Every QB's Nightmare: The Most Unblockable Players in College Football
No matter how hard they try to focus downfield, most quarterbacks can't help but check their blind spots for the most feared player on the football field.
It's the pass-rusher, and every year there are players who emerge as unblockable forces to shore up defenses and blow up plays before they start.
From a stable of stud linemen in the ACC to a pair of difference-makers in the SEC and Big Ten to an unheralded prospect on the national scale who already has proved himself in his league, college football is full of elite players who are born and bred to chase quarterbacks.
Some come from the edges, and some play with their hands down on the interior. Others get a running start from the second level of the defenses. The smartest defensive coordinators move them around to confuse offensive linemen and signal-callers alike.
They're the quarterback's worst nightmare, and whether they're freakish athletes like LSU's Arden Key or Boston College's Harold Landry or full-force walls of bulk like Clemson's Dexter Lawrence, they're sprinkled across the landscape of the sport.
Let's take a look at the top pass-rushers in all of college football.
Nick Bosa, Ohio State
Nick Bosa, 6'4", 265-pound sophomore defensive end
Bloodlines aren't normally an essential part of the equation when you're building the perfect pass-rushing specimen—but they don't hurt.
Much like J.J. Watt's younger brother, T.J., who was drafted by Pittsburgh out of Wisconsin in this year's draft, there's another Big Ten force of nature coming to a television set near you this season.
That, of course, would be Ohio State's Nick Bosa. The younger brother of former top-10 NFL draft pick and current San Diego Charger Joey Bosa plays for his brother's alma mater, Urban Meyer's Buckeyes. He's setting up to have the same type of impactful career, too.
As a freshman last year, he had seven tackles for a loss and five sacks, and though he's one of the youngest on this list with more to prove than most, his upside is too much to leave him off.
Even in a star-studded group of pass-rushers that includes last year's conference defensive lineman of the year Tyquan Lewis and freakish athlete Sam Hubbard, Bosa's ceiling is unavoidable. The 6'4", 265-pound versatile lineman can do it all, and he's a potential All-American as early as this year.
The elder Bosa proved the Chargers smart for drafting him so high when he won the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2016. Maybe it's his younger brother's time for some hardware. With all that edge talent Meyer can toy with, he'll have to share the load.
But he'll have plenty of opportunities.
Bradley Chubb, North Carolina State
Bradley Chubb, 6'4", 275-pound senior defensive end
Bradley Chubb isn't a one-trick pony. Instead, he's a defensive line thoroughbred with a full arsenal of moves that not only makes him one of the best run-stopping players in the country but also enables him to get after the quarterback like few others.
He's the total package, and it's huge for the Wolfpack and embattled coach Dave Doeren that he returned for his senior season to try to help North Carolina State get back to winning ways.
With Kentavius Street coming off the other edge, teams can't afford to pay Chubb a ton of extra attention, and that's the ideal recipe for big numbers. It's even possible with the duo returning that he could top the 21.5 tackles for a loss and 10.5 sacks he amassed a season ago.
ESPN.com's David M. Hale believes he could be the next DeMarcus Walker after the Denver Broncos man left Florida State after a decorated career:
"Perhaps the most underrated player in the ACC in 2016 was Chubb, a freak pass-rusher on a line filled with underappreciated talent… They have similar builds, are both incredibly athletic for big men and veteran leaders on talented defenses."
The Wolfpack has enough players all over the field to allow him to roam free, and there's no way to block everybody. Even so, opposing teams would do well to remember Chubb is on the field.
Marquis Haynes, Ole Miss
Marquis Haynes, 6'3", 225-pound senior defensive end
There wasn't much exciting in Oxford a season ago as the Rebels limped to a losing record in the eye of a major NCAA investigation that will keep them from a bowl game again in 2017.
The defense was especially putrid following the departures of the Nkemdiche brothers and other talent from some of the early recruiting classes from coach Hugh Freeze that got Ole Miss in trouble in the first place.
Frustration may set in a bit this year with no postseason to play, but one of the guys who'll be worth the price of admission is senior defensive end Marquis Haynes. The Jacksonville, Florida, native is a bit under-the-radar, but his 11 tackles for a loss and seven sacks from a year ago are just a glimpse of the future.
He's third on the school's all-time sacks list, and he is one of those long, lean natural pass-rushers who has a hybrid end/linebacker body that NFL teams love these days.
Still, Haynes said after last year's season-ending Egg Bowl that he knows he's an unfinished product, which is why he came back to Oxford.
"I know I need to come back and work on my techniques and what I need to do to get better and finish my degree here," he told the Clarion-Ledger's Antonio Morales.
If Haynes can maintain his weight around 240 pounds and keep his speed, he'll be a first-round pick. He will also make plenty of noise chasing SEC West quarterbacks and trying to spoil other teams' bowl bids.
Arden Key, LSU
Arden Key, 6'6", 231-pound junior defensive end/outside linebacker
Perhaps the most raw talent of any pass-rusher—or any defender, for that matter—in all of college football plays his football in Baton Rouge.
Now, it's just a matter of getting Arden Key to realize that massive potential.
After calling into question his devotion to the game after taking a leave of absence this offseason for "personal reasons," per The Advocate's Ross Dellenger, Key may have to prove to NFL brass he's ready to play the game for a living, especially after his father said he was healthy during that hiatus.
There was never really a reason given for his departure, so it could be anything. The bottom line is he's back and appears to be full-go after breaking the Tigers' single-season sack record last year. He's thought to be a sure-fire high draft pick.
Few people can generate the type of speed Key possesses off the edge, and he's playing for the perfect coordinator in Dave Aranda, whose complex blitz packages and creativity in lining him up could feature his star player on the first and second levels of the defense.
Key is the type of talent who will be coveted by everybody in the NFL due to his versatility of being an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme or a pass-rush end in a 4-3. For now, he's the SEC's to worry about.
He could wind up with one of the biggest seasons of any defender in the country.
Harold Landry, Boston College
Harold Landry, 6'3", 245-pound senior defensive end/outside linebacker
If there's one player who can give Key a run for his money based on sheer ability, it's Harold Landry, who is the biggest draw on Chestnut Hill in a long time.
As a high-upside but slow-developing raw 3-star prospect out of his high school in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Landry wasn't chased by many of the marquee programs in the country.
Boy, was that a mistake.
Landry has morphed into one of the most unblockable players in the nation, leading the nation with 16.5 sacks and seven forced fumbles a season ago. No defender dominated opponents more single-handedly than Landry, who is almost a guarantee to be a high draft pick.
NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah compared him to former Clemson standout Vic Beasley, saying of Landry's pass-rushing ability:
"He has an explosive first step and can really bend at the top of his pass rush. He's very loose and fluid, which allows him to flatten to the quarterback once he turns the corner. He also has an explosive up-and-under move to create pressure. His ability to finish is special."
You'll hear a lot about him as part of the ACC's monster haul of defensive linemen in 2017 that will go 20-25 strong. Next year's draft will be loaded with linemen from that conference, and Landry proves it isn't just Florida State and Clemson producing them anymore.
Dexter Lawrence, Clemson
Dexter Lawrence, 6'5", 340-pound sophomore defensive tackle
Clemson has so much talent on the defensive line this year, it's embarrassing. But no matter how good Clelin Ferrell and Christian Wilkins are, they don't compare to the ridiculous talent of Dexter Lawrence.
Not only is he a massive guy, he is uber-athletic.
The Tigers' first-year player rotated in and out on coach Dabo Swinney's national champions, but by the end of the season, they couldn't keep him off the field. He wound up with 62 tackles and 6.5 sacks in his rookie year, and he overwhelmed offensive linemen with his size and speed.
Maybe nobody other than Houston sophomore Ed Oliver has Lawrence's talent, and even he may not be as blessed with an all-around game as Lawrence.
Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman quoted one NFL coach this past March as saying, "Mark it down now: The No. 1 overall pick of the 2019 draft is gonna be [Clemson's 6-foot-5, 340-pound defensive tackle] Dexter Lawrence. There is nothing like him in this draft in terms of size and quickness. He's ridiculous."
He's a space-eater because of his size, but Lawrence is perhaps at his best bull-rushing the quarterback up the middle and disrupting plays before they start. He's only going to get better, too.
After all, Lawrence still has two college seasons left to play.
Ed Oliver, Houston
Ed Oliver, 6'2", 291-pound sophomore defensive tackle
It wouldn't be a surprise for the 2019 NFL class of defensive linemen to be the best ever. If that winds up happening, Lawrence and Ed Oliver will be the forerunners who are selected at or near the top of the draft.
It's not a stretch to say they're the favorites to be the top two overall picks right now.
When former Cougars coach Tom Herman pulled one of the biggest recruiting coups in the 2016 class by keeping Oliver at home to play for Houston, it wasn't a surprise that he'd be an instant-impact player. Even with those immense expectations, Oliver overachieved.
He's ready for the NFL right now.
As a true freshman, he obliterated Houston's competition finishing that year with 66 tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, nine pass breakups and three forced fumbles. Against the top competition, he played his best, too. In the early-season victory over Oklahoma, he constantly harassed Baker Mayfield in the backfield.
Oliver can chase down speedy runners from the back-side, and with the push he generates up the middle, he's a terror for any offensive lineman who'll be forced to try to block him.
Like Lawrence and Bosa, we get to enjoy watching him in the college game for two more seasons, too. Enjoy them while you can because they're the NFL studs of the future.
Ja'Von Rolland-Jones, Arkansas State
Ja'Von Rolland-Jones, 6'2", 244-pound senior defensive end
If you haven't heard of Ja'Von Rolland-Jones, don't worry; you're in the majority of college football fans in the country.
He's the first of two vastly underrated defenders on this list, but he won the Sun Belt Player of the Year a season ago after leading the league with 18.5 sacks and finishing second on his team with 11.5 sacks.
JRJ isn't the biggest player in the world, and that may hurt his draft stock, but all he does is produce big plays for the Red Wolves, and he'll continue to do that in 2017.
It isn't often that a player of his ilk comes along in a conference like the Sun Belt, and for that reason, he was the first defensive player to win the conference's top honor since 2003. After being a pass-rush specialist in his first two years at Arkansas State, Rolland-Jones honed his craft last year.
"He worked hard to get it. He's deserving of it," Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson told the Orlando Sentinel's Matt Murschel of the award. "He just had that kind of year. He worked hard to become a complete player."
It's because of that extra work that he belongs among his peers as one of the top pass-rushing players in the country. If you can do other things, it makes the area where you excel even better, and that's been the case with Rolland-Jones.
Tegray Scales, Indiana
Tegray Scales, 6'0", 230-pound senior outside linebacker
Much like Rolland-Jones, there may be other players who wind up being pursued more heavily than Tegray Scales, but few will have his type of college impact.
Last year, a team known for its prolific offensive numbers earned a bit of respect on the other side of the football thanks largely in part to Scales, who was a dynamo who routinely shot in from the second level and obliterated quarterbacks.
ESPN.com's Brian Bennett wrote this offseason that Scales may be the best defensive player nobody knows about. That's not hyperbole, either. This is a player in a marquee conference putting up Xbox numbers. He's like the player you take control of in Madden.
Just how disruptive was Scales? He led the nation with 23.5 tackles for a loss. Think he isn't an all-around defender? He also racked up 126 total tackles.
"He was the catalyst for our defense, not only on the field in his production, but really in the very beginning, when I got here," IU coach Tom Allen told Bennett. "I challenged our team to make changes in their mentality and the way they prepared. He's been bought in from Day 1."
If you think all his TFLs came after the ball was handed off, think again. He also had seven sacks and should load up on numbers again in 2017. If he does, his pro stock will soar.
Josh Sweat, Florida State
Josh Sweat, 6'5", 240-pound junior defensive end
Not everybody on the list is an underrated player who developed in college. For every Landry, Rolland-Jones and Scales, there's a Key, Lawrence and Sweat.
The latter was one of the most highly sought high school players in the country out of Chesapeake, Virginia. Florida State won that battle, as it does with a lot of top-tier prospects, and Sweat has developed into a household name.
Last year as a sophomore, he broke through and began to blossom for defensive coordinator Charles Kelly after the entire unit started sluggishly. Though he was overshadowed by Walker's brilliant junior season, Sweat began to approach the massive expectations placed on him as a prospect.
He finished with 41 tackles, 11.5 TFLs, seven sacks, a pass breakup, a forced fumble and six quarterback hurries. With Walker gone to the NFL, this could be a huge year for Sweat who still has plenty of talent around him to take some of the attention away.
With Brian Burns on the other side, Sweat could form half of one of the most dominant pass-rushing duos in the country.
"First, he has to continue to shake the lazy tag that many have placed on him," GridironNow's Jordan Spina wrote. "…Sweat made great strides toward shaking the label at the end of last season. Fans finally saw a glimpse of what he could be and won't expect anything less than a continued improvement this season."
If he continues to get better, Sweat's 2018 stop will be the NFL.