Tate: Battle for D-linemen — on and off field

Tate: Battle for D-linemen — on and off field

Successful offensive units are easier to mold than football defenses.

The Illini have usually found this so. Defense takes more athletic talent. On offense, you start with five big horses who aren’t agile enough for the DL, build them up to 300 pounds and give them strict assignments. They should at least be capable of pass blocking.

Receivers are in abundance because the nation’s fleet young racers have discovered that life as a busy ball carrier is short-lived. Face it, you’re less likely to be injured on the perimeter, and it’s a better route to early playing time at every level. And quarterbacks are developed everywhere with the help of proliferating summer 7-on-7 programs.

Defensively, it’s more reactive. Instincts are more important than programming. The offense knows what’s coming, defenders don’t. So you play like your hair is on fire. You shed, you run and you tackle ... if you can.

Illini need additions

Defensive linemen are as scarce as basketball centers — and subject to intense recruiting.

The Illini added just two high school DL products in 2013 after Bryce Douglas failed medical clearance and Paul James fell short academically.

With James arriving in January, they added just one other prep, Ohioan Tito Odenigbo, this fall. And presently, with Chicago Al Raby High School standout Jamal Milan expected to pop soon for the home state, the Illini have no D-linemen out of 13 early commits.

I believe football games are won and lost up front. If the D-line isn’t dominant, it creates problems for the linebackers and secondary. A primary reason why Illinois has fielded just two plus-.500 Big Ten records in 20 years is this: UI front-four stalwarts seldom stack up. And when the precious few begin to excel, they leave as juniors ... like Akeem Spence, Josh Brent, Corey Liuget and Whitney Mercilus.

Since 1990, when Moe Gardner and Mel Agee starred, the Illini have gone 23 years with one first-team all-conference D-lineman: One! Mercilus, an end, in 2011. Mercilus was virtually unknown in Akron when current Youngstown State coach Eric Wolford found him.

And in those 20 years, the Illini have produced one Big Ten second-teamer at D-tackle: One! Liuget in 2010.

Buckeyes, Spartans strong

Since we tend to follow the ball, it’s hard to ascertain what’s happening in up-front collisions every Saturday.

It’s not like wrestling, where all eyes are focused on two heavyweight grapplers. We can see what’s happening on the mat. The superior athlete wins virtually every time. He wears down his opponent and gets the pin. In the football trenches, this happens multiple times, almost without our knowledge. It’s maul or get mauled.

At Ohio State, where the current fuss is about an injured quarterback, the Buckeyes are likely to win anyway because coach Urban Meyer has up-front advantages with five-star (starters Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington) and four-star D-linemen (five others). They arrived bigger, stronger and more capable.

Michigan State has drawn alongside, doing it the old-fashioned way. The Spartans peaked with a fearsome front wall last season and return with 10 front-four members who have redshirted. Yep, 10 of 11 Spartans D-linemen have arranged for an extra year. All four Spartan starters are in their fourth season there, and three could be back in 2015. That’s what you call a system.

Rich get richer

Looking to recruiting, we see the best prospects enrolling with the teams that have had the most success. For example, according to Rivals.com, the trio of Ohio State (16), Michigan (7) and Michigan State (7) attracted 30 four-star or better athletes in the new freshman class, and the other 11 conference schools just 28. Projected tailenders Illinois, Purdue (1) and Rutgers combined for one four-star athlete. It’s hard to catch up when most of the higher-rated players pack already-overloaded rosters.

As for D-tackles, Michigan State’s surge attracted two four-star freshmen this year, and the other 13 Big Ten schools none. OK, some of those defensive ends, like the UI’s Odenigbo, may grow into tackles, but you get the point.

So if you wonder why the Big Ten is rated so far behind the SEC, how’s that for an answer? Those SEC defensive coordinators could coach with their arms folded and without whistles, and still win games. Just tell those big tackles, when the ball is snapped, throw a fit. It’s a reactive position. Defensive line talent abounds overwhelmingly in the South.

Some solid players

Tim Beckman is obliged to rattle the bushes. Ron Zook attracted current seniors Austin Teitsma, Jake Howe (now listed at fullback) and DeJazz Woods by beating out MAC-level rivals. With the home state not producing like it used to, and his impact in Ohio dwindling, Beckman has been forced into the JC ranks.

Juco tackle Abe Cajuste had no impact last year. Juniors Jihad Ward and Joe Fotu appear better, and January arrival James is progressing rapidly. Jarrod Clements and Teko Powell are primed for breakout seasons and, with Ken Nelson, Robbie Bain and Dawuane Smoot stepping up, this unit looks solid two-deep.

So they’ll be better up front. In fact, they should be markedly better than the unit that permitted 29 rushing TDs and 2,863 yards on the ground.

But you can see how difficult it is when you’re shunted by the few quality D-linemen in the Midwest.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.