College Football

Breaking Down the Best Defensive Players in Each College Football Conference

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistJune 2, 2014

Breaking Down the Best Defensive Players in Each College Football Conference

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    Every conference lost some of its best defensive players from last season, but every conference returned some as well. Such is the natural ebb and flow of college football.

    No league has been completely depleted at any layer of the defense, even if it lost every member of the first-team defensive line, linebacking corps or secondary. There will always be a group of players waiting to take those first-teamers' place the following season.

    Here is a look at the projected top defensive players in each conference—one guy for each level of the defense.

    Based on how they performed last season (or the last time they were healthy), how they have allegedly improved this spring and the players who were lost around them, they are good bets to be the top linemen, linebackers and backs in their respective leagues.

    Sound off below and tell me whom I missed.

AAC

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    DL Martin Ifedi, Memphis

    Martin Ifedi jumped out of the gate last season, leading the nation in tackles for loss with nine in the first three weeks. He would eventually settle down and regress to the mean, recording just 5.5 more tackles for loss during the rest of the season, but his natural pass-rushing skills have been evident ever since he was moved from defensive tackle to end in 2012. He is also a fantastic athlete for a player his size (6'3", 265 pounds), having clocked a reported 4.76 in the 40-yard dash, per Mike Huguenin of NFL.com.

     

    LB Tyler Matakevich, Temple

    Tyler Matakevich was one of the lone defensive bright spots for Temple in 2013, leading the AAC with 137 tackles as a sophomore. His 106 solo tackles were the most in the country, and no returning player had more total tackles than his 137 last year. He is a high-energy player with deceptive sideline-to-sideline speed that helps him track down opponents at a prodigious, borderline historic rate.

     

    DB Jacoby Glenn, UCF

    Jacoby Glenn earned a much-deserved spot on the FWAA Freshman All-American Team last season, beating out notable players such as Kendall Fuller at Virginia Tech for the honor. His 17 pass breakups were tied—ironically with Fuller—for most among freshmen and eighth overall in the country, and he was consistently sound in coverage during the Golden Knights' magical season. At 6'0", Glenn has good size for the position and is willing to throw his body around in run support. He is a truly fantastic young prospect.

ACC

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    DE Vic Beasley, Clemson

    Vic Beasley is one of just two returning defenders from last year's AP All-American first team—and the other (Ole Miss safety Cody Prewitt) doesn't even appear on this list. He finished fourth in the country and first among returnees with 23 tackles for loss in 2013, routinely beating tackles off the edge. Beasley is a good athlete who can play with his hand down in a 4-3 or standing up in a 3-4—exactly the type of versatility that is valued in modern defensive schemes.

     

    LB Denzel Perryman, Miami

    Denzel Perryman is one of the hardest-hitting players in college football, a defender who opposing backs and receivers keep their head on a swivel to avoid. He finished last year with 108 total tackles, serving as the ballast for a young and inconsistent Miami defense that needed a leader up the middle. He is a true three-down defender with great instincts against the run and enough speed to stay on the field in coverage. It is no mere coincidence that he wears No. 52.

     

    DB Jalen Ramsey, Florida State

    Jalen Ramsey does a little bit of everything for the Florida State defense. He began last year at cornerback, becoming the first true freshman to start the season-opener for the Seminoles since Deion Sanders, but moved to safety during the season because of injuries. This year, he is expected to move all around the lineup a la LaMarcus Joyner, making plays in different capacities. His skills in coverage, against the run and even off the edge are expected to help keep FSU's defense among the best in college football this year.

Big 12

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    DL Ryan Mueller, Kansas State

    A man with a non-stop motor, Ryan Mueller has parlayed limited athleticism and little-to-no recruiting pedigree into Big 12 stardom. He finished second in the conference behind Jackson Jeffcoat with 18.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks in 2013, doing his best work with three sacks in a blowout win over Texas Tech. "If I shared to you my goals before the season, you probably would have laughed at me,” Mueller said, according to Kellis Robinett of the Wichita Eagle. "...but in order to have success you have to expect it from yourself. I expected to perform at this level or even higher. I always have and I always will."

     

    LB Eric Striker, Oklahoma

    Quarterback Trevor Knight was not the only one who enjoyed a coming-out party in the Sugar Bowl; Eric Striker sacked AJ McCarron three times, including the game-clinching play that forced a fumble and led to a defensive touchdown. He continued that momentum with a strong spring and should emerge as a legit All-American candidate in 2014. Although his coverage needs some work, there are few better pure pass-rushers in the country than Striker.

     

    DB Sam Carter, TCU

    Perpetually underrated, TCU's Sam Carter has made the All-Big 12 second team in each of the past two seasons. With Jason Verrett and some other talented pieces gone from the Horned Frogs' secondary, this should be the year he finally cracks the first team. A high school quarterback who didn't start playing defense until college, Carter has become one of the best ball-hawking safeties in America, using the skills of his former position to read the eyes of opposing QBs and force game-changing turnovers.

Big Ten

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    DL Joey Bosa, Ohio State

    It didn't take long for Joey Bosa to crack the starting lineup in Columbus, and once he did, the true freshman became one of the best defensive lineman—if not defensive players—in America. He had 9.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks in the final six games of last season, enjoying his best all-around performance against Michigan State for the Big Ten title. With good size (6'5", 285 pounds) and length, a quick burst and a relentless attitude in the trenches, watch for Bosa as a sneaky bet for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.

     

    OLB Randy Gregory, Nebraska

    We'll break the rules a little bit to include both Bosa and Gregory. The latter plays with his hand down for Nebraska but is capable of standing up as a rush linebacker, too. In his first year of FBS football, the highly touted JUCO transfer led Nebraska's defense with 16 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks. On his first big board of 2015, ESPN.com's Mel Kiper ranked Gregory the No. 3 NFL draft prospect in the country.

     

    DB Trae Waynes, Michigan State

    Kurtis Drummond returns at safety from the All-Big Ten first team, but he is not even the best player in his own secondary. That honor goes to Trae Waynes, who has been a lockdown corner in Michigan State's "No Fly Zone" since being plugged into the starting lineup against TCU in the 2012 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. With Darqueze Dennard now gone to the NFL, Waynes should be up for the challenge of defending opposing No. 1 receivers—just like Dennard himself was after replacing Johnny Adams in 2013.

C-USA

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    DT Christian Covington, Rice

    A "group of five" lineman with "power-conference" measurables, Christian Covington (6'3", 295 lbs) has gotten better with each year on campus for the Owls. His father is Grover Covington, a member of the Canadian Football League Hall of Fame and a former winner of the league's defensive player of the year award. His production last season, when he racked up 11.5 tackles for loss en route to a C-USA championship, helped validate his auspicious bloodlines.

     

    LB T.T. Barber, Middle Tennessee State

    A playmaker of the highest order, T.T. Barber led Middle Tennessee State—a surprisingly good defensive team—with 119 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles last season. He also finished second on the team with three interceptions and was elected to the first-team All-C-USA defense. Did I mention he was only a sophomore? Barber should continue wreaking havoc for another two seasons.

     

    DB D'Joun Smith, Florida Atlantic

    Wild as it sounds, Barber might not even be the best defensive playmaker in the conference. Florida Atlantic cornerback D'Joun Smith was a monster in 2013, finishing second in the nation with 20 passes defended and seven interceptions. He has a nose for the ball like few others in the country and is capable of making big plays the other way. At 5'11" with improving coverage skills, he has a chance to become a legitimate NFL draft prospect this season.

MAC

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    DE Bryson Albright, Miami (Ohio)

    Bryson Albright was the only non-senior in the MAC with 10 or more tackles for loss last season, finishing his sophomore campaign with 11.5 takedowns in the backfield. At 6'5", 226 pounds, he relies more on his length and his motor than his power to get into the backfield, although he is young and still has room to fill out his frame. New head coach Chuck Martin said Albright is "clearly one of our best football players" after spring practice, per Mike Smith of MAC Report Online.

     

    LB Junior Sylvestre, Toledo

    Junior Sylvestre, a converted defensive back, gives Toledo a sideline-to-sideline playmaker in the middle of its defense. He led the team and finished second in the conference with 118 tackles last season, and his 64 solo stops were more than any other player in the league. Although he is a little bit undersized (6'0", 222 lbs), Sylvestere's energy is contagious and one of the reasons the Rockets are considered a favorite in the MAC this upcoming season.

     

    DB Devin Bass, Ohio

    At 5'9", Devin Bass doesn't have the physical size to play on the outside at the next level. But the size of his heart has never been in question. Seriously—just watch him land this mid-air cartwheel to extend a kick return last season. That play is a microcosm of Bass' game: steely determination mixed with A-plus athleticism. He was elected to the All-MAC second-team defense as a sophomore in 2013.

MWC

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    DL Brock Hekking, Nevada

    Brock Hekking is an Internet sensation waiting to happen—and 2014 might be the year when he finally realizes his potential. A dead ringer for Brian Bosworth, Hekking rocks a platinum blonde mullet and '90s bandana in earnest and seems like the best guy in college football to grab a beer with. He is also an uber-productive pass-rusher, finishing third in the MWC behind Demarcus Lawrence and Shaquil Barrett—two pretty good players—with 75 tackle-for-loss yards last season.

     

    LB Kyler Fackrell, Utah State

    Kyler Fackrell is the best player you have never heard of—but that won't remain the case for very long. On his first big board for the 2015 NFL draft, ESPN.com's Mel Kiper ranked Fackrell the No. 18 overall prospect—ahead of better-known commodities such as Alabama safety Landon Collins, Florida State defensive end Mario Edwards and Georgia tailback Todd Gurley. Fackrell is 6'5" and a freaky athlete on the edge, not unlike former UCLA superstar Anthony Barr. The Aggies are perpetually one of the best (and most underrated) defenses in the country, and Fackrell will ensure that stays the same in 2014.

     

    DB Derron Smith, Fresno State

    Derron Smith is the rock on the back end of a suspect Fresno State defense. Without him, there is no way the Bulldogs would have come so close to finishing the season undefeated and crashing a BCS bowl in 2013. He was tied for second nationally with seven interceptions and finished second on Fresno State with 87 tackles. That unique combination of run support and pass coverage helped Smith get named to the Lott IMPACT Trophy watch list this offseason

Independent*

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    There will only be four FBS Independents next season, and Notre Dame is by far the cream of the crop (although BYU and Navy aren't half-bad). Instead of pandering to the Irish faithful be confirming that they have the best player in the "conference" at every position, let's instead highlight the single best player among the four defenses:

     

    LB Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame

    Jaylon Smith came to South Bend with much hoopla in 2013, checking in as the No. 2 overall player on the 247Sports Composite. It didn't take long for him to justify that ranking. Smith became an immediate starter on the Irish defense and might have been its best player by the end of his true freshman season. He made the game-saving fourth-down tackle against Navy, flashing the speed and athleticism that will likely make him a first-round NFL draft pick in 2016.

Pac-12

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    DL Leonard Williams, USC

    It doesn't stand out as much to the untrained eye, but Leonard Williams is every bit the physical anomaly Jadeveon Clowney was at South Carolina. The two players are different, of course: Williams oscillates between tackle and end, while Clowney just plays end. But the way Leonard shoots off the line at 290 pounds is rare to say the least. He might well be the country's top defender next season.

     

    LB Myles Jack, UCLA

    Another freak of physical nature, Myles Jack will focus full-time on defense to start next season—or at least that's how his workload has been billed—but is capable of stepping in at running back if need be. As a pure linebacker, Jack combines speed with power in a way that is truly rare. He doesn't have the same freaky range as his former teammate, Anthony Barr, but he is good in coverage and still just a true sophomore. The ceiling on Jack's game is considerable.

     

    DB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon

    One of the most surprising returnees in college football, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu turned down a likely first-round selection in the NFL drat to come back for his senior season. At 5'10", he doesn't have the length of a new-school, Richard Sherman-type cornerback, but he makes up for it with speed and physicality. He is great in zone, in press-man and defending the run and does not have any palpable weaknesses.

SEC

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    DL A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama

    A'Shawn Robinson was a revelation playing the longstick for Alabama. Billed as a potential offensive lineman coming out of high school, he quickly learned the nuance of the defensive side of the ball under Nick Saban and Kirby Smart and became one of the most productive linemen in the SEC. His sack and tackle-for-loss numbers may never jump off the page, but Robinson is a gap-plugging machine whose presence alone can shut down the running game.

     

    LB Ramik Wilson, Georgia

    Ramik Wilson led Georgia with 128 tackles last season and may still just be scratching the surface of his potential—which is scary. "Ramik had a tremendous year, but I think he knows that he can get better," said head coach Mark Richt when he announced his return to school, according to Chase Goodbread of NFL.com. "I think that's a good sign for Georgia." With great size (6'2", 232 lbs) and enough speed to make plays on the outside, Wilson projects as an All-America candidate in 2014.

     

    DB Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida

    Vernon Hargreaves III barely edges out a pair of awesome safeties—Alabama's Landon Collins and Ole Miss' Cody Prewitt—for the top defensive back spot in the SEC. He does so, in large part, because he was only a freshman when he impressed so thoroughly last season. With a projected sophomore jump in 2014, he can go from being one of the best defenders in college football to the solitary best. He is tall (5'11"), long, rangy, disciplined and opportunistic in pass coverage. 

Sun Belt

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    DE Dominique Tovell, Louisiana-Lafayette

    Dominique Tovell was the leader of a good Louisiana-Lafayette defensive line in 2013, finishing fifth in the conference (and first among non-seniors) with 11.5 tackles for loss. His performance helped the Ragin' Cajuns post a stuff rate that ranked 28th in the country, per Bill Connelly of Football Study Hall. Essentially, what that means is that the ULL defense did some (or most) of its best work in the opposing backfield on rushing plays, forcing negative yardage quite often. And Tovell was the spearhead of that charge.

     

    LB Qushaun Lee, Arkansas State

    Qushaun Lee posted 100 tackles as a sophomore in 2012 and 134 as a junior in 2013. The latter figure had him tied for sixth-most in America and third-most among returning players. He is a fearsome hitter who can change the momentum of a game in one moment, and according to Athlon Sports, he is the two-time reigning Defensive MVP of the GoDaddy Bowl. He should help the Red Wolves endure yet another head-coaching change in 2014.

     

    DB Trevence Patt, Louisiana-Lafayette

    A big (6'0"), physical corner with impressive coverage skills, Trevence Patt helped Louisiana-Lafayette earn another co-championship in the Sun Belt last season. He was named a second-team All-Conference selection by Phil Steele and should be a heavy favorite to make the first team this season. It helps, of course, that he gets to face the league's best player—quarterback Terrance Broadway—in practice every day.

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