Call them the "Killer M's"
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This is part three of a four-part series previewing the 2011 Columbia Lions and the players you should know. Scroll down for part one and my entire league overview for the season
Chris Woods is the new man in charge of the "D"
New defensive coordinator Chris Woods has switched Columbia to the 3-4 defense, and I have to believe that was done to get the most out of two fantastic young Lions who will now move to the linebacker position.
More about them later...
But the D-line personnel will be essential is achieving JOB 1 for Columbia this year: STOP THE RUN.
The Lions' front line defenses, especially right up the middle, have been weak for two years running after some encouraging progress in 2008.
Pass rushing also fell off alarmingly last season after the graduation of all-time Columbia sack leader Lou Miller.
In fact, the pass rush was so problematic, that opposing passers often made the secondary look a lot worse than it was because of all that extra time.
Injuries have taken their toll on some of the best players on the defensive line over the years, chief among them is senior Owen Fraser who hopes to come back and make some kind of significant contribution this season like he did in '08. But I think Fraser will probably be a backup.
The only D-lineman I'm confident will be starting, if healthy, is senior Ben Popeck who had a breakthrough season last year.
I also looked like sophomore transfer Wells Childress was a leading candidate to start, but some questions about his speed may change all that.
Senior Chris Groth had a great season in 2009, fell off the radar a bit last year, and seems further down the depth chart again. But if he can regain his sophomore year form, he could easily become a regular starter.
Junior Seyi Adebayo was voted defensive most improved player of the spring, and he remains in perfect athletic shape. He has the speed that guys like Childress seem to be lacking right now.
Big junior Shad Sommers will get lots of playing time too, especially in the middle of that line.
Will Patterson is a another junior who's had enough playing time to be considered a solid weapon as well.
In all, this group remains one of the biggest question marks on the season for Columbia. And this is no small matter. Without improved play up front on defense, Columbia will not be able to truly compete in this league.
Despite the graduation of two time 1st Team All Ivy Alex Gross, this unit is something to be excited about.
In fact, I think we should call it "The Killer M's".
(For those of you ancient enough to remember the Miami Dolphins' "Killer Bees" defense of 1982, this will mean something to you).
The best weapons are juniors Josh Martin and Ryan Murphy. Both are ferocious pass rushers with tremendous up side in this league. Martin already flashed some brilliance last season en route to a 2nd Team All Ivy membership and he's ready for more.
In the middle, we have another "M" in senior Nick Mistretta. Mistretta had been splitting time with Marc Holloway for two years, but now that Holloway has graduated this could be his time to shine... maybe.
It's not clear if the coaches are ready to give him the key leadership role on the defense, but the Lions need him to be at his best and consistently so in 2011.
Another rising star at LB is sophomore Zach Olinger who made an impact as a freshman on national TV against Yale in week 7. I expect him to be in the starting mix.
Another "Killer M" with lots of experience is senior Evan Miller. Lou Miller's younger brother is his own man now and a team favorite. He has too much experience with the varsity and admiration from his coaches to count out.
This group loses a couple of All-Ivy players in Calvin Otis and Adam Mehrer. But there is still plenty of experienced talent here.
The top talents in my mind are two more "Killer M's": seniors AJ Maddox and Ross Morand. Morand is also a co-captain.
Maddox and Morand will probably be the starting corners, but senior Kalasi Huggins has been playing with the varsity since freshman year and he will get into the mix as well.
And who can forget the great game junior Christopher Thomas played in the Spring Game? He might make a move on the field too.
I think the top candidates for safety slots are senior Neil Schuster and junior Steven Grassa. Both played a lot last year with the varsity and are great hitters.
Another "Killer M" with a real shot at more playing time at safety is 5th year senior Mike Murphy.
Other defensive backs we may see on the field are sophomore Marquel Carter, junior Brian DeVeau, (who's back at DB after playing WR last year), and sophomore Chris Alston.
In general the entire defense has a lot to prove in 2011. With Brackett running the offense, this group figures to be the weaker of the two units, but so far in preseason it's looked better than the offense!
Woods has his work cut out for him, but if he can get this crew -- especially the suspect defensive line -- to really produce, he will deserve hero status in Morningside Heights.
Columbia got an unexpected upgrade last year when sophomore Luke Eddy took over the placekicking duties in the middle of the opening game and never looked back. His booming kicks that never seem to come down are a sight for sore Lion fans' eyes. But he didn't look great in the Spring Game, so we'll see if he's still at that top level this fall.
Junior Greg Guttas did a great job as the punter and kickoff specialist last season and he seems to have improved in the offseason. Sophomore Tyler Feely may get more chances to do some punting as well.
If they maintain 2010 form, Eddy and Guttas make up an especially strong kicking staff.
The returning corps loses the talented and effective kickoff returner Craig Hamilton to graduation. The race to replace him and take the punt returning duties from the also graduated Nico Gutierrez is one of the most mysterious battles at Columbia this summer. I say mysterious because there's really no telling who is in the lead for the top spots right now.
But after last year's injury during a punt return, I would bet Mike Stephens will not be returning punts this year unless no one else is remotely competent. I expect Ross Morand, Steven Grassa, and Mike Murphy ro be in this mix. Beyond that we'll just have to wait to find out.
Bottom line, the Columbia special teams could be indeed special this season and they could be the Lions' ticket to an improved year. But until we see who is doing the returning and how well, we really won't know.