College Football Recruiting DE Rankings 2015: Top 10 After The Opening
Headlined by the nation's top-ranked recruit, the 2015 class of defensive ends should make life miserable in offensive backfields for years to come. College prospects from across the country bring rare blends of athleticism and size to the position, providing pass-rushing prowess and run-stuffing skills.
Dominant defensive ends can impact the game today more than ever, as offenses increasingly rely on keeping the quarterback upright in air-oriented attacks. Playmakers who can consistently pursue and harass the passer alter the fortunes of a defensive unit and force opponents to rewrite their game plans.
This recruiting cycle isn't lacking for talent at the position. A versatile mix of athletes attended The Opening in early July, testing their skills during a three-day showcase at Nike's world headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon and providing us a glimpse of several premier prospects.
Based on what we witnessed in Beaverton and have identified during game-film breakdowns, here's our examination of the top 10 defensive ends in America.
This article is part of Bleacher Report's CFB 200 Recruiting Rankings Series. The overall rankings are based on the 247Sports composite system, which takes into account every recruiting service's rankings. The positional rankings also correspond with those composite scores. Stay tuned over the next two weeks as we take an in-depth look at college football's stars of tomorrow.
10. Jalen Dalton, West Forsyth High School (Clemmons, North Carolina)
247Sports Crystal Ball Prediction: North Carolina (100 percent)
Jalen Dalton demands attention as a well-rounded weak-side defender who currently covers the run better than he rushes the passer. The 6'5", 235-pound playmaker also makes an impact on the basketball court; that element of his athleticism shows up as he smoothly uses his length to gain position.
His pass rush is predominantly built on finesse moves, as he quickly executes stunts and uses short-area change of direction to cross up offensive linemen. Dalton flashes a developing countermove that could elevate his status as a pocket-disrupter.
Long arms help prevent him from becoming tangled along the line, and he can quickly shed a block before bursting toward the play. Even if Dalton isn't in an ideal position to make the tackle himself, he does a solid job of stringing ball-carriers toward the sideline, where his teammates can clean up.
He must develop more strength in his base, as blockers are still able to force him off balance. Added bulk in his legs will come with collegiate weight training and provide a foundation that stabilizes efforts to fire upfield.
Dalton has the ability to drop back into coverage and could fill the role of an outside linebacker if he ends up in a 3-4 scheme. His leaping skills will also play a factor while defending passes in the flat, and he may even snag a few interceptions over the course of his career.
9. Shameik Blackshear, Bluffton High School (Bluffton, South Carolina)
Committed to: South Carolina
Shameik Blackshear, a 6'5", 240-pound prospect with multidimensional skills, enjoyed a career year in 2013. He tallied 97 tackles and five sacks, according to MaxPreps, appearing increasingly aware of what an offense is sending his way on a play-to-play basis.
He's another athletic freak in this class who can bludgeon blockers with strength, chase down ball-carriers and provide intermediate pass coverage. Simply put, there's a lot to like in his toolbox.
Blackshear bullies opposing linemen by getting underneath their chest plate at the point of attack. He's quick off the ball and uses this early positioning to take control and turn their shoulders.
He explodes out of his stance and makes quick work of whoever stands in his way, despite presenting a large target for blockers. There is also some finesse to his game, including inside countermoves and an occasional swim move.
Blackshear needs to bulk up for college in order to set the edge. Right now, there's little he could do against an experienced offensive tackle who is aided by a tight end along the outside.
He attacks with low pad level, paramount for a player of his height, and isn't afraid to mix things up inside. The worst thing he could do is sacrifice knee bend and stand up off the snap.
His progression as a pass-rusher will largely depend on his ability to build strength. He won't blow by pass protection but is quick enough to weave into the pocket by coupling that agility with a more effective punch.
8. Mekhi Brown, Carver High School (Columbus, Georgia)
Committed to: Alabama
Mekhi Brown is at the beginning stages of his development as a football player, but initial results have been spectacular. The early Alabama commit compiled 56 tackles, five sacks and three fumble recoveries as a junior, developing greater awareness game by game as the season progressed.
Brown, primarily a basketball player in his youth, still possesses the frame of a forward. His wingspan and 6'6" build are a big part of what makes him a highly effective run-stuffer along the edge.
This athleticism also suggests he could thrive in a stand-up linebacker role with the Crimson Tide. Brown admits he remains a work in progress, but the pieces are in place for a bright future.
"People say I’m quick off the ball and I have good burst, but I’m still raw," he said. "I have to work on my technique and coordination. Playing in college will really help with that because you spend so much time working on that stuff with the coaches."
Brown exhibits excellent effort in backside pursuit and drops the hammer on opponents with hard hits that send a message. His length enables him to gain separation in the trenches, and he already does a good job of peeking into the backfield in order to anticipate where the ball is headed.
His skills as a pass-rusher are probably the most unpolished part of his game right now, but it wouldn't be surprising to see Brown rapidly improve in that regard. He could double his sack total in 2014.
7. Canton Kaumatule, Punahou High School (Honolulu, Hawaii)
247Sports Crystal Ball Predictions: Stanford (100 percent)
Overlooked at times because of his location on the map, Canton Kaumatule clearly belongs among America's elite defensive-end recruits. He brings a mammoth frame to the field and exhibits surprising quickness to utilize that size.
Kaumatule, who stands at 6'6.5", 275 pounds, will instantly become one of the tallest players in college upon his arrival. His height and wingspan should put him in position to disrupt the quarterback's sightlines and bat down pass attempts on a routine basis.
He manages to track down ball-carriers and can corral them with his big mitts. His diverse skill set presents opportunities for him to line up at strong-side defensive end in regular situations and slide inside for obvious passing downs.
Kaumatule may never be a dominant pass-rusher, but he has the ability to inhibit rushing efforts along the outside. His penchant for wedging gaps disrupts lanes and causes hesitation in the offensive backfield.
Aside from an effective bull rush, Kaumatule already flashes a solid swim move and can execute these techniques with staggering fluidity for an athlete of his stature.
6. Jashon Cornell, Cretin-Derham Hall High School (St. Paul, Minnesota)
Committed to: Ohio State
The recent Buckeyes commit commands respect in the trenches with a strong combination of power and explosion. Jashon Cornell's consistent ability to pound opponents off the snap really stands out on tape, as he immediately indents the passing pocket at the point of contact.
Cornell collected 70 tackles and 15 sacks last season, compiling 20 tackles for loss. He maneuvers in the backfield with burst rarely found in a thick, 260-pound defensive end.
While engaged along the line of scrimmage, his footwork puts him in position to penetrate gaps or bounce to the perimeter in order to set the edge. He appears comfortable while working inside and could excel in a 5-technique role if called upon to provide more of an interior presence.
Cornell presents options for Urban Meyer's staff at Ohio State.
"My ability to be versatile definitely helps," he said. "The more things you can do, the better your chances are of getting onto the field and making plays."
He can overwhelm blockers with strength but seems to be stepping things up as a tactician. Cornell's hand placement appeared to be more on point in Oregon than it was last fall, evidence that he's worked on his craft.
That diligence is always appreciated and should show up in a big way during his senior season.
His greatest approach as a pass-rusher at this stage is bull-rushing. He may not have elite change-of-direction ability to throw into the mix, but Cornell will be feared by quarterbacks throughout his college career.
5. Keisean Lucier-South, Lutheran High School (Orange, California)
247Sports Crystal Ball Prediction: UCLA (64 percent); Michigan (36 percent)
It's tough to project what lies ahead for Southern California standout Keisean Lucier-South because he remains rather raw. However, based on his performance in Beaverton, it's clear he's a prospect who continues to progress at a rapid pace.
He remains relatively lanky, standing at 6'5", 225 pounds, but there's everything to like about his frame from a physical standpoint, and that added bulk will come with time. For now, the focus is on his fundamentals.
Lucier-South, who tallied a team-high 10 sacks in 2013 according to MaxPreps, is extremely long. His massive wingspan and wide base enable him to occupy sizable chunks of space and disrupt passing lanes.
He is outstanding in pursuit of the quarterback, chasing down even the fleet of foot as they attempt to scramble. Lucier-South has strides to make as a tackler, at times letting players off the hook by not wrapping up and finishing off plays.
His athleticism is on full display once he disengages from an offensive lineman. Lucier-South surges upfield and forces the offense to adjust on the fly.
It's mind-boggling to imagine him going about his business while competing in the 260-pound range, which is where he'll need to be to maximize his potential. Guided by a high motor, there is room for major improvement in his overall approach.
"I know there are things I need to work on to become a more complete player," he said at The Opening. "That's my focus, and I already feel like I've improved many things."
Lucier-South's upside as a pass-rusher is what really has college teams enamored. He exhibits an effective jab at the point of attack and makes opponents pay with quick feet that exploit space.
4. Terry Beckner Jr., East St. Louis High School (East St. Louis, Illinois)
247Sports Crystal Ball Prediction: Missouri (76 percent); Ohio State (12 percent); USC (9 percent); LSU (3 percent)
Terry Beckner Jr. competed like he had plenty to prove in Oregon. Though he already secured his status as a 5-star and holds more than 20 scholarship offers, his demeanor was more like that of an unheralded recruit scrapping and clawing to land on the national radar.
"You get respect by getting it done on the field," Beckner said at The Opening. "Everyone is good out here, but if you don't compete it can make you look real bad. I stayed focused."
He comes off a junior campaign that featured 118 tackles, nine sacks and two interceptions. It's hard to believe Beckner tips the scales at 293 pounds while watching him operate in the trenches.
Standing 6'4" with a powerful lower body, he could wind up dominating as a 3-technique in a four-man front. However, if Beckner sticks at strong-side defensive end, it creates plenty of problems for the opposing offense.
He does an excellent job setting the edge against the run and shows enough speed to be effective as a backside chase defender who can hunt down ball-carriers. His pass-rushing skills don't suggest he'll ever become a double-digit sack artist, but Beckner will make sure his side of the pocket is bending, if not breaking, on a consistent basis.
It's a pleasure to watch him fight for position in the trenches, and he clearly has a handle on the mental aspect of things, which gives him an edge as a young player. Beckner could challenge for a starting role before the end of his freshman season.
"I'm trying to prepare for the next level as much as I can right now," he said. "I'll be ready to compete."
3. CeCe Jefferson, Baker County Senior High School (Glen St. Mary, Florida)
247Sports Crystal Ball Prediction: Florida (98 percent); Florida State (2 percent)
CeCe Jefferson is a scheme-diverse defender who could ultimately compete for a stand-up role in college. While he has the makings of a potential 3-4 linebacker, there's plenty to like about his progress along the front line.
The 6'2", 250-pound prospect outworks opponents and doesn't quit on plays, willing to pursue downfield when others won't. Jefferson spends plenty of time in the backfield, creating mayhem for offensive coordinators and keeping quarterbacks uncomfortable.
He racked up 68.0 tackles and 17.5 sacks in 2013, according to MaxPreps. His sack total sits at 32.5 since 2012, making him one of the most accomplished pass-rushers in the country.
Jefferson shows off elite power for his size, which gives opposing linemen fits when combined with his quick-trigger explosiveness. He drives through his hips to really pop the opposition, powering through with an actively engaged lower body.
His lateral movement allows him to essentially cut the field in half and take control of a large area. Jefferson also flashes the speed to simply beat tackles off the edge in his pursuit of the passer. This dynamic blend of strength and agility provides a balanced presence at the strong-side end.
Jefferson finishes plays aggressively, striking opponents at full force. Despite lacking elite length, he is able to fill a ton of space in a hurry and wraps up ball-carriers with consistency.
If Jefferson packs on pounds and develops a larger base, the 5-technique could become his ultimate destination in a 4-3 scheme.
2. Byron Cowart, Armwood High School (Seffner, Florida)
247Sports Crystal Ball Prediction: Florida (88 percent); Oregon (9 percent); Florida State (3 percent)
There were times at The Opening when it was fair to wonder whether Byron Cowart is about to begin his senior high school season or NFL career. That's how evolved his physical frame appears, already carrying a defined muscular build that doesn't usually develop for defensive linemen until well into their collegiate career.
The 6'4", 250-pound playmaker is more than just a workout warrior. Cowart looked smooth in drills and seemed to be one of the most coachable prospects in the mix based on minor adjustments he made as days progressed.
His college-ready physique bodes well for a significant freshman role, though it could be just about topped out from a maturity standpoint. Additional bulk could inhibit Cowart's range, which is a key element of what makes him special.
He collected 72 tackles and 13 sacks as a junior, anchoring a team that won 14 games. Cowart flashed his big-play ability by capitalizing on a pair of fumble returns for touchdowns.
High school offensive linemen are clearly intimidated by his presence, as he exploits slow footwork with a powerful initial burst and change-of-direction quickness. Cowart demonstrates a strong bull-rush technique and has room to grow in developing an array of finesse moves.
His pad level isn't always on point, particularly at times when he abandons knee bend off the snap. This sacrifices leverage, making it an element Cowart will need to focus on for continued improvement.
Stout size and tenacity suit him well for the strong-side position. Cowart is a determined player who plays scrappy and earns his way into the backfield, endearing qualities for a defensive end.
"I'm trying to outwork whoever I line up against," Cowart said. "You have to put in the effort to make plays and win matchups in position drills."
He claimed his fair share of victories throughout those battles in Beaverton.
1. Josh Sweat, Oscar Smith High School (Chesapeake, Virginia)
247Sports Crystal Ball Prediction: Virginia Tech (40 percent); Florida State (36 percent); Ohio State (12 percent); Georgia (8 percent); Tennessee (4 percent)
Josh Sweat is the result of rare, natural athleticism augmented by hard work. The new No. 1 overall prospect in 247Sports' composite rankings showcased both attributes in Beaverton.
He was the only lineman to qualify for the SPARQ championship, a series of tests used to determine the best all-around athlete at The Opening. Despite dealing with a sore hip, Sweat finished second in the nationally televised event.
"Josh is just a freak athlete," SPARQ winner Kirk Merritt said afterward. "I knew it would be tough to beat him. He's the kind of athlete you never really see, and I thought he was pretty amazing."
Sweat exhibited surreal abilities in Oregon while stating his case for a rise to the top spot in national rankings. The 6'5", 240-pound prospect commanded attention on the first day of competition, clocking a 4.46 40-yard dash.
That performance further fueled abundant comparisons to No. 1 NFL draft pick Jadeveon Clowney, who shares a lot of commonalities with Sweat, pretty sweet hairstyles aside. Both players exhibit an uncommon blend of elite burst and physical stature that is typically reserved for great weak-side rushers.
Sweat secured 22 sacks last fall, finishing his junior season with 94 total tackles. He teamed up with the top-ranked 2014 defensive tackle to create the kind of defensive tandem you'd find in a quarterback's nightmares.
The absence of Andrew Brown, now a freshman at Virginia, will test Sweat's resilience and ability to shoulder the defensive load. However, he is already used to spending four quarters in the crosshairs of an offensive blocking scheme and should hold up well.
Sweat's game is based on far more than elite speed.
His explosiveness translates into power, which is immediately evident as he fires off the ball with jolting arm extension and a strong, flexible base. Sweat punches through an opponent's chest plate before implementing lateral agility that makes offensive linemen look silly.
"You have to be perfect against Sweat," 5-star offensive tackle Mitch Hyatt said at The Opening after dealing with him in drills. "Otherwise you're done."
Instincts take over once he leaves linemen in his wake and surges into the backfield. Despite carrying a large amount of momentum, Sweat maintains body control and balance.
His hip fluidity shines as he reads and reacts upon locating the ball, never halting his attack in the process. Sweat's pursuit is special, whether he's chasing after a ball-carrier along the perimeter or closing in on a quarterback in the pocket.
Sweat is built more like a wide receiver than a traditional defensive end at this stage of his career. He should be able to comfortably carry an additional 15-to-20 pounds while gradually bulking up in college.
His skill set should translate immediately, and Sweat projects as a player who can become the face of a collegiate program in the years to come. Despite all the accolades, he comes off as a levelheaded, soft-spoken young man when you meet him in person.
"Wherever I end up at the next level, I want to be able to make an early impact," Sweat said.
He is set to spend official visits at Ohio State, Georgia, Virginia Tech, Oregon and Florida State, per Evan Watkins of 247Sports (subscription required).
All quotes obtained firsthand by Bleacher Report national recruiting columnist Tyler Donohue unless otherwise noted.
Recruit information and statistics courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.