Who's starting on defense?

OK, so it's early. It doesn't mean we can't look ahead and give an early guess on who will be starting for the Tigers in 2004. What new faces will be in the mix, and what former starters could become backups?

Defensive end: Zach Ville, Xzavie Jackson

Ville has stayed as consistent as anyone, and he has the size to stop the run and the speed to rush the passer. Jackson, who simply has a great knack for getting to the ball, has more potential than anyone on the Tigers, so bet on him getting the most reps.

Backup: Brian Smith

Defensive tackle: C.J. Mosley, Atiyyah Ellison

This one's the biggest no-brainer of them all. With such little depth behind them, Mosley and Ellison will have to play more than they ever have to keep the defensive line together. Both are extremely strong, and they played strong enough to finish with all-conference honors last season. The good news: they've gotten even better. The bad news: they don't have much behind them to give them a rest.

Backup: Phil Pitts

Linebacker: James Kinney, Dedrick Harrington, Marcus Bacon

Kinney returns as a captain once again, and this is his year to become the All-Big 12 guy that everyone thought he could be two years ago. Harrington and Bacon have moved from other positions, but with Pinkel's move to a 4-3 last season, it gives them opportunities to use their speed. Harrington could be even better than Kinney this season with great football instincts. Bacon, as coach Gary Pinkel would say, just makes plays. David Richard could get more time here as the season goes on, but he's pretty raw right now after moving from running back.

Backups: David Richard, Henry Sweat

Cornerback: A.J. Kincade, Shirdonya Mitchell

As the spring wore on, it became obvious that Kincade and Mitchell were moving ahead of Calvin Washington in the coaches' minds. Washington works as hard as anyone, but he can't make up for Kincade and Mitchell's speed at the position. Speed, more than anything, can help prevent those big plays that Pinkel hates so much.

Backups: Calvin Washington, Marcus King

Safety: Nino Williams, Jason Simpson

Williams is a lock at free safety after a good debut season in 2003. He dropped several interceptions last season, and that has to improve, but Williams will definitely be the starter there. At the other safety (it's unclear if Pinkel calls it the outside safety or strong safety), Simpson seems to be the incumbent. This, though, could depend if David Overstreet is at outside linebacker or safety. If he's at safety, then there's a chance he could pass Simpson there.

Backups: David Overstreet, Justin Scott, Brandon Massey


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