Derek Wolfe and John Hughes moved on via the top three rounds of the NFL Draft. Left standing in their NFL wake are Jordan Stepp, Camaron Beard and a host of hopefuls with giant shoes to fill.
WEST HARRISON, Ind. - Ascending to a starting position for the first time on the college level provides a pressure that can overwhelm many. The expectations, the responsibility, the leadership brings with it a vicious degree of difficulty.
If only the task was that easy for defensive tackles Jordan Stepp and Camaron Beard.
Those two not only are being asked to step into a starting role for the first time in their young Bearcats careers, they are replacing the two players selected in the top three rounds of the NFL Draft. Derek Wolfe (Denver, No. 36 overall) and John Hughes (Browns, 87) arguably represent the best defensive line duo in UC history.
Good luck, newbies.
"Initially, I was worried, but you are going to have that," said Stepp, a junior. "You have a big senior class leave you are going to be worried, but when you go through spring and have a great spring like we had, summer with a phenomenal summer and see how guys are working. All those worries go away. I know we see it, we are not blind to it, hey, you going to fill those footsteps? Coach Jones even asks us that. But it's about Team 125 and pulling together. We know that's all we got. We got all the pieces of the puzzle to get it done."
Those pieces are staring down a Wolfe/Hughes puzzle that contributed 34 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks last season. Of course, Stepp deserves a portion of credit for their production. He became part of a three-man rotation that allowed all three players to stay rested throughout the game. Stepp took about half the snaps of the other two and managed half a sack and two tackles for loss in limited action.
Nobody will be asking Stepp to increase his production by 1000 percent to replicate Wolfe. Nor will anybody ask Beard to jump into his first significant action as a sophomore and morph into a third-round draft pick. Defensive coordinator Jon Jancek will rely on a deeper rotation to help fill the void rather than place all the pressure on Stepp.
"It will be a little more by committee," he said. "We got to find out (our depth). We are going to have to roll some guys in and keep them healthy."
The rotation begins with the 6-foot-1, 268-pound Stepp, who comes in a different package than his predecessors. Wolfe (6-5, 295) and Hughes (6-4, 300) towered over centers, but Stepp utilizes his leverage to find his way to the ball.
Beard (6-5, 275) more fits the defensive tackle profile, though a bit on the skinny side. He played predominantly end in high school but made the transition to the middle. By all accounts, his learning curve experienced a spike this offseason.
"He just doesn't have a lot of snaps," Jancek said. "He's certainly come a long way, people don't get to see it but he's really improved."
Defensive line coach Steve Stripling brings Beard along and nobody around UC would doubt he'll accomplish the goal of grooming a starter. Finding a coach with a better pedigree of players would be difficult. Beard feels the pressure applied to fill the gap, but values staying within himself at this point.
"It's exciting, but a little nerves are good," Beard said. "I try to stay relaxed and focused and just play my role on the team."
The addition of three-year starter at Central Michigan, John Williams, adds depth and maturity to a group previously boasting but one senior (Adam Dempsey). After Williams, Jancek expects Dempsey and Mitch Meador to compete for a spot as well. Freshman Alex Pace arrives at a thick 298 pounds, but as a freshman, expecting an immediate contribution would be surprising.
For all those who remain at the position, the legacy of Wolfe and Hughes not only lives on, but provides reason to believe it will continue.
"The big thing about why John and Derek had so much success, you wouldn't find the other nose tackle or d-tackle going after the ball getting down-field tackles like that," Stepp said. "Just makes you realize how hard those guys worked. Living that whole year out last year passed that mentality down to me and the rest of the younger guys."