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 college football 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 11th annual Athlon Awards.
1. Alabama - With the Tide retooling up front, it’s up to the linebacking corps to set the tone for the defense. Dont’a Hightower earned second-team All-SEC honors last year and figures to be better another year removed from an ACL tear. Courtney Upshaw came on strong over the final games of 2010 and should supply a good chunk of Alabama’s pass rush. Upshaw registered five sacks in Alabama's final two games of last year. C.J. Mosley posted an outstanding freshman year and will team with Jerrell Harris to round out the starting four. Mosley is an Athlon Sports preseason third-team All-SEC selection.
2. Oklahoma - Bob Stoops has a problem, albeit a good one to have in 2011. The Sooners are loaded at linebacker, which means talented sophomore Corey Nelson might not start this year. Senior Travis Lewis is a steady performer, picking up 109 tackles last year. Sophomore Tom Wort is expected to emerge as Oklahoma's starting middle linebacker. Wort is a physical player and will produce several jaw-rattling hits this year. Tony Jefferson will man the third spot, a hybrid safety/linebacker position. Juniors Joseph Ibiloye and Jaydan Bird will provide depth.
3. Texas - The Longhorns may lack the depth Oklahoma has at linebacker, but their starting group isn’t far behind. Keenan Robinson paced Texas’ defense with 113 tackles last year, while Emmanuel Acho earned second-team All-Big 12 honors. Robinson and Acho are Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-Big selections. Sophomore Jordan Hicks is a rising star in the Big 12 and will see more playing time as the third starter in 2011.
4. Boston College - Luke Kuechly led the nation with 183 tackles last season and returns as arguably the best linebacker in college football. The junior is an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-American and will be expected to be the leader for a defense that returns six starters. Sophomore Kevin Pierre-Louis is a rising star in the ACC after registering 93 stops last season as a true freshman. Sophomore Steele Divitto is expected to step in as the third starter, replacing Mark Herzlich.
5. Arizona State - Centennial High School in California produced all three of Arizona State’s starting linebackers, including standout Vontaze Burfict. The junior needs to eliminate the mental errors that have hounded him on the field so far, but he should contend for All-America honors. Burfict is on the radar for many NFL scouts and could be a first-round selection with a big year in Tempe. Brandon Magee and Shelly Lyons will fill out the Sun Devils’ starting trio.
6. TCU - Tank Carder became a household name with his stellar performance in the 2011 Rose Bowl and the senior should be a lock for All-American honors this year. Junior Tanner Brock is overshadowed by Carder, but is one of the best in the Mountain West.
7. Nebraska - The Cornhuskers have used a hybrid 4-2-5 alignment under Bo Pelini to compensate for Big 12 passing offenses. However, Nebraska may use more traditional 4-3 schemes this year, which matches up with the physical play of the Big Ten. Senior Lavonte David was a tackling machine last season and is expected to be one of the top linebackers in the nation.
8. Notre Dame - The Irish seemed to settle into Bob Diaco’s 3-4 attack late last year, limiting the final four opponents to 17 or fewer points. Leading the linebacking corps is junior Manti Te’o, who registered 133 stops last year. Sophomore Prince Shembo is a player to watch, while senior Darius Fleming is expected to be among the team leaders in sacks this year.
9. Florida - There’s a lot of youth on Florida’s defense, but no shortage of talent. Sophomore Jelani Jenkins is poised for a breakout season, after registering 76 tackles last year. The Gators also expect big things from junior Jon Bostic, who will likely start at middle linebacker.
10. Missouri - Two starters return for coordinator Dave Steckel, including rising star Zaviar Gooden. The junior collected 85 tackles to lead the team last year. Gooden had a big spring and looks poised to challenge for first-team all-conference honors. Will Ebner and Luke Lambert are expected to play a key role in this unit, but must stay healthy after battling injuries last year.