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October 16, 2003
Tommie Boy
by Warren DeLuca

Pressuring the quarterback is a key element for the success of any defense. A strong pass rush can cover big holes in the secondary, and sacks push offenses into longer yardage situations, lowering the chances of getting first downs.

Dom Capers’ 1994 Pittsburgh defense finished second in the NFL in points allowed and third in yards when the Steelers recorded an NFL-best 55 sacks. In 1996, Capers and Vic Fangio’s Carolina defense finished second in points and twelfth in yards while sacking opposing passers 60 times, best in the League. Last year’s Houston defense had a middle-of-the-pack 35 sacks and placed similarly in the other major defensive statistical categories. The 2003 Texans have only six sacks in five games; only the hapless Cardinals and Bears have fewer.

While the Texans’ defensive braintrust relies on outside linebackers to record the bulk of the sacks, the defensive line plays a major role in the pass rush as well. One popular misconception about the 3-4 defense is that the only job of the three down lineman is to hold their ground and occupy blockers so that the linebackers can make plays. If that were the case, the Texans would be better off lining up the three biggest sumo wrestlers that they could find who would play for the minimum salary instead of allocating substantial cap space to end Gary Walker and nose tackle Seth Payne. While eating blocks is an important requirement of a 3-4 lineman, so is collapsing the pocket.

If the lack of a pass rush is not enough to justify the Texans placing a high priority on adding fresh blood to the D-line, consider that the team currently has only three defensive linemen under contract beyond this season: Walker, Payne, and Junior Ioane. Walker is a Pro Bowl player but is on the wrong side of 30, Payne is an integral cog in the defense but must rehab a torn ACL, and waiver wire acquisition Ioane has only played a handful of snaps as a Texan.

One player who the Texans may consider in seeking help in this area is Oklahoma Sooner Tommie Harris. The junior from Killeen plays defensive tackle in OU’s 4-3 front but could be an end in the Texan 3-4. He moves inside to the nose when Oklahoma shifts to a three-man front in their nickel package.

Powerful, quick, and athletic, Harris flashes dominating ability at the major college level. He received but probably did not deserve All-American accolades as a sophomore when a groin injury slowed him through most of the season. Harris is part of a rotation at defensive tackle and spends more time on the sideline than might be expected of a talent of his caliber, but that appears to be the product of Oklahoma’s depth at the position and desire to keep its players fresh rather than a lack of conditioning by Harris.

The Sooners report that Harris has run the 40-yard dash in 4.67 seconds. He is extremely quick off the snap, exploding through the line while opposing blockers are still getting out of their stances. Harris has the burst of a natural pass rusher; when he breaks free into the pocket, the quarterback has little chance of escape. The Texans usually use linebackers as ends on obvious passing downs, but Harris has the penetrating ability to stay in the game in those situations. He pursues as well as many linebackers and can make plays well outside the range of the typical defensive lineman. Because of his athleticism, Harris could be very effective dropping off in zone blitzes to clog up the passing lanes.

At 289 lbs., Harris may not appear to have the requisite bulk for a Texan D-lineman, since six of the seven currently on the Houston roster weigh in at over 300 lbs., including four at more than 315. However, Harris appears lean and has the frame to easily carry more bulk. He will not celebrate his 20th birthday until later this month, so he should fill out as he continues to physically develop. In addition, Capers and Fangio have had success in the past with smaller defensive linemen: no defensive lineman who started a game for the ’94 Steelers weighed more than Harris does now, and no defensive lineman for the ’96 Panthers weighed more than 295 lbs.

Despite his rare physical attributes, Harris tends to have quiet stretches in which he does not make many plays. Against Texas, he made only one tackle despite being double-teamed on less than a third of his snaps. He does not consistently dominate like an impact player should.

A more Texan-specific question mark concerning Harris is whether he can hold up at the point of attack and control his area as a 3-4 end. At Oklahoma, he does a great deal of slanting and stunting to get penetration, sometimes at the expense of running himself out of the position. The Texans ask their linemen to do more taking on of blockers and controlling of their gaps, so Harris would have to adjust to a new style of play and set of responsibilities.

Harris, assuming that he makes himself available for the 2004 draft, has unquestionable talent and could be a very high draft pick. However, he needs to become more consistent and dominate on an every-down basis in order to realize his potential. It also remains to be seem how well he would fit in a defense that is more restrictive of a lineman’s ability to freelance.

WAR ROOM NOTES: Charley Casserly was in Oxford, Mississippi to scout another defensive lineman, Arkansas State tackle Corey Williams. Ole Miss pounded the Indians 55-0…One prospect who is starting to receive publicity and could draw the Texans’ interest is Division II Central Missouri State’s Roderick Green. Green, a former Brenham High School and Blinn Community College star, plays a rush end position in the Mules’ 4-3 defense but projects to outside linebacker in the 3-4 due to his size (6’2”, 240), speed (sub-4.6 40), and ability to wreak havoc off the edge (16 tackles for loss through six games this season). His toughest opponent in 2002 was Northwest Missouri State left tackle Seth Wand, who held Green to three tackles (none for a loss), no sacks, and no hurries…Some have speculated that Pittsburgh’s true sophomore superstar receiver Larry Fitzgerald could turn pro after this season, but that could not happen unless Maurice Clarett wins his suit against the NFL. Fitzgerald attended high school for four years in Minneapolis and then spent an additional year at a prep school, Valley Forge Military Academy, before enrolling at Pitt. So this is his third year out of high school, and that makes him eligible to enter the draft, right? Not so fast. The current NFL rule states that a player may only enter the draft if he has been in college for at least three seasons or is at least three years removed from his high school graduation. Fitzgerald did not graduate from the Minneapolis school, but received his high school diploma from Valley Forge, so he’s still a year shy of being three years beyond his high school graduation.

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Here’s an early look at the top 50 prospects for 2004.

>> J.P. Losman
>> Eli Manning
>> Cody Pickett
>> Ben Roethlisberger
>> Andrew Walter

>> Clarence Farmer
>> Steven Jackson
>> Greg Jones
>> Kevin Jones
>> Carnell Williams

>> Lee Evans
>> Michael Jenkins
>> Reggie Williams
>> Roy Williams
>> Rashaun Woods

>> Jeff Dugan
>> Ben Troupe
>> Ben Utecht
>> Ben Watson
>> Kellen Winslow, Jr.

>> Shawn Andrews
>> Vernon Carey
>> Nat Dorsey
>> Robert Gallery
>> Max Starks

>> Tommie Harris
>> DeMarco McNeil
>> Randy Starks
>> Marcus Tubbs
>> Vince Wilfork

>> Rod Davis
>> Lance Mitchell
>> Dontarrious Thomas
>> Jonathan Vilma
>> D.J. Williams

>> Karlos Dansby
>> Isaac Hilton
>> Derrick Johnson
>> Teddy Lehman
>> Will Smith

>> Chris Gamble
>> DeAngelo Hall
>> Marlin Jackson
>> Derrick Strait
>> Nathan Vasher

>> Brandon Everage
>> Dexter Reid
>> Stuart Schweigert
>> Sean Taylor
>> Matt Ware

(click player for profile)