While the Trojans' back seven look like the strength of the defense, the line is a different matter. Defensive end Nick Perry is now playing on Sundays (Green Bay) and tackles DaJohn Harris and Christian Tupou have exhausted their eligibility. Wes Horton is the only returning starter and he'll anchor one of the end spots while linebacker Devon Kennard moves to the other end. The defensive ends will be the strength of the line but the interior is a major question mark. J.R. Tavai (played backup in seven games) is tabbed as nose tackle on the post-spring depth chart while George Uko (12 games with two starts) is at the other tackle spot. With so much inexperience in the interior, one injury anywhere on the line could derail USC's hopes of a BCS bowl berth.
The Ducks' defensive line is huge -- three of the four projected starters weigh at least 285 pounds. Defensive ends Dion Jordan (All-Pac-12 first team) and Isaac Remington (three starts last year) look to solidify the line now that Brandon Hanna and Terrell Turner are gone. Taylor Hart started all 14 games last year and with him anchoring down one of the tackle spots and Wade Keliikipi (started 11 games last year) the other, I see nothing but problems for opposing offenses. Arik Armstead is a true freshman but I expect him to play a lot this year due to his beastly size (6-foot-8, 297 pounds) and agility. The Ducks' reserves are talented and experienced -- tackle Ricky Heimuli has played in every game since he arrived in Eugene in 2010. The Ducks were ranked No. 3 in sacks last year and although that number will be hard to improve upon, their No. 67 total defense ranking should be much better this year.
The Crimson Tide lost an outstanding tackle in Josh Chapman but there's plenty of talent waiting in the wings. JUCO transfer Jesse Williams looks like the starting nose tackle and another JUCO transfer, Quinton Dial, could pick up one of the defensive end spots. Veteran Damion Square is likely returning to defensive end -- he has started for the last year and a half in that position. So why should we grade the Tide's line unit down? With so much youth there's bound to be some growing pains and this year the Tide doesn't have a cushy schedule to open up like last year's Kent State, Penn State and North Texas. This year they have Michigan (at Arlington) and Arkansas (at Fayetteville) in the first three weeks.
Michael Brockers (St. Louis Rams) is gone but everybody else returns and because of the talent that's coming back, we'll give the Tigers major props. Nasty, nasty, nasty. That's the best word we can use to describe the Tigers D-line. Defensive ends Sam Montgomery (team leader in sacks) and Barkevious Mingo (team leader in tackles for loss) are back -- Mingo is also second behind Montgomery in sack totals. Bennie Logan (started in almost every game last year) and Josh Downs (played in 34 games) look like the projected starters at tackle. Experienced, nasty and carrying a chip on their back, look to this unit to be the preseason No. 1 D-line in the country.
The Wolverines' defense as a whole looks pretty strong, but the line is a huge question mark. Michigan loses Ryan Van Bergen, Mike Heininger and Mike Martin so how well they reload is key to their success this year. Defensive end Craig Roh is the only returning starter. William Campbell was the projected starter at nose tackle but he has some off-the-field legal issues to deal with. His felony charge was reportedly dismissed and he will pay restitution for a misdemeanor charge. Brennen Beyer and Frank Clark are battling for the other defensive end spot opposite of Roh. True freshman Ondre Pipkins will surely get some game-time action at tackle and may push Campbell in August for the starting job. The Wolverines' first game against Alabama will tell us everything we need to know about this unit -- if they stop the run then it's a "go" for Big Blue, but if they don't stop the run, Michigan will face problems against Big Ten rushing offenses as well.
The Spartans took some huge losses but none as big as the loss of Jerel Worthy. They also lost tackles Kevin Pickelman and Blake Pacheco. Last year their stingy defensive line only allowed 100.5 yards per game (ranked No. 9 nationally) so it's going to be difficult, if not impossible, to improve on those numbers. Marcus Rush (returning starter) and William Gholston (returning starter) are solid at defensive end while Anthony Rashad White (four starts) is at nose tackle and Tyler Hoover (nine starts, limited action in 2011 due to broken rib) fills the other tackle spot. The outside of the line looks great while the interior is a little concerning.
The Cowboys' back seven look fantastic but the depth and inexperience on the line is where some concern may lie, specifically on the outside. Jamie Blatnick and Richetti Jones are gone and while they leave a big void there are some studs waiting for their shot. Cooper Bassett moved from tight end to the defensive line in his sophomore year and will start at end. Ryan Robinson is a JUCO transfer (all-conference) and played in every game last year as a backup end so he will probably start at end. Tackle Nigel Nicholas will back up Bassett. Anthony Rogers (nine starts) and Davidell Collins (no starts) will be responsible for the interior. I like the talent on this line and there's definitely a lot of upside but this unit is at more of a "wait-and-see" status right now.
The Sooners took a big hit losing ends Frank Alexander (Co-Defensive Big 12 Player of the Year) and Ronnell Lewis (All-Big 12, first team) to the Carolina Panthers and Detroit Lions, respectively. Mike Stoops, however, is back as defensive coordinator and he'll make up for those losses. David King (eight starts) had an excellent spring game and looks like a starting end going into the fall with R.J. Washington on the other side. Redshirt freshman Jordan Phillips is a beast at tackle and will create havoc for opposing offenses. Casey Walker (eight starts last year) will start as tackle and reserve Marquis Anderson (2011 redshirt) will be a solid back-up. Both Phillips and Anderson were highly touted recruits; Phillips was an Under Armour All-American while Anderson played in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. We probably won't see a stock drop and there's a high likelihood of seeing better rush defense numbers with Stoops calling the shots this year.
The Hokies are ridiculously deep on the line with four reserve tackles and six ends listed on the depth chart (as of now). J.R. Collins returns as an end and touts 14 starts and All-ACC honorable mention on his 2011 resume. Defensive end James Gayle (15 starts) returns after a great 2011 -- he finished tied for sixth in the ACC for sacks and was All-ACC second team. Tackle Derrick Hopkins is a veteran who started all 14 games last season while true sophomore Luther Maddy started seven games last season. Antoine Hopkins missed most of 2011 with a serious knee injury but if he rehabs 100 percent this summer, this defensive line could be one of the strongest D-lines in the country.
Clemson's 2012 season starts out with new defensive coordinator Brent Venables and three lost linemen. Andre Branch, Rennie Moore and Brandon Thompson are big losses. Branch was a Ted Hendricks Award finalist and the three of them combined for 220 tackles last season. The end positions are set with Malliciah Goodman and Corey Crawford -- both have a lot of experience. The interior is a little more fluid: Grady Jarrett, DeShawn Wiiliams (one start), Tavaris Barnes and Josh Watson are all competing for starting spots. There is a lot of depth but not a lot of experience with only one starter returning.