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Position groups with high ceilings

7/5/2012

AUSTIN, Texas -- Outside of a Texas Longhorns message board, who honestly had heard of Carrington Byndom and Quandre Diggs a year ago? What was out there, if anything, likely wasn't all that positive.

They were Texas' young, unproven cornerbacks, and not much was expected of them. Byndom had played in a handful of games as a freshman. Diggs was a freshman.

"Nobody thought we'd be any good," said secondary coach Duane Akina, who is in his second stint at the school known to some as "DB U." "People thought we'd be down there (ranked) in the 100s. We were too young, too short, too this ..."

Now, though? They are considered one of the top 1-2 corner combos in the country. That thought made Byndom laugh, given where they were last July.

"That's kind of how it is," he said, shaking his head. "You're no one, you're someone. It's all the same to us."

Texas' cornerbacks are just one position group around the country that has a high ceiling, a great potential for growth and improvement this fall based on youth and the ability of those returning. Others in the five major conferences are in similar spots.

Even if the outside world didn't know much about Byndom and Diggs, Akina had a pretty good feel for them exiting their first spring together.

Byndom (6-foot, 180 pounds) and Diggs (5-10, 200) weren't going to appear physically imposing to anyone on first glance, but they were solid corner guys in the base man coverage -- and they'd knock your block off. That was especially the case for Diggs, the younger brother of former Longhorn and current San Diego Charger Quentin Jammer.

"What you can't measure," Akina said, "is the type of individuals they are."

That was on display as they learned on the job. They got turned around often when the Longhorns surrendered a season-high 367 passing yards in an embarrassing rout against Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry. But they improved as the fall went along.

"I think we started to feel more comfortable in the spot that we were in," Byndom said. "We knew we were going to be considered the inexperienced guys, things like that. We had a lot of questions behind our names. We're not big stars or anything.

"Getting out there in each game, just the knowledge and experience came with it. But we knew, the way we played, that we'd be just fine."

The Longhorns didn't surrender a passing touchdown of more than 20 yards until the regular-season finale, against Baylor and Heisman winner Robert Griffin III. The overall numbers were impressive, too. Despite playing in a league with several accomplished QBs (RG3, Brandon Weeden, Landry Jones, to name a few), Texas finished in the top 10 in the country in both yards per pass attempt allowed and passing efficiency defense.

Between the corners and the defensive line, bookended by Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor, Texas looks capable of improving on last year's finish as the No. 11 defense in the country.

ACC

Clemson Tigers linebackers

Brent Venables comes to the Tigers after coaching the linebackers position at Oklahoma since 1999, when Bob Stoops arrived in Norman. He wants his defense to be grounded in fundamentals, and he has said that's what he tried to drill into his players this spring.

Tony Steward and Stephone Anthony, highly touted prospects, are both sophomores who were forced to play a number of snaps as freshmen. Justin Parker and Lateek Townsend were likewise big-catch recruits, now soaking up Venables' teaching. Corico Hawkins, the senior leader at the position, was third on the team in tackles in 2011.

If the Clemson defense is to improve in 2012 -- and it needs to, following an offseason of jokes about giving up 70 points in the Orange Bowl -- then it will be the linebacking corps leading the charge for change. The talent is there, in a new, simplified scheme, to make it happen.

Big Ten

Ohio State Buckeyes defensive ends

Urban Meyer didn't just inherit a quarterback that fits well in his system; the Buckeyes are loaded on the defensive front, with All-American John Simon on one end and Johnathan Hankins -- who ranked 11th on Mel Kiper's first 2013 Big Board -- on the other.

Simon and Hankins combined for 27 tackles for a loss, 10 of them sacks, this past season. Supporting those stars are the No. 2 (Noah Spence) and No. 7 (Adolphus Washington) overall prospects in the ESPN 150 for the 2012 class. Spence and Washington, both ends, could be ready this fall to provide rotational depth for Simon and Hankins.

What will be interesting to watch is former Buckeyes standout Mike Vrabel's evolution as a coach. Now in his second year as an assistant (and first with the D-line), there's bound to be more comfort within Luke Fickell and Everett Withers' defense.

The Buckeyes' defense was good last season (34th nationally in yards per play allowed), but a step up in performance from the talented D-line would give them an opportunity to be great in Meyer's debut campaign.

Big 12

Oklahoma Sooners safeties

The ball sailed over their heads quite a bit last season, when the Sooners gave up 241.5 passing yards a game (79th in FBS), but Mike Stoops is back at OU and he didn't wait long to start making personnel changes.

Tony Jefferson was a more natural fit at free safety than linebacker -- Jefferson played free the final two games of the season in 2011 -- and Javon Harris, often the goat on the breakdowns, moved to the strong side. That's where Aaron Colvin had been, but he was injured in the spring. He could still stick at strong, if Harris doesn't pan out, but the preference is that he play the corner opposite Demontre Hurst.

With Jefferson and some combination of Colvin and Harris, this unit figures to be a lot stronger. The Stoopses are counting on it. And for a team that took two of its three losses last season in large part because of a leaky pass defense (a combined 920 passing yards allowed in losses to Texas Tech and Baylor), that could be a real difference-maker in 2012.

Pac-12

UCLA Bruins quarterbacks

Regardless of whichever QB plays for first-year coach Jim Mora Jr. -- he has said it will be determined in the middle of August -- at least there will be no more pistol formation with which to reckon.

Redshirt freshman Brett Hundley certainly appears to be the leader, even if Mora isn't saying it. He used his redshirt season to bulk up to 6-4, 225, and he appears physically ready to play in the Pac-12.

If Hundley falters, Richard Brehaut might also be capable. He showed adept touch on the deep ball in the spring game, finishing with as many touchdowns (four) as incompletions.

The question for Hundley and Brehaut is whether the line in front of them will allow for enough time to make throws. If not, that's where Hundley's running ability could come in handy.

Additionally, the Bruins' offense may not have been as bad as it appeared last season. Although they ranked 87th in the nation in points per game, they finished 39th in yards per play (and 25th in yards per pass attempt). That's a pretty significant disparity, one that was undoubtedly influenced by their high turnover numbers (they gave away the ball 26 times last season).

A breakthrough playmaker named Steven Manfro is another reason why UCLA's QBs will have the opporunity to shine in 2012.

SEC

Tennessee Volunteers receivers

Just imagine how stacked this unit would be if DeAnthony Arnett hadn't transferred to Michigan State. Even so, Tennessee is very quietly loaded at the receiver position, much to quarterback Tyler Bray's pleasure.

One SEC assistant coach said Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers could be this year's version of West Virginia's Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin -- a nearly impossible-to-cover tandem on the outside. But that statement did come with caveats: if Hunter is 100 percent in returning from the torn ACL that cut short his 2011 -- and if Rogers, who caught 67 balls for 1,040 yards last season, can keep his attitude in check (Bray will need to stay healthy this season, as well).

And there are factors beyond those talented top two pass-catchers, including tight end Mychal Rivera and junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson. Don't be surprised if the Vols' passing attack makes a breakthrough in 2012.