ESPNU 150: Projecting Biggest Impact Players in 2013's Stacked Defensive Class

Matt FitzgeraldCorrespondent IIIJanuary 4, 2013

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There are 11 defensive players in the nation's Top 12 high school football prospects from the class of 2013, according to ESPNU 150's rankings. But there are some top-flight recruits in particular who will have bigger impacts than others in their first years on campus.

Not every commitment is set in stone—most notably the country's top-ranked player—which only heightens the anticipation for National Signing Day.

Here is a list of the defensive studs from the high school class of 2013 who will be instant success stories at the collegiate level, with ESPNU 150 ranks in parentheses.


DE Robert Nkemdiche (No. 1)

It's hard to project exactly how the No. 1 player in the country coming out of high school will fit in since he hasn't committed to a school yet. But there is no denying that this Grayson High School (Ga.) standout is a special talent.

Herm Edwards never fails to provide colorful commentary, and quoting his assessment of Nkemdiche after he coached the talented young man recently (h/t Atlanta Journal Constitution):

...When he gets into a university weight program, this guy is going to be a giant.

He has a body similar to Julius Peppers. When you look at him, he is kind of angular but he’s got a powerful girth. Because you play football with your legs, you’ve got to have some potatoes in your sack. He’s got potatoes in his sack. He’s (powerful).

To think Nkemdiche could get any bigger than his 6'4", 285-pound frame is frightening, and any comparison to the likes of Peppers in terms of body type is definitely a good thing.

That shows how much physical upside and talent that Nkemdiche has, not to mention how gifted he is on the gridiron. Nkemdiche runs a 4.65 40-yard dash and could even have the potential to convert to linebacker.

Talent alone should be enough to land Nkemdiche on the field as a freshman no matter where he goes. The front-runner for his services is Ole Miss, according to, where his brother plays linebacker for the Rebels. It's hard to imagine him not taking the field in Oxford.


DE Carl Lawson (No. 2) and DT Dee Liner (No. 12)

The pair of Auburn commits may change their minds and not become teammates, but they should. During a disastrous 2012 campaign, the Tigers finished with the 96th-ranked rush defense in the country (h/t Both Lawson and Liner can help out immediately in that regard.

Lawson and Liner bring outstanding versatility to the defensive side of the ball that should give opposing offenses headaches.

The more highly touted of the two is obviously Lawson—who hails from Milton High School (Ga.)—and for good reason. At 6'2" and 251 pounds, he has outstanding quickness and explosion off the line. He serves as a valuable bookend on the edge in run support but is also a pass-rushing force.

Liner, from Muscle Shoals High School in Alabama, may be a 4-star recruit, but his flexibility on the defensive line is similar. He is slightly taller at 6'3" and weighs 270, but can really generate a strong pass rush from the interior and has outstanding speed for his size.

The only problem is the change in head coach to Gus Malzahn. That may ultimately drive him away from Auburn, although he still seems solid on the Tigers, according to ESPN's Kipp Adams.

That said, Malzahn brought in Rodney Garner, who is not only a strong recruiter from the University of Georgia, but also served as the Bulldogs' defensive line coach. He could be a huge selling point to both prospects, who would likely see the field right away.

With Lawson and Liner potentially locked in, Auburn's immediate future may be brighter than it currently seems.


LB Jaylon Smith (No. 9)

With his incredible range, coverage skills and high football IQ, Smith checks out as a prototypical Notre Dame linebacker, which explains why he committed to the school. He shares many of the same traits of current star LB Manti Te'o.

In Notre Dame's 3-4 scheme, Smith is a fantastic fit. Not only is he exceptional at diagnosing plays, but he has outstanding physical tools to go along with that. Smith runs a sub-4.6 40-yard dash and has great height at 6'3". His 212-pound weight is a bit light, but he should bulk up once he comes to South Bend.

Smith's ability as an edge rusher would be invaluable to the Fighting Irish. What makes him special—again, similar to Te'o—is how he can drop back into coverage as well.

Truly a complete linebacker to this point in his football career, the one knock on Smith was the level of competition in high school. Being from Bishop Luers High School (Ind.), there wasn't much for Smith to go up against.

That sounds somewhat familiar to the current argument about Notre Dame's status as a premier program—in terms of pure production on the field, that is.

But all Smith has done in high school is make plays, and he has the talent, schematic smarts and natural instincts to do the same for the Irish even as a freshman in 2013.