The Gators return of all 11 defensive starters and all 11 backups has been well publicized this offseason, and for good reason. This could be the 2009 version of the 2008 USC defense. They've got everyone back. That's almost impossible to do. The return of linebacker Brandon Spikes was huge from a leadership and talent standpoint.
Then there's the defensive end tandem of Carlos Dunlap and Jermaine Cunningham who should keep the Gators' sack numbers around the same level. And the secondary will be even better with corners Joe Haden and Janoris Jenkins (who will play this year) entering their junior and sophomore season, respectively. By the way, Brandon James may be the best return man in the country.
Alabama's rise from the ashes of mediocrity was more accelerated than even the most die-hard of Tide fans thought possible. And it wasn't the offense that did it all. Sure the offensive line was great, but it was the play of Nick Saban's defense that really made the Red Elephants feared. Saban is easily one of the best defensive coaches in the game, and he gets nine of his starters back. Not to mention the fact that he's been recruiting as well as anyone since he arrived in Tuscaloosa.
The sack numbers need to rise, and it wouldn't hurt to grab a few more turnovers, but this is still a top defense. The only thing that worries me is the loss of safety Rashad Johnson. He was the undisputed quarterback of this defense, and his importance to the unit can't be overestimated. Javier Arenas is a threat to take a punt to the house every week.
When you're looking at defenses from a special teams inclusive standpoint, it's hard to argue against the Hokies. Frank Beamer's teams have made a living off of their special teams reputation, and this defense has the potential to be Beamer's best bunch. Defensive end Jeremy Worrilds should become a national star after recording seven sacks last season.
The linebackers are a little thin on experience, but have the talent to flourish in Bud Foster's scheme. And the secondary, despite the loss of Macho Harris, could be even better. Stephan Virgil is one of seven returning starters here, and his team-leading six interceptions coupled with Kam Chancellor returning for his second year at free safety could make this unit of one the best in the country. Doesn't hurt that the ACC offenses could be down this year.
There hasn't been a more consistently elite stop unit in the country in recent memory. Sure, the Horned Frogs lost seven starters from their defense, but Gary Patterson says there's no reason to believe this year's group can't be just as good, or even better.
Getting defensive end Jerry Hughes back for one more season was a huge coup for TCU, and he may be the best pure pass-rusher in the country in 2009. Hughes' 15 sacks, 2 INTs, and 6 FFs would be pretty impressive fantasy numbers on his own, but he gets linebacker Daryl Washington back as well as three of four starters in the secondary. Also returning is All-MWC return specialist Jeremy Kerley.
I know this may seem low to some people considering Eric Berry is apparently God's cousin, but Tennessee was much more impressive in yards allowed per game than they were in takeaways or sacks last year. The defense also gets only five starters back. And those starters will have to adjust to Monte Kiffin's system.
Of course, Kiffin has a reputation for doing great things with his secondaries, and he does have the best defensive back in the nation to work with in Berry. Berry is a human highlight reel who can change the game in a split second with a huge fumble-causing hit or an interception. But unless the front seven can generate more pressure, the Tennessee defense will struggle to rack up the sacks, and that's not a great thing for your fantasy defense. Still, this is a consistently great unit with a great new defensive coordinator and plenty of talent to take a chance on.
The Trojans' loss of four NFL linebackers has been pretty well-documented. But that's no reason to believe that they can't be an elite fantasy defense again. The new linebackers are reportedly faster and a step up pressure-wise. And the defensive line looks loaded with four- and five-star recruits ready to become the next marquee players for USC. Oh, and two starters return in the secondary by the names of Taylor Mays and Josh Pinkard.
Pete Carroll has only three full-time starters back, but seven have decent starting experience like Everson Griffen. This is a fantasy defense that you can't overlook because the talent level is as high as it's ever been, and Carroll has proven to be an ace coach on this side of the ball.
Utah was dominant on defense last season, and they rode that trend to a Sugar Bowl upset of Alabama, holding the Tide to 17 points. Big-name players like Paul Kruger and Sean Smith are gone, but there's plenty of talent leftover from last season's 13-0 team to put up some impressive numbers again in 2009. Linebacker Stevenson Sylvester should become a pass-rushing terror after the clinic he put on in New Orleans. Sylvester notched three sacks and a fumble recovery in that one.
Defensive end Koa Misi appears ready to step out of Kruger's shadow and become another great pressure-provider. The secondary also gets back safeties Joe Dale and Robert Johnson, who picked off two passes of his own against Alabama. With the offense down a bit, Utah will have to lean on their defense early, and they appear to be up to the task. The lack of big-time offense outside of BYU in the Moutain West is another reason to like the Utes' chances.
James Laurinaitis? Gone. Malcolm Jenkins? Gone. Donald Washington? Gone. But all is not lost in Columbus. There's a little star power returning for one of the Big Ten's most consistently dominating units. Safeties Anderson Russell and Kurt Coleman are back in the secondary along with spot starter Chimdi Chekwa at corner. And Cameron Heyward is a pretty underrated option at defensive end who should be looking for a breakout season before heading to the NFL. He's joined by three other defensive linemen with good starting experience.
And while the linebackers must replace the leadership and production of Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman, the blue-chip talent is still flooding in, and in all, eight men return with significant starts for the whole unit. That's pretty good news considering the offensive ineptitude the conference has become known for recently.
This is somewhat of a surprise pick considering the lack of attention the Boise defense gets on a national stage. But the Broncos have been as impressive statistically as unit in the country, as they ranked in the top 10 in ppg allowed, takeaways and sacks last season. The offense may get a lot of the credit, but the defense has done its fair share of stopping some pretty explosive WAC scorers.
Five starters are back for the Broncos, including three of four in the secondary. That's where Kyle Wilson, one of the most underrated corners in the nation, calls home. Wilson picked off five passes last season and has a great chance to improve on that number this year. As a whole, Boise took the ball away 33 times last season, and they return 20 of their 22 picks this year. That's a big deal considering how many times WAC teams seem to put the ball in the air. This is a great fantasy defense that can probably be had much later than my ranking would have you believe. Think steal.
This is another somewhat surprising pick. It definitely carries a huge risk, along with a big possible reward. This unit gets eight or nine starters back, depending on whom you ask, and the sack numbers really have nowhere to go but up. Rookie end Da'quan Bowers struggled to make a major impact as a freshman, as he only ended up with one sack in six starts. But he's joined by Ricky Sapp on the other side, and if Sapp can get healthy, someone will get free nearly every play.
The secondary took a hit with the loss of safety Michael Hamlin, but three other experienced players are back including all-conference candidate Crezdon Butler. Butler has never had less than three picks in a season, and could improve this year with new coordinator Kevin Steele coming over from Alabama. Steele is implementing a hybrid 3-4/4-3 pressure system that should have the Tigers attacking more, and that's what you want out of your fantasy defense. With so much speed on this team (C.J. Spiller, Jacoby Ford and Butler) expect some good things in the return game as well.
California Golden Bears (don't laugh, they created a load of turnovers last year)
LSU Tigers (John Chavis has an insane amount of talent to work with)
Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Penn State Nittany Lions
West Virginia Mountaineers
Rutgers Scarlet Knights
North Carolina Tar Heels
South Florida Bulls (if George Selvie returns to sophomore form, this will be a much higher unit)