First-time starters bound for breakout seasons. See Also: The Doc's Up-and-Coming Offense.
DEFENSIVE END • Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas
Jeffcoat arrived in Austin with a daunting pedigree, as the highly touted spawn of longtime Dallas Cowboy Jim Jeffcoat. After producing two sacks and three tackle for loss in an injury-shortened freshman campaign, he assumes another, as the standard bearer for a position that's produced 13 NFL draft picks in Mack Brown's 13 seasons as head coach. One problem he definitely won't have in that pursuit: Being slowed down by new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, who shares outgoing coordinator Will Muschamp's taste for fresh quarterback blood.
DEFENSIVE END • Corey Lemonier, Auburn
Even as the 35th-ranked player in Rivals' top 100 incoming prospects for 2010, Lemonier was somewhat overshadowed in a deep defensive line class that included a dozen other hyped D-linemen ranked in front of him. But Lemonier was as productive as any of them out of the gate, quickly breaking into a crowded rotation and contributing to the harassment of the nation's No. 1 offense with one of the Tigers' eleven tackles for loss in the BCS championship win over Oregon. Even if seniors Antoine Carter and Michael Goggans weren't on their way out, Lemonier's role as an edge rusher was bound to expand.
DEFENSIVE TACKLE • Sharrif Floyd, Florida
The interior of the Gators' defensive line was a black hole from which talent rarely emerged throughout Urban Meyer's tenure, but Floyd's debut tentatively suggested a lifting of the curse: He played in every game, recorded 6.5 tackles for loss and closed the season as a starter in the Capital One Bowl win over Penn State. With Floyd, fellow five-star recruits Omar Hunter and Dominique Easley and senior Jaye Howard, Muschamp inherits the most promising set of Gator DTs since the heyday of the Spurrier era.
DEFENSIVE TACKLE • Ricky Heimuli, Oregon
The prolific offense guaranteed a certain degree of anonymity for the Ducks' solid, veteran front seven during last year's run to the BCS title game, but the simultaneous exit of five senior starters with 135 career starts between them has a way of drawing attention to the trenches in short order. Literally and figuratively, the 6-foot-4, 320-pound Heimuli is the biggest sandbag into the breach after playing in every game as a true freshman.
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Honorable Mention: Nick Acree (Virginia Tech); William Gholston (Michigan State); Malliciah Goodman (Clemson); Garrett Goebel (Ohio State); Barkevious Mingo (LSU); Ronald Powell (Florida); Josh Shirley (Washington); George Uko (USC).
LINEBACKER • Christian Jones, Florida State
Considering he's the son of a former NFL player and drew explicit comparisons to Jevon Kearse before his senior of high school, FSU fans can probably be forgiven if they were expecting a little more than the special teams work and spot duty they got out of Jones last year as a true freshman. But Jones played in every game, picking up three sacks in the process, and remained on track to take over for leading tackler Kendall Smith at middle linebacker. If the 'Noles are going to be anywhere near as good as they're expected to be, the manifestation of Jones' inner Freak will be a major reason why.
LINEBACKER • Damontre Moore, Texas A&M
Show me a three-star recruit backing up the soon-to-be No. 2 overall pick in the draft, and I'll show you an automatic redshirt. But even en route to the Butkus Award, Von Miller wasn't good enough to keep coaches from saving a few reps per game for Moore, who defied his middling recruiting marks by racking up 40 tackles and 5.5 sacks without a single start to his name. With Miller now en route to millions from the Denver Broncos, the only roadblock to Moore's taking over the "Joker" position on a full-time basis is a 7 a.m. pot arrest earlier this month that could put him in the doghouse indefinitely.
LINEBACKER • Cecil Whiteside, California
Whiteside's arrival at Cal was delayed by an academically mandated grayshirt that cost him the entire 2010 season, but he wasted no time this spring living up to the hype that made him one of the most coveted linebackers in the country as a recruit. If he's not in the starting lineup on opening day, it shouldn't take long: The graduation of NFL-bound Cameron Jordan and Mike Mohamed leaves an immediate opening for playmakers in the front seven.
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Honorable Mention: Jordan Hicks (Texas); Jeff Luc (Florida State); Blake Lueders (Stanford); Storm Klein (Ohio State); Kevin Minter (LSU); Prince Shembo (Notre Dame).
CORNERBACK • Travis Howard, Ohio State
While the Buckeye offense deals with the much-publicized suspensions and unexpected departures that have wreaked havoc on the depth chart, the defense is resigned to overcoming attrition the old-fashioned way: Graduation left two openings at defensive tackle, linebacker and cornerback, all set to be filled by relatively hyped but very green newcomers. In fact, in terms of recruiting rankings, Howard may be the least hyped of the bunch, and as a redshirt junior has taken longer to crack the starting lineup. But in terms of experience, he saw the field regularly in nickel situations over the second half of 2010 and took an interception back for the icing touchdown against Penn State, which by itself makes him one of the more accomplished members of this particular defense.
CORNERBACK • Shaquille Richardson, Arizona
This time last year, Richardson would have seemed about as unlikely a candidate for this list as they come: He was an ordinary three-star recruit to UCLA, and had barely set foot on campus before he was kicked out of school along with two other Bruin signees for allegedly snatching a fellow student's bag on campus. He wasted no time ingratiating himself in Tucson, though, first on special teams and then as a regular in the secondary; in his first start, Richardson picked off two passes with seven tackles at Washington State and was named both Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Week and Jim Thorpe Defensive Back of the Week nationally.
His final two starts, in losses to USC and Oregon, yielded less spectacular results. But opposite senior Trevin Wade, a more seasoned Shaq stands to give the Wildcats arguably the best cover duo in the conference this side of Eugene.
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Honorable Mention: T'Sharvan Bell (Auburn); Torin Harris (USC); Brandon McGee (Miami); Steve Williams (California).
SAFETY • Aaron Colvin, Oklahoma
Colvin turned a few heads last year as an unexpected freshman contributor at cornerback, even earning his first (and only) career start against Texas before settling in as a nickel corner for the rest of the season. This spring, though, the glaring need in the secondary was at safety, where Colvin assumed the vacancy left by another converted corner, Jonathan Nelson, to fairly rave reviews.
Colvin may be small for a conventional strong safety at 5-10/175 pounds, but — as with Nelson — Bob Stoops has explicitly emphasized coverage at that spot over Ronnie Lott-style headhunting. If you believe his coach, his latest project has also been pleasantly quick on the uptake.
SAFETY • Matt Elam, Florida
As if it was possible to ignore the hype surrounding one of the most coveted recruits in the most talent-rich state in the Union last year, Elam stoked the headlines further with repeated waffling on his commitment to the Gators and even a brief defection to Florida State a month before signing day. But aside from the melodrama, Elam's first year on campus was by-the-book: He played in every game on special teams and in nickel situations, and is on track to take over for NFL-bound Ahmad Black at strong safety, giving the defense up to five five-star starters from the 2010 recruiting class alone.
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Honorable Mention: Isaiah Lewis (Michigan State); Sean Parker (Washington); Eric Reid (LSU).