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Heading into the 2012 college football season, WalterFootball.com will debut our projections for the nation's leaders during the fall. The All-American teams always have some surprises, and the next fall's stars could be the headline players next April for the 2013 NFL Draft.
David Amerson, North Carolina State
In 2011, Amerson had one of the best seasons ever for a cornerback in college football history. That is no exaggeration: he intercepted passes at a prolific rate. The sophomore led the nation with 13 total picks. Amerson set school and ACC records, plus registered the second-highest interceptions total in FBS history. The ACC single-season interceptions record had been held by Dre Bly, but Amerson tied it in the regular season and set his new record in the postseason.
Aside from the turnovers, Amerson chipped in 59 tackles and five passes broken up. The 6-foot-3, 194-pounder has an extremely rare skill set. It is obvious to everybody that he has tremendous ball skills. Amerson also has great length, hands, body control and physicality. His instincts are outstanding, and he had an uncanny ability to trick quarterbacks into throwing his direction.
That characteristic will be put to the test in 2012 as teams will avoid Amerson throughout the fall. The number of opportunities for him to pick off passes will be sharply reduced. If Amerson has an interception total in the 4-6 range, that would be excellent and surprising. He has big-time name recognition with the voters after being a Second-Team pick last year. Amerson enters the season as the top cornerback in the nation and a heavy favorite to be a First-Team All-American.
Tyrann Mathieu, LSU
There is no doubt that Mathieu was one of the best players in college football last year. He was an absolute force who constantly produced game-changing plays for the Tigers' defense. That stifling defense led LSU to an undefeated regular season and SEC Championship. The Tigers lost the National Championship to the rival Crimson Tide, but Mathieu was a rare defensive finalist for the Heisman Trophy.
Mathieu, a sophomore in 2011, tied for the team lead with 76 tackles. He also had 7.5 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, two interceptions and nine passes broken up. Additionally, Mathieu served as a punt returner last season, averaging 16 yards per return with two brought back for touchdowns. He compiled 57 tackles with 8.5 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, two interceptions and seven passes broken up as a freshman in 2010.
Even though Mathieu is extremely undersized at 5-foot-9, 175-pounds, he plays larger. His instincts are tremendous, and he always seems to be a step ahead of every other player on the field. Mathieu has a great supporting cast on defense and two years of experience. There is no reason to think he won't be a First-Team All-American for the second straight season.
Xavier Rhodes, Florida State
Rhodes is underrated across college football. However, he made an immediate impact for Florida State breaking into the lineup as a redshirt freshman. Rhodes recorded 58 tackles with four interceptions and 12 passes broken up. He was named the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2010. Rhodes was consistent as a cover corner last season and teams threw away from him. The sophomore had 43 tackles with an interception and four passes broken up.
In Florida State's bowl win over Notre Dame, Rhodes shut down one of the best receivers in college football, the Irish's Michael Floyd. An injury knocked Rhodes out in the second half, but it was an extremely impressive performance that showed that he has shutdown ability against elite receivers. The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder has the size to take on any receiver.
It wouldn't be surprising if Rhodes has a massive 2012 season. Florida State has a ton of talent on the defensive line. Theat line could force many errant passes, and Rhodes could benefit with a jump in his interception totals. Even if that doesn't happen, he constantly provides tight coverage and that won't go unnoticed. If Rhodes performs well against the speed receivers of Clemson and Florida, he should get the recognition that he deserves as an All-American.
DeMarcus Milliner, Alabama
Nobody should be surprised if Milliner is a breakout player in 2012. A year ago, LSU junior cornerback Morris Claiborne was considered to be a late first-round or early second-round pick entering the season. Claiborne was replacing Patrick Peterson on the other side from Mathieu.
This year, Milliner is in a similar situation as a replacement for Dre Kirkpatrick. Alabama lost Kirkpatrick, Mark Barron and DeQuan Menzie to the NFL. However there is still plenty of talent around Milliner for him to produce a big season.
The junior Milliner has unique size, speed and athleticism. He has a special skill set to be a standout player in the SEC. The 6-foot-1, 199-pounder was the nickelback last year and really played well. Milliner did a good job as teams threw his direction to avoid other players in Alabama's secondary and ended up leading the Crimson Tide in interceptions. He had 27 tackles with three interceptions and nine passes broken up.
Milliner is being counted on to be a playmaker for the Crimson Tide's defense. It wouldn't be at all surprising if he produces a massive season that sees his stock rise toward being a definite first-rounder when he enters the draft. Playing for the defending champs will get Milliner plenty of notice, and he should be in prime contention to be an All-American.
Johnthan Banks, Mississippi State
Over the past three seasons, Banks has been one of the more reliable and consistent cornerbacks in the SEC. He broke into the lineup as a freshman and recorded 33 tackles with four interceptions, including two pick-sixes at the expense of Tim Tebow. Banks had 54 stops and three interceptions as sophomore. He had his best season last year with 71 tackles, five interceptions, three sacks, three forced fumbles and nine passes broken up.
Banks has turned into a real force in the SEC. He has a nice combination of size, speed and athleticism. Mississippi State has some talent, but Banks (6-2, 185) is the team's best player, so he will be relied on to create splash plays. That will be a challenge considering teams will likely avoid him and target other defensive backs.
Still, Banks is an instinctive player who has improved every season in college football. It wouldn't be surprising if he broke into the All-American ranks in his final season.
Carrington Byndom, Texas
It was tough to chose the final All-American, but Byndom could be the most likely of the remaining corners to produce a breakout season. Consider some other well-known corners: Michigan State's Johnny Adams and Iowa's Micah Hyde are both in a running conference; Washington's Desmond Trufant already has teams avoiding him and picking on the rest of the Huskies' secondary - see the Alamo Bowl versus Baylor. Thus, Byndom could be the most likely defensive back to produce a big year.
Byndom plays in the Big XII, which is college football's version of Arena football. Every week, Texas takes on offensea that are based around the passing attack, so he will have plenty of opportunities to show his coverage and ball skills. Byndom has two good defensive ends in Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor to pressure the quarterback in 2012.
Byndom had a very good sophomore season last year, making 53 tackles, seven tackles for a loss, 15 passes broken up and two interceptions. One interception came against future top-10 pick Ryan Tannehill and was returned 58 yards for a touchdown.
The junior Byndom (6-0, 180) has a starting NFL skill set and was a First-Team All-Big XII selection by many media outlets. He could be poised to have a breakout season for the Longhorns.
Honorable Mentions: Washington cornerback Desmond Trufant, Iowa cornerback Micah Hyde, Michigan State cornerback Johnny Adams, Oregon State cornerback Jordan Poyer, Oklahoma cornerback Demontre Hurst, Rutgers cornerback Logan Ryan, Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller, USC cornerback Nickell Robey, Georgia cornerback Branden Smith, Florida cornerback Marcus Roberson, Oklahoma State cornerbacks Justin Gilbert and Brodrick Brown.