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2018 college football appetizer: Defensive players who are flying under the radar

NCAA Football: Frisco Bowl-Louisiana Tech vs Southern Methodist Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

As the anticipation for the return of college football continues to ramp up, many fans are beginning their research into which names they need to know to prepare for the season. Last week, I posted an appetizer piece highlighting some underrated offensive players to highlight in your programs, and this week I want to focus on the defensive side of the ball.

Everybody knows about the Ed Olivers and Nick Bosas of the college football landscape, so allow me to introduce some players who are flying under the radar at the moment.

Defensive line

The first thing you need to know, and this is very important – this 2019 class may contend for the deepest defensive line class in NFL draft history. There, I said it. To put it in perspective, out of my early top 32 prospects, 13 are defensive linemen. That’s almost half of the first round.

Starting with the defensive tackles, Wisconsin’s Olive Sagapolu and Western Illinois’ Khalen Saunders are two freaky dudes to take note of. Last month, Saunders tweeted a video of himself doing a front handspring flip at 300 pounds, and Sagapolu bested the effort on the beach in May by flashing his athleticism at an unreal 346 pounds. Any team in the market for a promising third day three-technique prospect should circle Kansas’ Daniel Wise. Wise finished last season with 16 tackles for loss and the younger brother of New England Patriots edge rusher Deatrich Wise Jr. earned 2018 Preseason All-Big 12 selection honors.

In addition to these defensive tackles, teams can find some good value at edge rusher outside of the first round. Florida Gators defensive end Cece Jefferson considered entering the 2018 draft, but instead chose to return to school and suffered a shoulder injury in April’s spring game with a four-month recovery timeline. Even if Jefferson comes back early in the 2018 season, it will take some time for him to knock off the rust, and a slow start could negatively impact his stock. Another edge rusher to highlight is Lousiana Tech’s Jaylon Ferguson, who has put up eye-popping production in Conference USA. In three seasons with the Bulldogs, the 6’5” 255-pound Ferguson has 122 tackles (41.5 for loss) and 27.5 sacks.

Linebackers

Outside of LSU’s Devin White and perhaps Duke’s Joe Giles-Harris, what the 2019 linebacker class lacks in top end talent, they make up for in potential late round gems.

From the Big 12 alone, Texas Tech’s Dakota Allen, TCU’s Ty Summers, West Virginia’s David Long and Iowa State’s Marcel Spears Jr. are Tasmanian devils in the second level who broke onto the scene in 2017. Famous from Last Chance U, Allen has done a total 180 at Texas Tech, earning team captain status. Summers vastly improved in coverage in 2017 and will lead a Horned Frogs defensive unit that can contend for the Big 12 title this year. Spears and Long are both under-sized speedsters who can excel in hybrid safety/linebacker roles in the NFL.

Out of the smaller schools, Buffalo’s Khalil Hodge and Florida Atlantic’s Azeez Al-Shaair are a pair of high-volume tacklers who possess the elite instincts and closing speed to catch the attention of NFL personnel departments. Hodge led the MAC with 153 tackles in 2017 and has 276 stops in two seasons with the Bulls since transferring from Community College of San Francisco. As impressive as Hodge’s numbers are, Al-Shaair has tallied 352 tackles in three seasons for Lane Kiffin’s Owls.

Defensive Backs

Teams looking for resident nickel cornerbacks will be ecstatic with the crop of talent on the horizon for 2019. Florida State’s Levonta Taylor, Miami’s Michael Jackson, Michigan’s Lavert Hill, and Oregon’s Ugo Amadi are all day-one nickel starters in the NFL and may be taken higher than expected due to the scarcity of talent at the position. On the boundaries, Oklahoma State’s AJ Green, Duke’s Mark Gilbert, and Kentucky’s Derrick Baity are a trio of ascending talents you should keep tabs on this season.

At the safety position, a few intriguing names include Kansas State’s Denzel Goolsby, Boston College’s Lukas Denis, and Florida Atlantic’s Jalen Young. A fourth-year junior and two-time Academic All-Big 12 selection, Goolsby is the cousin of Jaguars tight end DeAndre Goolsby and is primed for a breakout season. Any team looking for a true ball-hawking free safety should have Denis and Young high on their wish lists. Denis and Young both finished 2017 with seven interceptions and another turnover-laden campaign could move them into the top safety conversation.

Which players do you have earmarked for the upcoming college football season?