Which players are poised for a breakout year?
With the volume of high-powered offenses and talent at the skill positions every year, it’s not easy being a defensive coordinator or a player on that side of the ball. However, there’s no shortage of standouts that emerge each season out of spring practice and the regular season.
Note: To be considered for the “on the rise” designation, a player could not have earned all-conference (first or second team honors last season).
Otaro Alaka, LB, Texas A&M
Texas A&M’s defense should take a step forward with John Chavis as the coordinator in 2015. And in addition to Chavis’ arrival, the Aggies have a talented group of young players primed to take on a bigger role in the defense. Alaka is one of those players, as he played in 12 games last season and recorded 33 tackles and two forced fumbles. After starting the final five games as a true freshman in 2014, Chavis is counting on Alaka for an even bigger role in 2015.
Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson
Alexander is one of two Clemson players to make this list. The Florida native was forced to redshirt in 2013 due to injury but quickly emerged as the team’s top defensive back last season. Alexander started all 13 games, recorded 21 tackles and six pass breakups, while also playing the most snaps by a freshman in school history. Alexander should be one of the ACC’s top cornerbacks in 2015.
Budda Baker, S, Washington
Washington’s secondary experienced its share of ups and downs last season. However, after playing freshmen and sophomores in major roles in 2014, the Huskies should see improvement from a secondary that gave up 55 passing plays of 20 yards or more. Baker was regarded as the No. 55 recruit in the 2014 247Sports Composite and played significant snaps as a true freshman. In 13 games, Baker recorded 80 tackles, one sack, one interception and six pass breakups.
Kendell Beckwith, LB, LSU
Beckwith ranked as one of the top 100 recruits in the 2013 signing class but had a relatively quiet debut (11 tackles). However, the Louisiana native became a bigger part of the defense in 2014, starting the final seven games and recording 77 tackles, two sacks and one interception on his final stat line. Over LSU’s final seven games, only one opponent (Notre Dame) managed more than 140 rushing yards. Beckwith’s emergence at middle linebacker is a key reason why the Tigers were tougher against the run in the second half of 2014, and the junior is primed for a big season with a full-time starting spot in Kevin Steele’s defense.
Harold Brantley, DT, Missouri
Missouri has been a factory for All-SEC talent at defensive end over the last two seasons, but don’t overlook Brantley’s contributions to the defense in 2014. The Pennsylvania native made six starts as a freshman in 2013 and emerged as the team’s top interior player last year. In 14 games, Brantley recorded 30 tackles (five for a loss) and three pass breakups. With two seasons under his belt, Brantley should be poised for his best year in a Missouri uniform.
Lorenzo Carter, LB, Georgia
With Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins and Carter returning, Georgia should boast one of the SEC’s top linebacker groups for 2015. Getting all three outside linebackers on the field at the same time will be an interesting offseason experiment for coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, but all three players have All-SEC talent. Carter played significant snaps as a true freshman last season, recording 41 tackles (seven for a loss) and 4.5 sacks.
Hunter Dimick/Jason Fanaika, DE, Utah
The Utes led the nation with 55 sacks last season, and even with Nate Orchard expiring his eligibility, Utah’s pass rush will be among the best in the Pac-12. Dimick and Fanaika were solid complement options up front last season, as the duo recorded combined for 15 sacks. And the edge rushers will have plenty of help from the interior, as tackle Lowell Lotulelei will be in the mix for all-conference honors. Even without Orchard, expect to see the Utes frequently getting after opposing quarterbacks in 2015.
Nate Gerry, S, Nebraska
We will cheat just a bit here and list Gerry in this ranking since he earned second-team honors from the Big Ten media last season but only earned honorable mention by the coaches. The South Dakota native started all 13 games in 2014 and recorded 88 tackles and five interceptions. New defensive backs coach Brian Stewart should help Gerry develop into one of the Big Ten’s top performers at safety in 2015.
C.J. Hampton, S, Ole Miss
The Rebels led the SEC by limiting opponents to just 16 points per game in 2014. This unit returns largely intact, but cornerback Senquez Golson and safety Cody Prewitt will be tough to replace. Hampton ranked as the No. 96 player in the 2014 247Sports Composite and played in all 13 games last season. He recorded 10 tackles in limited action. Coordinator Dave Wommack will be counting on Hampton to play a bigger role in the defense in 2015, especially with Prewitt leaving big shoes to fill at safety.
Jason Hatcher, DE, Kentucky
Kentucky is starting over at defensive end with the departures of Za’Darius Smith and Bud Dupree. After two years as a backup at the position, Hatcher – a four-star recruit in 2013 – is slated to take on a bigger role in 2015. Hatcher recorded 28 tackles (5.5 for a loss) and 1.5 sacks in 2014.
Dravon Henry, S, West Virginia
With the return of safety Karl Joseph and cornerback Daryl Worley, the Mountaineers have one of the Big 12’s top defensive backfields for 2015. And this unit will only get better as Henry continues to develop in his second season in Morgantown. The Pennsylvania posted a strong freshman campaign in 2014, starting all 13 games for coordinator Tony Gibson and recording 45 tackles and two interceptions.
Adoree’ Jackson, CB, USC
Jackson is one of the Pac-12’s most explosive players and one of the nation’s top all-around playmakers. The Illinois native caught 10 passes for 138 yards and three touchdowns last season and scored four times on special teams. Jackson also recorded 49 tackles (four for a loss) and broke up 10 passes in 2014.
Malik Jefferson, LB, Texas
Jefferson ranked as the No. 10 prospect in the 2015 247Sports Composite and big things are expected from the Texas native in 2015. With the Longhorns replacing Jordan Hicks and Steve Edmond, Jefferson has a clear path to major snaps or a starting role. Expect Jefferson to be one of college football’s top freshmen performers.
Derwin James, S/Derrick Nnadi/Lorenzo Featherston, DL, Florida State
Florida State’s roster is loaded with young talent and it won’t be long before the Seminoles are back in contention for the national title. James, Nnadi and Featherston are three future stars in Tallahassee, and each player could see significant snaps in 2015. Nnadi recorded 18 tackles in nine games in his true freshman campaign last season, while Featherston played in 11 games and made 19 stops and one sack. James ranked as the No. 5 prospect in the 2015 247Sports Composite and is physically ready to start in Florida State’s secondary. Expect to hear plenty about these three players in 2015.
Hootie Jones, S/Tony Brown/Marlon Humphrey, CB, Alabama
Improving the secondary is at the top of coach Nick Saban’s priority list this spring after the Crimson Tide allowed 19 passing plays of 30 yards or more in 2014. Adding to the uncertainty of this group is the departure of Landon Collins to the NFL. Cyrus Jones is settled into one cornerback spot, but a second cornerback needs to emerge. Brown and Humphrey were two of the nation’s top 15 prospects in the 2014 signing class and will be asked to take on a bigger role in 2015. Jones recorded two tackles last season and is expected to factor prominently in replacing Collins’ production.
Peter Kalambayi, LB, Stanford
Stanford’s defense will have a different look to it in 2015, as only four starters return from a unit that ranked second nationally by limiting opponents to just 16.4 points per game in 2014. While A.J. Tarpley and James Vaughters will be missed at linebacker, Kalambayi is ready for a bigger role in the defense to replace the production lost by the departing seniors. In 13 games, Kalambayi recorded 32 tackles (9.5 for a loss) and 6.5 sacks. He should be in the mix for all-conference honors in 2015.
Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn
Lawson missed all of 2014 due to a torn ACL. If he returns at full strength in 2015, Lawson should provide an instant boost to an Auburn pass rush that generated only 21 sacks in 2014. As a freshman in 2013, Lawson played in all 14 games and registered four sacks and seven quarterback hurries. The Georgia native should thrive under new coordinator Will Muschamp.
Shaq Lawson, DE, Clemson
Clemson ranked first nationally by holding opponents to just four yards per play in 2014. But coordinator Brent Venables will have his hands full this spring, as the Tigers return only two starters and lose several standouts from the front seven. Lawson is expected to be one of the defense’s top linemen after recording 34 tackles and 3.5 sacks in a backup role last season.
Elijah Lee, LB, Kansas State
Even with five returning starters for 2015, the strength of Kansas State’s team should be its defense. The defensive front has a few changes with end Ryan Mueller and linebacker Jonathan Truman departing, but Lee’s freshman debut provides plenty of optimism for coordinator Tom Hayes. In 13 games, Lee recorded 19 tackles (4.5 for a loss) and 4.5 sacks. He’s slated to take on a bigger role in the defense this year.
Jordan Lucas, S, Penn State
Lucas had a standout year for Penn State’s defense at cornerback last season, but the New York native is expected to slide to safety for the 2015 season. In 13 contests last year, Lucas recorded 58 tackles, two sacks and nine pass breakups. Lucas will also have extra help in learning the position, as coordinator Bob Shoop oversees the safeties on Penn State’s staff. Expect the Nittany Lions to have a flawless transition from Adrian Amos to Lucas at safety.
Malik McDowell, DT, Michigan State
McDowell was a huge catch on the recruiting trail for coach Mark Dantonio, and the Michigan native didn’t disappoint in his true freshman campaign. McDowell played in all 13 games and recorded 15 tackles and 1.5 sacks. With Lawrence Thomas expected to move to defensive end this spring, McDowell is expected to take on a bigger role with the line for 2015. Expect to see McDowell wreaking havoc against opposing Big Ten offensive lines this year.
Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State
Ohio State’s defense doesn’t have many question marks entering spring ball, but the linebacker corps is looking for a new starter after the departure of Curtis Grant. There should be a flawless transition from Grant to McMillan, as the Georgia native was regarded as the top recruit in the Big Ten for the 2014 signing class. McMillan played in 14 games last season and recorded 54 tackles, one interception and 2.5 sacks.
Jabrill Peppers, DB, Michigan
Peppers was expected to play a meaningful role in Michigan’s secondary last season, but the New Jersey native was sidelined after three games due to a leg injury. With a full offseason to recover, Peppers is ready to become a key contributor for the Wolverines. New coordinator D.J. Durkin plans to use Peppers as a safety in 2015, which should allow the No. 3 prospect in the 2014 247Sports Composite to emerge as a impact defender for Michigan this year.
Chris Seisay, CB, Oregon
Seisay was thrown into the spotlight after Ifo Ekpre-Olomu suffered a season-ending knee injury prior to the Rose Bowl matchup against Florida State. In the Ducks win over the Seminoles, Seisay recorded six tackles and filled in admirably for Ekpre-Olomu in his second career start. The California native finished 2014 with 33 tackles, four passes defended and one forced fumble. He should claim a full-time starting position at cornerback this offseason.
Cameron Sutton, CB, Tennessee
It’s possible Sutton is the SEC’s most underrated defender. The Georgia native was only a three-star recruit coming out of high school but has developed into one of the league’s top cornerbacks. Over the last 25 games, Sutton has recorded 76 tackles, five interceptions, one forced fumble and 20 pass breakups. Despite his solid 2014 season (16 passes defended), Sutton did not earn all-conference honors. Expect that to change in 2015.
Other Names to Watch
Ja’Whaun Bentley, LB, Purdue
Bentley was a bright spot on a Purdue defense that gave up 31.7 points per game in 2014. As a true freshman last year, Bentley recorded 76 tackles, one interception and recovered three fumbles.
Andrew Brown, DT, Virginia
Brown ranked as the No. 11 recruit in the 2014 247Sports Composite but was slowed by injuries last year. The 6-foot-4, 290-pound tackle should be one of the top performers for the Cavaliers’ defensive line in 2015.
Cam Denson, CB, Arizona
Denson was one of the top recruits in Arizona’s 2014 signing class and shifted from receiver to cornerback. The Arizona native recorded 21 tackles, two interceptions and two pass breakups as a true freshman.
Brooks Ellis, LB, Arkansas
Ellis is slated to fill the void left behind by Martrell Spaight in 2015. Ellis recorded 72 stops in 2014.
KeShun Freeman, DE, Georgia Tech
Freeman was one of the ACC’s top freshmen performers last year, as the Georgia native played in all 14 games and earned first-team Freshman All-American honors from Athlon Sports. Freeman should push for All-ACC honors after recording 54 tackles and 4.5 sacks in 2014.
Josh Harvey-Clemons, S, Louisville
Louisville must replace all four starters from one of the nation’s top defensive backfields in 2014. Harvey-Clemons transferred from Georgia after making 11 starts in 2013 and should claim a starting spot at safety.
Deon Hollins, LB, UCLA
Hollins finished the 2014 season on a tear, recording six sacks over his final four games. His late-season improvement should help a UCLA pass rush that managed only 29 sacks in 13 contests in 2014.
Seth Jacobs, LB, Oklahoma State
Jacobs was a breakout performer for coordinator Glenn Spencer last season. In 13 games, Jacobs recorded 92 tackles (6.5 for a loss) and intercepted two passes.
Nazair Jones, DT, North Carolina
New coordinator Gene Chizik inherits six returning starters but plenty of question marks from a defense that allowed 39 points per game in 2014. Jones (a sophomore) is a promising piece of the defensive line after recording 35 tackles (7.5 tackles for a loss) and 2.5 sacks in 2014.
Mike Mitchell, LB, Texas Tech
Mitchell was a top 100 recruit in the 2013 signing class and transferred to Texas Tech after one season at Ohio State. He should be an impact newcomer for the Red Raiders.
Yannick Ngakoue, LB, Maryland
The Terrapins are switching to a 4-3 alignment, and Ngakoue is slated to move from linebacker to end. Ngakoue recorded 37 tackles (11.5 for a loss) and six sacks last year.
Steven Parker, S, Oklahoma
The Sooners need better play from their secondary after giving up 50 passing plays of 20 yards or more in 2014. Parker played in 13 contests (four starts) and recorded 31 tackles as a true freshman last year. Parker’s development is critical for Oklahoma’s pass defense.
Tegray Scales, LB, Indiana
Indiana’s defense needs to take a major step forward this year if the Hoosiers want to go bowling in 2015. Scales is one of the players expected to make a jump in production after recording 46 tackles and two sacks as a true freshman last season.
Tashon Smallwood, DT, Arizona State
Smallwood started seven games and recorded 23 tackles and two sacks as a true freshman in 2014. The sophomore should see an increased role in the Sun Devils’ aggressive defense in 2015.
Chad Thomas, DE, Miami
Thomas was a big-time catch on the Florida recruiting trail for coach Al Golden, and the Miami native saw limited work in 2014 (seven tackles). Thomas should be slated for a bigger role in the ‘Canes defense in 2015, as starter Anthony Chickillo has expired his eligibility.
Jack Tocho, CB, NC State
Tocho has started 20 games in his two-year career at NC State, and the junior should push for All-ACC honors in 2015. Tocho recorded 41 tackles and led the team with 11 pass breakups in 2014.
Kemoko Turay, DE, Rutgers
Turay shined as a pass-rush specialist for Rutgers’ defense last year, accumulating 7.5 sacks in 13 games. The sophomore is slated for a bigger role in 2015, as the Scarlet Knights must replace David Milewski at end.
Anthony Walker, LB, Northwestern
Walker stepped up after an injury sidelined Colin Ellis and finished the year with 51 stops (nine for a loss) and two interceptions. He should only get better with more experience as a sophomore in 2015.
Jihad Ward, DE, Illinois
Ward was an impact recruit from the junior college ranks by the Illinois coaching staff. The Pennsylvania native recorded 51 tackles (8.5 for a loss), three sacks and two forced fumbles in 2014.
Stephen Weatherly/Nigel Bowden, LB, Vanderbilt
The strength of Vanderbilt’s defense should be its linebackers in 2015. Weatherly (4.5 sacks) and Bowden (78 tackles) are two promising players for coach Derek Mason to build around.
Taylor Young, LB, Baylor
Young emerged as one of the top performers in Baylor’s linebacker corps last season, as he finished 2014 with 92 tackles and four sacks. He should be an All-Big 12 performer in 2015.