DB Andrew Sendejo, Rice- A rock at 6’1, 213, Sendajo is also one of Conference USA’s best kept secrets. Incredibly active, he’s one of the most versatile defensive backs in the entire country, intercepting five passes (one returned for a touchdown) and notching up 107 tackles in 2007 as a true sophomore. Sendejo is one of the rare combinations of a guy with great range who also happens to be a ferocious hitter, and looks primed to lead what figures to be a much improved Rice Owl defense is 2008.
DE Larry English, Northern Illinois- NIU may have struggled through an injury plagued 2007 campaign, but for the second consecutive year defensive end Larry English was all but unstoppable for opposing offensive lines. The rising senior recorded 10.5 sacks, 17 tackles for loss, and recovered a fumble for a touchdown in 2007. At 6’3, 254 he figures to be a classic tweener at the next level, but for now he remains one of the most relentless defensive ends in the game. With NIU rebuilding under new head coach Jerry Kill, I look for English to lead a refocused defense in 2008.
OLB Clayton Mullins, Miami (Oh)- The reigning MAC Defensive Player of the Year, Mullins played like a man possessed in 2007 for the Red Hawks, totaling 143 tackles (69 solo, 16 tfl), four sacks, and six passes defended. At 6’2, 235 he has next level size for his position at outside linebacker, and more than enough speed and recognition ability to make plays both between the lines and on the perimeter. The leader of the MAC’s best defense, Mullins and Miami should contend for the MAC title yet again in 2008.
LB Frantz Joseph, Florida Atlantic- A big part of FAU’s unlikely turnaround in 2007, Joseph finished 28th in the country in tackles per game last year with just over 10 per contest. He also led the Sun Belt conference in tackles for loss (17) while recording two interceptions and two and a half sacks. Originally a transfer from Boston College, Joseph is a tremendous competitor with great range and instincts who should have FAU back in contention for the Sun Belt crown in 2008.
LB Adam Leonard, Hawaii- A first team all WAC selection in 2007, Leonard is not only one of the WAC’s hardest hitters, but one of its biggest defensive playmakers. Second on the team with 105 tackles last season (53 solo, 11.5 tfl) Leonard also took two interceptions back for touchdowns and broke up four passes. Not the tallest player, he nevertheless has a great feel for the game and the always underrated ability to shed blocks with ease. He’s a versatile player can play either the “mac” or “buck” linebacker positions as they’re known in Honolulu, and should be a major asset in new head coach Greg McMackin’s efforts to keep the program competitive.
DT John Fletcher, Wyoming- One of the major factors in Wyoming’s defensive dominance over the past two years, Fletcher is the 6’6, 275-lb stonewall that anchors the Cowboy defensive line. A dominating force inside with long arms and a powerful upper body, Fletcher registered an unusually high 10.5 sacks from the defensive tackle position last year, in addition to 14 tackles for a loss. His size and athleticism makes him a potential NFL sleeper down the road, but for now he remains the anchor on one of the country’s best and most underrated defensive lines.
FS Ryan Downard, Eastern Michigan- When commentators use the term “playing center field” to describe the actions of a free safety, their explaining the way rising sophomore Ryan Downard played in 2007 to a tee. Downard is one of those guys who has the uncanny ability to just make plays on the football, picking off six passes as a redshirt freshmen last year. I love his feel for the game at free safety, and he shows maturity beyond his years in reading quarterbacks. His continued progression gives perennial MAC bottom feeder Eastern Michigan a chance to be competitive in the MAC next season.
CB Joe Burnett, Central Florida- A rising senior who originally declared for the 2008 NFL draft, Burnett instead chose to return to Central Florida for his senior season after a monster junior campaign in 2007. An aggressive corner who excels against both the pass (12 career interceptions) and the run (148 career solo stops), Burnett also doubles as one of the nation’s most explosive punt returners with three career touchdown returns. His versatility and nose for the football make him not only one of the best defenders in the conference, but also a potential Day 1 draft pick in next year’s draft.
DB Wyatt Middleton, Navy- While I’m willing to admit that this is a blatently homeristic call on my part, I truly believe Middleton is the second coming of former Navy great Josh Smith, who recorded about a bazillion tackles for the Mids between 2002-2004 and was basically a one-man wrecking crew who I swear could have made it in the NFL had he wanted to. Middleton isn’t overly flashy (at least not yet) but he does do what 95% of college defenders can’t- he tackles with proper form. In a day and age where defenders almost always leave their feet, forget to bring their arms, and most of the time get truly and disgustingly high pad level, Middleton displays proper form and good courage against much bigger players. While my esteemed colleague has often noticed his habit of being out of position in the passing game, a solid spring should pay dividends on the field in 2008. Note: UCF cornerback
Johnell Neal was to be included in this list until a recent shooting on May 10th left him injured and put his status in jeopardy for the 2008 season. Neal, who recently graduated early from UCF, picked off six passes in 2007 and broke up another ten. We wish him a speedy recovery and return to the field, whether it be on the college level or the next.