May 30, 2011

Monday with Mike: Top defensive trios

Today is Part 2 of our look at college football's best triplets.

Last week, we looked at the best quarterback/tailback/wide receiver trios in the nation; this week, we look at the other side of the ball and pick out the best lineman/linebacker/defensive back trios.

The individuals aren't necessarily the most talented players at their positions nationally, but when you put all three together, you certainly have something. It's also important to note that this is not a ranking of defensive units, just of defensive "triplets."

12. ARIZONA STATE
The triplets: DT Will Sutton, LB Vontaze Burfict, CB Deveron Carr
The buzz: This is a leap of faith, of sorts. Sutton impressed as a freshman in 2009, then missed last season for academic reasons. He's extremely athletic for an interior lineman. Burfict has a chance to be the best linebacker in the nation - if he can curb his, uh, enthusiasm. He has excellent instincts, good speed and absolutely punishes people; he seems to relish contact. Burfict and Sutton were high school teammates at Corona (Calif.) Centennial. Carr is coming off a shoulder injury, but must play well in the absence of standout CB Omar Bolden, who likely will miss the season with a knee injury.
11. VIRGINIA TECH
The triplets: DT Antoine Hopkins, LB Bruce Taylor, CB Jayron Hosley
The buzz: Hosley, a junior, led the nation in interceptions with nine last season, has good ball skills and can run. He added eight pass breakups. Taylor always seems to be around the ball and will be the Hokies' leading tackler. The line has some issues, and while Hopkins isn't necessarily a star, he is a solid player who is stout against the run.
10. ARKANSAS
The triplets: DE Jake Bequette, LB Jerry Franklin, S Tramain Thomas
The buzz: Franklin is one of the more underrated linebackers in the nation. He makes a ton of tackles (275 in his career) and flows well from sideline to sideline. Bequette has a legit chance to lead the SEC in sacks. He's solid against the run, too. Thomas is the best player in an improving secondary, and he must provide big plays and leadership this season.
9. NOTRE DAME
The triplets: DE Ethan Johnson, LB Manti Te'o, FS Harrison Smith
The buzz: Te'o arrived amid much hype in 2009, and he showed that the hype was warranted last season. He always is around the ball and is a tackle machine. Smith is from Knoxville, Tenn., and sure would look good in the Vols' secondary. He makes plays and is a big hitter. Johnson is an anchor at end; he's solid against the run in the 3-4 and has some pass-rush skills. Notre Dame's defense improved dramatically last season, and this trio lends hope it can be even better this season.
8. BOSTON COLLEGE
The triplets: DT Kaleb Ramsey, LB Luke Kuechly, CB Donnie Fletcher
The buzz: Talk about a tackle machine - Kuechly has 341 career tackles in his first two seasons. He has excellent instincts and always seems to find a way to get to the ball. He hasn't had a game with single-digit tackles since the fourth game of his freshman season. Fletcher, who played at powerhouse Cleveland Glenville in high school, has excellent size (6-1/200) and is coming off a five-interception season; he's also a willing tackler in run support. The line lost some key players, but Ramsey has a shot at All-ACC honors. BC always is stout against the run, and that won't change this season.
7. TCU
The triplets: DE Stansly Maponga, LB Tank Carder, CB Greg McCoy
The buzz: Carder and Tanner Brock might be the best linebacker duo in the nation; at the least, they are in the top four or five. Carder is an extremely physical presence who was excellent against Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. McCoy is TCU's fastest player and has been a big weapon on infrequent kickoff returns. He had two picks and six pass breakups last season and had a season-high five tackles in the Rose Bowl. Maponga was a second-team All-Mountain West performer as a redshirt freshman last season, when he was TCU's "other" end to Wayne Daniels. This season, Maponga will have the spotlight to himself on the line.
6. LSU
The triplets: DE Sam Montgomery, LB Ryan Baker, CB Tyrann Mathieu
The buzz: Think about what LSU lost at each level of its defense - T Drake Nevis, LB Kelvin Sheppard and CB Patrick Peterson. Now consider that the Tigers still are on this list, which is a prime example of how well Les Miles and his staff have recruited. Baker is undersized (6-0/227), but he pinballs around and makes tackles everywhere. He played the first month of the 2010 with a broken jaw, which was wired shut. Mathieu had a fantastic true freshman season in '10, finishing with an interception, 50 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, six pass breakups, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries as the nickel back. He and Morris Claiborne should form a formidable cornerback tandem. Frankly, there were two or three other choices just as good on the defensive line, but Montgomery was the choice because of the big-play ability he flashed (six tackles for loss, two sacks) as a redshirt freshman last season before being lost for the season with a knee injury in Game 5. Keep an eye on sophomore backup DE Barkevious "KeKe" Mingo, whom LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis said eventually would be "the best pass-rusher in the SEC, bar none." Montgomery is a better all-around player now, but Mingo - who was born in Belle Glade, Fla., but went to high school in Monroe, La. - might have a higher ceiling.
5. NORTH CAROLINA
The triplets: DE Quinton Coples, LB Kevin Reddick, CB Charles Brown
The buzz: This list was put together assuming Coples will be eligible this season; he attended an NFL draft party that the school - and perhaps the NCAA - is looking into. He played out of position at tackle last season but still had a great season, with 10 sacks, 15.5 tackles for loss, 59 tackles, 12 quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles. If he's set loose at end, a 15-sack season is a legit goal. Reddick was the Heels' leading tackler last season, with 74, and had two picks - including one he took back for a TD - and five pass breakups. Brown was suspended last season for receiving illegal benefits, but he had a big season in 2009, with 66 tackles, three interceptions and nine pass breakups.
4. STANFORD
The triplets: DE Matthew Masifilo, LB Shayne Skov, SS Delano Howell
The buzz: Skov is a fierce hitter who had his national coming-out party in the Cardinal's Orange Bowl rout of Virginia Tech. Skov - who sported a Mohawk for part of last season - led the Cardinal with 84 tackles last season, and had 12 tackles, four tackles for loss, three sacks and a pass breakup against the Hokies. He also had double-digit tackles against USC (13). Howell will get some preseason All-America notice and is entering his third season as a starter. He has 138 tackles in the past two seasons and had five picks and five pass breakups last season. Masifilo is the only returning starter on the defensive line for Stanford, but he's a nice building block. He had 33 tackles, four sacks and two forced fumbles in the Cardinal's 3-4 scheme last season.
3. FLORIDA STATE
The triplets: DE Brandon Jenkins, LB Nigel Bradham, CB Xavier Rhodes
The buzz: Jenkins emerged as a big-time playmaker last season, with 13.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss. He has an extremely fast first step off the edge and had five games with two sacks. Bradham might not be an All-America - given his high school hype, that probably was expected by more than a few Seminoles fans - but he still is a productive player for FSU. He tied for the team lead with 97 tackles last season and added five sacks; he is a speedy playmaker who should get All-ACC honors this season. Rhodes was a revelation as a redshirt freshman last season, with four picks and 12 pass breakups to go with 58 tackles. He has excellent size (6-1/210) and is coming off a freshman All-America season.
2. ALABAMA
The triplets: DT Josh Chapman, LB Dont'a Hightower, SS Mark Barron
The buzz: The Tide has multiple players who fit the criteria at each level of their defense, most notably LB Courtney Upshaw and FS Robert Lester. This Alabama defense has the look of the 2009 version - which, of course, was the main reason the Tide won the national title that season. Barron is the best strong safety in the nation, and Hightower has the talent to be one of the top half-dozen linebackers in the country. Chapman is a load in the middle.
1. NEBRASKA
The triplets: DT Jared Crick, LB Lavonte David, CB Alfonzo Dennard
The buzz: It wouldn't be a shock to see each of these guys on an All-America team at the end of the season, and it certainly wouldn't be a surprise if Crick and David are on most preseason All-America teams. Crick did just fine last season without running mate Ndamukong Suh. David - who played with Miami LB Sean Spence in high school at Miami's Northwestern High - was stunningly productive in his first season after transferring in from a junior college, finishing with 152 tackles, six sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss and eight pass breakups. Dennard was an overshadowed part of what might have been the nation's best secondary, and he was the "other" cornerback to Prince Amukamara last season. But Dennard had a solid season in his own right (four picks, seven pass breakups), and he'll receive a lot more hype this season.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.




 

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