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.
Tony Jefferson, Oklahoma
The expectations were high for Jefferson last year after he was the the Big XII Freshman of the Year in 2010. In his debut season, Jefferson started nine games and recorded 65 tackles with seven tackles for a loss, two sacks, two interceptions and seven passes broken up. He was even better last season, totaling 74 tackles, four interceptions, 4.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for a loss, three passes broken up and one forced fumble.
The 5-foot-10, 199-pound Jefferson is an excellent pass-defender who covers a lot of ground in the deep part of the field. He does a good job of picking up receivers running deep and has the athletic ability to play man coverage on tight ends. Jefferson also is solid in run support. The athletic and instinctive safety has a high ceiling and could be in store for another big season or two for the Sooners.
In the Big XII, Jefferson will face a passing attack on a weekly basis. The pass-happy conference is perfect for him to make a big impact. He should get a plethora of opportunities to pick off passes this year. Now that Jefferson has a lot of experience, nothing should take him by surprise. He is a difference-maker and a regular generator of splash plays. Jefferson seems poised for a big season and a nice interception total.
Eric Reid, LSU
2011 was a breakout season for Reid. It was his first full season as a starter. He was a physical force for the Tigers and an integral defender for stopping the run.
Reid had tons of talent playing around him last year. He was teamed with safety Brandon Taylor, cornerback Morris Claiborne, cornerback Tyrann Mathieu and cornerback Ron Brooks to form the best secondary in the nation. Reid was the physical enforcer of the secondary. The 6-foot-2, 208-pound is an extremely hard-hitter and has the intelligence to lay those hard shots without incurring penalties.
Reid tied with Mathieu for the team lead in tackles in 2011 with 76. Reid also had two interceptions, two tackles for a loss, three passes broken up and two forced fumbles.
The sophomore stepped up and played his best football against the best competition. He had a huge game in the first contest against Alabama and was the SEC Defensive Player of the Week, recording six tackles with an interception and forced fumble. The fumble came on a vicious hit on sure-handed running back Trent Richardson, while the interception saw Reid outwrestle a tight end for a pass on the goal line. In the rematch, Reid played well again and had 11 tackles in the contest.
Brooks, Taylor and Claiborne have moved on to the NFL, but Mathieu and Reid will form a formidable duo in 2012. Voters have gotten to know Reid, and he stands a good chance of being an All-American with a good season. LSU brings back a phenomenal defensive line. That line should force many errant throws, and Reid has the capacity to produce a nice interception total this season. Plus, he now has a year of starting experience to draw upon.
T.J. McDonald, USC
Like the Sooners' Jefferson, McDonald made an impact early in his collegiate career. Even though he had to replace the heralded Taylor Mays, McDonald was an upgrade for the Trojans' defense. He presented no loss in hitting ability, but McDonald's better instincts was the real difference. McDonald has been one of the most reliable defenders in the Pac-12 over the past two seasons.
The sophomore led USC in tackles in 2010 with 89. He also had three tackles for a loss, four passes broken up, three interceptions and a blocked punt. McDonald had 67 tackles, three picks, two passes broken up and a blocked kick last season.
McDonald (6-3, 205) has a fantastic and versatile skill set. He has the speed to play free safety and cover a lot of ground in the deep part of the field. McDonald also has good size and strength to play in the tackle box. He passed on being one of top safeties in a weak 2012 safety class. If McDonald had entered the draft, he could've been a first- or second-round pick.
McDonald has been a technically-sound safety in Monte Kiffin's defense. The safety is assignment-sound and, rarely, if ever, is caught out of position.
McDonald is consistent, so he should produce a quality year and be a prime All-American candidate.
Bacarri Rambo, Georgia
If Rambo wasn't suspended for a quarter of the regular season, he would be a First-Team pick. He was a First-Team selection in 2011 after a dominant year for the Bulldogs. Rambo had an excellent junior season and was second in the nation with eight interceptions. He also had 52 tackles with seven passes broken up. Rambo is a physical run-defender with excellent instincts that allow him to get in position to make plays.
Rambo (6-0, 218) has a quick first step and is adept at reading a signal-caller's eyes to get in position to create turnovers. He totaled 82 tackles, three interceptions, three passes broken up and three forced fumbles as a sophomore in 2010.
Rambo had a one-game suspension at the start of last season because of being in a car stop that resulted in the drug-related arrest of one of his friends. Rambo failed a drug test this spring and said that he unknowingly ate some pot brownies while on Spring Break in Panama City, Florida. That suspension almost caused him to enter the NFL's supplemental draft.
Rambo will almost certainly have a drop in production this year. Losing four games against some weak opponents will take away opportunities against lesser competition. The SEC has seen Rambo be a disruptive player for two years and will be game-planning for him in 2012. If the senior is able to be a Second-Team All-American that will be a nice feat for him to conclude his collegiate career with.
Robert Lester, Alabama
Lester has been a reliable and playmaking defender for Alabama over the past two seasons. He paired with First-Team All-American Mark Barron in 2011 to lock down the deep middle of the Crimson Tide defense. Barron and Lester were integral defenders in a defense that led Alabama to a National Championship. Even though, Lester played well as a junior, he was better as a sophomore.
Lester had a breakout year in 2010. He was second in the nation with eight interceptions in his first season as a starter. Lester also chipped in 52 tackles, one sack and four passes broken up. Lester totaled 36 tackles, three passes broken up, one forced fumble, one blocked kick and two interceptions last season. He was close on a lot of other potential interceptions.
Lester (6-2, 210) is definitely capable of producing more as a senior than he did as a junior. Barron had a dynamite sophomore season; followed it up with a disappointing junior year; and then came back strong to finish his career with a superb senior season. Playing at a high-profile school like Alabama will get Lester noticed by voters, and he could easily be higher on the All-American squad.
Matt Elam, Florida
It was tough to chose the final All-American, but Elam could be the most likely of the remaining safeties to produce a breakout season. He is extremely talented and could be on the cusp of a massive season. There has been steady improvement from Elam, who was the No. 1 recruit in the state of Florida after his senior season in high school.
As a true freshman, Elam began to earn more playing time over the course the year. Eventually, he started in place of disappointing junior Will Hill. Elam recorded 22 tackles in 2010 as well as a sack and a pass broken up. He was significantly better last year and was the most consistent player on Florida's defense. Elam recorded 78 tackles with 11 tackles for a loss, two interceptions, seven passes broken up and two forced fumbles.
The junior is an underrated player for 2012, even though when watching Florida last season, one couldn't help but notice him flying all over the field. Elam (5-10, 205) is fast, instinctive and physical. He has a high ceiling and could be one of the top safeties in the nation over the next year or two.
Honorable Mentions: Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro, Miami safety Ray Ray Armstrong, Louisville safety Hakeem Smith, Georgia Tech safety Isaiah Johnson, Oregon safety John Boyett, Ohio State C.J. Barnett, North Carolina State safety Brandan Bishop, Tennessee safety Prentiss Wagner, South Carolina safety DeVonte Holloman and Miami safety Vaughn Telemaque.