- Mike DiRocco, ESPN Staff Writer
It’s Rankings Week at GatorNation. Every day we’ll rank some aspect of the Florida football program heading into the 2013 season. Today we’re ranking the top 10 defensive players the Gators will face this season. On Thursday we’ll rank the top 10 UF freshmen that have the chance of making the biggest impact in the fall.
Ranking the defensive players
1. DE Jadeveon Clowney (South Carolina): Clowney (6-feet-6, 256 pounds) is arguably the best player in the country and is even mentioned as a Heisman Trophy favorite as a defender. He had a mammoth sophomore season in which he was second in the SEC in sacks in 2012 (13.0). Clowney can’t be handled one-on-one because he’s so athletic and quick, but even with help he’s nearly impossible to stop.
2. LB A.J. Johnson (Tennessee): The Vols struggled in 2012, but it wasn’t because of the 6-2, 240-pound Johnson. He led the SEC with 138 tackles and was pretty much the only bright spot on a defense that didn’t match up talent-wise to the program’s standard. Johnson also led the Vols with six rushing touchdown as a wildcat quarterback.
3. LB Jordan Jenkins (Georgia): Jenkins is only a sophomore, but he had five sacks last season and has pledged to break Jarvis Jones’ school sacks record. Actually, a more impressive stat from 2012 is his 23 quarterback hurries. He’s got the size (6-3, 257 pounds), speed and athleticism to become an elite pass rusher -- which most predict will happen in 2013.
4. LB Lamin Barrow (LSU): Barrow’s name never got mentioned much last season, but that’s because Kevin Minter, Sam Montgomery, Barkevious Mingo, Eric Reid, and Bennie Logan deservedly stole all the headlines. But the 6-2, 229-pound Barrow did have 104 tackles (more than anyone but Minter), five pass breakups and five quarterback hurries. He’s the top linebacker on the Tigers’ defense now.
5. DT Anthony Johnson (LSU): The 6-3, 310-pound Johnson, nicknamed Freak, was stuck behind Logan on the depth chart in 2012, but still managed to record 30 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, and 3.0 sacks. Now that he’s the starter, expect him to become the same kind of force in the middle that Logan was over the past two seasons.
6. DT Timmy Jernigan (Florida State): The 6-2, 298-pound Jernigan didn’t get the attention that ends Bjoern Werner and Cornelius Carradine did, but he was one of the Seminoles’ best defensive players. He had 46 tackles and 8.0 tackles for loss, which shows how disruptive he can be.
7. CB Lamarcus Joyner (Florida State): Joyner moved to corner from safety in the spring and the transition appeared to go smoothly. Joyner isn’t very big at 5-8 and 195 pounds, but he has made 27 consecutive starts and played in every game in his first three seasons. He had 51 tackles and five pass breakups last year and is among the school’s all-time kick return leaders.
8. LB Avery Williamson (Kentucky): The 6-1, 243-pound Williamson finished second in the SEC in tackles (135) but led the league in solo tackles (70) in 2012 and he should be even better in 2013 now that he’s under the tutelage of new head coach Mark Stoops, who helped Florida State’s defense regain its standing as one of the best in the nation.
9. DT Kelcy Quarles (South Carolina): It’s hard playing in Clowney’s shadow, but Quarles (6-4, 286) quietly put together a solid season in 2012: 38 tackles, eight tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks. The Gamecocks had one of the top defensive lines last season and Quarles was a key part of it. He could be headed for a breakout season in 2013.
10. DE Chris Smith (Arkansas): Lost in the nightmare of the Razorbacks’ 2012 season was the play of Smith, who was fourth in the SEC with 9.5 sacks. The 6-3, 251-pound Smith is not a household name but he is the best player on a pretty good defensive front.