College Football's Best Defensive Ends Heading into 2014 Spring Practice

Michael Felder@InTheBleachersNational CFB Lead WriterFebruary 28, 2014

College Football's Best Defensive Ends Heading into 2014 Spring Practice

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    As the nation gets set to kick off spring football practice, with several schools already having started, now is the time to take a look at some of the top returners on the defensive side of the ball. This is a look at some of the top returning defensive ends, guys who play the pass, and the run, with speed and power.

    The list includes athletes who play in both the 4-3 and 3-4 schemes. Both are very different systems, but they each feature defensive ends as integral pieces. Some ends are at their best when setting a hard edge and squeezing down runs. Others are at their game's pinnacle when it comes to using their speed to get to the quarterback. Both get the job done.

    Here is a look, in alphabetical order, at some of the top defensive ends heading into the 2014 season.

Vic Beasley

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    Vic Beasley's return to Clemson was a surprise of sorts, following a season that saw the speed-rusher finish No. 4 and No. 3 nationally in tackles for loss and sacks, respectively, per The third-year player put together a season that likely would have landed him in the first round of the draft, yet now he is back to anchor the Tigers defense for the 2014 season.

    For the speed rusher, this season will have to be about improving his strength at the point of attack. While Beasley was great at beating blockers to spots with his speed, his game will elevate when he can set and hold the edge for his defense.

    Clemson has a good one back in the fold, and with linebacker Stephone Anthony returning, plus a host of defensive linemen, the Tigers should be in good hands as they try to win an ACC title. As Beasley told ESPN's Heather Dinich recently, "A lot of people would probably never expect the Clemson defense to be the strength of the team. I feel like we’re the strength of the team now, and everybody is depending on us."

Joey Bosa

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    Many at Ohio State expected the hybrid rush linebacker-defensive end Noah Spence to be a monster in the 2013 season. The sophomore certainly lived up to expectations.

    However, true freshman defensive end Joey Bosa was a revelation for the Buckeyes. The young defensive lineman cracked the starting lineup, and his play was near an elite level.

    Bosa used his speed, power, long arms and excellent technique to abuse offensive linemen and stop the football at or behind the line of scrimmage. While the coverage element of the Buckeyes defense suffered, Bosa helped play a major role in stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback.

    This season, as Ohio State tries to shore up the coverage in the back end, Bosa will be back terrorizing offensive linemen.

Shilique Calhoun

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    Michigan State was, by many accounts, the nation's best defense in 2013, and players like Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Kurtis Drummond drew most of the headlines. Meanwhile, defensive end Shilique Calhoun simply showed up every game and wrecked shop.

    Calhoun, better known as Bane on the football field, is a near ideal fit for a 4-3 defensive end, as he stands 6'4" tall and weighs in at 250 pounds as a sophomore. With expectations for him to add size to his long frame in the offseason, Calhoun will likely be the biggest name on a defense tasked with filling in some holes.

    In the Big Ten, where Joey Bosa is also set to become more of a household name, Calhoun will have to build on last season's numbers to be the conference's top end.

Sheldon Day

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    Notre Dame's defensive front, including Sheldon Day, did not have the season many expected, as both Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt struggled. Now, with both players headed to the NFL, Day becomes the headliner as a stout 3-4 defensive end. New defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder is going to continue the 3-4 and 4-3 multiple looks that the Irish employed so well under Bob Diaco.

    Day is a true 3-4 end who can set the edge on an offensive tackle and squeeze his gap to force runners to flow into his linebackers. When needed, he can force a double-team and eat up space on the edge, allowing backers to flow quickly to the football.

    Watching Day this spring will be interesting, as he is piece that should fit well into the 4-3 as a 3-technique, helping generate an interior rush when the Irish opt for that defensive look.

Ray Drew

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    Ray Drew, the Georgia Bulldogs defensive end, is another player who plays in a 3-4 but was explosive enough to be disruptive, much like Ohio State's Joey Bosa. This year, with new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, look for the emphasis to be on players doing the little things right. The Dawgs defense will improve under Pruitt, and having a solid asset like Drew will go a long way.

    Georgia's defense had plenty of issues in 2013, but Drew remained a constant on a unit that could not get off the field. Drew, at 6'5" and 276 pounds, has the length and the size to hold the edge, but he also possesses the quickness to beat slower tackles on the corner to make a play.

    Pruitt just wrapped up a season using Mario Edwards at Florida State to be influential in the same manner with positive effects. Watch for Drew to capitalize on the teachings of the new staff on the way to having a solid season.

Mario Edwards

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    Mario Edwards was the No. 2 recruit nationally, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, and despite the lack of accolades, he is living up to the hype. The third-team All-ACC defensive end is a problem for opponents, and those watching the games, not the just the stat lines, understand the rising junior's quality of play.

    Although the college game is letting Edwards pass quietly under the radar as a talent, this is a kid the NFL cannot wait to get its hands on. He is long, strong and disruptive both at the point of attack and when he disengages to make a play for his team. This kid is the prototype of a 3-4 defensive end, and while his statistics will never match speed guys like Vic Beasley's, his impact is very real for the Seminoles.

    During the 2014 season, as the Seminoles replace pieces at every level of their defense, Edwards is going to have to build on his strong 2013 campaign. As Florida State eyeballs the first College Football Playoff, it will be on Edwards in the front seven to keep funneling tackles to linebackers, forcing runs inside and squeezing the pocket.

Randy Gregory

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    Randy Gregory really flashed for Nebraska during the 2013 season, and the defensive end is hoping to add to that for 2014, during which Nebraska will need its front seven to play a massive role. The Huskers lose cornerbacks Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste to the NFL, and they will need the pass rush to help aid the new faces in the secondary.

    Gregory has high-level athleticism, including an explosive burst off the line and the ability to beat tackles around the edge to the quarterback. He also has the versatility to play standing up, and that makes him a true asset to a Nebraska defense that will be looking for multiple ways to get pressure on the quarterback.

    Along with Joey Bosa and Shilique Calhoun, Gregory is a must-watch for the 2014 season. His speed and athleticism make him a top-notch pass-rusher, and if he can add more polish and strength to his game, he'll only improve as a player.

Robert Nkemdiche

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    On signing day in 2013, Robert Nkemdiche was the No. 1 recruit in nation, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings. In his debut season, he showed flashes of living up to the top billing.

    Now, with some departures along the defensive line, he has to start being a consistent, every-down force for the Rebels.

    Nkemdiche has all the tools to be an elite player. His size makes him an every-down option at the position. He has shown the ability to hold the edge, even against double-teams, allowing teammates to fill the void and make plays. He also has the power to push the pocket with a bull rush and force the quarterback into waiting teammates.

    For the rising sophomore, it will be all about consistency and continuing to expand his role. Although Nkemdiche will not be the pass-rushing force of other players, having a complete defensive end, in a land populated by specialists, is a major benefit.

A'Shawn Robinson

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    Many people expected linebacker Reuben Foster to be the highlight of the Crimson Tide's 2013 signing class. Then the season started, and it was A'Shawn Robinson, the defensive end, who became the Tide's biggest impact true freshman. Robinson, who was listed as either an offensive or defensive tackle during recruiting, came in and played lights-out football for Alabama.

    Robinson is another 3-4 defensive end who has the size and power to occupy multiple blockers and who allows his linebackers to scrap and fill holes. Listed at 320 pounds, Robinson is a massive mountain of man who would play inside for most teams, but has the athleticism to play at the 5-technique in 3-4 looks.

    The big, fluid athlete is a problem for offensive tackles, as he truly has the size to control the line of scrimmage and force the issue. This year, expect Robinson to develop further as he increases his role in the Alabama defense.

Leonard Williams

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    In 2013, Leonard Williams played as a 3-4 end, operating largely with one-gap principles. Williams took to the move quickly and continued to dominate out of the new defensive sets. Now, with another new coordinator at USC, the rising junior will be shifting again for the 2014 season.

    Justin Wilcox is the new defensive mind at USC, and he brings his brand of defense to the land of Troy. Williams is a special player who is capable of making both the 3-4 and 4-3 work from different positions. Wilcox will figure out a way to fit him into the new system this spring. 

    In 3-4 looks and in the hybrid 4-3 schemes, Williams will be an edge player who can squeeze the pocket as well as disengage to get to the quarterback. In the more true 4-3 looks, his athleticism allows him to slide down into the defensive tackle spot and still create disruption from the interior. The junior has the skills to be a high-level outside, or inside, player who makes plays behind the line of scrimmage.

Other Notable Defensive Ends Returning

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    Nationally, there are certainly other names to watch at the defensive end position. In the SEC, Trey Flowers at Arkansas and Carl Lawson from Auburn are two names fans should know as they set up to have big 2014 campaigns. Out west, Eddie Vanderdoes at UCLA, Tony Washington from Oregon and Hau'oli Kikaha at Washington appear ready to make splashes in the Pac-12.

    Martin Ifedi is back to do damage at Memphis, and Shawn Oakman is looking to build on his success at Baylor playing on the edge. There are plenty of high-level defensive ends returning to the game, and as bodies mature and players get more field time, expect the emergence of new athletes once the fall hits and the snaps are live.