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College Football's Top 20 Defensive Players on the Rise for 2014

Chris Jones

Chris Jones

College football’s 2014 season is still a few months away, but kickoff is fast approaching in late August. Now that the preseason magazines are on newsstands, it’s never too early to start thinking about the upcoming season.

The unpredictable nature of college football is challenging for any preseason prognostication. However, that’s also what makes this sport unique.

As fall practice approaches, Athlon will be identifying some of the key players on the rise or on the verge of a breakout season.

The list of defenders on the rise could span all 10 conferences and include plenty of players from the Independent ranks, but we had to limit the list to 20 and a few others to watch.

Players like Mississippi State’s Chris Jones and Ole Miss’ Robert Nkemdiche were big-time recruits, so it’s no surprise they made this list. However, names like West Virginia’s Daryl Worley and Virginia Tech’s Dadi Nicolas are probably not as well-known from across the nation.

20 Defensive Players on the Rise for 2014

Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson

Had Alexander not suffered a groin injury in fall camp, it’s likely he would have played a major role in Clemson’s secondary last season. Alexander ranked as the No. 30 recruit in the 2013 Athlon Consensus 100 and was widely considered one of the nation’s top freshmen on the defensive side. Although the groin injury prevented Alexander from getting involved last year, it allowed him extra time to learn the defense. The redshirt freshman is slated to crack the starting lineup for the opener against Georgia.

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DeForest Buckner, DE, Oregon

New coordinator Don Pellum must replace two starters up front, but Buckner and junior tackle Arik Armstead are a solid duo to build around in 2014. Buckner played in 13 games as a true freshman in 2012 and recorded 29 tackles. He took a step forward in his development last year by playing in all 13 games and recording 39 tackles and 2.5 sacks. The Hawaii native shined in the spring game, forcing a fumble and recording a sack. One of Pellum’s priorities for 2014 is to find a way to slow down opposing rushing attacks after the Ducks allowed 175.9 rushing yards per game in Pac-12 play last year. At 286 pounds, Buckner’s size and ability should help Oregon win its share of battles at the point of attack.

Su’a Cravens, S, USC

In an offensive-minded conference like the Pac-12, you can never have enough elite defensive backs. USC already has one of the top cornerbacks in the conference in Josh Shaw, and it’s clear Cravens is poised to contend for All-America honors this year. The California native was the No. 5 recruit in the 247Sports Composite in the 2013 signing class and recorded 52 stops and four interceptions. New coordinator Justin Wilcox and defensive backs coach Keith Heyward helped to develop standouts at Washington like Desmond Trufant, Marcus Peters and Sean Parker. Expect both coaches to help Cravens reach his potential – which could be in 2014.

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Durell Eskridge, S, Syracuse

Syracuse fans are certainly aware of Eskridge’s potential after he nearly declared for the draft following the 2013 season. However, it’s time for the rest of the nation to take notice. Eskridge led the team with 78 tackles and intercepted four passes last year. The Florida native also forced a fumble and was selected as a third-team All-ACC safety. The ACC has several all-conference contenders returning at defensive back, but Eskridge should be a lock for first- or second-team honors at the end of 2014.

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Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia

New coordinator Jeremy Pruitt isn’t inheriting the same amount of proven talent as he did at Florida State in 2013, but the Bulldogs certainly aren’t hurting for defensive standouts. Pruitt’s experience at Alabama suggests he will implement a similar blueprint in Athens, especially once he has time to recruit. Floyd started eight games as a true freshman in 2013, recording 55 tackles (9.5 for a loss), 6.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. The Georgia native also earned SEC All-Freshman honors. Floyd and Jordan Jenkins form a dynamic pair of pass-rushers off the edge, which should help Georgia cover for some of its concerns in the secondary. Expect Floyd to push for 10 sacks in Pruitt’s 3-4 approach. 

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Markus Golden, DE, Missouri

Even though Missouri loses Michael Sam and Kony Ealy at defensive end, there’s not much concern in Columbia about the pass rush. Coordinator Dave Steckel has an intriguing group of options remaining, with Golden expected to make the jump to all-conference contention. In 14 games last season, Golden recorded 55 tackles (13 for a loss) and 6.5 sacks. Transitioning from a part-time position into a starter’s role with increased snaps, while maintaining (and increasing) his production will be a challenge for Golden. Line coach Craig Kuligowski’s has developed several standouts in his career at Missouri, and Golden is already on the radar as a potential first-round pick in the 2015 draft.

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Darius Hamilton, DT, Rutgers

It’s a bit of a cliché, but to win in the Big Ten, you have to be solid on both lines of scrimmage. With the Big Ten brand to sell, it should help Rutgers on the recruiting trail, allowing the Scarlet Knights to add more talent to the trenches. While Rutgers may not match Ohio State or Michigan State’s defensive line, the cupboard isn’t bare for new coordinator Joe Rossi. Hamilton started 12 games in 2013 and recorded 48 tackles (11.5 tackles for a loss) and 4.5 sacks. His presence on the interior was also a key reason why Rutgers held opponents to just 3.3 yards per rush in American Athletic Conference games last year. The New Jersey native took a step forward in his development last season and should push for all-conference honors in 2014.

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Alec James, DE, Wisconsin

The front seven of the Badgers’ defense is in need of a major overhaul with just three starters returning. Replacing key players like linebacker Chris Borland won’t be easy, but coordinator Dave Aranda and coach Gary Andersen should have this defense performing at a high level by midseason. James is expected to be a key cog in the rebuilding effort in Madison, as the Wisconsin native will slide from linebacker to defensive end to provide a speed rusher off the edge. James redshirted in his first season on campus and will be tested right away with a matchup against LSU in the opener.  

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Chris Jones, DT, Mississippi State

Jones was a key pick up on the recruiting trail for coach Dan Mullen, ranking as the No. 18 overall player in the 2013 Athlon Consensus 100. And the Mississippi native didn’t disappoint as a true freshman, recording 32 tackles (seven for a loss), three sacks and three pass breakups. Jones was at his best late in the year, recording three tackles for a loss and a sack against Ole Miss. After a solid freshman year, the best is yet to come from Jones. With a full offseason to work in the weight room and learn under coordinator Geoff Collins, Jones is expected to push for All-America honors.

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Skai Moore, LB, South Carolina

South Carolina coordinator Lorenzo Ward is tinkering with his defense with the departures of linemen Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles. The Gamecocks may use more 3-4 alignments to compensate for the losses in the trenches, especially with rising stars like Moore ready to step up in 2014. The Florida native made an instant impact as a true freshman last year, recording 56 tackles in 13 games. Moore started only four games but is expected to play in a full-time role in 2014.

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Dadi Nicolas, DE, Virginia Tech

In a wide-open ACC Coastal Division, the one constant among the contenders is Virginia Tech’s defense. The Hokies have finished first or second in scoring defense (conference-only games) in the ACC for six consecutive seasons. With one of the conference’s top defensive backfields and lines in 2014, expect much of the same from the Hokies. Nicolas appears to be the next star on the front line for Virginia Tech, recording 32 tackles and four sacks in 13 games last year. The Florida native should easily shatter those totals in a full-time role in 2014.

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Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss

Yes, as the No. 1 recruit from the 2013 signing class, it seems obvious to mention Nkemdiche in this space. However, the Georgia native seemed to find his role late last year. Nkemdiche finished with 34 tackles (eight for a loss), two sacks and one forced fumble. Six of Nkemdiche’s 10 starts came at defensive end, with the other four coming at tackle. The Rebels will regain the services of end C.J. Johnson (missed most of last year due to injury), and the other end spot is expected to go to FIU transfer Fadol Brown. With Brown and Johnson anchoring the end positions, Nkemdiche should settle back into the interior. The sophomore played better as the season progressed in 2013 and should build off that momentum.

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Darius Philon, DT, Arkansas

Running back Alex Collins garnered most of the freshman headlines in Fayetteville last season, but Philon quietly turned in an impressive campaign. The Alabama native appeared in all 12 games and finished with 46 tackles and three sacks. Nine of Philon’s tackles went for a loss. After starting the final five games of 2013 and earning SEC All-Freshman honors, Philon is poised to challenge for all-conference honors. The 283-pound defensive tackle can only get better with more snaps, but he has the talent to be a disruption in the backfield for new coordinator Robb Smith. 

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Rashard Robinson, CB, LSU

Since 2010, six LSU defensive backs have been selected in the NFL Draft. The Tigers should have no trouble adding to that total in recent years, as cornerbacks Tre’Davious White and Robinson are future stars in Baton Rouge. White was named to Athlon’s preseason first-team All-SEC squad for 2014, while Robinson earned second-team honors. Robinson played in 12 contests last year, with both of his starts coming late in the season. He was instrumental in containing Texas A&M’s offense to just 10 points in late November and finished 2013 with 16 tackles, one interception and three pass breakups. After a NCAA clearinghouse issue delayed his arrival in Baton Rouge, Robinson will benefit from a full offseason to work under defensive backs coach Corey Raymond.

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Zack Sanchez, CB, Oklahoma

Sanchez was thrown into fire as a redshirt freshman and started all 13 games for Bob Stoops. The Texas native recorded 46 tackles, picked off two interceptions and tied for third in the Big 12 with 15 passes defended. With Aaron Colvin expiring his eligibility, Sanchez will assume the role as Oklahoma’s No. 1 cornerback. And as last year showed, Sanchez is ready for that assignment.

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Vince Taylor, NG, Vanderbilt

New coach Derek Mason plans on shifting Vanderbilt’s defense to a 3-4 look. Transitioning from the 4-3 to a 3-4 can be challenging, but the Commodores have the personnel to make a successful (and swift) switch. As with any 3-4 scheme, there’s extra attention placed on the nose guard as the key cog on the interior. Taylor appears to be a perfect fit at nose guard, as his 6-foot-2 and 310-pound frame can handle the interior. The Mississippi native has just 44 tackles in his career and one fumble recovery. Don’t expect Taylor to impress on the stat sheet, but the senior should be a force in the middle for Mason’s defense.

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Ranthony Texada, CB, TCU

Jason Verrett will be missed, but there’s optimism in Fort Worth that TCU’s secondary is still the best in the Big 12. The safety spots are in good hands with Sam Carter and Chris Hackett, and cornerback Kevin White is a second-team All-Big 12 selection by Athlon Sports for 2014. Texada was a spring standout for the Horned Frogs after redshirting in 2013, and the Texas native should team with White to help the defense ease the loss of Verrett.  

Matthew Thomas, LB, Florida State

The Seminoles have to retool at linebacker with the departures of Christian Jones and Telvin Smith. New coordinator Charles Kelly isn’t inheriting a bare cupboard, as Terrance Smith should push for All-ACC honors, and there’s plenty of talent waiting to emerge. Thomas played in four games last season but suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. In limited action in 2013, Thomas recorded two tackles for a loss and a sack. At 6-foot-3 and 224 pounds, the Miami native has the size to stop the run, while possessing the speed and explosiveness to get to the quarterback off the edge.

Vincent Valentine, DT, Nebraska

Nebraska’s defensive line will have three new starters in 2014, but the rebuilding effort is made easier with the return of end Randy Gregory and the emergence of Valentine, Maliek Collins and Aaron Curry at tackle. Valentine played in all 13 games in 2013 and recorded 21 stops (five for a loss) and one sack. The Illinois native had a breakout performance against Iowa in the regular season finale, recording five tackles and a sack. If Valentine picks up where he left off against the Hawkeyes, combined with Gregory’s continued dominance at end, Nebraska’s defensive line should emerge as one of the best in the Big Ten.

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Daryl Worley, CB, West Virginia

With an unsettled quarterback situation, the Mountaineers need to rely on their rushing attack and defense – at least early on – to help West Virginia return to a bowl. New coordinator Tony Gibson has not called the plays for a defense since 2000 at West Virginia Tech, but he will have help from veteran assistant Tom Bradley. Gibson and Bradley have pieces to work with, including six returning starters and an intriguing FCS transfer in Shaquille Riddick from Gardner-Webb to help the pass rush. But the player generating the most buzz this offseason might be Worley. The 6-foot-1 cornerback from Philadelphia played in 11 games in 2013 and made 45 tackles and broke up five passes. Considering the offensive firepower in the Big 12, having a shutdown corner with the size to matchup against big receivers is a valuable asset for any defense. With another year to progress, expect Worley to challenge for all-conference honors this year.  

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Other Players to Watch

T.T. Barber, LB, MTSU

Barber earned first-team All-Conference USA honors after recording 119 tackles and three sacks last year. The junior is already on the radar for NFL scouts and should be one of the top defenders from outside the five power conferences in 2014.

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Salamo Fiso, LB, Arizona State

Sun Devils were hit hard by departures on defense with just two returning starters. Fiso is one of the few returning commodities for coordinator Keith Patterson after ranking third on the team with 71 stops as a freshman.

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Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama

Rated as one of the top defenders in the 2013 signing class, Foster appeared in nine games and recorded 12 tackles. With C.J. Mosley off to the NFL, Foster is expected to push for a starting job.

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Jacoby Glenn, CB, UCF

UCF won’t have Blake Bortles to lean on in 2014, but the Knights should still be in the mix to win the American Athletic Conference. Look for the defense to take a step forward, and Glenn is an emerging star in the secondary. As a redshirt freshman, he earned American Athletic Conference first-team honors in 2013.

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Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn

Lawson played in 14 games as a true freshman and recorded 7.5 tackles for a loss and four sacks. He is expected to be a key piece in Auburn’s defensive front but recently underwent offseason knee surgery.

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Obi Melifonwu, S, UConn

Melifonwu started all 12 games as a redshirt freshman last season and finished with 70 tackles, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. He should be one of the key pieces in new coach Bob Diaco’s rebuilding effort at UConn in 2014.

Kevin Peterson, CB, Oklahoma State

Justin Gilbert was selected by the Browns in the first round of the draft, but the Cowboys still have talent at cornerback with Peterson and Ashton Lampkin returning. Peterson recorded two picks and four pass breakups last year. He is a second-team All-Big 12 selection by Athlon Sports for 2014.

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Max Redfield, S, Notre Dame

The Fighting Irish already received a huge impact from one of their top freshmen in last year’s class (Jaylon Smith), and Redfield – a top-100 recruit – is poised to take on a bigger role. The California native played in 12 games (one start) and recorded nine tackles. Redfield is expected to start in 2014.

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Reggie Spearman, LB, Iowa

The Hawkeyes must replace three starters at linebacker, including standout James Morris. Spearman was just one of four Iowa true freshmen to play in 2013 and recorded 10 tackles in 10 appearances. The sophomore is expected to start for coordinator Phil Parker.

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Ben Weaver, LB, Boise State

Weaver shined in his redshirt freshman campaign by leading the Broncos with 89 stops. The sophomore should be an All-Mountain West performer this year.

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