- Andrea Adelson, ESPN Staff Writer
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We continue our look at team position rankings today, and start up with the defense. First up are the guys in the trenches, the defensive line. This has got to be one of the strongest positions from team to team in the Big East. Four different teams could probably make an argument for the No. 1 spot. There are lots of standout defensive ends and tackles in the league, but I also am judging experience, returning starters and depth here.
1. Connecticut. The Huskies have good players and depth this season, and get the nod as the top line in the league. Defensive end Jesse Joseph and defensive tackle Kendall Reyes return. Reyes turned down a shot at the NFL for one more season, and is the only first-team Big East selection on the defensive line returning to his team. Both Reyes and Joseph are defensive player of the year candidates. Five players return who started seven or more games last season, giving the Huskies plenty of experience along the line.
2. Pittsburgh. The Panthers lose defensive player of the year Jabaal Sheard and are switching to the 3-4. But they do have another candidate for that award in Brandon Lindsey. We have to count him half here, though, because he is transitioning to the new hybrid defensive end/linebacker position. Still, the Panthers have solid players in Chas Alecxih and Myles Caragein on the line, along with depth in Aaron Donald, Tyrone Ezell, Kaynin Mosley-Smith and Bryan Murphy. Even without Sheard, this is one of the strongest lines in the league.
3. West Virginia.You have got to love the tandem of Julian Miller and Bruce Irvin, who combined for 23 sacks last season. They are the best returning tandem in the league. But they are ranked here for a few reasons. First, how does Irvin transition from spot player to full-time starter? Will he be as effective as last season, when he led the league with 14 sacks? How does Miller transition to defensive tackle? Losing noseguard Chris Neild is a huge blow, too. Josh Taylor is penciled in to start, depending on what happens with Jorge Wright. Junior college transfer Shaq Rowell will be in the mix, too, with high expectations.
4. USF. The Bulls might be losing three starters, including Terrell McClain and Craig Marshall, but this unit has the potential to be even better than the group in 2010. Hopes are high for Ryne Giddins to step in at defensive end and be an immediate difference-maker. Cory Grissom and Keith McCaskill are veterans inside, but if there is one question mark here it is depth at tackle. True freshman Elkino Watson could make a big impact.
5. Louisville. Three starters return, and there is potential for this group to be very productive. Defensive end Greg Scruggs is in line for a breakout season. Eight linemen have starting experience, so there is depth, though there is youth here. Players like BJ Butler, Brandon Dunn and Roy Philon have a chance to take big-time leaps, but this unit is still relatively unproven compared the ones ranked ahead.
6. Syracuse. No question the Orange have excellent defensive ends in Chandler Jones and Mikhail Marinovich. But the Orange lose their starters on the inside. Deon Goggins and Cory Boatman are penciled in to start at tackle but they are undersized. So are some of the other players who will rotate in. The line as a whole is pretty undersized when you think about it, and a big reason why Syracuse is ranked here.
7. Cincinnati. The Bearcats were solid against the run last season but struggled to get a consistent pass rush. They hope to remedy that now that Walter Stewart has moved to defensive end. Last season, the Bearcats lacked depth but that is no longer the case in 2011. The top eight players in the rotation return, and there is nice size in the middle -- especially with defensive tackle Derek Wolfe returning. Still, the Bearcats have a lot to prove this season.
8. Rutgers. Aside from nose tackle Scott Vallone, there are some questions on this defensive line, which has to show significant improvement over a unit that was so-so in 2010. Rutgers was one of the worst teams in the nation in sacks last season, with just 17. Manny Abreu moves from linebacker. How does that transition go? Justin Francis had a nice spring at end. Does that continue in 2011? Will Michigan transfer Anthony La Lota have an impact next to Vallone? There is a lot of inexperience along the entire line.