November 27, 2022

Colorado's defensive end Mustafa Johnson in pursuit of Nebraska's quarterback Adrian Martinez, Andrew Carpenean Photography

Quarterbacks beware. These playmakers are relentless along the edge and will make life hard for opposing offensive linemen this upcoming season. They must be identified and located on every play before the snap. Each individual possesses different skill sets that range from great vision, non-stop motors, all the way down to brute strength. All it takes is one quick burst from these defenders and in seconds they’ll have running backs and signal-callers eating grass. These pass-rushing, run-stuffing maniacs do all the blue-collar work in the trenches and don’t give Offensive Coordinators much sleep during the week trying to gameplan on how to block them. Soon they’ll be coming to a backfield near you!

15. Nick Coe, Auburn: The North Carolina native had a solid 2018 campaign and finally lived up to his four-star rating out of high school. Coe increased his sack total from two to seven, tackles for loss from 4.5 to 13.5 and finished the season win 27 total stops. The six-foot-five, 291-pounder had an eye-popping 3.5 sacks in Auburn’s win over Ole Miss. Coe could be in store for an All-SEC caliber year this fall, anchoring the Tigers’ defensive front with Derrick Brown.

14. Reggie Walker, Kansas State: He was recruited by Bill Snyder’s regime as a three-star outside linebacker. However, Walker has blossomed into one of the best edge rushers in the Big 12, with 16 sacks and 30 stops behind the line of scrimmage over three past three seasons. The Louisiana native had two sacks apiece against Texas and Oklahoma State and a three-sack performance in the win over Texas Tech last year.

13. Julian Okwara, Notre Dame: He was a key contributor along the Fighting Irish’s front seven last season. The Charlotte native had 38 tackles, including 12.5 for loss and eight sacks. Okwara had 6.5 sacks over Notre Dame’s final six games, including 2.5 in the win over Northwestern. The former four-star recruit has 10.5 sacks, 17 tackles for loss and two interceptions over the past two seasons. The Fighting Irish’s defense must replace a ton of production and leadership along the front seven. Okwara’s experience will be vital with all the new faces.

12. Kendall Coleman, Syracuse: The former three-star recruit stepped on the scene last season and garnered 32 tackles, including 12 for loss. Coleman’s 10 sacks tied for second in the ACC. The Indianapolis native had two sacks apiece against Florida State and Clemson. He finished the season on a high note with three sacks in Syracuse’s bowl win over West Virginia. Coleman along with Alton Robinson are a dynamic duo and will provide the Orange with two of the best edge rushers in the league this fall.

11. Joe Gaziano, Northwestern: Last season the six-foot-four, 275-pounder had 44 stops, including 12.5 for loss, 7.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and broke up three passes. Gaziano had four solo tackles against Duke and Rutgers and earned second team All-Big Ten honors. Not to mention the former three-star recruit led the Big Ten in sacks during the 2017 season. The Massachusetts native has 20.5 career sacks and will be the heart and soul of Northwestern’s defense this upcoming season. Gaziano was a big reason why the Wildcat’s were the 26th best defense at stopping the run.

10. Jonathan Garvin, Miami: He didn’t get much recognition for a solid 2018 season because of all the play-makers in the Hurricane’s stout defense. However, Garvin contributed 60 tackles, broke up five passes and forced two fumbles. Garvin’s 17 tackles for loss ranked third in the ACC. The Florida native had eight stops against Savannah State, seven against Boston College and two sacks against Florida State. The former four-star recruit has 20 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks in two seasons with Miami.

9. Jaquan Bailey, Iowa State: The Jacksonville native was only a three-star recruit out of high school, but has become one of the most feared defenders in the Big 12. Bailey had 46 total stops last season, including 14.5 for loss, broke up five passes and had eight sacks, which tied for fourth in the league. The six-foot-two, 251-pounder has been productive over the last three seasons with 31.5 tackles for loss and 18.5 sacks. Iowa State will again have the No. 1 defense in the Big 12, however this time around Matt Campbell could potentially have his best unit yet.

8. Carter Coughlin, Minneosta: A versatile defender, who can also play outside linebacker and earned second team All-Big Ten last season. Coughlin had 48 tackles, including 15 for loss, which ranked fifth in the Big Ten. The Minnesota native’s 9.5 sacks ranked third in the league and he also forced four fumbles. Coughlin had two sacks apiece against Miami(OH) and Ohio State. The former four-star recruit has lived up to his billing, with 16 sacks over the last two seasons and 30.5 tackles for loss in his career.

7. Alton Robinson, Syracuse: Last season the former junior college transfer had 39 tackles, including 17 for loss, which tied for third in the ACC. Robinson’s 10 sacks tied for second in the league, along with teammate Coleman. The Texas native had two sacks apiece against Pittsburgh and Louisville, plus a three-sack performance against UConn. Robinson earned second team All-ACC honors and has 15 sacks and 23 tackles for loss over the past two seasons. Not bad for a kid who had no stars coming out of the juco ranks.

6. Bradlee Anae, Utah: The Hawaii native has a great motor, with quick feet and can move from sideline to sideline. The former three-star recruit had 51 tackles, including 15.5 for loss, which was third-best in the Pac-12. Anae’s eight sacks ranked second in the league and he earned first team All-Conference honors. The six-foot-three, 254-pounder has 17 career sacks to go along with 27.5 tackles for loss. The Utes have a senior-laden defensive line this fall and Anae has the experience, production and leadership to produce a monster year.

5. Yetur Gross-Matos, Penn State: The former four-star recruit is one of the hardest hitters in the Big Ten and relentless at stopping the run. After a quiet freshman season Gross-Matos had a superb true sophomore campaign, with 54 tackles, including a jaw-dropping 20.5 for loss, which ranked second in the Big Ten. He also added eight sacks and forced two fumbles. The Virginia native had two sacks apiece against Iowa and Indiana. The six-foot-five, 259-pounder had five solo tackles against Wisconsin, six against Indiana, seven against Iowa and earned first team All-Big Ten honors and he’s out to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks this upcoming season.

4. Chase Young, Ohio State: He was the Buckeyes’ No. 1 recruit two years ago and has lived up to his five-star rating. Young is relentless at getting to the quarterback and he never gives up on a play. The six-foot-five, 265-pounder has a non-stop motor and garnered 34 stops, including 15.5 for loss, which ranked fifth in the league. The Maryland native finished No. 2 in the conference with 9.5 sacks, plus he broke up five passes and forced two fumbles. Young had two sacks apiece against Rutgers, Penn State and Maryland. Not to mention he had a three-sack performance in the Big Ten Championship win over Northwestern. He earned second team All-Big Ten honors and has 13 sacks in two seasons. This most likely will be Young’s last season in Columbus as his name been mentioned as a high pick in next year’s NFL Draft.

3. Mustafa Johnson, Colorado: His name alone gives you chills, but Johnson’s play on the field is just as terrorizing for whoever has the ball on the opposing offense. The California native was recruited as a defensive tackle and arrived to Boulder as a three-star junior college transfer. However, the six-foot-two, 290-pounder quickly became a household name to fans around the Pac-12. Last season was Johnson’s first with the Buffaloes and he delivered with 73 tackles, including 15.5 for loss, which tied for third in the league. His 8.5 sacks was the best in the conference and he earned Honorable Mention All Pac-12. Johnson is a special talent and can play on the edge or on the interior. He had two sacks apiece against Colorado State, Nebraska, Oregon State and California. He had double-digit tackles against two Power Five teams and seven stops apiece against USC, New Hampshire and California.

2. A.J. Epenesa, Iowa: He was the Hawkeye’s No. 1 recruit two years ago and has lived up to his four-star billing thus far. He has a massive frame, standing at six-foot-six, weighing 280 pounds and arguably one of the strongest players in the Big Ten. Epenesa has great fluidity for an individual his size, with quick feet to maneuver past offensive lineman and get to the quarterback. He had a solid true-sophomore season, generating 37 tackles, including 16.5 for loss, which ranked fourth in the Big Ten. The Illinois native also broke up four passes, forced four fumbles and led the conference with 10.5 sacks. Epenesa recorded a sack in six of Iowa’s last eight games and earned first team All-Big Ten honors. He has 15 sacks in two seasons and has yet to reach his ceiling. Scouts have already projected Epenesa as a Top-Five pick for next year.

1. Kenny Willekes, Michigan State: He was a walk-on, who had no stars and was recruited as an inside linebacker. However, the six-foot-four, 260-pounder has become one of the best defenders in the Big Ten over past two seasons. Last year Willekes finished with 78 tackles, including 20.5 for loss, which ranked first in the league. The Michigan native also had 8.5 sacks, including two apiece against Maryland and Utah State. Not to mention he had 3.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage against Nebraska and Ohio State. Willekes was named 2018’s Big Ten Defensive Lineman Of The Year for his relentless pursuit and earned first team All-Conference honors. He has 35 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks over the last two seasons for the Spartans. Willekes is truly a special pass-rushing, run-stuffing menace.