As football has progressed, defenders’ responsibilities are only increasing. For example, defending RPOs can be a nightmare. It requires discipline, and sometimes, extraordinary athleticism.
Whether it be dealing with fast-tempo or constant pre-snap motions, defense has become more difficult in virtually every way. Some superstar defenders make it look easy with unbelievable ability. Here are 11 must-see college football defensive players.
11. Jordan Battle, S, Alabama
After an excellent season, Jordan Battle made the surprising decision to forgo the draft. He recorded 85 tackles, earning a spot on Third Team All-American. The Tide return one of college football’s best safeties.
At 6-foot-1, 206 pounds, Battle is a physical, hard-hitting defensive back. He consistently delivers massive hits over the middle of the field. The fourth-year safety is capable of playing in the box with linebacker-type skills.
Jordan Battle laid the hit stick 😳
— Bleacher Report CFB (@BR_CFB) October 3, 2020
Furthermore, Battle excelled in man coverage during the 2021 season. According to NFL Draft Buzz, he allowed 111 yards when targeted. Battle has a great football IQ; he’s constantly in the right spot while reading opposing QBs.
With another good year, Battle will likely be a 2023 first-rounder.
10. Kelee Ringo, CB, Georgia
The 2021 Georgia defense was mind-boggling. The Bulldogs were loaded at every spot with the front seven garnering most of the attention. In the 2022 NFL Draft, three defensive linemen and one linebacker were selected in the first round. While this was a historic front, Georgia had some elite secondary play too. Cornerback Kelee Ringo was a key piece and becomes one of the Bulldogs’ best 2022 defenders.
Ringo was a coveted recruit as 2020’s top cornerback. He sat out his freshman season with an injury. The Arizona native entered 2021 with no experience. Ringo’s natural ability was on full display. Per PFF, he allowed under 40 yards in 12 of 14 games. With great speed on a 6-foot-2 frame, Ringo has all of the tools.
Many have questioned if Ringo’s success was a product of Georgia’s elite defensive front. Ringo will look to prove his worth as the 2023 draft’s No. 1 projected corner.
9. Nick Herbig, EDGE, Wisconsin
Wisconsin has one of college football’s brightest defensive minds, Jim Leonhard. The Badgers field a 3-4 defense that uses unique pressures. Last season, outside linebacker Nick Herbig was used in a variety of ways. His snap count was almost evenly split between coverage and rushing the passer. Herbig shined as a pass-rusher with nine sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss.
At 6-foot-2, 227 pounds, Herbig lacks traditional edge size. However, his quickness makes up for that. Oftentimes, Herbig beat blockers with speed and good bend around the edge. Despite being undersized, the former 4-star recruit is great against the run and readily sheds blocks.
Entering the 2022 season, Herbig is easily the Big 10’s best edge rusher.
8. Cam Smith, CB, South Carolina
A huge season from Cam Smith went under the radar after South Carolina finished 7-6. According to PFF, Smith allowed multiple catches in 2 of 11 games and gave up 15 catches on 32 targets.
The 6-foot-1 CB has terrific footwork combined with safety skills. Smith can make plays on the ball and is a good tackler. In addition, he has great recovery speed, allowing Smith to quickly close on receivers.
The Gamecocks are expected to improve with Spencer Rattler’s arrival. Smith will get more recognition, which should lead to an All-American season.
7. Eli Ricks, CB, Alabama
Five-star Eli Ricks signed with LSU as 2020’s second-best corner. As a freshman, Ricks was unbelievable. The Tigers constantly put the 19-year-old in man coverage. It was no problem as Ricks was one of college football’s lockdown defensive backs. After an exceptional 2020 season, rumors claimed Ricks was considering a transfer. Those rumors were put to rest as Ricks stuck with LSU. In 2021, his season was derailed by injuries.
This offseason, the Mater Dei alum entered the transfer portal. Ricks joined SEC rival, Alabama. The Crimson Tide gets a rangy 6-foot-2 cornerback. The third-year DB is not afraid of contact with his physical coverage and good tackling ability. He even consistently sheds blocks.
Ricks is one of the favorites to win the Thorpe award — given to the nation’s top defensive back. Alabama should have college football’s best secondary.
6. Antonio Johnson, S, Texas A&M
Antonio Johnson is widely considered CFB’s best safety. In his first full season starting, the former 4-star recruit had 79 tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss. Johnson did a lot of work in the slot, which is one of college football’s most daunting tasks. The Aggie defensive back flourished with excellent coverage and reliable tackling.
At 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, Johnson is built for the NFL. He has great length paired with good closing speed. Johnson has every skill required to stop high-powered offenses. His size gives slot receivers fits, yet he has the athleticism to keep with them. Plus, the Illinois native is an excellent blitzer.
Ahead of 2022, Johnson is projected as a borderline first-round pick.
5. Nolan Smith, EDGE, Georgia
Like many Georgia defenders, Nolan Smith was overshadowed by his peers. After coming in as 2019’s No. 1 recruit, Smith has not lived up to expectations. He had a good 2021 season with 53 tackles and eight tackles for loss, but Smith is capable of much more.
The IMG alum is a freak athlete that posted a 4.51 40-yard dash and 39.6-inch vertical in high school. At 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, he has the ideal size for an outside linebacker in Georgia’s 3-4 defense. Smith was fantastic in the run game. His quickness and surprising strength were evident as he routinely discarded blockers.
Smith can become of college football’s best with better pass-rushing. All of the tools are there. He’s shown good hands in the run game. Smith has speed off the edge with a great bend. If his pass-rushing improves, Smith will be a force to be reckoned with.
4. Bryan Bresee, DT, Clemson
Bryan Bresee is another former No. 1 recruit that has displayed dominance. In 2020, he had a good freshman season with 23 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, and four sacks. Bresee’s 2021 campaign was cut short after tearing his ACL in Week 4.
The Clemson defensive tackle is nearly impossible to move off the line of scrimmage with his 6-foot-5, 300-pound frame. In addition, Bresee has jaw-dropping quickness for his size. An explosive first step gives him the upper hand, plus, the former 5-star typically keeps good leverage.
Torn ACLs can impact players’ explosiveness. The first few weeks of the season will reveal how Bresee has recovered. He hopes to wreak havoc, elevating his draft stock to first-round status.
3. Noah Sewell, LB, Oregon
The Ducks have a game-changer at linebacker. Noah Sewell — who is Penei Sewell’s brother — is a freak of nature with elite athleticism on a 6-foot-3, 251-pound frame. In 2021, Sewell racked up 114 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, and four sacks. In addition, he totaled 34 pressures on 98 pass-rushes, per PFF.
Sewell possesses ridiculous speed that allows him to easily close on ball carriers. Also, he is an enforcer. Imagine a 251-pound linebacker at full speed laying the boom… that hurts. Furthermore, Sewell shows no hesitation when colliding with blockers. This makes him an elite pass-rushing LB with his speed and block-shedding.
Noah Sewell is a monster pic.twitter.com/GeTu8BmIvY
— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) November 21, 2020
Oregon returns another talented linebacker, Justin Flowe — who missed most of 2021 with a foot injury. Sewell could be more effective with Flowe’s added presence.
2. Jalen Carter, DT, Georgia
The Bulldogs lost a lot of defensive line talent, but Jalen Carter returns as the country’s best defensive tackle. Carter posted 37 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, and three sacks. He was one of college football’s best interior rushers while holding his own against the run.
Carter is projecting as a top 10 pick with his sky-high potential. The former 5-star has immense strength paired with a quick first step. Plus, he’s able to shoot gaps thanks to great lateral quickness. Carter’s a short DT at 6-foot-3, but it comes with benefits as he’s able to get great leverage. Pair that with great strength… good luck.
Once again, Georgia has a tremendous athlete on the defensive front who’s capable of ruining game plans.
1. Will Anderson Jr., EDGE, Alabama
After a phenomenal 2021 season, Will Anderson is hands down college football’s best defensive player. As a true sophomore, he had 101 tackles, 31 tackles for loss, and 17.5 sacks. Anderson led college football lines in sacks and tackles for loss. His 31 tackles for loss were the second-most ever in a single season.
The third-year edge rusher has a never-ending motor paired with elite athleticism. Anderson is technically-sound, explosive off the edge, and has great power. The former 5-star recruit has a wide range of pass-rush moves. Whether it be violent rips or fluid swim moves, Anderson can do it all.
Anderson could be the most dominant player in the college football odds, even over Heisman hopefuls like Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud.
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