It’s true that the Big East is not a conference that’s well known for producing dominant defensive stars.
Sure, every year there’s always a couple of great sack artists, some highly productive linebackers and a few intriguing defensive backs, but overall, when you compare the depth of defensive talent in the Big East to conferences like the SEC or the Big 12, well, there really is no comparison.
This season, however, there actually does seem to be a few more impact players on the defensive side of the ball.
Pro scouts will be keeping a close eye on the Big East this season, because there are definitely some defensive prospects who have NFL futures
Let’s have a look at the conference’s top 20 impact defensive players for the 2011 season.
1. DE Bruce Irvin, West Virginia
So much for a learning curve.
Last season, Bruce Irvin stepped into the West Virginia defensive lineup, fresh out of Mount San Antonio Junior College, and immediately proved that he was a special type of pass-rushing prodigy.
Even though he played limited snaps and was only primarily used in passing situations, Irvin still managed to lead the conference with a whopping 14 sacks.
The 6’3’’ 235 lb. senior may not have the prototypical size you desire in a true defensive end, but Irvin certainly hasn’t let that stop him from finding his way into the opponent’s backfield on a consistent basis.
Irvin’s tremendous speed off the edge is what sets him apart and makes him a nightmare matchup for opposing offensive tackles.
Now that he’s been given an expanded role as the starting defensive end for West Virginia’s three man defensive line, Irvin will have plenty of opportunities to continue terrorizing Big East quarterbacks.
2. DE Brandon Lindsey, Pittsburgh
New head coach Todd Graham is switching up the Pittsburgh defensive philosophy for this season.
The Panthers will now feature a three man defensive line along with a rush linebacker position that will be filled by returning second team All-Big East performer Brandon Lindsey.
Lindsey has the perfect makeup and skill set to flourish in such a role.
Last year, the speedy 6’2’’ 250 lb. senior stepped up when Greg Romeus was lost for the season and really made his presence known.
Lindsey racked up a conference best 18 tackles for loss and also added 10 sacks.
With the departures of Romeus and Jabaal Sheard, Lindsey will now be counted on to be the team’s go-to pass rusher and it should be interesting to see what he’s capable of doing at his new hybrid position.
3. LB Sio Moore, Connecticut
This year, Connecticut has the tough task of replacing three consistently productive defensive leaders: Lawrence Wilson, Scott Lutrus and Greg Lloyd.
The three combined for over 200 tackles in 2010.
The losses of Wilson, Lutrus and Lloyd leave three big holes to fill in the defensive front seven, but one player who should help ease the pain is emerging star LB Sio Moore.
Moore rose from relative obscurity last season to become a crucial component for the Connecticut defense.
The 6’1’’ 230 lb. senior ended up finishing second on the team and fourth in the Big East with 110 total tackles.
Moore will now be counted on to be the leader of the inexperienced linebacker corps, and the Huskies are going to need him to come up with another 100-plus tackle effort if they hope to have a solid defense.
4. S Hakeem Smith, Louisville
A big reason why Louisville was able to turn things around last season was the play of their secondary. The Cardinals finished second in the Big East in pass defense, letting up an average of just 167 yards per game.
The key returning starter from that unit is safety Hakeem Smith.
Smith, who was not a very highly-touted recruit coming out of high school, used his redshirt season in 2009 to hone his skills and get stronger and it definitely showed last year.
The 6’1’’ 185 lb. sophomore led the team with 88 tackles and performed like a seasoned veteran instead of a first year starter.
The Louisville secondary will miss CB Johnny Patrick, a third round NFL Draft pick, but Smith should help ease the loss, as he’s now going to be the key defensive back on the team.
5. DT Kendall Reyes, Connecticut
The Big East probably won’t have many high picks in the 2012 NFL Draft, but one player who should definitely intrigue the pro scouts is UConn DT Kendall Reyes.
Reyes, a powerful, athletic and agile interior lineman, finished the 2010 season with 10 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.
The 6’4’’ 295 lb. senior has the type of skill set to line up at any position along the defensive line, but you’re most likely going to find him inside this season.
This year, the Huskies will once again have one of the Big East’s most intimidating defensive fronts with Reyes, fellow DT Twyon Martin and ends Jesse Joseph and Trevardo Williams.
The four of them combined for 18 sacks and 37 tackles for loss in 2010.
6. LB J.K. Schaffer, Cincinnati
There’s simply no way to sugarcoat the fact that the Cincinnati defense was terrible in 2010.
At times, you had to wonder if there even was a defense out on the field.
Still, that doesn’t mean that there weren’t a few Bearcats out there who were performing at a high level.
One of those few players was LB J.K. Schaffer.
Shaffer has managed to tally over 100 tackles in each of the last two seasons and he’s been the the true linchpin that’s kept the Bearcats defense from completely flying off the rails.
The 6’1’’ 220 lb. senior looks like a linebacker/safety hybrid and he can certainly cover ground with the best of them.
Now that he has some more help and experience around him, Shaffer should continue to shine in 2011.
7. DE Chandler Jones, Syracuse
Last season, Syracuse needed to find someone along the defensive line who could step up and carry the load after the departure of talented defensive tackle Arthur Jones.
It just so happened that his brother Chandler was up to the task.
The younger Jones stepped out of his brother’s shadow and came up with a solid 2010 campaign.
The 6’5’’ 250 lb. senior finished with 9.5 tackles for loss and four sacks, and he’s expected to raise those totals this season
8. CB Keith Tandy, West Virginia
CB Brandon Hogan and S Robert Sands, two NFL draft picks, are both gone, which means there’s going to be some serious turnover in the West Virginia secondary this season.
The one player who will have to continue to progress in the back end is CB Keith Tandy.
Tandy really stepped his game up as a junior last year and ended up leading the conference with six interceptions.
The 5’10’’ 195 lb. senior has gone from coverage liability to premier player in the span of one season, and he’ll now have to handle the burden of being one of the leaders for a Mountaineer defense that lost seven starters from a talented 2010 group.
9. DE Julian Miller, West Virginia
This season, the West Virginia defense will have some new faces up front for the first time in quite a while, but one player they’re glad to have back is Julian Miller, who will now man the defensive tackle spot after playing defensive end the last two seasons.
Miller, who entered the program as 220 lb. recruit, has taken it upon himself to bulk up and get stronger over the last few years and the results are evident.
The 6’4’’ 260 lb. senior now looks more like a basketball forward than a defensive end.
Miller, who has NFL potential, has accumulated 17 sacks over the last two seasons, and he's proved to be one of the best pass rushers in the Big East.
The Miller-Bruce Irvin combination is sure to wear out opposing offensive tackles in 2011.
10. LB Marquis Spruill, Syracuse
It’s certainly no easy task to make a name for yourself playing alongside linebackers like Derrell Smith and Doug Hogue, but somehow, Marquis Spruill was able to do ti.
As just a freshman, Spruill racked up 51 tackles, nine tackles for loss and two sacks in 2010.
Now with Smith and Hogue gone, Spruill will be the key cog of the Syracuse linebacker corps.
The 6’3’’ 225 lb. sophomore will kick inside to middle linebacker this season, and it’s a position that should suit his skills perfectly.
11. S Jarred Holley, Pittsburgh
The Pittsburgh defense has a chance to be the best in the Big East this year, and one of the key players for the Panthers will be S Jarred Holley.
Holley, who is entering his third year as a starter, proved to be a true ball hawk in 2010, picking off five passes and racking up 54 tackles.
The 5’10’’ 180 lb. junior is a rising defensive star in the Big East, and he‘ll be counted on to be one of the leaders of the new look Pittsburgh defense.
12. DE Ryne Giddins, South Florida
When Jason Pierre-Paul made the decision to leave South Florida after his junior season, many were expecting that Ryne Giddins, one of the Bulls' most highly touted recruits of all time, would be the one to step up and replace him.
Giddins possesses phenomenal pass-rushing skills, but he only managed to notch three sacks as a part-time contributor in 2010
Now that the 6’3’’ 250 lb. redshirt sophomore will have a full starting role, he should have many more chances to bring down quarterbacks.
13. CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Connecticut
I’ll admit, I’m still not exactly sure how to pronounce Blidi Wreh-Wilson’s name just yet, but what I do know is that he has the look of a budding shutdown corner.
Wreh-Wilson seems similar talent-wise to former UConn CB Darius Butler, who now plays for the New England Patriots.
Wreh-Wilson and fellow cornerback Jerome Junior are quite a tandem. The two juniors each picked off four passes in 2010, but it was Wreh-Wilson who really stood out as the type of corner you would want to shy away from if you’re an offensive coordinator.
The 6’0’’ 190 lb. junior could be ready to take that next step this season.
14. LB DeDe Lattimore, South Florida
South Florida has quietly produced a bunch of quality NFL defensive prospects in recent years.
Terrell McClain, Mike Jenkins, Jason Pierre-Paul, Jerome Murphy, George Selvie, Stephen Nicholas and Nate Allen are a few of the names that immediately come to mind.
The next player who will join that group is LB DeDe Lattimore.
Lattimore finished second on the team with 69 tackles as just a freshman last season, and he proved to be the type of athletic playmaker that we’re used to seeing on the Bulls defense.
Lattimore, a 6’2’’ 230 lb. sophomore, is a fast and feisty linebacker who takes pride in hunting down ball carriers.
He and fellow linebacker Sam Barrington should be a devastating defensive duo.
15. S Phillip Thomas, Syracuse
When I was watching the Syracuse-West Virginia game last year, one thing that really stood out to me was how fast and athletic the Orange defense had all of a sudden become.
You could tell that the Mountaineers vastly underestimated the team speed that Syracuse possessed and it definitely showed throughout the game.
One of the better looking defensive players who really stuck out to me in that contest was safety Phillip Thomas.
Thomas, who is the team’s top returning tackler from a year ago, has the look of the type of player who is on the verge of stardom.
The 6’0’’ 190 lb. junior, who finished with 92 tackles in 2010, will team with his brother from another mother, Shamarko Thomas, to give Syracuse the best safety tandem in the Big East this season.
16. DT Scott Vallone, Rutgers
To put it simply, the Rutgers defense was abysmal last season.
The Scarlet Knights ranked last in the Big East in both rushing defense and total defense, giving up an average of 374 yards per game.
If Rutgers wants to turn things around this season, the team will need big play from their best player up front, DT Scott Vallone.
Vallone is a big, strong, physical interior linemen who is capable of clogging up the middle and eating up double teams.
If the 6’3’’ 270 lb. senior can do a better job penetrating into the backfield and disrupting plays on a more consistent basis, the Rutgers defense should be much more sturdy against the run.
17. S Terence Garvin, West Virginia
The early departure of free safety Robert Sands is a big blow to West Virginia, especially when you compound it with the fact that the team is also losing bandit safety Sidney Glover.
The Mountaineers will have their work cut our for them trying to replace those two, but luckily, they have strong safety Terence Garvin, one of the most unheralded players in the conference, returning to lead the way.
Garvin led West Virginia with 76 tackles last season, and he’ll now be counted on to be a key leader on a defense that’s breaking in a lot of new players this year.
18. DE Jesse Joseph, Connecticut
The Connecticut defensive line is shaping up to be one of the best in college football this season, and one of the keys to the unit’s success will be one of the most unheralded players in the Big East, DE Jesse Joseph.
Joseph may not yet be the same caliber of pro prospect as fellow defensive line mate Kendall Reyes but he’s certainly going to catch the attention of scouts if he keeps developing.
The 6’3’’ 260 lb. junior led the team with 12 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks in 2010, and the scary part is, he still has two years left to reach his potential.
19. LB Steve Beauharnais, Rutgers
One of the smartest moves Rutgers coach Greg Schiano made this offseason was moving LB Steve Beauharnais from the middle back to his more natural position on the outside.
That’s not to say that 6’2’’ 230 lb. junior didn’t play well inside in 2010; he racked up 79 tackles, which was good for third best on the team. But it’s obvious that his athleticism and skill set could best be used at the strongside linebacker spot.
It’s the position where Beauharnais first made a name for himself as a freshman, when he racked up five sacks and seven tackles for loss.
20. DT Derek Wolfe, Cincinnati
When I heard that Mel Kiper had ranked Derek Wolfe as one of the top defensive tackles available for the 2011 NFL draft before the start of last season, I thought it was a bit premature, but then again, I tend to disagree with most of what Mel Kiper says.
It’s not that I did’t think Wolfe had the talent, it’s just that he was a player who still had a lot of developing to do.
Maybe the hype got to Wolfe’s head a bit, because he didn’t seem like the same player we saw in 2009, although you could chalk that up to the fact that there were so many new faces around him last season.
Now that the defensive line is more experienced with guys like Brandon Mills and Dan Giordano returning, Wolfe should have the opportunity to thrive as a senior.