HOUGHTON - Last fall the Michigan Tech football team had to replace 10 starters on defense, and it still managed to finish fifth of 16 Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference teams in scoring defense.
"I thought we played very well defensively for what we lost," said Tom Kearly, who is entering his eighth year as Tech head coach. "Last year had the ability to be a complete regroup year and we win a (share of the GLIAC) championship and are in the top half in every category defensively with the exception of passing yards (15th place, 245.2 yards against average).
"That's the thing, you can give up a lot of passing yards, but if you don't get scored on, you're good in the red zone and you stop the run, which we did, that's when you win a championship."
Michigan Tech’s Cameron Allen sacks Findlay quarterback Clay Belton during a September 2012 game at Sherman Field as the Huskies’ Nelson Wienke (98)?descends upon the scene. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)
Tech had the GLIAC's second-best run defense (118.3 yards against average) largely thanks in part to a stout defensive line featuring three all-conference performers. Now, though, the Huskies have to replace two of those players, the biggest anchors on their interior line in graduating seniors Justin Blake (6-foot-2, 290 pounds) and Jake Clark (6-2, 280).
It's the opposite problem Tech had last year in having to replace two elite defensive ends in All-American Todd Storm and All-GLIAC First Team honoree Drew Vanderlin.
Nelson Wienke and Cameron Allen had impressive seasons last year and come in this spring with a firm hold on the end spots, but fortunately Tech has frontrunners in mind on the inside, too.
Even though some size will be lost overall, senior David Russek (6-2, 265) and sophomore Tanner Agen (6-3, 260) have emerged as likely starters.
"That first four with those guys, Wienke, Allen, Agen and Russek is very solid," Kearly said. "All four played last year and three of them have played a lot and played at a very high level in Russek, Allen and Wienke.
"David Russek has had a great spring. He's been a dominant player for us right now playing our defensive tackle."
Russek played in all 10 games last year, tallying 26 tackles, six tackles for a loss and two sacks. What the linebacker-turned-lineman lacks in size compared to Blake and Clark, he makes up for in agility and athleticism, and he's becoming a key leader on defense.
Agen only saw limited action in seven games (at DE) last year, accounting for two tackles, but Kearly hopes the step inside will accompany a step forward like Allen made last year.
At defensive end, Allen (6-3, 240) tallied 29 tackles and 2.5 sacks last season as a sophomore, earning him All-GLIAC honorable mention, and he'll be looked to for an even stronger junior campaign.
On the other end, Wienke (6-3, 265) had a stellar sophomore season, earning a D-line-best 40 tackles (Blake had 38, Clark 32), team-best 8.5 sacks and team-best three forced fumbles.
"Nelson Wienke was all-conference (second team) as a sophomore. Neither Todd nor Drew were all-conference as a sophomore," noted Kearly. "I would like to hope those two players have junior years like Todd and Drew - we'd be very happy with that."
Kearly believes the several years Allen and Wienke spent watching Storm and Vanderlin practice will pay off.
"They were in the same drills, same meetings, they were able to emulate them," he said. "They understand now what a dominant defensive end looks like."
Tech feels confident in the front four it has penciled in to start, but after that on the depth chart, there's still a lot of question marks.
"Right now we have some definite concerns at depth," Kearly said.
As of right now sophomore Brandon Kuc (6-2, 230) would likely be the third defensive end, with juniors Jake Daling (6-4, 270) and James Jackson (6-0, 280) currently in the two huddle on the interior.
Tech's coaching staff will continue to evaluate the depth chart throughout spring practices, leading up to the 1 p.m. April 20 spring intrasquad game at Sherman Field. As of Tuesday morning, the team had held half of its eight practices on Sherman Field thanks to Tech's grounds crew, led by Pete Pelissero, which has plowed the field several times.
EDITOR'S?NOTE: This defensive line feature is the first in an eight-part series breaking down the Michigan Tech football team position by position leading to next Saturday's annual spring game at Sherman Field. Thursday will feature linebackers, Friday the secondary and Saturday special teams. Next week Tuesday through Friday will examine the offense.