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July 30, 2012
The graduation of Scott Smith, the team's leader in sacks a year ago, stings but Tech returns almost everyone else of consequence from last season's team. The Red Raiders also bolstered their depth up front by adding a junior college transfer, signing three high school prospects and moving Pete Robertson from linebacker/safety to defensive end.
The availability of Branden Jackson, coming off of a redshirt season, may be the most impactful change from 2011.
"Last year I redshirted a defensive lineman," head coach Tommy Tuberville said. "We just said, 'Hey, we're going to do it. We're going to bite the bullet.' He's going to be a great player. His name is Branden Jackson. Left a redshirt on him, didn't play him, and it's going to help us in the long run.
Jackson did some serious work in the offseason and has transformed his body. He filled out his 6-foot-4 frame and is now north of 250 pounds as of the most recent weigh-ins.
Jackson is currently slated to start at left end with sophomore Kindred Evans backing him up. Evans, like all defensive linemen in the two-deep, will see very significant playing time this season and could be preferred in certain down and distance scenarios.
[ More RRS: Pay attention to the DEs when camp opens]
Dartwan Bush, the pre-camp No. 1 at right defensive end, is considered to be the best pure pass rusher on the team. Now that he's expected to fill a more prominent role, the Red Raiders will need him to be more productive than he was last season (two sacks). Jackson Richards is penciled in behind Bush, and he could be someone that switches from end to tackle depending on down and distance.
Leon Mackey will be looking to have a better 2012 season after so-so production as a first-year junior college transfer last season. The 6-foot-5, 255-pounder started at defensive end last season but sustained a deflated lung injury in the very first game of the 2011 campaign against Texas State and it clearly affected him the rest of the season. He's been moved to a more natural defensive tackle position and will back up junior Kerry Hyder.
Dennell Wesley will start the season as the No. 1 at the nose tackle position head on against the opposing center and the opposing interior linemen regardless of the defensive front. Delvon Simmons, who enrolled late into the 2011 offseason workouts and entered the season out of shape, has had a fantastic offseason and will back Wesley up.
Lee Adams could see time at defensive end or tackle. The 6-foot-1, 269-pound junior college transfer missed most of the spring with an injury; Adams adds a third level of depth along with Christopher Knighton.
U.S. Army All-American and four-star recruit Michael Starts could add depth somewhere depending on how quickly he adjusts from playing offensive tackle in high school.
NEW FACES: Despite missing most of the spring due to injury, Adams should contribute in some capacity this season.
Starts will be a good competitor for the Red Raiders down the line. The question is whether he can adapt to playing on the defensive line quick enough to contribute this season. If Starts proves he could play only sparingly, the right call will be to redshirt him.
[ More RRS: Hyder was the best defensive player this spring? ]
Defensive tackle Anthony Smith also was a great get for Tech in the 2012 recruiting class and can run a sub-five second 40-yard dash time at just about 300 pounds. Given the team's depth on the interior, he could be another newcomer who foregoes a redshirt season if he adjusts quickly.
The Red Raiders fended off home-state Tennessee at the last minute to land defensive end Chase Robison, and he's added a good amount of weight to his frame since signing in February. Tech has good numbers on the outside of the defensive line, so it seems probable at this point that Robison is headed for a redshirt season.
The Red Raiders landed another solid defensive tackle recruit in J.J. Lollar but Lollar will not enroll before the 2013 spring semester due to a medical issue.
PRESSURE IS ON: Leon Mackey. Mackey is the lone senior expected to be in the team's defensive line rotation, and he has 12 or 13 games to make an NFL case. He arrived in Lubbock with much fanfare, and seemed to be on his way to living up to that buzz before suffering an internal injury against in the season opener. Mackey only missed two games and was back in time for conference play, but he didn't look like quite the same player that we saw during camp and against the Bobcats.
BIGGEST QUESTION: How effective will Robertson and Mackey be at their new positions? If Mackey can be an answer on the interior and Robertson lives up to some of the buzz that's been building around him since the end of spring, the Red Raiders' defensive line could be one of the more pleasant surprises of the season.
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