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Monsters in the Middle

Scott Haynes, College Editor

On Campus Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It's become a premium position to fill in the NFL, as getting a bull in the interior of the defensive line has become the cornerstone of a great defense. The best defensive lineman in the recent NFL Draft was Arizona State's Terrell Suggs, who went 10th to Baltimore. So why did three defensive tackles go ahead of him in the draft (Dewayne Robertson to the Jets, Johnathan Sullivan to the Saints and Kevin Williams to the Vikings)?

It's simple.

The interior line is where it all starts. A terror inside can do a lot of damage, taking on multiple blockers, clogging things up and making teams run outside where the quicker players can make the play. They can also collapse a pocket with a good inside push and force quarterbacks to improvise on the run. A player that can do both is the model that the NFL is desperately seeking.

With that being said, here is a look at the big uglies in the middle that will give offensive coordinators fits this year.

Vince Wilfork
A huge road block in the middle of the line, Vince Wilfork has surprising agility and always seems to be disrupting things upfield.
VINCE WILFORK - One of the biggest linemen on this list, at 6-2, 350 pounds, this Miami Hurricane reminds a lot of people of former Miami standout and now All-Pro tackle Warren Sapp. As a sophomore last year, Wilfork finished with 46 total tackles, with 15 TFLs and seven sacks. A huge road block in the middle of the line, Wilfork has surprising agility and always seems to be disrupting things upfield. It doesn't hurt to play with some of the best defensive talent in the country, but Wilfork is just as vital to Miami's defensive scheme as anyone on the roster.

BRANDON KENNEDY - Could the best interior lineman in the country play in the Sun Belt? Perhaps, and the North Texas Mean Green are happy to call him one of their own. Kennedy is a stout, powerful tackle at 5-10, 312 pounds, but shows the athleticism and quickness of an end. He started all 13 games last season and finished third nationally in TFLs (24), while ranking fourth on the team in tackles (76) and leading the Sun Belt in sacks (10). A two-time First- Team All-Conference selection, while earning Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2002, Kennedy is the complete package in the middle. Double and triple teams didn't stop him last season and may not be enough to slow him down in 2003.

TOMMIE HARRIS - Returning from an injury-plagued sophomore season, this 6-3, 290-pound Sooner is poised for a big season. As a true freshman in 2001, Harris finished the year with 34 tackles and 17 TFLs, earning Freshman All- American honors. Last season was a wash however, as the man in the middle for Oklahoma amassed just 25 tackles, four TFLs and two sacks. With one of the best defenses in the Bob Stoops' regime, Harris should have little trouble bouncing back with a difficult 2002 campaign.

TIM ANDERSON - An integral part of the national championship team a year ago, the 6-4, 290-pound senior will be on everyone's short list in terms of awards for interior linemen this time around. A Second-Team All-Big Ten selection in 2002, Anderson is one of those underrated players on the Buckeyes who will be called upon to provide veteran leadership for the younger players. With a non- stop motor, Anderson has a chance to go from a solid player to a very special one in 2003.

RANDY STARKS - A third-year player at Maryland, who could be the top defensive performer in the ACC this season. At 6-4, 315 pounds, Starks is a mountain of a man in the middle for the Terps. It's not just the size with Starks, as he is also one of the strongest players on the team, bench pressing 440 pounds and squatting a school-record 765 pounds. As a sophomore in 2002, Starks earned Second-Team All-ACC honors, after finishing third on the team in tackles with a whopping 93. He added 12.5 TFLs, 6.5 sacks and a team-high 17 QB hurries.

JORDAN CARSTENS - One of the Big 12's most underrated players, Carstens is a lunch-pail type who gives all-out effort on every play. A former walk-on, the 6-5, 305-pound Iowa State Cyclone has put up consistent numbers since he stepped on the field in 2000. That year he finished with 48 total tackles. In 2001, Carstens was a Third-Team All-Big 12 selection, finishing with 81 total tackles. This past season, he put it all together, collecting 103 total tackles, with 13 TFLs and five sacks and 27 QB hurries, en route to Second- Team All-Big 12 honors.

* WILDCARD - DARNELL DOCKETT - An All-American player who needs to make better decisions this season. In 2002, Dockett was suspended for the Sugar Bowl for some off-the-field problems and his career in Tallahassee was in question. If the 6-4, 280-pound Seminole puts those problems behind him, he can regain the form that had NFL brass drooling over his potential. Last season, Dockett finished with 57 tackles, seven TFLs, two sacks and 17 QB hurries. He has been reinstated by Bobby Bowden and will play in the season-opener in Chapel Hill. With a defense returning 10 starters from a year ago, FSU has a chance to become an elite team again. Dockett could play a big part in that.

Others to Watch: Rodrique Wright (Texas), Haloti Ngata (Oregon), DeMarco McNeil (Auburn), Shaun Cody (USC), Marcus Tubbs (Texas), Anttaj Hawthorne (Wisconsin), Travis Johnson (Florida State), Rodney Leisle (UCLA), Chad Pugh (TCU) and Doug Goodwin (Boston College).

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Scott Haynes at shaynes@sportsnetwork.com.

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