College Football: 50 Players to Watch (Part II: Defense)

You can find part I here.

Louis Nix III/DT (Notre Dame)



6'3", 357.

Right now, Nix is my top interior defensive lineman. Just look at him. This man is a nightmare. His combination of size and athleticism is rare, and it shows when he plays. He is very fast and quick for being 357 lbs. His pass rushing is adequate, but where he excels even more is in stopping the run. On film, it's apparent that a lot of the big stops by Manti Te'o and Stephon Tuitt were set up by Nix disrupting the play. He will need to get in a little better shape to play more downs in the NFL, but that doesn't mean he needs to sacrifice much of his size. While I could see him fitting in on the defensive line in any scheme, 3-4 teams have to be drooling over him as a potential nose tackle.

Projected 2014 round: early 1st.

Louis Nix III vs Alabama 2013 BCS Championship (via JPDraftJedi)

Anthony Johnson/DT (LSU)



6'3", 294.

On a line loaded with talent Johnson played mostly in a rotational role last season, but with much of that talent in the NFL now, he could be poised for a breakout year. Athleticism is the name to his game, as he uses his hands and quickness to maneuver around offensive linemen. Reportedly, his 40 time has been as high as 4.7. While weighing more than 335 when coming to LSU as a big time recruit, Johnson dropped 40 pounds to give him an edge on the field. Before the draft, he ma actually want to put a small amount of that back on so teams will look at him in multiple roles which would increase his value. He has the versatility to play pretty much anywhere on the defensive line, save for end in a 4-3. With much of LSU's defensive talent rolling over, Johnson could rise to become their anchor and put himself in position to be one of the first defensive linemen taken.

Projected 2014 round: mid to late 1st.

Anthony Johnson vs Ole Miss (2012) (via Aaron Aloysius)

Timmy Jernigan/DT (Florida State)



6'2", 294.

Expect to hear a lot more of this kid come draft time. Like Johnson, he isn't the biggest defensive tackle and could stand to put on a little more bulk, but he is a prime technician at his position. Film quickly demonstrates that Jernigan has a great natural skill set for defensive tackle. His hand work is especially impressive, and he is a high motor guy who plays to the whistle. His handwork is premium, although his feet could use some improvement. It's not that he doesn't move well, but he doesn't have an elite first step and stands up too quickly out of his stance. Coaching can improve both of these greatly. Jernigan, though has all the natural skills to position him to be taken in the first round.

Projected 2014 round: mid 1st.

Timmy Jernigan vs Georgia Tech (2012) (via Aaron Aloysius)

Stephon Tuitt/DE (Notre Dame)



6'7", 322.

Tuitt is another monstrous defensive lineman churned out by the Fighting Irish. Tuitt led the team with 12 sacks last season and proved himself to be a legitimate top-tier defensive prospect. He can line up all over the defensive line, but I see him as a perfect fit for a 3-technique end in a 3-4. He gets low despite his height and utilizes leverage to bully around offensive linemen. Size shouldn't be an issue at all, as he has measurables that fit into the NFL as is. Injuries will be a concern for scouts, namely his past sports hernia surgery. Overall, there isn't much not to like about Tuitt and he looks like he'll be a fairly safe pick for a team in need of defensive line help.

Projected 2014 round: early to mid 1st.

Stephon Tuitt vs BYU 2012 (via JmpasqDraftjedi)

Jadeveon Clowney/DE (South Carolina)



6'6", 274.

Nobody needs a reminder to watch Clowney, but I just had to include him. Clowney, simply put might be the best college prospect I've seen in the years I've been paying attention to the draft. There is a ton of hype and I'd say pretty much all of it is warranted. You don't force 23 TFL with everyone trying to neutralize you in every game unless you're a special player. Clowney is a freak of nature as an athlete. Not only is his technique solid and speed elite, he has perhaps the best balance of any college defensive end I've ever seen. You all know Clowney is the best prospect in college football at any position, if nothing else, watch him to see if you can find any flaws in his game. The only real criticism I hear, and it has risen after his lackluster display last night, is that he tends to disappear from time to time. Coaches and scouts will do a ton of research into this issue.

Projected 2014 round: top 3.

Jadeveon Clowney vs Georgia (2012) (via Adrian Ahufinger)

Jackson Jeffcoat/DE/OLB (Texas)



6'5", 254.

I may not have mentioned that I like Texas products a lot because they're well-coached and seem to translate well to the next level. With the Clowneys and Tuitts in the game today, Jeffcoat is a guy who gets overlooked. The son of two-time Super Bowl champ Jim Jeffcoat, Jackson missed the last half of last season, but started 2012 with 4 sacks in 6 games. The skill and athleticism is there, but his problem is that his frame fits best as a 3-4 outside linebacker, but he plays more like a 4-3 end. While he comes off the line hard and power rushes well, his initial burst is not quite where you want it to be. Jeffcoat needs to have a good year to prove himself against the other pass rush prospects.

Projected 2014 round: 2nd.

Jackson Jeffcoat vs Oklahoma State 2012 (via JmpasqDraftjedi)

Anthony Barr/OLB (UCLA)



6'4", 248.

Barr is a great story and one of the biggest risers in college football right now. Once an obscure backup fullback, Barr was switched to outside linebacker at UCLA and has more than flourished. He might be the best prospect in all of the Pac-12. Out of nowhere, he burst onto the scene with 21 TFL, 13 sacks, and 4 forced fumbles. He fits perfectly the mold of athletic outside linebackers NFL teams love right now, being capable of rushing around the edge and covering ground in pass protection. He has a quick burst and fluid hips in coverage. This is a big year for Barr since he isn't taking anyone by surprise anymore, so if he can remain productive, expect him in the top 10 next year.

Projected 2014 round: top 10.

Anthony Barr vs Stanford (PAC 12 CG) (2012) (via Adrian Ahufinger)

Kyle Van Noy/OLB (BYU)



6'3", 245.

Sometimes overlooked playing at Brigham Young, anyone who watched the Poinsettia Bowl last year knows what Van Noy is capable of. Van Noy is very similar to Barr in that he is exactly what NFL teams want in outside linebackers today. He is very athletic and can rush the edge with the best of them, but also has the speed and agility to maintain coverage out in space. On films Van Noy is all over the field and very frequently finds a way to disrupt plays. I like him best as an OLB in the 4-3, but has the skills to play it in a 3-4 as well if he can get a little bigger.

Projected 2014 round: mid-1st.

Kyle Van Noy vs San Diego State "Poinsettia Bowl" (via JmpasqDraftjedi)

C.J. Mosley/LB (Alabama)



6'2", 232.

Mosley easily would have been a first rounder had he declared this year, but I suppose you can't fault a guy for wanting to get more school under his belt. Mosley is probably the best pure, classic linebacker in college football. He has the pure and natural vision and athleticism that makes playing linebacker look easy. He reads plays well and sheds blocks effectively, making good contact when he gets to the ball carrier. In coverage he is strong as well, reading passes and covering the necessary ground consistently. I feel like he can play any linebacker spot, although inside is definitely his strength. There isn't much to say about Mosley other than he is very good at his craft and while he doesn't have the enormous ceiling of some of these other players, you know what you're getting from him every week. He should be a relatively safe pick for a team needing a linebacker to plug in immediately.

C.J. Mosley vs Notre Dame (2012 National Championship) (via Nick Page)

Shayne Skov/ILB (Stanford)



6'3", 244.

There are a number of good inside linebackers eligible for next year's draft behind Mosley, but I'll choose to talk about one with the most to prove this year. In 2010, Shayne Skov looked like one of the next greats, but after losing most of 2011 to a knee injury, Skov's 2012 campaign was not where he would have liked it to be. This year, scouts hope more time has helped him recapture some of that explosiveness. One of his knocks is that he isn't extraordinarily fast, so he should work on getting more explosive before the pre-draft process. He shows his above-average strength when he plays and when he hits head-on, ball carriers and blockers know it. However, he does tend to over-anticipate tackles and get juked out in one-on-ones. Stanford has some really good defensive prospects (Trent Murphy, Henry Anderon, Ed Reynolds), and if Skov returns to form in 2013, he could be among the best of them.

Projected 2014 round: 2nd-3rd.

Shayne Skov vs Oregon (2012) (via Adrian Ahufinger)

Andrew Jackson/ILB (Western Kentucky)



6'1", 257.

It isn't often that Western Kentucky Hilltoppers find their way on these lists, but this kid deserves some hype. I first noticed Jackson in the Hilltoppers' game against Alabama where he was all over the field. Jackson plays very fast for his size and gets to the next level swiftly consistently. He is able to easily shed blockers and get to the ball consistently no matter what offenses throw at him. While his downhill movement is as good as anybody's, his lateral skills need work. While his zone coverage is adequate, he sometimes has difficulty covering running backs one on one. Jackson has undeniable natural skills as an inside linebacker and should be feared by teams trying to run the ball, but he needs to prove he can be better in coverage. If he does, he could sneak his way into the second round. He could be a great project for a team with good coaching.

Projected 2014 round: 2nd-3rd

Andrew Jackson vs Alabama (2012) (via Aaron Aloysius)

.HaHa Clinton-Dix/S (Alabama)



6'1", 208.

Once again, 2014 could be a weak year for safeties. HaSean "HaHa" Clinton-Dix, though, stands out to me as the cream of the crop. With the talent on 'Bama's defense, Clinton-Dix has played mostly on a rotational basis up to this point. However, this year the job is his and with the constant stream of talented Crimson Tide defensive backs like Landon Collins constantly nipping at his heels, he has a lot of motivation to play like the safety they expected him to be when they signed him as a big recruit a few years ago. HaHa is the classic center fielder type, capable of covering massive amounts of ground across the field with his plus speed. He can also be a ball hawk, as he pursues the ball and reads quarterbacks extremely well. When posed with the task of tackling a ball carrier, he shows flashes of being able to lay the smack on people, but often looks hesitant when going in to hit. Coaches need to teach him to be more aggressive in this front.

Projected 2014 round: mid to late 1st.

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix vs Georgia (2012) (via Nick Page)

Criag Loston/S (LSU)



6'2", 205.

Who is the second safety behind HaHa is not a clear question as of now, but Loston is a candidate. Loston might be the toughest safety in college right now. He plays strong in the box and never shies away from putting his helmet down and popping someone when he gets the chance. He also looks very comfortable pursuing the ball and seems to have impeccable vision when reading plays. While all of this comes naturally to Loston, his coverage skills do need some work. Often when left out in wide space downfield, Loston doesn't read quarterbacks as well as usual and tends to break towards the ball a little too late. Good NFL quarterbacks will pick up on this and target him every time. With Eric Reid gone from LSU, the Tigers will have to use Loston in more ways, and this experience should be beneficial. If he can improve on these areas of his game, he has a real case to be the second safety off the board.

Projected 2014 round: 2nd.

Craig Loston vs Clemson 2012 Bowl (via sm2635)

Ed Reynolds/S (Stanford)



6'2", 205.

People didn't know much about Reynolds at this time last year, but in 2012 he lit up the Pac 12, intercepting 6 passes and breaking up 5 more. In pass coverage, Reynolds is a natural. He can read the quarterback's eyes and has the speed to break on passes before the pass is even close to the receiver. He also has good hands and doesn't drop interceptions. In the center fielder role, Reynolds has the skills you'd want. He does need to get stronger and more physical, otherwise teams will just run big tight ends right at him. It would also make him less of a liability in run coverage. Reynolds is not ready as a prospect, but I'm anxious to see his improvement this year. He has the potential to sneak his way into the 1st round.

Projected 2014 round: late 1st-mid 2nd.

Ed Reynolds (FS, Stanford) vs UCLA Pac 12 Championship 2012 (via Aimal Arsalla)

Bradley Roby/CB (Ohio State)



5'11", 192.

Now here is a class that is far from lacking in 2014: the corners. I love this cornerback class at the top. There are some guys who could challenge him, but Roby is the consensus top guy right now. Originally a Vanderbilt recruit, Roby defended a whopping 19 passes in 11 games for the Buckeyes in 2012. Roby has blazing speed. There shouldn't be any receivers who simply outrun him. While Roby isn't the biggest or strongest corner, he can be tenacious and physical enough to not get beat up on bump-and-runs. Roby sometimes can read the QB a little too well and lose track of receivers, especially on pump fakes. He has dealt with a shoulder injury as well, so he'll have to convince teams that it won't be an issue.

Projected 2014 round: early to mid 1st.

Bradley Roby vs Penn State (2012) (via Aaron Aloysius)

Ifo Ekpre-Olomu/CB (Oregon)



5'10", 190.

Once again I'll repeat that I am a huge Oregon fan, but I don't let it cloud my judgment in scouting. There are a lot of legitimate solid NFL prospects at Oregon for next year (De'Anthony Thomas, Josh Huff, Taylor Hart, Hroniss Grasu) but Ifo Ekpre-Olomu might go the highest of all of them. In some years, IEO would be the top corner on people's boards. Like many Duck players, speed is the name of his game, but his feet and vision I like even more. He's a true ball hawk who often knows where the pass is going before it leaves the quarterback's hand. For a smaller receiver he is strong and uses his aggressiveness to be very efficient of press coverage. Teams may worry about his lack of height, but he plays bigger than he measures out. Film of him against bigger receivers will be crucial to his draft stock.

Projected 2014 round: mid to late 1st.

Ifo Ekpre-Olomu vs USC,Arizona,Oregon State 2012 (via JmpasqDraftjedi)

Loucheiz Purifoy/CB (Florida)



6'1", 185.

Florida has two corners that could go very high (the other being Marcus Roberson), but I'll be flat out when I say I love the potential of Loucheiz Purifoy. Purifoy is a tall, physical athlete who matches up well against all kinds of receivers. Athletically, he is freakish. Despite his height, he is just as fast if not faster than most smaller corners. He has quick enough feet to not get beat on breaks in receivers' routes. His coverage on receivers is consistently tight. He had a low number of picks last year, but I saw Charlie Campbell observe that this was because his coverage was so tight nobody threw his way. On top of all that, Purifoy is an absolute terror on special teams. He forced 3 fumbles on special teams, blocked three kicks/punts, and played extremely well as a gunner. The only mark I could see on Purifoy is that he is not a natural corner and that he is more of an athlete being coached into the position. Purifoy will have a much bigger workload this year and if he handles it well he should silence these questions. If anyone takes the top corner spot from Roby, I think it will be Purifoy. With a good enough year and the torrid showing at the combine I expect, he could even sneak into the top 10. He's one of my favorite prospects in all of football.

Projected 2014 round: early to mid 1st.

Loucheiz Purifoy vs SC & Georgia 2012 (via JPDraftJedi)

Marcus Roberson/CB (Florida)



6'0", 195.

While Purifoy is the Gators corner who makes me giddier, let us not forget that Roberson, his teammate across the field, is a solid prospect as well. Roberson is another top-notch athlete who won't get beat by many receivers on skill alone. He has plus speed both in short and long space to keep up with receivers. His change of direction is also impressive so it's hard to trick him on hitch routes. He jumps routes and breaks up passes as well as just about anyone. Sometimes Roberson seems to get lackadaisical during games and gives up too much that he could easily take away. He seems to be too reliant on the fact that he's a better athlete than most receivers which won't cut it in the NFL where this isn't always the case. A good season for Roberson could put him in the conversation of first round corners. I don't think he'll get taken higher than the likes of Roby or Purifoy, but he could battle with IEO to go third.

Projected 2014 round: late 1st-early 2nd.

Marcus Roberson vs Texas A&M,Georgia,Tennessee 2012 (via JPDraftJedi)

Jason Verrett/CB (TCU)



5'10", 176.

TCU has a few prospects I'm really intrigued by, my favorite of which is Verrett. Verrett is a neat story as he almost quit on football after getting torched by Robert Griffin III in his first game with the Horned Frogs. Verrett made the right choice as he is now one of the top rising corner prospects in college. Verrett is lacking in size, but plays tough enough to make up for it. Furthermore his ball recognition skills are some of the best in the game. He defended 22 passes last year including 6 picks. His vision is fantastic and he reads passes extremely well. Despite being only 5'10", Verrett has the leaping ability to defend most passes. With his toughness, aggressiveness, and natural ability, Verrett is just a pure football player. Size will be the question that continues to haunt him. Nothing can be done about his height, but I do recommend he put some more bulk on his frame to alleviate some of these questions. In most classes I'd call him a good bet to go in the first, but the other top talent in this class may keep him out of it. If there's a run on corners though, he could still sneak his way in.

Projected 2014 round: late 1st-early 2nd.

Jason Verrett vs. Texas Tech (2012) (via Mario Clavel)

Underclassmen to Watch:

Arik Armstead/DE (Oregon)



6'8", 280.

There are a number of really good sophomore defensive ends, but Armstead is a player who doesn't get enough notoriety. Originally a USC recruit, Armstead decommitted and joined the Ducks instead. A 5 star recruit, people weren't sure if he'd play end or offensive tackle in college, but it looks as though playing end was a good decision as he showed tons of upside in limited playing time as a freshman. He is one of the strongest at his position that I've ever seen at his age. He has the strength and size to toss blockers around with impunity. Athleticism is also on his side; he moves around incredibly well for his size. His body really doesn't need to change much, but he should work on evolving a solid repertoire of pass rushing techniques. He should get regular playing time this season, and both as a Ducks fan and scout, I'm anxious to see what he can prove in the Pac 12. He could immediately become a dangerous force on Oregon's defense if he can tap into all his potential.

Robert Nkemdiche/DL (Ole Miss)



6'5", 294.

I'm breaking my code here a little since all these other underclassmen to watch are sophomores, but Nkemdiche is too good not to talk about. Part of a huge recruiting class for Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss, Nkemdiche was the #1 player in all of the 2013 recruiting class for good reason. He's not quite 19 but he already has the body of a 22 year old. His combination of size and movement is rare, not only for a guy his age, but for a player period. Last night he looked good in his college debut, including running a fake punt for the Rebels, and it's only a small taste. It's crazy to think what he might develop further into. In short, he looks like an absolute monster with very rare ability. Despite not being draft eligible until the spring of 2016, Nkemdiche is worth watching as the early favorite for top player in that class. He's not quite the prospect Jadeveon Clowney was a as a freshman, but I'd venture to say that he's close.

Shaq Thompson/LB/S (Washington)



6'2", 225.

Thompson was a huge recruiting victory for the Huskies in 2011 and put his potential on display as a freshman, earning all Pac 12 Honorable Mention while adjusting to the college game. As the top safety in his class, Thompson will probably wind up as an outside linebacker in the NFL, since he is already bigger than a lot of pro safeties. This shouldn't be an issue, as he plays fast, mean, and tough. Thompson is the type of defender who flies around all over the place and makes plays, no matter where he lines up. He delivers the type of slams that will maker receivers wary to run their routes toward him. Overall, the question isn't if he can play, but where he will play and how tough that adjustment will be.

Ronald Darby/CB (Florida State)



5'11", 190.

Projecting corners ahead of time can also be tough with some exceptions. There aren't any that jump way ahead of the rest for the 2015 class, but I like Darby quite a bit. A five-star recruit in 2012, Darby is insanely fast and should be nearly impossible to beat in a straight line route. He appeared in all 14 of the 'Noles' games last year, leading the team with 8 passes broken up despite not being a full time starter. Darby earned Freshman All-America honors for his outstanding play. He had surgery in the offseason so hopefully injuries don't become a nagging issue for him. On tape he looks like a natural at the corner position with the skills to be an eventual early 1st round pick. As he earns more playing time, keep an eye on Darby to prove his potential.

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