Aaron Donald needs a big season for Pittsburgh.
Kickoff for the 2012 college football season is still two months away, but it's never too early to project how the year might play out. Athlon will be taking a look at how each position stacks up in the BCS conferences and nationally until the start of the season.
Each unit ranking was evaluated based upon how it will perform in 2012 - not how the team played in 2011.
Ranking the Big East's Defensive Lines for 2012
1. South Florida â Tackle Keith McCaskill and end Patrick Hampton must be replaced, but the Bulls return two starters from a group that allowed 107.3 rushing yards per game last year, while recording 3.3 sacks a contest. End Ryne Giddins had a breakout 2011 season, registering 44 tackles and 5.5 sacks. He should be one of the Big Eastâs top defenders in 2012 and push for the team lead in sacks. Joining Giddins at end will be junior college transfer Tevin Mims and junior Julius Forte. The interior of the line suffered a setback when tackle Cory Grissom suffered a broken ankle in spring practice. He has a chance to return in time for the season opener but could be slowed early in the year. With Grissom coming off a significant injury, itâs up to junior Luke Sager and sophomores Elkino Watson and Todd Chandler to hold down the tackle spots.
2. Rutgers â With an offense thatâs still trying to find its footing, the Scarlet Knights will have to lean on its defense in 2012. Eight starters are back, including All-American linebacker Khaseem Greene. This unit lost end Manny Abreu and tackle Justin Francis but returns standout tackle Scott Vallone. Rutgers recorded 35 sacks last season, but matching that total in 2012 will depend on the play of senior KaâLial Glaud and juniors Jamil Merrell and Michael Larrow. Glaud is a name to watch after registering two sacks and 20 tackles in limited action last season. This unit needs to get better against the run after allowing 141.9 yards per game last year. Even with the loss of two key players, the Scarlet Knights should have one of the Big Eastâs top defensive lines.
3. Louisville â The Cardinals return only one starter up front (Brandon Dunn), but this unit is filled with talent and depth waiting to emerge. Dunn and junior Roy Philon will anchor the middle, and both players will be key cogs in keeping Louisvilleâs rush defense ranked among the top 10 nationally. With William Savoy and Greg Scruggs finishing their eligibility, the Cardinals need to find new pass rushers at end. Sophomores B.J. Dubose and Lorenzo Mauldin, along with junior Marcus Smith are players to watch in 2012. Smith registered 5.5 sacks last season, while Dubose recorded 22 stops in 13 contests. Louisville suffered some losses, but coach Charlie Strong and coordinator Vance Bedford should keep this unit performing at a high level.
4. Cincinnati â Defense was one of the key reasons for the Bearcatsâ six-win improvement last season. Cincinnati won four games in 2010 and finished fourth nationally in the Big East in rush defense but ranked last in points allowed. This unit performed much better in 2011, ranking second in the conference against the run and allowing 20.3 points a game. Thereâs some work to do this fall for coordinator John Jancek, as he has to find replacements for Co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year Derek Wolfe and nose tackle John Hughes. While the interior must be revamped, the Bearcats return ends Walter Stewart, Brandon Mills and Dan Giordano. If new tackles Jordan Stepp and Camaron Beard pickup where Wolfe and Hughes left off, Cincinnatiâs rush defense should rank among the conferenceâs best once again (and higher on this list) in 2012.
5. Connecticut â The Huskies owned the Big Eastâs No. 1 rush defense last season and allowed only 11 rushing scores. Although Connecticut ranked as one of the conferenceâs best defensive lines last year, this unit must replace first-team All-Big East tackle Kendall Reyes and steady tackle Twyon Martin. Without two dominant tackles in the middle, this will force more pressure on ends Trevardo Williams and Jesse Joseph. Williams was a second-team All-Big East selection after recording 12.5 sacks last season. Replacing Reyes and Martin on the interior will likely fall to Ryan Wirth and Shamar Stephen.
6. Pittsburgh â This unit has been a strength for the Panthers in recent years but ranks near the bottom of the Big East in 2012. Pittsburgh is switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 and must replace end Brandon Lindsey and tackles Chas Alecxih and Myles Caragein. Junior Aaron Donald is the unitâs standout performer after registering 47 tackles and 11 sacks last season. Sophomores T.J. Clemmings and Bryan Murphy will step into starting roles on the edge, while Khayin Mosley-Smith gets the first shot at nose tackle. Thereâs plenty of potential with this group but thereâs a lot of question marks to rank much higher on this list.
7. Syracuse â With the loss of ends Chandler Jones, Mikhail Marinovich and Torrey Ball, the Orange will be dealing with a revamped front four in 2012. Deon Goggins is back after recording 43 tackles and 1.5 sacks last season and will be shifted from tackle to end to help with the losses. Senior Brandon Sharpe should start at the other end spot. Junior Jay Bromley returns after picking up 32 tackles last year and will team with sophomore Eric Crume or senior Cory Boatman to anchor the middle. This unit ranked sixth in the Big East in rush defense, which placed 32nd nationally. Thereâs a lot of holes to address for coordinator Scott Shafer, but an active linebacking corps should help take some of the pressure off of the new linemen.
8. Temple â The Owls owned the MACâs toughest run defense last season, allowing just 123.9 yards per game. This unit suffered some heavy losses, as ends Adrian Robinson and Morkeith Brown have expired their eligibility. Both players were All-MAC performers last season. The interior of the line is solid, thanks to the return of senior John Youboty and junior Levi Brown. Shahid Paulhill and Kadeem Custis will provide depth at tackle and both players bring valuable experience to the rotation. Although the Owls have some solid pieces up front, this unit has to replace its top two players from last season and thereâs very little depth on the outside.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
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