The Arkansas-Pine Bluff defensive line wasn’t flashy last season, but it was effective in helping minimize the effect of the opponents’ running game.
UAPB allowed 119.0 rushing yards per game, which ranked third in the SWAC. Five of the Golden Lions’ top 13 tacklers came from the defensive line, and of the five, only two have completed their eligibility.
UAPB defensive line coach Dennis Winston wishes he could have another year with Michael Johnson and Johnny Ware.
“We wish we had them back one more year, but those guys just happened to be seniors,” Winston said. “If they had two years (left), we’d be pretty good.”
Even with 10 returning defensive starters on this year’s team, Winston has yet to solidify his starting front four for the Sept. 1 season opener against Langston (Okla.) at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium.
“Right now, we’re trying to figure out who wants to be physical other than the two ends we’ve got now,” Winston said.
Senior Brandon Thurmond is a favorite to start at one of the ends again. He led all returning defensive linemen with seven tackles for losses and had 3.5 sacks in 2011.
Thurmond said he’s seen some improvements from the line.
“We’re doing better running to the ball,” he said. “We’re hustling a lot more. We have great experience coming back. We have 10 starters coming back. We’re just wanting to good things.”
Junior Damien Lee could start again at the other end after forcing three fumbles and making 5.5 stops for losses last year. He’s battling Georgia Military College transfer Anthony Smith for the starting job.
Senior Robert Dorsey, juniors Sean Robinson, Anquan Rimes and Steven Mathis and sophomore Troy Goss are battling for the top two defensive tackle positions.
If the linemen have accomplished anything in preseason camp, it’s being able to call their own plays with the rest of the defense in the huddle.
“We don’t need for coach to call plays,” Lee said. “We can do line stunts on our own, and with the secondary, it’s more of one-jelled unit. Right now, we’re still working on getting together, making sure our camaraderie is good.”
They’ll get to work on that today, when the Lions hold their second and final preseason camp scrimmage starting at 2:15 p.m. But it may be a little while longer for Winston to determine his starting linemen.
“Even that week before the start, we don’t really know who’s going to start,” Winston said. “We’re going to have a mixture of guys doing different things for us.”
The real challenge for Winston’s D-line could come in conference play, where the Lions often face mismatches in the trenches.
“The one thing about this league, it’s going to have some huge offensive linemen,” Winston said. “We’ve got to find a way to beat them, if we’ve got to out-scheme them, put certain guys in certain mismatches. If we get a big guy, we want a little guy to kind of out-quick him. If we’ve got a size advantage, we want to put our big guys against their little guy.
“We want to take advantage of every opportunity we get to make a big play.”