June 20, 2011

Monday with Mike: Best defensive duos

In the past month, we looked at the best offensive and defensive "triplets" in the nation, and last week we spotlighted the best offensive duos at running back, at wide receiver, at tackle and in the interior of the line.

This week, we finish up the math portion of the offseason with a look at the best defensive duos along the line, at linebacker and in the secondary. We also look at the best kicker/punter tandems.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN

Best: North Carolina DEs Quinton Coples and Donte Paige-Moss. UNC played without its two best defensive linemen last season because DT Marvin Austin and DE Robert Quinn were ineligible for receiving illegal benefits. But the Heels' line soldiered on, thanks to a huge season from Coples " who played out of position at tackle " and solid play from Paige-Moss. Coples will be back at end this season " that is, if he isn't ineligible for receiving illegal benefits. Coples had 10 sacks, 15.5 tackles for loss, 59 total tackles, two forced fumbles and 12 quarterback hurries last season. And that was at tackle, remember. Paige-Moss had seven sacks, 13.5 tackles for loss, 49 total tackles, a forced fumble and a blocked kick. If Coples is eligible, a combined 22 sacks is a legit goal for this duo.

ACC: North Carolina.

Big East: Connecticut DE Jesse Joseph and DT Kendall Reyes. UConn was known for its defense under former coach Randy Edsall, and the Huskies' defensive line looks strong again this season. Joseph led the Huskies with 8.5 sacks last season, when he had 39 tackles and 12 tackles for loss. Reyes should be one of the best defensive linemen in the Big East. He's a big guy with good first-step quickness; he had 39 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, two interceptions and four pass breakups last season.

Big Ten: Nebraska DT Jared Crick and DE Cameron Meredith. Crick should be the nation's best defensive tackle this season. He surprised some by returning for his senior season after turning in a junior campaign that saw him make 70 tackles and come up with 9.5 sacks and seven quarterback hurries. Meredith quietly put together a strong sophomore season in his first year as a starter. He had 64 tackles, two sacks and for quarterback hurries. His work against the run should make him an even more valuable commodity in the Big Ten.

Big 12: Missouri DEs Brad Madison and Jacquies Smith. The Tigers lost DE Aldon Smith to the NFL draft a year early, but they won't miss him as much as some people think. Madison led the Tigers with 7.5 sacks and also had two forced fumbles. Jacquies Smith had 5.5 sacks, three pass breakups, two fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles and a blocked kick.

Pac-12: Arizona State DE Junior Onyeali and DT William Sutton. Sutton might be the key to the Sun Devils' defense. He had a solid freshman season as a reserve in 2009, then missed last season for academic reasons. But he is incredibly physically gifted for an interior lineman and plays with a nasty streak. The Sun Devils lost both starting tackles, and coaches are counting on Sutton to make a big impact this fall. Onyeali made a big impact as a true freshman last fall, when he had 6.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss. He's undersized (5-11/233) and isn't great against the run, but he has added some strength this offseason and should be a terror off the edge.

SEC: South Carolina DE Devin Taylor and DT Travian Robertson. The Gamecocks were 12th nationally against the run, and Robertson's work in the middle was a big reason. He had 42 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and four sacks. The rangy Taylor (6-7/250) had 7.5 sacks, 46 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, eight pass breakups and 11 quarterback hurries last season. He also had an interception return for a touchdown against Tennessee, and he, Melvin Ingram and touted incoming freshman Jadeveon Clowney could form quite the pass-rush trio this fall.

Conference USA: UCF DE Darius Nall and DT Victor Gray. UCF is the only league team whose main focus is on defense, and that will pay off again this fall. The Knights lost stud DE Bruce Miller but still should have the best defensive line in the league. Nall had 8.5 sacks and 13 quarterback hurries as a reserve last season, while Gray was solid in the middle as a redshirt freshman. He finished with 33 tackles, seven tackles for loss, five pass breakups, four quarterback hurries and a forced fumble against Georgia in a Liberty Bowl victory.

MAC: Toledo DE T.J. Fatinikun and DT Malcolm Riley. The Rockets have rebuilt quickly under third-year coach Tim Beckman. Fatinikun had five sacks and 13 tackles for loss last season as a sophomore, his first season as a starter. Toledo is deep at tackle, and Riley led the Rockets with 5.5 sacks last season. He also had 34 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and nine quarterback hurries.

Mountain West: Boise State DT Billy Winn and DE Shea McClellin. Winn is heading into his fourth season as a starter for the Broncos. He's a strong presence against the run and also has some pass-rush skills with 13 career sacks and 28.5 career tackles for loss. McClellin led Boise State with 9.5 sacks last season; he added 30 tackles, a forced fumble and an interception return for a TD against Toledo. Boise State had 10 defensive linemen with at least one sack last season, when it led the nation with 48 sacks.

Sun Belt: Louisiana-Monroe DEs Ken Dorsey and Troy Evans. Dorsey's pass-rush skills could make him an all-league performer this fall. He had 52 tackles, 4.5 sacks and eight quarterback hurries last season. Evans was injured and only played in four games last season, but he had six sacks and six quarterback hurries in 2009.

WAC: Hawaii DTs Vaughn Meatoga and Kaniela Tuipulotu. These guys provide close to 500 pounds of beef in the middle of the line. Tuipulotu, a 300-pounder, had 34 tackles and three pass breakups last season, while Meatoga " who checks in at 290 " had 32 tackles, a sack, four quarterback hurries and a forced fumble.

LINEBACKERS

Best: Alabama's Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw. The Tide have a bunch of good linebackers, but these are the two best. Hightower missed most of the 2009 season with a knee injury and wasn't all the way back to pre-injury form last season. Still, he had 69 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, three pass breakups and nine quarterback hurries. Upshaw led the Tide with seven sacks and added 62 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, for forced fumbles, two pass breakups and two quarterback hurries.

ACC: North Carolina's Zach Brown and Kevin Reddick. Brown and Reddick are active guys who flow well from sideline to sideline. Reddick led UNC with 74 tackles last season, with six tackles for loss, two interceptions (including one returned for a TD against Virginia), five pass breakups and four quarterback hurries. Brown had 72 tackles and three interceptions. He had 14 tackles each in games against Clemson and Miami. This duo edges Boston College's tandem of Luke Kuechly and Kevin Pierre-Louis; the BC group also is a top-10 pairing nationally.

Big East: USF's Sam Barrington and DeDe Lattimore. These guys played well as underclassmen for the Bulls last season. Lattimore had 69 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman. Barrington had 65 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, three pass breakups and two forced fumbles as a sophomore.

Big Ten: Penn State's Michael Mauti and Nate Stupar. Stupar was third on the Nittany Lions with 73 tackles last season; he added 6.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, an interception, four pass breakups and a forced fumble. Mauti hasn't quite lived up to coaches' expectations, but he has been solid nonetheless. He had 66 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks after missing the 2009 season with a severe knee injury.

Big 12: Texas's Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson. Texas led the league and was sixth nationally in total defense last season, and these were the Longhorns' two leading tacklers. Robinson had 105 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and two interceptions. Acho had 79 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and an interception, which he took back for a score against Florida Atlantic.

Pac-12: Stanford's Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas. This was a tough call, as Arizona State's Vontaze Burfict and Brandon Magee also are a top-five duo. But Stanford's group is a bit better because of Thomas' pass-rush skills. Thomas had 70 tackles, 7.5 sacks, an interception, four quarterback hurries, three pass breakups and a forced fumble. The Mohawk-wearing Skov led the Cardinal with 84 tackles and added 6.5 sacks, five pass breakups and two forced fumbles. Skov was a one-man wrecking crew in the Orange Bowl rout of Virginia Tech, when he had 12 tackles, four tackles for loss, three sacks and a pass breakup.

SEC: Alabama.

Conference USA: SMU's Ja'Gared Davis and Taylor Reed. An overlooked defense is the main reason SMU has gone from C-USA doormat to league title contender. The Mustangs were second in the league in total defense last season. Reed had 145 tackles, including seven games with double-digit stops, including a season-high 20 in a loss to Navy. Davis had 90 tackles, nine sacks and 16 tackles for loss; he added a fumble recovery for a TD in a victory over East Carolina.

MAC: Miami's Evan Harris and Jerrell Wedge. The RedHawks were the surprise winners of the MAC thanks to their defense, which ranked 28th overall nationally. This duo combined for 195 tackles. Wedge, who is just 5 feet 9, had 101 of them, along with 15 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, an interception, two pass breakups and two forced fumbles. Harris, like Wedge a Maryland native, had 94 tackles, six interceptions, 9.5 tackles for loss and three pass breakups. He had an interception return for a TD against Colorado State.

Mountain West: TCU's Tanner Brock and Tank Carder. TCU led the nation in total defense and scoring defense, and this duo was a major reason for that. Carder gets most of the national attention, but Brock led the Horned Frogs in tackles with 106. He also had two sacks, an interception and three pass breakups. Carder is a punishing hitter and had a huge game in TCU's Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin. He finished the season with 60 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss, an interception, a fumble recovery and five pass breakups. He had three tackles for loss and a sack against Wisconsin.

Sun Belt: Louisiana-Monroe's Cameron Blakes and Jason Edwards. The Warhawks led the league in rush defense; Edwards led the team in tackles, and Blakes was third, two behind Edwards. Edwards had 75 tackles and two sacks, while Blakes had 73 tackles, five sacks, five quarterback hurries, an interception and two pass breakups.

WAC: Hawaii's Aaron Brown and Corey Paredes. They were an extremely productive duo for the Warriors last season, combining for 234 tackles. Paredes had 151 of them, along with four interceptions, five pass breakups and two forced fumbles. Brown had 83 tackles, five sacks, three quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles, three interceptions and six pass breakups. He had two interception returns for touchdowns, against San Jose State and New Mexico State in back-to-back games.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Best: Alabama FS Robert Lester and SS Mark Barron. Barron was a known commodity heading into last season, and he again provided steady play for the Tide. Barron had 75 tackles, three interceptions and six pass breakups last season, and heads into his senior season with 10 picks and 17 pass breakups. Lester was a first-time starter last season after playing sparingly as a redshirt freshman in 2009, and he exceeded all expectations. He had eight interceptions, good for second in the nation, and added 54 tackles, four pass breakups and a fumble recovery.

ACC: Virginia Tech CB Jayron Hosley and FS Eddie Whitley. Hosley was a backup as a freshman in 2009, then burst on the scene in a big way as a sophomore last season. He led the nation with nine interceptions and added 39 tackles and eight pass breakups. Whitley is another who went from backup to prominent player last season; he entered 2010 with 26 tackles and two pass breakups, then turned in a season in which he had two interceptions, 80 tackles, six pass breakups and two forced fumbles.

Big East: Pittsburgh CB Antwuan Reed and FS Jarred Holley. New coach Todd Graham has had some powerful offenses in previous stops at Rice and Tulsa, and now he's taking over a team that has a strong defense. Reed had 40 tackles, an interception, six pass breakups, a forced fumble and a blocked kick last season. Holley is an active force, with 54 tackles, five picks and three pass breakups last season.

Big Ten: Iowa CBs Micah Hyde and Shaun Prater. This should be the best cornerback duo in the nation this fall. Prater is the better of the two; he had 68 tackles, four interceptions " including one he returned for a TD against Penn State " and six pass breakups. Hyde also had four picks last season, including one he returned for the game-clinching TD in an Insight Bowl victory over Missouri. He added 72 tackles and seven pass breakups.

Big 12: Oklahoma State FS Johnny Thomas and SS Markelle Martin. Oklahoma State made some strides defensively last season, and these guys were part of the reason. Thomas hadn't played much until last season but responded well in his first season as a starter. He had 63 tackles, three interceptions, five pass breakups and two forced fumbles; he returned one of his picks for a TD against Kansas State. Martin had 55 tackles, three interceptions " including one he took back for a score in the Alamo Bowl rout of Arizona " and 10 pass breakups.

Pac-12: Oregon CB Cliff Harris and FS John Boyett. Harris is a big-timer as a corner and a punt returner, but he has been suspended indefinitely and may not play this fall. That would be a big blow to an Oregon defense that already is in rebuilding mode. Harris had six picks and 17 pass breakups last season, and he also returned four punts for touchdowns. Boyett had 78 tackles, five interceptions and nine pass breakups. He returned one of his interceptions for a TD in a victory over Arizona State.

SEC: Alabama.

Conference USA: UCF CB Josh Robinson and FS Kemal Ishmael. Robinson was a four-star recruit out of high school in the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., area and he could play for anyone. He had two interceptions last season as a sophomore " giving him eight for his career " to go with 13 pass breakups, 59 tackles and a fumble return for a TD. Ishmael had 93 tackles, two interceptions, five pass breakups and two forced fumbles. He had 11 tackles and two breakups in the Liberty Bowl victory over Georgia.

MAC: Ball State CB Jason Pinkston and SS Sean Baker. Ball State isn't good, but this duo is more than solid. Each should vie for all-league honors. Baker had six interceptions last season and has 16 for his career, the most of any active player. He added 88 tackles, four pass breakups and two forced fumbles last season. Pinkston had four picks, seven pass breakups, two forced fumbles and 61 tackles.

Mountain West: Air Force CB Anthony Wright and FS Jon Davis. The Falcons have been excellent against the pass the past few seasons, and Wright is a big reason. He had 50 tackles, two interceptions, and six pass breakups last season. Davis had 93 tackles, three interceptions, three pass breakups and two forced fumbles.

Sun Belt: FIU CB Jose Cheeseborough and FS Jonathan Cyprien. Cyprien is an extremely active last line of defense for a defense-minded team. He had a team-high 113 tackles last season, including five games with double-digit stops, and added one interception and six pass breakups. Cheeseborough became a key contributor as a redshirt freshman last season, finishing with 49 tackles, four pass breakups and a fumble recovery.

WAC: Fresno State CB Isaiah Green and FS Phillip Thomas. Thomas has good size (6-1/205) and had 64 tackles last season; he also had three picks and nine pass breakups. Green has good speed and had eight pass breakups " but no picks " last season.

KICKER/PUNTER

Best: Georgia K Blair Walsh and P Drew Butler. There are a lot of questions about Georgia's offense and defense, but there are none about the special teams. Each of these guys will legitimately contend for All-America honors and, frankly, it wouldn't be a surprise if both receive recognition at the end of the season. Walsh was 20-of-23 last season and is 55-of-68 for his career. Butler, whose dad, Kevin, is a Georgia alum and a former NFL kicker, has a booming leg; he averaged 44.5 yards last season and is at 46.1 for his career.

ACC: Florida State K Dustin Hopkins and P Shawn Powell. Hopkins was 22-of-28 last season and has one of the strongest legs in the nation; coach Jimbo Fisher has reason to feel confident in Hopkins up to 55 yards. Powell averaged 44.3 yards per attempt last season, a big jump from his sophomore season in 2009.

Big East: Connecticut K Dave Teggart and P Cole Wagner. Teggart was one of the busiest kickers in the nation last season, going 25-of-31. His game-winning kick in the regular-season finale against USF put UConn in the Fiesta Bowl. Wagner was solid as a freshman last season, averaging 41.3 yards per attempt.

Big Ten: Wisconsin K Philip Welch and P Brad Nortman. Welch was 17-of-22 last season, while Nortman averaged 42.7 yards per attempt, a bit above his career average of 42.1.

Big 12: Oklahoma K Jimmy Stevens and P Tress Way. Way will contend for All-America honors. He averaged 44.0 yards per attempt last season and has a 44.8-yard career average. Stevens was 19-of-23 last season, though his range doesn't extend beyond 50 yards.

Pac-12: Washington K Erik Folk and P Kiel Rasp. The Pac-12 will be somewhat of a mystery league for kickers, as most of the best ones are gone. Folk was 13-of-20 last season, while Rasp averaged 43.8 yards per attempt.

SEC: Georgia.

Conference USA: Memphis K Paulo Henriques and P Tom Hornsey. This league has some good punters and some good kickers, but, generally, a good punter is paired with a kicker who is just fair and vice versa. Hornsey might be Memphis' best player. He's an Australian who averaged 42.7 yards per punt last season, including 17 of at least 50 yards. Henriques is extremely accurate inside 40 yards, but gets spotty beyond 40. He was 14-of-18 last season.

MAC: Western Michigan K John Potter and P Ben Armer. Potter was 10-of-12 last season, while Armer averaged 41.2 yards per attempt. Both will be fourth-year "starters" for the Broncos this fall.

Mountain West: San Diego State K Abelardo Perez and P Brian Stahovich. Perez tied for the league lead with 17 field goals last season, his first after transferring in from a junior college. Stahovich has a huge leg; he was eighth nationally in punting at 45.4 yards per attempt.

Sun Belt: Troy K Michael Taylor and P Will Goggans. Taylor tied for the Sun Belt lead with 17 field goals last season and is 28-of-36 in his career. Goggans averaged 42.2 yards per punt last season and Troy has been one of the league's leaders in net punting in each of his three seasons.

WAC: Idaho K Trey Farquhar and P Bobby Cowan. Cowan is one of the best punters in the nation; he averaged 45.1 yards per boot last season and 24 of his 58 attempts went for at least 50 yards. Farquhar was 18-of-25 last season; he has a strong leg but can be erratic.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.



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