Fri May 21 02:58pm EDT
Sizing up the fall's most intriguing players, in no particular order. Today: Senior Oregon defensive end Kenny Rowe.
• Typecasting. Rowe came out of SoCal prep powerhouse Long Beach Poly as one of Oregon's top incoming defenders in 2007, though it was hard to see how he projected as defensive end at 210 pounds. Three years later and roughly 20 pounds heavier, he's still one of the lightest ends in the country, but also one of the most dangerous on the rush. Rowe was good enough to get on the field right away on special teams and obvious passing situations; he made five sacks as a true freshman. He returns for his final season as the Pac-10's reigning sack leader with 11.5 QB takedowns last year as a junior. Along with fellow seniors Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger at linebacker, Rowe will be one of the primary catalysts for a much-maligned unit that may only need to take a couple small steps forward to give the prolific spread-option offense enough margin of error to make a run at the national championship.
2009 was the fourth year in a row an Oregon end has led the conference in sacks, with Rowe following in the similarly undersized footsteps of Nick Reed, the school's career sack leader. Reed made 12 sacks in 2007 and 13 in 2008 en route to consecutive all-conference nods. He was a seventh-round flier from the Seattle Seahawks despite weighing in the 250-pound range, far below the league average for defensive ends. At 6-3, 231 pounds, Rowe is even leaner than Reed was as a senior, and not that much more athletic in terms of measurable speed, etc. But he has the same unwavering motor, a good first step, and a suite of rips and spins that gets him into the backfield on a regular basis.
• Best-case. Rowe's position entails a lot more than "just" rushing the passer. He often plays with his hand off the ground and occasionally drops into coverage, more like a 3-4 outside linebacker. But he clearly emerged last year as the Pac-10's resident Corey Moore/Dwight Freeney type. The undersized rusher's initial burst off the line and scrappy persistence makes him a nightmare on the outside for lumbering tackles asked to block him one-on-one, as Oregon State's Sean Canfield discovered on multiple occasions with the conference title on the line last December:
Technically, the first "sack" there was an incomplete pass, though Rowe did bring down Canfield again later. It gave him his fourth multi-sack game of the season after taking down Boise State's Kellen Moore, Cal's Kevin Riley and UCLA's Kevin Prince two times apiece in the first half of the year. In addition, he blindsided scout-favorite Jake Locker in the Ducks' win at Washington. That was good enough to earn an honorable-mention All-Pac-10 nod from conference coaches. But the reason he's considered the league's most fearsome edge rusher going into the fall? It stems just as much from the seven-tackle, three-sack effort against Ohio State that made him the Defensive MVP of the Rose Bowl, the most productive game of his career on both counts. That secured his place atop the Pac-10 sack list and as the Guy You Have To Pay Attention To for opposing offenses, which will have to consider keeping a tight end or running back in to help the tackles on passing downs.
• Worst-case. Actually, as you can see below, the Rose Bowl was a pretty good summation of Rowe's overall game, good and bad. Besides the relentless pursuit of Terrelle Pryor, he was pushed around at the point attack against the run. He looked stiff and uncertain in pass coverage. And he actually had a lot of trouble bringing the 235-pound Pryor to the ground when not diving at his feet, with tangible consequences on the Buckeyes' game-icing touchdown drive in the fourth quarter:
Not that he's facing Terrelle Pryor every week, but you get the basic point. Rowe relies as much on hustle and anticipation as on his unremarkable speed. But the biggest issue as a tackler and with his hand on the ground against blockers that go 290 or 300 is obviously his size. He acknowledged that getting better against the run was "a point of emphasis" this spring. He wants to earn the reputation as a complete player "rather than a sackmaster" ahead of next year's draft, where he's generally projected as an outside linebacker — for his sake, hopefully one who's asked to blitz a lot more often than he's asked to cover anyone.
I don't who was behind that camera, but if he managed to inject any life whatsoever into those quotes in print, he should
get a raise get to keep his job instead of being bought out.
• What to Expect in '10. Oregon's defense hasn't been anything to write home in many years, but coordinator Nick Aliotti has consistently produced good pass rushers, and the light-speed offense should keep opposing attacks throwing early and often. That should provide a steady lineup of targets for Rowe to aim at in his pursuit of the rare back-to-back seasons with double-digit sacks. If he stays healthy, I'd bet that goal is more likely than not.
Whether the same can be said for the Ducks' BCS hopes, though, will depend in some part on how well Rowe and Co. hold up against committed, straight-ahead rushing attacks. For instance, one like Stanford's, which bulldozed for 254 yards and four touchdowns on the ground in Oregon's only conference loss. Toby Gerhart may be gone, but Cal's Shane Vereen, Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers and USC's usual stable of five-star stallions all await this fall on the road.
- - -
Previously (alphabetical by school): Marcell Dareus, Alabama. ... Armon Binns, Cincinnati. ... Andre Ellington, Clemson. ... Anthony Allen, Georgia Tech. ... Martez Wilson, Illinois. ... Tandon Doss, Indiana. ... Sean Spence, Miami. ... Aldon Smith, Missouri. ... Nate Irving, N.C. State. ... Jared Crick, Nebraska. ... Mike Adams/J.B. Shugarts, Ohio State. ... DeMarco Murray, Oklahoma. ... Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina. ... Devon Kennard, Southern Cal. ... Janzen Jackson, Tennessee. ... Christine Michael, Texas A&M. ... Akeem Ayers, UCLA. ... Warren Norman, Vanderbilt. ... Jermaine Kearse, Washington.
- - -
Dr. Saturday is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.