It’s Rankings Week at TideNation. Every day we’ll rank some facet of the Alabama football program heading in 2013. Today we’re ranking the top 10 defensive players the Tide will face this season. On Thursday we’ll switch gears and rank the top 10 freshmen with a chance of making the biggest impact in the fall for UA.
Ranking the defensive players
1. DT Anthony Johnson (LSU): Stop me if you're heard this one before: LSU has one of the best defensive line prospects in the country. Yeah, this year is no different as Johnson steps to the forefront, already the No. 22 prospect on Mel Kiper's early Big Board. The 6-foot-3, 310-pound linemen is nicknamed Freak for a reason. Even behind players like Barkevious Mingo, Sam Montgomery and Bennie Logan, Johnson shined as a raw talent capable of terrorizing offenses up the middle.
2. LB Denzel Nkemdiche (Ole Miss): He isn't a typical linebacker because of his relatively slight frame, and he's certainly not what you'd call a safety. But Nkemdiche is what every coach covets: a playmaker. In Ole Miss' complex defense, Nkemdiche thrives. He led the Rebels with 82 tackles and chipped in with team-leading 13 tackles for loss. He even finished tied for first with three interceptions.
3. DE James Gayle (Virginia Tech): We'll know right away whether Alabama's retooled offensive line is capable of living up to last year's standard, as Gayle and the Virginia Tech pass rush comes calling in the season opener. As a junior, Gayle tallied 43 tackles and five sacks on his way to a second-team All-ACC selection. He turned down the NFL and comes back to Blacksburg as one of nine returning starters on defense.
4. LB A.J. Johnson (Tennessee): It's tough to find a player in the SEC who produced more last season than Johnson, who racked up 138 tackles for the Volunteers. The 50th-ranked player on Kiper's early Big Board, Johnson is a guy who can keep Alabama's ground game from running away from what stands to be a lackluster Tennessee defense.
5. LB Lamin Barrow (LSU): Barrow was understandably lost in the haze of NFL prospects in Death Valley last season. But the 6-2, 229-pound linebacker did finish with a whopping 104 tackles, five pass breakups and five quarterback hurries. There will be a lot of new faces on defense for the Tigers in 2013, and Barrow should serve as the glue to hold the operation together.
6. DT Daniel McCullers (Tennessee): The Vols very own Mount Cody, McCullers is the kind of big-bodied nose guard you can build a defense around. The 6-8, 370-pound prospect ranks 43rd on Kiper's early Big Board, and could see his stock rise farther with a solid 2013 campaign.
7. S Craig Loston (LSU): Loston is a rising star on the Tigers defense who very nearly spirited all the way to the NFL after last season. Unlike many of LSU's underclassmen, Loston decided to return, and coach Les Miles should consider himself lucky for having a veteran to anchor what is an otherwise green secondary. Loston played in 12 games last season and finished with a respectable 55 tackles and three interceptions on his way to a second-team All-SEC selection.
8. DE Dee Ford and Nosa Eguae (Auburn): Say what you will about Ellis Johnson the head coach, but Ellis Johnson the defensive coordinator knows what he's doing. And with a few parts still remaining on Auburn's defense, Johnson has a chance to outdo expectations on the Plains. Ford, who led the Tigers in sacks last season, and Eguae have the tools Johnson can build around up front.
9. LB Avery Williamson (Kentucky): You might not know his name, but the 6-1, 243-pound linebacker finished second in the SEC in tackles (135) and led the conference in solo stops (70) in 2012. With new head coach Mike Stoops breathing new life into the program and its underwhelming defense, Williamson could see his profile rise this season.
10. DE Chris Smith (Arkansas): The Razorbacks were a mess last season, but it wasn't all bad news for Arkansas fans as Smith emerged as a quality pass-rusher, finishing fourth in the SEC with 9.5 sacks. He and fellow defensive end Trey Flowers combined for a solid 26 tackles for loss last season and helped Arkansas to a top 25 finish nationally in sacks.