Ah, the mighty defensive end. Bane of quarterbacks and disruptor of passing attacks everywhere. Unfortunately, the NFL agrees, and ends are usually high on the shopping list at draft time, even as underclassmen (although no position seems safe anymore). Why? Defensive end is one of those rare positions where sheer talent can make a guy a factor until he learns the ropes and gets into NFL shape. The same applies to the college level, as a skinny freshman pass rusher can wreak havoc on gameday while he bulks up into more of an all-round threat. So college teams will usually get the more talented ends into the rotation straight away, and when they are ready to start in a year or so, look out. This list is comprised of players who fit that mould, and are generally ready to step up and replace a star veteran. Unsurprisingly, the majority are from the SEC. As always, there are a ton of guys who haven’t made the list for various reasons – please feel free to offer your own suggestions.
Carl Lawson, Auburn
This sophomore has big shoes to fill, replacing Dee Ford. Ford, as you may remember, was dynamite in spearheading Auburn’s defensive charge all the way to national championship game. Lawson, though, may be just the man for the job. One of the top-ranked defensive ends coming out of high school, Lawson worked his way up the rotation, playing in every game and finishing second on the team with 4 sacks. In his best game of the season, against Ole Miss, Lawson racked up 6 tackles (5 solo), making 3.5 in the backfield, 2 of which were sacks. His second sack of the day sealed the win. While Lawson never scaled those heights again, he flashed enough to suggest that the Tigers will be solid at at least one end for the next couple of years. Lawson finished with 20 tackles, 7.5 for loss, 4 sacks, 7 hurries and 2 fumbles forced.
Shaq Lawson, Clemson
2013 seemed to have been a banner year for top defensive ends called Lawson, as Clemson’s Shaq, another top high school recruit, had a season comparable to his namesake. Shaw saw plenty of action in all 13 games, making 30 tackles, 10 for loss, 4 sacks, 1 PBU and 4 hurries, as part of a Clemson pass rush that accounted for 38 sacks. He was voted onto a number of freshman all-American teams, and looks poised to make a run at a starting job in spring camp, even with seniors Vic Beasley (13 sacks) and Corey Crawford (2.5 sacks) back. The Tigers have been doing a good line in defensive ends recently (Andre Branch, da’Quan Bowers et al), and Lawson looks to be ready to follow Beasley as the next in that line.
Jamal Palmer, Baylor
It says a lot about how far Baylor has come under Art Briles when, instead of scrambling to find the pieces to put together a passable defense, we are talking about slotting in the next big thing. With senior defensive ends Chris McAllister and Terrance Lloyd out of eligibility, Baylor finds itself with a couple of key vacancies. Luckily, the cupboard is not Bear. Palmer, a soon-to-be junior, has been working his way into the rotation over the last couple of years, and now he’s ready to take center stage. Despite not starting a game last season, Palmer finished second on the team with 5 sacks. He was more than just a pass rusher too, racking up 38 tackles, 11 for loss, 7 quarterback hurries and 5 force fumbles and recovering 2. He won’t have to do it all himself with a decent looking line, but he will get a chance to be the star.
Shane Ray, Missouri
Michael Sam may have been making headlines more for off-field matters than his play during the season, but he was still the SEC co-defensive player of the year, which is no easy feat. Replacing Sam certainly won’t be either. Ray, though, looks like he could be the answer. After flashing some ability in his freshman season, Ray turned it up a notch last year as a regular in the rotation. Despite not starting a single game, Ray saw plenty of action, making 39 tackles, 9 for loss, with 4.5 sacks, 8 hurries and 2 fumbles forced. He flashed his outstanding speed in the Cotton Bowl, as he returned a game-clinching fumble 73 yards for a TD to beat Oklahoma State. Ray has been working hard in camp to improve his game, and should be a major player in continuing Mizzou’s ferocious pass rush next season.
Robinson differs from the other guys on the list in a couple of areas. Firstly, he plays predominantly as a 3-4 end. Secondly, at 320 pounds, he’s big enough to be a tackle, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him move to the nose in the future. He even started a game there last season. For now, he’s mostly an end, and with starter Ed Stinson graduated, there’s a vacancy. Robinson was outstanding in a backup role last season, leading the team with 5.5 sacks, impressive for a 30 end, and finishing second with 8 tackles for loss. He also had 38 tackles, 5 hurries and blocked a field goal against Chattanooga. Robinson may be a big guy, but he’s athletic and was considered for the offensive line out of high school. Now that he looks locked into defense, the sky is apparently the limit.