Florida State has a promising young guard tandem in Josue Matias and Tre Jackson. Listed at 6'5" and 320/325 pounds, respectively, FSU flipped these two sophomores late in the 2011 recruiting cycle, and they both played as freshmen, flashing both talent and inexperience. Now a year older, there is justified excitement that the 'Noles could have their best guard tandem since 2009, when FSU trotted out Rodney Hudson as a junior and David Spurlock as a sophomore (pre-concussion edition). Throw in sophomore center Austin Barron (listed at 6'3" 295), and the excitement only grows. While these starters are not set in stone, they are the most likely grouping at this point.
Excitement for the guard-center-guard combo is not a common occurrence among college football fans. But Florida State dealt with a myriad of injury issues and musical chairs last season, as an incredible eight players took meaningful snaps along the three positions. That's not normal. Offensive linemen rarely rotate or substitute. A reasonable expectation would be four or five. Maybe six. But, eight? Crazy. Any measure of consistency, competency and certainty is a cause for celebration in Tallahassee. FSU might just have that in Matias-Barron-Jackson. And three reserves with experience also return.
But those three won't be playing against air. Here's a look at the top defensive tackle tandems they'll face, in order of difficulty.
The future looks especially bright on the interior of the defensive line. The experienced and dependable Hopkins brothers return. Sophomore Derrick Hopkins (6'0" 305) was the star of the group this past season with 51 tackles and 3 sacks despite facing a double-teams for a good bit of the season. There's a lot of depth at DT, something that was severely lacking in 2011. Luther Maddy (6'1" 288) and Corey Marshall (6'1" 260) are two rising sophomores that saw significant playing time filling in for Antoine Hopkins (6'1" 318). Fans should especially be excited about Maddy who came in as an unheralded true freshman and was able to move past more experienced players on the depth chart. Highly touted 4-star recruit Kris Harley (6'0" 283) is looking to make a name for himself after redshirting.
Very Good Starting Pair
Miami Hurricanes Curtis Porter (6'1" 310) and Darius Smith (6'2" 350) form a very nice tandem. The 'Canes don't have a lot of depth here, but Porter is quite talented (though rarely healthy), and Smith is a space eater at 330+ pounds. Miami's is again likely to play a small middle linebacker, and he doesn't stand a chance if Jackson and Matias can get to him. Porter and Smith will try to keep that from happening. Oh, and there is an enormous drop off from these guys to the reserves. If the backups are pressed into action, the 'Canes plummet way down this list.
Potentially Very Good
Florida Gators Shariff Floyd (6'3" 305) is a star and has the talent to be a high draft choice after this year. Dominique Easley (6'2" 286) is recovering from knee surgery after suffering an injury against Florida State. He has plenty of time to get healthy, and if he returns to his 2011 form, is quite good. Newcomer Damien Jacobs (6'3" 310) is a JUCO transfer who committed to Florida State out of high school. He has some obvious talent, but is a large unknown. Omar Hunter is a big body (6'1" 314) who would start at many of the other schools on this list. Florida is the wildcard here, due to the unknown status of Easley and Hunter.
South Florida Bulls Cory Grissom (6'2" 321) is the returning nose guard. He's a solid player who will likely play in the NFL. Elkino Watson (6'2" 288) had a nice year for a freshman and will look to improve on that. After that, there is a lot of depth, albeit unproven. Luke Sager played a few snaps last year, but at 6'3" and 277 pounds, he'll need to add bulk in the off-season to make an impact. James Hamilton (6'4" 335) was a one-time FSU commitment before opting for early playing time at USF. He did enroll early, but it's doubtful he'll make much of an impact. The wildcard here is Todd Chandler (6'0" 297), who has some talent and could impress if he is OK in the classroom. This was already a good USF defense and it should continue to improve.
Boston College Eagles The big wildcard here is Kaleb Ramsey (6'3" 288), a very good player who missed 2011 with a back injury. He can be an all-conference player if he comes back at 100%. If not, one of Dominic Appiah (6'5" 291) or Max Ricco (6'4" 302) are going to need to reach their potential a year early. Dillon Quinn is a decent senior at 6'6" 312. I'm hedging on BC here. If Ramsey is back at 100%, they're undervalued. If not, they're potentially overrated by me. This was not a great group in 2011, but is usually quite solid under Spaziani.
Clemson Tigers With the loss of Brandon Thompson, Rennie Moore and Tyler Shatley (moved to offensive line), Clemson returns only 15% of its defensive tackle snaps from the 2011 season. Ouch. DeShawn Williams should be a good player, perhaps as early as 2012. The Tigers will count on Tavaris Barnes, Grady Jarrett and Jerome Maybank to combine for the remaining ~1200 meaningful snaps. The Clemson experts do not seem optimistic. Clemson is an offense that probes and prods and depends on running a lot of plays and getting a lot of possessions. Holding the ball against Clemson is important in beating the Tigers, making this matchup even more important than normal.
N.C. State Wolfpack Thomas Teal is a (6'2" 315) red-shirt sophomore. He's large, and in the typical Tom O'Brien nose mold. T.Y. McGill (6'1" 290) is the true sophomore three-technique. There are many unknowns here, including Deylan Buntyn (6'4" 330), a junior college transfer.
Wake Forest Demon Deacons They run a 3-4, so I'm looking solely at the nose guard position. Nikita Whitlock (5'11" 270) is the nose in this funky one-gap system. He gave trouble last year, and is a good player with great quickness, but FSU should do better against him in 2012. The backup is Frank Souza, a red-shirt junior at 6'4" and 280 pounds.
I'm not even going to attempt to discuss Maryland until after spring ball. Duke, Charleston Southern and Savannah State are not worth writing up.