Even the most knowledgeable fan may have trouble distinguishing the members of Minot State University’s defensive line this season.
“If you see our defensive line rotate out there, they’re all kind of built the same,” MSU defensive line coach Jeff Miller said. “They’re all big, stocky, physical kids.”
Squarely built linemen are ideal for the Beavers’ 3-4 defense, which counts on the front three to plug up gaps at the line of scrimmage and allow linebackers and defensive backs the freedom to make plays behind them.
This year’s unit also has something else in common: experience. Five members of the Beavers’ eight-man rotation are in their fifth year with the program.
“Obviously, we’ll be leaders throughout the whole defense – not only on the D-line,” said noseguard Luke Artz, a Bottineau High School product entering his fourth season as a starter. “We’ll also help our younger D-linemen coming up.”
Artz (6-foot-2, 284 pounds) and fellow senior Logan Jones (6-1, 285) were named honorable mention all-conference after last season. It speaks to the defensive line’s rotation philosophy that that its two most decorated players aren’t both on the top line of the depth chart. Jones is currently listed as Artz’s backup.
“We don’t technically have starters,” Miller said. “We try to do as much situation-specific rotation or situation-specific substitution as we can. We basically have six, seven, eight guys that are gonna play 30-40 snaps a game and get after it.”
Artz, who tallied 32 tackles in 2012, has mastered the ability to disrupt opposing offenses at their point of attack, Miller said.
“He’s your prototypical 3-4 nose. He’s gonna eat up blockers, he’s gonna eat up dudes and he’s not gonna get pushed around,” Miller said. “He’s gonna fight and scratch and claw. It’s just ugly but pretty all at the same time.”
Jones recorded 23 tackles – including seven tackles for loss and two sacks – in his first season on the line after spending time at fullback and tight end. The Lethbridge, Alberta, native was originally recruited as a linebacker and spent his redshirt freshman season as a running back.
“Logan’s a different animal physically than what we’ve had,” Miller said. “He’s got running-back feet, he’s explosive, he’s strong as a house. … He has a different gear than most of them. He’s got those really good feet because of all the positions he’s played and he just kind of grew into being a d-lineman.”
The stout-statured group is naturally more inclined to run-stopping than pass-rushing. The Beavers ranked 14th out of 16 Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference teams with 13 sacks in 11 games last season. Miller hopes defensive ends Cameron Stone (6-3, 230) and Claude Richards (6-2, 260) – two of the “fast guys” on the line – can pressure opposing quarterbacks, but said sacks aren’t the only way to gauge a line’s disruptiveness.
“We gotta use that (size) to our advantage in the passing game and get after the guys – more bull rushes and not just speed rushes and stuff like that,” Miller said. “You hit the guy in the mouth, drive him back to the quarterback. If we don’t sack the quarterback a lot, that’s not my huge concern. It’s making the quarterback move his feet, move around in the pocket, make him uncomfortable.”
Fifth-year senior Josh Zimmer (6-0, 265) is slated to start at strong-side defensive tackle, a spot that typically draws more double teams than the defensive end. Senior Kalvin Larson and redshirt freshman Dalton Houghton will also see time at tackle.
Miller said he’s been pleased with the unit’s effort and execution during fall camp. Not that he should expect anything less out of his battle-tested group.
“It’s good to have vets out there,” Jones said. “They know what they’re doing and they know how to work.”
Daniel Allar reports on Minot State University athletics and assists with high school coverage. Follow him on Twitter @DAllar_MDN.