Ranking the Best Defensive Lines for the 2020 College Football Season

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistFebruary 13, 2020

Ranking the Best Defensive Lines for the 2020 College Football Season

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    If you aren't good in the trenches, you can't build a championship-caliber college football team, even though those guys never get much of the credit when things go right and a ton of the blame when they don't.

    The LSU Tigers were one of the exceptions in 2019, winning a title without a bunch of elite talent on either line of scrimmage. But even though the stats didn't bear it out, the Bayou Bengals still had plenty of guys who got the job done.

    When you look at the top defensive lines from last year, it was a who's who of quality football teams. Georgia, Utah, Penn State, Florida, Wisconsin, Oregon, Ohio State and Florida all fielded strong defensive lines full of playmakers, and all of those teams made the list again this year, despite major defections.

    Others, such as South Carolina, Tennessee, San Diego State, LSU, Pittsburgh and Iowa just missed this list.

    There are plenty of other traditionally good lines that will return to prominence in 2020. Based on returning talent, depth and incoming recruits, B/R ranked the best defensive lines in college football for the coming season. Let's take a look at how things shook out.

10. Wisconsin Badgers

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    Wisconsin suffered through an ugly 2018 that saw coach Paul Chryst's team play un-Badgers-like football.

    A year ago, things got back on track, and part of that can be attributed to a defensive line that rediscovered its form—even if the linebackers rightfully got the headlines.

    The Badgers get back every defensive lineman who had a stat line in 2019. Considering the multiyear projects Wisconsin has coming in this No. 25-ranked recruiting class, the incumbent talent will help the recruits develop slowly.

    The two best returning players are defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk and defensive tackle Garrett Rand. Though neither produced huge numbers a season ago, they helped clear the way for massive campaigns from senior linebackers Zack Baun (12.5 sacks) and Chris Orr (11.5 sacks), who will be greatly missed.

    Matt Henningsen also produced bigger sack numbers than Rand (one) or Loudermilk (three), with four, and could make a big move this season. The nose tackle combination of Keeanu Benton and Bryson Williams returns too.

    If Henningsen and Benton develop further, this could be an excellent unit. Other players such as Isaiah Mullens, Gio Paez and Rodas Johnson give Chryst a lot of options to play around with.

9. Utah Utes

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    Utah's terrific season crumbled with lopsided losses to Oregon in the Pac-12 title game and Texas in the Alamo Bowl, but the 11-3 Utes still had a quality showing under veteran coach Kyle Whittingham.

    Replacing the Mayor of Sack Lake City, Bradlee Anae, will be a tall task, and the Utes have gaps all over the defense with nine guys gone from the stellar 2019 unit. But there are a couple of quality returning players on the front and a lot of talent to rotate through game action.

    The Utes also have to find inserts for the dynamic defensive tackle duo of Leki Fotu and John Penisini, which won't be easy.

    Leading the way is Mika Tafua, a redshirt junior who should slide into Anae's position on the right side. Maxs Tupai needs to live up to his expectations to be an every-down defensive lineman in his fifth year at the other end.

    Trennan Carlson, Miki Suguturaga and Taniela Pututau are other options who speak to the depth Whittingham has built along the front.

    Pita Tonga is a quality backup who could find starting role, and a definite plug-and-play guy in the middle is Hauati Pututau, who was good enough to be a starter on most Pac-12 teams a year ago but whose path was blocked by the lane-clogging duo of Fotu and Penisini.

    Viane Moala will be another exciting player to watch develop outside the considerable shadow of last year's elite defensive linemen.

    Several talented players are also coming in from Whittingham's best class since the program joined the Pac-12 in 2011, and a couple of intriguing options are Tennessee Pututau and freshman Aliki Vimahi, who returns from a two-year mission.

    Yes, a lot of talent is gone, but there are still plenty of reasons to be excited.

8. Penn State Nittany Lions

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    As with many programs that experience success with a particular unit, the Penn State Nittany Lions saw a lot of interest in defensive line coach Sean Spencer, who left Happy Valley to join Joe Judge's New York Giants staff.

    How did head coach James Franklin replace Coach Chaos? He reached into SEC country and grabbed John Scott Jr. from Will Muschamp's staff at South Carolina, part of a mass exodus of Gamecocks coaches in recent weeks.

    Scott has huge shoes to fill. The Lions were salty up front last year, finishing 10th nationally in sacks and fifth against the run. They've got to replace two studs in Robert Windsor and projected NFL high-round selection Yetur Gross-Matos.

    The Lions will be strong yet again, though, especially up the middle where the defensive tackles should be the unit's strength. Defensive end Shaka Toney and defensive tackle Antonio Shelton will be quality players and likely starters, and PJ Mustipher has the potential to be a strong stopper, too.

    Between Jayson Oweh, Adisa Isaac and rising senior Shane Simmons, the other defensive end spot should be in good hands, but it's also possible Franklin looks toward a talented incoming class to fill it.

    Coziah Izzard and Cole Brevard are a pair of defensive tackles who could sneak into the rotation, and 4-star defensive end Zuriah Fisher may be in the mix too. The Lions have a lot of talent on the line, even if they may not have a splash guy like Gross-Matos.

    That star will be on the second level, of course, in Micah Parsons, and the front should pave the way for another big year from him.

7. Oregon Ducks

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    This conversation starts and finishes with defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, who could be one of the best linemen in recent memory. He's that good.

    Thibodeaux doesn't always play with his hand down, sometimes coming off the edge from a more traditional outside linebacker spot. Even so, he counts in this exercise as a lineman since his primary objective is to get after the quarterback.

    Few do it better, and he still has plenty of potential. Thibodeaux isn't the only Ducks lineman who should be a playmaker.

    It will be difficult to replace three interior players, including Drayton Carlberg, but, thanks to coach Mario Cristobal's No. 12 recruiting class, that can happen.

    The Ducks will also get back a pair of quality interior linemen in defensive tackle Austin Faoliu, who had 39 tackles a season ago. Nose tackle Jordon Scott added 32 tackles, and he'll only get better. 

    Quality backups such as nose tackle Popo Aumavae and Andrew Faoliu will help make up for Carlberg's departure. Suaava Poti redshirted, and it's a mystery where he fits, if anywhere, in the rotation.

    The Ducks already had intriguing players coming in the 2020 class to help outfit the line, such as Maceal Afaese, Bradyn Swinson, Jaylen Smith and Jake Shipley. But when Jayson Jones flipped from Alabama to the Ducks on Feb. 5, it gave them a potential interior space-eater who could be a force.

    Will Jones be good enough to get into the rotation this year? Either way, the Ducks have a viable group and a bona fide superstar in Thibodeaux who can line up all over the field.

6. Florida Gators

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    For the past two seasons, Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has trotted out a strong defensive front, which has been a key to the Gators' resurgence under head coach Dan Mullen.

    Last year, the Gators were on the brink of competing for the SEC East, and a loaded defensive line paved the way. Florida was fifth nationally with 49 sacks and eighth in rushing defense, allowing just 102.8 yards on the ground per game.

    Both of those are excellent indicators of how strong the Gators were up front.

    Defensive tackle Adam Shuler and Jabari Zuniga will are big losses, but Florida got huge news when Kyree Campbell elected to return for another season rather than go to the NFL after he racked up 39 tackles a season ago.

    Florida will get a handful of potential impact defenders back, including Elijah Conliffe, Zachary Carter, Marlon Dunlap Jr., Jaelin Humphries and Tedarrell Slaton. At 6'5", 358 pounds, Slaton could be a force if he can stay in shape. He has a monumental impact against the run, and he's an NFL prospect because of his sheer size.

    The biggest addition to Florida's recruiting class is 5-star defensive tackle Gervon Dexter, who leads one of the most impressive defensive line hauls of 2020. The Gators aren't going anywhere, and they've got the pieces to improve the line from a year ago.

5. Miami Hurricanes

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    Perhaps the biggest surprise entry on this list are the Miami Hurricanes, who will see a massive surge in Manny Diaz's second season as head coach. But they quietly assembled arguably the nation's most explosive trio of defensive ends.

    The Hurricanes are trying to build a defense the old "U" would be proud of.

    Redshirt sophomore Gregory Rousseau piled up 15.5 sacks a season ago in an unexpectedly brilliant campaign.

    Diaz will get to team Rousseau with the best defender from the transfer portal, former Temple end Quincy Roche, who was the AAC's Defensive Player of the Year after he registered 13 sacks for the Owls as a junior a season ago.

    You also may have forgotten about UCLA transfer Jaelan Phillips, who was once a 5-star prospect and one of the nation's top recruits. Though he's battled injuries throughout his career, he's a high-upside wild card who can help the 'Canes replace the production vacated by Jonathan Garvin and Trevon Hill.

    With budding talent such as Jahfari Harvey, Chantz Williams and Cameron Williams, Miami has a lot of intriguing options in a deep and potentially elite pass-rushing rotation.

    The defensive tackles will be much tougher to predict, and Miami needs big jumps from Nesta Silvera, Jon Ford and Jordan Miller, who are the front-runners to form the rotation in the middle. If they can find a fourth player among Jason Blissett Jr., Jared Harrison-Hunte and Jalar Holley, it could be a big year.

    There are plenty of question marks up the middle, but the Hurricanes have lots of capable bodies, and the edge-rushers are as good as any in the nation.

4. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    How do you lose a transcendent player like Chase Young and still be ranked this high?

    Much like the other three teams in the top four on this list, it comes down to next-level recruiting that produces elite playmakers every season. Losing Young is an impact anybody would feel, but Ohio State gets to replace the defensive end with Zach Harrison.

    Don't know who that is? You will soon enough. The former 5-star prospect and 6'6", 255-pound physical marvel was an impact player as a freshman who registered 24 tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks.

    Before you "ho-hum" those numbers, Young had 18 tackles, five tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks in his first year, so Harrison had a better debut. He could be an All-American as a sophomore.

    The Buckeyes have one of the nation's best defensive line coaches in Larry Johnson, and he has plenty of capable pupils. A year ago, Ohio State led the nation with 54 sacks and finished ninth against the run with 103.7 yards allowed per game.

    Defensive end Jonathon Cooper will return from an ankle injury that took him from a captain role in 2019 to a redshirt, and he should have a big final season in Columbus. Tyreke Smith is yet another star in the making.

    Tyler Friday and Javontae Jean-Baptiste provide quality backup options too.

    At defensive tackle, the Buckeyes have to replace three rotational pieces; otherwise they'd be ranked higher. Davon Hamilton, Jashon Cornell and Robert Landers are gone, but Haskell Garrett, Tommy Togiai and Jerron Cage have played before and should provide strong options.

    Throw in 4-star incoming freshmen Darrion Henry and Jacolbe Cowan, and the Buckeyes should be the class of the Big Ten again.

3. Georgia Bulldogs

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    The nation's best defensive line from a season ago belonged to the Georgia Bulldogs, who pieced together a rugged, nasty group that swallowed up running backs.

    How good were they? The Junkyard Bulldogs allowed 74.6 rushing yards per game and just two rushing touchdowns all season. UGA wasn't exceptional at getting to the quarterback, sacking opponents just 31 times, but that wasn't their game.

    What will they do for an encore? You can expect a small drop-off, but not much.

    It will hurt to lose Tyler Clark, who was the team's best lineman a season ago. Michael Barnett was a quality piece as a rotational guy, too. But take a look at all the talent coordinator Dan Lanning has coming back, which includes Nolan Smith—since we're counting Thibodeaux as a lineman for Oregon, we've got to count the Bulldogs standout.

    Yes, he comes off the second level more often than not, but Smith can play with his hand down and will be a problem for everybody.

    UGA also brings back the formidable trio of Jordan Davis, Malik Herring and Travon Walker. Julian Rochester could take a big leap forward in his second year removed from a knee injury. Everybody in Athens is excited about seeing incoming 5-star defensive tackle Jalen Carter too.

    There are other former top recruits, such as Zion Logue, Bill Norton and Tymon Mitchell, who need to take the leap to being key backups, but the potential is there. It's all about building quality depth, and with the way head coach Kirby Smart has recruited, the options exist.

    This unit could be inconsistent early as it arranges its pieces but could thrive as the season progresses. UGA expects to contend for the national title in 2020, and the defensive line will be a major part of it, if so.

2. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Alabama lost out on McKinnley Jackson to Texas A&M on national signing day and watched longtime commitment Jayson Jones flip to Oregon.

    The Crimson Tide will be fine, though.

    After a bit of a down year from his front seven, coach Nick Saban won't allow that to happen again. If it does, defensive coordinator Pete Golding will be looking for a job. Alabama has a ton of talent returning from injuries in the linebacking corps, and the line will be reloaded too.

    Losing Raekwon Davis will hurt, but there is so much potentially elite talent coming back.

    DJ Dale dealt with nagging injuries all season, and LaBryan Ray suffered a season-ending foot injury, but both will be back and should be dominant. When you consider Byron Young and Justin Eboigbe played as true freshman out of necessity a year ago, that's quality depth.

    Others such as Christian Barmore and Ishmael Sopsher are former highly rated recruits who have the potential for breakout campaigns. Stephon Wynn Jr., Phidarian Mathis and others are in the rotation too.

    Besides Ray, Barmore will be an exciting option to watch develop as a third-year sophomore. He finished last year with 26 tackles, six for loss and two sacks in 11 games.

    "I think we need to make significant improvements with those guys," Saban told BamaOnline's Charlie Potter. "But I always say guys improve a lot from their first year to their second year."

    Tim Smith, Jamil Burroughs and Jah-Marien Latham are new names to watch on the interior, and elite playmakers Will Anderson and Chris Braswell are among the top outside linebackers/weak-side defensive ends in the nation and can take UA's line to another level.

    This group will enjoy the biggest improvement on Alabama's team and be one of the most improved units in the nation.

1. Clemson Tigers

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    The 2019 season was considered a rebuilding one for the Clemson Tigers' defensive front after it lost an all-time unit that included Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant and Albert Huggins.

    The Tigers made it to the national championship game.

    Yeah, coach Dabo Swinney's team is in reload mode.

    The scary thing is Clemson played a makeshift unit up front that included several disappointments. After an explosive freshman season, Xavier Thomas fizzled. Nyles Pinckney had a good season in his first as a starter, but his statistical production dropped off too.

    With Logan Rudolph leaving to pursue an acting career, the Tigers lost another body off the end, but they still have Justin Foster and K.J. Henry at the position. The biggest 2019 splash came from freshman Tyler Davis, who became a star and the most productive lineman and has elite potential.

    But much of the excitement revolves around an incoming recruiting class that has as much buzz as any in the nation. The No. 1 player in 247Sports' composite rankings, defensive tackle Bryan Bresee, will be a force right away.

    Throw in 5-star defensive end Myles Murphy and 4-star defensive tackle Demonte Capehart, who was a 5-star prospect until the final rankings reshuffle, and you've got a trio who could help right away.

    247Sports national recruiting analyst Charles Power said on The College Football Daily podcast:

    "Watching Clemson this year, they were really piecing together the way that defense was constructed because they lost all those defensive lineman to the draft. ... They lost all their starters and some of their two-deep to the draft last year.

    "They were running a three-man front. Their best defensive lineman this year was Tyler Davis, who was kind of like a back end Top247 in 2019 as a true freshman. Bryan Bresee, I think he could've started for them this year, if you could just superimpose him on the 2019 team."

    That's exciting to think about, and the Tigers will be loaded yet again.

                             

    Recruit rankings courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.