Every Top 25 College Football Team's Defensive Catalyst for 2014

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistMay 13, 2014

Every Top 25 College Football Team's Defensive Catalyst for 2014

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    USC safety Su'a Cravens is the spark that ignites the Trojans defense.
    USC safety Su'a Cravens is the spark that ignites the Trojans defense.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Even in college, the old adage applies: Defense wins championships.

    Sure, the winning play from Florida State's BCS title win over Auburn came via a last-second touchdown pass, but the Seminoles would have never made it that far without a defense that made some big stops along the way, both in that game and throughout the 2013 season. It's why four FSU defenders were taken this past weekend in the 2014 NFL draft, and another two signed rookie free-agent deals.

    Offense is what provides the sizzle, but many times a great scoring drive is sparked by the play on defense. And in most cases, it's one or two players who tend to make the biggest plays, guys who can be called catalysts for what they set into motion with their effort.

    As we creep ever closer to the start of the 2014 college football season, here's a looking at the defensive catalyst for every team in our most recent Bleacher Report Preseason Top 25.

25. Clemson Tigers

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    Vic Beasley, Sr., DE

    Vic Beasley is the epitome of an economic tackler: When he takes someone down, it means something.

    Last season, Beasley had 44 tackles, but 23 were behind the line of scrimmage and 13 were sacks. He also was credited with 12 quarterback pressures, while he broke up six passes, forced four fumbles and recovered one to establish himself as one of the nation's premier pass-rushers.

    At 6'2" and 235 pounds, Beasley projects to be a linebacker in the pros, a place he could have already been headed toward had he not chose to come back for one more season. With Clemson breaking in many new players, the defense will have a lot of pressure on it to come through, and Beasley will lead that charge.

24. Texas Tech Red Raiders

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    Kenny Williams, Sr., LB

    After three seasons of doing his best to run through and around linebackers, Kenny Williams has become one in an effort to give Texas Tech's young defense a spark.

    Williams, who has rushed for 1,456 yards and 15 touchdowns for the Red Raiders during his offensive career and was their top runner the past two years, was moved to outside linebacker during spring practice. According to Tommy Magelssen of The Dallas Morning News, Williams has won the starting job.

    At 5'9" and 225 pounds, Williams isn't very big, but he's strong and has good speed to work the edges.

23. Mississippi Rebels

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    Robert Nkemdiche, So., DT

    The top-rated player in the 2014 recruiting class, according to 247Sports.com, Robert Nkemdiche came to Ole Miss with a lot of hype for his defensive prowess. And while he wasn't a lights-out, superbly dominant player as a true freshman, the 6'4", 277-pound Nkemdiche still starred on the defensive line.

    Nkemdiche started six games at defensive end and four at defensive tackle, finishing with eight tackles for loss and two sacks. Where he made a big impact, though, was in drawing double-teams that helped free up other Rebels to make the play.

22. Texas A&M Aggies

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    Deshazor Everett, Sr., CB

    Texas A&M's defense was not very impressive as a whole in 2013, yet Deshazor Everett was among the players whose effort on the field had the most positive impact. And with the Aggies looking even younger on defense this season, he'll be among the most relied-upon leaders.

    The 6'0", 188-pound Everett started nine games last year, finishing with 68 tackles and two interceptions. One of his picks was returned for a touchdown, while Everett also had a fumble return for a score, showing the ability to make a big play to help flip the field and give A&M's offense a break.

21. Kansas State Wildcats

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    Ryan Mueller, Sr., DE

    The reigning Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year, according to the league's coaches, Ryan Mueller terrorized quarterbacks and running backs looking to get around the edge all season in 2013. A former walk-on, he'll head into his senior year needing two sacks to become the school's career record holder in that stat.

    Last season, Mueller had 62 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks, tying a school record. He also recorded one of the most amazing single-handed plays in college football last year, chasing down Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty and stripping him as he tried to turn upfield, then diving on the fumble as it hit the ground.

    He's a little undersized at 6'2" and 245 pounds, but so far that hasn't stopped Mueller from being dominant.

20. Missouri Tigers

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    Braylon Webb, Sr., S

    While Missouri's great defense in 2013 was most known for the play of its front line, Braylon Webb was doing quite well holding down the back end of that unit with great pursuit and hard hitting. He'll have to do even more of that this season as one of the few returning standouts.

    The 6'0", 205-pound Webb had 89 tackles and three interceptions last year, including one in the Tigers' Cotton Bowl victory over Oklahoma State. Tod Palmer of The Kansas City Star notes that, as Mizzou's only returning starter in the secondary, he'll need to be a leader this fall.

19. Nebraska Cornhuskers

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    Randy Gregory, Jr., DE

    Randy Gregory's one year in Division I was among the best in recent memory, earning him numerous national honors and putting him in position to become a high draft pick if he comes out following the 2014 season. And at 6'6" and 245 pounds, he's got both the size and speed that professional teams want.

    Gregory had 10.5 sacks last year, most ever by a first-year player in Nebraska history, while also registering 19 tackles for loss as the main catalyst on the Cornhuskers defense. A former Purdue recruit who spent a year at a junior college before coming to Lincoln, he's considered the No. 1 defensive end in the 2015 NFL draft by NFLDraftScout.com.

18. Georgia Bulldogs

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    Ramik Wilson, Sr., LB

    The SEC's leader in tackles last season with 133, Ramik Wilson found his way into nearly every significant defensive play that Georgia made. The effort he put forth could have been the perfect springboard toward entering the NFL draft a year early, but Wilson never applied for a draft grade and decided to come back for his final season.

    Wilson had five games with at least 11 tackles, including a whopping 18 in Georgia's wild loss to Auburn. Though the Bulldogs defense got a lot of grief for giving up big plays last year, the 6'2", 232-pound Wilson was making the tackles when the play came his way.

17. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    Jaylon Smith, So., LB

    A 5-star recruit and the top-rated player in Notre Dame's 2013 class, per 247Sports.com, Jaylon Smith didn't disappoint in his first year of college football. He started every game of his freshman season, the first Fighting Irish player to do so at his position in 18 years.

    Smith had 67 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and an interception, and he also forced and recovered a fumble during Notre Dame's 9-4 season. At 6'2.5" and 230 pounds, Smith can still get bigger and should develop into one of the nation's top linebackers.

16. North Carolina Tar Heels

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    Norkeithus Otis, Sr., LB

    North Carolina's defense struggled early last season, then picked it up late behind a group of veterans who included rising star Norkeithus Otis. Otis was one of the few significant defenders back in 2013, so knowing how he fared last year has to make the Tar Heels coaching staff feel a little less stressed.

    Otis was second on the team in both sacks (7.5) and tackles for loss (13.5) out of the "Bandit" spot, sliding around to different spots on the field as the play dictated. His 6'1", 240-pound frame fit well into Larry Fedora's defensive system, and he should be a key piece of that unit this season.

15. Arizona State Sun Devils

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    Damarious Randall, Jr., S

    Damarious Randall made an instant impact in Arizona State's secondary last season after transferring from a junior college, covering the back line well and stepping up to make big hits and big plays at key moments.

    The 6'0", 185-pound Randall had 71 tackles in 12 games last season, logging 5.5 tackles for loss and three interceptions. One of his picks came in the rivalry game against Arizona and was returned for a momentum-swinging 64-yard touchdown.

14. LSU Tigers

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    D.J. Welter, Sr., LB

    LSU's roster took yet another big hit during the offseason to professional aspirations, but at least the Tigers know they've got their middle-of-the-field leader on defense to still turn to in 2014. D.J. Welter was as consistent as they come last year, and nothing less is expected this fall.

    After missing nearly the entire 2012 season because of academic issues, the 6'1", 235-pound Welter became a starter for the first time last year and ran with the added responsibilities. He had 80 tackles, four tackles for loss and two sacks, finishing the season with a solid effort in LSU's win over Iowa in the Outback Bowl.

13. South Carolina Gamecocks

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    Sharrod Golightly, Sr., LB/S

    The epitome of someone who just keeps on working to get better, Sharrod Golightly enters his fifth year at South Carolina in line to start at the "Spur" spot for the second straight season. His numbers weren't incredible last year, but his effort was.

    Golightly had 47 tackles, six tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries in 2013, but that was while playing behind the dominant Gamecocks front line. That unit is depleted, meaning the 5'10", 205-pound Golightly will be finding himself playing up closer to the line more often this season from his Spur position.

12. USC Trojans

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    Su'a Cravens, So., S

    USC has a long tradition of great defensive players, including in the secondary, and Su'a Cravens has already shown after one season he's on pace to join that elite list. His freshman year was among the best in the country at his position, and all signs point to him continuing to get better.

    The 6'1", 215-pound Cravens started 13 games as a true freshman at strong safety, intercepting four passes and controlling the back line for a Trojans defense that saw constant lineup turnover because of injury. This year, he'll be asked to be a mentor to young secondary recruits while also handling his on-the-field duties.

11. Baylor Bears

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    Bryce Hager, Sr., LB

    Baylor's defense didn't get much attention in 2013 for its efforts, overshadowed by the Bears' electric offense. But guys such as Bryce Hager were making plays all year long.

    Hager had 71 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and one sack in nine games last season, missing time due to a groin injury that kept him out of the Bears' final four games. He also missed spring practice but is expected back at full strength in the fall, when he should return to the form that saw the 6'2", 235-pound Hager record 124 tackles and four sacks in 2012 as a sophomore.

10. Wisconsin Badgers

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    Mike Caputo, Jr., S

    After a brief switch to linebacker during spring ball, Mike Caputo is set to start again at his natural safety position this fall. It's where he shined last season in his first full year as a starter, and where Wisconsin needs his unique blend of coverage skills and aggression when he comes up to the line of scrimmage.

    The 6'1", 206-pound Caputo had 63 tackles and three tackles for loss last season, playing the rush with the same intensity and dedication he did toward pass coverage.

9. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Michael Bennett, Sr., DT

    Ohio State's defensive line had to be completely rebuilt entering the 2013 season, but now that unit is among the best in the country. And Michael Bennett's play is a big reason for that.

    The 6'2", 288-pound Bennett had seven sacks last season, and he showed the versatility to switch between multiple spots on the line depending on the formation. The most experienced member of the Buckeyes front four, Bennett looks poised for another big year.

8. UCLA Bruins

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    Myles Jack, So., LB

    Myles Jack went from being a pretty good linebacker to a superstar midway through last season when he was inserted at running back and scored seven touchdowns in a relief role that included one start. But where Jack is most valuable and will be most utilized this year is back in the middle of UCLA's inexperienced defense.

    The 6'1", 230-pound Jack had 75 tackles on that side of the ball, second-most ever by a Bruins freshman, en route to him being the first player to ever claim the Pac-12's Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year awards.

7. Stanford Cardinal

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    Jordan Richards, Sr., S

    Stanford lost five starters from the stellar defense it used to reach the Rose Bowl last season, but all isn't lost thanks to the return of a solid contributor in the secondary in Jordan Richards.

    Richards had three interceptions last year, including two in the big win over UCLA that helped pace the Cardinal to another Pac-12 title, and he was also key in helping to stop the run when opponents would try to overload the box. The 5'11", 208-pound Richards had 66 tackles last season.

6. Oklahoma Sooners

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    Charles Tapper, Jr., DE

    Charles Tapper went from part-time player as a freshman to dominant defender in his second season at Oklahoma, breaking through to become one of the Big 12's top defensive linemen. He's done so by not just being big and strong, but also showing off great speed and athleticism.

    The 6'4", 273-pound Tapper started 12 games in 2013, registering nine tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. He's part of a front line that returns completely intact, though Tapper will be the main focus of opposing blockers.

5. Oregon Ducks

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    Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Sr., CB

    Among the nation's top cornerbacks the last two seasons, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu held off on going to the NFL after his junior year to fine-tune a few pieces of his game. That means another year of his great cover skills and ability to sniff out the ball.

    The 5'10", 195-pound Ekpre-Olomu has seven career interceptions, including three last season, but he's also contributed to Oregon's underrated defense by forcing seven fumbles, and last year he had five tackles for loss thanks to his great open-field tackling and angle discipline.

4. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Landon Collins, Jr., S

    Another big departure of talent from Alabama's defense—the Crimson Tide had five defenders drafted—will mean 2014 will again see a bunch of new faces starting when the season begins in late August. But Landon Collins is back, which means the secondary will again be one of the toughest to throw on in the country.

    The 6'0", 215-pound Collins had 67 tackles and two interceptions last season, and after Vinnie Sunseri was injured, he became an even more important part of the pass defense alongside Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Both of those players are gone, though, which means Collins will be the veteran who is tasked with helping along youngsters that include top recruits Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey.

3. Michigan State Spartans

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    Shilique Calhoun, Jr., DE

    Few players had as big a breakout season in 2013 on defense as Shilique Calhoun, who entered the year with six career tackles and ended it as one of the nation's best edge-rushers. Now he'll go into what's probably going to be his final year of college with the challenge of having to deal with almost constant double-teams.

    Last year, the 6'4", 257-pound Calhoun had 14 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks, but his impact on Michigan State's defensive dominance was felt in many other ways. Early on, he scored three defensive touchdowns, two on fumble recoveries and one on an interception, then for the rest of the season became a nearly unstoppable force that disrupted Big Ten backfields every week.

    The consensus All-American was named the Big Ten's top defensive lineman and should be a front-runner for multiple defensive national awards this season.

2. Auburn Tigers

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    Carl Lawson, So., DE

    Auburn's defense was full of playmakers last season despite not putting up the stats to back up such a distinction. And even though one of the Tigers' most dependable defenders (defensive end Dee Ford) has been drafted into the NFL, there should be great improvement shown in 2014 thanks to the development of Carl Lawson.

    Lawson's playing time increased as the season went along last year, with the 6'2", 261-pounder finishing with four sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. His progress was a great sign of continued success for the Tigers, and if he can slide into Ford's spot and contribute in a similar way, then they'll remain in contention for national titles.

1. Florida State Seminoles

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    P.J. Williams, Jr., CB

    Florida State may not start any seniors on defense this fall as it sets out to win back-to-back national championships, but the Seminoles shouldn't be any worse for wear because of the talent and experience that's still around from last year. P.J. Williams is at the forefront of those returners and should be one of the nation's top corners in 2014.

    Williams, who was the defensive MVP of FSU's win over Auburn in the BCS National Championship Game, intercepted Nick Marshall when the Seminoles were down 21-13, helping to spark a comeback. It was one of many big plays the 6'0", 196-pound Williams had last season, and even more of those will happen this year as he steps up to replace Lamarcus Joyner as the team's top defensive back. 

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.