A look at the Top Ten returning defensive linemen in the Mountain West Conference this season . . .
10. KURT TAUFA’ASAU, WYOMING
The 6-foot-2, 285-pound tackle enjoyed a solid debut season last year for the Cowboys. The former New Mexico Military Junior College player had 24 tackles (2.5 for a loss) and a sack, a fumble recovery and even knocked down a pass as a junior after red-shirting in 2010. Taufa’asau learned to play football at Samoana High in Pago Pago, American Samoa.
9. MATT AKERS, FRESNO STATE
The 6-2, 235-pound Akers isn’t big but he is strong (390-pound bench press) and athletic. Akers played in 13 games last year and had 21 tackles (four for a loss) and 2.5 sacks. He had three tackles and a sack against Nebraska. Akers combined with teammate Logan Harrell to sack Nevada Wolf Pack quarterback Cody Fajardo in the third quarter last October at Mackay Stadium. He also forced a fumble and blocked a kick last year for the Bulldogs.
8. REGGIE ELLIS, NEW MEXICO
The 6-foot-2, 285-pound Ellis, who transferred to New Mexico from the University of Illinois after the 2008 season, had 16 tackles a year ago with a sack and four tackles for a loss. His lone sack came against Boise State. Both Ellis and our No. 7 defensive lineman, Ugo Uzodinma, are expected to see plenty of playing time in 2012 since the Lobos have moved Joseph Harris (55 tackles a year ago) from defensive end back to outside linebacker this year.
7. UGO UZODINMA, NEW MEXICO
Wherever Ugo goes, Reggie follows. The two have followed the same path, from Dunbar High in Washington, D.C., to Illinois to New Mexico. The 6-4, 280-pound Uzodinma had 24 tackles in 2011 with 3.5 tackles for a loss and one sack and a forced fumble. He had three tackles, a sack and a forced fumble against Arkansas. Uzodinma had two tackles (one for a loss) against the Wolf Pack last season.
6. RICKY TJONG-A-TJOE, BOISE STATE
Tjong-A-Tjoe is ready for a breakout season. The 6-3, 298-pound tackle had waited patiently behind a ton of talent on the Broncos defensive line the last two years. A year ago he got in just seven games but was very productive with 15 tackles, three tackles for a loss and two sacks. In 2010 he had 24 tackles and 2.5 sacks in a dozen games. Tjong-A-Tjoe sacked Wolf Pack quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2010 at Mackay Stadium for a six-yard loss and did not play against Nevada a year ago. Tjong-A-Tjoe, who is from Amsterdam, Netherlands, played just one season of high school football (at Boise High).
5. MIKE ATKINSON, BOISE STATE
Atkinson, who played high school football in Ontario, Canada, had a breakout season in 2011 as a junior. The 6-foot, 310-pounder had 31 tackles in 2011 after getting just 18 combined in his first two Boise seasons. Atkinson, who started the Broncos’ season opener last year at fullback, also had 2.5 tackles for a loss last year and batted down two passes.
4. JACK REYNOSO, NEVADA
Reynoso also enjoyed a breakout season in 2011. The 6-foot-3, 275-pound tackle played in just eight games before breaking his leg but he was one of the most productive tackles in the Western Athletic Conference at the time of his injury. Reynoso, who missed spring football but he expected to be ready to practice in August, had 24 tackles, four for a loss, and two sacks for the Wolf Pack. Now a junior, Reynoso is the Wolf Pack’s most experienced defensive lineman this season.
3. JOHN FROLAND, COLORADO STATE
Froland had a strong red-shirt freshman season in 2011 with 34 tackles and 3.5 tackles for a loss. He was in on half a sack and also forced a fumble. The 6-5, 265-pound Froland, who missed a game last year with an ankle injury, will likely receive a lot of attention from opposing offensive lines this season with the loss of fellow defensive linemen (Nordly Capi (suspended) and C.J. Harris (transferred out of school) off last year’s roster.
2. PAPAI FALEMALU, HAWAII
The 6-3, 250-pound Falemalu was one of the top defensive linemen in the WAC a year ago. The 6-3, 245-pound senior had 50 tackles for the Warriors with 4.5 sacks in 2011. He was also credited with seven quarterback hurries. Falemalu had 11 tackles against Fresno State and six tackles against the Wolf Pack last season and in the season opener against Colorado he had six tackles, three for a loss, and two sacks. Falemalu, who is from Oahu, has played 39 games with 14 starts in his three-year Hawaii career.
1. MIKE PURCELL, WYOMING
The No. 1 spot on this list should have gone to Colorado State’s Capi but off-season troubles forced the Rams to suspend the All-Mountain West First Team defensive lineman. Purcell, though, had a strong season himself in 2011 as a junior. The big (6-3, 303-pounds) tackle had 48 tackles for the Cowboys with three tackles for a loss and two sacks. He recovered a fumble and even blocked two kicks a year ago. Purcell, who has been a full-time starter since his sophomore season (he even started two games as a freshman), had four tackles against Nebraska. Purcell also came up with one of the top defensive plays of the season last year for the Cowboys when he sacked Colorado State quarterback Garrett Grayson for an 11-yard sack and a safety with just under three minutes to play in an eventual 22-19 Wyoming victory last Dec. 3.