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  • Showcasing the top athletes in college football, the players whose physical abilities blow away even those accustomed to observing gifted players.
By Bruce Feldman
July 07, 2017

I’ve been compiling my annual Freaks list of college football’s top workout warriors in the sport for almost 15 years now. I set out to showcase the guys who create some of the biggest buzz inside their programs by displaying the rare physical abilities that wow folks who are typically used to observing gifted athletes. This list is compiled with the help of many coaches, players and sports information directors around the nation. One caveat: I try to avoid having multiple players from one program, but this year I had three instances where I felt I needed to bend that rule. This year we’re doing a top 40 countdown. Check out Nos. 40–21 and Nos. 20–11 and continue with Nos. 10–1 below.

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10 best defensive players in college football this season
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If this list was based on dedication to the weight room and building one’s body, Gustin probably would rank No. 1. Trojans strength coach Ivan Lewis, who worked at USC in the Pete Carroll glory days and has coached in the NFL, said he’s never been around anyone like Gustin. “He absolutely loves the weight room. It’s his sanctuary,” Lewis said.

Gustin wakes up every day at 3:30 a.m. just so he can guzzle down a protein shake before going back to sleep for a few more winks. Then, he gets up again at 4:30 a.m. to get his body right for dawn workouts. That dedication has certainly paid off. The 6’5” Gustin, who arrived at USC weighing around 235 pounds, is up to 260. He can bench press 475 pounds and squat 575. His vertical jump is 35 inches and Lewis told me the Utah native runs the 40 at about 4.6. He’s coming off a strong 2016 season when he led USC with 13 tackles for loss and ranked second on the team with 68 tackles. Lewis said the biggest area where Gustin has made gains this off-season is increasing his flexibility, which only figures to make the guy an even bigger force rushing the passer this season. Better still for the Trojans, Gustin’s zeal for the weight room and hanging around after his workout to do extra core work and flexibility has carried over to teammates, Lewis says.

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You won’t find a more gifted 1–2 punch anywhere in the country than Dexter Lawrence and Wilkins. As a sophomore in 2016, Wilkins received All-America honors with 56 tackles and 13.5 tackles for loss. He also made the All-ACC Academic Team and helped lead the Tigers to a national title. This off-season, Wilkins measured in at 6’2 1/5” and 310 pounds and clocked a 4.80 40. Even more impressively, his 10-yard split was 1.62 seconds. No one close to 300 pounds at this year’s NFL combine was close to that quick. Wilkins also bench pressed 375 and did 31 reps at 225. Oh, one other thing, the guy has ridiculous flexibility for someone this size, as you can see here.

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The Crimson Tide have some Freaky D-linemen. Jamar King is a 290-pounder who was clocked at a sub 4.8, according to AL.com earlier this spring. Towering Raekwon Davis, a 6’7”, 315-pounder, ran 5.1. Former No. 1 overall recruit Da’Shawn Hand is another guy who turns heads.

Payne, though, is their headliner this year. He helped anchor the nation’s top defense in 2016. He’s shed about 10 pounds this off-season and figures to be even more of a headache for rival offenses. At 310 pounds, he was timed at 5.03 after running a 4.93 40 last spring. He also benched pressed 545 pounds. 

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A one-time 280-pound high school running back that saw himself as another Jerome Bettis, Vea is developing into a force on the D-line in the Pac-12. At 6’4”, 346 pounds, Vea has a 33-inch vertical and one staffer told me the big man has run the 40 in the 4.8s. “His top-end speed is incredible for a guy that size,” said Washington DT Greg Gaines, a powerhouse himself who cleans 415 pounds. "He’s incredibly fast. He’s just a beast. I’ve seen him chasing guys down who are like 150 pounds lighter. He does it all the time. I’ve seen him drive an offensive lineman 10 yards back.” Vea told me he credits Gaines and former teammate Elijah Qualls for pushing him in the weight room. “We push each other to get better,” he said. “You have to match their level of intensity. Keep up with them and staying consistent."

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There are bigger backs and faster backs, but no RB in the nation is more powerful pound for pound. The 5’11”, 212-pound Guice runs angry. Despite only starting six times last season (he shared time with the great Leonard Fournette), Guice still led the SEC in rushing yards with 1,387 and had 15 TDs on the ground while averaging a gaudy 7.6 yards per carry. He squatted 650 pounds a few weeks ago and power cleans 374. He was timed in the 40 this offseason at a 4.49. 

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The Wolverines are listed by some preseason magazines as having only one returning starter on defense, but that’s misleading. They have a bunch of guys who, like Gary, played extensively last year. While playing on a loaded D-line, Gary had 27 tackles and five tackles for loss as a true freshman. Expectations are sky high for him to be one of the nation’s biggest breakout players in 2017. Jim Harbaugh certainly stokes those expectations when he tweeted out some off-season workout numbers that spotlighted Gary’s athleticism. On it, the 6’5”, 287-pounder was listed as timing a 4.57 in the 40, fastest among not only Michigan D-linemen, but also the linebackers (a 4.63 was the best among those). Gary also vertical jumped 31 inches and broad-jumped 9’6”. The other number that was truly stunning at his size was the 6.70 L-drill time. At the 2017 NFL combine, the fastest time for all D-linemen was a 6.85, and you have to go back six years to find a D-lineman that clocked a fastest time than Gary’s 6.70. Sam Acho ran a 6.69 and he did that weighing 25 pounds less. The fastest L-drill time among all Wolverine DBs was a 6.79 and among linebackers was a 6.89.

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The Noles were without James for almost the entire season due to a lateral meniscus tear in his left knee, and not so coincidentally they dropped from No. 10 in defense in 2015 to No. 37 in 2016. James is a play-making machine (91 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in 2015) whom the Noles have deployed in just about every imaginable way on defense. I spoke to one coach last year who told me James is the closest thing he’s seen to Sean Taylor in years. Like the former Miami great, James has amazing range to go with linebacker size. The redshirt sophomore who was listed at 211 pounds last season, is up to 222 now and has freakish explosiveness with a 41-inch vertical. He also power cleans 360 and bench presses 450—a ridiculous amount for a DB.

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Street is the Freakiest athlete on the ferocious Pack D-line, which is the best-kept secret in college football. "They’re the tone-setters for the team,” said strength coach Dantonio Burnette. “These guys are super competitive.” Bradley Chubb (22 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks) gets most of what attention that group gets, and he’s a freak in his own right, clocking a 4.74 40 at 275 pounds. But it’s time to get the word out about Street. The Georgia native arrived in Raleigh already quite the specimen, but he’s worked diligently over the past few years to fine-tune his body and his game (as you can seen from this photo sequence).

Last year, Street had nine tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks as he started to emerge as a difference-maker with his refined technique catching up to his uncanny athleticism. This spring Street, at 6’2”, 283 pounds, was timed in the 40 at 4.58 and 4.62. And Burnette says those 40 times are electronic times—not hand-timed. Street vertical jumped 40 inches, broad jumped 9’11”, cleaned 400 and bench pressed 475 pounds. He is the most flexible guy in the NC State program, and despite his weight, he has the kind of agility where he could stand up and play outside linebacker, says Burnette, himself a former first-team All-ACC linebacker.

Burnette has worked with some all-world caliber D-line Freaks in his time from Mario Williams and Manny Lawson to his days at Pittsburgh with Aaron Donald, a guy who ran 4.68 in the 40 and verticaled 32 inches while weighing 285 pounds at the combine. Donald, an NFL star, plays with a mean streak. He thrives in the NFL because he has such great get-off and is excellent using his hands. As explosive as Donald is, Burnette says Street is even more explosive. “He made a huge jump last year. He started to translate the stuff he’s developed in the weight room over to the field, and I think he’s really gonna have a great year.” The coach describes a play from the Pack’s bowl game against Vanderbilt in which Street tossed a 6’6”, 315-pound starting offensive tackle in the air with one arm. That’s the kind of rare explosive power that’s been honed from all those heavy cleans in the weight room. 

“These guys [Street and his D-linemates] make strength coaches look good.”

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The ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year as selected by both the league’s coaches and media was every bit as impressive as his recruiting hype made him out to be. Lawrence had 79 tackles and 23 QB pressures and broke the Clemson freshman record with seven sacks while also producing 9.5 tackles for loss. At the NFL combine a few months ago, one NFL coach told me: "Mark it down now: The No. 1 overall pick of the 2019 draft is gonna be Dexter Lawrence. There is nothing like him in this draft in terms of size and quickness. He's ridiculous.”

Since reporting to Clemson a year ago, the 6’4 ½” Lawrence has trimmed down a bit this off-season to 335 from 342. His bench press is 465, but the really scary aspect is how fast he can move, clocking a 4.90 40 and a 10-yard split at 1.70. For perspective, at the combine one year ago Joey Bosa’s was 1.68 while weighing 269 pounds. And don’t count on Lawrence being slowed down by any sense of entitlement or buying his own hype. A few days before Clemson’s national title game, I told him that one of the Alabama assistant coach’s predicted that he would be the No. 1 pick of the 2019 draft. The big man just smiled and said, “It doesn’t matter now. I’m just a freshman."

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James Franklin has been around more than his share of Freaky athletes, but the only one he says has been closed to Barkley is his old Maryland tight end Vernon Davis, a guy who weighed in at 254 pounds and ran 4.38, vertical jumped 42 inches and broad jumped 10’8” at the NFL combine.

Everyone around the Nittany Lions program seems to have a unique story about the junior running back. Ask Franklin about his star running back and one of the first things he’ll tell you is about that time when Barkley was in high school and won the 100-meter race at a track meet. The girl who won her portion of the 100 was forced to run that race again because of a timer malfunction. She competed in other events and then didn’t win the 100. Barkley, who didn’t know the girl, opted to give her his gold medal. “When your best player is also one of your best character guys, your team has a chance to do special things."

Barkley arrived in State College as an already eye-popping talent. He told me he was clocked in the 40 at 4.48 in his freshman season. On the field, he also turned heads, gashing an Ohio State defense loaded with future first-rounders for 194 rushing yards en route to almost 1,100 for the season. However, Barkley was far from satisfied. 

"My freshman year I was explosive, but I didn’t have true speed,” Barkley told me this spring. "My 20- and 30-yard burst was really good, but when I got to go 60 or 100 I didn’t really have another gear. My being a freshman playing with seniors, I really wanted to increase my 40.”

Mission accomplished. Barkley, who has added 15 pounds (up to 228), has dropped his 40 time to 4.33. This summer, he’s also broken Anthony Zettel’s old school record in the power clean, going for 405, and he did five reps squatting 525 pounds.

"All credit to our strength coaches,” he says. "They’ve done a good job of challenging me.”

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