College Football's Top 25 Defensive Lines for 2013

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South Carolina ranks as the No. 1 defensive line.

College Football's Top 25 Defensive Lines for 2013

Defensive line isn’t a particularly deep position in college football this season. But at the top, South Carolina, Notre Dame, Arizona State, Florida and USC are all pretty solid. The Gamecocks are headlined by college football’s No. 1 player in end Jadeveon Clowney, while the Fighting Irish have two All-Americans in Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt. 

How did we come up with these rankings? A couple of factors were considered. Depth, overall talent, production, level of competition and projected output in 2013 all factored into the rankings for the backfield. While some teams may have experienced a down year last season, having a different quarterback or a change of scheme can make a huge difference.

They’re the teams within the team — those cohesive little units bound together by their shared responsibilities within the larger team context. 

Whether it’s the offensive linemen firing off time after time into those familiar blocking sleds, or the defensive linemen drilling repeatedly on how to shed blockers, or the defensive backs breaking on ball after ball — these teams in miniature hone their tasks on the practice field until those tasks become second nature. 
 
Whether or not these units function as one can make the difference between winning and losing, and a single unit can carry a team to New Year’s Day — or beyond.
 
It’s entirely fitting, then, for us to honor the best of the best at each position with our 13th annual Athlon Awards. 

 

Ranking the Top 25 Defensive Lines for 2013

1. South Carolina
The Gamecocks lose end Devin Taylor and tackle Byron Jerideau, but there’s not much concern over this unit. End Jadeveon Clowney is a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate and should add to his 21 career sacks and 33.5 tackles for a loss in 2013. Chaz Sutton is due for an increased role after recording five sacks last year, while Kelcy Quarles, Gerald Dixon and J.T. Surratt round out the interior. Freshmen Kelsey Griffin and Darius English may not play much this year but are future stars for this defense. The Gamecocks allowed only seven rushing scores and registered 3.3 sacks per game in 2012.

2. Notre Dame 
Kapron Lewis-Moore must be replaced, but the Fighting Irish feature two first-team Athlon Sports preseason All-Americans in end Stephon Tuitt and tackle Louis Nix III. Tuitt had 12 sacks last year. Sheldon Day replaces Lewis-Moore at end after recording 23 tackles and two sacks in his freshman season. The Fighting Irish need Nix and Tuitt to stay healthy, as there’s not an abundance of depth. Notre Dame finished 11th nationally against the run and allowed only four rushing touchdowns last season.

3. Arizona State 
The Sun Devils need to get tougher against the run, but depth and talent aren’t an issue. Tackle Will Sutton is the reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and is projected to be an NFL first-round pick in 2014. Jaxon Hood joins Sutton on the interior after a standout freshman season. Junior Onyeali and Davon Coleman give the Sun Devils two pass-rush threats in the 3-4 scheme. Junior college recruits Marcus Hardison and Demetrius Cherry are expected to provide depth.

4. Florida 
Defense carried the Gators to an 11–2 mark last season, and even though some key pieces depart, Florida should be strong in the trenches. Sophomores Jonathan Bullard and Dante Fowler start on the edges with seniors Dominique Easley and Damien Jacobs anchoring the interior. Easley is an Athlon Sports first-team preseason All-SEC selection. End/linebacker Ronald Powell, a No. 1 recruit out of high school, is back after sitting out 2012 due to a knee injury. If there’s a concern for coach Will Muschamp, it’s depth on the interior. Junior college recruit Darious Cummings was brought in to help on the interior, but the Gators could use a big season from junior Leon Orr.

5. USC 
New coordinator Clancy Pendergast has plenty of talent to install his new 5-2 scheme. End Morgan Breslin tied for the Pac-12 lead in sacks last year, and the return of Devon Kennard from injury adds another potential double-digit sack threat to the line. Leonard Williams, George Uko and Antwan Woods form a talented interior, with Williams capable of earning All-America honors in 2013. Redshirt freshman Kenny Bigelow is a name to watch this fall.

6. Virginia Tech
If there was a bright spot for the Hokies last season, it was a defensive line that ranked third in the ACC against the run and averaged 2.7 sacks a game. This unit could be even better in 2013, as eight of the nine players from the final 2012 two-deep are back. Ends James Gayle and J.R. Collins should form the best duo in the ACC, and depth is plentiful with Dadi Nicolas and Tyrel Wilson returning. Luther Maddy and Derrick Hopkins anchor the interior, while Kris Harley, Woody Barron and Nigel Williams provide depth. With a struggling offense, Virginia Tech will need to lean on its defense to win the Coastal Division in 2013.

7. Oregon
The Ducks have a new line coach (Ron Aiken) after Jerry Azzinaro followed Chip Kelly to the NFL. Aiken spent six seasons in the NFL but worked at Iowa from 1999-2006 and has plenty of pieces to work with this year. Seniors Taylor Hart, Ricky Heimuli and Wade Keliikipi are the likely starters, but Oregon will rotate several bodies in and out of the lineup. Sophomores DeForest Buckner, Alex Balducci, Christian French and Arik Armstead give the Ducks a solid second group with plenty of upside. Armstead impressed with 26 tackles as a true freshman last year. The only question in the front seven for coordinator Nick Aliotti is which player will step up to replace Dion Jordan’s production off the edge in Oregon’s 3-4 scheme.

8. TCU
Despite the departure of All-Big 12 end Stansly Maponga, the Horned Frogs still boast the best defensive line in the Big 12. End Devonte Fields was a first-team All-Big 12 selection as a true freshman, recording 18.5 tackles for a loss and 10 sacks. Fields will once again anchor the pass rush, but he will miss the first two games of the year due to a suspension. Joining Fields as key contributors at end will be Jon Koontz, Josh Carraway and James McFarland. Tackles Davion Pierson and Chucky Hunter are preseason Athlon Sports All-Big 12 selections. The Horned Frogs led the Big 12 in rush defense and averaged 2.2 sacks per game last year.

9. Stanford
Defensive lines in 3-4 schemes often don’t get the credit they deserve. And that was the case with Stanford last season, as its linebacking corps often overshadowed the work done by the three players in the trenches. The Cardinal loses nose tackle Terrence Stephens, but ends Ben Gardner and Henry Anderson are back. Gardner recorded 7.5 sacks in 14 games, while Anderson chipped in 13 tackles for a loss and 51 stops. Junior David Parry started three games last year and is expected to replace Stephens at nose tackle. Stanford has accumulated solid depth up front, as sophomore Aziz Shittu and senior Josh Mauro ensure the line won’t suffer any drop-off once the top three leave the field.

10. Ohio State
Yes, all four starters are gone from last season’s unit. However, by season’s end, the Buckeyes should have the Big Ten’s top defensive line. Ends Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington were two of the top-10 defensive end recruits in last year’s signing class, and both players impressed in limited action. The interior will be anchored by a group of talented, but unproven players, headlined by juniors Joel Hale and Michael Bennett. Sophomores Chris Carter and Tommy Schutt are expected to backup Hale and Bennett. True freshmen Joey Bosa, Michael Hill and Billy Price won’t start, but all three could factor into the rotation this year.

11. Texas
Returning Starters: 4
Rush Defense in 2012: 88th nationally (192.2 ypg)
Sacks in 2012: 35
Athlon 2013 All-Big 12 Performers: DE Jackson Jeffcoat (1st)

12. Florida State
Returning Starters: 0
Rush Defense in 2012: 3rd nationally (92.3 ypg)
Sacks in 2012: 36
Athlon 2013 All-ACC Performers: DT Timmy Jernigan (1st)

13. LSU
Returning Starters: 0
Rush Defense in 2012: 9th nationally (101.6 ypg)
Sacks in 2012: 35
Athlon 2013 All-SEC Performers: DT Anthony Johnson (1st)

14. Alabama
Returning Starters: 1
Rush Defense in 2012: 1st nationally (76.4 ypg)
Sacks in 2012: 35
Athlon 2013 All-SEC Performers: DT Brandon Ivory (4th)

15. Arkansas
Returning Starters: 3
Rush Defense in 2012: 19th nationally (124.1 ypg)
Sacks in 2012: 31
Athlon 2013 All-SEC Performers: DE Chris Smith (1st), DT Byran Jones (2nd)

16. Clemson
Returning Starters: 3
Rush Defense in 2012: 57th nationally (155.9 ypg)
Sacks in 2012: 34
Athlon 2013 All-ACC Performers: DE Vic Beasley (3rd)

17. South Florida
Returning Starters: 2
Rush Defense in 2012: 50th nationally (149.9 ypg)
Sacks in 2012: 25
Athlon 2013 American All-Conference Performers: DE Aaron Lynch (1st), DE Ryne Giddins (3rd)

18. Ole Miss
Returning Starters: 2
Rush Defense in 2012: 25th nationally (129.3 ypg)
Sacks in 2012: 38
Athlon 2013 All-SEC Performers: DE C.J. Johnson (2nd), DT Isaac Gross (4th)

19. Penn State
Returning Starters: 2
Rush Defense in 2012: 23rd nationally (128.4 ypg)
Sacks in 2012: 34
Athlon 2013 All-Big Ten Performers: DE Deion Barnes (1st), DT DaQuan Jones (2nd)

20. Michigan State
Returning Starters: 1
Rush Defense in 2012: 8th nationally (98.6 ypg)
Sacks in 2012: 20
Athlon 2013 All-Big Ten Performers: DE Marcus Rush (3rd)

21. Michigan
Returning Starters: 1
Rush Defense in 2012: 51st nationally (150.5 ypg)
Sacks in 2012: 22
Athlon 2013 All-Big Ten Performers: DE Frank Clark (3rd)

22. Louisville
Returning Starters: 4
Rush Defense in 2012: 48th nationally (148.0 ypg)
Sacks in 2012: 22
Athlon 2013 American All-Conference Performers: DT Brandon Dunn (1st), DE Marcus Smith (2nd)

23. Rutgers
Returning Starters: 2
Rush Defense in 2012: 6th nationally (97.2 ypg)
Sacks in 2012: 25
Athlon 2013 American All-Conference Performers: DE Jamil Merrell (1st), DT Darius Hamilton (2nd)

24. Boise State
Returning Starters: 2
Rush Defense in 2012: 46th nationally
Sacks in 2012: 38
Athlon 2013 All-Mountain West Performers: DE Demarcus Lawrence (1st), DT Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe (2nd)

25. Mississippi State
Returning Starters: 2
Rush Defense in 2012: 67th nationally (165.6 ypg)
Sacks in 2012: 18
Athlon 2013 All-SEC Performers: DE Denico Autry (3rd)

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