The 10 Most Dominant Defenders Heading into the 2014 College Football Season
It's not hard to spot a dominant defensive player in college football. Just watch for the looks of fear all focused in one direction.
Though the jersey is the same style and color as the rest of his teammates, there's a certain aura around a stud defender. No matter where it's found on the field, dominance can be seen even before the snap. There are 11 defenders waiting to react to the hike, but the dominators are so ready it's like they know the play before it's been called.
And sure enough, the whistle blows and there they are, making the sack, the tackle for loss and disrupting the pass play, maybe even hauling it in themselves. And if the ball comes loose, odds are they'll be involved in knocking it out or scooping it up.
Defense isn't appreciated nearly as much as offense is in college, but we do love our dominant defenders. So do NFL teams, which was why Jadeveon Clowney was the first overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft and half of the first-round selections don't generate offensive stats.
As we creep slowly but surely toward the 2014 season, here's a look at college football's most dominant players heading into the fall.
There are dozens of great defensive players set to take the field in 2014, but not all of them can make the cut. Here's some of the standouts who just missed out on this list:
Malcolm Brown, DT, Texas
Dante Fowler, DE/LB, Florida
Trey Flowers, DE, Arkansas
Addison Gillam, LB, Colorado
Benardrick McKinney, LB, Mississippi State
Robert Nkemdiche, DL, Mississippi
Denzel Perryman, LB, Miami (Fla.)
Jordan Richards, S, Stanford
A'Shawn Robinson, DE, Alabama
Derron Smith, S, Fresno State
10. Landon Collins, S, Alabama
Height, weight: 6'0", 215 lbs
A backup when the 2013 season began, Landon Collins had to step in when Vinnie Sunseri was injured and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was suspended. That opportunity opened the door for the country to see how talented Collins was, so much so that the departure of those to safeties to the NFL hasn't led to much stress at Alabama.
Collins has the size normally found in NFL safeties, and he hits like them too. But there's also speed in the package, allowing him to record 70 tackles while picking off two passes last season.
Now Collins gets to show off his dominance in a leadership role, as he'll be tasked with helping to bring along highly touted secondary recruits Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey. If he can show those players how to hit and cover like him, then the Crimson Tide's pass defense will be among the best in the nation this fall.
9. Leonard Williams, DE, USC
Height, weight: 6'5", 290 lbs
Leonard Williams is a matchup nightmare for offensive linemen, whether it be on the edge or as an interior rusher. He began as a defensive tackle in his freshman season; then, in 2013, he played defensive end. The results were the same in both spots: 13.5 tackles for loss.
Because he's strong enough to shove through the middle of the line or fast enough to get around or inside of tackles, Williams is almost a required double-team for offensive linemen. But even that won't guarantee slowing Williams down.
Williams' effort last season, which included six sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery, came despite playing for much of the year with a shoulder injury.
8. Kendall Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
Height, weight: 5'11", 193 lbs
With older brother Kyle already established as a top-flight defensive back at Virginia Tech, Kendall Fuller came to the school last season with high expectations that he could be as good. Instead, he was better and after one season is on track to be one of the Hokies' best cornerbacks ever.
Fuller led all freshmen in FBS with six interceptions last season, starting in place of Antone Exum in his college debut against Alabama and staying in the starting lineup all year. Quarterbacks took a while to realize he couldn't be picked on, though Duke's Anthony Boone never caught on and was picked off three times by Fuller.
Now, as Virginia Tech's top corner, he'll be tasked with handling all of the top ACC wide receivers. The early results indicate that shouldn't be a problem, and teams would be wise to send players in motion to try and free them from Fuller's coverage.
7. Su'a Cravens, S, USC
Height, weight: 6'1", 215 lbs
With all of the injuries and other turmoil that USC dealt with last season, the most it could have hoped for from Su'a Cravens in his first year of college was to provide consistency at strong safety. Instead, he was the best player on the field when the Trojans were on defense.
Cravens had four interceptions and disrupted countless other passes in 2013, and he also backed up his pre-USC hype of being a hard hitter by laying some vicious hits on unsuspecting wide receivers and running backs. He showed the kind of skills that could enable him to play at linebacker, if needed, similar to what Dion Bailey did last year.
He still has another year before becoming draft-eligible, but Cravens is already high on pro scouts' radars thanks to his dominant early play. He's listed as the top-rated strong safety in the Class of 2017, according to NFL Draft Scout.
6. Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida
Height, weight: 5'11", 185 lbs
The top defensive freshman in the country last season, Vernon Hargreaves III has already shown the type of play that Florida's been known for from the cornerback position over the last two decades.
Hargreaves was so good he was the only freshman on the SEC's All-Conference Team, despite just having three interceptions. He made up for that with 11 pass breakups, which tied a school record held by Janoris Jenkins and solidified him as one of the nation's top returning shutdown corners.
ESPN's Todd McShay (subscription required) listed Hargreaves as the top underclassmen in the country not named Jameis Winston after the 2013 season, and this fall he's going to draw opponents' best receiving option on nearly every snap.
5. Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State
Height, weight: 6'3", 285 lbs
Ohio State sported arguably the most talented and skillful defensive line in FBS last season, with all four starters playing at a level worthy of Big Ten and national honors. Somehow, though, Michael Bennett managed to still stand out on that unit, putting forth an effort you'd normally see from a lone wolf.
Bennett had seven sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss in 2013, doing so both as a nose guard and a defensive tackle depending on how the Buckeyes lined up. Both alignments saw him tear into the backfield to drag down quarterbacks and ball-carriers.
He began last year as a player with promise, but now Bennett enters his senior year as the top-rated defensive tackle in his class, according to NFL Draft Scout.
4. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon
Height, weight: 5'10", 195 lbs
A cornerback's main job is to prevent the player he's covering from getting his hands on the ball. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is a master of accomplishing this goal, but that only begins to the scratch the surface of what he's capable of doing.
While he has seven career interceptions, Ekpre-Olomu also has forced seven fumbles, showing a knack for knocking the ball loose either on run defense or after a wideout has managed to catch a rare pass against him. He's also grown in his work at the line of scrimmage, registering five tackles for loss in 2013.
Had he gone pro last season, Ekpre-Olomu might have been among the first defensive backs taken in the 2014 draft. He's now in line to be the first corner chosen in 2015, according to a list of early mock drafts compiled by The Oregonian's Andrew Greif.
3. Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State
Height, weight: 6'4", 257 lbs
With 7.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss last season, Shilique Calhoun established himself as one of the most dominant defensive linemen in the country. What put him over the top, though, wasn't just his ability to get a big play started, but to finish them off as well.
Calhoun had three defensive touchdowns in 2013, two on fumble returns and one on an interception. He had four total fumble recoveries, as many as Notre Dame had as a team, and forced out two more loose balls.
When he couldn't get to the ball or its carrier, Calhoun still made his presence felt with 18 quarterback hurries. Though he wasn't entirely responsible for Michigan State's No. 2 overall defense, he had a huge role in that ranking.
2. Vic Beasley, DE/LB, Clemson
Height, weight: 6'2", 235 lbs
Though he's one of the smallest defensive ends in college, Vic Beasley didn't play like an undersized guy in 2013. Instead, he made it seem like he was always involved in the big plays when Clemson made a stop in a passing situation.
Beasley led the Tigers with 23 tackles for loss, 13 sacks and four forced fumbles, topping the ACC in the sacks category and finishing in the top 10 nationally in all three stats. Using a blend of explosiveness to handle much larger blockers and agility to get around the edge, he became a pass-rushing specialist as the season went on.
To better use his skills, Beasley will likely play as a linebacker in the NFL. He'll need to get better in defending the run for him to be successful as a pro, but for his role in college, there's no one better.
1. Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
Height, weight: 6'6", 245 lbs
The country's most dominant all-around defensive player did more in his one season of major college football than many top players can accomplish in a career. Because of that, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller considers Randy Gregory to be the most NFL-ready defensive end in what's shaping up to be a great class at that position.
Gregory had 19 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks in 2013, his first year with Nebraska after spending a season at a junior college and another out of the game with a broken leg. Considered a "raw" talent because of his lack of experience and overall technique, the effort last season was so surprising that he seemed to overwhelm offensive linemen and other blockers.
But, per Eric Olson of The Associated Press, Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini said that just means he's got room to get better, saying Gregory "hasn't even scratched the surface of what he's going to become." That is a scary idea to comprehend if you're trying to find a way to keep him off the quarterback.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.