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Trojan pass-rushers NFL projects

by David Nestoff on Apr. 1, 2010
Troy University injected two of the most prolific pass-rushers in to the NFL in the last half of the decade. A public mid-major in southeastern Alabama, the Trojans saw the likes of DeMarcus Ware and Osi Umenyiora leave on a train for the NFL and enjoy immense success.

With the Dallas Cowboys, Ware’s impact was immediate. He left Troy as one of the most effective pass rushers in school history. At the pro level, he recorded eight sacks in his rookie season, and has had double-digit sacks each of the four years since. In the last five years, Ware leads the NFL in sacks with 64.5.

At 47.5 sacks over the last five years, Ware’s former teammate and now New York Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora doesn’t fall far behind. Umenyiora is sixth in sacks over his last five seasons (he missed all of 2008 with an injury). Not to mention, his time with the Giants has rewarded the Troy alum with a Super Bowl ring.

Though, neither were locks for stardom entering their college careers. In fact, both were projects coming out of high school, which is what helped them end up at Troy.

“When defensive linemen come along, if they are pretty close to the finished product, if they can play, they are scooped up pretty fast by the SEC and the ACC,” Troy’s defensive line coach Randy Butler said.

Such is life at a mid-major.

But with two more Trojan-bred pass-rushers coming out in the 2010 NFL Draft, it looks like Troy might be establishing itself on the defensive line.

Brandon Lang and Cameron Sheffield came in much the same way as their predecessors. Not finished enough products for the Division I powerhouses that run the southeastern part of the country, they came to Troy in need of some developing. Players at mid-majors often are, Butler said.

“It may take a course of two years to get that guy big enough,” said Troy’s defensive line coach, in the second year of his tenure at Troy. “It may take a kid who’s a little bit undersized but all the athlete to play the position.”

If Sheffield and Lang are anything, it’s athletes. Playing on either side of the line, they helped their program to a 9-4 record in 2009. Their senior seasons saw Troy win the Sun Belt conference title for the fourth year in a row; they ran the SBC gambit and went 8-0 in league play.

That came after a modest start to their careers. Sheffield had 2.5 sacks in 2006 and 2007 combined. Likewise, Lang only mustered 4.5 in 2006 and missed most of 2007 with a knee injury. Their real impact came in their junior years in 2008, when Lang recorded 10.5 sacks and Sheffield had 5.5. Over the last two years at Troy, the pair recorded over 31.5 sacks and 114 quarterback hurries.

Even with that success as defensive ends at Troy, it’s anyone’s guess where Lang and Sheffield end up in an NFL scheme. Whether they stay at defensive end as Umenyiora did with the Giants or turn into outside linebackers in a 3-4 scheme like Ware did with Dallas is something NFL teams are trying to project.

Which is just what they do with incoming recruits, Butler said.

“We may look at a big outside linebacker or a safety and have to project him as an outside linebacker,” Butler said. “Right now [Lang and Sheffield] might not be big enough to play defensive end in an NFL scheme, and they haven’t played outside linebacker in a scheme.”

So once again, Lang and Sheffield find themselves as projects.

Though for Butler, it’s not a question of whether either of the Troy linemen makes it to the pro level.

“Either one of those guys, I think all they want is a chance to prove to everybody they can play,” the defensive line coach said. “I know both of them will be in the NFL, because I’ve coached a lot of NFL guys, and I know these guys can play in the NFL.”