10 defensive players ready for breakout seasons

BY foxsports • February 18, 2010

Sure, fans up in Eugene (and Columbus) are well aware of Kenny Rowe, but the folks in the South couldn’t tell you what position he plays. And although Aldon Smith and Tysyn Hartman may be on the verge of becoming household names in Great Plains, they barely ring a bell to the people in the Northeast.

This time of year, there are loads of all-star-caliber players within every conference who are busting at the chance to take their brands outside the region and showcase it to a national audience. Clearly, they have the talent, and they’ll have the opportunities to put it all on display later on in the fall. Whatever shreds of anonymity these guys enjoy today could be a distant memory by early October.

LB Akeem Ayers, UCLA

One of these days, folks outside of Westwood are going to recognize that Ayers is one of the most underrated playmakers in the country. Soon, maybe. With the size of a defensive end and the quickness of some safeties, he's able to wreak havoc all over the field. Although unfairly overlooked on the All-Pac-10 squad, he had 75 tackles in his first year as a starter, adding 14.5 tackles for loss, six sacks, four interceptions and four forced fumbles. Ayers is a 6-4, 252-pound menace who’s about to embark on a monster junior season for the Bruins.

LB Vontaze Burfict, Arizona State

There's a good reason Burfict had offers to play at every major program on the West Coast, including USC, a year ago — he’s an elite talent, with a tremendous future in Tempe. He wasted no time getting acclimated to the speed of the college game, finishing his first year with 69 tackles, seven tackles for loss, two sacks and a pair of forced fumbles. At 6-3 and 245 pounds, he gives nothing away to more experienced opponents, combining strength and aggression with above average range for an inside linebacker.

DE Jack Crawford, Penn State

Even more exciting than Crawford's 31 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks from a year ago is that he hasn't been playing this sport very long. He was raised in the United Kingdom and didn't take up American football until 2006. He was a quick learner, however, and still has plenty of room for development as a pass rusher over the next two seasons. He moves very well for a 6-5, 255-pounder, and is one of the team's hardest workers, on the field and away from it. If he continues to evolve, the sky's the limit for the rising junior.

DE Marcell Dareus, Alabama

As you might figure, Dareus had a difficult time making a name for himself on a defense that included Terrence Cody, Rolando McClain and Javier Arenas. That won't be so much of an issue in 2010. A disruptive end in the body of a 6-4, 295-pound tackle, he compiled 33 tackles, nine tackles for loss and a team-best 6.5 sacks despite starting just a handful of games. The defensive MVP of the BCS national championship game, he's destined to use that performance against Texas as a launching point for a far less anonymous junior year.

S Rashard Hall, Clemson

The Tigers have hit the daily double at safety over the past six months. Not only did All-American DeAndre McDaniel decide to return for his senior year, but Hall also has developed into a tremendous complement early in his career. As a redshirt freshman, he forced his way into the lineup at free safety, making 63 tackles, picking off six passes and flying all over the field on special teams. At 6-2 and 195 pounds, he has the size and strength to fill the lanes in run defense, yet also possesses the instincts and cover skills of a quality cornerback.

S Tysyn Hartman, Kansas State

As converted quarterbacks go, Hartman is turning out to be a very valuable safety for the Wildcats. He made the switch before the 2008 season and has kept getting better, collecting 54 tackles, five interceptions and All-Big 12 honorable mention recognition a year ago. Above all else, he's an outstanding all-around athlete and, at 6-3 and 207 pounds, brings imposing size to the secondary. With two more years of eligibility remaining in Manhattan, he has enough time to blossom into one of the college game's premier defensive backs.

CB Greg Reid, Florida State

Reid suffered through some guilt by association in his first year in Tallahassee, playing in a secondary that got routinely toasted. Still, it was obvious to anyone who watched his film that he's going to be a special playmaker at Florida State. While not very big at 5-9 and 180 pounds, he's one of those insanely explosive athletes who plays much larger than his measurements. He broke up eight passes and was not intimidated by the competition last fall, building confidence as the season wound down. With Patrick Robinson gone, Reid is ready to step into the lineup and begin making game-changing plays.

DE Kenny Rowe, Oregon

Although the consistency wasn't always there for Rowe in his first year as a starter, the potential was, especially in the Rose Bowl. He got minimal resistance from the Ohio State offensive line, collecting four tackles for loss, three sacks and a bunch of hurries of Buckeyes QB Terrelle Pryor. Call it a sneak peak into next season, his final one in Eugene. At 6-3 and 232 pounds, he's essentially a glorified outside linebacker, using his speed and get-off to jet past unprepared offensive tackles. After finishing a quiet No. 9 nationally in sacks, he's itching to raise his profile beyond the West Coast.

LB Shayne Skov, Stanford

More than just one of the rising young stars at linebacker, Skov is a shining example of how Jim Harbaugh is raising the talent level in Palo Alto. A 2009 can't-miss recruit who prepped on the East Coast, he was as good as advertised in his maiden season, working his way into the lineup and finishing third on the Cardinal with 62 tackles. He has the complete package of size, athleticism and instincts to quickly emerge as the leader of the defense, especially with Bo McNally and Clinton Snyder no longer around.

DE Aldon Smith, Missouri

This is the classic example of the modest recruit who works hard in the offseason, blooms a little late and catches a lot of people by surprise in his first year. Without much warning, Smith shot up to 6-5 and 255 pounds and routinely busted through opposing offensive lines as a redshirt freshman. A tremendous physical specimen with the long arms to swim past tackles, he earned the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, making 64 tackles, 19 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks. If he keeps learning and working, he has everything else needed to become one of the nation's top pass rushers.

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