Breaking Down the Best Defensive Players in Each College Football Conference
The recent 2016 NFL draft featured plenty of defensive talent. Although the first two picks of the draft (Cal’s Jared Goff and North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz) were quarterbacks, 16 of the 31 first-round picks were defensive players, led by No. 3 overall pick and new San Diego Charger defensive end Joey Bosa.
As always, graduation and the draft robbed college football of some of its best defensive players.
That said, the cycle of college football life means that new talent will step forward to replace those who’ve moved on, and of course, plenty of impressive players remain.
How will that affect the game? Chances are, it’ll be just fine in 2016.
Here’s a look at the best defensive players in each FBS conference, from the ACC to the Sun Belt. Disagree? Let us know in the comments.
American Athletic Conference
South Florida took some of the heat off Willie Taggart in 2015. Following a combined 6-18 record in his first two seasons in Tampa, the Bulls improved to 8-5 and made a bowl game for the first time since 2010.
A more talented roster certainly helped it move forward.
Cornerback Deatrick Nichols was excellent. He made 62 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and four interceptions, broke up five passes, forced two fumbles, recovered a fumble and made a sack. Nichols ranked fifth in the AAC in interceptions and was a first-team All-AAC selection.
He’ll key South Florida’s run at an AAC title and another bowl bid this fall as the league’s best defensive player.
Atlantic Coast Conference
When Virginia lured Bronco Mendenhall away from BYU, it was considered a coup for the Cavaliers. Mendenhall was 99-43 with 11 bowl appearances in 11 seasons with the Cougars, so getting him to move cross-country to revive a struggling Virginia program is huge.
Mike London left Mendenhall a tough situation, but he also left some talent behind, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
As a sophomore, Micah Kiser emerged as one of the best linebackers in the ACC and in college football. Kiser led the ACC in tackles per game at 9.8, just ahead of teammate Quin Blanding. He finished with 117 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks, all of which led Virginia’s roster. Kiser also forced three fumbles and recovered two.
He did all this for a team that finished 4-8.
If Mendenhall can even get Virginia bowl-eligible this season, Kiser might not remain a secret for long.
Big Ten Conference
2016 didn’t exactly start the way Iowa and coach Kirk Ferentz had hoped.
The Hawkeyes enjoyed a highly impressive run through the 2015 regular season, finishing 12-0 and winning the Big Ten West. But a last-second 16-13 loss to Michigan State and an ugly 45-16 rout at Stanford’s hands in the Rose Bowl left an empty feeling.
Desmond King gave them a major boost, though.
When King spurned the NFL for his senior season of college football in Iowa City, it was a major victory for Ferentz and his staff. He emerged as one of the best defenders in college football in 2015.
Last fall, King piled up 72 tackles and made eight interceptions, winning the Jim Thorpe Award as college football’s top defensive back. He was a consensus first-team All-American and also pitched in as Iowa’s main kick and punt returner, averaging 24.4 yards per kick return and 14.2 yards per punt return.
King will enter 2016 as the top corner in college football and the top defender in the Big Ten. He'll be a cornerstone of Iowa’s hopes for another big run at a league title.
Big 12 Conference
Defense was far from TCU’s biggest strength last fall.
The Horned Frogs flew high with a potent offense led by quarterback Trevone Boykin, but needed the Air Raid to outscore opponents due to an injured, inexperienced defense that yielded 27.2 points per game, tied for No. 64 nationally.
That said, the defense did have its strong points. One of the biggest was defensive end Josh Carraway.
He was a consistent contributor on the Frogs defensive line, starting all 13 games and making 47 tackles, nine sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss, as well as three fumble recoveries, two pass breakups and a forced fumble. Carraway also made big plays, including a 56-yard fumble return for a touchdown against Baylor.
The Horned Frogs hope to shake off last season’s mediocre defensive effort this fall, and the senior should lead the way as one of the best defensive players in the Big 12.
In South Florida’s crowded media market, it can be tough for a program like Florida Atlantic to stand out. With more players like Trey Hendrickson, though, that won’t be as much of a problem.
The Owls’ standout defensive end had an excellent season in 2015 and is clearly Conference USA’s top defensive player. He finished with 39 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks (second nationally behind Penn State’s Carl Nassib), while also forcing five fumbles.
Hendrickson played best when the stakes were highest. At Florida, he had five tackles, two sacks, forced a fumble that was recovered for a game-tying touchdown and blocked an extra point in overtime (although the Owls would lose, 20-14).
Hendrickson has NFL-ready size at 6’4” and 270 pounds. His production will play well in C-USA and should give him a significant look at the professional level.
You have to work to find Northern Illinois’ campus. Located in DeKalb, Illinois, west of the Chicago suburbs in the windblown cornfields off Interstate 88, NIU is in the heart of Big Ten country but a world away in prestige.
Regardless, the Huskies have built themselves into one of the best Group of Five programs with a run that includes an Orange Bowl berth in 2012.
Scouts know their way to DeKalb, and they’ll find their way there this fall, too, if only to look at cornerback Shawun Lurry.
Last fall, Lurry emerged as one of the nation’s top secondary players. He led the nation with nine interceptions, picking off passes in five consecutive games. Lurry has made an impressive transition after arriving in DeKalb as a receiver.
He stands just 5’8” and 180 pounds but has proved that size isn’t everything, cementing his reputation as a ball-hawk cornerback. He was a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s top defensive back, and was also named as a first-team FWAA All-American, the only Group of Five first-team representative.
MAC quarterbacks would be wise to avoid him at all costs this fall.
Mountain West Conference
San Diego State is emerging as one of the best Group of Five programs. The Aztecs are coming off an 11-3 2015 season that included a Mountain West title and a 42-7 Hawaii Bowl bashing of Cincinnati.
They have one of the nation’s most underrated runners in tailback Donnel Pumphrey and one of the better cornerbacks in senior Damontae Kazee.
Kazee made SDSU fans and coach Rocky Long very happy when he reversed a decision to enter the NFL draft and return for his final season of college football. Last fall, Kazee won Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year after leading the MWC with seven interceptions, finishing with 77 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles as well as 15 passes defended.
Kazee told Kirk Kenney of the San Diego Union-Tribune that returning was just the right move:
I don’t see a downside. Some people say, ‘What if you get hurt?’ It’s football. People get hurt in football, no matter what. I’m going to have to live with that (if it happens). I’m not going to sit here and cry about it, just continually try to grind. If my draft stock drops next year, so be it. As long as I have a degree to go with it.
He is an athletic playmaker who made three interceptions in the 2015 season opener against San Diego and returned a punt 66 yards for a touchdown against UNLV.
With 14 starters returning, the Aztecs have a serious shot at repeating as league champs, and Kazee makes them that much tougher to pick against.
Even in today’s DirecTV, 500-channel world, it can be hard to keep up with Pac-12 football at times.
The league’s television network has struggled to receive consistent nationwide coverage, and too many of its games kick off after the rest of the nation has wrapped up its college football viewing for the average Saturday.
However, Southern California tends to get more than the Pac-12 teams' share of attention.
And if the Trojans pop up on your screen, focus your attention on Adoree’ Jackson. He’s hard to miss. The junior is one of the nation’s most exciting, versatile all-around stars.
Jackson is officially listed as a starting cornerback, but he makes an impact all over the field, on both sides of the ball. He is a playmaker who also returns punts and kicks and sees significant action as a wide receiver.
Last fall, he started 12 games at cornerback, one at safety and one at wide receiver. He had 35 tackles, eight deflections, a forced fumble and an interception for a touchdown as a cornerback. As a receiver, he had 27 receptions for 414 yards and two scores, while averaging 23 yards per kick return and 10.5 yards per punt return with a pair of return scores.
Oh, and did we mention that Jackson is the defending Pac-12 long-jump champion and a track All-American?
How good was Jackson? He was the only players nationally with at least 400 receiving yards, 600 kick return yards, 200 punt return yards and 30 tackles.
If new full-time coach Clay Helton uses him in similar fashion this fall, Jackson could make a run at the Heisman Trophy, much like Michigan’s Charles Woodson, the only full-time defender to take the stiff-arm trophy home.
This fall, Kevin Sumlin faces a crucial season as Texas A&M’s head coach.
The Aggies are 16-10 over the last two seasons and have gone 11-13 in SEC play over the last three years. The transfers of high-profile quarterbacks Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray following 2015, as well as the departure of offensive coordinator Jake Spavital, magnified issues surrounding the program.
However, Sumlin will be able to lean on a talented defense led by one of the nation’s top coordinators in John Chavis. That unit has a cornerstone in junior defensive end Myles Garrett, who has established himself as the best pass-rusher in college football.
Garrett was excellent as a freshman, making 53 tackles, 14.0 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks. He broke Jadeveon Clowney’s SEC freshman sack record of 8.0 sacks, an impressive feat. He built on those numbers last fall, racking up 59 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks.
If he matches those stats in 2016, this will be his final season in college football. Garrett is an aggressive, athletic, nearly unblockable end who’ll be a nightmare for opposing offensive linemen across the SEC.
Sun Belt Conference
Appalachian State has made a meteoric rise from the FCS (where it was best known for its shocking upset of Michigan and three consecutive national titles) into one of the Sun Belt’s best programs. The Mountaineers went 11-2 last fall and made their first FBS bowl appearance, defeating Ohio in the Camellia Bowl ,31-29.
They have an intriguing 2016 schedule that begins with a September 1 visit to Tennessee and also includes a September 17 home game in which Miami will make the trip to Boone, North Carolina.
Hurricane quarterback Brad Kaaya should be very wary of junior cornerback Latrell Gibbs.
Last fall, Gibbs flashed his skills as a playmaker, rolling up 45 tackles, seven interceptions (including a 91-yard touchdown return against Wyoming) and 12 pass breakups.
It’s hard to think of anyone else as the best defensive player in the Sun Belt.