Building the Perfect College Football Defense for 2019

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistMarch 1, 2019

Building the Perfect College Football Defense for 2019

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    Building college football's perfect 2019 offense was easy. There were plenty of no-doubt guys and a pool of enough good ones left over to have a healthy argument regarding the candidates.

    Defense is a different matter.

    When you consider the finalists for college football's top defensive awards (Bednarik, Butkus, Nagurski and Thorpe) a season ago, only Alabama's Dylan Moses, Purdue's Markus Bailey and LSU's Grant Delpit return.

    Gone are Josh Allen, Quinnen Williams, Christian Wilkins, Devin Bush, David Long, Julian Love, Greedy Williams and Deandre Baker. Other stars, such as Clelin Ferrell and Nick Bosa, have exited for the NFL, too. That's a major void in the college game.

    Yes, there are some talented players ready to break out, but this wasn't an easy group to identify. There are two excellent linebackers and a bunch of fringe guys who could be really good. Defensive backs are a crapshoot, and so are the interior defensive linemen.

    As always, there's a wealth of edge-rushers, so not everyone can make the cut. Unlike offense, 100 people putting together the perfect college defense likely would have 100 different lists.

    But this one has an ideal blend of size and speed, and the perfect mixture of exciting young talent and wily old veterans. 

Defensive End (Edge): Chase Young, Ohio State

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    Several guys belong on this list instead of Chase Young if you're looking exclusively at statistics, but that's not happening here.

    If you're looking for an ideal pass-rusher, you want a speed/strength guy who can get after the quarterback but still hold his own in the run game. That's Young, a 6'5", 265-pound rising junior who's poised for a monstrous 2019.

    The Maryland native was the No. 7 overall prospect in 2015 and was yet another major recruiting win for the Buckeyes and former coach Urban Meyer. He went from powerhouse DeMatha Catholic High School to one of the nation's premier programs.

    Last year, Young finished with 33 tackles, 14.5 tackles for a loss and 9.5 sacks despite playing a large swath of the season on two sprained ankles.

    The Ohio State defense will be plenty successful if its high-end talent blends well with new coordinator Greg Mattison, who heads over from Michigan and replaces Greg Schiano. 

    Young is probably the most talented and most athletic player on this (fictitious) unit, which puts him among college football's best prospects. If he develops the way he should, special things could be on the way.

    Look for him to be a dynamic force in the Big Ten and to compete for an All-American spot.

Defensive Tackle: Derrick Brown, Auburn

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    There aren't many great defensive linemen coming back in 2019. A season ago, everybody looked toward the Yellowhammer State for the D-line's gold standard in the Crimson Tide's Quinnen Williams. Your attention shouldn't be far from there this year.

    Down the road at rival Auburn, the Tigers have an elite interior lineman in rising senior Derrick Brown.

    The 6'5", 325-pound stalwart is a mountain of a man who basically everybody coveted before he elected to play on the plains. After he played a situational role as a freshman, he's dominated the past two years.

    As a sophomore in 2017, Brown had 57 tackles, including 9.5 tackles for a loss and three sacks. Last year, his tackle numbers dropped to 48, but he had 10.5 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks, teaming with Nick Coe to form an imposing duo for coordinator Kevin Steele in a disappointing season for the team.

    He and Coe are back in '19 to wreak havoc on opposing offenses, though.

    While we may be shifting players around on the defensive front, the anchor of our unit will be Brown, who will be a force in the interior against the run and still show enough burst up the middle at the point of attack to get pressure on quarterbacks.

    Brown is one of the nation's best all-around linemen, and NFL teams will to drool over his talent when he enters the pros after four strong years under Steele.

Defensive Tackle: A.J. Epenesa, Iowa

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    It's hard to believe a player as talented as Iowa's A.J. Epenesa has never started a game in college, yet he was a first-team All-Big Ten member, nonetheless. 

    The 6'5", 277-pound defensive end was a force on Kirk Ferentz's unit, leading the team in tackles for loss (16.5) and sacks (10.5). He also finished with 37 tackles, four pass breakups, nine QB pressures, four forced fumbles and a blocked punt.

    Though he's a strong-side defensive end for the Hawkeyes and will be when he leaves for the NFL (possibly after this season as a high draft pick), Epenesa will shift inside on this team because of the two speed guys we have on the outside. Don't worry; he's versatile enough to do anything the team needs.

    Putting him inside will not neutralize his abilities. Instead, this is a jumbo defensive lineman who is as strong as any player in the nation at the point of attack and is versatile enough to put moves on interior linemen and stun them. 

    Epenesa was arguably Ferentz's top recruit in a decade, and he's done nothing to disappoint.

    With four starters (Anthony Nelson, Parker Hesse, Matt Nelson and Sam Brincks) gone from the team, Epenesa will almost certainly start in '19 unless Ferentz is just being contrary. 

    Epenesa will team with Chauncey Golston to give the Hawks another huge one-two punch in 2019, but for this team, he'll be on the field on the inside in a virtual rabbit package. Beware, offensive linemen.

Defensive End (Edge): Xavier Thomas, Clemson

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    The national champion Clemson Tigers featured a 2018 defensive line that may have been overshadowed by elite freshman signal-caller Trevor Lawrence and his cast of dynamic offensive playmakers, but it also could be considered one of the best ever.

    Its talent was immense with Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant and Albert Huggins. That's five no-doubt NFL draft picks who all should start as pros.

    So, when you look at that group and then see freshman Xavier Thomas wound up with 33 tackles, including 8.5 for a loss and 3.5 sacks, you may think, Why haven't I heard of this kid? Anybody who breaks through on that line for those numbers has to be special.

    Just wait until he teams with classmate K.J. Henry for the Tigers in '19. You'd be right to be a little concerned about all the departing talent, but once defensive coordinator Brent Venables molds those two young stars into starters, they'll shine.

    "How well Thomas responds to being 'the man,'" Times and Democrat reporter Zach Lentz wrote, "will play a huge role in how far the Tigers are able to go this season."

    Thomas is poised to be one of college football's best defensive players this year; he's that good.

    The 6'2", 260-pound former 5-star prospect and top-10 player nationally out of IMG Academy was one of coach Dabo Swinney's major prizes of the '18 class along with receiver Justyn Ross and Lawrence. Nobody had any doubts about his ability.

    If anything, he got by in '18 on sheer talent. A year in the system and in the weight room will work wonders. 

Outside Linebacker: Dylan Moses, Alabama

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    Anybody who follows recruiting closely knew about Alabama linebacker Dylan Moses long before he was playing on the collegiate gridiron. 

    Moses was a Louisiana prospect who left LSU's backyard in Baton Rouge for Florida's IMG Academy and then to play for coach Nick Saban. If there's any team that can go into Louisiana and pull prospects from the home Bayou Bengals, it's the Tide.

    The rising junior was a 5-star prospect and the nation's No. 13 recruit when he signed, and he may be a jewel.

    The 6'3", 233-pound inside linebacker enjoyed a breakout sophomore season a year ago, leading the team with 86 tackles, including 10 for a loss and 3.5 sacks, one pass breakup, a forced fumble and one quarterback pressure.

    He was a bit of a surprise as a finalist for the Butkus Award, which goes to the nation's top linebacker, but it won't be surprising when he's back on the list again this year—he may even be the favorite.

    Embattled former Alabama defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi did not have the best time developing linebackers last season, and Mack Wilson may have taken a step back (though he'll still be a strong NFL 'backer). But Moses picked up the slack.

    He should make major improvements in 2019 as one of the best linebackers and one of the most elite defenders in the country. He's by far the most athletic 'backer on this all-star team.

Middle Linebacker: Evan Weaver, California

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    With Moses flying all around the field making stops, California middle linebacker Evan Weaver will plug the middle and make big plays. 

    Why? Because that's what he does.

    Weaver is a great candidate for All-American honors. He also narrowly edged Michigan State's Joe Bachie for this list. The 6'3", 245-pound Weaver was all over the field for the Bears in '18, and he will be again this year.

    Last season, the All-Pac 12 performer finished with 155 tackles, including 8.5 for a loss, 4.5 sacks and two interceptions. The former defensive end was a game-breaking force for a team that allowed just 20.4 points per contest.

    If you think it's amazing how quickly head coach Justin Wilcox turned around Cal's defense, look no further than Weaver. The Spokane, Washington, native may have grown up a Huskies fan, but he is transforming a different Pac-12 team.

    "My freshman year I came here as a defensive end, and it was cool, and I was going to start my first game," Weaver told the Daily Californian's Sophie Goethals. "And then I got in trouble on our trip in Australia, so I ended up not being able to play that game, and then I ended up scattering playing time over the season."

    After playing in eight games that season, he moved around and found a home at inside linebacker, where he may end up an All-American. When you pack the stat sheet like he did a year ago, it's tough to ignore.

    Everybody needs a do-it-all 'backer with a nose for the ball, and Weaver is our guy.

Outside Linebacker: David Woodward, Utah State

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    It may be a controversial pick to have Group of Five linebacker David Woodward of the Utah State Aggies on this team, but if you're worried about the rising junior's competition, look closer.

    He's an NFL prospect who could play for virtually anybody, which is a huge reason he was one of just two Mountain West Conference players on the Pro Football Focus All-American First Team a season ago.

    He led Utah State and was 10th nationally with 134 tackles, and he added five sacks. He also was in the MWC's top 10 in tackles for loss, forced fumbles and sacks. Woodward finished the year with 10 tackles and an interception in the bowl win over North Texas, too.

    There are plenty of worthy linebackers. But Woodward is here because for every recruiting stud like Moses and Thomas, there's someone like Northern Illinois' Sutton Smith: a dynamic collegiate player who makes himself into a star.

    Woodward is that guy in 2019.

    Former Utah State defensive coordinator Keith Patterson (who left with head coach Matt Wells for Texas Tech) compared Woodward to an NFL player.

    "He has a tremendous upside," Patterson told the Herald Journal's Jason Turner. "His better days are in front of him. He reminds me a lot of Nick Kwiatkowski that I coached at West Virginia, who now plays for the Chicago Bears. (Woodward) would be a big-time Mike linebacker in the league, just because he’s incredible."

    He's got at least one more season to rip up MWC players first.

Cornerback: Bryce Hall, Virginia

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    The country's best returning cornerback is Virginia's Bryce Hall, and it was a major victory for coach Bronco Mendenhall when the defender decided to stay in Charlottesville for another season.

    Hall was a catalyst for one of the nation's most successful upstart defenses a year ago, leading the country with an astounding 24 pass breakups. He added two interceptions, has a great nose for the ball and was expected to be a high-round selection—perhaps even a first-round pick.

    Instead, he'll be a Hoo again.

    After Hall's big day for the Cavaliers in a 28-0 win over South Carolina in the Belk Bowl, they got bigger news.

    "Bryce chose to stay," Mendenhall said, according to the Daily Progress' Ron Counts. "He's not satisfied with where the team is, he's not satisfied with his own performances and he's trusting us to help him."

    The 6'1", 200-pound cornerback told Counts he wanted to finish what he started, and last season was a major step forward for the program under Mendenhall. The defense has a chance to be special in '19 with Hall back.

    He's blessed with NFL-caliber size, and he displayed his exceptional ball skills with his ability to break up passes. He would start for virtually anybody in the country.

    Hall will make this all-star secondary very, very strong while locking down his side of the field.

Cornerback: CJ Henderson, Florida

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    There could be a lot of people in this second cornerback spot opposite the no-brainer in Hall, but we're going with potential over production for the other side of the field.

    That's CJ Henderson of the Florida Gators, who came out of nowhere a season ago to have a strong year for defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and was a symbol of the turnaround in Gainesville with Dan Mullen at the helm.

    Henderson's numbers aren't flashy. Then again, most great cornerbacks don't have impressive stats because smart quarterbacks tend not to throw near them.

    A season ago, he had 38 tackles, including five for a loss, three sacks, two interceptions and seven pass deflections as a sophomore. That stat line proves he isn't just good in coverage—he can also come at offenses from a lot of different directions.

    At 6'1", 191 pounds, he has great size for his position. He is a superior athlete who played running back in high school and had offers from Auburn and West Virginia to play at that position. Instead, he elected to play defense, and it's a good thing he did.

    "He's the best [college] corner I've ever coached," said Grantham, who's entering in his 19th college season and coached 11 in the NFL, according to the Orlando Sentinel's Edgar Thompson. "He's competitive. He plays hard and he does his job. He works."

    When you factor in his work ethic with all his God-given abilities, Henderson has "breakout star" written all over him. This year could be special, but even if the stats don't bear it out, it's probably because opposing SEC coaches tell their signal-callers to proceed with caution when targeting Henderson's area of the field.

Safety: Grant Delpit, LSU

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    LSU's Grant Delpit was probably the best player in the Tigers secondary a season ago.

    While that may not seem like a major compliment, remember that expected first-round cornerback Greedy Williams also manned that backfield along with a few other rising stars, such as Kristian Fulton. With elite prospect Derek Stingley coming in, the Tigers will be loaded on the back end again in 2019.

    Delpit, however, will be the star of coordinator Dave Aranda's unit.

    At 6'3", 203 pounds, Delpit is the country's best all-around defensive back, and he may wind up being the best defensive player in the nation, period. After a freshman year in which he was an instant-impact star, Delpit one-upped himself a season ago.

    The former IMG Academy product and Houston native finished with 74 tackles, five sacks, nine pass deflections, five interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in a unanimous All-America campaign.

    He's the best defender on this list, and he will be one of college football's biggest stars.

    Aranda told 247Sports' Shea Dixon that his plan a season ago was to use his star safety like the Pittsburgh Steelers used to use Troy Polamalu, and he did, lining him up everywhere and letting him pin his ears back and go.

    Delpit was a finalist for the Bronco Nagurski Trophy as college football's best all-around defensive player. He didn't win (that went to Kentucky's Josh Allen), but he is back to battle for the award again as a junior.

    He may just take it.

Safety: Caden Sterns, Texas

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    With Delpit a can't-miss stud at one safety position, we can gamble a little on limitless potential at the other spot. That's why the selection is Texas sophomore Caden Sterns.

    A season ago as a true freshman, Sterns got better as the year progressed and was a bright spot in an awful Longhorns defensive backfield that was green but full of budding talent. By the end of the season, the group made things difficult for Georgia's Jake Fromm in the Sugar Bowl, and Sterns was drawing praise.

    He'll be a stalwart in '19 for defensive coordinator Todd Orlando in a unit that could wind up making one of the most drastic improvements of any group nationally. Texas will have a strong, talented and diverse secondary.

    Sterns will be the leader and best playmaker. He finished his freshman campaign with 62 tackles, including three for a loss, one sack and four interceptions to go along with four pass deflections.

    He'll have talent all around him in senior starter Brandon Jones, emerging sophomore B.J. Foster, incoming elite freshman Tyler Owens and blitz maven DeMarvion Overshown (who also could play some outside linebacker). 

    Texas has to replace a ton of talent, but once the youth gets seasoning, experts think the team will improve.

    "With so much inexperience elsewhere, the Longhorns could have some bumpy moments early on," ESPN.com's Jake Trotter wrote. "But this group has the potential to emerge into one of the Big 12's best defenses by season's end."

    So, there's no reason to believe Sterns (who was the Big 12's Freshman of the Year and a first-team freshman All-American) will do anything but be a star again.

               

    All recruiting information is from 247Sports, and rankings are from the 247Sports composite.

    Brad Shepard covers college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.