Which teams have the best DL in the nation?
The rise of spread offenses and the different schemes teams face on a week-to-week basis in a college football season has altered how some defensive coordinators think. While some are placing more emphasis on building a secondary, the success of any defense starts up front. Generating a pass rush and stopping the run are two staples of any defensive scheme. The 2017 season features several talented defensive fronts returning nearly intact, including Clemson, Ohio State, Alabama, Florida State and Miami. The ACC features three of the top five, while the SEC takes two out of the top 10.
How did we come up with these rankings? Several factors were considered. Depth, overall talent, production, level of competition and projected output in 2017 all factored into the rankings for the defensive line. While some teams may have experienced a down year last season, having an impact freshman or transfer, a new assistant or a change of scheme can make a huge difference. These rankings reflect projection for 2017, not solely what teams have accomplished in 2016.
College Football's Top 50 Defensive Lines for 2017
The Tigers have led the nation in tackles for a loss in four consecutive years and produced 180 sacks in that span. And the bad news for the ACC: This unit isn’t slowing down anytime soon. Christian Wilkins shifts to tackle after playing end last year to team with fellow Athlon Sports first-team preseason All-American Dexter Lawrence. Clelin Ferrell recorded six tackles for a loss over the last three games of 2016. He’s back at end, while Austin Bryant, Chris Register and Xavier Kelly provide coordinator Brent Venables with a talented and deep wave of pass rushers. Backing up Lawrence and Wilkins on the interior is expected to be Nyles Pinckney and Albert Huggins.
2. Ohio State
The Buckeyes were one of the nation’s toughest teams against the run (3.4 yards per carry allowed), but coordinator Greg Schiano wants the line to generate more pressure after recording 28 sacks in 2016. That shouldn’t be a problem, as Ohio State has a seemingly endless supply of talent at end. Tyquan Lewis, Jalyn Holmes, Nick Bosa and Sam Hubbard anchor what could be the deepest set of ends in the nation. At tackle, Dre’Mont Jones and Robert Landers impressed as freshmen, while seniors Michael Hill and Tracy Sprinkle headline the other options competing for snaps.
Despite losing Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson, Alabama’s line remains one of the deepest in the nation. Nose guard Da’Ron Payne anchors this unit. While he won’t post huge stats, Payne was a driving force behind Alabama’s No. 1-ranked run defense in 2016. Da’Shawn Hand was rated as a five-star prospect out of high school but has yet to reach that potential. He’s due to handle a full complement of snaps for the first time in his career and could be poised for a breakout year. The other end spot is up for grabs, with touted junior college recruit Isaiah Buggs, sophomore Raekwon Davis and freshman Quinnen Williams pushing for snaps. Senior Joshua Frazier is another valuable cog for depth, while true freshman LaBryan Ray is expected to find playing time.
4. Florida State
This could be the deepest and best defensive line of Jimbo Fisher’s tenure at Florida State — and that’s after standout end DeMarcus Walker graduated. Josh Sweat and Brian Burns combined for 16.5 sacks last season and will be counted on even more to pick up the pass rush without Walker. Sophomore Jalen Wilkerson and freshmen Janarius Robinson and Joshua Kaindoh are other names to know off the edge. Senior Derrick Nnadi and junior Demarcus Christmas are quiet enforcers on the interior. Nnadi’s presence on the interior is a big reason why Florida State should rank among the nation’s best against the run. Depth for the interior is expected to be provided by Wally Aime, Fred Jones and top recruit Marvin Wilson.
If the Hurricanes are going to book a trip to the ACC Championship Game in 2017, it’s likely to be on the strength of their defense. Coordinator Manny Diaz returns seven starters from a group that limited opponents to just 18.5 points per game last fall and held opposing offenses to just 4.8 yards per play. There’s a good mix of proven talent and depth along the interior and on the end spots for Miami’s defensive line this year. Chad Thomas and Joe Jackson combined for 12.5 sacks last season and are penciled in as the starters once again. Senior Trent Harris, junior Demetrius Jackson and freshman Jonathan Garvin are expected to provide depth off the edge. Juniors Kendrick Norton and R.J. McIntosh will push for All-ACC honors on the interior.
6. NC State
The Wolfpack may not get as much preseason attention around the ACC as Florida State or Clemson for talent in the trenches, but coach Dave Doeren’s group isn’t far behind the Seminoles or Tigers this year. The headliner for Doeren’s defensive line is Bradley Chubb, who registered 10 sacks and 21.5 tackles for a loss in 2016. Chubb is one of the nation’s top ends and should push for first-team All-America honors. He’s not the only star in this group, as the tackle combination of B.J. Hill and Justin Jones is one of the best in the nation. Senior Kentavius Street recorded 5.5 sacks last year and should see plenty of one-on-one opportunities with defenses shifting protection to Chubb’s side of the field. Darian Roseboro (seven sacks) is another name to watch off the edge. The Wolfpack finished eighth nationally against the run in 2016.
With Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley and Ryan Glasgow no longer around, Michigan’s line has a few holes to fill — yet still returns as much frontline talent as any in the nation. Rashan Gary ranked as the top prospect in the 2016 recruiting class and showed flashes of potential in a limited role. He’s due for a breakout year, while the interior is anchored by senior Maurice Hurst after he recorded 11.5 tackles for a loss in 2016. Junior Chase Winovich (end) and senior Bryan Mone (tackle) round out the starting group. Five-star true freshman Aubrey Solomon will compete for snaps on the interior.
Washington dominated the line of scrimmage last year, as the defense held opponents to just 3.7 yards per carry. The three-man front loses tackle Elijah Qualls, but Vita Vea shared the starting job and is poised for a monster season after collecting 6.5 tackles for a loss and five sacks in 2016. Junior Greg Gaines is a key cog versus the run, with Jaylen Johnson anchoring the edge at end. Junior Shane Bowman, sophomore Ricky McCoy and freshman Levi Onwuzurike are expected to provide depth.
The development of Trenton Thompson is a big reason why Georgia’s defense is expected to take a significant step forward in coach Kirby Smart’s second year in Athens. Thompson – the No. 1 recruit in the 2015 signing class – finished 2016 on a high note by registering three sacks against TCU in the Liberty Bowl. Thompson is poised for a breakout season and will impact a rush defense that finished 36th nationally last year. Joining Thompson up front is expected to be senior John Atkins and junior Jonathan Ledbetter. The Bulldogs can rotate plenty of bodies up front, as David Marshall, Julian Rochester, Tyler Clark and DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle provide depth.
Despite the departure of Hunter Dimick, Pita Taumoepenu and Pasoni Tasini, the Utes still have one of the nation’s best defensive lines for 2017. Kylie Fitts led the team with seven sacks in 2015 but played in only two games due to injury. His return bolsters the pass rush for coach Kyle Whittingham. Sophomore Bradlee Anae is penciled in as the other starter at end, while Maxs Tupai and Caleb Repp provide depth. Utah led the Pac-12 in rush defense last fall and could rank at the top once again thanks to the play of tackle Lowell Lotulelei. The senior won’t post monster numbers in this scheme, but his play is critical to the run defense and holding blockers to take the pressure off the edge. He’s joined by fellow senior Filipo Mokofisi on the interior.
13. Boston College
16. Kansas State
18. Virginia Tech
19. Penn State
23. Wake Forest
25. Ole Miss
26. Texas A&M
27. Washington State
28. Oklahoma State
30. North Carolina
31. Arkansas State
35. Louisiana Tech
38. Arizona State
41. Notre Dame
45. South Carolina
46. Boise State
49. Mississippi State
50. Louisiana Tech