1. BOSTON COLLEGE
The Eagles lost two members from last year's defensive line, but they bring back their leading pass rusher and a 2007 All-ACC honorable mention tackle along with another All-ACC performer that sat out last year with an academic issue. BC had the nation's second-best defense against the run in 2007, allowing an average of 75.5 yards per game. The tackle position will be a key strength for BC where senior Ron Brace has been put on the Outland Trophy watch list and will be joined by returning defensive tackle B.J. Raji, whose return could make the Eagles even stronger up front this season. Raji sat out the spring with a shoulder injury, giving reserves sophomore Damik Scafe and junior Austin Giles meaningful reps. Junior defensive end Alex Albright started 11 games last year and recorded a team-high 8.5 sacks, but the other end spot is not as solid with the dismissal of junior Brady Smith after a sexual assault charge. Smith is expected to be replaced by junior Jim Ramella who will be pushed by sophomore Brad Newman and freshman early enrollee Max Holloway.
The Wolverines return four starters from last year's group up front, led by senior tackles Terrance Taylor and Will Johnson. Taylor was a second team All-Big Ten selection last year and contemplated leaving school early for the NFL. Quick, strong and athletic, Johnson should also impress NFL scouts, especially with a strong 2008 season, which is expected. Michigan's defensive ends are just as stout as the interior players are. Senior Tim Jamison and junior Brandon Graham combined for 14 sacks last year and that number should increase in 2008. Graham brings phenomenal speed to the position, having a reported 100-meter time of 10.9 seconds in high school, while Jamison shed 20 pounds since last season. The reserves have talent, although not the experience or production as the starters. The scheme won't change much even with a new defensive coordinator, but expect the Wolverines to be much-improved against the spread which they will see everyday in practice.
3. NORTH CAROLINA
The Tar Heels lost their top two defensive linemen to graduation, but that makes room for Butch Davis' highly-rated recruits to shine. Like the rest of the roster, the Tar Heels have young talent along the defensive line that will have to step up if North Carolina is going to have a successful 2008. With 26 tackles and four sacks, Marvin Austin made an impact as a reserve defensive tackle as a freshman last year and will now get a shot to see what he can do as a starter. Austin will be paired inside with junior Aleric Mullins, who started the last four games of the season in 2007. Junior Cam Thomas and redshirt freshman Tydreke Powell will provide North Carolina with interior depth. Thomas is the Tar Heels' top defender against the run, while the coaching staff has said that Powell could be the team's most complete interior defender. On the edges, junior defensive end E.J. Wilson had 44 tackles and five sacks last year and will start at one defensive end position. Sophomores Darrius Massenburg, Greg Elleby and Darius Powell are competing for the other end spot. Massenburg and Elleby can be effective against the run, while Powell will use his speed to rush the passer.
Dave Wannstedt places a big emphasis on defensive line and has built the Panthers front four up in his time with the Panthers. Greg Romeus will get a chance to be a starter this season after making 41 tackles, 11.5 behind the line of scrimmage, and being named a Freshman All-American in 2007. Junior Doug Fulmer is expected to start at the other defensive end spot, but he has been saddled with injuries since a stellar freshman season in 2005. Sophomore Jabaal Sheard and redshirt freshman Tony Tucker will also see time at end. Inside, senior Rashaad Duncan and junior Mick Williams are high-motor players that can both stuff things up and make plays in the backfield. Junior college transfer Tommie Duhart and junior Gus Mustakas will bring quality depth to the interior.
5. MICHIGAN STATE
The Spartans lost three key performers from last year's unit, but still bring back some talent and experience while adding a big transfer. Senior tackle Justin Kershaw is the only returning starter from 2007 when he had 34 tackles, including five for a loss. Sophomores Oren Wilson and Antonio Jeremiah will join Kershaw inside. Wilson and Jeremiah both saw action as true freshmen and are talented enough and big enough to be key contributors for the next few years. Michigan State lost both of their starting defensive ends last year and they were good ones, but the Spartans coaches feel that they have some more talent in their places. Junior Trevor Anderson transferred with head coach Mark Dantonio from Cincinnati, where he had 13 tackles for a loss and six sacks as a freshman. On the other side will be senior Brandon Long, who was in the mix to start last season. Incoming freshman Tyler Hoover figures to be too good to keep off the field and should make a major impact at end.
6. SOUTHERN CAL
The Trojans lost two of the best defensive linemen that they have ever seen in tackle Sedrick Ellis and end Lawrence Jackson. Their production will not be replaced, but USC does bring back senior tackle Fili Moala and senior end Kyle Moore as starters from last year. The vacant tackle spot figures to be filled by junior Averell Spicer or Christian Tupou. Sophomore Everson Griffen was a Freshman All-American in 2007 and is first in line to replace Jackson. The Trojans have plenty of depth as always, but with the loss of a two-time All-American and a four-year starter, this unit can only go down a notch. But, when you're ranked fourth in the nation in rushing defense and second in total defense, going down a notch still leaves you in pretty good shape.
Defensive line is the key to the Boilermakers' defense, defensive tackle particularly. Seniors Ryan Baker and Alex Magee return as the starters inside and will be backed up by senior Jermaine Guynn and junior Mike Neal. Tiller has said that this group of defensive tackles could be the best that he has seen in his time in West Lafayette. Junior Keyon Brown is back at end, but Purdue loses its top end in Cliff Avril, who will be replaced by sophomore Ryan Kerrigan. Brown moved to end from linebacker to start 12 games last year, while Kerrigan is a converted tight end, who has the talent to flourish on defense. Purdue will need to develop some pass-rushers after losing more than half of their 30 sacks from 2007.
8. NOTRE DAME
Perhaps the most critical unit on the entire Fighting Irish team heading into 2008, Notre Dame will need to make big strides from last year and do it after the graduation of their top player, Trevor Laws. Sophomore Ian Williams and fifth-year senior Pat Kuntz had strong years in 2007, but they will need to take their games to the next level this season. 2008 is senior end Justin Brown's last chance to show that he can be a consistent player and will have to stay ahead of sophomore Emeka Nwankwo and juniors John Ryan and Paddy Mullen to remain on the field. If the Irish do go back to the 4-3 this year, look for junior Morrice Richardson and sophomore Kerry Neal to play with their hands down and bring improved pass rushing to the unit. The Irish could get a boost if incoming freshmen Sean Cwynar, Ethan Johnson, Brandon Newman or Hafis Williams can work themselves into playing shape. If the Irish do play a 4-3, maybe you will see Darius Fleming playing a similar role to Neal.
The Cardinal defensive line is led by All-Pac-10 candidates senior end Pannel Egboh and junior tackle Ekom Udofia. Egboh is effective against the run, but it's his skills as a pass rusher that have experts projecting him to the next level. Udofia is a force inside and could have a breakout season, but needs to avoid the injuries that have slowed him in the past. Junior end Erik Lorig had 37 tackles and 7.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage in 2007, but classmate Levirt Griffin, who started six games inside last year, will push him for playing time. Junior Brian Bulcke is the next most experienced tackle after Udofia, but Bulcke sat out the spring with an injury and could be passed by redshirt freshman Matthew Masifilo.
The Midshipmen return two of the three starting defensive linemen from last year in their 3-4 scheme. Senior defensive end Michael Walsh and junior nose guard Nate Frazier are back for their second years starting on a full-time basis after solid 2007 seasons. The duo combined for 99 tackles, 15 for a loss, while Walsh had three sacks and three forced fumbles. Junior Jordan Stephens will compete for playing time inside with Frazier. Either junior Matt Nechak or classmate Kyle Bookhout will man the other end spot. Sophomore Maurice Cumberland will provide Navy with some more depth at end.
The Orange have an unquestioned leader in junior tackle Arthur Jones, who led the Big East with 17.5 tackles for a loss last year, but they will need to replace junior defense end Brandon Gilbeaux, who was suspended for the season for academic issues. Senior Nick Santiago is listed as the starter inside with Jones, but sophomore Bud Tribbey is probably more talented and could see more playing time in 2008. Sophomore Anthony Perkins will also be in the rotation on the interior. Senior Vincenzo Giruzzi was moved from linebacker to end to give the Orange more of a pass rusher while the loss of Gilbeaux means that sophomore Jared Kimmel and redshirt freshman Lamar Middleton will battle for the other end spot. Middleton has no experience while Kimmel played just four games last year before tearing his ACL.
The Huskies ranked 92nd in scoring defense (31.6 points) and 103rd in total defense (446.4 yards) last year, which is why they hired Ed Donatell as their new defensive coordinator. Donatell has been coy with his plans in his first year in charge of Washington's defense. The Huskies bring back only one starter from last year's defensive line, but junior defensive end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim was the team's most productive player. Te'o-Nesheim had 57 tackles, including 15 behind the line of scrimmage and 8.5 sacks. Junior Darrion Jones is a converted linebacker and is expected to start opposite Te'o-Nesheim after being a part-time contributor during his time in Seattle. Sophomore Cameron Elisara is a talented player with tons of potential, but little experience. Sophomore De'Shon Matthews was moved from defensive end to tackle and appears to have earned a starting spot. Converted tight end Johnie Kirton will provide depth inside.
13. SAN DIEGO STATE
The Aztecs ranked 118th in the country against the run last year (241.5 yards) and have made some changes, but will they work? Siaosi Fifita was moved from linebacker to defensive end and now from end to tackle where he will use his quickness, but at 6-4, 250 pounds could be a liability against the run. At 6-3, 300, sophomore Ernie Lawson brings more size inside after making 17 tackles in a reserve role last year. Junior Jonathan Soto is a three-year starter that was moved from inside to outside in attempt to create more penetration. Sophomore B.J. Williams made 45 tackles last year and will compete for time at end along classmate Eric Ikonne with junior Ryan Williams.