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March 7, 2011

Monday with Mike: Defensive issues

On the past three Mondays, we have spotlighted key offensive position battles for the spring.

This week, we'll look at 10 teams that could contend for their conference or division titles as long as they solve some issues on defense.

Auburn defensive line: The Tigers lost three starting linemen, including stud T Nick Fairley, the most dominant defensive lineman in the nation last season. They also lost their two best linebackers, so the front seven is undergoing a big-time makeover. E Nosa Eguae is the lone returning starter up front and should be fine. The other end spot likely comes down to sophomores Corey Lemonier and Craig Sanders and junior Dee Ford. Sophomore Jeffrey Whitaker has a big upside and seems to be a sure starter at one tackle spot. Another sophomore, Kenneth Carter, probably is the front-runner for the other starting spot. But the No. 2 jobs are in question, which means spring practice will be huge for the defensive front. Given all the holes Auburn has to fill, getting to 10 wins this season would be an achievement.

Georgia linebackers: The Bulldogs weren't all that proficient defensively in their first season using a 3-4 scheme -- hey, they went 6-7, after all -- and now they have to find three new starting linebackers. The biggest loss is sack-master Justin Houston, who went pro a year early. The only returning starter is Christian Robinson at one inside spot. Marcus Dowtin would've been the leading contender for the other inside spot, but he has transferred. Converted TB Richard Samuel, who redshirted last season, will get a shot at the vacant inside spot, as will Mike Gilliard and converted SS Alec Ogletree, a former five-star prospect whom coaches moved to linebacker earlier this month. Ogletree started four games last season, and his speed gives him a big upside at linebacker. But is he bulky enough? Finding someone to replace Houston is going to be difficult, as he was one of the best pass rushers in the SEC. Cornelius Washington is the only returnee on the outside who saw much time last season. Former walk-on Reuben Faloughi, Brock Boleman, T.J. Stripling, Chase Vasser and USC transfer Jarvis Jones are others who figure to be in the mix during spring ball. Jones has had neck problems. The SEC East should be a wide-open race, as Florida, Georgia and Tennessee have big questions, leaving defending division champ South Carolina as the team to beat -- on paper, at least. Georgia's defensive players should be used to the 3-4 scheme now, but a mediocre linebacker unit is a potential nightmare in the SEC.

Michigan State linebackers: The Spartans have the potential to have a solid defense as long as they can adequately replace two starting linebackers. Actually, replacing one of those guys -- tackle machine Greg Jones -- is going to be extremely difficult. The other departed starter is Eric Gordon. Max Bullough, whose dad and grandfather both played at Michigan State, looks to be the guy who will replace Jones in the middle. Steve Gardiner and Denicos Allen figure to battle it out for the opening on the outside. The Spartans signed a nice group of high school linebackers last month, and it's a given that two or three of those guys will play this fall. Still, it's vital that Michigan State comes out of spring with a good idea of the three starting 'backers. The Spartans should have a good offense, which means it's up to the defense to determine if Michigan State can contend for a division title in the revamped Big Ten.

Mississippi State linebackers: The Bulldogs won nine games last season, thanks to a stout defense. But star DE Pernell McPhee and all three starting linebackers are gone. As talented as McPhee was, replacing the missing linebackers is going to be more difficult -- and important. Coaches have said last season's backups -- senior Brandon Wilson and juniors Cameron Lawrence and Mike Hunt -- will get first dibs on the vacancies. But senior Jamie Jones and sophomores Chris Hughes and Deontae Skinner also will be in the mix. Hughes, especially, is a guy to keep an eye on. He lacks size (he's 6-0 and 215), but he can run and also packs a punch. Mississippi State's secondary is going to be good, but it's going to be tough to approach nine wins again unless the front seven is adequately replaced. Mississippi State went 9-4 despite a limited offense because the front seven on defense was dominant at times.

Nebraska secondary: The Huskers lost three starters off what had been a sterling unit, including star CB Prince Amukamara. Returning starter Alfonzo Dennard is a good one at cornerback, and SS Austin Cassidy emerged as a starter and solid contributor during the second half of last season. FS Courtney Osborne played a lot down the stretch last season as the extra defensive back, and he gets first crack at a starting job this spring. P.J. Smith also will be in the mix at safety, as will Corey Cooper and touted JC transfer Daimion Stafford. CB Ciante Evans, who played as a true freshman last season, should be first in line for the starting job opposite Dennard. Converted WR Antonio Bell and Anthony Blue, who is coming back from a knee injury, are others who will get a shot. While there is work to do in the secondary, one thing to be considered is that the Huskers aren't going to see as many sophisticated passing attacks in the Big Ten as they saw in the Big 12, their old home.

Oregon defensive line: As with Auburn, their opponent in the national title game, the Ducks lose three starters off their defensive line. Senior E Terrell Turner is the only returning starter, and he gives the Ducks a competent performer on the edge. Senior Brandon Hanna and junior Dion Jordan -- a former tight end who is extremely athletic -- will vie for the other end spot. Sophomores Wade Keliikipi and Taylor Hart likely get first dibs on the vacant tackle spots. Sophomore Ricky Heimuli, a former four-star recruit, and JC transfer Jared Ebert, who enrolled in January, also will be in the mix, as will Isaac Remington, who redshirted after arriving from a junior college last January. Oregon also has to replace three starters on its offensive line, and if the Ducks can't adequately replace the departed player, they can forget about returning to the national title game. Heck, in that case, they can forget about winning the Pac-12.

Ohio State secondary: The Buckeyes lose three starters from their secondary, plus their top nickelback. The lone returning starter is junior SS Orhian Johnson, but he has to hold off C.J. Barnett, who started the first two games before suffering a knee injury that kept him out for the rest of the season. Sophomore Jamie Wood was the backup free safety last season and likely moves into the starting role this season. Other safeties to watch this spring include Nate Oliver and Zach Domicone. Junior CB Travis Howard has a nice upside, and Dominic Clarke and Christian Bryant look to be the top candidates for the other corner spot. Ohio State lost seven defensive starters. The Buckeyes will go into the season as the Big Ten favorite, and given Jim Tressel's emphasis on defense, that side of the ball is going to be solid. But rebuilding the secondary looks as if it will be a tougher job than rebuilding the front seven.

TCU secondary: The Horned Frogs use a 4-2-5 set and have to replace four starters in what was one of the nation's best secondaries. They also lost key reserves in S Tyler Luttrell and CB Malcolm Williams. The lone returning starter is CB Greg McCoy and he should be one of the best defensive players in the Mountain West this fall. Tekerrein Cuba was a part-time starter last season at one safety spot, and coaches love the potential of redshirt freshman safety Jonathan Anderson; he's a big guy (6-3/215) who crushes people. Sophomore Elisha Olabode has been moved from cornerback and will be in the mix at free safety, as will senior Johnny Fobbs. Sophomore Travaras Battle looks to be the top candidate to grab the vacant starting job at corner. TCU coaches love to use their safeties as blitzers, but because of all the turnover, they likely are going to have to eliminate some of their more exotic calls because of the lack of experience. The front six should be fine for TCU, but mediocre play from the secondary -- coupled with a rebuilt offense -- could mean a second-place finish in the Mountain West in the Horned Frogs' final season in the league.

UCF linebackers: The Knights are one of the few teams in Conference USA that emphasizes defense. UCF, which won 11 games last season, loses both starting defensive ends and two of its three starting linebackers. UCF should be fine at end, but linebacker could be a season-long question. Josh Linam is the only returning starter, and Jordan Becker and Loren Robinson likely will get the first shot at the vacant outside spots. Two JC transfers, Terran Buck and Ray Cottman, already have enrolled, and they need to prove they can play right away. Junior Ray Shipman, a former basketball player at Florida, bears watching. He is a good athlete but still learning the game. Even with the turnover at linebacker, UCF is going to be solid defensively. But the play of the linebackers could be the difference between winning the league or finishing second in the East Division.

West Virginia linebackers: The Mountaineers, who use a 3-3-5 set, were second nationally in rush defense last season and gave up just three rushing TDs, which ties for the fewest allowed this century. While WVU will miss NT Chris Neild, the Mountaineers also will miss starting LBs J.T. Thomas and Anthony Leonard. Key backup Pat Lazear, a former starter, also will be missed. Najee Goode returns as a starter, and finding his two running mates might be the most important task for WVU coaches this spring. Tyler Anderson, Doug Rigg and Casey Vance look like the top holdover candidates for the two starting jobs. Speedy JC transfer Josh Francis enrolled in January and will go through spring drills. Linebacker looks like the biggest question mark on the team.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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