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Know Thy Team 2011: Defensive Line

On to happier news and away from potential suspensions of quarterbacks. The unit by unit preview continues today with a look at Purdue's defensive line, which despite the loss of Ryan Kerrigan, should still be a strength in 2011. We are absolutely loaded at defensive tackle and both new D-Ends look to be pretty solid. Yes, losing a player of Kerrigan's caliber never makes you better, but as a cohesive unit our line should be pretty good.

Kawann Short can definitely be an all-Big Ten caliber player. Bruce Gaston brings ability and attitude beside him. I have really enjoyed following the Twitter stream of Ryan Russell because he is a focused, intense player that I think will be a big surprise. Finally, a healthy Gerald Gooden should allow him to break out.

Starters: Gerald Gooden (Sr.), Kawann Short (Jr.), Bruce Gaston (So.), Ryan Russell (Fr.)

This is what you want in a defensive line. Only Gooden is in his final year of eligibility, though Short could be an NFL casualty if he blows up and has a monster season. Gaston was impressive as a freshman last year from day one. This is a solid group that, even without Kerrigan, can get into the backfield and cause disruption.

The star of the unit is definitely Short. He was voted as a team captain and was fourth in the Big Ten with six sacks. He can be effective on special teams with a blocked field goal and extra point, and in the passing game he has always been an active player batting down passes. This has even led to a pair of interceptions in his career. Short is going to be the next big disruptive force that teams must concentrate on, and Kerrigan owes part of his success to him for last year.

There was an open spot last year when Mike Neal was drafted, and in the end Gaston was the winner. He ended up starting ten games and notching 26 tackles and a sack, giving him a huge advantage coming into this year. Now he is an older, wiser player that can probably do even more.

Gooden was thought to be a player that would excel with Kerrigan getting double-teamed for most of the year, but he was slowed by an injury and was almost an afterthought. He's one of our most experienced defenders with 36 career games and 26 starts. He has eight career sacks and 72 career tackles, but this is his last chance to be the next great d-end. At 6'4" he can also be an asset against the pass by getting his hands up and batting passes down.

Right now the leader to replace Kerrigan is redshirt freshman Ryan Russell, a hard-working 6'5" kid from Texas that was not highly recruited, but appears to be learning his work ethic from Ricardo Allen. It comes off in his Twitter handle: @RKRelentless. I really love his focus and think it will transfer over to the field well.

Top reserves: Robert Maci (Jr.), Kevin Pamphile (So.), Brandon Taylor (So.), Ryan Isaac (So.), Antwon Higgs (Jr.)

Maci has the most experience at defensive end without being a starter. He played in all 12 games in 2010 and will definitely be part of the rotation after getting 17 tackles and an interception in plenty of action. He could still earn the starting job opposite Gooden too.

Pamphile is a promising player that was sidelined for much of last year with a foot injury. He was a projected starter coming out of camp, but was passed during the year by Gaston. He only got in six games, but at 6'5" 241 he can likely play tackle or end. The same is true for Isaac, who lost his redshirt midseason and made seven tackles in five games as a reserve. He's also big for an end at 6'5" 266, but he's versatile enough to play inside or outside.

Higgs has been at the center of speculation that he would move to defensive end for awhile now. When Rashad Frazier didn't return Higgs was finally moved to D-end. Many fans feel he can follow the path of Anthony Spencer, Shaun Phillips, Akin Ayodele, and Cliff Avril who have moved from linebacker to end and had stellar careers. He has the physical tools of many of our previous rush ends, but he may be limited at first to specific situations.

Finally, Taylor will likely be a top reserve in the middle after starting two games and playing in ten last season. He'll provide depth and, as the son of Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor, he definitely has a strong football pedigree.

Reserves: Adam Brockman (Sr.), Eric Mebane (Jr.), LaSalle Cooks (Jr.), Brad Niemeier (Sr.)

Brockman will likely continue to be a regular player on special teams, where his role is the vaulter in Gibboney's ridiculous punt protection scheme that allows defenders to jump off of his block and into the air, thus making it easier to block a punt. He has twice been an Academic all-Big Ten selection and has 24 games of experience on special teams since transferring in from Eastern Michigan.

Mebane and Cooks are two guys from Joe Tiller's final recruiting class that are still kicking around as once thought of "diamonds in the rough". Cooks has yet to play entering his fourth year in the program, while Mebane got in two games last season as a reserve. Because of depth Mebane may get more of a shot than Cooks since he is a D-End and Cooks is a tackle. Niemeier is a fourth year walk on that hasn't played yet.

Redshirting: Michael Rouse III (Fr.), Calvin Smith (So., transfer)

Rouse is a big boy at 6'4" 304, reminding me a lot of Gaston last year. He even comes from suburban Chicago like Gaston. Based on the depth at defensive tackle I see him redshirting this year, and that's not a bad thing. Coach Hope could move him to offensive guard before all is said and done too. He's done it before with other defensive tackles.

Smith, of course, is the recent high profile transfer from New Mexico that was a four-star player out of high school. He was a teammate of Carlos Carvajal and had 13 tackles as a true freshman this past year at UNM. At 6'5" 280 he definitely has Big Ten size, but we'll have to wait a year to see if he lives up to his billing.

Final Analysis:

This should be a great unit that can still get to the quarterback with regularity. We averaged nearly three sacks a game last season with Kerrigan, so the numbers will drop, but not that much. Having Ricardo Allen and Josh Johnson locking the corners down will allow this line to do some great things. Now they need to just stop teams from running all over us.

Improvement against the run is what we need to see. For years two things have killed us defensively: the running game and the third down slant over the middle. The line may not be able to do much against the slant, but against the run we should be pretty solid at least up the middle.