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.
First-Team Defensive Ends:
Sam Montgomery, LSU
Entering his junior season, Montgomery is the only All-American defensive end who is returning to college football. The other five ends are in the NFL, and four of them were selected in the first or second round in the 2012 NFL Draft. Montgomery was a Third-Team pick in 2011, and that was with him coming off a season-ending knee injury from the year before. He started five games in 2010 before torn knee ligaments ended his season.
Montgomery bounced back in 2011 and had a massive season for the Tigers. He totaled 49 tackles with 13.5 tackles for a loss, nine sacks and a forced fumble. Montgomery was a productive pass-rusher and led an All-Star defensive line in sacks. He was the only LSU defensive line to be selected by the conference's coaches as a First-Team All-SEC member. Teammates Barkevious Mingo and Michael Brockers were on the Second-Team.
The 6-foot-4, 245-pound Montgomery needs to add weight and develop more pass-rushing moves. Another year removed from his injury, he could be more explosive. LSU has a great supporting cast elsewhere on the defensive line and behind him. Montgomery could easily be better in this season now that he has a full season of experience battling in the SEC. Montgomery plays for a high profile team and should produce at a high level in 2012.
Barkevious Mingo, LSU
Even though Montgomery led LSU in sacks, in many ways Mingo was the more disruptive member of the elite duo. Mingo is a fabulous athlete and a pure speed-rusher. He has a fabulous burst off the snap with a lot of untapped potential.
Mingo initiated many big plays for the Tigers' defense as a redshirt sophomore and was more impactful than his stats indicate. He recorded 46 tackles, 15 tackles for a loss, eight sacks and a forced fumble. Even though Mingo didn't record double-digit sacks, he put a ton of pressures on the quarterback. Mingo consistently beat his blocker to harass the signal-caller into the throwing the ball before he wanted to.
Like Montgomery, Mingo (6-5, 240) should be able to add weight as he has a tall frame that isn't maxed out. Adding some strength would help Mingo to hold up better in run defense and make him more difficult to block as a pass-rusher. Mingo has real upside, and it wouldn't be surprising if he is one of the nation's leaders in sacks in 2012.
Second-Team Defensive Ends:
Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas
Jeffcoat is another special athlete with budding potential. The son of Jim Jeffcoat, Jackson Jeffcoat was a second-team All-Big XII selection last year. He had 54 tackles with 16.5 tackles for a loss, 7.5 sacks and three passes broken up on the season. With Jeffcoat combining with end Alex Okafor, the Texas Longhorns were the only team in the Big XII to field a decent defense.
Jeffcoat was quiet in the beginning of the season. He didn't record a sack in the first six games of the year before catching fire with 4.5 sacks in four games. The streak was snapped against Texas A&M and its All Star tackle tandem of Jake Matthews and Luke Joeckel. However, Jeffcoat did have a number of pressures in that game.
All of Jeffcoat's 7.5 sacks came in the second half of the season, with two sacks against California in Texas' Bowl victory. The Longhorns used the athletic end in a variety of ways. He rushed as a standup outside linebacker; he put his hand in the ground as a defensive end; he dropped into pass coverage as a linebacker, and even played some defensive tackle. As a result of the variation, Jeffcoat lost some pass-rushing opportunities, so he could have had a bigger total if Texas had let him go after the quarterback in every possible passing situation.
There is no doubt that Jeffcoat is blessed with a lot of physical talent. He has real speed off the edge and has a nice start on developing his body. The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder could develop into a defender with size, speed and athleticism. Jeffcoat just needs to continue to add some power and develop his pass-rushing moves. He could easily produce a massive 2012 season.
Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
It is difficult for underclassmen to make the All-American teams, but Clowney is the rare kind of elite player who is capable of bucking the trend. The prep superstar was the top recruit in the nation and didn't disappoint as a freshman. He was the SEC Freshman of the Year and a Second-Team All-SEC selection.
Clowney showed off elite speed and athleticism as a pass-rusher. His burst off the edge is superb, and he has great agility to move around blockers. Clowney totaled 36 tackles with eight sacks, 12 tackles for a loss and five forced fumbles in his first collegiate season. He did well against top competition including a good game against Georgia's Cordy Glenn. The 6-foot-6, 256-pound Clowney looks like he will become a dominant force in 2012 and 2013.
With Melvin Ingram in the NFL, the Gamecocks will look to Clowney to lead their defense. He seems fully capable of doing that. Of all the defensive ends on this list, Clowney may have the most upside and elite potential for the next level. Right now, he looks like a top-five pick in the 2014 or 2015 NFL Draft.
Third-Team Defensive Ends:
Brandon Jenkins, Florida State
For most defensive ends, an eight-sack season is something to be proud of, but for Jenkins it was a down year. The Seminoles speed-rusher was somewhat disappointing as a junior. Jenkins started the season slowly as he faced a plethora of double teams. He had two sacks in the first six games before heating up down the stretch. In the final seven games, Jenkins had six sacks to go along with a number of pressures on the quarterback. He totaled 41 tackles with 12 tackles for a loss in 2011.
The attention that Jenkins demanded helped defensive end Bjourn Werner enjoy a breakout season. Jenkins on the other hand, had a massive year for Florida State in 2010. Jenkins notched 13.5 sacks with 21.5 tackles for a loss, 63 tackles and two forced fumbles. He had five multi-sack games and was voted the team's MVP.
Jenkins (6-3, 265) is a speedy edge-rusher who has developed some pass-rushing moves. With his experience, supporting cast and skill set, there is no reason to think that Jenkins won't have a good senior season. In the long-term as a professional, he could fit well in a NFL 3-4 defense as an edge-rusher.
The biggest negative about Jenkins is that he could be more physical at times. Jenkins is a well-known player who should have big career totals to help him make the All-American team as a senior.
Corey Lemonier, Auburn
Lemonier was one of the most underrated defenders in the SEC last season. He was an active rusher who made his presence felt for a rebuilding Auburn team. The speed-rusher Lemonier rushes with nice leverage and is extremely explosive. He gets pushed around at times in the ground game, but the 6-foot-4, 240-pounder is still developing his body.
Lemonier broke out as a sophomore in 2011 with 47 tackles, 13.5 tackles for a loss, 9.5 sacks and five forced fumbles. He could use more experience to develop his awareness, run defense, pass-rushing moves and strength. However, Lemonier has tons of potential to be an even bigger force in 2012. He will have to overcome a lot of extra blocking attention this season. It wouldn't be surprising if that slowed Lemonier down in the early going of the season.
Honorable Mentions: Michigan State defensive end William Gholston, Texas defensive end Alex Okafor, Florida State defensive end Bjourn Werner, Illinois defensive end Michael Buchanan, North Carolina defensive end Kareem Martin, Ohio State defensive end John Simon, SMU defensive end Margus Hunt, USC defensive end Wes Horton, South Carolina defensive end Devin Taylor, Pittsburgh defensive end Aaron Donald, Texas A&M defensive end Damontre Moore, TCU defensive end Stansly Maponga, Missouri defensive end Brad Madison, Oregon defensive end Dion Jordan and Virginia Tech defensive end James Gayle.