Outside linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. has his name etched in exclusive company. He is one of three record holders for most sacks in an FBS game. Pace also ranked in the FBS top 10 in total tackles in 2021 and fittingly earned First Team All-MAC honors. Kameron Butler also had impressive performances, generating eight sacks and also earning the First Team All-MAC designation. Defensive end Lonnie Phelps, the team’s leader in 8.5 sacks, saw his contributions recognized in the form of a second-team all-MAC selection, while defensive end Dominique Robinson — a former wide receiver — impressively claimed third-team all-MAC status MAC reached defensive end after unorthodox position change.
All four of those players, in addition to defensive end Ben Kimpler, produced at least four sacks in an aggressive unit that ranked 23rd in sacks per game last year.
But there is a problem. None of these players are currently attending summer camp in Oxford, OH. Miami faces the challenging task of replacing all production in an offseason.
The front seven were a major strength last season for the 7-6 RedHawks, who increased their defensive presence in a 27-14 Frisco Football Classic win over North Texas to close out the year. Now developing the next talent is the focus of Miami, which was still selected as the MAC East favorite despite the immense turnover on the media day of the conference.
One prize for the RedHawks’ return is inside linebacker Ryan McWood, who was injured in last year’s season opener and never returned to the field. The sixth-grader could be the conference’s most successful player without an all-MAC bid, averaging 11.3 tackles per game in a 2020 campaign shortened by the pandemic and 99 tackles in Miami’s 2019 MAC championship season. Scoring in 17 games of those two seasons McWood also has 8.5 tackles for losses, 2.5 sacks, three pass deflections, one interception and one forced fumble. Having the quarterback of defense for another season should be a boon to a team that sorely missed his services last fall.
Miami typically starts two straight linebackers and an edge rusher in its 4-2-5 scheme. This creates a position next to McWood. That commitment is likely to be filled by Dominic Nardone, who expanded his role towards the end of his first season. Nardone saw the majority of his production in November and finished the season with a career-high seven tackles against North Texas – creating the perfect stepping stone into 2022.
Camden Rogers is another name in the linebacking group that the RedHawks will welcome back with open arms after missing most of the 2021 season. Rogers saw action in every game in 2020, so his presence on the field is expected to skyrocket given the current situation in Miami. In the transfer portal ended up Miami linebacker Ty Wise from Indiana, who acted as a recurring special teams employee in Bloomington.
Other than Rogers and Wise, no other linebacker has seen ample playing time on a collegiate gridiron. As such, it’s very plausible for Miami to bring its litany of true rookies and redshirt rookies to the lineup – particularly during the Week 2 contest against FCS’s Robert Morris. This allows the RedHawks to clarify their depth map as the MAC game approaches.
To round out the linebacker discussion, Matthew Salopek received second-team All-MAC honors last season. While he’s built like a linebacker, hits like a linebacker, and shows up in position from time to time, he’s more of a safety. We will expand his presence in the preview to the defenders.
After the departures of the aforementioned stars like Butler, Phelps and Robinson — who were a 2022 NFL Draft pick — there’s a lot of maintenance on the defensive line. However, Miami retains its inner presence, and holding onto both starting defensive tackles is a strong place to start. Austin Ertl and Anthony Collier have such a commanding presence on the inside that defensive ends can feast in the backfield and clog stat sheets. Ertl, who moves up to 0 this season, still put up his fair stats in 2021 with 37 tackles and 1.5 sacks.
Collier played about half of the season, but injuries forced him to miss a lot of time. While Collier’s presence was missed late in the season, it spurred the development of Kobe Hilton, who recorded seven starts to Collier’s relief. Hilton finished with 20 tackles and three tackles for losses, and he will bring some much-needed depth to a rebuilt defense.
It gets tricky at the edges. After losing Butler to Virginia and Phelps to Kansas in the transfer portal, the RedHawks hoped to soften the blow by luring a transfer back to Oxford. They’ve won Corey Suttle, Iowa State’s defensive end, who recorded four tackles with the Cyclones last year.
Suttle is certainly a possibility on the starting lineup, as is Nasir Washington, who recorded his first career sack in a 13-point win over Akron in October. Sophomore Caiden Woullard is another contender for an emerging defensive end role, having registered five tackles last year – the most of any returning defensive end player. Looking further down the depth chart, Marlon Dawson Jr. and former Rutgers recruit Brian Ugwu are players who could see a surge in action, especially considering Miami’s affinity for rotating their defenders frequently.
The extreme inexperience of defensive ends is offset by the presence of veterans at defensive tackles. Miami’s line may not start as strong as last year with this younger group, but the RedHawks haven’t missed a beat in recent seasons in developing backfield invaders. Reinserting a tackling machine at McWood into the inside linebacker spot is essential to maintaining the MAC’s third-place run defense. As such, the RedHawks should be solid in that position as they attempt to win their second conference championship in four years.