11 defensive players about to explode

Those fans in Southern California are well aware of the enormous potential of linebackers Devon Kennard and Patrick Larimore, but the folks in the South couldn’t tell you which one plays for USC or UCLA. And although Tyrann Mathieu and Bacarri Rambo may be on the verge of becoming household names in SEC country, they barely ring a bell to the guys up in the Rust Belt.

This time of year, there are loads of all-star-caliber players hiding within the nooks of every conference. They’re busting at the opportunity to take their unique brand outside the region and showcase it to a national audience.

Having already shown their coaches and teammates that they have the requisite talent for success, they now have an opportunity to put it on display on a bigger stage in the fall. Whatever shreds of anonymity these budding defenders enjoy today could be a distant memory by the opening weekend of October.

S Sean Cattouse, Cal

If he can put it all together, Cattouse will have an opportunity to turn his final year in Berkeley into a launching pad to the NFL. A big hitter at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, he also has good ball skills and considerable experience in the lineup. However, he was hamstrung by injuries a year ago and needs to become a little more disciplined when the ball is in the air. Even so, he broke up seven passes in 2010 and had a career-high 15 tackles in the Big Game, evidence of his potential to become one of the Pac-12’s most effective defensive backs.

CB Donnie Fletcher, Boston College

A product of Ted Ginn Sr.’s powerhouse Glenville High School in Cleveland, Fletcher is peaking in his evolution on the field. A well-sized bump-and-run corner, he’s coming off his best season on the Heights, doing his part for a secondary that ranked 19th nationally in pass efficiency defense. Fourth on the squad with 56 tackles, he also chipped in an team-high five interceptions. He has good field instincts and a knack for keeping the play in front of him. After failing to receive any All-Atlantic Coast Conference attention the past two seasons as a starter, Fletcher’s determined to reverse that trend in his final year as an amateur.

CB Micah Hyde, Iowa

When the 2010 season began, the Hawkeyes were pining for help in the secondary. Hyde delivered as a true sophomore, starting all 13 games and ranking second among all Hawkeyes with 82 stops and four interceptions. The defensive MVP of the Insight Bowl, he was a revelation, amping up expectations for the second half of his career in black and gold. Targeted primarily by Mid-American Conference schools in high school, he has wasted little time proving that he belongs in the Big Ten. Like most young defensive backs, he can tighten up his game in coverage, which will come, but Iowa thinks it might be harboring a future star at corner.

DE Jesse Joseph, Connecticut

In order to get Joseph’s signature, the Huskies traveled north to Montreal, a familiar trek for the former coaching staff. It’s already paying off for the program. Despite being a two-year starter in Storrs and leading the team in sacks in 2010, he has been a relatively well-kept secret outside the Big East. He has bulked up to 6-3 and 255 pounds since arriving, yet remains quick off the snap and even quicker around the edge. A mature 22-year-old and one of the budding leaders of the Connecticut defense, he contributed 39 tackles, a dozen tackles for loss, and eight sacks last year.

LB Devon Kennard, USC

Just two years removed from Phoenix’s Desert Vista High School, Kennard already looks like a next-level performer. After doing cameos at defensive end in his rookie year, he settled in at middle linebacker, relegating high-profile veteran Chris Galippo to the bench. He finished fourth on the team with 72 tackles, including seven stops for loss and a couple of sacks. At 6-3 and 250 pounds, he has the size and strength to play strongside, yet is instinctive enough to excel against the run from the inside. With a year in defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s system now behind him, he’ll be even more effective as a junior.

LB Patrick Larimore, UCLA

The Bruins’ coaching staff is just giddy about the future of Larimore, even though it had him for only a little more than half of 2010. A starter in his first season of serious action, the sophomore was eventually lost to a dislocated shoulder. Before getting hurt, he had 41 tackles, five for loss, and three forced fumbles, emerging as one of the foundations for the future on defense. A big-hitting 6-3, 249-pounder, he moves well laterally and does a lot of the little things well at the position. He rarely misses tackles and his timing is outstanding, especially when coming hard on the blitz.

DE Brad Madison, Missouri

Mizzou got an unexpected preview of life after Aldon Smith when the star sophomore was sidelined early in the year. In his place, Madison hardly skipped a beat, coming out of nowhere as a part-timer to make 32 tackles, 11 stops for loss and 7.5 sacks en route to honorable mention All-Big 12. Now that Smith is off to the NFL, Madison will get far more snaps as a member of the starting unit. An offensive lineman when he first got to Columbia, the staff quickly — and wisely — switched him to the other side of the ball. He gets off the ball in a hurry and, at 6-4 and 255 pounds, has enough upper body strength to win the battles at the point of attack.

CB Tyrann Mathieu, LSU

Every so often, a player comes along who’s capable of imposing his will on a game from the defensive side of the ball. Mathieu looks as if he’s going to be one of those unique and disruptive playmakers. Performing well beyond his years as a true freshman, he put down a solid foundation for the future last fall. Employed as a backup and in nickel packages, he still managed to make 57 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, two picks, and force five fumbles. Although a little undersized, he plays much bigger than his size and was widely considered one of the nation’s best high school cover guys coming out of high school.

S Bacarri Rambo, Georgia

With a name like Rambo, the junior-to-be would be expected to perform like one of the enforcers of the Bulldogs’ secondary. In his first season as a starter in Athens, he stood out with 82 tackles, five stops for loss, three picks, and three forced fumbles. A 6-foot, 211-pound thumper, he’ll step in an instant to defend the run and separate exposed receivers from the ball. He needs to become more disciplined when the ball is in the air and avoid biting on pump fakes, but that will come with more experience. With two years left, he’s poised to become one of the top Southeastern Conference defensive backs as early as this fall.

LB Kevin Reddick, North Carolina

With Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter graduating, Reddick, along with Zach Brown, will be counted on to solidify the second level of defense in Chapel Hill. As a sophomore, he led the team with 74 stops, adding six tackles for loss and a couple of interceptions. One of the gems of the program’s recruiting class a couple of years ago, he has bulked up considerably as a Tar Heel, yet has maintained his sideline-to-sideline quickness. Now a hearty 6-3 and 235 pounds, he’s able shed blockers and make a beeline to the man with the ball. He has a trajectory that will include All-ACC honors and a career in the NFL.

DT Devon Still, Penn State

It has been a difficult road for Still, who began his Nittany Lions career with a nasty torn ACL as a freshman. His hard work and perseverance, though, are beginning to pay off. The replacement for Jared Odrick in 2010, he was named honorable mention All-Big Ten after making 39 tackles, a team-high 10 tackles for loss, and four sacks. A tweener when he first got on campus, he has grown to more than 300 pounds, leaving no doubt about his spot on the line. He possesses the measurables and motivation to tantalize pro scouts, combining tremendous strength with the quick feet to slice through blockers. A relative unknown outside Happy Valley today, he’s capable of vying for All-America honors in his final year.