April 5, 2012

New, familiar faces set to make up Bears' defensive line in 2012

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GREELEY -- A combination of youth and experience exists on Northern Colorado Football's revamped defensive line that lost three starters from the 2011 season but returns some seasoned playmakers this spring.

The Bears entered spring camp last week without the services of defensive end Nick Hernon and defensive tackles V.J. Holmes and Marcus Felker, who were all seniors in 2011 and stalwarts up front.

However, Northern Colorado welcomed back standout defensive end Devontae Chapple, who led the team with 5 1/2 sacks as a freshman and earned a spot on College Sports Journal's All-Freshman All-America team in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision. and defensive tackle Lexington Smith (31 tackles; one sack) and defensive end Marcus Lucas (six tackles; one sack). 

The Bears also have announced the addition to the defensive line of junior Gavin Miller, who is working this spring on transitioning from linebacker to defensive end.

"I was excited," Miller said about the move to defensive end. "I want to get playing time any way I can. I'm loving it. The guys are great, all the [defensive] ends are awesome, my coach is awesome. I'm loving it right now."

That coach Miller speaks of is the newly-hired Jon Carpenter, who is in his first season as a defensive line coach for Northern Colorado after spending the previous two years as a graduate assistant at Notre Dame under head coach Brian Kelly.

He also played for Kelly at the University of Cincinnati as recently as 2007 and helped lead the Bearcats to an 18-8 record during his junior and senior seasons and victories in the 2007 International Bowl and the 2007 PapaJohns.com Bowl.

"He's taught me everything," Miller said. "I went from not knowing anything about [the defensive] line to [knowing] everything. He's a great coach.

"He brings the perspective of an athlete -- he knows exactly how to play the position and how to be physical."

Carpenter will focus on coaching the defensive ends at Northern Colorado, while James Jones, who coached the Bears' defensive line last season, will work mainly with defensive tackles.

"Coach Jones now can just focus purely on our technique as [defensive] tackles," Smith said. "Spreading it out through the whole [defensive] line, he can do it but sometimes it does get hard to coach every little detail for both positions. With him just coaching [defensive tackles], I've gotten more coaching than I've ever received in my life this spring, and it's the best thing that's happened to me as an athlete."

The addition of Miller at defensive end has allowed the coaching staff to move Chapple to the interior of the line, filling the spot vacated by Holmes.

"We can take that 6-6, 270 pound body and put him inside, and he's got exceptional skills to be inside there," Northern Colorado head coach Earnest Collins Jr. said.

Chapple recorded 44 tackles at defensive end last year, including 8 1/2 tackles for loss, and he said he thinks he can excel on the interior of the line. Despite the fact that he is just a redshirt-sophomore, Chapple said he already sees himself in a leadership position on the defensive line.

"Right now I'm working on gaining a little bit of weight," Chapple said. "But the best thing that keeps me there is my length -- that's how I survive inside.

"We're young on the [defensive] line, as a whole, but some of us have experience -- like me, Lex, Gavin -- and we just have to work with the younger guys and get them up to where we're at."

Smith will play next to Chapple on the interior of the line at the nose tackle spot. That position was held by Felker last season and was one of the strengths of Northern Colorado's defense. He redshirted in 2010, his first year on campus, but arrived in Greeley with some fanfare from Denver East High School, where he was both an all-conference selection as well as an honorable mention all-state pick for the Angels.

Smith also played rugby at Denver East, leading it to the 2009 state title, and that approach figures to help him as he continues to evolve as a collegiate nose tackle.

"Last year, getting in the game a little bit gave me a taste of what it was like," Smith said. "The speed of the game, getting used to the college mentality ... but now it's just competing with myself every day, telling myself nobody's going to beat me on this play."

Smith said playing alongside Chapple on the defensive interior has been a smooth transition, mainly because he has trust in his teammate.

"The reason why I believe we're meshing so well is because we're both dedicated," he said. "A lot of times you have a player or two who can't really grasp what we're trying to do, but in this [defensive] line unit everybody wants it, everybody's hungry and everybody wants to play.

"With Devontae next to me it's like I know for a fact he's got his side covered, so it puts more pressure on me to get my side covered, make sure that I don't let a gap through. Since I know he's going to do his job, if I do my job they have nowhere to run in the middle."

To that end, Chapple said the experience gained during his freshman season gave him priceless preparation for his sophomore campaign.

"The speed has definitely slowed down," Chapple said. "I'm starting to understand the game more. It's not so much Coach Jones is coaching us on technique; now it's tricks -- how to do this and that because we've matured.

"I have three years left, and I just want to learn as much as I can while I'm here, get better and better."

For breaking news and other updates on Northern Colorado Football and Athletics, follow the Bears on Twitter @uncofootball and @unc_bears.

2012 Northern Colorado Football Spring Schedule
March 26      Practice 3:30 - 5:30 p.m.
March 28      Practice                                                                
3:30 - 5:30 p.m.
March 30      Practice 3:30 - 5:30 p.m.
March 31      Practice 10 a.m. - noon
April 2      Practice 3:30 - 5:30 p.m.
April 4      Practice 3:30 - 5:30 p.m.
April 6      Practice 3 - 4:45 p.m.
April 7      Practice 10 a.m. - noon
April 9      Practice 3:30 - 5:30 p.m.
April 11      Practice 3:30 - 5:30 p.m.
April 13      Practice 3:30 - 5:30 p.m.
April 14      Practice 2 - 4 p.m.
April 16      Practice 3:30 - 5:30 p.m.
April 18      Practice 3:30 - 5:30 p.m.
April 19      Coaches vs. Players softball game 5 p.m.
April 20      Friends and Family golf outing Noon
April 21      Captains Breakfast (not open to public) 8 a.m.
April 21      "Battle of the Bears' Blue & Gold Spring Game Noon
April 22      Spring BBQ 1:30 p.m.