August 12, 2005

Nation loaded with top defensive linemen

There might not be a position in the nation this season with more outstanding individual talent than the defensive line. Across the nation, quarterbacks in 2005 will have to deal with ferocious defensive fronts and players who can impact games.

That reality made picking the top 10 defensive linemen in the country a tall order. Five tackles and five ends made the cut. The ACC, SEC and Pac-10 each had three players make the list, while the Big 12 landed the final representative.

The following are Rivals.com's Top 10 Defensive Linemen for 2005. Remember these names: You'll be hearing them a lot on Saturdays this fall.

1. Mathias Kiwanuka (Boston College)

Not only is Kiwanuka the top defensive lineman in college football, he's arguably the best player on the defensive side of the ball. At 6-feet-7 and 261 pounds, he has a combination of speed and power that allows him to invade opposing backfields almost at will.

The native of Uganda was chosen earlier this month by ACC media as the conference's Preseason Defensive Player of the Year, after being named the Big East's Defensive Player of the Year in 2004. Kiwanuka, who has 28 career sacks, could have been a first-round pick in last April's NFL draft, but he chose to return to Boston College for his senior season. And while the Eagles are glad he did, the rest of the ACC probably feels otherwise.

2004 stats: 67 tackles, 24.5 tackles for losses, 11.5 sacks, two interceptions.

2. Mario Williams (N.C. State)

Any discussion about the best defensive line in college football has to include the Wolfpack's, and Williams is the cornerstone of that unit. The 6-7, 285-pound junior looks and plays like he should be in the NFL already, and the athleticism he exhibits on the field at his size is unmatched in the college game.

Williams uses his quickness to rush the passer, but he's also strong enough to hold his own against the run. He recorded six sacks last season, a figure he admittedly was not pleased with, which doesn't bode well for ACC signal callers this season.

2004 stats: 40 tackles, 16 tackles for losses, seven sacks, seven pass break-ups.

3. Jesse Mahelona (Tennessee)

Mahelona arrived in Knoxville last year as Rivals.com's top-rated JUCO defensive tackle in the nation, and the Hawaii native didn't disappoint in his first year. The 6-2, 297-pounder was a force in the trenches by using his power and quickness. Mahelona posted huge numbers in 2004 despite facing regular double-teams, and he provided the Volunteers' defense, which struggled at times, with some stability.

This season, Tennessee is expected to contend on the national scene, and an improved defense is part of the reason for such optimism. But make no mistake: It's Mahelona who sets the tone.

2004 stats: 42 tackles, 18.5 tackles for losses, five sacks, seven quarterback hurries.

4. Stanley McClover (Auburn)

Stanley McClover might not be a household name just yet, but that's going to change soon. The 6-3, 247-pounder might be the quickest defensive lineman in the country, and his pass-rushing skills would also rank near the top of charts. Teammate Marcus McNeill, rated by Rivals.com as the top offensive lineman in the country, admitted to having trouble blocking the speedy junior in practice.

McClover was effective while splitting time in 2004, but he took his game to new heights in spring practice and the Tigers are expecting him to be a force this fall. It will be a major shock if McClover doesn't finish with double figures in sacks.

2004 stats: 35 tackles, 10 tackles for losses, 7.5 sacks, nine quarterback hurries, four forced fumbles.

5. Rodrique Wright (Texas)

Wright is big and powerful but also has the quickness to get to the quarterback. His 2004 season was plagued by an ankle injury that limited his effectiveness, but he's healthy now and should return to the form he exhibited as a sophomore when he posted 80 tackles, including 12 for losses, 7.5 sacks and 30 quarterback pressures.

The Longhorns' defense ranked 23rd nationally in 2004, a figure that should improve this fall with Wright, a probable first-round choice in the 2006 NFL draft, leading the way on the line.

2004 stats: 36 tackles, three tackles for losses, one sack, seven quarterback hurries.

6. Lawrence Jackson (Southern Cal)

Like McClover, Jackson isn't a player with great name recognition, yet. The 6-5, 265-pound sophomore was overshadowed in 2004 by teammates Mike Patterson and Shaun Cody on the Trojans' defensive line. But Jackson showed flashes of brilliance as a rookie for the nation's top team and should emerge this fall as a star.

A Rivals.com Freshman All-American a year ago, Jackson uses his explosive quickness to wreak havoc in opposing backfields. Expect him to rack up impressive tackles-for-loss and sack numbers in 2005.

2004 stats: 32 tackles, 11 tackles for losses, six sacks, one interception.

7. Darryl Tapp (Virginia Tech)

Tapp is an offensive coordinator's worst nightmare. He's strong and fast and never takes a play off. The 6-1, 268-pounder isn't the biggest defensive end out there, but few make as many plays, and he's the perfect fit at end in the Hokies' aggressive, attacking defense.

Tapp also is a team leader who has earned the respect of his teammates because of his work ethic. Kiwanuka and Williams might grab the majority of the headlines in the ACC with respect to defensive ends, but there's not a coach in America who wouldn't want Tapp on his team.

2004 stats: 60 tackles, 16.5 tackles for losses, 8.5 sacks, 23 quarterback hurries.

8. Haloti Ngata (Oregon)

A lot was expected of Ngata when he arrived in Eugene three years ago after being ranked the No. 2 player in the class of 2002 by Rivals.com. The 6-5, 338-pound redshirt junior began to show last season why he was so highly regarded, and his play earned the respect of opposing teams in the form of constant double-teams.

That probably will continue again this season, but the reality is that Ngata is too big, fast and strong to be neutralized. Look for a big season and then an early departure to the NFL, where he'll be a force for years to come.

2004 stats: 46 tackles, 8.5 tackles for losses, 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, two blocked kicks.

9. Kyle Williams (LSU)

Williams is a bit of a throwback. He brings his lunch pail every day and just goes to work, much to the dismay of the opposition. While the 6-2, 295-pound senior is known for his relentless work ethic, he's also a surprising athlete who can make plays in the backfield.

Big things are expected of the Tigers' defense this season, and Williams and fellow tackle Claude Wroten are a big reason why.

2004 stats: 57 tackles, 12 tackles for losses, six sacks, one forced fumble.

10. Manase Hopoi (Washington)

It was an ugly season for a proud Huskies' program in 2004, one in which they won just one game. But the play of Hopoi was clearly the brightest of few bright spots.

The 6-4, 285-pounder is extremely physical and also has surprising quickness. He will spend a lot of time making plays behind the line of scrimmage in 2005, just as was the case last fall.

2004 stats: 54 tackles, 22 tackles for losses, nine sacks.


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