Seniors Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley shared starting duties last year, so there is experience in the defense. Projected starters Xzavier Dickson (played six games) and Trey DePriest (12 games) are sophomores while Adrian Hubbard (eight games) is a redshirt sophomore. With so much youth in this unit, there has to be a bit of a downgrade, especially since their defense was ranked No. 1 nationally last year. They'll still have a stout defense but they won't have much time to jell as a unit -- Alabama plays Michigan (at Arlington, Texas) in its season-opener and then two weeks later plays Arkansas in Fayetteville. They'll be a Top 25 defense but it's highly unlikely they have another top-ranked defense this year.
Middle linebacker Lamar Dawson wears the legendary No. 55 jersey and the spotlight will be on him. Former USC linebacker Junior Seau was the first of many Trojan linebackers who wore that number, and Dawson may have some lofty expectations placed on him from fans who want to see the "Club 55" legacy continue. Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard are the starting outside linebackers and like Dawson, are returning starters. If the injury bug hits this unit, the Trojans could be in trouble but true freshmen Jabari Ruffin and Scott Starr are very versatile and could fill in if pressed. USC was ranked No. 18 in rush defense last year and that ranking will be hard to improve upon but the Trojans are now bowl-eligible and that gives them extra motivation.
The Ducks lost two studs in Dewitt Stuckey and Josh Kaddu but they do get senior Michael Clay back -- he had 103 tackles last year including 13 tackles and a fumble recovery against Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl last January. Head coach Chip Kelly can and will rotate at least 20 players on the defense so reserves such as Kiko Alonzo -- the Defensive MVP in the 2012 Rose Bowl -- are always ready to step up. Boseko Lokombo had two pick-sixes and a fumble recovery for another touchdown last year. Although there's not a lot of experience beyond the immediate back-ups, with so much talent in the front seven, I think this unit will be one of the best in the country if they stay healthy and Alonzo, who was suspended for a spell after an arrest in May 2011, stays out of trouble off-the-field.
LSU had an excellent defense last year (No. 2), but like Alabama, the linebacker corps will probably be a notch down this year since the Tigers only return one starter in middle linebacker Kevin Minter. There's plenty of talent, as usual, but it's green talent. There are five outside linebackers in the class of 2012 but the highest-ranked linebacker (No. 3), Kwon Alexander, is rehabbing a torn ACL he suffered last September. Lamin Barrow looks like the starter on the weak side while Luke Muncie will probably start at the strong side. LSU will still have a nasty defense but the linebackers won't be as long in the tooth as last year's unit.
The Cowboys are set at linebacker. Alex Elkins, Caleb Lavey and Shaun Lewis are all back in the heart of the Cowboys' defense. Elkins played his first year of football at Blinn College where he was then offered by Oklahoma State (among others). His impact was felt immediately last year -- he had 90 tackles and was an honorable mention All-Big 12. Lavey started every game last year and Lewis was 2010 Co-Defensive Freshman of the Year and honorable mention All-Big 12 last year. This unit gets a big "thumbs up."
The Seminoles' defense lost a linebacker this week when Miami native Jeff Luc transferred to Cincinnati -- several outlets have reported he was not happy playing in a reserve role. Christian Jones (strong side) and Vince Williams (middle) look like they will be starting in their respective positions. Telvin Smith made a strong statement in the Seminoles' spring game -- he had eight tackles -- and his natural athletic ability could see him play either on the outside or in the middle. While Nigel Bradham (off to the Buffalo Bills) left some huge shoes to fill this year, this unit could be one of best in the country.
Middle linebacker Bruce Taylor is back on a defense that returns eight starters but the unit has been plagued with injuries. Taylor missed the last half of the season due to a joint injury to his foot, the same injury that linebacker Jeron Gouveia-Winslow suffered in early October. According to Roanoke Times' reporter Andy Bitter, Hokies trainer Mike Goforth recently posted an injury update on Beamerball.com. Goforth noted that Winslow is now running and Taylor is "working on his foot." Tariq Edwards started all 14 games last year but played injured -- he had surgery on his left tibia in the spring and is expected to be ready in the fall. Another linebacker -- Telvion Clark -- was dismissed due to violations of team policies. If everyone comes back healthy, then this unit will be top notch. But even if they aren't, Beamerball will find a way to make it work.
The linebacker unit's biggest loss is Dexter Heyman who is now signed with the Kansas City Chiefs. Heyman was the team's leader in tackles and tackles for loss last season. Daniel Brown (weak side), Preston Brown (middle) and Deionterez Mount (strong side) are the projected starters. Reserves Keith Brown and James Burgess are slotted behind Daniel Brown, who started all 13 games in 2010 but started in only three games in 2011. George Durant and Keith Burgess back up Mount. The Cards' rushing defense was spectacular last year but with their leading tackler gone, surpassing a Top 10 ranking will be difficult to beat. If they do surpass that lofty ranking, will they be nicknamed the "Killer B's"?
The linebacker corps took a huge hit with attrition and injuries. Middle linebacker Shane Gordon and outside linebacker Dan Mason are the players who must take on the leadership roles. Mason hasn't played in two years due to a severe knee injury. If Todd Thomas is 100 percent (knee), the other outside spot will be solid as well. In fact, if everyone returns healthy, then this unit will exceed expectations but I'll stay on the conservative side and downgrade them a notch due to a new coaching staff. Still, there's tremendous upside to this unit if all the planets align.
Losing one player usually doesn't devastate a unit but linebacker Lavonte David isn't just one player -- he was a tackling stud and his loss to the defense is monumental. With that being said, the situation isn't dire for the Cornhuskers because head coach Bo Pelini has a lot of talent to work with. The Cornhuskers return, among others, Will Compton and Sean Fisher. There is also Zaire Anderson, who looks like a potential star and David Santos, a coveted recruit who redshirted last year. The cupboard is hardly bare, but with David gone, how will last year's No. 64 rushing defense fare this year? I like the talent in Lincoln but sometimes it's not just physical talent that gives a defense its identity.
This is one area that should be of absolute no concern for Spartan fans. Max Bullough returns as the starting middle linebacker and should be a legitimate candidate for all major defensive awards this year. On the strong side is another veteran, Denicos Allen, who has made a career 19.5 tackles for loss in two years. Chris Norman plays in the star (weak side) position and was an All-Big Ten honorable mention. The reserves are just as good, especially Taiwan Jones, who last year was the only true freshman called to action for the Spartans. Reserve Steve Gardiner (middle) has 33 games under his belt while former-walk-on-now-scholarshipped Kyler Elsworth (strong side) has played in every game for the last two years. The Spartans are stacked.