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Friday, May 7, 2010
The Big 12's defensive spring risers

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Every spring has its movers: Nobodies earning their first real on-field action, backups blossoming into featured roles or starters becoming stars. There’s a few of each on this list, which looks at the Big 12's spring risers on defense.



NO LONGER UNKNOWNS

Pryce Macon, DE, Oklahoma

Oklahoma might have the best defensive ends in the country with Frank Alexander and Jeremy Beal lining up opposite one another. But Macon, a senior career reserve, had his best spring and fought his way into the rotation. He had two sacks and a tackle for loss in the spring game. Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables said Macon showed more improvement in a short span than any player he’d ever seen, assuring that Macon would see plenty of playing time this season, despite having just eight career tackles.

Lionel Smith, DB, Texas A&M

Smith played mostly on special teams a sophomore, but he’s been one of the secondary’s best performers this spring. He won a spring award for the defense’s most improved player, as well as special teams MVP. Safety Trent Hunter said Smith broke up eight passes in a single scrimmage.

Steven Johnson, LB, Kansas

Johnson, a former walk-on from Pennsylvania played mostly on special teams last season, notching nine tackles in 10 appearances, though he did earn a sack against Duke. This spring, he impressed defensive coordinator Carl Torbush as one of the standouts among a group of linebackers six-to-seven deep. The junior finally feels he's recovered from a serious knee injury that has bothered him throughout his career, and will try to show it in fall camp after shedding his brace this spring.

Michael Sipili, LB, Colorado

Sipili, a senior, had just 34 tackles last season, but appeared in 10 games. He had his best spring ever, and capped it off with eight tackles in the spring game. In three scrimmages this spring, Sipili made 19 stops.



LOOKING FOR A BIGGER ROLE

Leonard Johnson, DB, Iowa State

Paul Rhoads must replace a lot from his defense’s front seven: two defensive linemen and all three linebackers, to be exact. But he likes the depth in his secondary, and Johnson is a reason why. The junior made 64 tackles and picked off two passes last season. He joins Ter’ran Benton, Jeremy Reeves and Anthony Young in the defensive backfield.



Kheeston Randall, DT, Texas

Randall had just 23 tackles last season, but with Lamarr Houston gone to the NFL, he proved capable of filling the hole at the front of the defense. The 6-foot-5, 295-pounder started 10 games a season ago, but the Longhorn’s teammates believe he could become a star this season.

Kevin Rutland, DB, Missouri

Rutland started last season for a Missouri secondary that struggled, allowing 400-yard passers twice. But the senior had his best spring, intercepting four passes in five scrimmages. The entire secondary had eight interceptions all of last season. If Missouri’s pass defense improves, Rutland could be a big reason why.

Troy Butler, S, Kansas State

Butler took over as starting safety last season, and lines up across from leading tackler Emmanuel Lamur at one of the defense’s strongest positions. The senior impressed this spring, taking an interception back for a touchdown in the spring game. He finished with two picks and a game-high eight tackles.



D.J. Johnson, CB, Texas Tech

Johnson broke up six passes last season and made 24 tackles, but he could play a much bigger part in the Red Raiders secondary next season. New defensive coordinator James Willis has been impressed with the sophomore.

STARS SHINING BRIGHTER

Eric Hagg, DB, Nebraska

Hagg earned quite a bit of ink this spring as the center of the newly christened “Peso” defense. The 6-foot-2, 210-pounder plays the crucial hybrid defensive back/linebacker position, and with Nebraska’s commitment to the formation as its base defense, Hagg will have a lot of eyes on him for every snap. Also, his headshot is the best.

Orie Lemon, LB, Oklahoma State

Lemon was second on the team in tackles in 2008 with 90 stops. He looked ready for a big year in 2009 before tearing his ACL and missing the entire season. This spring, he was bringing plenty of big hits to Stillwater, leading the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator to call Lemon the nation’s best middle linebacker.