, you can't be good. No matter how tough that kid is, the body's only going to do so much."
Asked if playing less individually could help produce better results as a unit, Sager said the Bulls will benefit from improved depth this fall, not only in production on the field but in competition off of it.
"I definitely felt I was a little overused last year," Sager said. "We didn't have as much depth as we have this year. The starters were forced to play a larger role. Now there's going to be little or no dropoff from the 1s to the 2s."
Mathies is confident in his depth on the line, such that his biggest challenge entering the season is finding that ideal combination of players for each situation as a game unfolds.
"We'll go as far as our d-line takes us," defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan said. "Punishing quarterbacks is going to be big for us. Does that take pressure off the other guys? No, they still have their responsibilities. But our defensive line should set the tempo for our play on defense. "