The Lookout List: EDGE
By Simon Carroll
Is there anything more enjoyable than watching a Quarterback get taken down by a pass-rusher? Well if it’s your QB then there’s probably plenty. Regardless, here are the names of ten elite edge rushers from College Football that will be terrorising offenses in 2019:
Chase Young, Ohio State Buckeyes
If you think the hype surrounding Nick Bosa was off the charts during his time at Columbus, you ain’t seen nothing yet. When the aforementioned defensive end was injured early in 2018 and decided to focus instead on his preparation for the NFL rather than return to The Horseshoe’s famed turf, Chase Young stepped into the breach. And what an impact the sophomore made – 9.5 sacks, 14.5 tackles for a loss and 75 Quarterback pressures in 2018. Those numbers are quite simply ridiculous – according to PFF he beat the lineman whilst pass rushing once almost every five attempts.
His technique and fundamentals are exemplary – you can tell he’s been excellently coached. Couple that with his elite athleticism and you can start to understand the excitement from the Buckeye fans and coaching staff. Heading into his junior year Young is without doubt the leader on this defense and being talked up as a potential number one overall pick should he declare for the 2020 NFL Draft.
AJ Epenesa, Iowa Hawkeyes
As you’re about to find out, this Lookout List is Big Ten heavy – six out of the ten prospects hail from the oldest division 1 conference in the USA. And The Hawkeyes might just have the most exciting one of the lot. 6’6” and 280lbs, AJ Epenesa is a long, imposing edge rusher who has been ultra-productive in his college career. Eyebrows were raised when the five star recruit committed to Iowa but it has borne fruit – Epenesa pretty much started as a freshman and has 15 sacks, 52 total tackles and 22 tackles for a loss in two years.
The best thing about Epenesa is he’s not just a pass-rush specialist. His ability setting the edge in the run game means he stays on the field as a five-tech in the Hawkeye’s subpackage. With Iowa set for a tilt at the West Division they will be relying on Epenesa to maintain these levels of performance. If he takes his game to an even higher level then be prepared to see him play on Sundays.
Curtis Weaver, Boise State Broncos
When you play for a football program as creative as Boise State are, versatility is going to keep you on the field. As a hybrid Defensive End/Outside Linebacker, Curtis Weaver is just that. Ultra productive rushing the passer from any level, Weaver has 20.5 sacks in two years on the blue turf. In this highlight clip against Colorado State, we see Weaver utilised in different ways. He can get to the quarterback around the edge but also likes to delay then cut inside for interior pressure:
As you can see Weaver predominantly plays in a two-point stance, even on the line. This is to take advantage of his elite speed and maybe disguise a lack of core strength. 264lbs is an ideal weight for an edge rusher, but NFL teams may want to see more power to his game. I would argue he’s perfectly suited to a Leo role in the popular hybrid defenses you see in San Francisco, Atlanta and Seattle amongst other places. Another year of production and he’ll force scouts to acknowledge his pro potential.
Carter Coughlin, Minnesota Golden Gophers
The first true senior on this list, Carter Coughlin has toiled through some tough seasons up in Minneapolis. But following on from a breakout 2018 where he tallied 9.5 sacks and 48 total tackles, there is light at the end of the tunnel for this football program. The Gophers have some talent on this roster, but in a tough division the win column might not reflect it. Despite that, Coughlin has the game to give opposing Big Ten quarterbacks sleepless nights.
As a lot of these edge rushers, Coughlin can flit between defensive end and outside linebacker. Looking at the game tape, he is most effective with his hand in the dirt or as a designated pass-rusher at the line, almost in a ‘Wide-9’ position. His play diagnosis is excellent and once he keys onto the football it’s very difficult for offensive linemen to deal with his speed and tenacity. He makes plays on the football, particularly knocking the ball out as the quarterback is in his throwing motion. With an all-round game and an ability to make things happen, Coughlin is one to keep an eye out for in 2019.
Julian Okwara, Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Have you ever seen a CFB defensive end drop back into coverage and make an interception? Didn’t think so. Well Julian Okwara has done it. TWICE. Long and ultra-lean, Okwara is an athletic freak. Watching his game tape I lost count of the amount of times he’s chased down the ball carrier or sacked the quarterback from the backside. It’s not even as if he’s a hybrid linebacker – Okwara plays with his hand in the dirt but on obvious passing downs is able to drop back into open space and hold a zone. That is quite remarkable.
Despite seeing game time in his first two seasons in South Bend it was last year as a Junior that Okwara truly broke out. 8 sacks and 12.5 tackles for a loss shows just how much havoc he can wreak in the backfield. Whilst he’s not the best at setting the edge his sheer athleticism allows him to be a playmaker in any situation. He’s the wildcard in this defense, and opponents better know where he is on every down.
Kenny Willekes, Michigan State Spartans
I’ve been pretty bullish in my opinion that The Spartans will return to their usual role of overachievers after a step back in 2018, and their defensive line is one of the reasons for my optimism. With Raequan Williams keeping the run at bay on the inside, Kenny Willekes has been making hay off the edge for the past two years. He has the most QB pressures AND hits out of any defensive player in that time span. Like Weaver he can line up at linebacker but he’s undoubtedly better with his hand in the dirt.
As we can see in this highlight reel, he can just blow by tackles and round the corner into the backfield. But Willekes is also very stout against the run. In one of my favourite plays of last year, watch him bulldoze his blocker into the backfield and straight into the path of the ball carrier (2:12):
I’m not sure whose idea it was on Jim Harbaugh’s staff to line a Tight End up against him but it didn’t work. A former walk-on, Willekes plays with a point to prove on every snap. I can’t wait to watch him frustrate the Big Ten big boys this season.
Mike Danna, Michigan Wolverines
What are you to do when you have two elite pass rushers but they both leave for the NFL? Steal one from your neighbours of course. That’s exactly what Michigan have done here. After lighting up the MAC over at Central Michigan, Mike Danna heads over to Ann Arbor for his senior year. He’ll help the Wolverines in replacing Rashan Gary & Chase Winovich, and whilst one man can’t do the job of two Danna’s stats stand up admirably to his predecessors. He had more tackles and sacks than either of the first and second round draft picks, and according to PFF won almost one in four of his pass-rush attempts.
Now, the Big Ten is a far cry from the MAC. There will definitely be a learning curve for Danna, who projects to slot in nicely as the buck linebacker in defensive co-ordinator Don Brown’s aggressive 3-4 scheme. But he’s adept in stopping the run and when it comes to the pass-rush has a remarkable arsenal of moves that you might not expect from a non-power five college player. You can go ahead and add the name Mike Danna to the list of formidable edge rushers in this conference.
Patrick Johnson, Tulane Green Wave
With so many elite edge prospects at big schools I found it hard to locate one at one of the smaller programs in college football. But boy have I found a diamond in the rough here. Patrick Johnson is another athletic specimen who made play after play fro the Green Wave last year. It was quite the growth for Johsnon, who in his first year in New Orleans had zero sacks. As a sophomore he recorded double-digit takedowns and 49 total tackles.
As the Joker end/linebacker, Johnson enjoys the freedom to line up in a variety of spots for Tulane. His impressive sideline to sideline speed can see him chase down ball carriers from the opposite side of the field. On occasion he lacks the ability to get off his block, but I’ve also witnessed him line up inside and push the pocket, showing he has the core strength to line up in a three point stance. An absolute tackling machine with a non-stop motor, Johnson can effectively navigate his way through the wash and make the play. Let’s see if he can find a little more consistency in his junior year.
Xavier Thomas, Clemson Tigers
Xavier Thomas was part of a defensive line group that sent four guys to the NFL this April, all coming off the board in the top 120 picks (three in the first round). Despite being a feshman and despite the competition for snaps, Thomas made his mark; 33 tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks is not a bad first year in tiger orange. He introduced himself to the fans in Clemson’s closest game last year, sealing the deal by almost de-cleating Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey on their final drive:
With only one starter in that front seven returning to Death Valley, big things are expected of Thomas in 2019. His violent hitting is matched by good awareness and anticipation on a play. His tackling form is impeccable, he never lets anyone sneak out the backside and can collapse the pocket from the edge or the interior. He provided considerable specials team value last year but it remains to be seen if he keeps those duties with his role increasing on defense. Be prepared for a big step up in production from Thomas in 2019.
Yetur Gross-Matos, Penn State Nittany Lions
Unquestionably the best name on this list, Yetur Gross-Matos cuts an imposing figure on the football field. Wearing 99 and looking every bit an NFL defensive end, Gross-Matos announced himself on the Big Ten stage as a sophomore. 8 sacks, 54 tackles and 20 tackles for a loss in his first year as a starter bodes well for the Nittany Lions in 2019. His strength is his biggest asset; I’ve witnessed him literally flick Iowa’s respected tackle Alaric Jackson away with just the swipe of a hand. Jackson has almost 60 pounds on Gross-Matos…
Gross-Matos doesn’t play with aggression, he plays with violence. Very rarely deceived with misdirection in the backfield, he’s quick to diagnose a play and then brutally breaks it up in any way he can. His hands are very quick, allowing him to avoid being locked on to by a lineman, and you can almost feel the giddiness as he explodes into the ball carrier. He loves to hit and has a boyish exuberance for the game that reminds me of Michael Bennett. A man amongst boys, Gross-Matos has a real chance of being a high first round draft pick in 2020.
previously the founder of nfl draft uk, simon has been covering college football and the nfl draft since 2009. based in manchester, simon is also co-creator & weekly guest of the collapsing pocket podcast.