College Football

Top five college players at every position – Defense edition:

Just like I mentioned last week with the offensive edition, I put out my rankings of the top five at every position as collegiate players, rather than solely draft prospects. The criteria remains the same – must have played at three games this season, no season-long opt-outs or players that were knocked by injuries for the rest of the year early on. So this list doesn’t include names like Gregory Rosseau, Micah Parsons or Caleb Farley, which could all end up being top ten draft picks.

Make sure to check out my rankings of the top offensive players and my in-depth breakdown of every game of NFL week 13!

 

 

 

Just missed the cut: Quincy Roche (Miami), Carlos Basham Jr. (Wake Forest) & Chris Rumph II (Duke)

 

First up here, I put the guy Bruce Feldman had as his number one list of the Athletic’s Freak List. The at 6’4”, 275 pounder is a former high school running, who came in as more of a raw piece of clay with his ridiculous athletic ability, but he took on a more prominent role his junior year, when he recorded 12.5 TFLs and 6.5 sacks, but he took another major step forward in 2020 and it was evident right away in the season-opener against Minnesota, where he made three TFLs and was in Tanner Morgan’s grill all game long, including back-to-back sacks in the fourth quarter. Paye is strong at the point of attack, with some shock in his hands and he can yank the blocker to the side in order to make the tackle. As a pass-rusher he shows impressive burst off the edge to go with a strong rip to knock away the hands of the blocker, to go with a highly effective up-and-under, and the Wolverines have put him over guards much more often this season. You still see him work too far upfield in the run game at times and he gets a little too hung up with the hands of tackles as a rusher. Those two Alabama OTs held him to one tackle on the stat sheet in this most recent Citrus Bowl.

After very limited playing time as a freshman, this 6’4”, 255-pound Nigerian emerged as a key piece to that Longhorn defense in 2019, with a combined 90 tackles, 13.5 of them for loss, five sacks and two interceptions. This season he has transitioned from WILL to more of a hybrid outside backer role, which that move certainly paid off. Barely anybody in college football flashes off the edge with speed quite like Ossai, which he routinely forces tackle out of their chair with and he frees himself from the hands by swims and chops. He is very unique in the way he deals with blocks as a run-defender, not really leaning his weight forward, but rather knocking the way the hands of his man and trying to get around him. When you talk about all-out hustle for 60 minutes, there may be nobody who brings it quite like Ossai and he has the speed to chase ball-carriers down from behind time and time again. This guy was all over the field in the 2019 Alamo Bowl versus Utah, collecting double-digit tackles, three sacks and six TFLs. And this season he already came up with the game-sealing sack in overtime against Oklahoma State. Ossai still has to learn how to take on pulling linemen and deconstructing blocks in general as an on-ball defender however.

One of the top overall recruits in the country, it took some time for Phillips to jump onto the national scene, as he started his career at UCLA had to sit out all of last season, but coming into this 2020 season, with the U having two projected first-round edge defenders, he has been the star of this unit. I mean all you have to do is put on the tape and watch like ten snaps to understand the natural ability – the quickness off the ball, the length, the flexibility – it’s all there. He shows busy hands and his outside contain upright, while not allowing blockers to widen gaps inside. As a pass-rusher, his best move is the high swim, which he also uses against guards and wins with at a high rate. Through the first nine games of 2020, he already has 14 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, three passes broken up and a pick in the Florida State game. And when you watch their Virginia Tech game, he completely wrecked their right tackle and was a huge reason they won that game. While there are still things he needs to refine, he went from rather unknown commodity to one of the most intriguing draft prospects out there already.

This guy has been ready to step onto an NFL field ever since he came to Athens it feels like, becoming the first freshman to gain captain status on Kirby Smart’s Bulldog defense, but he has only gotten better since then. Ojulari excels at squeezing things down in the run game and when he has a puller coming his way, despite giving up some mass at 240 pounds, he routinely knocks those guys backwards. You see him routinely win hand-fights and he can put some tackles on skates, when he catches them off balance. Ojulari is a team-first pass-rusher, who knows how to set up different games up front and free up his teammates. While he might not quite be as flashy in terms of some of those bendy speed rushers out there, he is a really assignment-proof player, who helps blow up run plays, he constantly puts in work a rusher and excels at identifying blitzes, in order to shut them down. Ojulari just wrecked Tennessee’s freshman left tackle earlier this year, but he shows up in every game.

If there’s one thing that really stands out about it’s that mind-blowing get-off he shows. He gets a great jump off the snap and is a very twitchy pass-rusher. You routinely see him force tackles out of their stance and at times open up their hips instantly. However, he doesn’t overshoot the arc very open and then has an up-and-under to take advantage of guys who can’t deal with his speed around the edge. He also surprisingly holds his ground well in the run game and has great short-area burst to shut down plays towards the sideline. When he has a puller coming towards him, he uses a wrong-shoulder technique with a low-pad level to not open up an extra gap. Through these last 22 games, he has recorded 22 tackles for loss and 17.5 sacks. With that being said, he still needs to learn how to play with better extension when engaging with blockers and I’d like to see more of him in terms of converting speed to power and use the long-arm more routinely,

 

 

 

Just missed the cut: Dante Stills (West Virginia) & Khyiris Tonga (BYU)

 

McNeill immediately stepped into action for the Wolfpack since arriving in Raleigh and he’s been an absolute rock in the middle of that defense. In 2019, he recorded 7.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks as mostly a true 0-technique, but he has been even better this season. His ability to anchor down and swallow double-teams with great leverage and the ability to completely control centers is unbelievable and he can just pull big linemen to the side when he sees the ball-carrier approaching. While he rarely is left wit one-on-ones in the pass game and is asked to take a lot of wide angles, he has had more than solid production in that regard, mostly by hitting the arm-over. He also had a pick-six earlier this year against Virginia, where he tipped it to himself and basically put the game on ice. While I sometimes would like to see him not get as locked in with the center as a run defender (and that may be a coaching staff), for him it’s about showing a more diverse pass-rushing arsenal.

He may not be massive in terms of pure weight, Stills has a really wide frame at 6’1”, 285 pounds. In 2019 he recorded 12 TFLs and six sacks, to go with a couple of PBUs and fumbles forced each, which earned him first-team All-Big 12 honors. This guy is a true upfield penetrator, who flashes in the backfield time and time again, by slicing through his gap and affect run plays, before they can even get going. With the amount of natural power he shows, he can overpower offensive linemen in their pass sets at a high rate. Stills has a violent club arm and he can kind of dip or rip underneath those blockers. He also runs a bunch of stunts and twists along that Mountaineer front and despite spending the majority of his playing time in-between the guards, he is out there for almost every single snap. Watching this man absolutely destroy upbacks on the punt block team is one the biggest joys of my life. At this point, Stills is just a little with the way he shoots upfield and in the pass-game, once that primary move stalls, you don’t see a whole lot more from Stills, with no dependable counters at this point.

Barmore is one of those guys, who you want to be one of the first ones to step off the bus at 6’5”, 310 pounds with a well filled-out frame. We have seen a lot of great Alabama defensive linemen and this is the next one in line. What pops off the screen when watching Barmore are the length and power he possesses. He can stack and shed blockers with high efficiency, but also attack upfield by knocking linemen off balance with his violent hands. That is also a huge benefit in the pass-rush, where it allows him to clear the hips of the blocker with club-swim or -rip moves. This guy can overpower opponents and brings excellent effort for a big man, when working laterally. Through seven games, he has racked up four sacks, a couple of forced fumbles and batted down three passes, while some strong showings (against Ole Miss & Georgia for example) haven’t really shown up on the stat sheet. At this point his pad-level rises too much still, especially working against double-teams, where he can allow some vertical movement, and he has to learn how to finish a little better.

When you look at the Georgia nose tackle, this is a 6’6”, 330-pound monster. Davis primarily plays 1-technique for the Bulldog defense, where he rock back and toss aside blockers, but he has also been asked to play a true nose on a few occasions (versus Tennessee for example as part of a bear-front). He is like an immovable object against the run, who against double-teams attacks one man with hands inside their chest and rolls his hips through. Seeing guys try to trap-block him is almost comical at times. For a behemoth like him, the lateral agility and pursuit he displays is excellent. With that being said, he mostly just a pocket-pusher in the pass game and he rarely stays on the field on third downs. He runs quite a few T-T twists on the inside, where he is a really good set-up man, but in terms of his NFL future I think he is limited with the potential he shows as a pass-rusher. So with the amount of interior D-linemen we haven’t seen play this season coming into that draft pool later on in the process, which will most likely push him down the board for me.

While some people may look at the 6’2”, 265-pound Bailey as more of an edge rusher and he spends quite a bit of time at the 6-alignment, he is at his best under D-end in that 3-down front for the Cyclones. Among this group, nobody has built a more impressive resume, with 44 career tackles for loss, 12 passes knocked down and he become Iowa State’s all-time leading sacker earlier this year (19.5), which he already extended to 25 QB-takedowns. Bailey is highly active as a run defender, looking to knock down the hands of blockers and squeezing through gaps constantly. When offense try to kick him out on power plays and stuff like that, he attacks the inside knee of the puller to create a pile in the backwards. In the pass game, his busy hands are also a big factor and coming free and he can corner really well when coming off the edge, plus he works in the ice-pick to create a better angle for himself. I’d like to see him play under better control in general, especially with the plan he uses as a rusher, and he tends to widen the B-gap by trying to work around rather than stacking up tackles.

 

 

 

Just missed the cut: Cameron McGrone (Michigan), Nick Bolton (Missouri), Jabril Cox (LSU), Chazz Surratt (North Carolina) & Nate Landman (Colorado)

 

Owusu-Koramoah came in as a three-star safety recruit and he stills has that slim buld at 6’1”, 215 pounds, as well as that kind of skill-set with freakish athletic ability. When I watched those those Notre Dame edge rushers and safeties for the 2020, this guy flashed time and time again. This joker for the Notre Dame defense plays the ROVER spot primarily, where he can cover slot receivers one-on-one and shows no discomfort playing in space, plus he looks like a cannonball when coming on blitzes off the edge. While he is certainly undersized for an in-between-the-tackles role, he does not shy away from slipping gaps and chooses excellent angles when chasing things down towards the sideline. He is one of those guys who shows up around the ball constantly and that’s how he came up with a huge fumble return TD against Clemson earlier this season, as a pitch went off the hands of Travis Etienne. With that being said, you see him get shielded by slot receivers even on plenty of occasions (see USC’s Amon-Ra St. Brown in 2019) and he leaves his feet too much as a tackler for my list – in part because his play-strength isn’t at the level of those 250-pound inside backers.

One of the biggest risers from this 2020 season has been this 6’4”, 260 pound-listed linebacker that is the heart of a Hurricanes’ 21st-ranked scoring defense. Collins fills those pads out nicely and he is a beast as Tulsa’s stack WILL backer. Collins IDs run schemes quickly and lets pullers lead him to the ball. Unlike a lot of college LBs nowadays, he can still take on and shed blockers coming right at him, thanks to his robust base. He meets ball-carriers head-on in the hole and even when he doesn’t get that clear shot, he has strong arms to still bring those guys to the ground, making him a very reliable tackler. In coverage, he is primarily responsible for shallow zones, but I think he has become much more light on his feet in 2020, in terms of the ground he can cover, which has led to four INTs in seven games (including a pair of pick-sixes), but it also allows him to be more aggressive with shooting gaps, putting him at 7.5 TFLs already, including one for a safety against UCF. Unfortunately he is overshoots his run fits at times, creating cutback opportunities, and while they bring him off the edge quite a bit, he doesn’t bring a whole lot as a pass-rusher, while aiming at the wrong hip of the QB at times.

Moses was supposed to head the Alabama defense in 2019 after a lot departures in the front-seven, but with him missing the entire season, that entire unit suffered and did not live up to their usual standards. Now back with him in the lineup, they have really grown this season. Moses has a pep to his step and is a very easy mover. In the pass game, he has a safety-like skill-set, with a very natural ability to move any direction and take away throwing windows. Plus, he is a very dependable open-field tackler, which is why the Crimson Tide use him as a QB spy in certain matchups. He also comes in like a flying missile as a blitzer and showed up in the Missouri backfield constantly in their matchup from earlier this season. Moses has the speed to scrape over the top of blockers and take away angles towards the sideline, limiting the amount of big plays against the Crimson Tide defense. However, while I like the patience he displays in reading run schemes, he is a little too conversative for my taste and when big linemen work up to him, he struggles to disengage.

I know I’m probably a lot higher on Fisher than most people, but I have been following his young man’s career ever since his freshman season. Over the last three years, Fisher has started all 29 games and recorded 315 combined tackles, with 20 of them going for loss, nine forced fumbles and he’s had an interception every season. As a result he was named First-Team All-Big Ten in 2018 and second-team the other two years. And he is on that same track again this season. Fisher plays with all-about from start to finish and been leading this Wildcat program ever since he stepped on that field. When you want to engage with this guy in the run game, you better have guards who can climb up quickly to him, because he show in the backfield quickly and has a feel for sorting through the trash. Fisher shows good discipline in zone coverage and contests a lot of stick and hook routes. With that being said, he needs to play with more extension working against blockers in the run game and there are question about this athleticism as to how it projects to the next level, as we’ve rarely seen him get tasked with man-coverage duty. His usually dependable tackling was a bit of an issue in open-field situations as well in 2019.

Rice was called the next Roquan Smith after the All-American linebacker was drafted following the 2017 season. In his first year as a starter, he missed just three percent of his tackles and in 2019 he led the Bulldogs with 89 total tackles. Rice quickly attacks downhill against the run, while not being afraid to stick his nose in the face when it comes to countering blockers and working to get their hands off himself. He is really sudden in his movements when the ball gets to the edge and he quickly flashes against screen passes. Georgia has also used him as a blitzer on passing down frequently, to create negative plays. Rice is pretty fluid mover in coverage, who can run downfield with flexed out tight-ends and shut down throws into the flats. I think as a blitzer, his timing and hand-usage has gotten a lot better too. Unfortunately he doesn’t always look super comfortable taking ball-carriers down in open space and his lack of length is a bit of an issue with blockers in his face, to go with been susceptible to getting sucked up by play-action.

 

 

 

Just missed the cut: Asante Samuel Jr. (Florida State), Paulson Adebo (Stanford), Jack Jones (Arizona State) & Shakur Brown (Michigan State)

 

Surtain was already an SEC All-Freshman selection by league coaches and he become Bama’s top corner in years, despite having Trevon Diggs and others around him. What stands about him off the snaps is how patient he is and if anything he forces receivers to give away what they are doing with fake jams, to force them to get into their release early and from that point on he just reads the hips of the receiver. At 6’1”, slightly 200 pounds, he is physical when carrying receivers downfield and he excels at taking away space towards the sideline. The Crimson Tide coaches ask him to play a ton of man, travelling into the slot for certain matchups, and to be honest, his tape is almost boring to watch, because opposing teams just don’t throw his ways. He has several reps, where he perfectly stays in phase and at best teams can try a 50-50 ball. Against Ole Miss earlier this season, he gave up one slant for 10 yards the entire game and they threw at him like two more times. Like all Alabama corners, Surtain wants to get involved as a tackler. I would say the two things that he’s not great at is getting into face-guarding down the field too much at times and receivers can beat him to the inside if they get him to buy the initial outside stem, since he doesn’t have elite short-area quickness.

As great as Surtain has been this season, Stokes has been tested more and that’s why you kind of see more of his brilliance. Coming into 2020, fellow CB Tyson Campbell got most of the attention, but Stokes has outplayed him all year. He has all the tools and physical style of play to give receivers problems off the line and he does a great job of squeezing his man into the boundary. Just running with guys and staying attached to them, while being able to track the ball or work to the back-shoulder, is textbook. He can change up with his approach in different types of press, including press-bail technique in three-deep zone coverage. Stokes shows no fair of getting beat over the top and he has excellent short-area quicks to contest quick hitches and slants. I’d like to see him come off blocks earlier and knock the hands away, but his ball-production has really increased, including making his first three career interceptions this season.

Stingley came out as a freshman and was the best corner in the whole SEC, despite of how stacked the talent is at that position. He intercepted six passes and deflected another 15. Nobody played more press man-coverage in 2019 than LSU did. Stingley uses a soft approach for the most part, where he rarely opens up his hips prematurely and he is very physical with denying free access to the inside. Countering vertical routes, his ability to turn and find the ball whilst staying engaged with the receivers is special, plus then he has elite ball-skills and leaping ability to come down with the ball himself. He had two phenomenal INTs against Georgia in the SEC title game for example. The only receiver that really won the battle against him in 2019 was Alabama’s DeVonta Smith, who to be fair, has been the top receiver in all of college football this season. I would say overall the more advanced route-runners can give him a little bit of trouble, because of the way they can test his reaction to hesitation releases and body language (Florida’s Van Jefferson last year for example), but as far as the 2022 draft goes, he’ll be as perfect a CB prospect as we’ve had in a while. He missed the 2020 season-opener and hasn’t gotten much ball-production yet, but opposing teams have been able to take advantage of the rest of that defense quite a bit.

The son of former Pro Bowl receiver Joe Horn, Jaycee already had a solid two years for South Carolina, but he has really jumped onto the scene this year. The Gamecock coaches have asked him to travel with the opposing team’s top receiver for the most part and he has given those guys a lot of trouble with his physicality and the ability to stay square as long as possible, while being to pivot quickly and work around targets. He completely shut down Auburn’s Seth Williams in their matchup earlier this season outside of one 50-50 ball downfield, where he kind of tripped, including breaking up three passes towards the end-zone and him picking off two more, putting out some absolute clinic tape. He has since decided to sit out the remainder of the season in order to prepare for the 2021 draft, because his team didn’t really have anything to play for, but not before intercepting his first two career passes and knocking down another six. Horn has a tendency of a getting a little grabby at the break point and he doesn’t look overly comfortable in off coverage, with a pretty high pedal is rather and therefore needing some time to come out of it.

Wade almost exclusively lined up in the slot last year with two first-round corners in the 2020 draft on the roster (Jeffrey Okudah & Damon Arnette), recording four INTs and 14 more passes broken up over his first two years, to go with four TFLs as a sophomore, but he has transitioned more to the outside in 2020. Not only does he have the length and muscular frame to do it, but he is also very fluid at flipping his hips, where his acceleration and long speed are both excellent. Wade has played a lot of press-man and covered shallow zones, with the ability breaking any direction when playing nickel, but also stays on top of vertical routes in cover-three. I think you see the football IQ in his ability to quickly decipher route patterns and break on them. However, what I loved most about his 2019 tape in particular was how aggressive he was working through blockers and stopping screens and outside runs, while also being a highly dependable open-field tackler. In press, he still needs to learn how to actually stun receivers by landing jams inside their chest and I wanted to see him make some more plays on the ball when both he and his receiver have a chance at it.

 

 

 

Just missed the cut: Budda Bolden (Miami) & James Wiggins (Cincinnati)

 

In his first season as a full-time starter last year, Moehrig recorded 43 solo tackles, four interceptions, 11 PBUs and a couple of fumbles forced. He primarily has been the field-side safety in two-high looks for TCU, but also has plenty of experience rotating towards the deep middle of the field, because he absolutely has the range to do either. I like how balanced he stays throughout plays and doesn’t allow run- or screen-fakes to pull him away from his responsibility, while also feeling like his reaction time has reduced. Moehrig is great at anticipating and driving on routes over the deeper middle in quarters coverage, but because he caps over slot receivers and the Horned Frogs like to blitz their nickel, he is tasked with plenty of man responsibilities, where he is not afraid of getting beat deep, has excellent short-area burst to attack breaks, as well as the speed to trail guys across the field. He just had a tremendous game against Oklahoma State last week, when he made a couple of key stops and had a huge interception in the end-zone, when the Cowboys were about to take the lead. With that being said, at time Moehrig just sits on routes and has to put hands on receivers as they get to his toes, if that guy doesn’t just blow by him with a running start (Devin Duvernay in 2019 for Texas), Plus he is certainly an ankle-tackler, who just dives at the legs of the ball-carrier occasionally.

Lecounte is one of my dudes. At 5’11”, 190 pounds he may not have an intimidating stature, but he is like a flying missile out there on the field and brings a ton of juice to the Bulldog defense. He has only played in five games this season, because he reportedly had a motorcycle accident, but in his 33 games as a starter, he has recorded about 100 solo tackles, eight INTs, ten more PBUs, four fumbles forced and six recovered. The way he zooms up the alley and runs into blockers without any hesitation is so fun to watch. Lecounte has been asked to execute a multitude of coverages – single high duty, quarters, matching #3’s in man vs. trips, while Georgia rotates their safeties down a whole bunch, especially this season. And he has that ball-magnet quality, where he allows his feel and preparation to lead him to the right spot. With that being said, he can be a little too aggressive with angles and biting on the first key, plus he comes in too hot as a tackler and doesn’t break down appropriately. As far as projecting him to the next level, I think there are some concerns about how he projects as a true free safety or if you want to trust him one-on-one against those really dynamic receivers in man-coverage.

Since we’re talking about my kind of guys – Ford is someone I really enjoy watching too. While he is only six foot, 190 pounds, he is a tone-setter for that Pitt defense and plays with great urgency for four quarters. In his first season as a full-time starter in 2019, he recorded 56 solo tackles (90 total), three interceptions, of which he scored a TD on one of them, nine passes broken up and three forced fumbles. He has a quick trigger against the run and routinely blows up screen passes, while wanting to come in late on every tackle and making sure the ball-carrier lands on his back. As a solo-tackler he takes away ground quickly, but then does a good job of throttling and making a safe stop. Ford is mostly used in two-high shells as the boundary safety, but is can absolutely take on single-high and box responsibilities as well. He has really oily quicks and the click-and-close ability to drive on routes, to give with the speed to run stride-for-stride with fast receivers down the seams. However, he is much more comfortable coming downhill, rather than choosing the proper angles from deep alignment and his feel in coverage at the back-end is still improving.

When you read what the UCF coaches say about Grant in terms of his work ethic and athletic skill-set, they are blown away by this guy. His numbers in coverage last season were crazy, as he brought in six interceptions and broke up four more passes, while allowing just 21 catches, with none of them going for more than 25 yards, which was part of making him a first-team All-AAC selection. However, while he does line up in on the wide side in split-safety looks, they put him as the +1 in the box a lot and bring him off the edge quite a bit. I really like the way he races up against the run and the great pursuit he shows. Grant has no issues picking up receivers in two-deep coverage that were carried up to him and he excels at disrupting the catch-point. He also has plenty of experience covering slot receiver one-on-one, with rapid footwork and the ability to reach around targets. While I enjoy his work down low, when he is left as the last defender, you see those dynamic athletes shake him at times and he is little too aggressive against play-fakes, which puts him in tough spots.

Man, Harvell-Peel fills out that six foot, 210-pound frame. To me he has been the biggest key for this Oklahoma State defense, which was one of the top scoring units in the country until the Oklahoma game, in which he had a few sequences himself. The numbers he put up in 2019 are pretty crazy, at 71 total tackles, five INTs, 13 more passes broken up, a couple of fumbles forced and recovered each. Harvell-Peel almost always plays boundary safety, but has plenty of experience rolling to the deep middle of the field. However, the function I like him most at in coverage is as a robber, where I really like the awareness for targets around him and how he takes away throwing windows. The Cowboys coaches bring him down into the box, where he does not shy away from running into pulling guards or filling gaps as run-defender. He is an excellent face-mask tackler, who brings his hips through on contact. With that being said, there is a little stiffness in his hips as well not having that free safety top-end speed, which leads to him makes him very conservative in MOF duty, making routes behind the second level highly effective against him.

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