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 12th annual Athlon Awards.
Athlon's Top 20 Defensive Lines for 2012
1. LSU – Even when the Tigers lose a standout up front, this unit never seems to miss a beat. Tackle Michael Brockers is gone, but Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson are ready to emerge as key performers. Bennie Logan will be the anchor in the middle and should contend for All-SEC honors in 2012. The Tigers might have the top defensive end combination in college football, as Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo are back after combining for 17 sacks last year.
2. Florida State – Even though the Seminoles finished second nationally in rush defense and averaged 3.1 sacks per game last year, this unit could be better in 2012. Ends Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner quietly accumulated 15 sacks last season, and that duo will be spelled by top recruit Mario Edwards Jr. The interior of the line is overflowing with depth, and sophomore Timmy Jernigan could be one of the breakout players in the ACC this season. Seniors Everett Dawkins and Anthony McCloud, along with junior Demonte McAllister will provide Jernigan with plenty of help at tackle.
3. Texas – The Longhorns finished sixth nationally in rush defense last year, and two starters return for 2012. Ends Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat combined for 14.5 sacks last season and should challenge for All-America honors in 2012. With Kheeston Randall and Calvin Howell departing, the interior will have some new faces stepping into the rotation. Ashton Dorsey recorded five tackles for a loss in 2011 and will start at one interior spot. The other spot is expected to go to sophomore Desmond Jackson, but junior college transfer Brandon Moore will push for playing time.
4. Virginia Tech – Standout defenses have been a hallmark of Frank Beamer, and the Hokies are loaded on this side of the ball for 2012. End James Gayle had a breakout season last year, recording 38 tackles and seven sacks in 14 contests. J.R. Collins was disruptive from the other end spot, collecting 57 tackles and six sacks. The Hopkins brothers, Derrick and Antoine, will start at the tackle spots, but expect to see plenty of Luther Maddy and Corey Marshall in the rotation.
5. South Carolina – Melvin Ingram won’t be easy to replace, but the Gamecocks should still have one of the SEC’s top defensive lines in 2012. Jadeveon Clowney terrorized opposing quarterbacks as a freshman last year, recording 36 tackles and eight sacks. Devin Taylor had a relatively quiet 2011 season but will join Clowney as a starter at end. The interior will be anchored by promising sophomore Kelcy Quarles and senior Byron Jerideau.
6. Ohio State - 2011 was a disappointing all-around year for the Buckeyes. However, expect a quick turnaround in Columbus. New coach Urban Meyer is one of the best in college football and even with a bowl ban, should have Ohio State pushing for 10 or 11 victories. The defense was solid last season but wasn’t as dominant as we have seen in recent years. With three returning starters, the line should be one of the nation’s best in 2012. End John Simon and tackle Johnathan Hankins will contend for All-American honors, while senior Garrett Goebel is a steady performer at nose guard. This group will get an infusion of depth with a stellar freshman class, namely Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington.
7. Georgia – The Bulldogs are tough to evaluate on the defensive line, as their 3-4 alignment isn’t a conventional attacking unit like South Carolina or LSU. However, this group is one of the best in the SEC. Senior John Jenkins is a 358-pound immovable object on the interior. And the coaching staff can keep him fresh by rotating fellow senior Kwame Geathers into the interior. The end spots should go to seniors Cornelius Washington and Abry Jones.
8. Michigan State – Jerel Worthy’s departure is a huge blow for the Spartans’ defensive line. This unit led the Big Ten in rushing defense and recorded 44 sacks last year. Although Worthy will be missed, Michigan State returns ends William Gholston and Marcus Rush (combined for 9 sacks last season). The interior of the line will be watched closely early in the year, but Anthony Rashad White has experience, while Vanderbilt transfer James Kittredge finished spring with the edge at the other tackle spot.
9. Oregon – The Ducks have quietly transitioned into a 3-4 scheme and there’s no shortage of talent or depth returning in 2012. End/linebacker Dion Jordan is an athletic force off the edge, recording 42 stops, 13 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks last year. Taylor Hart is also coming off a strong season, picking up 44 tackles and honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors. The interior of the line should be anchored by Wade Keliikipi and senior Isaac Remington but look for Jared Ebert and Ricky Heimuli to see plenty of snaps. True freshman Arik Armstead is expected to push for playing time at end this year.
10. Alabama – Just like Georgia, it’s not easy to evaluate Alabama’s 3-4 alignment against 4-3 teams like Florida State, LSU and South Carolina. The linebackers play a key role in the rush defense, but the front trio also deserves credit for finishing No. 1 overall last season. Seniors Damion Square and Jesse Williams are back as returning starters and both should be in the mix for All-SEC honors. Ed Stinson and Quinton Dial will likely battle for the third spot on the line. Finishing No. 1 overall again in rush defense seems unlikely. However, don’t expect the Crimson Tide to drop too far in the defensive statistics this year.
11. Florida – If not for two injured knees, the Gators could rank much higher on this list. Ronald Powell was poised for a huge season but suffered a torn ACL in the spring game. Dominique Easley’s status for the opener is also up in the air, as he is also recovering from a knee injury suffered late in the 2011 season. Even with Easley and Powell questionable for the first game, Will Muschamp still has plenty to work with. Sharrif Floyd is a third-team Athlon Sports All-American for 2012, while senior Omar Hunter will man the other tackle spot. Look for true freshman Jonathan Bullard and junior college transfer Damien Jacobs to factor into the rotation.
12. Auburn – The Tigers should have one of the nation’s most improved defensive lines in 2012. All four starters are back from a unit that allowed 189.2 rushing yards per game last season, including All-American candidate Corey Lemonier. Joining Lemonier at the end spot will be junior Nosa Eguae. Juniors Jeffrey Whitaker and Kenneth Carter should start in the middle, but talented sophomores Angelo Blackson and Gabe Wright will be tough to keep off the field.
13. Utah – The nation’s No. 1 defensive tackle resides in Salt Lake City. Senior Star Lotulelei is back to anchor Utah’s defensive line, and this unit gave Pac-12 offensive fronts all it could handle last year. Lotulelei will continue to take up two blockers, opening up senior Dave Kruger to wreck havoc from the other tackle spot. Joe Kruger and Nate Fakahafua will likely start at the end spots, but there’s very little in the way of proven depth after the top four.
14. Notre Dame – Aaron Lynch is gone, but the Fighting Irish still have plenty left in the tank to boast one of the nation’s top defensive lines. Nose guard Louis Nix III will be a difficult matchup for opposing offensive lines, while Kapron Lewis-Moore and Stephon Tuitt man the end spots. Depth is an issue, but the coaches are excited about the potential of Chase Hounshell and Sheldon Day.
15. Oklahoma – Potential is the key word surrounding the Sooners’ defensive line. Three starters are gone, but the newcomers are experienced and certainly aren’t short on talent. Ends David King and R.J. Washington combined for seven sacks in limited work last year. Stacy McGee, Casey Walker and Jamarkus McFarland should be a solid trio in the middle. McFarland has yet to live up to the hype that had him ranked among the nation’s best coming out of high school.
16. Illinois – Replacing Whitney Mercilus won’t be easy, but the Fighting Illini return three starters. End Michael Buchanan recorded 7.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles last season. He will be joined on the other side by senior Justin Staples (16 tackles in 2011). The interior is in good shape, largely due to the return of Akeem Spence (69 stops last year) and senior Glenn Foster.
17. South Florida – The Bulls allowed only 107.3 rushing yards per game last season and accumulated 39 sacks. This unit should be strong once again in 2012, led by junior Ryne Giddins. He recorded 5.5 sacks and three forced fumbles on his way to earning second-team All-Big East honors. Tackle Cory Grissom suffered an ankle injury in spring practice but is on schedule to return in time for the season opener. Two spots on the line are up for grabs, but junior college recruit Tevin Mims and sophomore Elkino Watson are capable starters.
18. Nebraska – After allowing 158.5 rushing yards per game last season, Bo Pelini knows this unit has to get better if Nebraska wants to win the Big Ten. Contributing to some of the problems last season was tackle Jared Crick suffering a season-ending injury early in the year. The Cornhuskers are counting on senior Baker Steinkuhler and Chase Rome to lead the way on the interior. Steinkuhler has a lot of talent, but needs to take his game up a notch. Senior Cameron Meredith and Jason Ankrah should be steady on the outside.
19. Penn State – With the departures on offense, the Nittany Lions could be winning a lot of ugly 13-10 games this season. Tackle Devon Still will be hard to replace, but the line returns Jordan Hill to man the interior, while ends Pete Massaro and Sean Stanley should be steady. Getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks will be crucial with four new starters in the secondary.
20. NC State – The Wolfpack are a sneaky defensive line to watch in 2012. Markus Kuhn and J.R. Sweezy must be replaced in the middle, but sophomores Thomas Teal and T.Y. McGill gained valuable experienced last year. NC State has plenty of depth at end, headlined by sophomore Art Norman and junior Darryl Cato-Bishop.
by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
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