Because of the way Jon Tenuta runs his defense, there is often very little difference between a DE and an OLB. Last year in particular, the Hoos showed a lot of nickel defense, with OLB Max Valles filling one of the 4-3 DE spots. So, this makes it difficult to preview the DEs. Who are the actual DEs? Which OLBs might slide down to DE in the nickel package, like Valles? Which DE might slide over to DT like Mike Moore and Kwontie Moore did last season.
The Moore twins (note: they are not actually related) are the projected starting DEs this year. They are both seniors, and if we're honest, they have both been disappointing in their careers. Both were 4-star recruits coming out of HS, Mike as a DE and a Kwontie as an ILB. In 3 years and 35 games, Mike has 5 sacks and 11.5 TFLs. However, almost all of that production came last year, when he played opposite Eli Harold and was generally able to take advantage of all the double-teams that Harold was seeing. Kwontie has just 14 tackles in 3 years, with his 2 sacks both coming last year. Kwontie has been unable to find a position in his career, seeing time at LB, DE and DT. He's up to 290 pounds now, after coming into the program at about 230.
Mike Moore takes over Harold's spot as the top DE (and pass rush threat) on the roster. That leaves Kwontie to slide into Mike's role from last year, where he'll line up as a DE on some plays, but will often move inside when the defense moves to a nickel package. In those cases, a quicker player (usually an will slide down to DE. Last year, as we know, that player was Max Valles, an OLB. This year, there is no Valles on the roster, and the main candidates for that pass rushing position are DEs. (Not that the distinction matters very much.)
The top candidate is probably senior DE Trent Corney. Corney came into the program with almost no real playing experience. His athletic profile, though, is off the charts. He's a track and field star in Canada. Many people thought he'd be slotted at TE, where his size/strength/speed combo could make him a tremendous weapon in the passing game. But he was slotted at DE, saw the field as a true freshman, and now enters the final season of his career with almost zero impact on the field. That could change this year. There are reports that the proverbial "light" has turned on for Corney and he's ready to be an impactful player. Max Valles was an athletic freak at 6'5" 240. Corney is a bigger freak at 6'3" 255 and could have a similar impact just based on athleticism. If the reports are true, and he's begun to pick up Coach Tenuta's system, he could be a candidate for Defensive MVP by season's end.
The other candidates for the pass rush nickel DE spot are Mark Hall, Cory Jones, Chris Peace and Darrious Carter. Jones and Hall are both OLBs (and Hall is actually the successor to Max Valles in the base defensive package). Hall isn't the natural pass rusher than Valles is, but he has a better all-around game. Jones is built more like Valles, and has a similar natural feel for pass rushing. He simply isn't the athlete that Valles is. Peace and Carter are DEs who probably aren't ready to get real snaps for the defense. Both are very good athletes with solid pass rush acumen, but need to get stronger and quicker off the ball.
The guess here is that Trent Corney gets the nod with Mark Hall staying at his OLB spot in the nickel package, similar to DaQuan Romero's role over the past two years.
When both Eli Harold and Max Valles left school early for the NFL, Wahoo fans knew the defense would take a hit. That duo totaled 16 sacks and 27 TFLs. Replacing that production is going to be very difficult. This team has a lot of depth at the DE position, but no talent to replace Eli. As we've seen with the other previews (specifically the DT unit), there is enough talent in the various units of the the defense to replace some of that production. But unless somebody steps up bigtime this year, the pass rush is going to suffer greatly.