Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Ranking the best nose tackles in the Big 12

Earlier in the year I broke down some of the common positions and archetypes you tend to find in the Big 12 these days, including the nose tackle who's job it is to keep the linebackers free from blockers and thus limit creases.

Andrew Billings was the best nose tackle in the Big 12 in 2015 and although he wasn't drafted high, his ability to beat double teams was essential in a league where RPOs (run/pass option plays) require that teams be able to play 5.5 defenders in the box.

You can read some about how Baylor accomplished this with Billings and how it works in quarters coverage in general on this phenomenal blog.

No matter the specific tactics, spread formations and RPOs require that quarters defenses be able to widen out their linebackers to deny easy passing lanes without getting mauled in the middle of the field. How do you buy time for that? With a DL that can command and resist a double team for a second or two in the A-gaps before the linebackers commit and arrive to fill creases.

That's a tough gig on a play like inside zone where a quick, 290 pound center and a big, 310 pound guard are coming at you. However, for guys who can play at a low pad level with quick, violent hands, it can be feasible. Andrew Billings was such a guy for Baylor last year.

Here's a ranking of the 10 main defensive tackles that will be called upon to serve in this role in 2016 for the Big 12:

No. 1: Will Geary, Kansas State

6-0, 297. Redshirt junior.
2015 season: 45 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles

Geary was a walk-on at Kansas State and a former HS champion in's funny that a kid who's naturally low to the ground yet thick, powerful, and skilled at grappling would be overlooked as an obvious candidate to excel at defensive tackle yet here we are.

The Wildcat nose is perhaps the best in the conference at standing his ground against double teams but can also add some stunting and pass-rush to a D-line as well.

No. 2: Vincent Taylor, Oklahoma State

6-3, 300. Redshirt junior.
2015 season: 48 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks

Taylor is easily one of the better names on this list. He had a strong season a year ago, particularly working in the pass-rush inside of Ogbah and Bean who both commanded some attention. His partner Motekiai Maile was a boost as well, limiting the occasions in which he was battling double teams, but there's simply no denying that Taylor was strong up the middle in his own right.

I bet he'll get more attention in 2016, and more doubles, but he has the quickness to avoid getting washed out and he can dominate a guard in isolation.

No. 3: Matt Romar/Jordan Wade, Oklahoma

6-0, 300. Redshirt junior. 6-3, 310. Redshirt senior.
2015 season: 46 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks (combined)

This position is a timeshare at Oklahoma with Matt Romar technically serving as the starter but Wade getting as many snaps. Wade is probably the more disruptive player when not doubled but both are solid at commanding their A-gap and allowing the linebackers to read flow and run free to the football.

The Sooner front is all about eating blocks and space inside, even for the ends who might otherwise be pretty nasty in a more aggressive front, and these two are solid in their role in the middle. The nature of their alignment (over the center) means that they are typically grappling with the center and looking to fill an A-gap and then make the play if they aren't doubled by the guard. They don't make a ton of plays as a result although Wade's superior length at 6'3" might allow him a better chance to work his way into the backfield in his final year.

No. 4: Breylin Mitchell, TCU

6-3, 270. Sophomore
2015 season: 4 tackles, 1 tackle for loss

Mitchell was a surprise in spring ball after starting behind some other candidates in the Frog DL corps. Once again, you look at nose tackle play and you see something interesting and largely unexamined about a team. TCU looks like they'll be a load on defense in 2016 but they still have to replace Davion Pierson in the middle and will be looking to a true sophomore to lead the way. Mitchell played so little in 2015 that I'm not sure I've seen any snaps of him.

I have seen snaps from the guys he's beating for the job and some of them are pretty solid so I'm still comfortable in my seat on the TCU bandwagon.

No. 5: Chris Nelson, Texas

6-1, 307. Redshirt sophomore
2015 season: 7 tackles, 1 sack

Nelson is the main hope for Texas of fielding a tackle in 2016 that can regularly take on double teams without getting blown off the line of scrimmage. The likely starters, Poona Ford and Paul Boyette, are both much better when attacking guards and looking to shoot gaps but then less effective if they find a 2nd OL in their path. Texas also has some freshman coming in that should grow into fine nose tackles with time and seasoning.

In the meantime, they'll be relying on redshirt sophomore Chris Nelson to be a force in the middle and keep their young, athletic LB corps from getting linemen in their faces all day every Saturday. He showed a lot of promise here in 2015 with a thick, sturdy frame that's low to the ground and hard to move combined with quick feet that allowed him to play fullback and linebacker in high school.

No. 6: Daniel Wise, Kansas

6-3, 290. Redshirt sophomore.
2015 season: 26 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks

The Jayhawk front is designed to try and protect their DTs from double teams by slanting them from 2-technique alignments into the A or B gaps after the snap. Within that system, Wise was pretty active in 2015 and he played with good pad level overall. He's more or less who I would have hoped he'd be (were I a Kansas fan) after evaluating his high school tape when he was an aggressive and active, 240-pound DE.

Given that he was just a redshirt freshman last year, his tape is actually quite good. He'll need to be a bit more disruptive in 2015 to justify a system that defers stress to the linebackers and safeties but he seems to be a solid piece to the puzzle for Beaty and co.

No. 7: Pierre Aka, Iowa State

6-4, 295. Redshirt senior.
2015 season: 20 tackles, .5 tackles for loss

Aka served as a DE in a 3-4 scheme for the Cyclones last year, playing a technique similar to the one employed by the Sooners. Now in Heacock's 4-2 fronts he moves to nose tackle in order to allow the ultra-disruptive Demond Tucker to line up as a 3-technique.

His length will be useful there for keeping down blocks and double teams away from his body and he's been doing so for a year already while working against guards and tackles. With extra bulk and an offseason of coaching in this fine art from the new staff I think he may be quite solid here in 2016.

Tucker's the one you'll hear about though, freed up to play as a weakside 3-tech that guy could make some real noise in 2016.

No. 8: Darrien Howard, West Virginia

6-1, 295. Senior.
2015 season: 16 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 1 sack

Last year Howard got some action as the pass-rushing nose option behind sturdy senior, Kyle Rose. He's pretty quick for a squatty DL and offered some nice value there for the Mountaineers. West Virginia uses a zero-technique and tries to help their nose tackles avoid double teams by getting into the chest of the center and then working into either A-gap and there's reason to believe that Howard will be reasonably effective at this. Overall he'll likely be a marginal downgrade from Rose.

No. 9: Byron Bonds, Baylor

6-2, 290. Senior
2015 season: 7 tackles, .5 tackles for loss

The Baylor DL has been devastated by graduation, Billings' early departure to the NFL, and then suspensions for prospective starters Jeremy Faulk and Brian Nance. Faulk was the intended solution for how to replace Billings but now it looks like the Bears will have to play some 3-man fronts and lean on Byron Bonds.

This is a pretty dubious situation, imo. Bonds played mostly as a 3-technique a year ago and was generally just attacking gaps. When he has to stand his ground against down blocks or double teams things don't generally go too well. If the Bears line him up as a zero technique they can avoid him facing many down blocks but if opponents want to single-team him or perhaps send a guard his way for a quick push before moving on to a linebacker I have real doubts about whether he'll be able to make them pay. There probably isn't a DL for Baylor that needs to be double-teamed on run downs, which will be a problem.

Ondre Pipkins/Broderick Washington, Texas Tech

6-3, 330. Redshirt senior. 6-3, 308. Redshirt freshman
2015 season: N/A

If Texas Tech is horrendous at run defense again look no further than this position for an explanation of why. Gibbs will probably have a stronger front overall and regularly use Jah'Shawn Johnson to help out in the box, but both of these guys are big question marks. Pipkins was pressured to retire by Harbaugh at Michigan after knee troubles prevented him from being the Under front nose tackle he was intended to be for basically his entire career. The hope is that a year off for his knee and some conditioning will have him ready to put in a year's work plugging holes for Tech in the Big 12.

I don't doubt the talent, but I question Pipkins' ability to finally have that healthy season. Bad knees+330 pound frames+double teams+Texas heat=....

Then you have Broderick Washington, who's never played a college game and projected as a quick but undersized OL coming out of high school. He's going to be ready to provide 40 snaps or more of double-team consuming play in the interior? Also very iffy.

1 comment:

  1. 2016 West Virginia Mountaineers
    Darrien Howard #49
    Senior DL
    6-1 300 Dayton, OH
    through 12/23/2016

    Darrien Howard surprised many with such high production from the NT position for the Mountaineer defense.

    Through 12 games:
    Solo Tackles 38
    Assisted Tackles: 21
    Total: 59
    Sacks: 3
    Forced Fumble: 1
    Fumble Recoveries: 3