LARAMIE -- Patrick Merten's new perspective has taken some getting used to.
The Wyoming senior is learning to play the zero technique, which aligns a nose guard head up on the center.
"It's kind of whole different deal playing over the nose than any other [defensive]-line position," Mertens said. "I'm learning a lot right now and struggling a little bit, but every day I'm getting better."
And when the frustrations do set in, Wyoming first-year defensive line coach Jamar Cain reminds Mertens of one simple fact: You can play any of the three down-lineman positions. With the Cowboys running a hybrid defense that shows both 4-3 and 3-4 alignment looks during spring drills, Mertens has assumed the nose position for the No. 1 defense.
Cain said with Merten's playing experience, the 6-foot-5, 287-pounder was a natural fit there. And the benefit off the added versatility will only pay off in the fall.
"Learn now in spring ball and we can toy around, and move you to different spots," Cain said. "Patrick's a warrior, so he's going to do whatever he can to get it done."
After sitting out the 2011 season due to illness, Mertens returned last year and recorded 34 total tackles, with 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble. Depending on what front the Cowboys use consistently, Mertens will be counted on to anchor Wyoming's defensive line. Cowboys sophomore Eddie Yarbrough and senior Justin Bernthaler have been running at the No. 1 defensive end spots and both saw significant time last year; Wyoming junior Sonny Puletasi also returns.
Wyoming graduated two starters from last year's defensive line, most notably Mike Purcell, a first-team all-conference selection. Yarbrough tallied 49 total tackles and led the team with four sacks last year (six total tackles for loss), while Bernthaler added three TFLs, one sack and one forced fumble. Yarbrough, Mertens and Puletasi were Wyoming's top-three pass-rushers last year in terms of sacks, but the defense only totaled 14 sacks as a team.
It may sound cliché, but establishing a formidable front line is key to the defense's revival.
"We're the tone-setters," Cain said. "For the whole team."
So Cain's emphasis in first year -- he was the defensive line coach at Cal Poly previously -- is to create havoc from the down linemen position.
"That's big shoes to fill," Mertens said of filling the void left by Purcell. "I'll have to improve every day when we come out there, but I think I can get there by the time we kick off against Nebraska."