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UNH Football Position Preview: Defensive line looks to lock down opponents

  • Elijah Lewis (55) and Niko Kvietkus (93) try to bust through blockers during a University of New Hampshire football spring practice at Wildcat Stadium. KENDRA MIDDLETON / UNH Athletics

  • Niko Kvietkus (93) receives instruction from assistant coach Kendall Reyes, a Nashua native who played in the NFL, during a University of New Hampshire football spring practice at Wildcat Stadium. KENDRA MIDDLETON / UNH Athletics

UNH Insider
Published: 4/29/2019 3:16:26 PM

DURHAM – The University of New Hampshire football team’s late-season surge last year was fueled by several aspects, including the defensive line’s play over the final several games.

The defensive tackles and defensive ends helped the group clamp down on opponents by amping up their work against the run.

Here’s one way to look at it: The Wildcats gave up 186 rushing yards a game through the first six games of the season. Aided by an improved pass rush and an increased number of quarterback sacks, they sliced that number to 60 rushing yards a game over the last five.

UNH won three of its last four games. Only once in the final five contests did the opposing team run for more than 100 yards.

For the season, the Wildcats gave up 128.7 yards rushing a game, which was fifth best in the league and allowed 310 yards of offense overall, which was second. Those numbers led to a scoring defense number of 22.8 points, which was fourth best.

“I think we made steps last year in doing certain things better than we had been,” said UNH defensive coordinator John Lyons. “I think overall our run defense was better, more consistent. I think we cut down on big plays from previous years. I think we have to continue to generate pressure on the quarterback.”

The challenge ahead, as UNH spring football winds down, is to improve all the numbers. The Wildcats are down to their last few practices of the spring before the Blue-White game closes things out on Saturday, May 4 at noon in Wildcat Stadium.

Defensive ends Jae-Wuan Horton and Kyle Reisert and defensive tackle Ryan Sosnak have graduated, but the defense returns experienced players at both positions.

Senior Josh Kania and junior Brian Carter lead the way at defensive end.

Juniors Elijah Lewis and Jacob Bradshaw and sophomore Niko Kvietkus are among those back on the inside.

“Josh Kania has been a kid who we’ve utilized a great deal, not only at his position, but he will be able to help us as a defensive tackle, able to help us insider as a rush guy,” said defensive ends coach Pete McCarty. “I think it’s going to be a situation where our group at the end position will be able to come inside and help out.”

Kania, 6-foot-3 and 244 pounds, has 55 solo tackles and 26 tackles for a total of 81 career tackles, including 4½ sacks.

“Josh is a hard-nosed player and works his tail off,” McCarty said. “He has a great grasp of the scheme and understands that well. ... The younger players have great respect for Josh. Josh has gone through some injuries, but some way, somehow, he goes through it. Guys have respect for those players. He’ll have a great year, I tell you.”

Carter, 6-foot-2 and 231 pounds, started six games as a redshirt freshman in 2016 and all eight he played last year. He was second on the team with 5½ sacks last season, including two at Colorado, and for his career has 33 assisted and 17 assisted tackles for a total of 50.

“Brian does a great job with getting off the ball, being able to run plays down,” McCarty said. “He’s got a secretive speed that you don’t see on times, but as you see him playing football he makes plays that other people won’t. We’re hoping that he comes out punching. He’s had a good career up to now and we expect him to be able to climb another mountain.”

Also at defensive end, senior Robbie Schumacher, 6-foot and 253 pounds, had a couple of sacks last season and the defensive coaches are excited to have sophomore Gunner Gibson, 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, back on their side of the ball.

Defensive tackle Elijah Lewis, 6-foot-1 and 277 pounds, played as a true freshman in 2016, missed 2017 with an injury and started all 11 games in 2018.

“He’s a heck of a competitor,” said Kendall Reyes, the first-year assistant coach who works with the defensive tackles. “He’s an explosive athlete, extremely strong, especially in his lower body. That’s everything you’d want out of an interior defensive lineman. He plays hard. He plays extremely hard and that’s what it’s all about on the defensive line. He gets off the ball extremely quickly so that allows him to make impact plays from the inside. We expect him to be a leader of the group.”

Lewis had 17 solo tackles and 15 assists for 32 total last season and is the leading tackler among returning linemen.

Kvietkus, 6-foot-3 and 279 pounds, enrolled at UNH a little over a year ago in January and played in nine games last year as a true freshman and had eight tackles.

“Niko has a lot of football savvy,” Reyes said. “He’s very good at rushing. He’s very good with his hands. I think last year he was able to gain a lot of experience and confidence. We can see him bringing that confidence into spring ball this year.”

Bradshaw is the big guy of the group at 6-foot-1 and 300 pounds.

“He’s extremely strong,” Reyes said. “He hit the weight room pretty hard this offseason. He still has good quickness. He’s more of our brute on the defensive line. But he’s an extremely, extremely smart individual and he really understands our defense and where he needs to be. He’ll knock you back and fill his gap and he’s got pretty good moves in the pass rush as well.”

Redshirt freshman Chris Donnelly, 6-foor-3 and 251 pounds, has moved over from the offensive line and he and redshirt freshman Juston Cogbill, 6-foot-3 and 267 pounds, are in the mix at defensive tackle as well.

Schumacher and Gibson will battle for playing time on the line.

“Robbie’s done a great job,” McCarty said. “He has a great grasp on the scheme and he’s made some plays.”

Gibson was at defensive end his first season as he redshirted. He played tight end last year before an injury ended his season after four games.

“Gunner can help us in a lot of ways,” McCarty said. “Where he goes, he’ll go at a fast level. I think this spring has been the best thing for him. I think he can be a very big impact player for us all year long. (He has) speed, quickness, strength. We’ve got to get some more weight on him so he can hold his ground.”

Juniors Carson Leary, 6-foot-2 and 243 pounds, and Riley Ammerman, 6-foor-3 and 228 pounds, are also in the mix. Sean McCormick-Kuhman, 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds, and Griffin Aube, 6-foot-3 and 221, will be redshirt freshmen in the fall and add depth at defensive end.

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