NCAA Football

Top 10 impact college football defenders in 2017

Minkah Fitzpatrick Alabama college football defenders
Jesse Reed
Written by Jesse Reed

For as much focus is given to offensive stars, teams featuring elite college football defenders are often the ones winning big games.

This is true at all levels of play, including the NFL. In fact, this past draft, there were 19 defensive players selected in Round 1 compared to 13 on the offensive side of the ball. With that in mind, we’ll be taking a look at the most dominant college football defenders heading into the 2017 season.

These guys are a nightmare to play against. They can waylay the best-laid plans of even the best offensive minds because of their ability to make game-breaking plays.

Ed Oliver, defensive tackle, Houston

Houston landed a gold mine when Oliver committed ahead of the 2016 season. The former five-star defensive tackle wreaked havoc on his competition as a true freshman last year, racking up 65 tackles, 22 for a loss and 5.5 sacks.

Those are impressive numbers for a freshman defensive end. They’re downright scary for a guy who spends his time toiling away inside.

The way this kid uses his hands and quickness to create pressure brings to mind the likes of Ndamukong Suh and Aaron Donald. That’s the kind of impact we’re talking about — both at the collegiate and professional level — this young man can have.

And the best part? He’s driven to get better. He thinks he should improve upon last year’s totals by a significant amount.

“In the 30 tackles for loss region … probably 60-70 tackles and 10 sacks,” Oliver said recently, via Joseph Duarte of the Houston Chronicle. “That’s where I need to be, where I should be.

“I’m not allowed to be a kid anymore,” Oliver said. “I’m a dude as we say in this program. I’m held to high expectations because a lot of teammates look up to me and I want to show them the right things to do.”

Let’s not forget, regardless of what he said, that Oliver is still just a kid. He’s 19 and won’t turn 20 until near the end of the 2017 season in December. With that in mind, it’s kind of frightening to consider how much better he might get in the coming years.

Iman Marshall, cornerback, USC

Iman Marshall USC Penn State

Marshall watched his former USC teammate Adoree’ Jackson get picked up with the No. 18 overall pick in this year’s NFL draft. But he might be the better of the two when it’s all said and done.

“…NFL scouts will tell you he’s a better pure corner prospect than 2017 first-round pick Adoree’ Jackson because of his strength and agility on the sideline,” wrote NFL.com’s Chad Reuter.

With plenty of size (6-foot-1, 200 pounds) and length, Marshall has been a rock solid player for the Trojans his first two seasons. Showing toughness in the run game and excellent coverage skills, the former high school safety has piled up 119 tackles, three for a loss, six interceptions and 17 passes broken up.

Now entering his junior season, Marshall is set to become a top draft pick in 2018, provided he continues to show up on tape.

An excellent ball hawk who has solid instincts and rarely gets beat deep despite not possessing elite speed, he’s one of the most dangerous defensive players in college football. Throw in a relentless motor and you’re looking at a guy NFL teams will covet next year.

Rashan Gary, defensive end, Michigan

Rashan Gary Michigan Colorado

We covered Gary in our recent look at the players ready to break out as stars in 2017. He’s a sophomore defensive lineman who was buried as a freshman on Jim Harbaugh’s depth chart last year while Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley and Maurice Hurst Jr. (21.5 sacks between them) dominated the action up front.

Even still, he managed to show flashes of his potential, tallying 23 tackles, five for a loss and a half a sack. Now that all three of them are gone, Gary has a chance to prove he really was worth all the hype as the nation’s top recruit last year.

Blessed with tremendous size (6-foot-5, 287 pounds), quickness and strength, it’s now up to Gary to put it all together as a cornerstone defender on Michigan’s front seven. Because of his unique blend of size and athleticism, Gary will play all over the line for Harbaugh’s Wolverines.

We expect big things from him in Year 2.

Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, linebacker, Oklahoma

Last season was this Nigerian-born linebacker’s coming out party. After spending his first two seasons at Oklahoma as a rarely-utilized role player, Okoronkwo played in 12 games and became an integral player on the defensive front.

He racked up 71 tackles, 12 for a loss and nine sacks. According to Pro Football Focus, he also pressured opposing quarterbacks 36 times on 262 rushes, which is darn impressive. With excellent quickness, underrated strength and hand work which has only gotten better over the years, he is a nightmare on the edge.

Okoronkwo could have declared for the 2017 NFL draft and nobody would have thought it odd. But he wanted to get his degree and perfect his craft a bit more at the college level before attacking the next level with a vengeance in 2018.

“It was easy for me,” he said of the decision, via Brooke Pryor of NewsOK. “I get my degree next semester so why not (stay), and then I get a whole ‘nother year to get better. It’s my first year starting. I feel like everybody makes great strides from their first year starting to the second year. So I want to see what I can do next year before I go to the NFL.”

We can’t wait to see what he does for an encore after last season’s accomplishments.

The guys in television are already going gaga over Okoronkwo. Mel Kiper Jr. sees him as the second senior outside linebacker coming off the board in next year’s NFL draft, which isn’t at all a stretch.

Derwin James, safety, Florida State

Note to quarterbacks, running backs and receivers in the ACC: Don’t challenge Derwin James.

Danger, danger, danger (Steve Irwin voice).

Here are just a couple of examples of how dangerous it is to run James’ way, from his exceptional freshman campaign of 2015.

James’ freshman season was one for the books. He was everywhere. He finished with 91 tackles, 9.5 for loss, 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and two recoveries.

Last year was unfortunately cut short due to a knee injury. But James is fully healthy now and ready to unleash destruction once again on any offensive playmakers who’d dare come his way.

Harold Landry, defensive end, Boston College

Last year’s sacks leader is back for more. Landry was unstoppable off the edge for the Eagles, earning 16.5 sacks and a nation-leading seven forced fumbles. He also brought down ball-carriers 55 times, 22 of which occurred behind the line of scrimmage.

A player who possesses good size (6-foot-3, 250 pounds) and length, he knows how to get around the edge and dominate offensive tackles. But this isn’t a one-trick pony we’re talking about here. Landry is also an imposing threat in the run game. He uses leverage well and doesn’t often find himself out of position trying to skirt around the outside.

It was surprising, in fact, that Landry decided to come back to Boston College for his senior season, as it’s likely he could have been a high pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. But the All-American had good reason for returning.

An impact player who is also a high-character guy with a non-stop motor and leadership qualities, Landry will be a name to follow this season, and in the seasons to come.

Dexter Lawrence, defensive tackle, Clemson

Dexter Lawrence Clemson college football defenders

It’s rare that two sophomore defensive tackles make a list such as this one, but we wouldn’t dream of not including both Ed Oliver and Dexter Lawrence. Both of these kids are phenomenally gifted and made huge impacts as true freshmen last season.

Lawrence is just a monster inside, measuring in at 6-foot-5, 340 pounds. He doesn’t have plodding feet, though, Rather, he moves with the agility of a jungle cat. He’s already convinced some that he’ll be a lock for the No. 1 overall pick in 2019.

“Mark it down now: The No. 1 overall pick of the 2019 draft is gonna be [Clemson’s 6-foot-5, 340-pound defensive tackle] Dexter Lawrence,” one NFL coach told Bruce Feldman of FOX Sports. “There is nothing like him in this draft in terms of size and quickness. He’s ridiculous.”

Last year in his freshman season he brought in 62 tackles, 8.5 for a loss and 6.5 sacks, falling on a couple of fumble recoveries to boot. He was a key player for Clemson’s national championship run and still has plenty of untapped potential to unearth in the coming years.

Arden Key, defensive end, LSU

Arden Key LSU Louisville Lamar Jackson

Key burst onto the scene as a true freshman who tallied 5.5 sacks in 2015 for the Tigers. Then last year as a full-time starter he took his game to another level, becoming one of the most dangerous pass rushers in the nation.

Utilizing his long, lean frame (6-foot-6, 231 pounds) to great effect, he took down quarterbacks 12 times in 2016, notching 55 tackles and 14.5 for a loss while handling himself surprisingly well against the run.

While Key took a leave of absence from LSU this spring, he made it clear he’s fully committed to playing at LSU during his junior season in 2017.

Ed Orgeron has expressed his support for Key, who took time off for “personal reasons,” and it seems as if there’s nothing to worry about on that front.

“I expect him to be back in summer school in June,” the coach said, per The Advocate. “Doing very well. Still has things he’s working on.”

Provided he’s fully engaged once school and football become his main priorities once again in June, we expect Key to get back to doing what it is he does best, with a vengeance.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, cornerback, Alabama

Minkah Fitzpatrick Alabama Arkansas

Speaking of impact defenders, Fitzpatrick has already been highlighted as one of the players named to the 2017 Lott IMPACT Trophy Watch List, named after famed USC cornerback Ronnie Lott.

A do-it-all defensive back for Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide, Fitzpatrick proved extremely opportunistic in his first two seasons. He came down with eight interceptions (six last year), returning half of those for touchdowns (like this one) while racking up 274 return yards (34.3 yards per interception).

Those are some crazy numbers that indicate just how dangerous Fitzpatrick is as a defender who can not only keep offenses from scoring but who can turn the tables in a heartbeat.

Because of his unique skills and size (6-foot-1, 203 pounds), Fitzpatrick can line up all over the field, on the corner, in the slot, as a safety and even as a pass rusher off the edge, with 3.5 career sacks.

He’s one of the most dangerous weapons for Alabama, which always features top talent at every position on its roster.

Malik Jefferson, linebacker, Texas

This is an exciting year for Jefferson, who’s transitioning from inside to outside linebacker. He’s such a natural athlete who flows to the ball with ease and who utilizes excellent discipline to attack ball carriers without over pursuing.

Jefferson has been wowing scouts since his high school days. He won the Butkus Award for top linebacker in the nation following his senior season at Poteet High School in Texas. Then he stepped right onto campus and made an immediate impact for Texas, earning Freshman All-American honors in 2015. Last year he continued to assert himself as an elite player, logging 60 tackles, nine for a loss and 6.5 sacks.

Now he’s moving outside, where his speed and athleticism will be of better use to him and the Longhorns.

We expect to see double-digit sack totals from Jefferson this year, and it won’t be all that surprising if he ends up working his way into the top half of the 2018 NFL Draft.

About the author

Jesse Reed

Jesse Reed

Managing Editor here at Sportsnaut. Featured on Yardbarker, Foxsports.com and MSN.com, and formerly was a breaking news writer/NFL analyst for Bleacher Report.