Examining which teams have the best defensive line in the nation
The defensive line is one of college football's deepest positions in terms of individual talent for 2019, and there's also plenty of competition for the top spot among teams for the best setup in the trenches. Anchored by first-team All-American Derrick Brown, Auburn leads the way in Athlon's best defensive lines for the 2019 college football season. The Tigers are followed by Utah at No. 2, Clemson at No. 3, Alabama at No. 4 and Alabama at No. 5.
How did we come up with these rankings? A couple of factors were considered. Depth, overall talent, production, level of competition and projected output in 2019 all factored into the rankings for the defensive line. While some teams may have experienced a down year last season, a new assistant, top recruit or a change of scheme can make a huge difference. These rankings reflect projection for 2019, not solely what teams accomplished in 2018.
CFB's Top 30 Defensive Lines for 2019
With the nation’s best defensive tackle (Derrick Brown) back for his senior year, along with a dynamic pair of edge rushers (Nick Coe and Marlon Davidson), Auburn has all of the pieces in place to dominate the trenches in 2019. Brown is an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-American and was instrumental in leading a rush defense that limited teams to just 3.7 yards per carry in ’18. Tyrone Truesdell is likely to claim the open spot at tackle next to Brown, while Coe and Davidson will be a nightmare off the edge for opposing quarterbacks after recording 18 tackles for a loss last fall. Coe could kick inside to play next to Brown, which would open up more snaps for T.D. Moultry and Big Kat Bryant off the edge.
Kyle Whittingham’s “Sack Lake City” defense finished fifth nationally against the run and ranked second in the Pac-12 with 37 sacks last fall. A scary thought for Pac-12 offenses: The defensive line might be even better in 2019. The entire two-deep is back this season, headlined by end Bradlee Anae and 300-pound tackles Leki Fotu and John Penisini. Anae recorded eight sacks last fall, while Fotu and Penisini clogged the middle to hold opponents to just 2.9 yards per rush. Mika Tafua and Maxs Tupai will battle to start opposite Anae at end.
Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant, Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins leave big shoes to fill in Death Valley. However, coordinator Brent Venables has the next wave of stars ready to step up. End Xavier Thomas flashed potential as a freshman, recording 10.5 tackles for a loss in limited snaps. He will be joined by a group of talented but inexperienced options at end in Justin Foster, Logan Rudolph, K.J. Henry and Justin Mascoll. Jordan Williams and Nyles Pinckney gained valuable experience as backups last season and are set to anchor the interior. Largely due to the play up front, the Tigers have recorded at least 100 tackles for a loss in six consecutive seasons.
Replacing Quinnen Williams won’t be easy, but the cupboard isn’t bare in Tuscaloosa for new position coach Brian Baker. After a sluggish junior season, Raekwon Davis passed on the NFL for one more year at Alabama. If Davis returns to his 2017 form (8.5 sacks), he will provide a huge lift for a unit that’s slated to play some talented freshmen — DJ Dale, Justin Eboigbe, Antonio Alfano and Stephon Wynn — in prominent roles this fall. Junior LaBryan Ray could be poised for a breakout season after recording six tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks last season. Sophomore Phidarian Mathis is also slated to be a key player up front for coach Nick Saban.
5. Ohio State
It’s no secret that Ohio State’s defense didn’t play up to its potential last fall. But with a revamped staff in place, the Buckeyes should get back on track. End Chase Young tied for the most sacks (8.5) in Big Ten games last year, with five-star freshman Zach Harrison, senior Jonathon Cooper and sophomore Tyreke Smith joining him as key contributors at end. Dre’Mont Jones will be missed on the interior, but there’s no shortage of talent for assistant Larry Johnson to mold in 2019. Robert Landers, Jashon Cornell, Davon Hamilton, Tommy Togiai and Taron Vincent are some of the expected contributors on the interior.
6. Michigan State
Defense is the unquestioned strength of coach Mark Dantonio’s team. Leading the way for Dantonio’s group is a strong defensive line, which returns two All-America candidates in end Kenny Willekes and tackle Raequan Williams. Willekes recorded 8.5 tackles for a loss last season and will be fully recovered by the opener from a broken leg suffered in the Redbox Bowl. Jacub Panasiuk returns to man the other end spot after recording 4.5 tackles for a loss and two sacks in 2018. Williams and Mike Panasiuk form an imposing tandem on the interior and were instrumental in Michigan State finishing first nationally against the run last fall. Junior Naquan Jones and freshman Jacob Slade are likely to spell Williams and Panasiuk at tackle.
7. Penn State
The Nittany Lions have to retool a bit after losing end Shareef Miller and tackle Kevin Givens early to the NFL Draft. However, coach James Franklin and coordinator Brent Pry have recruited well, and there’s plenty of talent on the rise to keep this unit performing at a high level. End Yetur Gross-Matos is the headliner and one of the top defensive players in the nation. As a sophomore last season, Gross-Matos collected eight sacks, two forced fumbles and 20 tackles for a loss. Junior Shaka Toney (7.5 TFL last year) is expected to claim the starting job opposite of Gross-Matos. Depth at end is expected to come from Shane Simmons, Daniel Joseph and promising freshman Jayson Oweh. Robert Windsor (11 TFL last season) and Antonio Shelton opened fall as the favorites to start on the interior. These two players will be instrumental in shoring up a run defense that allowed 169 yards a game in 2018.
Defense certainly wasn’t the problem for the Hurricanes last season, and this group should be the strength of new coach Manny Diaz’s first squad. With Gerald Willis off to the NFL and Nesta Silvera healing from a foot injury suffered in fall practice, Diaz will lean on senior Pat Bethel to anchor the interior that limited teams to 3.5 yards a carry in 2018. Junior Jonathan Ford is the favorite to start at the other tackle spot, with UCLA transfer Chigozie Nnoruka and redshirt freshman Jordan Miller battling for snaps. All-America candidate Jonathan Garvin is set at one end spot. The other could go to promising redshirt freshman Greg Rousseau, senior Scott Patchan or Virginia Tech transfer Trevon Hill. Even with some new faces for 2019, don’t expect the level of performance to change.
Ed Orgeron and coordinator Dave Aranda plan to increase the aggressiveness and attack level out of this group in 2019. Considering the Tigers generated 34 sacks and held rushers to 3.87 yards a carry last season, that’s bad news for the rest of the SEC. Glen Logan, Rashard Lawrence and Breiden Fehoko are back as the key contributors, but Tyler Shelvin and true freshman Apu Ika will also be involved.
The Gators should have one of the SEC’s top duos at defensive end, as standout Jabari Zuniga is joined by Louisville transfer Jonathan Greenard off the edge this fall. Zuniga finished second on the defense with 11 tackles for a loss and 6.5 sacks last season and takes over for Jachai Polite as the team’s top pass rusher. Greenard missed nearly all of 2018 due to injury but accumulated 22.5 tackles for a loss and 9.5 sacks in two years of playing time with the Cardinals. Jeremiah Moon and Khris Bogle are two players expected to spell Greenard and Zuniga at end this fall. Adam Shuler and Kyree Campbell are penciled in as the starters at tackle. The development of Shuler, Campbell, Tedarrell Slaton, Elijah Conliffe, Marlon Dunlap and Luke Ancrum on the interior is crucial after Florida ranked 10th in the SEC versus the run last season.
11. Notre Dame
14. Boise State
16. Iowa State
18. Texas A&M
22. South Carolina
24. Florida State
25. NC State
29. Mississippi State