- No defensive player will make a bigger impact this season than Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver.
We’ve talked coaches. We’ve talked headlines. We’ve talked games. But we haven’t yet talked about the most essential ingredient for the college football season: the players. There aren’t enough weeks to break down the game position-by-position, so this week, we’re going big and counting down the 10 defensive players we think will have the biggest impacts in 2017.
Jefferson, who stands 6’3” and weighs 238 pounds, has the skill set to play both inside and outside when he makes the jump to the NFL. Last year, he struggled at times at middle linebacker, but new Longhorns coordinator Todd Orlando announced during spring ball his plans to move the junior back outside. That’s Jefferson’s original position, and the former Big 12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year should be able to give Texas the disruption it needs at the line of scrimmage.
Lawrence logged 63 tackles and seven sacks a year ago as a freshman during Clemson’s national title run. The 6’5”, 340-pound tackle was ESPN’s No. 6 prospect in the class of 2016, and once he made it to campus, he certainly lived up to the hype. Lawrence is deceptively lean for his size—just a glance at a photo of him in the pink spandex Power Ranger costume he wore last Halloween confirms this—and runs a 4.9-second 40-yard-dash. Hoping to repeat a title run without star quarterback Deshaun Watson, Clemson will pin plenty of its hopes on Lawrence.
A year ago, McFadden was tied for the FBS lead with eight interceptions, a testament to both his hands and his size. The corner played only sparingly as a freshman in 2015, but he settled easily into his starting role last fall, with three tackles for loss to go along with those picks. He also played much of last season with a torn labrum, which he had surgically repaired in the off-season. Standing 6’2” and weighing nearly 200 pounds, McFadden is a physical force on a defense that could be college football’s best this fall.
Marshall is the next hotshot corner at USC after Adoree’ Jackson left for the NFL following last season. Jackson was a first-round pick, and if Marshall keeps up his performance of the past two seasons this fall, he could very well go sooner than Jackson’s No. 18 come the 2018 draft. The 6’1”, 200-pound Marshall had three interceptions, eight passes defensed and 51 tackles in 2016, and his best run came in a two-game stretch in October, when he logged 11 tackles, an interception with a 12-yard return and three passes defensed.
As a freshman, Gary logged 27 tackles—five for loss—along with half a sack last fall. And according to the Detroit Free Press, he looked to have taken a massive step forward in the Wolverines’ spring game. Gary told the newspaper afterward that his knowledge of the playbook is complete, allowing him to take his game to the next level. He was the No. 1 recruit in the country in 2016, but he played most of last year as a backup on Michigan’s line full of future NFL players, so 2017 will be his first campaign truly in the spotlight.
Key missed spring practice during a leave of absence from the Tigers that lasted from February until June 5. The reason for the leave remains unknown, beyond that it was for “personal reasons,” and while he was away, he underwent shoulder surgery. Having Key back is huge for LSU, which will look to rebound under now-permanent head coach Ed Orgeron. Last season, Key broke the Tigers’ single-season sack record in just 11 games, finishing with 12 sacks. His 55 tackles, three passes defensed and two forced fumbles were just icing on the cake. And at 6’6” and 231 pounds, he has the physical makings of an NFL star.
The 6’3”, 250-pound Landry was the best player on Boston College’s team last year, and that shouldn’t change this fall. In 2016, he led the country in sacks, with 16.5, and forced fumbles, with seven—plus he plays with the agility of a much smaller man. Last year, Landry logged his first career interception, which he returned 20 yards, and with four passes defensed, he proved he could disrupt opponents’ passing game in nearly every fashion possible.
On a Crimson Tide defense that lost many a leader to the NFL, Fitzpatrick will be a key veteran presence, and it doesn’t hurt that he can play any position in the secondary. Last year, he logged 66 tackles, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a team-leading six interceptions. Three of those picks came in a single game, against Arkansas, when he logged 114 total yards in interception returns including a 100-yard pick-six in the fourth quarter. Fitzpatrick added two passes defensed in the win.
The Seminoles are the only team to have two players on this list, so it’s no surprise that they appear as a national-championship favorite on many preseason lists. If Florida State does go all the way, it’ll be thanks to a defense led by McFadden and James, who received a medical redshirt in February after suffering a season-ending meniscus tear in Week 2 of the 2016 season. In his two games last year, he logged 11 tackles and an interception and seemed poised to continue to be one of the most talented and versatile players in college football. As a freshman in 2015, James finished with a stunning 91 tackles, 9.5 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.
Oliver may not just be the best defensive player entering the 2017 season; he could be the best player at any position in the game. As a freshman for the Cougars last fall, he finished with 22—yes, you read that right—tackles for a loss among his 65 total tackles, with five sacks, six passes defensed and two forced fumbles. At 6’2”, 290 pounds, Oliver looks much more developed than his 19 years, and it’s easy to imagine him playing in the NFL as soon as he’s eligible two years from now.