Teams around the nation are speeding into spring mode. For many programs, that means replacing major pieces of some of the best defenses in 2013. Some of those defenses are replacing players who will be high NFL Draft picks, while others are filling the holes of talented collegiate players who made the defenses work.
Out of the nation's best defenses, there are shutdown corners missing, tackling machines graduating, sack monsters no longer on the edge and space-eaters in the middle eyeballing the NFL. Position coaches and defensive coordinators have spent the winter trying to adjust schemes and find ways to plug holes for the absent talent.
The top defenses from 2013 are shuffling the deck, and across the nation, replacing key players is the name of the game.
The Florida State Seminoles, fresh off a national title, are expected to participate in the inaugural College Football Playoff. If Jimbo Fisher's team is going to make that trip, it will need to fill in the holes on a defense that finished No. 3 in total defense, according to CFBStats.
Fisher's team lost its defensive coordinator, Jeremy Pruitt, to the Georgia Bulldogs this offseason. The Seminoles also lost key starters at every level of its elite defense. Lamarcus Joyner and Terrence Brooks are gone from the secondary. Telvin Smith and Christian Jones are no longer a part of the linebacking corps. Timmy Jernigan, Jacobbi McDaniel and Demonte McAllister are leaving from the defensive line.
Luckily for Florida State, a team that blew its opponents out of the water and put games away by halftime for most of the season, there are a host of backups ready to step in and play. The Seminoles are a team that loses a lot of starters but returns pieces that have seen plenty of field time and can be major contributors.
Another positive for the 'Noles is the return of safety Tyler Hunter. Hunter was sidelined for 2013, and after being unable to contribute to the title effort, the safety is ready to get back on to the field.
Charlie Strong's Louisville Cardinals finished the season ranked No. 1 in total defense, No. 2 in scoring defense, No. 1 in rushing defense and No. 6 in pass defense, according to CFBStats. Now, the Cardinals are not only without Strong and his defensive presence, they also lose Calvin Pryor, Marcus Smith and Preston Brown, among others.
As the team dynamic shifts to playing for Bobby Petrino, it must do so without leaders such as safeties Pryor and Hakeem Smith, linebackers Brown or Smith and a host of other defensive bodies. On the positive side, Lorenzo Mauldin does return to be a constant in a front seven now under the charge of coordinator Todd Grantham.
For Louisville, the spring will be about James Burgess establishing himself as the leader on the defense and players like Nick Dawson developing to be full-time contributors. While the nation's best safety tandem is gone, corners Terrell Floyd and Jermaine Reve should help provide some stability from the outside-in for the Cardinals.
Alabama, which finished 2013 with the No. 5 defense (per CFBStats), was far more inconsistent than the high ranking would indicate. The Tide's secondary struggled mightily, as the cornerback position forced safeties to compensate, causing Nick Saban's defensive machine to suffer the effects.
2014 will be about shoring up the cornerback position, in addition to finding replacements for the key spots vacated by graduation and early NFL entrants. With Ha Ha Clinton-Dix headed to the NFL, Landon Collins has to find a new running mate at safety. Thanks to Vinnie Sunseri's decision to leave early, the leading candidate is gone.
Saban's team also lost C.J. Mosley, the leader at the linebacker spot who made tons of plays for the Tide. Adrian Hubbard, a hybrid linebacker and defensive end, is also headed to the NFL as another missing piece for the Crimson Tide.
Alabama has recruited better than any other team in the nation, and this season will test the idea of the Tide reloading. The team needs help at linebacker and in the secondary; spring will be when Saban's team starts to find out if they have the pieces to make a 2014 playoff run.
Despite the 8-5 record, the Hokies clocked in with the No. 4 defense nationally, per CFBStats. The unit was effective, and, heading into 2014, Virginia Tech faces the tall task of replacing a host of productive players at every level of the defense.
The leading tacklers, Jack Tyler and Tariq Edwards, are both gone from the linebacking unit. Antone Exum and Kyle Fuller both leave the secondary in the hands of the remaining players. Along the line, both Derrick Hopkins and James Gayle leave school, hoping to make a splash in the NFL.
Bud Foster's defense is in a solid position in the secondary, because although Exum and Fuller will likely end up in the NFL, the Hokies know who will be filling their shoes. Exum missed most of 2013 due to injury, and although Fuller played well in 2013, his brother Kendall Fuller and fellow freshman Brandon Facyson both proved ready to play.
Spring will be about competition at the linebacker position and finding defensive linemen to put next to key returnee, Luther Maddy. Foster's secondary should be top notch in 2014, and it will be up to the front seven to improve to keep the Hokies near the top of the defensive rankings.
Although Louisville garnered the top spot for total defense, the No. 2 Michigan State Spartans were the team that most frequently came to mind when elite defenses were mentioned in 2013. Mark Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi produced a squad that the nation watched evolve over the recent seasons into the suffocating squad that won the Rose Bowl.
Shutdown cornerback Darqueze Dennard is the biggest name of the group, but linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen leaving is also a tremendous blow. The two linebackers were anchors in the middle, Bullough calling the shots and identifying the offense's plan while Allen's versatility gave the Spartans numerous options to attack opponents.
Throw Isaiah Lewis, a quality safety, into the mix and Michigan State is losing a sizable chunk of production and quality ballplayers.
Which means the next crop of defenders must step up. Safety Kurtis Drummond will be a leader in the back end and cornerback Trae Waynes proved he was capable of being part of the "No Fly Zone" in 2013. Taiwan Jones saw plenty of action at the linebacker spot, so he'll likely be forced into a leadership role in the front seven.
Up front there are plenty of bodies back, led by Shilique Calhoun on the edge, and although Michigan State will be plugging holes in the back seven, the front four will be stout.
It is not just the nation's top five defenses that have holes to fill. In the Big Ten, Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio State join the Spartans as quality units looking to replace critical pieces. Iowa lost all three of its linebackers, which means the top three tacklers will no longer be on the field for the Hawkeyes. Major blow for a defense that finished No. 6 nationally.
At Wisconsin, it is all about Chris Borland. The linebacker was a thumper who helped the Badgers transition into the new defense under head coach Gary Andersen. Borland was all over the field, and now the Badgers have to replace those instincts and production. Meanwhile, Ohio State will be making due without Bradley Roby and Ryan Shazier, two wildly athletic players on the defensive side of the ball.
Teams in the Pac-12 are major pieces gone, too. Will Sutton and Carl Bradford at Arizona State left gaping holes. Stanford lost pieces on the defensive line, plus key linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov. Oregon and USC will both be plugging holes left by players eyeing NFL futures.
And of course, Jadeveon Clowney leaves the South Carolina Gamecocks with large shoes to fill. Add Kelcy Quarles and Victor Hampton leaving to the mix and it becomes that for Lorenzo Ward's defense to return to its No. 19 spot (or better), spring will have to be productive for the Gamecocks to find answers.