Is CB Tyrann Mathieu really the most valuable player on LSU's supremely stacked defense?
Alabama and LSU proved last season that even in this day and age of spread offenses and high-flying passing attacks that you can still pile up plenty of victories if you have a good old fashioned dominant defense.
While most of college football's offensive stars like Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Justin Blackmon, Case Keenum and Matt Barkley were soaking up the spotlight in 2011, it was the Tigers and the Tide that showed the college football world that you can still ride a stout defense all the way to the championship game.
Last year, there were plenty of individual breakout defensive stars around the country such as LSU's Tyrann Mathieu, Illinois' Whitney Mercilus, Georgia's Jarvis Jones and South Carolina's Melvin Ingram, and there promises to be many more in 2012.
Since we've already covered the 2012 offensive MVPs, it's now time to take a look at the defensive side of the ball.
Here's a look at the most valuable defensive player on every FBS team for the 2012 season.
Last year, Air Force's defense was one of the strongest units in the Mountain West, finishing the season ranked behind only the conference's two powerhouses, Boise State and TCU, in total defense.
The Falcons will have to fill some key holes for 2011, but they should be able to rally behind the top returning tackler, LB Alex Means.
Means finished the 2011 season with 77 total tackles, led the team with six sacks and also added two fumble recoveries and an interception.
The 6'5'', 230-pound junior has the chance to be one of the Mountain West's premier defensive players in 2012, as Means should thrive as Air Force's new defensive leader.
Akron will certainly miss last season's leading tackler LB Brian Wagner, who decided to transfer to Arizona this offseason after a season in which he finished with 147 tackles.
The Zips do return some key pieces from last year's defense, though, and one of the real players to watch will be safety Devonte Morgan. As a true freshman, Morgan stepped into the lineup and excelled, finishing the year third on the team with 69 tackles.
The 5'11'', 179-pound Cleveland product looks like he's going to develop into one of the top defensive backs in the MAC over the next few years. Judging by the way Morgan handled himself last season, he seems like he's going to play a key role in the Akron defense's success in 2012.
You don't lose veteran leaders like Mark Barron, Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower and get better as a defense the following season. However, that doesn't mean that the Alabama defense will fall very far after a historically dominant run in 2011, as the Tide have plenty of reinforcements waiting in the wings.
With the type of elite defensive talent that Nick Saban has brought in through recruiting over the past few years, the Alabama defense will once again have the type of talent to compete for an SEC championship. The question is, how quickly can the unit gel, and how well can the new starters handle their roles early on?
The Alabama defense may be a bit inexperienced next season, just like it was after a championship run in 2009, but the 2010 group had to break in nine new starters, and that unit went on to finish fifth in the country in total defense.
If the Alabama wants to maintain its level of defensive dominance in 2012, the team is going to need big years out of key returning players like DE Jesse Williams, LB's Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley, CB Dee Milliner and S Robert Lester.
All five of those players look like future high NFL draft picks, but the real player to watch next season will be Johnson.
The 6'3'', 245-pound junior finished fourth on the team with 46 tackles in 2011, but he's now going to be asked to be the leader of a linebacker unit that has to replace its two bona fide stars, Upshaw and Hightower.
It will be interesting to see how Johnson handles being the top dog of the group, but given what he showed last season, he definitely seems ready for the new role.
After losing linebackers Derek Earls and Paul Vassallo, the team's top two leading tacklers from 2011, the Arizona defense got a huge boost this offseason when LB Brian Wagner decided to transfer from Akron to play his final season in Tucson.
Last year, Wagner finished fourth in the country with 147 total tackles, as he proved that he's got a nose for the football that few other college defenders possess.
The 6'0'', 235-pound junior finished with 23 more tackles than Earls and Vassallo had combined in 2011, so Wagner should have no trouble stepping into the middle of Arizona's defense and becoming an instant impact player for the Wildcats in 2012.
The middle of the Arizona State defense will be weaker without the presence of tenacious middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who left school a year early to enter the NFL draft. But don't expect the Sun Devils to be soft up the middle in 2012 as long as big, athletic defensive tackle Will Sutton is on the field.
Sutton was a major presence for the Sun Devils defensive line last season, racking up 5.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks, and causing consistent havoc in the interior.
The 6'2'', 270-pound sophomore has the power, strength and quickness to develop into a major run-stopper in 2012, and if Sutton plays up to his potential, Arizona State's defense might not miss Burfict in the middle all that much.
The talk around Arkansas this offseason will mostly revolve around the team's potentially explosive offense, led by QB Tyler Wilson and RB Knile Davis. However, if the Razorbacks want to make a serious run at an SEC championship in 2012, they're going to need the defense to play a big part as well.
Luckily, Arkansas returns the proper pieces on the defensive side of the ball to have one of the conference's strongest units next season.
Returning starters such as DT Byran Jones, DE Tenarius Wright, LB Ross Rasner, CB Tevin Mitchel and S Eric Bennett all have the chance to be All-SEC performers in 2012, but the real defender to watch next season will be LB Alonzo Highsmith.
Highsmith is the team's leading returning tackler after notching 80 stops in 2011, and he proved last year that he's the type of active 'backer that can make plays all over the field, as he racked up 12.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.
The 6'1'', 229-pound junior is a former junior college All-American who adapted well to competition in the SEC last season. Now that he has his feet under him, Highsmith looks like he should be in store for a huge senior season in 2012.
QB Ryan Aplin and the Arkansas State offense received most of the credit for the Red Wolves' 10-win campaign last season, but the defense also played a pivotal role in the team's run to the Sun Belt championship.
Arkansas State ranked 24th nationally in total defense and 25th in scoring defense in 2011, and one of the players who played a crucial part in that success was LB Nathan Herrold.
Last year, Herrold finished third on the team with 66 total tackles.
Now that the Red Wolves' two top two defenders, S Kelcie McCray and LB Demario Davis, are gone, the 6'3'', 235-pound junior will be asked to play an even bigger role in 2012.
After a few seasons of playing some surprisingly stout defense in 2009 and in 2010, the Black Knights took a bit of a step back last year, allowing 359 yards and 28 points per game.
With many of the key defenders returning for 2012, though, the defense should be able to tighten back up next season.
One of the leaders of the group will be safety Thomas Holloway.
Last year, Holloway racked up 76 tackles and was a valuable asset in pass coverage.
The 5'11'', 190-pound sophomore now looks ready to be an even bigger presence for the Black Knights defense in 2012.
Sometimes you look at a young college player, and say to yourself, wow that kid looks he could probably start in the NFL right now.
Auburn DE Corey Lemonier is one of those players.
Physically, Lemonier is built exactly how you want a superior pass-rushing defensive end to look, as he's got the strength and quickness to embarrass most offensive tackles.
That's just what he did in 2011, as the 6'4'', 240-pound sophomore was constantly in the opposition's backfield, racking up 10 sacks and 14 tackles for loss last season.
Lemonier will now have the opportunity to prove that he's one of college football's top pass-rushers in 2012, as he leads an Auburn defensive line that has the chance to be one of the strongest front-fours in the country next season.
Ball State has a pair of terrific linebackers to build its defense around for 2012 in Aaron Morris and Travis Freeman.
Last year, Morris and Freeman combined to rack up 249 total tackles, and they'll once again be counted on to produce similar results in 2012.
At just 6'0'', 195-pounds, Morris may not be the biggest linebacker you ever see, but the young sophomore makes up for his lack of prototypical size with his speed, instincts and recognition skills, which should all be on full display in 2012.
For as explosive as the Baylor offense was last season, it was the defense that turned out to be a big letdown, as the Bears gave up a ton of yards and points in 2011.
With the offense expected to have a substantial drop off in production next season after the losses of QB Robert Griffin III, WR Kendall Wright and RB Terrance Ganaway, the defense had better step its game up in 2012 if the Bears still want to remain a factor in the Big 12.
While there will be holes to fill, luckily, Baylor returns some key players at all three levels of the defense for next season.
One of the main players to watch will be safety Sam Holl, the team's leading returning tackler.
Last year, Holl racked up 113 tackles and picked off three passes in his first season of seeing major snaps.
Now, the 6'1'', 200-pound sophomore will be counted on to be the leader of a Bears secondary that will hopefully be a lot more consistent in 2012 than it was last season.
No fan base ever wants to hear that their team is in rebuilding mode, but if you look at all the talent that Boise State loses on both sides of the ball, that certainly seems to be the case for the Broncos for 2012.
The losses of players like QB Kellen Moore and RB Doug Martin will obviously be the big news, but the Boise State defense has also taken some major hits as well. The Broncos will have to figure out how to replace nine of their top 10 tacklers from a year ago.
Replacing future NFL players like S George Iloka, DT Billy Winn and DE Shea McClellin certainly won't be easy, but there will be a few veterans coming back to help out the younger players next season.
One experienced player who should help in the transition is CB Jamar Taylor, who has been a mainstay in the Boise State secondary for the past two seasons.
Taylor may not possess elite athleticism, but he's a smart, seasoned and fundamentally sound cornerback who knows his role and knows where he needs to be on every snap.
There's no doubt that the Boston College defense is going to miss tackling-machine Luke Kuechly, who was the undisputed leader of the unit for the past three seasons. However, after producing top notch linebackers like Kuechly and Mark Herzlich over the past few years, the Eagles look like they have another special 'backer to help the lead the way for 2012, and that's Kevin Pierre-Louis.
Pierre-Louis finished second on the team in tackles behind Kuechly in his first two years, and now he looks ready to take the reigns from the future first-round pick and become the defensive leader Boston College needs for next season.
The 6'1'', 212-pound sophomore racked up a combined 167 tackles in his first two seasons, and Pierre-Louis proved that he knows how to find the ball and make plenty of plays when it counts.
After earning first-team All-Mac honors in 2011, Bowling Green DT Chris Jones now looks ready to battle it out with Kent State's Roosevelt Nix for the honor of top defensive linemen in the conference next season.
Last year, Jones was Bowling Green's most dominant defender, as he racked up 8.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss and forced three fumbles.
The 6'1'', 295-pound junior is a tough, strong and physical run-stopper who knows what it takes to cause trouble in the interior.
The 2011 season wasn't a very memorable one for Buffalo, as the Bulls finished the year just 3-9.
There were signs of encouragement, though, and there are a few returning players that should have fans excited.
One of them is LB Khalil Mack.
Last year, Mack was able to build on his breakout freshman campaign, as he led the team with 20.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks.
The 6'3'', 248-pound sophomore has proven that he knows how to find his way into opponents' backfields, and he should continue to be a disruptive force in 2012.
BYU's first season of independence proved to be a success, as the Cougars finished the year 10-3. The question is, though, will the team be able to build off that campaign in 2012?
With a lot of key pieces returning on both sides of the ball, that certainly seems possible.
The key to the team's defensive success next season will be the play of the Cougars' top two linebackers, Kyle Van Noy and Brandon Ogletree.
Van Noy and Ogletree both made a huge impact for the BYU defense in 2011, as they combined to rack up 144 tackles last season.
While Ogletree ended up as the team's leading tackler, it was Van Noy who proved to be the more versatile and more disruptive of the two, as the 6'3'', 235-pound sophomore led the Cougars with 15 tackles for loss and six sacks in 2011.
Van Noy is a strong, athletic and instinctive 'backer who should develop into one of the top edge-rushers in the country in 2012.
Cal may have lost its two top linebackers, Mychal Kendricks and D.J. Holt, but luckily, the Golden Bears will have three young, intriguing linebackers to rely on in 2012 in Cecil Whiteside, Chris McCain and David Wilkerson.
While McCain was the most productive out of the three last season, the real player to watch in 2012 will be Whiteside, who has the type of strength and explosiveness to develop into one of the top pass-rushers in the Pac-12 next season.
The 6'2'', 232-pound freshman is a former 4-star recruit who has enormous potential.
If Whiteside keeps on developing over the offseason, the sky could be the limit for him in 2012.
Central Florida will certainly miss CB Josh Robinson, who left school a year early for the NFL. However, the Knights happen to have another defensive back that pro scouts will definitely take an interest in next season, and that's safety Kemal Ishmael.
Ishmael has been the team's leading tackler in each of the past two seasons, racking up 174 total stops during that time.
The 5'11'', 211-pound junior has the athleticism, the instincts and the read-and-recognition skills that you want to see in a free safety, and with Robinson gone, Ishmael will once again become the focal point of the Central Florida secondary in 2012.
The 2011 season certainly wasn't a banner year for the Central Michigan defense, as the Chippewas finished 11th in the MAC in both total defense and scoring defense.
Still, there was one player who managed to shine during the otherwise dismal defensive effort, and that was safety Jahleel Addae.
Addae finished ninth in the MAC with 103 tackles and tied for first with four interceptions in 2011, and earned first-team All-Confernce honors and his team's Defensive MVP award for his efforts.
The 5'11'', 195-pound junior is one of the best defenders that Central Michigan has had in years, and Addae will definitely have pro scouts making a trip to Mount Pleasant in 2012.
Cincinnati won't have an easy time replacing long-time stalwarts like LB J.K. Schaffer and DT Derek Wolfe, two players that were the lifeblood of Cincinnati's defense for the past few years.
With both of them gone, there will need to be some new faces that step up, and one of the leaders of the Bearcats' defense for 2012 should be DE Walter Stewart.
Last year, Stewart really turned some heads in the Big East, racking up six sacks and 11 tackles for a loss, but next season could be the campaign that really earns him some major publicity and respect.
The 6'4'', 248-pound junior will feast on offensive tackles that can't keep up with his combination of quickness and power.
The Clemson defense may have gotten embarrassed in the Orange Bowl, giving up 70 points to West Virginia, but the 2011 Clemson defense wasn't nearly as bad as that performance would lead you to believe.
Sure, the unit certainly had its fair share of struggles, especially late in the season in losses to Georgia Tech, N.C. State and South Carolina when the Tigers gave up a combined 102 points, but some of those struggles could be chalked up to youth and inexperience at key spots.
With seven out of the top 10 tacklers returning from last year, Clemson's defense should be much better in 2012.
One of the main leaders of that group will be LB Corico Hawkins, who led the Tigers with 97 tackles last year.
Now that he's started to make a name for himself around the ACC, the 5'11'', 230-pound junior will be looking to build on last year's performance and solidify himself as one of the top overall linebackers in the conference next season.
Colorado's defense was one of the worst in the Pac-12 last season, ranking dead last in the conference in scoring defense, and it doesn't look like the Buffaloes are going to have an easy time escaping the basement in 2012.
There a few glimmers of hope, though, and one of them is the return of leading tackler, safety Ray Polk.
Last year, Polk finished tied for 10th in the Pac-12 with 52 solo tackles.
The 6'1'', 205-pound junior may not be a true game-changer, but having him back at free safety should definitely help out a secondary that gave up 255 yards through the air per game last season.
Colorado State hasn't had a defensive player drafted since 2004 when CB Dexter Wynn was taken by the Philadelphia Eagles in the sixth round. However, the Rams do have one player on their defense that should definitely catch the interest of scouts next season, and that's DE Nordly Capi.
Last year, Capi proved to be one of the top defensive linemen in the Mountain West, as he racked up 9.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2011.
His most notable performance last season came early in the year, when the 6'3'', 249-pound sophomore forced an NCAA record four fumbles in a 14-10 victory over New Mexico.
Capi will be looking to build on his big sophomore campaign in 2012, as he sets out to prove that he's one of the most disruptive defensive ends in all of college football.
After a breakout 2010 campaign in which he racked up 110 total tackles, Connecticut LB Sio Moore followed it up with a solid season in 2011, finishing the year with 86 tackles and 6.5 sacks.
The 6'1'', 232-pound junior will now team back up with freshman Yawin Smallwood, who had a breakout season of his own in 2011, to give the Huskies one of the best linebacker duos in the Big East for the 2012 season.
Moore has proven that he's a dependable and reliable defensive leader, and he's shown that he knows how to make key plays in key situations.
When you play for a perennial bottom-feeder like Duke, chances are, you're not going to receive a whole lot of publicity and attention.
One Blue Devils defender who should shine in 2012, though, is safety Walt Canty.
Last year, Canty finished second on the team with 88 tackles, however, the 6'0'', 215-pound junior didn't receive much help from his supporting cast in the secondary.
Duke finished the season ranked dead last in the ACC in pass defense.
If Canty can get more assistance from the surrounding defensive backs, Duke's secondary should be stronger and much more consistent in 2012.
If you had polled college football fans last offseason and asked them which freshman defenders would make the biggest impact in 2011, I doubt any of them would have said East Carolina LB Jeremy Grove. However, Grove certainly made a name for himself last year when he led the Pirates with 122 tackles.
The 6'1'', 230-pound freshman earned honorable mention All-Conference honors for his performance, but don't expect Grove to be satisfied with that.
The tough and feisty inside linebacker should thrive once again in the middle of East Carolina's 3-4 defense, as he looks to cement his position as one of the top linebackers in the conference in 2012.
The MAC is losing a bunch of quality linebackers like Ohio's Noah Keller, Akron's Brian Wagner and Temple's Tahir Whitehead, but that doesn't mean that the conference will have a dearth at the position in 2012.
There are still plenty of capable linebackers who will be roaming around the MAC next season, and of the key ones to watch will be Eastern Michigan outside linebacker Justin Cudworth.
Last year, Cudworth earned third-team All-Conference honors after he led the Eagles with 83 tackles, and he'll be looking to build on that campaign and make an even bigger splash next season.
The 5'11'', 227-pound junior was a big reason that Eastern Michigan finished ranked 34th in the nation in total defense last season.
FIU coach Mario Cristobal reportedly opted to pass on the Rutgers head coaching job this offseason in order to return to FIU.
One of the reasons that Cristobal likely wanted to return to coach FIU is that the Golden Panthers should have one of the best defenses in the Sun Belt next season. 14 of the top 15 tacklers from last year will be returning, and many of the inexperienced players who were thrust into starting roles will now be better versed in what they need to do to be successful.
While safety Jonathan Cyprien and defensive end Tourek Williams seem to be the only legitimate NFL prospects on the team, the key leaders of the defense will likely be linebackers Winston Fraser and Jordan Hunt.
Last year, Fraser led the team with 108 tackles and he also notched four sacks.
The 6'2'', 226-pound junior is a smart, instinctive linebacker who has shown that he has the range and lateral speed to chase ball-carriers all over the field.
Florida's defensive front-seven should be one of the fastest and strongest front-sevens in the country next season, and the player that should really step up and lead the way in 2012 is LB Jelani Jenkins.
Last year, Jenkins showed plenty of flashes of his speed and athleticism, as he racked up 75 total tackles.
The 6'0'', 230-pound junior may be a bit undersized, but he has all of the tools and traits that you look for in a perfect weakside linebacker.
Jenkins and fellow linebacker Jonathan Bostic will once again team up next season to give the Gators one of the best linebacker duos in the country for 2012.
Florida Atlantic may have had the worst offense in the country last season, but the Owls defense was actually pretty decent, as the unit finished the season ranked fifth in the Sun Belt in total defense.
The problem was, the Owls gave up an average of 34 points per game, and when you're offense is as bad as the one Florida Atlantic put out on the field in 2011, the results aren't usually going to be very pretty, as was evidenced by the team's 1-11 record.
With seven of the top nine tacklers from last year returning, though, the Owls should at least be able to hold offenses out of the end zone a little more frequently in 2012.
The key player for the defense will be last year's leading tackler, LB David Hinds, who finished the season with 101 tackles.
If Hinds can break the 100-tackle mark again in 2012, and if his teammates can step up their level of play, Florida Atlantic should have no trouble putting their pitiful 2011 campaign in the rear-view mirror.
Florida State DE Brandon Jenkins gained a reputation as a pass-rushing phenom following his breakout performance during the 2010 season, in which he racked up 13.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss. However, Jenkins failed to build off that success last year when he became the main focus of every opposing offensive line.
Still, even though he faced double-teams and chip-blocks on a regular basis, the 6'3'', 265-pound junior still had a very successful season in 2011, as he led the Seminoles with 12 tackles for loss and eight sacks.
Jenkins still has the look of a future high NFL draft pick, as he has all the traits you look for in an elite pass-rusher.
With fellow end Bjoern Werner emerging on the other side of the defensive line, and with Tim Jernigan and Everett Dawkins eating up blockers in the middle, Jenkins should be more free to do damage in 2012.
Fresno State may be losing a key defensive piece with the departure of DT Logan Harrell, but the Bulldogs will still have plenty of defensive talent coming back as the team makes the journey to the Mountain West in 2012.
The key defender is last year’s leading tackler LB Travis Brown.
Brown finished the 2011 season with 85 tackles and three sacks, and he now looks poised to have another big campaign for the Bulldogs next season. The 6’2’’, 235-pound junior left quite an impression on WAC offenses last year, and it'll be interesting to see what he can do against the competition he’ll face in the Mountain West next season.
Jarvis Jones didn't wait long to make the SEC his own personal playground. The transfer from USC excelled in his first season on the field in Athens last season, leading the conference with 19.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks in 2011.
The 6'3'', 240-pound sophomore is one of the most explosive defenders in the country, and he showed last season that he can be an absolute terror coming off the edge of Georgia's 3-4 front.
With Jones, Alec Ogletree, Mike Gilliard and Cornelius Washington all returning for 2012, the Bulldogs will have one of the strongest linebacker corps in the country next season.
With linebackers like Julian Burnett, Jeremiah Attaochu, Daniel Drummond, Quayshawn Nealy and Brandon Watts all returning, the Georgia Tech defense should have one of the deepest and most talented linebacker units in the nation next season.
Attaochu looks like he's the best NFL prospect of the bunch, but the real heart and soul of the group seems to be Burnett.
Last year, the 5'10'', 220-pound junior finished third in the ACC with 120 tackles, and he proved that he was one of the top inside linebackers in the country.
Burnett is a perfect fit as the leader in the middle of Georgia Tech's 3-4 defense, and he should be motivated to have one last big campaign as a senior in 2012.
Art Laurel proved to be Hawaii's most consistent and versatile defender last season, as the 6'0'', 235-pound sophomore lined up at both linebacker and defensive end and made a big impact at both spots.
Laurel led the Warriors with nine sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss, and he finished tied for fourth on the team with 60 total tackles.
The Hawaii native made his home-state proud in 2011, and he'll now be counted on to be one of the defense's key leaders in 2012.
Since all of the focus last season was on Houston's high-powered passing attack led by record-breaking quarterback Case Keenum, some of the Cougars' top defensive performers were overlooked, especially LB Derrick Matthews, who put together a sensational freshman campaign.
Matthews outproduced his more highly touted senior counterpart Sammy Brown in 2011, as he finished second on the Cougars with 106 total tackles.
The 6'0'', 200-pound freshman is one of the fastest and most explosive defenders in all of Conference-USA, and he's got the potential to be an absolute star over the next few years.
Gary Walker may not be one of the most recognizable safeties in college football, but he still did a heck of a job for the Idaho defense in 2011.
Last year, Walker racked up 109 total tackles for the Vandals, and he proved that he's type of reliable defensive back that you want as your last line of defense when things break down.
The 6'0'', 192-pound junior is one of the most athletic defenders in the WAC, and he'll be Idaho's most important defender for 2012.
Illinois has produced a few unlikely first-round NFL draft prospects in recent years, including DT Corey Liuget in 2010 and DE Whitney Mercilus this past season.
Illinois will miss Mercilus, who transformed from relative unknown into an All-American over the course of the 2011 season, but the defense will still have plenty of future NFL talent with DT Akeem Spence and LB's Michael Buchanan and Jonathan Brown.
While Spence and Buchanan should be in store for big campaigns next season, the real player to watch in 2012 is Brown, who finished with 108 tackles and six sacks in 2011.
Although he was overshadowed by Mercilus' outstanding production, Brown was just as big of a part of the team's defensive success in 2011.
Now that Mercilus is headed to the NFL, Brown should finally start to get the respect he deserves.
The 6'1'', 235-pound sophomore will team with Buchanan once again to give Illinois one of the most powerful pairs of front-seven defenders in college football for 2012.
Indiana's Adam Replogle is built exactly how you would expect a typical Big Ten defensive lineman to look. The 6'3'', 290-pound tackle is big, powerful and surprisingly quick for his size, and he's the type of big run-stuffer that any team would love to have in the middle of its defense.
Last year, Replogle proved that not only could he clog things up at the line of scrimmage, he could also penetrate into the backfield and make plays, as he racked up four sacks and seven tackles for loss.
The big, strong junior will once again be a vital piece in the middle of the Hoosiers defense in 2012.
Iowa has two great young linebackers to shape its defense around for the next few years in sophomores James Morris and Christian Kirksey.
Last year, Morris and Kirksey combined to rack up 229 total tackles, as they both enjoyed huge breakout campaigns in 2011.
The 6'2'', 227-pound Morris is a former Freshman All-American, who really turned it up a notch this past season, and he now looks like he's ready to ascend to new heights in 2012 and solidify his position as one of the top overall linebackers in the Big Ten.
There's also another team in the state of Iowa that will have two top notch linebackers to build its defense around for 2012, and no I'm not talking about the Panthers of Northern Iowa. I'm talking about Iowa State.
The Cyclones are surely glad to have linebackers Jake Knott and A.J. Klein back to lead the way on defense for next season.
Over the past two years, Knott and Klein have combined to rack up 475 total tackles between them.
It's hard to say who's better, but if I had to pick who's more valuable to the Iowa State defense, I would give the slight edge to Knott because of his tremendous leadership ability.
Former Kansas coach Turner Gill took a major gamble moving Toben Opurum, the team's leading rusher in 2009, to the defensive side of the ball for the 2010 season, but it actually turned out to be one of the few decisions by Gill during his time at Kansas that actually paid off.
It allowed James Sims to step into the starting running back role, in which he's done a solid job so far, and it let Opurum use his speed and quickness as an edge-rusher, something he proved that he could handle this past season when he led the team with four sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss.
The hybrid defensive end-rush linebacker has great quickness off the edge, and it'll be interesting to see how new coach Charlie Weis utilizes the 6'2'', 245-pound junior in 2012.
Many Kansas State fans were excited to see the highly touted Brown brothers, Arthur and Bryce, return to their home state of Kansas to play for the Wildcats in 2012. However, they were only treated to getting to see Arthur play, as Bryce never made it onto the field.
Still, Arthur, a transfer from Miami, gave them quite a show, as he led the team with 101 tackles in 2011.
The talented 6'1'', 223-pound junior will now be the undisputed leader for the Wildcats defense for the 2012 season, and he should be one of the most coveted senior linebacker prospects available for the 2013 NFL draft.
Roosevelt Nix has enjoyed quite a first two years at Kent State. After a Freshman All-American campaign in 2010, Nix followed that up with another stellar showing as a sophomore last season, leading the team with 17.5 tackles for loss and notching 4.5 sacks.
The 6'0'', 244-pound defensive lineman may be undersized, but that certainly hasn't stopped him from making a huge impact for the Golden Flashes defense over the past two years.
Nix has already proven that he's one of the MAC's top overall defensive players, and he should once again be a terror in the trenches for the Kent State defensive line in 2012.
Kentucky's defense may be losing its two key players from last season—linebacker Danny Trevathan and safety Winston Guy Jr.—but the Wildcats will have one of the more intriguing defensive ends in the SEC next season, and that's Collins Ukwu.
Ukwu hasn't made a huge impact at Kentucky up to this point in his career, but he did manage to total 2.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss last year.
Now, as he enters his senior season, a lot more will be expected out of the 6'5'', 258-pound junior.
Ukwu has the type of quickness and speed off the edge to be a dynamic pass-rusher. He just has to want to be great. If the desire is there, Ukwu could end up being a major impact player for the Kentucky defense in 2012.
The Louisiana-Lafayette defense is going to miss cornerback Dwight Bentley, who just tore up the NFL combine with one of the fastest 40-yard dash times out of any of the prospects in attendance. But the Ragin Cajuns will have another athletic and speedy corner to rely on for the 2012 season, and his name is Jemarlous Moten.
Because teams were reluctant to test Bentley in 2011, Moten saw a lot of passes thrown his way last season, and he proved that he was able to handle it, as he finished the season with 80 tackles, three interceptions and seven pass break-ups.
The 5'11'', 175-pound junior may not possess the same type of raw speed as his former teammate, but he should still be one of the top defensive backs in the Sun Belt in 2012.
Louisiana-Monroe is going to miss defensive ends Troy Evans and Ken Dorsey, but luckily for the WarHawks, they've got a great, young defensive lineman in Kentarius Caldwell, who should make plenty of noise next season.
Last year, Caldwell racked up 6.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.
Now with Evans and Dorsey gone, he'll be counted on to be the true leader of the defensive line for 2012.
Louisiana Tech may have to replace their top two defenders from last season, linebackers Adrien Cole and Jay Dudley, but the Bulldogs will have their top two defensive backs, Chad Boyd and Jamel Johnson, back to keep things in order in the secondary.
Boyd will be the key defender to watch for the Bulldogs next season.
The 5'11'', 200-pound junior has been a full-time starter for the past two years, and he had the best season of his career in 2011 when he racked up 76 tackles, picked off three passes and returned a fumble for a touchdown.
Boyd is the type of player who steps his game up against the best competition, and he'll be the most valuable member of the Bulldogs defense in 2012.
There doesn't seem to be any question about which Big East team will have the best defense in the league in 2012.
With a ton of key players returning to a defense that ranked in the Top 25 nationally in both scoring defense and total defense last season, the Louisville Cardinals will once again be putting the conference's strongest defense out on the field in 2012.
The leader of that unit will be safety Hakeem Smith, a former Big East Rookie of the Year who appears to have an NFL future ahead of him.
After finishing tied for second on the team with 84 tackles in 2011, the 6'1'', 183-pound sophomore will return to lead a Louisville secondary, which has the chance to surprise a lot of people next season.
Tyrann Mathieu may not be the best pro prospect on the LSU defense. Defensive Ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo and safety Eric Reid will be the ones fighting for that honor next season. But after the eye-opening season that Mathieu had last year, it's hard to say that there's a more important player on the Tigers than Mathieu.
Last year, the 5'9'', 175-pound sophomore became one of college football's biggest celebrities, as the Honey Badger fever took over the sport during LSU's run to an SEC championship.
Admittedly, Mathieu had his worst performance of the year in the biggest game of the season against Alabama, when he was a complete non-factor.
It was his performance during the regular season that was so important, though.
It's unlikely that the ball-hawking corner will be able to make it back to New York City for the Heisman ceremony next season. However, he'll now be expected to be the defense's key playmaker in 2012, and it will be interesting to see how he handles the hype, especially now that former teammate Morris Claiborne won't be on the other side of the field to help balance things out.
Marshall may be losing star defensive end Vinny Curry, one of the best players to ever lace 'em up in Huntington, but the Herd do have the benefit of having another potential difference-maker at the defensive end position in Jeremiah Taylor.
Taylor was only just a sophomore last year, but he still managed to make a name for himself on the other side of Curry, as he racked up 7.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.
The 6'4'', 250-pound Ohio native wasn't heavily recruited out of high school, but that doesn't mean that he doesn't have a bright future ahead of him at Marshall.
Taylor may never be the star pass-rusher that Curry was, but it wouldn't be surprising if he had a breakout campaign in 2012, since he'll now have the chance to step out of his former mentor's shadow.
Since linebacker Kenny Tate will officially be allowed back for the 2012 season after being granted an extra year due to injury, the Maryland defense will now have a linebacker to rally behind next season.
Don't be shocked, though, if Tate ends up getting outplayed by fellow linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield.
When Tate went down for the season early last year, Hartsfield really stepped his game up, and ended up leading the Terps with 108 total tackles.
The 6'2'', 235-pound junior has been accused of dogging it at times, but when his motor is running, he's all over the field, chasing down ball-carriers from sideline to sideline.
Massachusetts will be making the move up to the FBS ranks next season, as the Minutemen are set to join the MAC in 2012.
One of key leaders that the team will be relying on to help guide UMass during their transition will be LB Perry McIntyre.
Last year, McIntyre finished with 116 tackles and 6.5 sacks.
The 6'1'', 240-pound junior is built exactly how you want a strongside linebacker to look, and it should be interesting to see how McIntyre handles the step up in competition in 2012.
Memphis is surely going to miss powerful DT Dontari Poe in the middle of its defense next season. But the Tigers do have another defensive tackle who should do an adequate job replacing Poe, and that’s Johnnie Farms.
Last year, while Poe was eating up blockers, Farms was making plays in the backfield, as he ended up finishing second on the team with 2.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss in 2011.
The 6'2'', 310-pound junior may not be the sheer overwhelming interior force like Poe was, but he's got the power and quickness to cause his own fair share of havoc in the middle of the Memphis defense in 2012.
Miami has produced some standout linebackers in recent years, with the most recent example being All-ACC 'backer Sean Spence.
While the Canes will certainly miss Spence next season, it looks like the team will have a new linebacker prodigy to help lead the way, and that's Denzel Perryman.
Last year, Perryman was one of the top freshman performers in the conference, as he broke his way into the starting lineup and ended up finishing second on the team with 69 tackles.
The young 6'0'', 225-pound freshman has a bright future ahead of him, and he looks like he's ready to ascend to star status in 2012.
After being limited during spring practices due to injuries last offseason, Jason Semmes didn't make any excuses in 2011, as he went out and had a dominant campaign for the RedHawks defense in 2011.
Semmes led the team with 4.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss last season.
The 6'3'', 247-pound junior isn't the biggest defensive end in the country, but you won't find many that have a motor like his.
After an eye-opening season last year, Semmes now looks ready to earn his rightful due as one of the top edge-rushers in the MAC in 2012.
Michigan has produced some standout linebackers in recent years like Jonas Mouton, Shawn Crable and Brandon Graham, and the next in line appears to be Kenny Demens.
Demens played an integral part in Michigan's defensive resurgence in 2011, as he led the Wolverines with 94 tackles and also notched three sacks.
The 6'1'', 248-pound junior will once again be the centerpiece of what should be one of the nation's strongest linebacker units in 2012.
With Demens back to lead the defense, and with QB Denard Robinson back to hold things down on the offensive end, Michigan has to be one of the early favorites to take home the Big Ten title in 2012.
Michigan State may miss big defensive tackle Jerel Worthy, who left school a year early for the NFL, but the Spartans will still have plenty of key pieces returning to a defense that ranked in the Top 10 nationally in both scoring defense and total defense last season.
The front-seven will be loaded with talent with guys like DE's William Gholston and Marcus Rush and linebackers Chris Norman and Max Bullough all returning. The key player to watch, though, will be LB Denicos Allen, who led the Spartans with 18.5 tackles for loss and 11 sacks last season.
After the type of year that the 5'10'', 220-pound junior had in 2011, it should be fun to see what Allen has planned for an encore next season.
The good news for the Middle Tennessee State defense is that things can't get much worse than they were in 2011 when the Blue Raiders finished ranked 103rd in the country in total defense and 110th in scoring defense.
While the unit as a whole was flat-out awful last season, there was one young player who managed to make a name for himself, and that was LB Leighton Gasque.
After redshirting in 2010, Gasque stepped onto the field and made an immediate impact for the Blue Raiders last season, leading the team with six sacks, and finishing the year with six tackles for loss.
The 6'2'', 200-pound freshman has the type of speed and athleticism that the Middle Tennessee State needs if it wants to put last year's embarrassing performance firmly in the past.
Minnesota is going to miss LB Gary Tinsley, who was one of the team's most consistent defenders over the past two seasons. However, the Gophers will have three solid linebackers in the mix next season with Keanon Cooper and Mike Rallis both returning and Florida transfer Brendan Beal now ready after an injury sidelined him in 2011.
The player to watch out of that group will be Cooper, an athletic former 4-star recruit who has the speed and instincts to be a real playmaker for the Minnesota defense in 2012. The 6'0'', 212-pound junior may be undersized but he makes up for it with his quickness and agility, as he showed last season when he finished fourth on the team with 77 tackles.
With Tinsley gone, Cooper will now be asked to take on an even bigger responsibility in 2012, and it should be interesting to see if he can step up and become a defensive leader next season.
There weren't a lot of Mississippi defenders who deserved accolades last season, as the Rebels ended up finishing last in the SEC and 90th nationally in total defense. There was one player, however, who stood out and proved that he was worth keeping an eye on.
In his first season seeing serious snaps, LB Mike Marry wowed onlookers by racking up 81 total tackles.
It's true that he benefited from being the only good player on a bad defense, but the 6'2'', 248-pound sophomore still proved that he's got what it takes to go toe-to-toe with some of the best competition that college football has to offer.
He may not be the next Patrick Willis, but Marry is definitely a special linebacker.
Johnthan Banks could have joined his teammate Fletcher Cox and declared early for the 2012 NFL draft, but instead he decided to return to Mississippi State and try to boost his pro stock.
It could be a decision that turns out to be the best of his career. This past season, Banks showed flashes of his prodigious potential on a routine basis, as he picked off five passes and broke up another nine. However, there are still some correctable flaws that he has to work on over the offseason to truly be considered an elite cornerback.
The 6'2'', 185-pound junior has all the traits you're looking for with size, speed, smarts and ball skills, and if he can put it all together next season and work out the little kinks in his game, he'll be one of the most coveted cornerback prospects available for the 2013 NFL draft.
Look for Banks to team up with Corey Broomfield once again to give the Bulldogs one of the top cornerback combos in the SEC for 2012.
Missouri's defense is certainly going to be tested in the SEC next season, and we should find out in a hurry if the Tigers have the type of speed and athleticism to handle the step up in competition.
One player who should really aid the Tigers in their transition is LB Andrew Wilson, who led the team with 98 tackles in 2011, his first year as a starter.
The 6'3'', 230-pound junior is quicker than he looks and he possesses top notch instincts for the position.
Look for Wilson and fellow linebacker Zaviar Gooden to make their presence felt in the SEC in 2012.
Matt Warrick failed to make much of an impact in his first season of action in 2012, but he certainly made a name for himself this past season, when he led Navy with 103 tackles in his first year as a starter.
The 6'2'', 229-pound junior became the type of run-stuffing inside linebacker that the Navy defense needed, and he proved to be a savior for a defense that could have finished much worse than 86th in the country in total defense if it weren't for him.
There's no doubt that Nebraska is going to have a tough time replacing the type of energy that LB Lavonte David brought to the Cornhuskers defense these past two years, as David racked up a combined 285 tackles and 11.5 sacks during his time in Lincoln.
The Blackshirts will have another capable linebacker to lead the way in 2012, though, and that's Will Compton, who finished second on the team behind David with 77 tackles last season.
With David gone, Compton will now have the chance to step out of his former teammates' shadow and really show the Big Ten that he's the type of linebacker that no offense will want to mess with in 2012.
The Nevada defense definitely isn't going to be the same without linebackers James-Michael Johnson and Brandon Marshall and defensive tackle Brett Roy, but the Wolfpack will at least have playmaking safety Duke Williams, who should be able to step up and help ease the losses to a degree.
Last year, Williams finished third on the team with 83 tackles and he helped Nevada finish second in the WAC in pass defense.
The 6'1'', 190-pound junior is an athletic safety who can be counted on to keep receivers from breaking free and getting behind the secondary.
The Wolf Pack may not have Johnson, Marshall or Roy to help clog up running lanes in 2012, but they will at least have Williams to prevent big passing plays from happening.
New Mexico doesn't have anyone on its roster that will be able to replace the production of LB Carmen Messina, who racked up a whopping 420 tackles over the past three years, but the Lobos should be able to turn to LB Dallas Bollema to help fill the void that Messina leaves.
Last year, Bollema finished third on the team with 68 tackles.
While there's nothing all that special about the 6'2'', 225-pound sophomore, he should have what it takes to step up and become a defensive leader in 2012 and help to ease the loss of Messina.
It didn't take long for Walton Taumoepeau to make his presence felt for the New Mexico State defense last season after transferring from Cerritos College.
The monstrous 6'3'', 300-pound tackle was an absolute load in the middle of the Aggies defense. The only problem was, he didn't have the pieces around him to properly complement him, and the team ended up finishing ranked 112th in the nation in total defense last year.
If the Aggies can find the right players to stick around Taumoepeau next season, the New Mexico State defense should improve as a unit in 2012.
North Carolina has had some solid linebackers in recent years with guys like Zach Brown, Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant.
Don't be surprised, though, if Kevin Reddick turns out to be better than all of them.
Reddick didn’t need to come back for his senior season, as he had already shown pro scouts that he had what it takes to be a difference-maker in the NFL.
Now that Reddick is returning for 2012, he’s going to be the undisputed leader of what is shaping up to be one of college football’s most underrated defenses for the 2012 season.
After finishing second on the team with 71 tackles in 2011, the athletic 6’3’’, 240-pound junior will now be counted on to be the leader of what should be an intimidating defensive front-seven next season.
No one could have predicted the type of success that N.C. State cornerback David Amerson achieved in 2011. Amerson became a star last year when he led the country with 13 interceptions.
The 6'3'', 195-pound sophomore has the rare combination of size, speed and coverage skills that NFL teams are looking for.
While Amerson's interception total will probably drop in 2012, as quarterbacks are surely going to shy away from his side of the field, he still has a great shot of developing into a first-round pick if he can handle the expectations that will be thrust onto his shoulders after the huge year he had last season.
The 2011 season certainly wasn't one for the ages for the North Texas defense, as the Mean Green finished ranked 97th in the nation in total defense last year.
The poor campaign was certainly a forgettable one, however, there were a few bright spots in 2011, and one of the main ones was the play of LB Zach Orr, who led the team with 74 tackles.
The 6'0'', 230-pound sophomore didn't earn much praise for his performance in 2011, but it at least got Orr on the Sun Belt radar, as he's now put together two consecutive solid seasons, and he looks ready to have his best year yet in 2012.
Northern Illinois has had its share of top notch defensive ends in years past with guys like Larry English and Jake Coffman, and now the next in line seems to be Sean Progar.
Last year, Progar racked up 5.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss, and he flashed some pretty nifty pass-rushing moves.
The 6'3'', 255-pound junior isn't destined to be a first-round NFL draft pick like English was, but he will team with fellow end Alex Baxter to once again give the Huskies a terrific pair of pass-rushers to build their defense around for 2012.
When Ibraheim Campbell arrived at Northwestern as a 3-star recruit out of Pennsylvania's Chestnut Hill Academy in 2009, many Wildcats fans thought that he had the chance to be a special player.
Even though they had to wait a year to find out, Campbell proved his supporters right this past season when he stepped onto the field and became an instant star. The 5'11'', 205-pound freshman led the team with 100 tackles and he picked off two passes in 2011. For his efforts, Campbell earned various Freshman All-American honors.
After opening up plenty of eyes around the Big Ten last year, Campbell now looks ready to prove that he's one of the top overall defenders in the conference in 2012.
Notre Dame fans have to be ecstatic about the return of Manti Te'o for his senior year.
Te'o is one of the scariest and most physically intimidating defenders in all of college football, and he's been one of the most dependable defenders for the Irish since arriving in South Bend as a heralded 5-star recruit back in 2009.
The 6'2'', 255-pound junior has racked up 320 total tackles during his three years in an Irish uniform, and Te'o appears ready to have his best season yet in 2012.
If he can continue to improve on his coverage skills, Te'o will have the chance to be a Top 20 pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
For you NFL draft fans out there that are looking for a sleeper cornerback prospect from a non-BCS school to watch out for next season, make sure to remember the name Travis Carrie.
Last year, Carrie led Ohio with four interceptions, and he showed terrific ball skills by breaking up another thirteen passes.
The 6'0'', 203-pound junior is a great athlete for his size, and he proved last year that quarterbacks would be silly to try to test him on a consistent basis.
Ohio State's defense lost most of the key cogs that made the unit so dominant in 2010.
It was obvious that the Buckeyes needed a veteran player to step up and become a leader and make sure the defense stayed glued together, since there was so much inexperience in key areas, and DE John Simon did just that.
Last year, Simon was one of the most disruptive defensive ends in the country, as he racked up seven sacks and 16 tackles for loss.
The 6'2'', 270-pound junior will once again be the most vital component of Ohio State's defensive front seven for 2012.
With Simon leading the way, the Ohio State defensive line has a chance to be one of the strongest front-fours in the country for 2012.
It didn't take long for Tony Jefferson to make a name for himself at Oklahoma.
In his first season in a Sooner uniform, Jefferson earned Big 12 Freshman of the Year honors and he found his way onto numerous freshman All-American teams.
He carried over that success into 2011, as Jefferson became the undisputed best defensive back in Norman this past season.
The 5'10'', 199-pound sophomore led the team with four interceptions and finished the season with 74 total tackles.
Now he'll be asked to be one of the leaders of what should be one of the best defenses in the country next season.
Jefferson possesses elite skills and physical traits, and he might just be the best safety to play for the Sooners since Roy Williams.
Oklahoma State CB Justin Gilbert may have been overshadowed by his fellow defensive backs Brodrick Brown and Markelle Marin in 2011, but when it comes to pure talent, he has both of them beat.
This past season, the 6'0'', 205-pound sophomore finished with five interceptions, 10 pass breakups and 59 total tackles. However, it was his MVP performance against Stanford in the Fiesta Bowl that really got people talking.
Gilbert is definitely a special talent, and if he can build on his sophomore campaign, learn from the few mistakes he made and elevate his game even higher in 2012, he could very well challenge to be the first cornerback selected in the 2013 NFL draft.
Oregon may be best known for its high-powered spread offense, but the Ducks top overall NFL draft prospect will actually be playing on the defensive side of the ball next season.
After notching 7.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss in 2011, DE Dion Jordan will now be looking to take the next step and ascend to truly elite status next season.
The extremely physically gifted and athletic 6'7'', 240-pound junior earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors for his performance last year, but now he'll be looking to earn All-American accolades in 2012.
If Jordan has the type of year he's capable of next season, there's no reason he shouldn't be a high pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
Oregon State CB Jordan Poyer may be best known right now as being the player who was on the delivering end of one of the most debated about calls of the 2011 season—this hit on Chris Owusu, which was called a helmet-to-helmet hit that brought back a game-tying second quarter touchdown.
Pretty soon, though, Poyer should simply be known as one of the best cornerbacks in the Pac-12.
With size, speed and great coverage skills, the 6'0'', 190-pound junior has everything you look for in a top-tier cornerback.
Last year, Poyer proved to be a game-changer on both defense and in the return game, as he took an interception and a punt return back for scores in 2011.
After picking off four passes last season, Poyer will now have one last chance to prove that he's not just one of the top cornerbacks in the Pac-12, but one of the top corners in the entire country in 2012.
Penn State, the school known for churning out plenty of great linebackers over the years, is going to have a terrific trio of linebackers on display in 2012, comprised of Gerald Hodges, Michael Mauti and Glenn Carson.
All three look capable of earning All-Big Ten honors next season, but the real player to watch will be Hodges, who looks like he has a future playing on Sundays ahead of him.
The 6'2'', 234-pound junior led the Nittany Lions with 104 tackles last season, and he also notched 4.5 sacks.
While he'll miss having defensive linemen like Devon Still and Jack Crawford occupying blockers in front of him, Hodges shouldn't have much trouble breaking the 100-tackle mark again in 2012.
New Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst is going to have his work cut out for him this offseason, as he tries to replace key defenders like defensive tackle Chas Alecxih and linebackers Brandon Lindsey and Max Gruder. Luckily for Chryst, though, he'll have safety Jarred Holley back to help lead the way in 2012.
Last year, Holley finished second on the team with 67 tackles, and he proved to be the most valuable member of the Panthers secondary. Holley will once again be joined in the defensive backfield by talented CB K'waun Williams to give Pitt two nice pieces to build around on the back end of the defense.
At 6'3'', 310-pounds, Kawann Short isn't exactly an easy young man to overshadow. However, that didn't stop Ryan Kerrigan from doing just that in 2010, as Kerrigan soaked up the spotlight as Purdue's most celebrated defensive lineman, leaving little room for anyone else to garner much attention.
Once Kerrigan moved on to the NFL, though, that allowed Short to step out and shine this past season, as he racked up 6.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss in 2011.
Short possesses the type of size, strength, power and quickness to be a disruptive force in the defensive interior.
The big tackle will once again pair up with fellow defensive line mate Bruce Gaston to give the Boilermakers one of the best defensive tackle duos in the country for 2012.
The Rice defense didn't really inspire much excitement in 2011, as the Owls finished the season ranked 111th in the nation in total defense.
There were a few defensive highlights, though, and a lot of them came courtesy of LB Cameron Nwosu.
Last year, Nwosu led the team with 108 tackles, and the 5'10'', 235-pound sophomore has a great chance to repeat that feat once again in 2012.
Some questioned the Rutgers coaching staff for moving Khaseem Greene from safety to weakside linebacker before the start of the 2011 season, but it turned out to be a genius move, as Greene ended up having a monster campaign last season. The 6'1'', 220-pound junior led the Big East with 140 tackles last year, and he proved to be a perfect fit at his new position.
Greene could have joined teammate WR Mohamed Sanu in the 2012 NFL draft, but he should benefit from one last year of development before heading off to the pros.
It won't be easy for the San Diego State defense to replace a veteran like LB Miles Burris, but luckily for the Aztecs, they've a got a great young linebacker in Jake Fely, who looks ready to assume a leadership role for the 2012 season.
Last year, Fely stepped into the starting lineup at middle linebacker and looked right at home, as he racked up 58 tackles.
The 5'11'', 200-pound freshman may be severely undersized, but he never allows himself to get outworked on the field, and it's that type of hustle and determination that makes Fely a linebacker to watch in 2012.
After ranking 117th in the nation in total defense in 2010, the San Jose State defense made a considerable improvement in 2011.
One of the main reasons that the Aztecs were able to tighten up on the defensive side of the ball was the play of LB Keith Smith, who led the team with 104 tackles last season.
The 6'2'', 229-pound sophomore has been the leader of the San Jose State defense since he first stepped foot in the defensive huddle, and he doesn't look like he's ready to relinquish that role any time soon.
The former WAC Freshman of the Year seems like the the type of linebacker who is only going to keep getting better with age, and he could be in store for his biggest campaign yet as a junior in 2012.
Any time June Jones is the head coach of your team, obviously the offense is going to receive the most focus and attention. However, SMU will also have a few standout defenders for the 2012 season with linebackers Taylor Reed and Ja'Gared Davis.
Last year, Reed and Davis combined for 185 total tackles, and with both of them back in the fold, the Mustangs defense seems to be in pretty good shape for 2012. Both players will be worth keeping an eye on next season, but make sure to remember Reed's name especially.
After being lightly recruited coming out of Texas' West Brook high school, the 6'0'', 230-pound junior has made many in-state schools regret that they didn't take a chance on him.
It remains to be seen how well the South Alabama Jaguars will be able to handle the offenses that they'll have to face at the FBS level next season, however, the Jaguars' defense will at least have one solid player to help lead the way, and that's LB Jake Johnson.
Last year, Johnson led the team with 83 total tackles, and the 6'1'', 230-pound junior will once again be counted on to be the leader of the South Alabama defense, as the Jaguars begin their journey as a member of the Sun Belt conference in 2012.
There was no way possible that Jadeveon Clowney could have lived up to the immense amount of hype that followed him from the high school ranks, as he was considered by many to be one of the best recruits of all time, and he had the magazine covers to prove it.
While Clowney may not have been the immediate superstar that many pegged him to be, he certainly showed off his tremendous potential on more than a few occasions in 2011, as he racked up eight sacks and 12 tackles for loss.
With Melvin Ingram now moving on to the NFL, Clowney will now become the leader of South Carolina's talented defensive line.
The 6'6'', 255-pound freshman will pair with teammate Devin Taylor to give the Gamecocks one of the best defensive end duos in the country for 2012.
After a disappointing 5-7 campaign in 2011, South Florida will be looking to get back on track in 2012, and if the Bulls want to actually compete for a Big East championship, they're going to need a big year out of their defense.
What helps is that the team returns its entire linebacker corps from last season, comprised of DeDe Lattimore, Sam Barrington and Michael Lanaris, who combined for over 250 tackles in 2011.
The real player to watch will be Lattimore, an experienced and athletic linebacker who has started 24 out of the 25 games he's played in at South Florida.
The 6'1'', 234-pound sophomore led the Bulls with 94 tackles last season while also notching seven sacks.
Lattimore is the type of veteran presence that the South Florida defense needs to help guide the team back to respectability in 2012.
Southern Miss may be losing two of its key defenders from this past season—DE Cordarro Law and LB Ronnie Thornton, but the Golden Eagles will be welcoming back one important defensive leader, and that's LB Jamie Collins.
Last year, Collins finished tied for second on the team with 98 tackles, and he also added 6.5 sacks.
The 6'3'', 239-pound junior will be one of the best linebackers that Conference-USA has to offer next season. With Collins leading the way on defense, Southern Miss should be right back in the hunt to make it to the conference championship game in 2012.
While nobody knows yet exactly what kind of punishment Stanford LB Shayne Skov will face for his DUI arrest a few weeks ago, the Cardinal do at least know that they will have one great linebacker to rely in 2012.
When Skov went down for the year with an injury early last season, Chase Thomas stepped up and became the leader of the defense, as he led the team with 10 sacks and 22 tackles for loss.
The 6'4'', 239-pound junior is a perfect fit as an edge-rusher on the outside of Stanford's 3-4 defensive alignment.
If Skov comes back ready to go for 2012, him and Thomas should form one of the top linebacker duos in the country next season.
Syracuse's defense may not have been all that impressive in 2011, as the Orange finished last in the Big East in total defense. But the good news is the team has two great young linebackers to build around in Marquis Spruill and Dyshawn Davis.
With defensive end Chandler Jones and safety Phillip Thomas both gone, Spruill looks like he'll be the defensive leader for Syracuse in 2012.
Last year, the 6'1'', 216-pound sophomore notched 62 tackles and three sacks, and he should be an even bigger factor in 2012.
We'll find out next season whether or not TCU truly has the type of talent to compete with the big boys of the Big 12, but one thing's for sure, the Horned Frogs defense certainly looks ready for the battle.
Gary Patterson's 4-2-5 defense is going to feature some of the top defensive playmakers in the conference next season, including NT Dave Johnson, DE Ross Forrest, LB Kenny Cain and CB Jason Verrett, but the real featured player to watch is DE Stansly Maponga.
Maponga possesses as much quickness and raw power as any other defensive end in the country, and he showed his skills off on a regular basis in 2011, racking up nine sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss.
The 6'2'', 265-pound sophomore will surely be tormenting Big 12 quarterbacks on a regular basis in 2012, and if Maponga has the type of junior campaign that he's capable of, he'll likely have to think long and hard about leaving early for the NFL.
Temple may have to replace key pass-rushers like Adrian Robinson and Tahir Whitehead, but the Owls should still be fairly strong in the back end of their defense with safety Justin Gildea leading the way.
Last year, Gildea finished fifth on the team with 51 tackles and he also picked off three passes and notched three sacks as well.
The 5'11'', 190-pound junior may not be the most athletic or the most physically imposing safety that you ever lay your eyes on, but he's proven that he's a sound defender who knows his assignments and knows where he needs to be on every snap.
Tennessee has produced its fair share of outstanding linebackers in recent years, with names like Jerod Mayo, Kevin Burnett and Rico McCoy immediately coming to mind.
Now, it looks like there's another big-time 'backer emerging in Knoxville, and it's freshman All-American A.J. Johnson.
In his first season in a Volunteer uniform, Johnson took the SEC by storm in 2011, racking up 80 tackles, as he became one of the most feared defenders in the conference.
It didn't take long for the 6'3'', 245-pound former 4-star recruit to catch people's attention, and now that he has it, look for Johnson to show the SEC that he's ready to be the conference's next great linebacker in 2012.
There will be few defensive ends combos in the country that will be able to compare to the one Texas will have next season with Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat.
Last year, Okafor and Jeffcoat racked up a combined 35 tackles for loss and 15 sacks, and the bad news for Big 12 offensive tackles is that both will be back next season to cause some more havoc. While both should make a huge impact in 2012, it's Okafor who should make the most noise, as the 6'4'', 260-pound junior has all the makings of a future Top 10 NFL draft pick.
Okafor has the chance to be the best overall defensive end in the country next season, and if he plays up to his potential, the Longhorns defense has a great chance to be one of the strongest defenses in the country next season.
While rare star pass-rushers like Von Miller simply can't be replaced, Texas A&M's Sean Porter did everything he could last year to try to replicate Miller's elite edge-rushing skills.
Porter led the Aggies with 9.5 sacks and finished the 2011 season with 17 tackles for loss, and he did a good job helping the A&M defense get over the loss of their former star defender.
The athletic and explosive 6'2'', 230-pound junior will be the most important piece of the Texas A&M defense next season, as the Aggies prepare for a step up in competition in the SEC in 2012.
Xavier Daniels stepped into the starting lineup for the Texas State defense and ended up making a huge impact last season, as Daniels led the Bobcats with 77 total tackles and three interceptions in 2011.
The 6'0''', 185-pound sophomore will now be counted on to be one of the key leaders for the Texas State defense when the Bobcats make the move into the WAC in 2012.
If you're looking for reasons as to why Texas Tech's 11-year bowl run came to an end last season, then you better start on the defensive side of the ball, because that's where the Red Raiders' biggest problems were in 2011. Last year, the Texas Tech defense gave up an average of 39 points and 485 yards per game.
The good news is, things probably can't get any worse next season, but if the Red Raiders truly want to make a vast improvement after last year's defensive disaster, then they're going to need they're key returning starters like safety Cody Davis to really lead the way.
Davis led the team with 93 tackles last year, however, there were a few times when he was caught out of position in pass coverage. If the 6'2'', 200-pound junior can play more consistently in 2012, the Texas Tech defense should be able to limit the breakdowns that plagued the unit throughout this past season.
Dan Molls only played in seven games in 2011 due to a leg injury that limited him early in the season, however, Molls still managed to finish third on the team with 70 tackles.
When Molls was healthy he proved to be the Rockets' most effective and reliable defender, as he averaged 10 tackles per game.
The 6'1'', 222-pound junior should contend for first-team All-MAC honors in 2012, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him break the 100-tackle mark next season.
Saying Troy's defense was bad last season would be an understatement, as the Trojans finished 101st in scoring defense and 113th in total defense in 2011.
The defensive struggles were the main reason that Troy finished 3-9 last season.
Even though the defense couldn't form a cohesive unit last year, there were a few notable defenders that did make an individual impact, and one of them was safety Brynden Trawick.
The one-time Michigan State Spartan finally got to make the most of his potential last season when he led Troy with 123 tackles.
The 6'2'', 223-pound junior is a big, physical and athletic safety who should help shut down the middle of the field for the Trojans defense in 2012.
Duke fans must be wondering what could have been, as former Blue Devil LB Trent Mackey has been outstanding since transferring to Tulane back in 2009.
Over the last two seasons, Mackey has compiled 269 total tackles, and last year he had his best season yet, earning first-team All-Conference USA honors for his play.
The 5'11'', 227-pound junior may be undersized for the position, but he has a non-stop motor and he always seems to be able to locate the football and make a key stop when it's needed.
Tulsa is still much more known for its highly productive offensive attack than its defense, but that could change in 2012, as the Golden Hurricane are returning many key defenders from this past season.
One of the leaders of the unit will be LB Shawn Jackson, who finished second on the team with 101 tackles in 2011.
The 6'0'', 238-pound Tulsa native has made his hometown fans proud during his first two seasons, and Jackson appears to be ready to have the best campaign of his career in 2012.
New UAB coach Garrick McGee is going to have a lot of work to do this offseason to try to improve a defense that ranked 114th in the country in total defense in 2011.
McGee will at least have one solid defender that he knows he can rely on, though, and that's LB Marvin Burdette.
Burdette has racked up over 200 tackles over the past two seasons, and he's been one of the most consistent defenders in Conference-USA during that time.
The 5'11'', 230-pound junior is a strong and stout inside 'backer who knows how to get downhill and clog up running lanes.
Altohugh they probably won't receive too much preseason press outside of Los Angeles, UCLA should have one of the best linebacker trios in the country next season, comprised of Patrick Larimore, Jordan Zumwalt and Eric Kendricks.
Larimore is the veteran leader of the group, who will once again be counted on to lead the way in 2012.
Last year, Larimore led the Bruins with 81 total tackles, and he earned the team's Defensive MVP award for his efforts.
The 6'3'', 250-pound junior has the size, athleticism and intelligence that you look for in a prototypical inside linebacker, and he should be the favorite to lead the team in tackles for the second year in a row in 2012.
It's hard to call a player from a defense that ranked 118th nationally in scoring defense last season "valuable" but there is at least one UNLV defender that should be able to contend for All-Mountain West honors in 2012, and that's LB John Lotulelei.
In his first season after transferring from Merced College, Lotulelei made an instant impact for the Rebels, finishing third on the team with 60 tackles.
The 6'0'', 230-pound junior proved that he's a solid run-stopper, and now that he has a good grasp on the defensive scheme, he should be much comfortable and able to make a lot more plays in 2012.
If star quarterback Matt Barkley had decided to declare for the 2012 NFL draft, right now we would be talking about safety T.J. McDonald as USC's most important returning player for the upcoming season.
While Barkley will get most of the attention this summer, McDonald is set to be the quarterback of the USC defense so to speak, as he'll be called upon to lead a USC secondary that should be the best and most complete defensive backfield of the Lane Kiffin era.
The 6'3'', 205-pound junior led the Trojans with three interceptions last season, and he finished third on the team with 67 tackles.
McDonald looks like he'll compete with Alabama's Robert Lester to be the top senior safety taken in the 2013 NFL draft, and if he has the season most are expecting, he could end up being a first-round pick.
Considering the Texas-San Antonio football team only has one season's worth of experience, it should be interesting to see how the Roadrunners transition to the FBS ranks over these next few years, as they adapt to a new life in the WAC conference.
One of the key players to watch next season will be linebacker Brandon Reeves.
Last year, Reeves started nine games for the Roadrunners defense and ended up leading the team with 69 total tackles, and he also notched six sacks and a fumble recovery.
Star Lotulelei definitely lived up to his name in 2011, as the Utah defensive tackle emerged as one of the breakout defensive stars in the Pac-12 this past season.
Lotulelei was an immovable object in the middle of the Utes defense, as he feasted on double-teams and ate up blocker after blocker all year long.
The massive 6'3'', 325-pound junior not only clogged up the middle, he also showed that he can penetrate and make plays in the backfield, as he finished tied for the team lead with nine tackles for loss.
Lotulelei is the type of big defensive tackle that can wear down the interior of an opposing offensive line, and he'll enter the 2012 season as one of the most feared defenders in the Pac-12 conference.
Utah State is certainly going to miss star linebacker Bobby Wagner, who will be playing on Sundays next season, but the Aggies will have a few capable linebackers to help make up for the loss, and one of the main ones is Maurice Alexander.
Alexander is an athletic and instinctive 'backer who can chase ball-carriers from sideline to sideline.
The 6'2'', 209-pound junior now looks ready to step up in 2012 and become the team's key defender next season.
DeShawn Grayson has been a major factor for the UTEP defense since he first arrived in El Paso. After earning Conference-USA All-Freshman honors in 2009, Grayson stepped into the starting lineup in 2010 and made his presence felt, racking up 68 tackles.
After another solid season in 2011, Grayson will now be counted on to be one of the veteran leaders of the Miners' defense next season.
The 6'0'', 205-pound junior has good range and instincts and he should once again be the most reliable member of UTEP's defensive backfield in 2012.
Vanderbilt will have to replace its four best defenders, CB Casey Hayward, LB Chris Marve, DE Tim Fugger and S Sean Richardson, but the Commodores should at least be in decent shape up front where DT Rob Lohr is back to lead the way.
Last year, Lohr finished second on the team behind Fugger with 4.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss.
The 6'4'', 290-pound junior has the size and strength to eat up space and blockers in the defensive interior, but he also possesses the quickness and agility to penetrate into the backfield and make plays behind the line of scrimmage.
Virginia shocked a lot of folks around the ACC when the Cavs went 8-4 in the regular season last year, and a lot of the credit has to go to the team's defense, which ranked third in the conference in total defense in 2011.
The Cavs won't have an easy time replacing veteran defenders like CB Chase Minnifield, DT Matt Conrath and DE Cam Johnson, but the unit will at least have a distinctive leader to rally around next season in the form of middle linebacker Steve Greer.
Last year, Greer led the team with 103 tackles in his first season as a true starter.
The 6'2'', 225-pound junior will once again join up with LaRoy Reynolds to give Virginia one of the best linebacker duos in the ACC for 2012.
Bruce Taylor's 2011 season may have been cut down to just eight games due to a foot injury, however, Taylor still managed to finish the year with 53 tackles and five sacks, which helped earn him All-ACC honorable mention honors.
With a healthy Taylor back out on the field, the Virginia Tech defense should once again be one of the top units in the country, especially in the front seven where DE's James Gayle and J.R. Collins, DT Derrick Hopkins and fellow LB Tariq Edwards will all be back.
Taylor will be right back in the middle of that group to help keep things locked down, and the 6'2'', 243-pound junior will be looking to have one last big campaign, as he tries to help guide the Hokies back to the ACC championship game in 2012.
Wake Forest's Merrill Noel turned out to be one of the ACC's biggest breakout performers last season, as Noel quickly developed into one of the top defensive backs in the conference in just his first season of action. The 5'10'', 180-pound freshman led the ACC with 19 pass break-ups, picked off two passes and finished the year with 66 total tackles.
For his efforts, Noel found his way onto numerous Freshman All-American teams, and he now appears ready to take the next step and become not just one of the best cornerbacks in the ACC, but the entire country.
With players like cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Gregory Ducre and safeties Sean Parker, Justin Glenn and Will Shamburger all returning for 2012, the Washington secondary should be much better than the unit that ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in pass defense last season.
Trufant may be the best NFL prospect of the bunch, but the real difference-maker will be Parker, who has the chance to compete with USC's T.J. McDonald and Oregon's John Boyett for All-Pac-12 first-team honors next season.
Last year, the 5'10'', 202-pound sophomore led the team with four interceptions, and finished second with 94 tackles.
Parker will be the center piece of a Washington secondary that Huskies fans will be hoping plays at a higher level in 2012.
With Mike Leach arriving in Pullman this offseason, the focus around Washington State will most definitely be on the offensive side of the ball for 2012. However, if the Cougars actually want to make a run at a bowl game, they're going to need the defense to play an integral part.
The Cougars may lose their leading tackler, LB Alex Hoffman-Ellis, but most of the other key players from last year are returning. One Washington State defender who should make a big impact in 2012 is DE Travis Long.
Long has been a starter since his freshman year, and he's managed to keep improving each season.
Last year, the 6'4'', 252-pound junior led the team with four sacks and twelve tackles for loss, and Long should once again be a valuable presence coming off the edge of Washington State's four-man front in 2012.
West Virginia looks like it'll have the offensive firepower to compete right away in the Big 12 next season, but the big question will be the Mountaineers' defense, which loses key players like defensive linemen Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller, linebacker Najee Goode and cornerback Keith Tandy.
The defense will need some new veteran leaders to step up, and one player who looks ready to make that move is safety Terence Garvin, who has been a starter at the spur position for the past two seasons.
Garvin's been a consistent and reliable member of the secondary during that time, as he always seems to be in proper position to make a play.
Last year, the 6'3'', 222-pound junior racked up 72 tackles, 3.5 sacks and picked off two passes, as Garvin managed to make plays all over the field.
West Virginia will need the big safety to be the leader of a secondary that will face much faster and more athletic skill-position talent in the Big 12 next season than it saw in the Big East last year.
Western Michigan's defense may have been one of the weakest units in the country last season, as the Broncos ranked 99th nationally in total defense in 2011, but there was at least one player who played at a high level last season, and that was safety Johnnie Simon.
Simon finished first on the team with 114 tackles last year, and the 6'0'', 180-pound sophomore was a valuable asset to the Broncos' secondary.
Last year, Western Kentucky RB Bobby Rainey gained some national attention and All-American honors when he ran for 1,600 yards. While it's unlikely that any Hilltopper will receive that kind of acclaim in 2012, if there's anyone on the team that's capable of making that type of noise, it's LB Andrew Jackson.
Last year, Jackson finished third in the Sun Belt with 109 tackles, and he also notched 3.5 sacks, picked off a pass and forced a fumble.
The 6'1'', 255-pound middle linebacker is one of the best run-stuffing linebackers in college football, and he should be one of the biggest defensive stars in the Sun Belt in 2012.
The big news for the Wisconsin defense last season was the return of former Freshman All-American LB Chris Borland. However, while Borland did end up having a terrific comeback campaign, finishing the year with 131 tackles and two interceptions, he actually ended up getting overshadowed by his teammate Mike Taylor, who led the team with 137 total take downs.
Taylor and Borland will both be back for the 2012 season, and they'll once again form one of the most devastating linebacker duos in the country.
The 6'2'', 230-pound Taylor looks like he could be the best overall linebacker in the Big Ten for 2012, and with Borland back by his side, Wisconsin should have one of the best defenses in the conference next season.
During Dave Christensen's three years at Wyoming, the Cowboys offense has managed to improve substantially, but the defense has still remained an average unit, as the team ranked near the bottom of the Mountain West in total defense in 2011. The strongest part of Wyoming's defense next season should be the secondary, which loses cornerback Tashaun Gipson, but returns cornerback Blair Burns and safeties Luke Ruff and Luke Anderson.
The player to watch in 2012 will be Ruff, who is team's leading returning tackler after making 102 stops in 2011.
The 5'11'', 190-pound junior can play the run and the pass with equal effectiveness and he's a reliable leader in the defensive backfield.