National Signing Day 2019: Ranking the Top 25 Defensive Prospects

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistJanuary 30, 2019

National Signing Day 2019: Ranking the Top 25 Defensive Prospects

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    Kayvon Thibodeaux
    Kayvon ThibodeauxCredit: Brandon Huffman. 247Sports

    Since high-scoring offenses are taking over college football, it's more important than ever to counter those dynamic scoring attacks with elite talent on defense.

    The 2019 recruiting class is full of highly regarded linemen, and they're accompanied by a handful of top-tier linebackers and defensive backsparticularly corners over safeties.

    Interestingly, all of Bleacher Report's top 25 defenders are already signed. The early signing period has reshaped the recruiting calendar.

    Less surprisingly, though, 14 of them are SEC-bound. The nation's best conference is set for another impressive influx of talent.    

    All 25 players are highlighted individually and were featured in B/R's Top 50 signees, which is the ranking that outlined this order. The rankings factor in expert opinions of the 247Sports composite rankings but include adjustments from personal observation.

25. DeMarvin Leal, DT, Texas A&M

1 of 25

    Height/Weight: 6'4", 289 lbs

    High school: Judson (Converse, TX)

    247Sports composite ranking: No. 16

    Status: Signed with Texas A&M

    College Outlook

    Texas A&M must replace defensive tackle Daylon Mack, who collected 10 tackles for loss as a senior. The Aggies return Justin Madubuike at one spot, but neither Jayden Peevy nor TD Moton emerged as the clear successor to Mack.

    As a result, DeMarvin Leal might be an opening-game starter in 2019. During his last three seasons, Leal racked up 195 total takedowns with 43 in the backfield.

24. Lewis Cine, S, Georgia

2 of 25

    Height/Weight: 6'2", 180 lbs

    High school: Trinity Christian (Cedar Hill, TX)

    247Sports composite ranking: No. 45

    Status: Signed with Georgia

    College Outlook

    When you choose a school like Georgia, accepting the possibility of a multiyear reserve role comes with the territory.

    J.R. Reed will be a starter at one safety spot. Richard LeCounte and Otis Reese are expected to challenge for the other one. Barring injury, Lewis Cine will be limited to backup snaps at least through 2019. His most immediate path to reps is on special teams.

23. Julian Barnett, CB, Michigan State

3 of 25

    Height/Weight: 6'2", 189 lbs

    High school: Belleville (Belleville, MI)

    247Sports composite ranking: No. 57

    Status: Signed with Michigan State

    College Outlook

    Josiah Scott is an obvious first-stringer, and Josh Butler held a starting role when healthy in 2018. Both players return, so Julian Barnett may only be a rotational piece until 2020. In the meantime, he could provide a lift to the return units.

    Last season, Michigan State returned just 19 kickoffs and ranked 97th in average punt return. Barnett's explosiveness will be a valued addition to special teams.

22. Jacob Bandes, DT, Washington

4 of 25

    Height/Weight: 6'2", 315 lbs

    High school: Pittsburg (Pittsburg, CA)

    247Sports composite ranking: No. 86

    Status: Signed with Washington

    College Outlook

    Although a starting job isn't out of the question, Jacob Bandes will more likely serve as a rotational piece in 2019. Still, there is a whole lot of opportunity on the defensive line.

    Washington is revamping the interior after losing Greg Gaines, Jaylen Johnson and Shane Bowman. Levi Onwuzurike is the only player with notable experience, so Bandes and a large group of freshmen and sophomores will battle for snaps.

21. Jeffery Carter, CB, Alabama

5 of 25

    Height/Weight: 6'0", 186 lbs

    High school: Legacy (Mansfield, TX)

    247Sports composite ranking: No. 91

    Status: Signed with Alabama

    College Outlook

    Patience must be a virtue for Jeffery Carter.

    In 2019, the Crimson Tide are expected to start Patrick Surtain II, Trevon Diggs and Shyheim Carter. Josh Jobe figures to hold a significant role as well. The incoming Carter will also be chasing Nigel Knott and Jalyn Armour-Davis on the depth chart.

20. George Karlaftis, DE, Purdue

6 of 25

    Height/Weight: 6'4", 265 lbs

    High school: West Lafayette (West Lafayette, IN)

    247Sports composite ranking: No. 59

    Status: Signed with Purdue

    College Outlook

    If George Karlafatis carries a fraction of his production to the college level as a freshman, Purdue will be thrilled.

    During his senior year, the defensive end totaled a mind-numbing 56 tackles for loss. The importance of adding Karlaftis to this Boilers unit can hardly be overstated. Purdue ranked 114th nationally with a meager average of 4.7 TFLs in 2018.

19. Jordan Battle, S, Alabama

7 of 25

    Height/Weight: 6'1", 187 lbs

    High school: St. Thomas Aquinas (Fort Lauderdale, FL)

    247Sports composite ranking: No. 43

    Status: Signed with Alabama

    College Outlook

    Similar to future teammate Jeffery Carter, the early portion of Jordan Battle's career might not be very busy.

    Xavier McKinney is a definite starter. Who'll start opposite him is a question, though Jared Mayden is the early favorite. Daniel Wright and Kyriq McDonald should also be in that conversation, with Eddie Smith trailing them. Battle faces a climb to playing time.

18. Chris Steele, CB, Florida

8 of 25

    Height/Weight: 6'1½", 187 lbs

    High school: St. John Bosco (Bellflower, CA)

    247Sports composite ranking: No. 42

    Status: Signed with Florida

    College Outlook

    Chris Steele would be entering a favorable situation anyway, but enrolling early will only boost the 4-star cornerback.

    Marco Wilsononce recovered from a torn left ACLand CJ Henderson are the expected starters, and Trey Dean should hold a leading role. After them, Steele basically only needs to leap C.J. McWilliams and Brian Edwards to have a second-string spot.

17. Justin Eboigbe, DE, Alabama

9 of 25

    Height/Weight: 6'4 ½", 263 lbs

    High school: Forest Park (Forest Park, GA)

    247Sports composite ranking: No. 62

    Status: Signed with Alabama

    College Outlook

    Alabama never has a shortage of talent up front, but the 2019 team is relatively thin on experience. Beyond the starters, the leading returning tackler is Stephon Wynn Jr., who had three.

    That's the long version of saying Justin Eboigbe is a contender for immediate reps. He'll be working against fellow early enrollee Antonio Alfano, but the opportunity is there for Eboigbe.

16. Tyrique Stevenson, CB, Georgia

10 of 25

    Height/Weight: 6'0½", 202 lbs

    High school: Southridge (Homestead, FL)

    247Sports composite ranking: No. 37

    Status: Signed with Georgia

    College Outlook

    Tyson Campbell ranked seventh on the team with 45 tackles in 2018, and Eric Stokes broke up nine passes. They're the front-runners to start at cornerback alongside nickel Tyrique McGhee.

    Behind them, Georgia has Mark Webb and Divaad Wilson. That duo is the primary competition for Tyrique Stevenson, who should see the field in 2019 but may be somewhat limited.

15. Mykael Wright, CB, Oregon

11 of 25

    Height/Weight: 5'11", 180 lbs

    High school: Antelope Valley (Lancaster, CA)

    247Sports composite ranking: No. 41

    Status: Signed with Oregon

    College Outlook

    Oregon's starting pair is secure with Thomas Graham and Deommodore Lenoir, who combined for 27 breakups and six picks in 2018. But if Mykael Wright isn't on the field, something is amiss.

    Kahlef Hailassie played in 13 games as a freshman yet managed three tackles, and Verone McKinley III made just three appearances. Wright will enroll in April, per Matt Prehm of 247Sports, and work to ascend the favorable depth chart at the end of spring ball.

14. Marcel Brooks, LB, LSU

12 of 25

    Height/Weight: 6'2", 195 lbs

    igh school: Marcus (Flower Mound, TX)

    247Sports composite ranking: No. 32

    Status: Signed with LSU

    College Outlook

    While he's listed as a linebacker for recruiting purposes, Marcel Brooks' future may be in the defensive backfield. LSU's official roster has the 5-star pegged at safety.

    The Tigers are absolutely stacked at the position, boasting Grant Delpit, JaCoby Stevens and Todd Harris. A first-year rotational spot should be considered a win for Brooks. His skill set also makes him an optimal fit in the hybrid role behind Stevens.

13. Travon Walker, DT, Georgia

13 of 25

    Height/Weight: 6'5", 285 lbs

    High school: Upson-Lee (Thomaston, GA)

    247Sports composite ranking: No. 22

    Status: Signed with Georgia

    College Outlook

    Even if Travon Walker doesn't earn a place in the rotation as a true freshman, there will be high expectations soon.

    Following the 2019 season, Georgia will lose seniors in starter Tyler Clark and backups Michael Barnett and Julian Rochester. Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt offer the Bulldogs a solid foundation, but Walker could make this rotation excellent.

12. Owen Pappoe, LB, Auburn

14 of 25

    Height/Weight: 6'0", 210 lbs

    High school: Grayson (Loganville, GA)

    247Sports composite ranking: No. 25

    Status: Signed with Auburn

    College Outlook

    It's rebuild time on the Plains. Deshaun Davis led Auburn in tackles, Darrell Williams tied for second, and Montavious Atkinson posted consecutive 40-stop seasons.

    K.J. Britt and Chandler Wooten are expected to hold starting jobs, leaving Owen Pappoe to battle Zakoby McClain and Zach Harris. Given that they combined for six tackles in 2018, they're not exactly opening the competition from a position of strength.

11. Akeem Dent, CB, Florida State

15 of 25

    Height/Weight: 5'11", 180 lbs

    High school: Palm Beach Central (West Palm Beach, FL)

    247Sports composite ranking: No. 50

    Status: Signed with Florida State

    College Outlook

    Considering the unit's overall struggles in 2018, few positions should really be secure. Akeem Dent may still have a relatively tough time cracking the depth chart at corner.

    Levonta Taylor is an All-ACC-caliber player, and one of Stanford Samuels III and Asante Samuel Jr. should start opposite him. Kyle Meyers struggled last season but will be a senior, and that experience often matters to coaches. Dent will certainly test them, though.

10. Brandon Smith, LB, Penn State

16 of 25

    Height/Weight: 6'4", 228 lbs

    High school: Louisa County (Mineral, VA)

    247Sports composite ranking: No. 18

    Status: Signed with Penn State

    College Outlook

    Brandon Smith's potentially minimal playing time in 2019 is not a reflection of his talent; Penn State has a crowded depth chart. Who is he going to play over?

    The Nittany Lions definitely aren't taking Micah Parsons out of the lineup, and Cam Brown is a reliable complement. Jan Johnson and Ellis Brooks are quality options in the middle. Smith's talent should get him on the field, but it just won't be a significant role.

9. Andrew Booth, CB, Clemson

17 of 25

    Height/Weight: 6'1", 188 lbs

    High school: Archer (Lawrenceville, GA)

    247Sports composite ranking: No. 23

    Status: Signed with Clemson

    College Outlook

    Three of Clemson's four starting defensive backs will return, but the vacancy is at corner. The Tigers need a starter opposite A.J. Terrell, and Mario Goodrich or Kyler McMichael figure to win the job.

    Andrew Booth, however, shouldn't be far behind. The 5-star's main competition is LeAnthony Williams, then the accompanying group of incoming freshmen. Booth may be in the rotation anyway, but he'll at least be a regular face during blowouts.

8. Zacch Pickens, DE, South Carolina

18 of 25

    Height/Weight: 6'5½", 285 lbs

    High school: T.L. Hanna (Anderson, SC)

    247Sports composite ranking: No. 8

    Status: Signed with South Carolina

    College Outlook

    According to Ben Breiner of the News & Observer, head coach Will Muschamp said Zacch Pickens gives the Gamecocks another short-yardage and goal-line option. We can't be certain how often the defensive lineman will play offense, but we're interested.

    The other uncertainty is whether Pickens will play D-end, tackle or both. South Carolina's plans will dictate his ceiling, which is probably a second-stringer in 2019. Pickens should start as a sophomore once a senior-heavy group of linemen is gone.

7. Nakobe Dean, LB, Georgia

19 of 25

    Height/Weight: 6'0", 220 lbs

    High school: Horn Lake (Horn Lake, MS)

    247Sports composite ranking: No. 19

    Status: Signed with Georgia

    College Outlook

    Tae Crowder is entering his final season of eligibility, and Monty Rice will probably be on NFL draft watch after the 2019 campaign. Before they're gone, Georgia needs to break in Nakobe Dean.

    Whether the Dawgs prefer him at middle or weak-side linebacker may depend on the performance of sophomores Quay Walker and Channing Tindall throughout the spring.

6. Zach Harrison, DE, Ohio State

20 of 25

    Height/Weight: 6'5", 253 lbs

    High school: Olentangy Orange (Lewis Center, OH)

    247Sports composite ranking: No. 12

    Status: Signed with Ohio State

    College Outlook

    Zach Harrison had a quiet recruitment, and his first year might be similar. The Buckeyes have a potential star in Chase Young, two experienced seniors and two promising sophomores.

    But there's still a realistic path to snaps. Jonathan Cooper should start opposite Young, but Jashon Cornell has never been a major disruptor. Tyreke Smith and Tyler Friday were seldom-used backups as freshmen, so they'll need to hold off Harrison. He'll probably be a small, regular factor in a large rotation.

5. Antonio Alfano, DE, Alabama

21 of 25

    Height/Weight: 6'4", 285 lbs

    High school: Colonia (Colonia, NJ)

    247Sports composite ranking: No. 5

    Status: Signed with Alabama

    College Outlook

    Antonio Alfano has a terrific chance to quickly earn a second-string position. As mentioned with Eboigbe, the Crimson Tide are dealing with a shortage of experienced depth.

    If either Raekwon Davis or LaBryan Ray has a setback of any kind, nobody should be surprised if Alfano grabs a sizable role. At 6'4" and 285 pounds, he's physically prepared for the college game.

4. Daxton Hill, S, Michigan

22 of 25

    Height/Weight: 6'0½", 186 lbs

    High school: Booker T. Washington (Tulsa, OK)

    247Sports composite ranking: No. 14

    Status: Signed with Michigan

    College Outlook

    The Wolverines would've been in decent position at safety had Daxton Hill stuck with his late flip to Alabama, but he's more likely to see the field immediately in Ann Arbor.

    Tyree Kinnel used up his eligibility, and the top returning players are Brad Hawkins and J'Marick Woods. They may be better suited as backups, though. Surely Michigan would like Hill's combination of awareness and speed in the lineup as soon as possible.

3. Kayvon Thibodeaux, DE, Oregon

23 of 25

    Height/Weight: 6'4½", 239 lbs

    High school: Oaks Christian (Thousand Oaks, CA)

    247Sports composite ranking: No. 2

    Status: Signed with Oregon

    College Outlook

    Kayvon Thibodeaux could be the opening-game starter in 2019 but is expected to be a first-stringer no later than 2020.

    This season, the early enrollee will attempt to leap Gus Cumberlander and Gary Baker on the depth chart. But that duo will be seniors, along with Drayton Carlbert and Bryson Young. The Ducks can hardly afford to ease Thibodeaux into the lineup.

2. Derek Stingley, CB, LSU

24 of 25

    Height/Weight: 6'0½", 188 lbs

    High school: Dunham School (Baton Rouge, LA)

    247Sports composite ranking: No. 3

    Status: Signed with LSU

    College Outlook

    Rather than asking whether he'll play in 2019, the best question for Derek Stingley is how much he will. The 5-star corner will challenge for snaps opposite Kristian Fulton. LSU has a wealth of talent in Kary Vincent Jr., Kelvin Joseph and Stingley, among others.

    Additionally, he should offer a spark on special teams. LSU ranked 100th with only 5.8 yards per punt return last season, and Stingley racked up 15 return touchdowns in high school.

1. Nolan Smith, DE, Georgia

25 of 25

    Height/Weight: 6'3", 232 lbs

    High school: IMG Academy (Bradenton, FL)

    247Sports composite ranking: No. 1

    Status: Signed with Georgia

    College Outlook

    The players who best turn their sky-high potential into on-field production will be Georgia's starters on the edge in 2019.

    And, oh, is there talent.

    The Dawgs have two 5-stars from 2018 in Brenton Cox and Adam Anderson. Robert Beal, a 4-star in 2017, managed 15 tackles last year, and Walter Grant notched 21. Throw in Jermaine Johnson, and Nolan Smith is an entering an impressiveyet unprovencompetition.