College Football's Top 25 Defensive Players For 2010

Tom PerryCorrespondent IAugust 26, 2010

College Football's Top 25 Defensive Players For 2010

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    One of my favorite football quotes of all time is "Offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships."

    Ask Nick Saban what was the key to Alabama winning the 2009 BCS Championship and I'm pretty sure he'll focus on the play of his defense.

    There are some outstanding defensive units this season. It most likely starts with North Carolina's experienced and talented group. But there's also Ohio State, Nebraska, Iowa, Florida, Oklahoma, and Texas.

    It's hard to put Alabama on that list yet, but don't be shocked when the Tide turns out another outstanding defense. But what makes the units so good are the freaks of nature that play defense.

    Who are those special talents in 2010? Here's a look at the 25 best.

25. Jerrell Powe, Defensive Line, Mississippi

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    Powe is large (6'2", 315) and in charge on the Ole Miss defensive line. However, he has slimmed down a great deal since he arrived on campus at nearly 400 pounds. The powerful Powe led the Rebels with 12 tackles for a loss and had three sacks last season as he proved to be one of the SEC's best interior lineman.

    Recent reports say he's in the best shape of his career. He's a contender for the Outland, Lombardi and Nagurski awards, and he's considered one of the top senior defensive tackles in the country.

    Powe's journey to Ole Miss is well documented after he failed to qualify, but finally arrived as a 20-year-old freshman.

24. Luke Kuechly, Linebacker, Boston College

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    At 19-years-old, Kuechly is called "Boy Wonder" by his BC coach Frank Spaziani. But the 6'3", 235-pound sophomore plays like a man on Saturdays.

    The ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year and All-ACC First Team player recorded 10 or more tackles in the final nine games of the season. He had a season-best 19 tackles, including 2.5 for a loss, against North Carolina.

    If 2008 ACC Defensive Player of the Year Mark Herzlich returns after sitting out last season with cancer, Kuechly could be shifted to an outside linebacker for 2010.

23. Jeremy Beal, Defensive Line, Oklahoma

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    Beal, a 6'3, 261-pound defensive end, didn't garner the same attention as fellow Sooner Gerald McCoy last year, but he's as tough as they come.

    He was the most consistent defensive player last season as he recorded 66 tackles, 11 sacks and forced two fumbles. He also had one interception.

    If all goes as expected, Beal should finish as the No. 1 or No. 2 all-time sack leader at OU. He's made a number of preseason All-America teams, and is on the Ted Hendricks Award watch list.

22. Tyler Sash, Safety, Iowa

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    He's a big-play safety who was named second-team All-American in 2009. The 6'1", 210-pound junior, led the Big Ten in interceptions (six) and racked up 203 yards on returns, including one pick-six.

    Sash finished 2009 with 85 tackles, including 5.5 for loss, six pass break ups and two forced fumbles. He's easily the Big Ten's top safety as the 2010 season gets underway.

    He's been named to the watch lists for the Lott Trophy, Bronko Nagurski Award and Jim Thorpe Award.

21. Mark Barron, Safety, Alabama

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    When you're the best safety in the SEC you have to make this list. Barron led the conference in interception with seven as he earned first-team All-SEC honors. It should be no surprise that he's on the Jim Thorpe Award watch list.

    He's earned the starting strong safety spot for the Crimson Tide last season and he finished with 74 tackles and one interception for a touchdown (77 yards against South Carolina).

    He has the attitude and confidence to be one of the best in Alabama history, and he's become an unquestioned leader on the Tide's defense.

20. Travis Lewis, Linebacker, Oklahoma

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    Lewis is the latest in a great line of Sooner linebackers that includes Brian Bosworth, Rocky Calmus and Teddy Lehman.

    Oklahoma will rely on Lewis to lead the defense this year as the Sooners try to get back on top of the Big 12. Lewis has 27-game starting streak at outside linebacker and Bob Stoops would like to see it reach 40 straight.

    In 2009, Lewis led Oklahoma with 109 tackles and was naturally named first-team All-Big 12. He's been named to the watch list for the Butkus Award.

19. Kelvin Sheppard, Linebacker, LSU

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    Sheppard is big (6'3", 240), strong and intimidating as he leveled many big hits last year. He finished fourth in the SEC in 2009 with 110 tackles, and he also had 8.5 tackles for loss and one sack.

    He's high energy guy who is the leader of the Tigers defense at middle linebacker. A three-star recruit coming out of Stephenson High School in Stone Mountain, Ga., Sheppard has made the most of his opportunity in Baton Rouge.

    He doesn't get the same attention as Alabama's Dont'a Hightower, but offensive coordinators around the SEC definitely have to game plan for Sheppard.

18. Allen Bailey, Defensive Line, Miami

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    Bailey is the best lineman on one of Miami's best defensive lines in nearly a decade. The 6'4", 288-pounder enters 2010 with huge expectations as the Hurricanes believe they are ready to be relevant nationally again.

    Last year he led all Miami linemen with 34 tackles, and he led the team with seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss. This makes him one of the most marked defensive players in the ACC. He's also on the Ted Hendricks Award watch list.

    Bailey is getting tons of preseason hype, but we'll find out more about him when the Hurricanes travel to Columbus on Sept. 11 and play Ohio State in the Horseshoe.

17. Robert Quinn, Defensive Line, North Carolina

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    Quinn has NFL scouts salivating over his potential. What they see is a 6'5", 270-pounder who can run like a deer. To be a legitimate end in the NFL, though, he'll need to put on some weight.

    He finished 2009 with 52 tackles, including 19 for loss and 11 sacks. So of course, everyone in Chapel Hill believes he'll surpass Julius Peppers as the greatest DE in school history.

    He's considered a long-shot Heisman candidate by many, but he's more likely to bring home an honor like the Ted Hendricks Award.

16. Cameron Heyward, Defensive Line, Ohio State

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    Heyward's stats weren't overly impressive last year as he had 10 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks, but it's his ability to disrupt an offensive game plan that makes him most dangerous.

    At 6'5", 288, Heyward is considered first-round talent and it's a bit of a surprise he returned for his senior season at OSU. He played some of his best games last year as the Buckeyes rolled past Penn State, Iowa and Michigan en route to another Big Ten championship.

    Big Ten coaches love him too. Here's what Iowa's Kirk Ferentz had to say about him recently, "Cameron, ooh, man, is he a player. And he's a very unusual player because he can play inside or outside, and be effective in both realms. You don't see a lot of that."

15. Marcell Dareus, Defensive Line, Alabama

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    The last time many of us saw the Crimson Tide's 6'3", 306-pound defensive end he was lumbering into the end zone with a pick-six in last year's BCS Championship Game.

    Dareus, who is easily one of the best pass rushers in the SEC, still makes the cut despite concerns about his eligibility. There's nothing new from the NCAA investigation about Dareus, but his playing time could be limited or even eliminated if things turn sour.

    He's also on the Ted Hendricks Award watch list, and if he gets to play in 2010, Dareus is arguably one of the strongest and most powerful defensive ends in the nation.

14. Stephen Paea, Defensive Line, Oregon State

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    Paea is on almost every preseason All-American team out there and he's on a number of postseason award watch lists. He briefly considered leaving for the NFL, but in the end decided he'd return for another season with the Beavers.

    He anchors a defensive line that hopes to help Oregon State win a Pac-10 title. At 6'1", 311 pounds, Paea is a tough to move, is strong and remarkably agile.

    It's hard to believe just six years ago, Paea didn't even know how to play football. Now he's getting better every day and this should benefit him in the 2011 NFL Draft.

13. DeAndre McDaniel, Safety, Clemson

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    Not many people, even Clemson fans, thought McDaniel would return this season. He seemed a lock to leave early for the riches of the NFL.

    But the 6'1", 210-pounder, has made it clear that he's back to win the ACC and leave an even bigger mark on the Clemson program. McDaniel had 102 tackles and eight interceptions and one touchdown last season.

    McDaniel loves to hit (just ask Florida State's Christian Ponder) and he will clearly be a leader on defense in 2010. He's another player from this list that is a preseason candidate for a number of awards.

12. Stephon Gilmore, Cornerback, South Carolina

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    Gilmore is every bit as talented as he is confident. He started every game as a true freshman and remains one of the best in the SEC. He recorded 56 tackles and three sacks, but had just one interception (probably a sign of respect from opposing quarterbacks).

    At 6'1, 188, Gilmore has the size and quickness to shut down any of the SEC's top receivers, including Georgia's A.J. Green and Alabama's Julio Jones. He's a physical corner who hounds receivers.

    Gilmore also gets a little time on offense as South Carolina's WildCock quarterback and he returns punts.

11. Kendric Burney, Cornerback, North Carolina

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    Burney, a 5'9", 190, senior, is one of six Tar Heels linked to AgentGate and his future playing time at UNC could be in jeopardy. He still remains one of the nation's most experienced and talented defensive backs.

    Last year he amassed 52 tackles and hauled in five interceptions for one of the country's top defenses. He also set a school record with 200 return yards on his five picks.

    He started all 13 games last season as he was named All-ACC. He has started 38 straight games for Butch Davis in Chapel Hill. He's a player who seems to have a real nose for the football.

10. Jared Crick, Defensive Line, Nebraska

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    When you're 6'6", 285 pounds, it's difficult to get overlooked. Still Crick was overshadowed by all-everything Nebraska lineman Ndamukong Suh in 2009. Now it's Crick's turn to shine.

    The Cornhuskers massive Crick had a breakout season last year as he finished with 85 tackles and 12 sacks. Crick clearly benefited from the double and triple teams that were employed to slow down Suh, but his talent can't be overlooked.

    His strength, quickness and agility make him difficult to stop. He's also known for his ability to knock down passes at the line.

9. Von Miller, Linebacker, Texas A&M

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    The 6'3", 240-pounder is a sack machine. He led the nation with 17 in 2009 and he also had an additional 20 tackles for loss as both a linebacker and defensive end for the Aggies.

    Miller recorded eight of his sacks in the first three games, so teams either made adjustments to stop him or A&M needs to devise some schemes to give him more opportunities to create havoc.

    New defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter may be doing just that in his 3-4 scheme. The athletic Miller is expected to play "Joker," a hybrid defensive end/linebacker.

8. Prince Amukamara, Cornerback, Nebraska

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    Amukamara has been listed as the top defensive NFL prospect in the Big 12 and he's named on nearly every preseason All-American team and awards watch lists.

    The 6'1", 205-pound cornerback recorded five interceptions and 11 pass breakups during his junior season, emerging as a sure-fire first-round prospect in the upcoming NFL draft.

    He's a converted running back who displays great instincts, is physical with receivers and is willing to stick his nose in and make a tackle.

7. Dont'a Hightower, Linebacker, Alabama

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    On pure physical skills Hightower deserves this spot, but the 6'4", 260-pounder is recovering from torn ACL and MCL ligaments in his left knee four games into last season.

    He received a medical redshirt and is making a move to middle linebacker, but he's still the leader on Nick Saban's/Kirby Smart's defense. He's also the most experienced player on a unit that is replacing nine starters.

    His size and athletic ability give him an advantage when taking on blockers, but he also has the speed to run down running backs.

6. Rahim Moore, Safety, UCLA

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    Moore, a 6'1", 197-pound junior, led the nation with 10 interceptions last year. He's not as well known as some of his peers on the East Coast, but Moore is a consensus All-American who has a bright future playing on Sundays.

    He's also got great speed for a safety (somewhere in the 4.5 range). He's possibly the best ball hawk in college football coming into 2010. As a freshman he had 60 tackles and three interceptions.

    He has started all 25 games of his career and is also named on many preseason All-American teams and watch lists for postseason awards. If he decides to return for his senior season he could likely be an even higher draft pick in 2012.

5. Greg Romeus, Defensive Line, Pittsburgh

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    Romeus, a 6'6", 270-pound defensive end, is expected to be a high draft pick and is another player on all of the award watch lists. He's the reigning Big East co-defensive player of the year and is a sack machine, which is impressive considering he is normally matched up with an opponent's best lineman.

    He possesses a freakish set of skills for a defensive end—strength, length and speed. He also covers a lot of ground because of these abilities. Last year he finished with 43 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks.

    He's missed some time during the preseason because of back spasms, but once the season begins expect Romeus to be at his best.

4. Quan Sturdivant, Linebacker, North Carolina

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    Sturdivant, another outstanding defensive player for Butch Davis and the Tar Heels, is facing an uncertain future. He may miss the season because of possible NCAA infractions, but until that day, his raw talent can't be overlooked.

    The 6'2" 230-pound middle linebacker, is a special talent because he has outstanding power to go with the speed he needs to succeed at the next level. Put those together and he can shut down opponents.

    Led the team with 79 tackles and was second with 12 tackles for losses in 2009. In 2008, he led the nation with 87 unassisted tackles.

3. Adrian Clayborn, Defensive End, Iowa

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    Did you happen to see his performance in Iowa's Orange Bowl victory over Georgia Tech? The 6'3", 280-pounder was so dominating that the Yellow Jackets quit running the ball his way. He finished with nine tackles and two sacks.

    He's about as close to a lock to go in the first round in next year's draft as they come. He was a first-team All-Big Ten performer in 2009 when he had 70 tackles, 20 for loss and 11.5 sacks.

    He's a high-energy player who thrives at stopping the run, but will also get pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

2. Greg Jones, Linebacker, Michigan State

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    Jones is the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and was a consensus first-team All-American last season. The 6'1", 235-pound linebacker earned these honors with his outstanding playmaking skills.

    He had 153 tackles and nine sacks. He displays great pass rushing instincts, and is versatile enough to cover backs and receivers.

    Jones enters 2010 No. 8 on the all-time tackles list at Michigan State. He may not project as high in the NFL draft as others that have already appeared, but he's a big-time player on game day.

1. Patrick Peterson, Cornerback, LSU

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    Peterson may be the best player in the SEC, so if you are the best in the best conference ... you get the top spot here.

    The 6'1", 222-pounder oozes confidence and that's important to play corner. He arrived at LSU as a five-star recruit who was the USA Today Defensive Player of the Year, and he hasn't disappointed.

    Peterson has proven in past match ups with SEC elite receivers like Alabama's Julio Jones and Georgia's A.J. Green. Now most SEC teams avoid throwing his way and look for other ways to exploit the LSU defense.