August 5, 2011

Preseason unit rankings: Defensive line

Fall practice gets under way this week, and that means the 2011 college football season has started.

Today, we unveil the fourth of our national unit rankings. We're revealing one unit per day and end next Tuesday with overall coaching staffs.

The rankings take into account what the players have accomplished, how we think the players will do this season and sheer talent. But production does trump potential.

Here are the defensive line rankings, which were the toughest of all to finalize - and not because there were that many candidates. Next up: linebackers.


BUZZ: The Tigers lost E Aldon Smith early to the NFL, but truth be told, if everyone left plays up to his potential, he will not be missed. Es Brad Madison and Jacquies Smith can rush the passer, but the key is going to be getting stingier against the run. NT Dominique Hamilton is a big-time run-stuffer, and the Tigers' run defense suffered last season when he sustained a broken ankle in Game 7. Depth is good at end, but some youngsters and newcomers must step up in the middle.

9. LSU
BUZZ: The Tigers will miss T Drake Nevis, who was the second-best defensive lineman in the SEC last season, behind only Auburn's Nick Fairley. Truth be told, their interior won't be as good. But there should be an excellent four-man rotation at end, and there definitely is some talent in the middle. Sophomore Es Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo have superstar potential; they need to stay healthy and consistent.

8. USC
BUZZ: The Trojans' line has talent, but consistency was lacking last season. Perhaps the move of LB Derek Kennard back to end - his natural position - will provide a big boost. There is a nice trio at end in Kennard, Nick Perry and Wes Horton, and true freshman Greg Townsend arrives amid a ton of hype. There are the makings of an excellent tackle rotation with Armond Armstead (a converted end), DaJohn Harris, Christian Tupou and redshirt freshman George Uko, a big man (6-4/300) with surprising quickness for a guy his size.

BUZZ: This is a big-time line, and senior T Billy Winn can play for anybody. He is excellent against the run and also can get after the passer (5.5 sacks). He and fellow senior Chase Baker form a nice duo in the middle, and depth is excellent, with Dutch native Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe - a sophomore - a guy the coaches love. Es Shea McClellin and Tyrone Crawford combined for 16.5 sacks last season and will be dangerous again, though depth on the outside isn't as good as it is inside.

BUZZ: The Tide uses a 3-4 set and lost their best lineman when Marcell Dareus went pro a year early. But weep not for Nick Saban ; this remains a solid group. NT Josh Chapman is a load in the middle, and coaches will mix-and-match with their ends. JC transfer Jesse Williams, a native of Australia who plays tackle, arrives highly touted.

BUZZ: Jared Crick isn't as good as former running mate Ndamukong Suh - few are - but Crick is a star in his own right and will contend for All-America notice. E Cameron Meredith has the potential for an All-Big Ten season. T Baker Steinkuhler is another returning starter. Any team coached by Bo Pelini is going to put on emphasis on strong line play.

BUZZ: The Buckeyes will mss E Cameron Heyward, but this should be a stout unit. John Simon isn't overly big (6-2/270), but he's quick, strong and smart, and can play tackle and end. E Nathan Williams is being counted upon to provide a consistent pass rush; he led the team with 4.5 last season but needs to bump that up to around nine or 10 this season. There is a nice group of youngsters at tackle, including sophomores Garrett Goebel and Johnathan Hankins, a wide-body who should become a big-time run-stuffer.

BUZZ: The Gamecocks were stingy against the run and got after the passer last season, and it all starts up front with T Travian Robertson and E Devin Taylor. Both should contend for All-SEC honors. E Melvin Ingram also returns; he was third in the league with nine sacks last season despite being a reserve. But all eyes will be on true freshman E Jadeveon Clowney, the nation's No. 1 recruit. He had an amazing 29 sacks last season, and his ability go get to the passer means he will see time this fall. Ultimately, though, it's how he holds up against the run that will determine how much playing time he gets.

BUZZ: Last year at this time, there was much hand-wringing because the Tar Heels were going to have to play the 2009 season without their two best linemen, E Robert Quinn and T Marvin Austin (Quinn ended up being a first-round pick, while Austin went in the second round). It didn't matter as Quinton Coples and Donte Paige-Moss stepped up. Coples is a natural end but had to play inside, where he turned in a magnificent season (59 tackles, 10 sacks, 12 quarterback hurries). Paige-Moss had seven sacks at end. This season, Coples is back at end, and it wouldn't be a surprise if he and Paige-Moss combined for at least 20 sacks. T Tydreke Powell is another who should contend for All-ACC honors. Jordan Nix and Sylvester Williams will battle for the starting spot at the other tackle.

BUZZ: The Seminoles were lax at times against the run, especially in the second half of the season, but they had a fierce pass rush (48 sacks) and all but one of the top eight linemen returns. E Brandon Jenkins had 13.5 sacks and did a nice job against the run, as well. There will be a solid five-man rotation at tackle, headed by junior Jacobbi McDaniel, and the good news for coaches is that none of that quintet is a senior. Depth at end isn't as good, but with Jenkins getting so much attention from opposing blockers, you have to figure the other ends are only going to have to beat one man to get to the opposing quarterback.

(Text by Mike Huguenin. Rankings by Olin Buchanan, Tom Dienhart, David Fox, Mike Huguenin and Steve Megargee.)

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