No positional group saw the 2017 influx of talent — and then the tough progression to Big Ten competition — quite like defensive end.
Right off the bat camp was abuzz with reports of Bobby Roundtree and Isaiah Gay’s tremendous frames and potential. Their burst of the edge was Mercilus-like — wait, not Mercilus, Simeon Rice-like. They both exploded onto the scene terrorizing opposing offenses and hitting runners in the backfield with ill intent and devastating power. And then something happened: The offensive tackles no longer wore the red of Western Kentucky or Ball State. The shades of red now represented Wisconsin and Ohio State, and the reality of being a Big Ten freshman hit hard. Like 6-foot-6, 330-pound, 22-year-old NFL Draft pick hard.
And we fans closed our eyes and prayed that we could fast forward to 2018, when Roundtree and Gay had spent a year in the weight room and aged up. Well, here we are, it’s 2018 and we’ve got 19-year-olds (almost for Gay) on the defensive line, one year closer in age to the guys they’ll be trying to rip through. Roundtree put on good weight, and now looks like a defensive end that was made in a football laboratory. And while Gay missed some time with off-the-field issues, he still put on 15 pounds of muscle to help him expand his game.
The duo is still probably a year away from becoming plus players in the Big Ten, but we’re getting there, and this part of the process validates our fandom and the amount of energy spent watching Lovie’s recruiting. It’s unfair to expect the world from two guys who would still be part-time players, coming off redshirt seasons at 90% of P-5 programs, but that’s the rebuild that Lovie’s initiated. Neither has the experience to perfect the pass rush moves that will bring them to the next level. Nor do they have the lower body strength to stalemate a lineman and plug up running lanes. But we’re on the way, and that reality should be really fun with these defensive lineman.
Oh, and we can throw Owen Carney and Jamal Woods into the mix, too. Hardy Nickerson’s got more than just two sophomore defensive ends to get excited about. Both guys followed the freshman-to-sophomore blueprint and now look the part of a college football defensive end (which for my money, is the most “football” player look there is). Both Carney and Woods have the ability to get after the quarterback on passing downs, and Woods especially has the ability to dip inside on obvious passing downs and get an extra rusher on the field to mimic what the New York Giants used to do with Justin Tuck.
Like last year, we’ll probably see repeat dominating performances early in the year as the youth is overcome by pure talent. Illinois’ STILL young ends can show off and pad some early stats. As the year progresses though, we’ll see just how far they’ve come.