Updated Fri, Aug 29, 2014 4:56 pm
In many ways, the 2014 Ohio Bobcats are a new-look team. New faces are stepping in, and some familiar ones are stepping up into starting roles. One unit that remains largely intact from last year to the present is the Bobcats’ defensive line.
Continuity, close relationships and another year to grow has made for a group that might just be the Bobcats’ best asset in 2014.
“We want to be [the best] we believe that we will be,” senior defensive tackle Antwan Crutcher said. “Since we feel that way, we want to prove it.”
The Ohio defensive front figures to have eight key contributors in 2014. Along with Crutcher, Kendric Smith, Tony Davis and Cameron McLeod are the senior leaders of the group. Grant Purdum stands as the lone junior and sophomores Kurt Laseak, Tarell Basham and Casey Sayles round out the group.
“I think our strength is in numbers,” defensive line coach Jesse Williams said. “Hopefully we are able to keep them fresh and keep them ready, [because] we want to be able to wear down our opponent ... and hopefully we can collectively bond together.”
Laseak, Basham and Purdum look to be some of the most called upon names, after making appearances in all 13 of Ohio’s games in 2013, but in 2014 it all starts with Crutcher, the big man in the middle who led the team with 50 tackles a year ago and was the only lineman to start every game.
At 6-foot-2 and 304 pounds, Crutcher is the Bobcats’ biggest body in the trenches. He’s a space-eater (with nimble feet, according to Williams) that stuffs the gaps up the middle. He will be an instrumental part in stopping the run like Williams wants his line to do.
On the field, Crutcher is literally a big part of the Bobcats’ defensive, but off the field is where he might be most valuable. The senior has matured in his years spent climbing the ranks, and gladly welcomes a role as a team leader.
“He has been on the unity council for three years now,” Williams said. “He is a guy that played early in his career and he has always tried to hold himself in the right esteem … [and] he does a good job of bringing the young guys around and up to par. It’s all about being a family.”
Basham, one of the young guys, finds Crutcher’s help invaluable.
“Crutch has been like a best big brother that you could ask for,” Basham said with a grin. “He really guided me through college and is still guiding me through. [He is] helping me make the right decisions in my life, and on the field. Sometimes I have a one-track mind so guys like Crutch [and other upper classmen] keep me focused on what I have to do.”
Crutcher says he is just doing for the underclassmen what past Bobcats did for him when he was new to Ohio. Now one of those leaders, he and the other seniors set the tempo in practice for rest of the line to follow, and he says the underclassmen aren’t slowing it down.
For that, Basham’s high-motor mentality might be partially responsible.
“I try to never stop running and try to keep other guys going with me,” he said.
Last year Basham burst onto the scene as a true freshman and led the team with 7.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss. His stellar season put him on the Football Writers Association of America Freshman All-America Team. It also put him on a handful of preseason award watch lists like the Ted Hendricks Award, which has been won by Jadaveon Clowney, the first player selected in the 2014 NFL Draft, and NFL pass-rushing standouts like Terrell Suggs, Lamarr Woodley, Chris Long and Brian Orakpo.
Basham doesn’t let all the attention get to him. Even if watch lists associate him with names in pro football, he doesn’t feel any pressure.
“Last year I came out as a freshman not knowing what to expect, but I just played football,” Basham said. “This year I know what is expected of me and I’m just going to keep playing football and hope everything comes out for the best.”
According to Williams, the depth of the defensive line, and the competition for playing time that comes with it, keeps Basham and his teammates sharp.
“He still has to put in the effort just to be able to start with other guys,” Williams said. “It’s a dogfight for who is going to get the first call, [even though] they’re all going to play. Every day he gets a little dose of reality – that all that watch list stuff doesn’t mean anything … He’s locked into the process of what he’s got to do to get better. The great thing about him is his youth [and] he still knows he has a long way to go.”
Opposite Basham, Laseak lines up at the other end spot most often. Last year Laseak got his first taste of playing time after redshirting in 2012, and he made the most of it by starting 10 of 13 games and recording 43 tackles.
One of Laseak’s best performances of the season came in the Bobcats’ bowl game, in which he recorded seven tackles – five of which were solo stops – and one pass breakup. He’s using that game as a springboard into 2014 as proof of what he can do, but also proof of what he can do better.
“Looking back on the film, there was a lot of areas that I was weak on and I’m trying to improve on that this year,” Laseak said. “I always feel like there’s a lot more for me to improve on. I’ve not reached near my potential yet so I’ve got to keep improving.”
Laseak and Basham both started as freshmen last season, and grew together throughout the 2013 campaign. Laseak admitted to being a bit nervous before last year’s campaign began, but this year he is as comfortable as ever.
With a year under their belts, he and Basham appear to be forming a dynamic pass-rushing duo.
“When we have both of us coming off the edge, sometimes it gets hard for a quarterback to breathe back there,” Basham said. “Either Kurt is going to get back there and run him to my side or I’m going to get back there and run [the quarterback] to Kurt’s side. I can trust Kurt to the point that I know Kurt has my back and is not going to let him get away.”
And should either ever need a breather, Sayles is right behind them. After playing in 11 games last year, recording 3.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss, the true sophomore assures no drop off in performance on the field as he looks to take another step forward.
According to Laseak, it doesn’t really matter who’s taking the snaps. Whoever is lined up with their hand in the grass, the opposition needs to be ready.
“It’s not just one guy sticking out,” he said.
“Teams need to prepare for us.”