Short of a takeaway, the most exciting moment for a defense is a sack. And there’s a terrific bunch of pass-rushers returning to college football in 2018.
Highlighted by a pair of standouts at three schools, eight conferences and 13 teams are represented on the list of top-tier pass-rushing talent.
While Auburn’s Derrick Brown, Clemson’s Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence and Ohio State’s Dre’Mont Jones are elite D-tackles, we’re focused on the players who make a high impact as pass-rushers.
Zach Allen, Boston College
Harold Landry’s injury-plagued 2017 helped Zach Allen emerge from that shadow, but he was putting together a breakout season from the start. Allen tallied seven-plus tackles in six straight games to begin the campaign and finished with 100. He notched six sacks for the second straight year, adding six hurries. Now that Landry has headed to the NFL, Allen is the undisputed leader of the Boston College defensive line. He’s not going to overwhelm blockers with speed, but Allen’s technical refinement makes him a threat beyond passing downs.
Ben Banogu, TCU
Although he lost fellow All-Big 12 defensive end Mat Boesen, Ben Banogu faces high expectations as the figurehead of TCU’s pass rush. Big 12 media voted him as the Preseason Defensive Player of the Year, and it’s easy to see why. A transfer from Louisiana-Monroe, Banogu racked up 16.5 tackles and 8.5 sacks during his first season with the Horned Frogs. He contributed on a sack in eight different games, also registering three forced fumbles on the year. Banogu’s playmaking skills are especially valuable in the high-scoring Big 12.
Nick Bosa, Ohio State
Joey’s little brother, Baby Bosa, the other Bosa; no matter what you call him, this much is clear: Nick Bosa is a force. Through two seasons at Ohio State, he’s amassed 23 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks. Last year, according to CFB Film Room, Bosa accumulated 25 hurries and 15 hits. Pro Football Focus credited him with 66 total quarterback pressures. No wonder Bosa is considered a potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft, right? He earned second-team AP All-America in 2017 and is a safe bet to repeat, if healthy.
Austin Bryant, Clemson
Really, it’s absurd to think Austin Bryant is considered the fourth-best defensive lineman in Clemson’s lineup. The rising senior is a likely Day 1 selection if he’s anywhere close to last season’s performance. Bryant collected 15.5 stops for loss, including 8.5 sacks. Per CFB Film Room, he posted a team-high 21 hurries in addition to five quarterback hits and two forced fumbles. Most impressively, 2017 was his first season as a full-time starter, and he earned third-team AP All-America. Bryant alone is a nightmare to stop, and he has three more All-ACC teammates.
Brian Burns, Florida State
Touted as a potential first-round NFL draft pick, Brian Burns’ production started to match his pro potential late in 2017. In the final five games on Florida State’s season, he gathered 9.5 tackles for loss with four sacks. Burns also recorded three forced fumbles and three more hurries during that stretch. Entering his junior season, Burns has notched 14 sacks in college. The Seminoles will be leaning on his effectiveness to overshadow depth concerns at defensive end, but there’s little evidence to suggest Burns won’t produce.
Raekwon Davis, Alabama
Outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings looks like the next great Alabama edge-rusher, yet Raekwon Davis is a proven sack artist. As a sophomore, he tallied a team-best 8.5 quarterback takedowns. Davis ended the campaign with 69 total tackles, which ranked third on the Crimson Tide. Conference coaches recognized and rewarded his impact with first-team All-SEC honors, too. Davis, who stands an imposing 6-foot-7 and 306 pounds, will be closely monitored both by awards committees and NFL scouting departments.
Clelin Ferrell, Clemson
The other side of Clemson’s terrifying defensive end duo, Clelin Ferrell is a returning first-team AP All-American. He racked up 18 tackles behind the line of scrimmage with 9.5 sacks, improving career totals to 30.5 and 15.5, respectively. According to CFB Film Room, Ferrell had 19 hurries, nine quarterback hits and two forced fumbles, as well. Thanks to an explosive first step, he’s regarded as one of the premier pass rushers in the 2019 draft class. Barring major injury, the NFL world should be officially introduced to Ferrell during the first round.
Rashan Gary, Michigan
The former No. 1 overall recruit in the country has lived up to the hype. Rashan Gary thrived in a limited role as a freshman, and he exploded in 2017 to earn first-team All-Big Ten honors. Gary accrued 50 total pressures, per Pro Football Focus. In addition to contributing on seven sacks, he tallied 34 hurries and nine hits. Following the departure of star defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, the Wolverines may slide Gary inside on occasion this season. While that certainly could affect his stats, NFL teams will covet his versatility.
Carl Granderson, Wyoming
Representing the Mountain West is Carl Granderson, a highly athletic end who bounced back from injury in wonderful fashion. After playing only six games in 2016, Granderson made first-team All-Mountain West last season. He posted 77 tackles with 16 takedowns for loss and 8.5 sacks. Granderson chipped in two forced fumbles, two interceptions and one fumble recovery — which he returned for a touchdown. Between him and tackle Youhanna Ghaifan, Wyoming boasts two of the nation’s most underrated star defensive linemen.
Joe Jackson, Miami
Jaquan Johnson and Shaq Quarterman attract much of the attention given to Miami’s defense, but Joe Jackson is the defense’s most exciting NFL prospect. Through two seasons at The U, he’s compiled totals of 23 tackles for loss, 15 sacks and three forced fumbles. And circumstances suggest Jackson is headed for his best year yet. While playing in a deep rotation last year, he still reached the 40-pressure mark, per Pro Football Focus. Trent Harris and Chad Thomas are both chasing NFL dreams, so Jackson’s role — and production — should increase.
Jalen Jelks, Oregon
Perhaps you’re more familiar with Troy Dye, the linebacker who’s led Oregon in tackles for two seasons. But the rising star on the improving defense is Jalen Jelks. He managed only two sacks in 2016 but emerged as a force during Pac-12 play last season. Jelks recorded 14 of his 15 tackles for loss and all 6.5 sacks against conference competition. According to Pro Football Focus, no returning interior defender batted down more passes than his eight. Jelks, a second-team All-Pac-12 player last year, will likely garner first-round attention for the 2019 draft.
Ed Oliver, Houston
Ed Oliver is arguably the best player in the country. Though he’s best recognized for excellence as a run-stopper, Oliver is a steady contributor against the pass despite extra blockers regularly coming his way. He’s registered back-to-back seasons of five-plus sacks, adding 14 hurries. Even when Oliver doesn’t reach the quarterback, he can still make a difference. That’s evidenced in his 12 career pass breakups. A defensive tackle hasn’t been selected in the top five of the NFL draft since Marcell Dareus in 2011, but Oliver is on track to snap that streak.
Jeffery Simmons, Mississippi State
Jeffery Simmons arrived at Mississippi State walking under a deserved cloud of distaste. Over the last two seasons, he’s stayed out of trouble and become a dominant player up front. In 2017, Simmons logged 60 total takedowns with 12 stops for loss and five sacks. Pro Football Focus credited him with 41 pressures, which is the most among returning defensive tackles. For good measure, he forced two fumbles and recovered one during a first-team All-SEC campaign. Simmons is one massive part of Mississippi State’s superstar D-line duo.
Sutton Smith, Northern Illinois
The nation’s most productive pass rusher has a unique story. While redshirting as a freshman in 2015, Sutton Smith tried to avoid defenders. Then a running back, he laid a massive hit following a botched snap, and Northern Illinois switched him to defense the next day. Smith had 15 total tackles in 2016 but blossomed into a superstar last year. A second-team AP All-American alongside Bosa, Smith led the country with 29.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks. He amassed a ridiculous 92 pressures, per Pro Football Focus. In summary: He’s a stud.
Montez Sweat, Mississippi State
Montez Sweat made his college debut with Michigan State in 2014 but appeared in only two games. Disciplinary issues led Sweat on a journey to junior college before landing at Mississippi State, and he wasted little time providing an impact in 2017. Sweat tallied team-high marks of 15.5 tackles and 10.5 sacks. CFB Film Room ascribed 16 hurries and 10 hits to the menacing edge-rusher. Though he flirted with entering the NFL draft, Sweat chose to play one more season for the Bulldogs. SEC offenses are going to dread facing him and Simmons.
Chase Winovich, Michigan
Rashan Gary is the household name on Michigan’s defensive line, but Chase Winovich is an absolute monster. A kind-hearted one, given his effort to raise money for The ChadTough Foundation, but still a monster. While he ranked fourth on the Wolverines with 79 tackles, the second-team All-Big Ten defensive end’s 18.5 stops for loss and eight sacks paced the team. According to CFB Film Room, he also collected 17 hurries and six quarterback hits. Winovich is already a valued prospect but could earn first-round attention with another great season.