- Two legitimate all-Americans return to Iowa City, something
no other defense across the country possesses at linebacker...Chad
Greenway and Abdul Hodge. These guys are the heart and soul
of their defense and a good reason Coach Kirk Ferentz has
his program in so many preseason polls (even Top Ten in some).
Hodge, the defensive leader and an NC.net third-team preseason
all-American, was fourth in the conference in tackles. Greenway
(NC.net first-team preseason all-American) was seventh, and
his strong coverage skills help him to pile up INTs (3) and
pass breakups (5). Ed Miles, a high school wrestling and power-lifting
standout with 4.6 speed, takes over at the "LEO"
spot after two starts last fall. These guys are bone-rattlers
who cover a lot of territory, including the underneath on
short routes (opponents averaged just 10.3 yards per catch).
The debate concerning the best LBs carries over to our next
team, the Buckeyes, who may contain the most depth. However,
Greenway and Hodge were both first-team all-Big Ten selections
last fall according to the leagues' coaches.
- A lengthy argument can be made for this group being the
No. 1 unit, so we note them as 1A. All of the starters return
in Columbus, and each will be a senior, to boot. There will
be a healthy competition for the inside spot of the Buckeye's
4-3 set. When Mike D'Andrea went down to a bad knee after
three games in '04 - his second straight year of suffering
a season ending injury (shoulder in '03) - Air Force transfer
and NFL prospect Anthony Schlegel stepped in to then lead
OSU in TFLs (10.5) and finish second in sacks. Both disrupt
offenses in multiple ways, and both will want (and are qualified)
to start. And most bankable - 2005 NationalChamps.net first-team
preseason all-American A.J. Hawk (WLB) is a magnet to the
ball, seemingly in on every tackle and affecting every play.
Hawk and Bobby Carpenter will again drop into coverage to
take away any YAC underneath. The unit works in orchestration
well, each player complimenting the others' strengths so that
any breakdowns become unnoticeable. Need proof? Hawk, Carpenter,
and Schlegel - in that order - led the team in tackles. Needless
to say, when searching for the nation's best LBs, look no
further than the Big Ten.
- Tiger fans dreaded the departure of its all-world linebacking
duo a year ago, only to find out that the core of this corps
was a much deeper group than expected. With all juniors and
seniors now topping the depth chart, this looks to be as good
a group as any. Senior Travis Williams (NC.net second-team
all-American) causes havoc in many ways, and his ferocious
tackling (team high 80) sets the tone for an intimidating
bunch. Travis, along with namesake (but unrelated) Antarrious,
disproved their reputations as speedy but undersized defenders
by routinely taking on lineman and showing remarkable strength.
Watch how junior SLB Kevin Sears will be pushed by Karibi
Dede all season, and either is an excellent run-stopper, so
this is good news. The dynamic of the unit is safety-like
speed and cover skills, and, combined with hard-nosed hitting,
this makes finding weaknesses almost impossible. And when
top-recruit Tray Blackmon develops quickly, watch out.
- This will be the bread-and-butter of the entire Seminole
team. One need only dissect this unit to discover why running
against FSU will still be impossible (2.39 per carry led all
of I-A). All three starters return to combine with some heavy
hitters as backups. Ernie Sims, A.J. Nicholson and Buster
Davis were each all-Americans in high school, and they are
all pushing for the same at this level. The trio accounted
for 234 tackles last season and represented three of the team's
top four tacklers. And with eight four-star recruits dotting
the past two classes and awaiting playing time, there will
be trouble only in getting each his on-field due. LB Coach
Kevin Steele has been a huge pillar in getting the Noles back
defensively. Even he claims to never have been around a group
such as this.
- The big question here is if senior MLB Kevin Simon can return
to form after undergoing reconstructive knee surgery last
September. Quick, instinctive and athletic, Simon is an experienced
tackling machine and, after his '03 campaign tallied 97 total
tackles, he seems to be the ideal leader for this defense.
Assuming he returns, Jason Mitchell will move from the middle
to weak-side, while All-SEC performer Omar Gaither will again
wreak havoc on the strong-side. Quick (4.5-sec 40) and powerful,
Gaither was sixth in the conference in TFLs and third on the
team in tackles. Mitchell's even faster at 4.4, which would
make him a tough contain at the weak-side spot, which is often
used as a rush end. If Simon can't return, there's plenty
of depth here (big surprise), led by former Juco-star Jon
Poe. Overall, this is a quick-hitting group that meshes perfectly
with that strong front-four while using its speed to perform
well in pass coverage. As already mentioned with the DL rankings,
the front seven on defense is a big reason the Vols are achieving
higher rankings and SEC East Championship invitations.
Alabama, Florida, Maryland, Penn State,