Ranking the 12 Most Dangerous Pass-Rushers in College Football

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistMarch 17, 2020

Ranking the 12 Most Dangerous Pass-Rushers in College Football

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    If you can get after the quarterback, you're in a premium spot to earn a ton of money at the NFL level, and college football isn't returning a whole lot of proven playmakers at those positions in 2020.

    That doesn't mean signal-callers can breathe easy. Plenty of dudes will emerge to wreak havoc.

    Elite standouts like Ohio State's Chase Young, Penn State's Yetur Gross-Matos and Iowa's A.J. Epenesa, LSU's K'Lavon Chaisson and Boise State's Curtis Weaver leave a gulf, but other guys who maybe had poor seasons a year ago or played only limited snaps have the ability to erupt.

    The SEC and Big Ten don't have a lot of proven pass-rushers returning, which means the two conferences that normally load up these lists don't have a lot of representatives.

    Factoring in on-field resumes, each player's opportunity to be in this year's spotlight and—most importantly—elite ability and upside, let's take a look at the top pass-rushers in college football in 2020.       

12. Micah Parsons, Penn State

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    It's hard to have a defensive list and not have college football's top defender on it, which is why Micah Parsons makes this list, even if it's barely.

    The only reason why he is this low is because his primary responsibility isn't necessarily going to be getting after quarterbacks. Why? Because he does everything so well.

    The rising junior and former top-tier prospect is an elite tackler who arrives with an impact and rarely misses. He's also exceptional in pass coverage, and it's going to be important for him to help the Nittany Lions in that area.

    But with Yetur Gross-Matos off to the NFL, head coach James Franklin is going to need guys who can get after the passer. Everybody in Happy Valley is excited about the potential of Jayson Oweh, who could take a lot of the pressure off Parsons if he is consistently in the backfield.

    After a season in which he recorded five sacks, though, Parsons probably will have plenty of packages that see him in the backfield. He's a stat-sheet packer, and the 6'3", 245-pound superstar is going to be one of the sport's top players regardless of position.

    Whatever he needs to do, he's going to excel. Look for him to terrorize quarterbacks when needed.     

11. Jaylen Twyman, Pittsburgh

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    The ACC is loaded with pass-rushing talent, and the next representative on this list narrowly edges out teammate Patrick Jones II, as well as Stanford's Thomas Booker in the Pac-12.

    Jaylen Twyman is the only interior defensive lineman featured, but the 6'2", 290-pound tackle can flat-out get after quarterbacks, finishing his sophomore season with 10.5 sacks, second in the ACC behind another guy who is high on this list.

    If you don't think he belongs here, you've probably forgotten about another former Panthers defensive tackle who relentlessly got after signal-callers: Aaron Donald. Yeah, he's doing pretty well for himself in the NFL, and Twyman may not be far behind him.

    The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote a phenomenal story about Twyman, who grew up in Ward 7—a violent area in Washington D.C.—and he has since become a first-team all-conference playmaker. He had the great quote, "Pressure only busts pipes or makes diamonds."

    Pressure also busts offenses, and that's why the Panthers have high expectations for head coach Pat Narduzzi's defense this year. Twyman could be the catalyst for massive things, and while nobody is talking about the Panthers in the ACC, they should be, at least on that side of the ball.

    Look for Twyman to have another big-time year that leads to a difficult decision about going pro.

10. Azeez Ojulari, Georgia

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    The Georgia Bulldogs didn't put up a lot of dazzling individual defensive statistics a year ago, but the body of work certainly wound up just fine.

    Defensive coordinator Dan Lanning's unit (he was then the outside linebackers coach) wound up being one of the nation's best, and the Bulldogs should be stingy on that side of the ball again during a season in which head coach Kirby Smart should once more expect to compete for a national championship.

    Rising redshirt sophomore Azeez Ojulari is a perfect example of a blossoming player who didn't post exceptional numbers a season ago but certainly has the potential to break out, and that's a last name you may hear a lot of in the SEC this year as his younger brother, BJ Ojulari, signed with LSU.

    The elder Ojulari was a situational player for UGA in 2019, but he wound up being too good to take off the field and finished as the team's most complete outside linebacker, leading it with 5.5 sacks. Like Parsons, he does everything well.

    He can be a force in the running game because of his tackling ability, and he isn't a liability in coverage. With Nolan Smith coming off the edge, Ojulari may not be asked to get after quarterbacks as much, but he's the safer pick here.

    As long as Ojulari is manning the Jack position, Smith will need to fit in elsewhere. But if they can figure out a way to get both on the field at the same time, it will behoove the Dawgs. Lanning has several legit stars on his hands. 

9. Joe Tryon, Washington

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    Few pass-rushers pass the eyeball test like Washington rising redshirt junior Joe Tryon.

    Though the Huskies didn't field the type of defense they wanted a season ago, first-year head coach (and former defensive coordinator) Jimmy Lake emphasizes that side of the ball, and you should expect a major leap forward in 2020.

    Tryon is going to be a huge part of that. The 6'5", 262-pound edge rusher can play with his hand down or standing up, but his primary goal is getting after Pac-12 quarterbacks. He fits right into a group of elite pass-rushers in that conference and has as much upside as any of them.

    Citing Chandler Jones, Julius Peppers and Anthony Barr, Tryon told The Athletic's Christian Caple before last season he focuses his film study on players with similar stature, "trying to imagine myself in their position, thinking how they progress through their moves, their run keys, pass keys, all that."

    Then, he went out and had his best season in Seattle so far, finishing with 41 tackles, including 12.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks. Pressuring quarterbacks was a weak spot for the Huskies in 2018, and Tryon made sure it improved.

    Now, he has the opportunity to be a catalyst for a unit that is often overshadowed by how Oregon and Utah have been playing on that side of the ball recently. Look for a defensive rebound in 2020 as Tryon serves as an all-conference selection.

8. Xavier Thomas, Clemson

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    Even though the Clemson Tigers made it all the way back to the national championship a season ago, there were few bigger disappointments in college football than edge-rusher Xavier Thomas.

    Maybe there was too much hype too soon.

    After a freshman year in which he was a defensive catalyst for the 2018 national champions and found playing time on a defensive line loaded with NFL talent, Thomas slumped as a sophomore. He made 33 tackles and registered 3.5 sacks as a freshman, but then he fell off. 

    Thomas lost playing time in defensive coordinator Brent Venables' system, playing heavier than he should have and losing the explosiveness that made him a dark-horse All-American pick entering the year. He finished with just 27 tackles and 1.5 sacks.

    That wasn't lost on him, either.

    He told 247Sports' Anna Hickey his attitude wasn't where it needed to be a season ago: "I definitely got that edge back that I had my freshman year. Personally, I didn't really put this out in the public, but I kind of got like a big head I would say, an entitled mindset last year coming off the freshman year I had. Just got—like I said a big head. So just humbled myself and went back to work."

    With so much incoming talent and a lot of flashy players already on campus, Thomas can either rise to the occasion or get lost on the depth chart. But he's too talented to have another bad year, so look for last season to be a wake-up call.

    He's talented enough to be at the top of this list.

7. Chris Rumph II, Duke

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    If you've been a fan of college football for long enough, you almost certainly know the name Chris Rumph. He was a longtime assistant coach who recently left Jeremy Pruitt's Tennessee staff to head to the NFL's Houston Texans.

    Meanwhile, his son is doing a good job of making a name for himself and will enter his junior year as a prime breakout candidate.

    As a sophomore, the 6'3", 225-pound speedster finished with 47 tackles, including 13.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. Those aren't huge numbers, but it was his first season as a full-time player after he amassed 25 tackles and three sacks as a freshman.

    Rumph is an explosive player who lines up all over the field and can get after the quarterback from all angles. He is going to be one of the most disruptive players across the nation, and it doesn't mean much that he hasn't put up massive stats yet. 

    Just how impressive was he a season ago? Per Duke Sports Information (h/t The Devils Den's Adam Rowe):

    "On the year, Rumph recorded 48 total pressures that included seven sacks, 11 hits and 30 hurries on just 197 pass-rushes, while he recorded 38 tackles with just five misses and 25 defensive stops to his credit. His season-long 32.8 percent pass-rush win rate tops that of even the aforementioned Young, as he totaled more pressures than [Ohio State edge-rusher Chase] Young but on 47 fewer pass-rushes."

    Those are numbers that deserve attention. If he makes the same jump this year that he did between his first two seasons, watch out.

6. Zach Harrison, Ohio State

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    The Ohio State Buckeyes have high hopes, even if they have to replace the irreplaceable in future top-five pick Chase Young, who left Columbus after his junior season.

    Luckily for the Buckeyes, they reloaded.

    Not only do they presumably expect a big season out of former top prospect Baron Browning, who is moving from inside linebacker to the outside and will be expected to get after passers a lot more this season, but Tyreke Smith will also have an opportunity to make an impact.

    Both are good-looking players who could be primed for big years, but the Buckeyes are also grooming the next big star to replace Young.

    That would be rising sophomore Zach Harrison, who is uber-talented and also an exceptionally hard worker. That perfect mixture of skill and work ethic is going to make him one of college football's best players this year.

    He has the ability to lead the nation in sacks, and now he has the opportunity. Harrison has a chance to skyrocket to the top of these rankings after he finished with 24 tackles and 3.5 sacks as a first-year player. His numbers were even similar to Young's first season at Ohio State.

    If you're looking for a sophomore to be a superstar on defense, look no further than Harrison and a fellow second-year player out in Oregon who will be discussed later.

    Those two will meet on Sept. 12, so we'll get to see them up close and personal.

5. Carlos Basham Jr., Wake Forest

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    As mediocre as the ACC has been the past few years (besides Clemson, of course), the conference straight-up dominates this list. If you're looking for a pass-rusher, it's a necessity you spend a lot of time on the ACC this season.

    The biggest sleeper is Wake Forest defensive end Carlos Basham Jr., a traditional defensive end who stands at 6'5", 275 pounds and routinely dominates offensive tackles. That's why he's going to be a high-round draft pick after his senior season.

    It was huge news when head coach Dave Clawson's Demon Deacons received word Basham was returning for his final year in Winston-Salem after finishing 2019 with 10 sacks and 18 tackles for loss. The first number was good enough for third in the league, and the latter was second in the conference.

    He's a big brawler of a defensive lineman who makes things happen, and you love hearing he's "got a lot of work to do," from his tweet announcing his return for his final season.

    According to the Roanoke Times' Mark Berman, Basham came back both to play another season for Wake and to become a first-round draft pick. Having another huge season would go a long way toward the latter.

    "I can't really pick out one," he told Berman when asked about his highlight game of 2019. "I kind of feel like I've had a highlight season."

    Mixed with that swagger, his work ethic should bode well for another big year. 

4. Quincy Roche, Miami

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    While there wasn't a lot of buzz around Quincy Roche's first three years roaming the field for the Temple Owls, the headlines caught up with him this winter.

    That's because, after a standout career in the AAC, the Philadelphia native decided he was going to leave home to become a graduate transfer and improve his NFL draft stock at a Power Five program. The decision made him one of the top immediate-eligibility free agents in the country. You could argue Roche was the best defender on the market.

    He decided to take his talents to South Beach as the second big-name pass-rusher to transfer for head coach Manny Diaz in the past two seasons. He'll join former UCLA top prospect Jaelan Phillips, who will be eligible this year.

    Roche is a 6'4", 235-pound rusher who blazes coming off the edge and blows by offensive linemen. He finished 2019 with 49 tackles, including 19 tackles for loss and 13 sacks for the Owls. The season before, he had nine tackles for loss and six sacks.

    With a lot of money on the line this year, look for him to elevate his game in the ACC prior to entering the NFL draft. Plus, he's got plenty of help in the Miami front seven to take some pressure off him and let him do what he does best.

3. Hamilcar Rashed Jr., Oregon State

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    Much like Basham and Roche, Rashed doesn't get a ton of headlines. All he does is produce. 

    Yes, Kayvon Thibodeaux got most of the pass-rushing headlines in his state a season ago, and the Oregon Ducks and Utah Utes posted the league's premier defenses, but Hamilcar Rashed Jr. was the top edge-rusher in the league.

    He played for the Oregon State Beavers, who had a difficult time stopping anybody they played, but Rashed still produced, leading the Pac-12 with 14 sacks. He also had 62 tackles and 22.5 tackles for loss, the latter of which led the entire NCAA.

    The pass-rushing skills were a nice addition during Rashed's third season. As a sophomore, he had 53 tackles and 12.5 tackles for loss to go along with 2.5 sacks, but he really broke through in 2019.

    Rashed's biggest asset is his versatility, and NFL teams are going to love that he's had experience playing as an outside 'backer and a defensive end, which will see lots of teams with a 3-4 base package covet him at the next level. They are also sure to desire his ability to track plays behind the line of scrimmage, and this could be his biggest year yet.

    Rashed is a star who might not get the headlines he deserves, but he is already a star whose name you should know.

2. Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon

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    Let the hype commence.

    When former 5-star defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux committed to Oregon, it was a huge recruiting victory for head coach Mario Cristobal as the California native chose his team over the blue-blood Pac-12 programs and the top teams in the nation.

    As a true freshman, he didn't disappoint.

    The 6'5", 242-pound edge-rusher got better as the season progressed and he continued to build his reps. With the lights the brightest at the end of the season, Thibodeaux was unblockable at times. His 2.5 sacks and blocked punt in the Pac-12 championship game announced to the college football world that his time is now.

    He finished the year with 35 tackles, including 14 tackles for loss and nine sacks. Rashed may have had a better overall season, but Thibodeaux's sky-high potential makes him arguably the most fearsome front-seven defensive playmaker in college football.

    That's not hyperbole; Thibodeaux has that kind of talent. 

    "The guy is hungry to be an elite football player, and he's going through everything he can to get there," Cristobal recently told Duck Territory's Kevin Wade. "And I think we're gonna see that in the spring. I think it starts with playing the big bodies, not that he has become a big body."

    He has the same type of otherworldly potential Chase Young flashed at his age, and he's shown no signs of having a Xavier Thomas-like crash. Look for the production to match the potential this season.

1. Gregory Rousseau, Miami

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    Speaking of Young, he was the only player in the nation who had a better season getting to the quarterback than a little-known Miami redshirt freshman who played wide receiver and safety in high school.

    That guy, of course, is Gregory Rousseau, who came to The U from Coconut Creek, Florida, redshirted while packing on more than 30 pounds of muscle and emerged as a 6'5", 251-pound edge-rusher in 2019.

    All he did was finish the year with 54 tackles (34 solo), 19.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks. He also had a team-high seven quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. In the storied history of the Miami program, his year tied for the second-highest single-season sack total.

    Now you're going to team him with Roche and Phillips? Look for Miami's defense to go from being decent a season ago to perhaps being one of the top 10 in the nation.

    It's hard to believe Rousseau's elite athletic potential wasn't really identified when he was a 3-star prospect, but he has blossomed quickly. The majority of the reason, of course, was his position change; he has surged since finding a home at defensive end.

    That's why ESPN's Adam Rittenberg names him behind Penn State's Micah Parsons as the second player on the list of prospects who could have a Chase Young-like NFL combine next year. Thankfully for us, he's got (at least) one more year chasing down collegiate quarterbacks before that happens.