Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - While Jadeveon Clowney, Khalil Mack, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and the like have moved on to the NFL, there is still plenty of talent on the defensive side of the ball left in college football.
The time in nearing for some, or all, to make themselves household names as well.
Whether they're getting their first stab at a starting job after being buried on the depth chart, finally tapping into their potential, or being brought in as a first-year performer, the following defensive players are poised for a breakout campaign.
Danielle Hunter, DE, LSU -- Hunter was inserted into the Tigers' starting lineup in Week 4 of last season, and the sophomore answered the call by recording 57 tackles, 8.0 TFL and 3.0 sacks. LSU's pass-rush was stagnant in 2013, with the team leader in sacks having only four, but Hunter appears destined to make a leap into the ranks of the SEC's best defensive linemen. With Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson having both departed, the 6-foot-6, 241- pound physical specimen will get his chance to produce on an every-down basis.
Shaquille Riddick, DE, West Virginia -- The Mountaineers' disappointing 4-8 campaign a season ago can be largely contributed to their porous defense, which allowed 33.3 points and 455.0 yards per game, but they are hoping that the addition of one of the FCS's most disruptive forces will help turn things around. In 11 games for Gardner-Webb in 2013, Riddick racked up 19.0 TFL, 8.5 sacks and 17 QB hurries. It remains to be seen whether his skill set will translate to the Big 12, but Riddick is an athletic freak in a similar mold as Hunter (6-6, 244), and only figures to help a WVU squad that finished with only 16 sacks a season ago.
Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss, -- As the No. 1 overall recruit according to several scouting services last year, Nkemdiche came into his freshman season in 2013 with incredibly high expectations. He showed flashes along the way, registering 8.0 TFL, but his tackle (34) and sack (2.0) totals underwhelmed. He never really got into a groove after being bounced around the defensive line, and a hamstring injury certainly didn't help, but with a year under his belt, he should be able to take major strides toward becoming a dominant force in the middle.
Chris Jones, DT, Mississippi State -- Many are looking at the Bulldogs as a dark horse in the SEC this season, especially if they are able to improve upon their surprisingly strong defensive showing in 2013 (23.0 ppg). One of the biggest factors in the unit's growth is Jones' ability to be an anchor in the middle. Jones saw limited playing time as a true freshman last season and made the most of it, notching 7.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks and 10 QB hurries, and his unique combination of size (6-5, 300), athleticism and versatility will be put on display even more as he is inserted into the starting lineup full time.
Eric Striker, LB, Oklahoma -- Striker is already a well-known commodity for the Sooners. After receiving virtually no playing time as a freshman in 2012, he emerged last season to start all 13 games while leading the team in TFL (10.5) and sacks (6.5). He saved his breakout performance for the Sugar Bowl against Alabama, where he logged three sacks and a forced fumble, and if that showing was any indication for what's to come, Striker could be one of the nation's premiere pass-rushing linebackers in 2014, and a hot commodity in next spring's NFL Draft.
Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama -- Every season, Alabama loses a number of star defensive players to the NFL, yet seemingly every year the stable is replenished thanks to elite recruiting and superb coaching that lead to guys like the talented Foster. Playing behind the likes of C.J. Mosley last season, Foster only recorded 12 tackles in nine games as a freshman, but the former five-star recruit has the pedigree to step right in to the starting lineup, and he has the hard-hitting reputation to become another in a long line of outstanding inside linebackers for the Crimson Tide.
Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State -- Much like Alabama, Ohio State has no problem churning out star linebackers, and McMillan has a shot to be one of the best. The 6-foot-2, 249-pound true freshman was the top inside linebacker recruit this year, but he'll face an uphill climb dethroning Curtis Grant as the starter in the middle, especially after Grant emerged as a trusty option last season with 52 tackles. Still, McMillan has the raw talent to see plenty of action, even in the very early stages of his career.
Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson -- As a true freshman last season, Alexander impressed enough during camp to contend for a starting spot, but injuries caused him to redshirt. Now the former five-star recruit will get his chance to shine, sliding into the void left by Bashaud Breeland. If Alexander can stave off the injury bug, he'll be in great position to succeed playing for one of the nation's best defenses.
Jabrill Peppers, CB, Michigan -- The Wolverines were fortunate to land the top defensive back recruit when Peppers announced in May that he would don the Maize and Blue. The team had an outstanding pass defense last season, tying for fifth in the nation in allowing just 169.5 aerial yards per game, and starting corners Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor are both back. Peppers will be able to learn from the veterans while filling the role of nickelback. His versatile playmaking skills could also come in handy on special teams, and even in certain offensive packages.
Jalen Ramsey, S, Florida State -- As a freshman in 2013, Ramsey was an integral part of the national-championship winning Seminoles' top-ranked pass defense (156.6 ypg), starting all 14 games while logging 49 tackles and an interception. FSU has a lot of turnover to deal with on the defensive side of the ball this year - Ramsey is the team's second-leading returning tackler - but the versatile defensive back has experience to take over as the leader of the secondary, and the skill set to take another step toward stardom.