SI All-American: Ranking the Top 10 Interior Defensive Linemen in the Class of 2021
Edwin Weathersby II
After compiling several months worth of data in addition to cycling back for a closer look at the 2019 football season, SI All-American has put pen to paper at each position group.
As we work towards the preseason SI99, ranking the top 99 college football prospects regardless of position, establishing a top 10 ahead of the 2020 season for each position group plays paramount. The offensive positions rankings has wrapped up and we kick off defense in the trenches with the interior line prospects.
From old-school noseguards to new-age, pass-rushing 3-techniques with enough athleticism to play as the end man of an odd-man front, this group features that combination of size, athleticism and of course polish that make interior defenders among the priority positions on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Here are the best of the best within the interior defensive line projections ahead of the 2020 football season.
1. Korey Foreman, Corona (Calif.) Centennial
6-foot-4, 265 pounds
Considering Clemson, USC, Oregon, LSU, Alabama, Georgia and Howard
We list Foreman as our top interior defensive line prospect, yet make no mistake about it: he can certainly live on the edges at the next level. However, his frame, bulk, strength and power are all traits that warrant an interior projection. Foreman is urgent and intentful with his snap quickness, reduces ground in a hurry to engage with blockers and has a powerful longarm stab that he lands with consistent accuracy. We’ve seen him put offensive linemen on skates and train-wreck secondary blockers. He has very good mesh-point vision to track runners and hunts with good closing quickness. Foreman is also a power-player as a pass-rusher, and does show hand quickness to counter. The SoCal native can play as a base strong-side end or as a 3-technique defensive tackle in a 4-man front, plus we also feel he could project very well as an end in a 3-man front at the 4i/5-technique alignment, which leads to the interior listing here.
2. Damon Payne, Belleville (Mich.) Belleville
6-foot-4, 297 pounds
Committed to Alabama
Payne is a big interior defensive line prospect who plays to his size at the point. He’s got experience playing across the defensive front, as we’ve seen him line up at 0, 1, 3 and 5 technique on tape. The Michigan native loves to use a swim move to defeat blockers in the trenches and syncs up his lower-half well when clearing his hips at entry points. He also possesses plus COD traits and quickness to hunt in short areas. Payne also likes his swim/arm-over as a pass-rusher. He has both single-gap and 2-gap traits to his game, due to his penetration quickness, size, strength and tight-space athleticism. Payne could see time as a base 0-tech nose tackle for Alabama head coach Nick Saban, though he has the versatility to move across the defensive line since the Crimson Tide routinely deploys multiple fronts on Saturdays.
3. Tywone Malone, Oradell (N.J.) Bergen Catholic
6-foot-3, 290 pounds
Considering Ohio State, Clemson, Tennessee, Rutgers, USC, Alabama and others
With his fantastic athleticism, we’ve seen Malone line up at receiver and pluck passes with his mitts in traffic. He shows rare movement skills for an interior defensive lineman, often penetrating single gaps with snap quickness. The New Jersey native has a swim and bull-rush in his pass-rush toolbox, plus he has some ability to bend and corner with a flat angle to a passer’s launch point. Malone has enough strength and power to punch and peek at the point, stack and be responsible for dual gaps in the run game. He will need to play with better leverage and pad level at the point, but he has traits of a swing interior tackle who can play 1,3, 4i and 5-technique for a defense.
4. Leonard Taylor, Miami (Fla.) Palmetto
6-foot-4, 265 pounds
Committed to Miami
A big recruiting win for Miami, Taylor is among the top defensive prospects in the country. He’s impressive on the hoof with a great frame, and has long arms that are noticeable on tape. Taylor relies very heavily on his swim move versus the run and pass, and flashes good bendability at entry points to achieve sinkage and clear his hips to defeat offensive linemen. The future Hurricane has good athleticism, often showing hip flexibility, balance and short-area quickness to finish on ball-carriers. While there’s a slight chance Taylor sees time as a “Viper” early in his career for Miami head coach Manny Diaz, we expect him to blossom as a playmaking interior defensive lineman before he leaves Coral Gables.
5. Payton Page, Greensboro (N.C.) Dudley
6-foot-4. 330 pounds
Committed to Clemson
Page is a classic, space-eater who’s a throwback nose tackle and fun to watch on tape. He’s an elephant in the trenches who can control the line of scrimmage in either A-gap. The Clemson commit can sit on the head of a center and use impressive power at the point to push the pocket from the interior and force quarterbacks off their mid-line at the top of their drops, which creates opportunities for crashing perimeter rushers. Page has easy anchor strength in the run game, where he can punch with shock at the point and peek to locate runners before shedding and closing. The more we watch Page, the more we start to think Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables is reminded some of former Tiger interior defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence in Page.
6. Masson Smith, Houma (La.) Terrebonne
6-foot-4, 320 pounds
Considering LSU, Alabama, USC
One of the most physically impressive trench prospects at any position, Smith is that rare tackle talent who jumps off the screen with his size, quickness and impact while living in the opposing backfield. He carries 300-plus pounds like nobody's business but offers a strength at the point of attack few offensive linemen could contend with. Through his junior year Smith relied heavily on his raw ability and quick-triggered swim move to counter an elite bull rush, but seems to have expanded with his tool box some as he showed during a dominant run at the Future 50 camp in January (video above). Should the top prospect in Louisiana continue to push for polish, he won't wait long to see the field on Saturdays perhaps as 0-technique in a defense with an odd front with 2-gap principles where he can man both A-gaps.
7. Gabriel Rubio, Saint Peters (Mo.) Lutheran
6-foot-6, 285 pounds
Committed to Notre Dame
The future Notre Dame standout brings a lot to the table on tape, attacking backfields from multiple alignments with success. Rubio, who also starts along the offensive line at the varsity level, is most at home pushing from the interior with great size, length, polish and a high motor to boot. He uses his hands violently in diverse ways to make plays. He projects to be capable of playing 0, 1, 4i, and 5-technique on different fronts at the collegiate level, versatility that will likely help him see the field sooner rather than later in South Bend. Rubio can stunt and play outside as a pass rusher with success while possessing the wherewithal to motor down and redirect as needed versus the run or pass within his responsibility. While not the twitchiest prospect on the list, pushing the pocket with a deep set of moves including the power/bull rush, swipe, club-and-rip and swim technique at his size works well in any defensive front.
8. Lee Hunter, Eight Mile (Ala.) Blount
6-foot-5, 292 pounds
Committed to Auburn
One of the most polarizing prospects in the South, Hunter burst onto the scene as an underclassman thanks to immense size, two-way starting ability and a motor that seemingly wouldn't quit. He bulked up even more the next year but has trimmed back down around the 300-pound mark where his pound-for-pound athleticism shines brightest. When he's on, few in America stack up to the sheer force Hunter plays with in small windows. It translates to two-gap principles that can be utilized in any defensive scheme given his pop at the point of attack, head-turning wingspan and extension. Consistency continues to be coveted with his game, but if part of the projection business is ceiling-focused, Hunter is one of the top interior defensive line talents anywhere.
9. Mike Hall, Streetsboro (Ohio)
6-foot-3, 275 pounds
Committed to Ohio State
Another versatile defender on this list, Hall can line up at either traditional defensive tackle spot and can challenge tackles and tight ends in an odd-man front if asked. The future Buckeye is built for today's trench game with his lighter, quicker build, translating to consistent activity in the opposing backfield. Leverage and anticipation help round out his strengths from a floor standpoint while he shows some promise in the development of his hand usage against blockers. Hall relies on a swift swim move and flashes a one-handed swipe to counter at this stage of his development. Increased lower-body muscle mass and depth in hand technique could be the difference between an instant impact or a shot at spot duty early on in Columbus. Down the road we expect him to grow into a 1-technique/A-gap style defensive tackle.
10. Elliot Donald, Pittsburgh (Pa.) Central Catholic
6-foot-2, 250 pounds
Committed to Pittsburgh
Of course that last name, at that city, committed to that program carries plenty of expectation but Donald delivers. The nephew of All-Pro NFL defensive tackle Aaron Donald, Elliot does show some similar traits at the same stage of development. He is incredibly active off the snap and puts pressure on blockers as soon as any prospect on this list, especially in crashing the B-gap against zone blocking schemes. That elite quickness would translate further down the line in an odd-man front as needed but we see Donald as a new-age 3-technique defensive tackle while at Pitt. Urgency is countered with strong polish and overall technique in the phone booth beyond a classic, yet effective swim move. A mature near-leg step-through, stutter and bull-rush are also in his arsenal.
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John Garcia, Jr. contributed to this feature.