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May 28, 2008

Ranking college football's scariest defenders

» Gallery: Ten scariest defensive players | In Action: Scary defenders

Some hit with teeth-rattling impact. Some swoop down on quarterbacks like buzzards on road kill. Others have so much big-play ability that quarterbacks only throw in their direction as a last resort – that is, if they throw that way at all.

Putting together a list of college football's scariest defensive players isn't easy because scary has different definitions. Some may be physically imposing. Some are just athletically intimidating.

Scary doesn't necessarily translate to best, either, because all coaches want players that are efficient and consistent.

Still, there are players who can wreck a play, wreck a running back and make a quarterback a nervous wreck. Here's the list.

10. Malcolm Jenkins, CB, Ohio State: He's a two-time All-Big Ten selection, and opponents think twice before throwing Jenkins' way. The problem there, though, is that the Buckeyes often will have him change sides to face the opponents' best receiver. Jenkins, who has 4.3 speed, has grabbed four interceptions in each of the past two seasons, and last year posted 47 tackles.

9. Greg Hardy, Ole Miss, DE: Though playing just 10 games as a sophomore last season and starting only four, Hardy posted 10 sacks and had 18.5 tackles for losses, which is second-most among players returning in '08. His 63 total tackles last season were the most among SEC linemen. Hardy, a 6-foot-4, 265-pounder who also has played for the Ole Miss basketball team, should be better in '08 with a year of experience behind him.

8. Brandon Spikes, Florida, LB: At 6-3 and 245 pounds, Spikes is an intimidating presence at middle linebacker. In his first year as a starter last season, he posted 131 tackles, including 81 unassisted, and earned All-SEC recognition. He posted at least seven tackles in every game and never had fewer than three solo stops. Spikes also had 16 tackles for losses.

7. George Hypolite, Colorado, DT: The fact that, physically, Hypolite isn't overly imposing at 6-1 and 285 pounds, and that he's active in community relations may make one question just how scary he is. But tell that to guards who try to block him one-on-one. Last season, Hypolite earned All-Big 12 acclaim while posting 44 tackles, including 33 solo stops – an impressive number for an interior defensive lineman. He had 6.5 sacks, which was the most by a Colorado defensive tackle in five seasons.

6. Maurice Evans, Penn State, DE: Last season, Evans ranked among the nation's top eight in sacks (12.5), tackles for loss (21.5) and forced fumbles (five). Not a bad trifecta. He also had 54 tackles, deflected three passes and returned a fumble 55 yards en route to earning All-Big Ten honors. Penn State ranked No. 11 in the nation in total defense last season, and Evans was a major reason.

5. Alphonso Smith, Wake Forest, CB: As if eight interceptions weren't impressive enough, Smith also returned three of them for touchdowns (against Boston College, Maryland and Duke). His touchdown against the Terps covered 100 yards. Plus, he broke up 10 passes, so throwing at him obviously takes courage. Smith also forced four fumbles, meaning he was personally responsible for creating 12 turnovers last season. For good measure, he posted 44 tackles, including three sacks.

4. Ricky Jean-Francois, LSU, DT: So how does a guy who posted just nine tackles last season get on this list? Well, when six come in the national championship game, that's a good start. Suspended for the regular season, Jean-Francois returned in the postseason and showed the Tigers what they'd been missing. He was solid in the SEC championship victory over Tennessee, then spectacular in the national championship win over Ohio State, when he added 1.5 tackles for loss, shared a sack and blocked a field-goal attempt. By the way, his nine tackles in two games would have projected to 63 stops over the course of last season, just six fewer than Glenn Dorsey posted.

3. Eric Berry, Tennessee, S: A safety with great coverage skills always poses a problem. One who also is a strong tackler is a major headache. That would describe Berry, who last season posted 86 tackles, five interceptions, four pass breakups, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble – and all that as a true freshman. He had 222 yards in interception returns, which was second-most in the country and broke a 37-yard old Tennessee record.

2. George Selvie, South Florida, DE: A speed rusher who can also mix it up physically, Selvie wrapped up awards last season like he did sacks – in abundance. He was a consensus All-American, the Big East defensive player of the year and a finalist for the Ted Hendricks Award and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, as well as receiving several other honors after posting the greatest defensive season in school history. He was second in the nation in sacks with 14.5 and led the country with 31.5 tackles for losses. He also forced three fumbles and blocked a kick. He was at his best against top competition, posting 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks against Auburn and a sack against West Virginia.

1. Rey Maualuga, USC, LB: The 6-3, 250-pound Maualuga is physically imposing – and just plain looks mean. His play measures up to his stature. A two-time All-Pac-10 selection, Maualuga is a punishing hitter who led the Trojans in tackles last season despite being limited at times by a painful hip pointer. He posted 10.5 tackles for losses and six sacks while accumulating 79 tackles last season. This season will mark his third as USC's starting middle linebacker.

Others Considered: Jasper Brinkley, LB, South Carolina; Patrick Chung, S, Oregon; Vontae Davis, CB, Illinois; Auston English, DE, Oklahoma; Tyson Jackson, DE, LSU; James Laurinaitis, LB, Ohio State; Joe Lefeged, DB, Rutgers; Sen'Derrick Marks, DT, Auburn; Taylor Mays, S, USC; Scott McKillop, LB, Pittsburgh; Greg Middleton, DE, Indiana; Fili Moala, DT, USC; Derek Pegues, S, Mississippi State.

TRIVIA QUESTION

Who is the last lineman to be named conference offensive player of the year for any of the "Big Six" conferences. (Answer at the end of the column.)

QUICK HITTERS

• Freshman E.J. Manuel, the second-ranked dual-threat quarterback prospect in the 2008 recruiting class, said he's planning to play for Florida State this season. He told a Florida newspaper, "(I'm) preparing my mind, preparing my body and everything so that when the opportunity comes, I take advantage of it." Quarterback play has been largely blamed for the Seminoles' mediocrity in recent seasons.

• Defensive end Jeffrey Fitzgerald, a two-year starter at Virginia, is transferring to Kansas State. He will sit out the 2008 season and be eligible in 2009. Fitzgerald, who had 73 tackles and seven sacks last season, apparently is leaving Virginia for "personal reasons." Kansas State coach Ron Prince was offensive coordinator at Virginia before going to Manhattan three years ago.

• A points system Minnesota plans to use to sell football tickets is drawing criticism. "Gopher Points," which are accumulated by years of holding season tickets and the amount of donations, will be used to determine who can purchase seats between the 20-yard lines at the new TCF Bank Stadium, which opens in 2009. The option to purchase those tickets would require as much as $500 over the cost of the ticket.

• Junior college running back Nick Booth has signed with Arizona and figures to provide depth behind starting tailback Nicolas Grigsby. Booth rushed for 1,090 yards last season at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Ill.

• Washington and LSU have agreed to a home-and-home series, beginning next season. The Huskies will open the 2009 season at home against LSU, then will visit Baton Rouge on Sept. 29, 2012.

•The NCAA granted a sixth year of eligibility to Washington State defensive end Matt Mullennix, who missed the 2006 season and most of the '04 season with knee injuries.

TRIVIA ANSWER

Ohio State tackle Orlando Pace in 1996 was the last offensive linemen from a "Big Six" conference to be named offensive player of the year.

» Gallery: Ten scariest defensive players | In Action: Scary defenders

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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