Aaron Davis, Colorado State (6-1, 221): The three-year starter piled up 118 tackles, including 6.5 for losses, and forced one fumble as a senior to earn second-team all-Mountain West. His lone interception was a potential game-saver against San Jose State. His mother is Ace Tuiasosopo – a last name that includes a bunch of pro athletes from its family tree. About two weeks before Signing Day, the University of Washington pulled his scholarship offer, which left Davis scrambling. It worked out well for CSU, who got Mr. Consistency running its defense.
Paul Dawson, TCU (6-0, 229): Dawson led the Horned Frogs in tackles in each of his final two seasons, including big-time senior production of 136 tackles, six sacks, 20 tackles for losses, four interceptions and two forced fumbles. He earned some first-team All-American accolades and was selected the Big 12’s Defensive Player of the Year. His path to the draft is being chronicled by USA Today. He wasn’t a highly regarded recruit as a high school receiver. He went to a junior college and switched to linebacker. He credited football for not getting caught up in the crime that riddled his neighborhood. Not even his position coach at TCU thought he’d become an All-American.
Trey DePriest, Alabama (6-1, 258): The three-year starter had 88 tackles, including 4.5 for losses, and forced a fumble as a senior. He was first-team all-SEC after being a second-team choice as a junior. DePriest, who got his degree in fashion retail, has a cheering section wherever he goes. He grew up in Ohio – he was the state’s defensive player of the year as a high school senior and remains close friends with Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller -- but chose Alabama to avoid getting “into some trouble.”
Bryce Hager, Baylor (6-0, 229): Hager led the team with 114 tackles, including 12 tackles for losses and two sacks, plus added one interception and two forced fumbles. The senior earned second-team All-American and second-team all-Big 12 accolades. His 322 career tackles rank sixth in school history. The three-year starter is the son of Britt Hager, a former Texas All-American who played linebacker for the Eagles. "My sophomore year, I had 124 tackles,” Bryce said. “I feel like that was pretty good. And his best was 195 in a season? That's crazy.” Bryce’s play – and Texas’ failure to offer him a scholarship -- turned dad into a Baylor fan. A younger brother, Breckyn, chose Texas on Signing Day a couple weeks ago, so that might flip dad’s allegiances again.
Ben Heeney, Kansas (6-3, 228): The two-year team captain started all 12 games as a senior and finished the season with 127 tackles, one shy of the conference lead. He led the NCAA and Big 12 in solo tackles with 7.3 per outing. Against Texas Tech, he piled up 21 tackles; his 17 solo stops were the second-most in conference history. Heeney was first-team all-conference as a senior and a second-teamer as a sophomore and junior. He finished his career with 335 tackles (eighth-best in KU history) and 35.5 tackles for losses (fourth-best). That some of his family members played baseball at Kansas is just one reason why you could say Heeney was a diamond in the rough. He nearly lost his leg in a boating accident six weeks before his junior year of high school. He played in the season-opening game.
Amarlo Herrera, Georgia (6-0, 244): The senior led the Bulldogs with 115 tackles and 10 tackles for losses and added three sacks, one interception and one forced fumble to win all-SEC second-team honors. The three-year starter is the “general of our defense,” one teammate said. He might be a tough linebacker but he owns a cocker spaniel and has pink zebra-striped sheets on his bed. He’s a quiet leader who saves the yelling for when it’s needed.
Jordan Hicks, Texas (6-2, 245): Hicks missed most of his sophomore season with a hip injury and most of his junior season with an Achilles injury before bouncing back as a senior. He was a second-team all-Big 12 selection who earned some All-American accolades by posting 147 tackles, 13 tackles for losses and two interceptions. “It’s something I cherish every time I go out there is my health. It’s a blessing to be out there playing, feeling as good as I am.” Hicks said before his final game.
Mike Hull, Penn State (6-0, 232): Hull was voted the Big Ten’s best linebacker during a standout senior season that included 140 tackles – 65 more than any other Nittany Lions defender. He added two sacks, 10.5 tackles for losses, one forced fumble and one interception. Hull almost left Penn State after the program was hammered by the Joe Paterno scandal but stuck around to be the latest star at “Linebacker U.” Hull is a highlight film and instructional video for the coaches. He’s incredibly tough, helping his team win the state wrestling championship despite a separated shoulder and big weight disadvantage. His father, Tom Hull, played for Penn State, was drafted by San Francisco and played for the 49ers and Packers.
Taiwan Jones, Michigan State (6-3, 252): Jones was a two-year starter who was second-team all-conference after a senior season that included 60 tackles, four sacks, 12.5 tackles for losses and one interception. He had big shoes to fill in replacing Max Bullough.
Eric Kendricks, UCLA (6-1, 232): Kendricks won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker to cap a magnificent career. The All-American is UCLA’s first Butkus winner and its first defender to top 100 tackles in three consecutive seasons. Of his 149 tackles a senior, no player in the nation had more than his 101 solo stops. He added 11.5 tackles for losses, four sacks, three interceptions and one forced fumble. For his career, he tallied a school-record 481 tackles. A scout compared him to his brother, Philadelphia linebacker Mychal Kendrcks. Family shaped the boys. Mom’s a pretty good tackler, too. The boys were raised by their mother, with their father, Marvin, a former UCLA running back, battling drug addiction. He’s on the road to recovery, too. "I would take my kids with me to drug houses," the elder Kendricks said. "I have cried so many nights about those mistakes."
Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State (6-5, 245): McKinney enters the draft following a junior season in which he earned first-team All-American honors with his 71 tackles. He chipped in three sacks and eight tackles for losses, plus three fumble recoveries and one forced fumble. He also was named to freshmen and sophomore All-America teams during a three-year career in which he racked up 244 tackles. He wasn’t a highly regarded recruit – the big schools close to home, Memphis and Southern Miss – didn’t make an offer for the 205-pound quarterback-linebacker. “I’m automatically a hard worker but that still motivated me a lot,” he said. “I want to come out and impress all those coaches and a lot of people. I just put it in my head that I was going to try to be the best player.”
Denzel Perryman, Miami (Fla.) (5-11, 248): A beefed-up Perryman was a third-team All-American, first-team all-ACC and a finalist for the Butkus Award as a senior, when he rang up 110 tackles, 9.5 tackles for losses, three forced fumbles and one interception. He had a big year in 2013, too, when he dedicated his season to a deceased fan he had never met. Perryman started 37 games during his four seasons and finished with 351 tackles. He was the “hit man” of Miami’s defense – albeit a nice one. He is the father of a young girl and earned his degree in sociology. He was given Ray Lewis’ No. 52, which speaks to his talent.
Hayes Pullard, USC (6-1, 234): The four-year starter turned in a senior season of a team-leading 95 tackles to earn an honorable mention on the all-conference team. That gave him a career total of 377 tackles. Despite missing 2010 with a knee injury and playing under three defensive coordinators and four position coaches, Pullard was the first player in almost 40 years to lead the school in tackles for three consecutive seasons. “I got hit in the jaw, stomach, nose and cried a little, but I still kept fighting, he said. Among those haymakers was the death of his beloved father.
Damien Wilson, Minnesota (6-0, 252): Wilson went from Alcorn State to a junior college to starting 24-of-26 games during his two seasons with the Golden Gophers. As a senior, he registered 119 tackles, including 10.5 for losses and four sacks, plus added one interception, one forced fumble and two recoveries to be first-team all-Big Ten. He’s a cousin of star Minnesota back David Cobb. Born six days apart, they brought out the best in each other. “I never thought I’d be playing with Dave, to tell you the truth,” Wilson said. “When I went to Alcorn, I just gave up on playing with him.”
Ramik Wilson, Georgia (6-2, 234): Wilson was second on the team with 110 tackles, including two sacks and seven for losses, and forced one fumble to earn a spot on the all-SEC second team. That was down from his junior-year production of an SEC-leading 133 tackles, four sacks and 11 for losses, which earned him a spot on the SEC first team. One reason for the decline in production? He didn’t start the first three game. Wilson dealt with tragedy as a freshman when his father died.
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