Although the onus to win now always weighs heavily on the shoulders of head coaches, every program leader in the country is also charged with the task of keeping a close eye on the future. The 2014 college football recruiting class is quickly taking shape, as teams seek to fill needs and reload at several positions on both ends of the ball.
Offensive innovation in college football continues to present a new batch of challenges for defensive coordinators, who must react with complex schemes centered around skilled playmakers. Those difference-making defenders are abundant in this latest crop of college recruits, putting the pressure on programs to land key commits who will be ready to contribute early in their careers.
Let's take a look at five teams that must add significant defensive firepower by landing a collection of 2014 freshman standouts.
B/R college football columnist Tyler Donohue spent three seasons with the Rutgers University football program's recruiting department, contributing to three classes (2007-09) under head coach Greg Schiano.
Oklahoma State scored more points than any squad in Big 12 Conference action last year. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, an explosive offensive attack didn't receive much support from the defense.
Head coach Mike Gundy couldn't find an answer in the defensive department, and it severely cost Oklahoma State. The team finished 8-5 and tied with Texas for third place in the conference, coming up short in several shootouts.
The Cowboys coughed up leads and simply failed to control game tempo due to a lack of defensive pressure in an offensively charged conference. Problems extended from the defensive front to the boundary of a demoralized defensive backfield.
Oklahoma State surrendered at least 41 points in each of its losses last season, including a 59-38 defeat at Arizona in early September.
Help is on the way in the form of recent Cowboy commits. Linebacker Gyasi Akem is among the top high school seniors in Oklahoma and possesses the skill set to play outside as an edge rusher and perimeter protector.
A 2011 ACL injury cost Akem his entire sophomore season, but he rebounded tremendously as a junior, earning offers from Tennessee, Oklahoma and Clemson before settling on Oklahoma State in April. The Cowboys also picked up an early August commitment from Chris Hardeman, who initially selected LSU as his school of choice.
Hardeman, a 5'9" burner, should factor into the Cowboys defensive plans as a freshman. He holds offers from a wide range of programs, including Georgia, Nebraska and Ohio State.
Oklahoma State would make strides in the secondary if it can land another top cornerback target.
Jenks, Okla. native Steve Parker is a rangy 6'2" defensive back who could certainly hold his own at either safety position, although his physicality suggests strong safety is where he is best suited. The Cowboys are currently competing for his services with the in-state rival Sooners, Texas and Alabama.
It's impossible to string together winning seasons in the SEC without an opportunistic defense. Mississippi State struggled to aggressively pursue opposing passers in 2012, finishing 13th out of 14 teams in the sacks department.
The Bulldogs brought down the quarterback just 18 times last year under head coach Dan Mullen. Sure, that stat speaks volumes, but its repercussions are expansive.
When you don't regularly get in the face of a quarterback, it allows your opponent to open its playbook and set the tone. The only thing more dangerous than a confident quarterback is a confident offensive play-caller.
After opening the 2012 season with seven straight victories, the Bulldogs entered a downward spiral on defense (though a sputtering offensive effort didn't allow for much wiggle room). Mississippi State suffered four losses in its final five contests, allowing at least 34 points in each defeat.
The team gave up 30 or more points in five of eight SEC matchups, losing all but one of those games. This isn't a program built for offensive duels, so something has to change if Mullen hopes to push his team past mediocrity.
As in-state rival Ole Miss makes major noise with recent success on the recruiting trail, Mississippi State must find a way to answer and rise up in the conference standings. Unheralded Alabama product Dezmond Harris was the only linebacker to join the Bulldogs' 2013 recruiting class so its certainly a position of need.
Class of 2014 commits Gerri Green (Greenville, Miss.) and Deshon Cooper (Decatur, Ga.) will immediately add depth at linebacker. Both players are intriguing prospects because of their size — Green and Cooper each check in at approximately 6'4", 215 pounds — and it wouldn't be a surprise if one of them ended up with his hand in the dirt as a dangerous 5-technique.
Jamoral Graham became the first in-state 2014 player to commit to Mississippi State in May when he picked the Bulldogs over LSU and Ole Miss. Many view the 5'11" Graham as a top receiving target, but Mullen may be tempted to insert him in the secondary, where he would quickly become a playmaker at cornerback.
Collecting a solid verbal from a player of Graham's caliber could ultimately lead to further recruiting success within the state. Some kids are followers and that decision may sway them to join the party in Starkville.
The team's top in-state target should be defensive end Breeland Speaks (Jackson, Miss.), who is still considering the Bulldogs, along with Arkansas and Ole Miss. The 6'4", 285-pound strongside prospect is a run-stuffing menace built to play early.
The Cardinals come off a statement season but still have plenty of room to improve before joining the ACC in 2014. Former Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong has established an impressive reputation during a regime that now enters its fourth season.
Louisville claimed a share of the 2012 Big East title and defeated Florida in the Sugar Bowl. Between the victories, conference advancement and star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, the national image of this program is rapidly changing.
The positive momentum provides Louisville with an excellent chance to strike while the iron is hot in its recruiting efforts. The Cardinals are in need of upgrades throughout the defense, particularly in the front seven.
Now that the roster is filled with players he personally recruited, it's time for Strong and his coaching staff to advance athletically across the board as tougher matchups await against established powerhouse programs. If the Cardinals can carry a stingy defense into the ACC, it would make the team an instant conference title contender.
Louisville landed a special defensive end duo with commitments from Rashawn Shaw (Fort Pierce, Fla.) and Terry Ramsey (Clayton, Ohio). Each player is explosive off the snap and Shaw is so athletic that Strong may be able to match him up with a tight end in weakside coverage if necessary.
Cincinnati native Nilijah Ballew is an underrated safety prospect. He hasn't garnered a ton of interest from BCS schools but could emerge as the crown jewel of this Cardinals' recruiting class and challenge for a starting spot at strong safety by his sophomore season.
Speaking of under-the-radar guys, watch out for linebacker Isaac Stewart. The 6'2", 230-pound North Carolina product is a prototypical middle linebacker and plays with a chip on his shoulder.
He chose Louisville over in-state schools UNC, NC State and East Carolina so it's clear Stewart bought into Strong's sales pitch.
“(Louisville) is definitely on the rise,” he told The Courier-Journal of Kentucky. “It’s like a train. You’re not stopping it. … Louisville has a lot going for it, and I want to be a part of that.”
Greg Schiano built up the Rutgers football program on a foundation of playmaking defenses and a strong offensive ground game. The squad enters its second season under head coach Kyle Flood looking to continue that strategy, but must structure its game plan around many unproven players.
A massive defensive exodus poses a challenge for the Scarlet Knights and puts pressure on the coaching staff to reload with a major haul on that side of the ball when national signing day arrives. Rutgers ranked 10th nationally in total defense last year but said goodbye to several starters at season's end, including five NFL draft picks and two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year Khaseem Greene.
The Scarlet Knights carry six new defensive starters into the 2013 season, a pivotal campaign for a program at the precipice of a major leap in level of competition. Rutgers heads to the Big Ten Conference in 2014 and will face the likes of Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan every fall.
The team must reload with elite defensive talent at every position in order to prepare for a daunting upcoming test. A beefed-up front four would go a long way against Big Ten teams that prefer to wear down opponents with a heavy dose of north-south rushing in nasty weather.
This autumn, the Scarlet Knights share a conference with Central Florida, Memphis and Temple. The future is an entirely different story and Rutgers must prepare.
The program continues to improve when it comes to keeping talent in New Jersey. Rutgers netted commitments from top-flight in-state defenders Kiy Hester (safety), Sidney Gopre (linebacker), Justin Nelson (linebacker) and Saquan Hampton (cornerback).
Hester is a hard-hitting technically sound safety who can hold his own when he has to play deep centerfield at the back end, while Hampton has the hips fluidity and relentlessness to warrant playing time early in his career at Rutgers.
The Scarlet Knights also lured mammoth New York defensive tackle Pete Mokwuah south to Piscataway. The 6'5", 300-pound Staten Island prospect is exactly the kind of player this team needs as it transitions into the Big Ten.
Rutgers seemingly missed out on All-American defensive back Jabrill Peppers in May when he committed to Michigan during a nationally televised announcement but there are some who still believe the Paramus, N.J. wunderkind is keeping his options open and the Scarlet Knights are among them. It's certainly worth keeping an eye on all the way to national signing day.
The Pac-12 Conference consistently features a collection of quality playmakers at quarterback, presenting significant issues for a California squad dealing with concerns in the secondary. The Golden Bears slumped to 2-7 against conference foes in 2012, a season that featured the firing of veteran head coach Jeff Tedford.
California's inability to contain opposing aerial attacks was a particularly glaring facet of a year-long defensive struggle. The team finished 10th in the conference in passes defended (33) and ninth in interceptions (14).
The 2012 campaign ended in calamity, as the squad surrendered 121 total points in its final two games. An ugly and embarrassing 59-17 loss to Oregon at Berkeley made it abundantly clear the Golden Bears are in dire need of speed on the outside.
This team lacks playmakers in coverage and must find a group of instant-impact freshmen who can take on substantial early reps in the back seven and bolster a beleaguered backfield. Otherwise, California is destined to be torched by offensive coordinators for years to come.
The Golden Bears have little depth at cornerback and added just two defensive backs in the 2013 recruiting class, setting the stage for continued question marks in the secondary. It's imperative that new head coach Sonny Dykes dials up a strong freshman class in his first full cycle as the face of California's recruiting effort.
He has picked up some studs for the secondary, highlighted by the commitment of Jaleel Wadood (Bellflower, Calif.). The 5'11" speedster is a smooth operator along the sidelines and picked the Golden Bears from an offer list that includes Pac-12 rivals Utah, UCLA, USC and Oregon.
Wadood originally committed to Arizona State but altered his collegiate course mid-summer. If Dykes decides to use talented "athlete" commits Devante Downs (Lynwood, Wash.) and Koa Farmer (Sherman Oaks, Calif.) on the defensive end — at least one is likely to line up at safety — secondary issues could soon dissipate.
Of course, nothing amps up pass coverage like quality pressure from the front line. That remains a major work in progress for California's class of 2014 recruiting efforts.
The Golden Bears have secured just a single commitment on the defensive line — Houston product Isadore Outing. Cal needs to reel in at least two or three more quality interior player to spark changes on defense.
The coaching staff should be keying in on southern California defensive tackle Ainuu Taua, who ranks among the nation's best at the position and holds offers from the likes of Ole Miss, Oklahoma and UCLA. The team extended an offer early and is still in the mix for his services.
A bounce-back effort is underway in Berkeley. The road to recovery begins in the recruiting department.