Mining the JUCO ranks for defensive tackles

It’s fair to say that junior college defensive tackles have made huge impacts for the last two national champions.

Auburn’s Nick Fairley was the Lombardi Award winner last season and led the SEC with 24 tackles for loss. Oregon coach Chip Kelly said he was the difference in the BCS National Championship Game.

The year before, Alabama’s Terrence Cody was a first-team All-American and a one-man fortress against anybody who tried to run the ball between the tackles against the Crimson Tide. Cody also saved Alabama’s season by blocking a Tennessee field-goal attempt as time expired.

Will there be one of those guys this coming season in the SEC?

Time will tell, but there are certainly some candidates. What’s more, it appears that teams in this league are mining junior colleges as diligently as ever trying to find that dominant interior defensive lineman.

At Arkansas, sophomore Robert Thomas is getting a ton of reps this spring, especially with injuries to starters Byran Jones and DeQuinta Jones. The 6-2, 325-pound Thomas signed with Arkansas out of high school, but wound up at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College. Now he’s back as a redshirt sophomore, and his athleticism and strength this spring have been hard to miss.

Once Thomas becomes a little more acclimated with the playbook, and he will by the fall, the Arkansas coaches think he will be a key component up front.

You look around the league, and several other schools will be counting heavily in 2011 on junior college defensive tackles.

John Jenkins has yet to arrive at Georgia, but there’s no doubt that he will be one of the keys for the Bulldogs in that 3-4 defense. They’ve moved DeAngelo Tyson to end and are confident the 340-pound Tyson can slide in at nose guard and command double teams -- something they didn’t have a year ago in the first season in Todd Grantham’s 3-4 system.

The most important signee for Tennessee’s Derek Dooley this past February may well have been Maurice Couch, a 6-2, 305-pound defensive tackle from Garden City (Kan.) Community College.

Couch also arrives this summer, and the Vols need an enforcer up front in the middle of that defense. They have very little depth and are undersized, although Malik Jackson played well once he moved inside last season.

At Alabama, fans can’t wait to get a look at a healthy Jesse Williams, who’s been dealing with some soreness in his knee following minor knee surgery. But the 320-pound Williams, coming over from Arizona Western College, is a physical specimen and was a highly coveted junior college defensive tackle. He’s from Australia and is expected to make an immediate impact at nose guard in the fall.

The same goes for Gilbert Pena at Ole Miss. The 6-2, 336-pound Pena is already on campus and going through spring practice with the Rebels, who lost four senior defensive tackles, including nose tackle Jerrell Powe. Pena didn’t go to college initially and instead worked for more than three years to help take care of his mother, who was battling cancer at the time. Pena, who’s originally from Yonkers, N.Y., spent his last two years at ASA College in Brooklyn, N.Y., before coming to Ole Miss.