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Does the Boise State Defensive Line Have Room to Grow this Season?

The 2011 Boise State Defensive Line is already being touted as the "Best in the Nation" this year.  But that should come as no surprise to most Mountain West Conference fans who were aware that Boise State’s defensive line was ranked as one of the best in 2010 as well.  The national media seemed to notice, but it seemed that last season all eyes were on QB Kellen Moore and his offensive standouts while the defense was just a footnote in the football reports.  And don't be surprised to see the media repeat that treatment again this season as the Broncos face off with their new MWC opponents because the focus will be on Moore and his new starting receivers who will be trying to fill the shoes of NFL bound Austin Pettis and Titus Young.

And that's just fine with Boise State defensive coordinator and line coach Pete Kwiatkowski.  He knows the D-line is made up of a handful of low-key, superior athletes who are concentrated on one subject: defense.  Kwiatkowski has been hammering at them all spring about the importance of defense, and it is paying off.  It was reflected in the spring game where an energetic and recharged defense has once again started to shine.  And the losses of a couple of key defenders has not diminished that luster because several of last year's talented backups have stepped up this season and dominated those vacancies on the defensive line.

That 2011 defensive line returns nearly intact with the exception of losing three-time All-WAC performer TE Ryan Winterswyk and Jeron Johnson.  Winterswyk's position has been taken by junior college transfer Tyrone Crawford, a 6' 4" 275 lb piece of hard, tough gristle out of Canada.  He came to the Broncos by way of Bakersfield College, in California, where he earned junior college All-American and conference defensive MVP honors as a sophmore.  Coach Kwiatkowski couldn't be more pleased with him and knows he is the real deal.  "He can be a really physically dominating guy because of his strength and quickness," Kwaitkowski said about Crawford.

That's an understatement.  He's quick and fast, and doesn't get pushed around.  In his first year with the Broncos he recorded 32 tackles with 13 solo and 19 assists.  When you throw in 7 sacks and a forced fumble you have a playmaker, because Crawford did all that playing off the bench behind Winterswyk and Shea McClellin.     

Besides Crawford, the Broncos expect to start three other seniors on the defensive line: Chace Baker, 6' 1" 297 lbs and Billy Winn, 6' 4" 288 lbs, both at defensive tackle; and defensive end Shea McClellin, 6' 3" 262 lbs.  In case you are keeping track that's 1,121 lbs of lean-and-mean looking for a ball carrier or quarterback to work out on.

Winn has had a great college career so far with 98 tackles in three years at Boise State.  And 28 of those came last season along with 4.5 sacks.  His 9.5 tackles-for-loss in 2010 ranked third on the team.  Coming off a foot injury, he's looking to pile on the stats this year in getting ready for the 2012 NFL draft.  He is rated 4th out of 209 DE'd and he could go in the 2nd round.  Winn has also been named to the 42-player Lott IMPACT Trophy watch list for the 2011 college football season. 

Shea McClellin is a high calibre, high impact player like Winn.  He was selected All-Wac First Team in 2010 by the WAC's nine head coaches.  Last season he only played for about half the snaps, yet he accounted for 23 tackles, an interception return for a TD, a fumble recovery for a TD, and a pass deflection for an interception.  He also leads the team with 7.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss.   He is rated 17th of 209 DE's nationally and is another name already being tossed around by the NFL scouts.    McClellin is an example of what teamwork can do.  When he was asked about his stellar performance after the spring game in April, he was quick to play down his own impressive showing and preferred instead to heap the praise onto the entire defense, mentioning that, "If any of our guys get a sack, it’s good for all of us."

Senior tackle Chace Baker also had a strong spring and secured a starting spot on the line.  In 2009, he recorded 37 tackles and 18 were solo.  Last season he added 28 more, 10 of them solo, and recorded 4.5 sacks.  His position on the team has not come easy for the huge lineman who has fought through knee injuries since he was a junior at Rocklin High School in California.  Six surgeries on his knee has left it scared and patched together, but that has not deterred his dogged determination to succeed.  That knee is now as rehabilitated as much as it can be and he is once again ready to make a difference up front.

These four big, tough grunts are going to be backed up by a number of great players — like sophomore DT Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe and junior DT Michael Atkinson.   Both are expected to become starters in 2012, and they still can't be ruled out starting this year as nothing has been set in stone.  Atkinson, 6' 0" 332 lbs, saw limited play last year because of a suspension for the final nine games for violating team rules, but he was still able to showcase his formidable power, recording 10 tackles with four solo and a sack in the first few games he did play.  This year, he actually started in the spring game and no one would be surprised to see him get a starting shot.  So could Tjong-A-Tjoe, a 6' 3" 282 pound lineman of Surinamese descent from the Netherlands.  The big Dutchman also had limited play last season, but still had 24 tackles (eleven were solo) along with a couple of quarterback sacks against both Oregon State and Nevada.

While there is a talented class of incoming freshmen who might get a chance to play an occasional role against the MWC teams this year, the experienced lineup outlined here is a preview of what the Bronco defensive line will probably look like this fall.  It's strong and it's solid, and every bit the team of 2010.  And then some.   

Head coach Chris Petersen summed up his feelings about the defense after the spring game in April.  "We’ve got some good players on defense but we’ve got to get those (injured) guys back out there in a hurry," he said.  "But on the other hand, you want to see the offense move the ball a little bit."

But that is one idea where the Bronco defensive line does not see eye-to-eye with their head coach.  They have a quiet confidence and an in-your-face kind of motivation---they have no intention of letting either Boise State or any other offense move the ball down field unimpeded. 

"There’s definitely that confidence," Chase Baker said back in March that reflects the stubborn attitude of the D-line.  But even then he understood the danger of an over confident defensive squad when he quickly added, "We’ve got to make sure it doesn’t become an arrogance, because we can definitely afford to get better in a lot of places.  We have to keep that chip and understand we have a lot of room to grow."

At 1,121 pounds of muscle and bone, it makes one wonder just how much more growth Baker has in mind.