November 27, 2022

College Football’s 20 best defensive ends of 2021

College Football's 20 best defensive ends of 2021

Zach Harrison takes down Noah Vedral, November 7,2020. Photo courtesy of Ohio State Athletics

They are the enforcers off the edge.

Packed with a tremendous amount of lower body strength, flexible hips and a non-stop motor, edge rushers set the tone up front. In order to be successful defenders they have to disrupt the timing of offenses, tip passes at the line of scrimmage and wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks.

Intimidation comes with the territory and anytime a signal-caller has to think twice about where a defender is located it’s a plus. These 20 defensive ends brought pressure and made their presence felt from the weak and strong-side in 2020. Quarterbacks beware this fall, because they’re back for more and will be coming to a backfield near you.

20. Kwami Jones, Fresno State: In just five games last season the San Francisco native tallied six tackles for loss and five sacks. Jones finished eighth in the FBS in sacks per game. He started strong out of the gates and had five solo tackles, plus three sacks in the opener against Hawaii. The six-foot-three, 252-pounder also had a sack in the win over UNLV and in the season-finale against New Mexico. For a player who had no stars out of high school, Jones certainly made his presence felt in the Mountain West. Now he’ll be one of the best returning defenders in the league this fall.

19. George Karlaftis, Purdue: In 2019 he tied for first on the team in sacks and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors. Karlaftis barely played two full games in 2020, when he suffered a season-ending injury during the first half at Illinois. However, the hometown kid managed to generate a sack in that game and against Iowa. Karlaftis was also tied for third in the league in sacks when he got injured. He showed a lot of promise with the Boilermakers, but has yet to reach his ceiling. Purdue fans are expecting him to come back this fall with a vengeance on opposing Big Ten quarterbacks.

18. Praise Amaewhule, UTEP: He led the Miners in tackles for loss and sacks last season. Amaewhule tallied seven sacks and broke up nine passes in eight games. The Texas native is dangerous off the edge and a natural in pass coverage. Through a four-game span, that included Abilene Christian, Louisiana-Monore, Louisiana Tech and Charlotte, Amaewhule generated seven sacks. The former two-star prospect had 3.5 of those sacks against the Bulldogs and he broke up four passes. Amaewhule has a legit chance to be the best defender in Conference-USA this upcoming season.

17. Shane Irwin, Boise State: The former three-star prospect left the JUCO ranks and made an immediate impact with the Broncos last season. In just seven games Irwin tallied seven tackles for loss and six sacks. He had five solo tackles in one game. Not to mention the California native racked up two sacks apiece against Colorado State and Hawaii. Irwin also put the quarterback to the turf against Wyoming and Utah State. The six-foot-three, 254-pounder tied for 15th in the FBS in sacks per game and he’s poised for a monster year in the conference in 2021.

16. Big Kat Bryant, UCF: He made a name for himself in the SEC last season. Bryant generated a sack against Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi State. Not to mention he had three solo stops against the Crimson Tide. The six-foot-five, 250-pounder showed his athleticism when he intercepted a pass in the win over LSU. Bryant finished 2020 with second-team All-SEC honors. The Georgia native’s solid season was overlooked because the Tigers fired Gus Malzahn. However, Bryant entered the transfer portal after Auburn’s bowl game and reunited with Malzahn at UCF.

15. Zach Harrison, Ohio State: The Buckeyes continue to stockpile talented edge rushers and he had five stars behind his name when he arrived on campus. As a true sophomore last season, he started to deliver on all the hype and made clutch plays on the field. The Ohio native had a sack in the opener against Nebraska. He tallied 4.5 tackles for loss through seven games and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors. There’s no denying Harrison is a rising star in the league. With a full slate of games on Ohio State’s schedule, expect his production to increase tremendously.

14. Scott Patchan, Colorado State: He’s a former Miami recruit and his playing career dates back to 2015. Last season Patchan led the Rams in tackles for loss and sacks. The Tampa native finished third in the FBS in sacks per game. Not to mention Patchan averaged nearly two tackles for loss per game, which ranked sixth-best in the country. The former four-star prospect tallied four solo tackles in the opener against Fresno State. Patchan also ended 2020 on a high note, with seven tackles and two sacks at San Diego State. He tallied 7.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks in just four games.

13. Zach VanValkenburg, Iowa: The Hawkeyes are a hotbed for elite defensive lineman and he’s their latest version. VanValkenburg had no stars behind his name out of high school. However, he finished second on the team in tackles for loss last season. The Michigan native tallied seven total tackles against Northwestern. He had five stops and three sacks in the win over Minnesota. VanValkenburg finished with 8.5 tackles for loss in seven games and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors. Iowa dominantes against the run and the six-foot-four, 270-pounder will be anchoring the front.

12. Ali Gaye, LSU: The Washington native came from the JUCO ranks and made an immediate impact in his first year with the Bayou Bengals. Gaye had a sack in the opener against Mississippi State and another in the loss to Alabama. He had five tackles for loss through LSU’s first three games. Not to mention the former three-star prospect had two stops for losses in three different SEC clashes. Gaye made two clutch turnovers in the finale against Ole Miss, when he forced a fumble and intercepted a pass. His production didn’t go unnoticed and he was rewarded second-team All-SEC.

11. Khari Coleman, TCU: The former three-star prospect had a breakout season as a true freshman in 2020. Coleman racked up 15 tackles for loss, which was second-best in the Big 12. The New Orleans native recorded a sack against Oklahoma, Baylor, and Kansas. Not to mention he tallied 7.5 tackles for loss over TCU’s final four games. The six-foot-two, 224-pounder finished 15th in the FBS in tackles for loss per game. Coleman is poised for an All-Big 12 caliber year this fall and he’s one part of a two-headed monster the Horned Frogs will have up front.

10. Cade Hall, San Jose State: The former two-star prospect finished second in the FBS in sacks per game last season. Hall had six solo stops, including four for loss and three sacks against UNLV. The six-foot-two, 260-pounder also registered a sack in wins over Nevada, New Mexico and UNLV. Not to mention he had four solo tackles, including three for loss and two sacks against Boise State. Nearly half of Hall’s tackles in 2020 were made from behind the line of scrimmage. Hall racked up 10 sacks in seven games, which tied for second-best in the country.

9. Trajan Jeffcoat, Missouri: The South Carolina native had a breakout season in 2020 with the Tigers. Jeffcoat tallied six tackles for loss and six sacks in nine games. He put the quarterback to the turf in the opener against Alabama. The former three-star prospect also had a sack in wins over Tennessee, LSU, Vanderbilt and Arkansas. The six-foot-three, 265-pounder added another on Senior Day against Georgia. Jeffcoat remained consistent, with a sack in each of Missouri’s first three games and over the final three at home. He capped off the year with first-team All SEC honors.

8. Tyler Johnson Arizona State: The Sun Devil finished fourth in the FBS in sacks per game last year. Johnson started out the season with two tackles for loss and a sack against USC. He followed up that performance with five solo tackles and three sacks in the loss to UCLA. The six-foot-four, 285-pounder had five sacks through Arizona State’s first three games. The Sun Devils’ defense played their best against the rival Wildcats on the road, and held them to single digits. Johnson earned second-team All-Pac-12 for his contributions and will be a force to be reckoned with in 2021.

7. Kingsley Enagbare, South Carolina: Although Will Muschamp didn’t pan out with the Gamecocks, there’s no denying he could recruit elite defensive linemen. Enagbare is one and he has great instincts. He led the Gamecocks in sacks and tackles for loss last season. The Atlanta native had five solo tackles, two sacks and forced a fumble in the opener against Tennessee. Enagbare also recorded a sack against Vanderbilt, Auburn, Ole Miss and Missouri. The former four-star recruit finished with seven tackles for loss and six solo sacks in nine games, plus he earned first-team All-SEC.

6. Arnold Ebiketie, Penn State: The former three-star prospect is highly underrated because of Temple’s 1-6 campaign in 2020. However, Ebiketie tallied 42 tackles, including 8.5 for loss and four sacks in six games. The Maryland native started out on fire, with 10 total stops and a forced fumble in the opener at Navy. He followed up that performance with five solo tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery in the lone win over South Florida. Ebiketie also had a sack against Tulane, SMU and Central Florida, when he racked up eight solo tackles. He brings instant credibility to the Nittany Lions.

5. Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon: He’s arguably the most feared defender in the Pac-12. Thibodeaux has led the Ducks in tackles for loss and sacks for the past two seasons. As a true sophomore the former five-star prospect tallied 38 tackles, including 9.5 for loss and three sacks in seven games. Thibodeaux recorded five solo stops in the win at Washington State. The South Central Los Angeles native had a sack against Oregon State, California and UCLA. Thibodeaux finished 2020 with third-team AP All-America honors. Not to mention he also earned first-team All-Pac-12.

4. Will McDonald, Iowa State: The Wisconsin native had an amazing year and led the FBS with 10.5 sacks last season. McDonald piled up 13.5 tackles for loss in 12 games and earned first-team All-Big 12. The six-foot-four, 230-pounder started off strong with two sacks in the opener against Louisiana. He also recorded two sacks in the blowout victory over West Virginia. McDonald put the quarterback to the turf against TCU, Texas Tech, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma and Oregon. The scary part for the Big 12 is the former-three star prospect still hasn’t reached his potential.

3. Isaiah Thomas, Oklahoma: His name ring bells, just as well as his hits on ball carriers. Thomas is arguably the most versatile defensive linemen in the league and he excels along the edge and in the interior. He has great instincts at locating the ball. The Tulsa native had 32 stops and led the Sooners in tackles for loss and sacks last season. Thomas had 2.5 sacks in the win over Baylor and another in the loss at Iowa State. In a four-game stretch that included Big 12 opponents, the six-foot-five, 267-pounder combined for 6.5 sacks. Thomas also earned second-team All-Big 12 honors.

3. Myles Murphy, Clemson: The former five-star prospect lived up to the hype in his first year with the Tigers. In just six starts last season Murphy racked up 51 total tackles, including 12 for loss, which led Clemson. The Georgia native had seven tackles, including three for loss and two sacks in the opener against Wake Forest. He also had seven stops in the win over Pittsburgh and generated a sack at Georgia Tech. The six-foot-five, 270-pounder was all over the field in the Playoffs against Ohio State and had six total tackles. Murphy is the real deal and should blossom more in year two.

1. Ochaun Mathis, TCU: Gary Patterson is never short on All-Big 12 caliber defenders and Mathis is one of the best in the country. The former three-star prospect recorded 46 stops last season, including 14 tackles for loss, which was third-best in the league. Not to mention Mathis racked up nine sacks in 10 games. The six-foot-five, 247-pounder also finished 12th in the FBS in sacks per game. He had a jaw-dropping, three sacks in the win over Texas Tech. He also tallied two sacks apiece at Kansas and on Senior Day against Louisiana Tech. Mathis generated 11 tackles for loss over the Horned Frogs’ final six games and earned first-team All-Big 12 honors

Honorable Mention

Byron Young, Alabama: He finished with 29 total tackles, including 6.5 for loss and a sack in 2020. Young, along with fellow edge rusher LaBryan Ray are both poised for breakout seasons with Alabama this fall.

Colby Wooden, Auburn: The Georgia native led the Tigers in tackles for loss and tied for first on the team in sacks from his Buck position last season. Wooden also earned Freshman All-SEC honors.

Zion Tupuola-Fetui, Washington: Last year he finished with 13 total tackles, but seven of those went for sacks. He also earned third-team AP All America and first-team All-Pac-12 honors. Unfortunately he ruptured his achilles in spring practice.

Mika Tafua, Utah: Last season he tallied three sacks and earned second-team All-Pac-12. The Hawaii native is one of the best returning defensive linemen in the Pac-12 South and will anchor Utah’s front seven in 2021.

Thomas Booker Jr., Stanford: The six-foot-three, 310 pounder is very athletic for an individual his size. Booker tallied 21 tackles, including four solo in the win over UCLA. He finished the year with second-team All-Pac-12 honors.