Iowa - 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.

Ohio State - 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.

Auburn - 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.

Florida State - 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.

Tennessee - 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.

Just Missed: Alabama, Florida, Maryland, Penn State, Virginia


May 23- Wide Receivers
May 16 - Offensive Line
May 12 - Defensive Backs
May 4 - Linebackers
April 28 - Defensive Line