GRAND FORKS — When defensive line coach Jordan Gigli left the University of North Dakota for Northern Illinois after five years with the Fighting Hawks in the offseason, defensive coordinator Eric Schmidt shifted from coaching linebackers to the line in order to make the hire he wanted in now-linebackers coach Brett Holinka.
Schmidt wasn't signing up for the easiest assignment as it turns out.
Along the defensive line, UND lost 2018 starters Tank Harris and Austin Cieslak to graduation, then lost promising youngsters Zeke Ott and Nick Honerlaw to injury. And just this week, expected defensive end starter Carl Engwall is no longer with the team.
All that movement means the line is the biggest defensive concern for the Fighting Hawks, as they build toward an Aug. 31 opener against Drake at the Alerus Center.
"Working on depth is the biggest thing," Schmidt said. "I think we have some talented young guys, they just lack the experience and reps they need for us to play at a high level. It's inconsistent right now, but there's talent there."
UND's defensive line starts with one major proven standout in defensive end Mason Bennett, one of the program's best defensive lineman in recent history.
Bennett, a 6-foot-4, 258-pound Winnipeg native, finished with 9.0 sacks in 2018 -- two behind the school record.
But the experience level drops off from there significantly.
After losing 2018 seniors Tank Harris and Steve Greer at nose guard, the Fighting Hawks will turn to sophomore Jalen Morrison, a 6-2, 278-pound Woodbury, Minn. native.
Morrison played in seven games last season, registering two tackles.
"I think Jalen is making progress," Schmidt said. "His body type and athleticism is exactly what we're looking for there. He's not at the level where I think he needs to be but it's a process and every rep he's getting better and better. He can stop the run and play physical but now I'd like to get more out of him in the pass game. That takes time for guys who didn't play (nose) in high school."
The battle for the No. 2 nose guard has come down to 6-0, 263-pound redshirt freshman Griffin Lickfeldt and true freshman Elijah Beach, who's 6-2 and 267 pounds.
"Griffin has done some good things and improved," Schmidt said. "Beach is what you want, too. He's really strong. He's one of the guys we'd like to bring along here and see if he can help our defense in 2019."
UND brought in six defensive linemen in the 2019 recruiting class.
"We don't need them to play 50 plays a game, but we can't have a drop-off when we take out (the starters)," Schmidt said. "We have to have the next group of guys ready to go."
With Engwall no longer the starter opposite of Bennett, UND turns to a competition between redshirt freshman Jaelen Johnson (6-2, 228), classmate Ryan Schoenfelder (6-4, 235) and sophomore Quintin Seguin (6-3, 241).
Converted fullback Graham DeVore is also expected to be in the rotation at end, as is true freshman Isaac Moore.
"Seguin has come along here," Schmidt said. "He has more horsepower than he did last fall. The guy who has come the farthest is Schoenfelder. He's put on 30 pounds since he stepped on campus. He'd be the next guy in line there.
"For us, we have to keep trusting in those next guys. You can't wear down your top guys and expect they'll be the same in October and November."
Schimdt wants to keep Bennett around the same number of plays he played a year ago. Morrison, too, is expected to see the same amount of reps as 2018 starter Tank Harris.
"The key is in the pass game," Schmidt said. "We lost a lot of production. Tank was a good pass rusher. Cieslak was a good player here. Now with Quintin, Jaelen, Jalen, Graham, Griffin and Schoenfelder ... it's their turn now to play at a high level and help our team win."