Spring Football Bash: Top Defensive Players

April 21, 2006

Rob Rang, Senior Analyst, NFLDraftScout.com

Special to CSTV.com


Despite a mass exodus of premier players from 2005 to the NFL, like spring flowers, defenders are blossoming across the country in an effort to take the place of the departed All-Americans.


Gone are household names A.J. Hawk, D'Qwell Jackson, Michael Huff and Haloti Ngata. But among the young defenders prepared to bloom in their place are several of the nation's most productive sack artists from last season. The group is highlighted by Central Michigan's Dan Bazuin, who averaged nearly a sack and a half per game last season and led the nation with 26.5 tackles for loss.


Linebackers are also a strength. Big names like Paul Posluszny, H.B. Blades and Patrick Willis return, as do Mike Alson and Ameer Ismail, two linebackers who might lack the name appeal of their counterparts, but certainly don't lack the production.


The pickings could be slimmer at defensive back, which was arguably the deepest position group to depart for the NFL. Most of the high-profile cornerbacks are gone, but productive talent is certainly on the way to fill the void.


Below is a detailed analysis of the country's elite defenders, as well as several others to keep a close watch on:


1. Paul Posluszny, LB, Penn State, 6-2, 230, SR:

For all of the acclaim given to Ohio State's A.J. Hawk, it was Posluszny who earned the greater hardware in 2005, winning the Butkus Award as the nation's elite linebacker and the Chuck Bednarik Award as the nation's top defensive player. Posluszny's role in Penn State's revival last season cannot be overstated. His 116 tackles led the team and his consistency became a trademark. In fact, last season he became the first Big Ten student-athlete selected Football Player of the Week (Offense, Defense or Special Teams) three consecutive weeks since the conference began the selections in 1987.


Posluszny is far from just the typical athlete, however. He made the Dean's List in his first five semesters at Penn State and earned Academic All-American honors to go along with his consensus All-American accolades for his work on the football field.


Posluszny suffered a brief scare during Penn State's Orange Bowl victory over Florida State. He partially tore two ligaments in his right knee, though the injury didn't require surgery. He was held out of spring practice, but is expected to be 100 percent for the fall.


2. Patrick Willis, LB, Mississippi, 6-2, 232, SR:

Perhaps due to Mississippi's 4-8 record last season, Willis isn't well-known despite being a 2005 All-American and the nation's leader in average solo tackles per game (9.0). Willis finished last season with 128 total tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss (-42), three quarterback sacks (-28), two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, three passes defensed, two quarterback pressures and one interception. Willis' production came despite a broken middle finger on his right hand, a sprained left knee, a right mid-foot injury and a partial AC joint separation of his right shoulder.


Willis' blend of size and athleticism makes him an intriguing defender. He had been a productive linebacker before his breakout 2005 season, finishing with more tackles for loss (11) and sacks (5) in 2004 than he did last season. However, with the respected Ed Orgeron, formerly a defensive coach with both Southern California and Miami, taking over the head coaching duties for Ole Miss last season, Willis emerged with strong numbers and the Chucky Mullins Courage Award.


Unfortunately, like Posluszny, Willis was forced to miss spring drills. Willis underwent successful surgery to his right foot last December and has been sidelined since. He is expected to be ready for August drills.


3. H.B. Blades, LB, Pitt, 6-0, 240, SR:

Blades, a two-time first-team All-Big East selection, led the conference with 121 tackles and ranked 13th nationally with 11 tackles per game in 2005. That's impressive production considering it was his first season at middle linebacker after playing the strong-side position throughout his early career. Blades enters his senior season with 286 tackles and 18.5 tackles for loss along with 24 career starts.


Blades has strong football bloodlines as his father, Bennie, and his uncles Al and Brian, were standouts at the University of Miami and went on to successful careers in the NFL.


4. Dan Bazuin, DE, Central Michigan, 6-3, 258, SR:

Bazuin's accomplishments for Central Michigan might test some of the more dedicated fans of the game, but he certainly deserves the high acclaim of this list. Bazuin posted 16 sacks in 11 games last season, second only to Elvis Dumervil's (Louisville) 20. Bazuin was far from just a pass rush specialist, as he also led the nation with 26.5 tackles for loss.


The 2005 MAC Defensive Player of the Year, Bazuin already ranks as the team's career leader with 25 sacks. Fans won't have to wait long to see Bazuin in action on the national stage as the Chippewas open the 2006 season at home on national television against Boston College on Aug. 31st.


5. Quentin Moses, DE, Georgia, 6-5, 255, SR: 

Tall, lanky edge rusher who emerged from David Pollack's shadow to once again give the Bulldogs one of the fiercest sack artists in the country. A first-team All-SEC performer in 2005, Moses finished second in the SEC with 11.5 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss. Before last season, Moses had shown flashes of brilliance, registering a combined 9.0 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss in limited duty over his first two years, but had no starts.


Moses was considered a possibility to enter the NFL Draft a year early after his strong initial season as a starter in 2005, but he decided to return to Georgia. Blessed with instincts and a great first step, expect a monster senior season from Moses in 2006.


6. Gaines Adams, DE, Clemson, 6-5, 260, SR: 

Though Mario Williams and Mathias Kiwanuka earned much of the national attention, there may not have been a more dominant defensive end in the country over the last month of the 2005 than Adams. For the year, Adams had 29 quarterback pressures, 9.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss to lead Clemson in all three areas. His nine passes broken up set a record for Clemson defensive linemen. Over the final six games, he had 11.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks and 16 quarterback pressures.


Like Moses, Adams' athleticism and upside earned him plenty of speculation as a possible early declaration for the NFL Draft. He is blessed with great size, burst off the edge and rare instincts for the position, and Adams is a likely future first-round pick. Scouts are particularly intrigued by his long arms. Adams recognized in 2005 that he can make plays for his defense without getting to the quarterback, leading the team in passes broken up (9).


7. Lawrence Jackson, DE, USC, 6-4, 265, JR: 

Don't look now, but the Trojans have another All-American candidate at defensive end. While first-team Pac-10 selection Frostee Rucker was nothing to sneeze at in 2005, the team clearly was missing the dominant presence Kenechi Udeze, Mike Patterson and Shaun Cody provided in recent seasons. Jackson, already a two-year starter, has developed into a similar dominating force. He impressed in 2003 as a redshirt freshman by recording 32 tackles and 6 sacks. This past season, however, Jackson emerged as arguably the best defensive lineman in the Pac-10.


Jackson paced the Trojans with 10 sacks, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in 2005. He also finished with 46 total tackles on his way to first-team All Pac-10 honors. Only entering his junior season, college fans may want to appreciate Jackson in 2006 in case he bolts early for the NFL. 


8. Tom Zbikowski, S, Notre Dame, 5-11, 210, SR:

As good as Brady Quinn and Jeff Samardzija were for the Irish offense in 2005, Zbikowski might have been just as effective for Notre Dame in the deep secondary. The third-team All-American finished with 71 tackles and a team-leading five interceptions. His instincts and recovery speed set him apart from an otherwise leaky Notre Dame pass defense.


Astute fans might remember when Zbikowski signed with Notre Dame as a highly touted prep quarterback. His transition first to strong safety and then to free safety over the past few seasons has been an impressive one. Zbikowski isn't satisfied with just his performance on the football field, however, as he is also pursuing opportunities as a boxer. An accomplished amateur boxer with a 75-15 record in 90 career fights, Zbikowski is currently scheduled to appear in a four-round heavyweight fight in Madison Square Garden on June 10th.  


9. LaRon Landry, S, LSU, 6-2, 205, SR:

Landry has earned SEC accolades since his freshman season. He is an athletic, instinctive and incredibly productive free safety who led LSU in tackles in 2003 and 2004, and enters his senior season with 241 career tackles to go along with nine interceptions and 18 passes broken up.


LaRon is the younger brother of Georgia Tech standout Dawan Landry, who finished his career with the Yellow Jackets this past season and is a potential selection in this month's NFL Draft.


10. Michael Griffin, S, Texas, 6-0, 205, SR:

Penn State is often referred to as Linebacker U. Perhaps Texas should be referred to as Defensive Back U. The Longhorns have a remarkable track record for producing high quality cornerbacks and safeties. The trend continues with Griffin, a veteran of 37 career games who is already in the UT record books before he plays a single snap of his senior season.


Though Griffin has only 15 starts with the Longhorns, he has seen action throughout his career and his numbers are impressive. He has posted 238 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, three sacks, four interceptions, 13 pass breakups, five caused fumbles and five fumble recoveries. Griffin has also shown a remarkable ability to time his leap against punts, blocking a UT-record six over his career. As the starting free safety in 2005, he led the team with 124 tackles along with four tackles for loss, three interceptions, eight passes broken up, three fumble recoveries and one caused fumble. Michael's twin brother, Marcus, also is a defensive back at UT.



Mkristo Bruce, DE, Washington State, 6-6, 258, SR: Blessed with prototype size and surprising speed off the edge, Bruce has developed into one of the top pass rushers in the Pac-10. He earned second-team honors last year after posting 67 tackles, including 10 sacks, 15 tackles for loss and two fumble recoveries.


Leon Hall, CB, Michigan, 5-11, 195, SR: Hall has been called Michigan's top cornerback since Heisman winner Charles Woodson. The veteran of 37 career games, including 24 starts, Hall has 25 passes broken up and nine interceptions, both leading all current Wolverines. Hall has earned Big Ten honors after each of the past two seasons and could be in line for All-American honors in 2006.


Baraka Atkins, DL, Miami, 6-4, 263, SR: The versatile Atkins has seen action at defensive tackle and end for the Hurricanes, and could be on the verge of a breakout final season. Atkins has 34 career starts and leads all returning Hurricanes with 13 career sacks.


Brandon Mebane, DT, Cal, 6-3, 305, SR: Over the past several years, the defensive tackle from the Pac-10 that every team had to account for was Oregon's Haloti Ngata. With the former Duck moving on to the NFL, college fans should shift their focus to Mebane, who is becoming a similar force at the point of attack. The first-team All Pac-10 defender finished with only 22.5 tackles last season, but 16.5 of those were behind the line of scrimmage, including 7.0 sacks.


Adam Carriker, DE, Nebraska, 6-6, 280, SR: Though fans outside of the Big 12 might not have noticed, the Blackshirt defense roared back to life last season. Nebraska led the nation with 50 sacks, many due to the pass rushing skills of Carriker, a senior defensive end with NFL size and athleticism. Carriker finished with 9.5 sacks and earned first-team Big 12 accolades.


Ameer Ismail, LB, Western Michigan, 6-2, 228, SR: It was just a few years ago when it seemed ridiculous to think a MAC quarterback could go on to success in the NFL. Chad Pennington, Byron Leftwich and some guy named Roethlisberger have since changed that perception. Ismail could change the minds of those who think MAC linebackers can't make it at the next level. He returns for his senior season after leading all Division-I linebackers in average tackles for loss per game last year (1.82).


LaMarr Woodley, DE/LB, Michigan, 6-2, 274, SR: With the 3-4 defensive scheme becoming en vogue in the NFL again, rush linebackers like Woodley have become even more intriguing to scouts. Woodley, with 20 starts in his 36 career games, has 141 career tackles, along with 36 tackles for loss and 12 sacks. He has been recognized as a Big Ten honoree after each of the past two seasons.


Brandon Meriweather, S, Miami, 6-0, 190, SR: The latest in a long line of talented Miami defensive backs, Meriweather enters his senior season as one of the elite safeties in the country. A veteran of 19 starts and 40 games, Meriweather has seen action at strong and free safety and some feel he has the athleticism to eventually move to cornerback. His career numbers include 202 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, 17 passes broken up and six interceptions.


Daymeion Hughes, CB, Cal, 6-2, 198, SR: Hughes was a first-team All-Pac-10 cornerback in 2005 who finished with 62 tackles and challenged quarterbacks to throw his way. They weren't often successful. The angular corner finished with 12 passes broken up and five interceptions in a pass-happy conference.


Eric Weddle, S, Utah, 6-0, 202, SR: While there are certainly safeties across the country with more acclaim, Weddle deserves attention. A first-team Freshman All-American as a cornerback, Weddle was moved to strong safety and earned conference accolades in his first season at the new position. In his second season at the position in 2005, he was recognized as the Mountain West Conference's Defensive Player of the Year after posting 78 tackle, 11 tackles for losses, four sacks, four interceptions, 12 passes broken up and three forced fumbles.




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