Our college football preview rolls on with one of my favorite positions on the field to scout, defensive ends. As the New York Giants have proven by beating the New England Patriots twice in recent Super Bowls by making Tom Brady uncomfortable with their dominating defensive line, if you can bring pressure and own the line of scrimmage, you have a great shot at winning any game. There is currently an excellent crop of pass rushers in the college ranks who will have quarterbacks running for their lives during the 2012 season.
2012 NCAA Football’s Top Defensive Ends:
Sam Montgomery, Junior, Defensive End (6’4 245lbs) LSU - The dangerous Montgomery was a big time recruit coming out of high school, and he showed why as a sophomore, as he had 9.0 sacks for an incredible LSU defense. He now enters his junior year as the top defensive end prospect in the country, he needs to show that he bulked up and added some strength, but from a pure pass rushing standpoint nobody in nation is better. The scary thing is, the defensive end on the opposite side of the field (see Mingo Below) is not ranked far behind.
Brandon Jenkins, Senior, Defensive End (6’3 265lbs) Florida State - There was a point when nobody thought Jenkins would be back at FSU for his senior season, the explosive pass rusher had all of the tools, and seemed destined for greatness. Jenkins ended up having a disappointing 2011 season, despite 8.0 sacks, and Florida State was plagued by injuries and struggled. Jenkins has returned for a shot at redemption as a senior in 2012, and while I’m not sure where he plays in the NFL (he’s a “tweener” DE/OLB) he should have an impactful season for the Seminoles.
Alex Okefor, Senior, Defensive End (6’4 260lbs) Texas - Another player that could have turned pro following an All-American selection last season, Okefor was disappointed in his Texas team and wanted another shot at greatness. He had 7.0 sacks and 17 quarterback pressures as a junior and makes a heck of a pass rushing tandem with Jackson Jeffcoat (mentioned below) for a Longhorn defense that should improve in 2012.
Barkevious Mingo, Junior, Defensive End (6’5 240lbs) LSU - The second part of LSU’s terrifying pass rushing combination, Mingo (what an amazing name by the way) is a speed rusher off the corner with elite skills. Much like Montgomery, he needed to bulk up and get stronger this offseason, so the duo is not relying entirely on speed, but their defense will be incredible at every level. Mingo had 8.0 sacks and 11 hurries off of the bench for LSU last season, and those numbers should jump now that he’ll be starting full time.
William Gholston, Junior, Defensive End (6’7 280lbs) Michigan State - An absolute freak of nature, Gholston (the cousin of former top ten pick Vernon Gholston) has it all. He is huge, weight room strong, fast, explosive and should wreak havoc on Big Ten quarterbacks throughout the 2012 season. In one two week stretch as a sophomore last season, Gholston totaled 29 tackles and 1.5 sacks (15 tackles against Nebraska, 14 tackles against Minnesota), and he finished the season with eye-popping numbers (67 tackles, 5.0 sacks). Unlike his cousin Vernon he has a natural feel for the game, and he will be frightening to deal with this coming season.
John Simon, Senior, Defensive Lineman (6’2 270lbs) Ohio State - The only reason I have Simon a little further down this list is due to the fact that he does not really have a position, because of his size. He makes up for this with extreme strength and intensity both on the field and in the weight room. His work ethic was described by new head coach Urban Meyer as “Tebow-ish” and he contributed 7.0 sacks in 2011. In the weight room Simon is known as an absolute monster, and he will be sure to turn heads at the 2013 NFL combine, he runs a 4.6 40 yard dash, benches 225lbs 38 times and has 10 foot long jump. You can see why he makes me immediately think of Vernon Gholston, right?
Michael Buchanan, Senior, Defensive End (6’6 250lbs) Illinois – Suddenly, Illinois has become a program that produces top flight defensive linemen (Whitney Mercilus, Corey Liuget) and the next in this line will be Buchanan. He was named to the “Watch List” for the Bendarik Award, which is given to the nation’s top defensive player, after a 2011 season where he produced 64 tackles and 7.5 sacks and he should have even more of an impact as a senior.
Jadeveon Clowney, Sophomore, Defensive End (6’6 260lbs) South Carolina - This list would be incomplete if I did not include the former top high school player in the country, a player who lived up to his reputation as a true freshman, when he notched 8.0 sacks and 5 forced fumbles. Now he understands the playbook, he has a full offseason of working out and physical training under his belt, look out for this kid.
Jackson Jeffcoat, Junior, Defensive End (6’5 255) Texas - The son of NFL Hall of Famer Jim Jeffcoat, Jackson was a highly touted prospect who started off slow at Texas, but came on strong at the end of his sophomore year when everything started to click. During his freshman year, Jeffcoat only managed 13 tackles and 1.5 sacks, and his sophomore year began similarly uneventful. Then he made his presence felt in the last seven games and finished 2011 with 54 tackles and 7.5 sacks, combined with Okefor (mentioned above) Texas has one of the best sets of bookend pass rushers in the country.
Bjourn Werner, Senior, Defensive End (6’4 275lbs) Florida State - Personally one of my favorite players in the country, the German-born Werner plays with a mean streak and toughness every down. As a junior last season, Werner was unstoppable at times, finishing the season with 37 tackles, 7.0 sacks, a forced fumble and an interception. He is not an elite pass rusher like the players listed above but is one of those high effort, high motor, high intensity guys that finds a way to make a lot of plays. He is the kind of relentless player that offensive linemen have nightmares about.
Corey Lemonier, Junior, Defensive End (6’4 245) Auburn - An excellent athlete and speed rusher who needed to add bulk and strength, Lemonier is coming off of an excellent sophomore season, where he had 47 tackles, 9.5 sacks and 5 forced fumbles. He is not a good run defender yet, as he tends to get caught up in the bulk of the big blockers in the SEC, however as a pure speed rusher off of the edge there are few better.
Devin Taylor, Senior, Defensive End (6’7 270lbs) South Carolina - The Gamecocks are another team with two players on this list, Taylor was incredible as a sophomore in 2010, and it looked like he was destined for the 2012 NFL draft with another solid season. However, he had a disappointing 2011, and disappeared at times. 2012 is his final chance at redemption in, as he opted to return for his senior season, and he could be a prospect on the rise this fall if he gets back to 2010 form.
Margus Hunt, Senior, Defensive End (6’8 280lbs) – SMU - Hunt is an Estonia native who is an absolute freak, and was sent to the United States to train for shot put and discus, in which he won gold medals in the 2006 Junior World Championships. He has an 82 inch wingspan, but his coach claims he can still bench press 225lbs 45 repetitions, run a 4.60 40 yard dash and has a 36 inch vertical leap. All of this physical talent has not quite translated to the football field yet, but if it does, run and hide.
Arik Armstead, Freshman, Defensive End (6’8 297lbs) Oregon - A 6’8 297lb true freshman defensive end who dominated spring ball and is nicknamed “The Man Child”…where do I sign up to watch?
Honorable Mention: Aaron Donald, Junior – Pittsburgh, James Gayle, Junior – Virginia Tech, Damion Square, Senior – Alabama, Justin Staples, Senior – Illinois, Jordan Kohout, Junior – Wisconsin, Wes Horton, Senior – USC, Damontre Moore, Senior – Texas A&M