The importance of elite defensive linemen in college football

Ohio State v Michigan
Ohio State v Michigan / Ezra Shaw/GettyImages

From 2020-2024, the five college football national champions have one particular thing in common: elite defensive line play.

Top-shelf pass rushing and run defense has essentially served as a prerequisite to success at the highest level of modern-day college football, and is something that is overlooked by some.

Obviously having other key defensive position players, such as a lockdown corner or a highly productive inside linebacker, are significant to stellar defensive play in the sport, but the way college football has evolved into more of a pass-oriented game makes interior defensive line play all the more significant. 

If you break it down from a schematic standpoint, efficient production on the defensive side of the ball all starts with the big boys up front. Disrupting passing lanes, plugging the running gaps and collapsing the pocket all offsets the rhythm and timing of opposing quarterbacks -- making life easier for the guys in the back end of the defense.

In the same vein, eliminating a balanced run game forces offenses to be more one-dimensional, making it more difficult to move the chains on a frequent basis.

Just ask Jim Harbaugh and Michigan this past season.

Anchored by second-team All-Americans Mason Graham and Kris Jenkins, the Wolverines led the country in total defense, scoring defense (10.4 PPG), points per drive average (0.96), stop rate (81.6%), and turnover margin (+1.3) in 2023. In fact, Michigan’s defense played 863 snaps this season and only played from behind on 13 of them. A disruptive interior line was a key reason for those historic metrics.

Of course, Michigan wasn’t the only playoff team to boast a stout defensive front a season ago.

Texas was superior in the trenches too, ranking third in rushing defense (82.6 YPG) and first in third down defense while also producing Outland Trophy Award winner T’Vondre Sweat and first-round NFL Draft pick Byron Murphy.

And perhaps no programs have churned out and produced as much elite talent up front on such a consistent basis than the Georgia Bulldogs and Alabama Crimson Tide. 

Since 2022, Georgia has had six defensive linemen drafted, including four first rounders (Travon Walker, Jordan Davis, Devonte Wyatt, and Jalen Carter). The 2022 national champion Bulldogs led the nation in rushing defense that season (77.0 YPG), while also finishing in the top 10 in scoring defense and total defense. 

In 2021, the national title winning squad was even more elite, pacing the country in scoring defense (10.2 PPG - best mark over the past the decade) and ranking second in rushing defense and total defense.

The defensive lineman factory in Tuscaloosa has been just as impressive. From 2010-2024, Alabama developed 28 NFL Draft picks, including six first-round selections (Marcell Dareus, Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne, Quinnen Williams, Will Anderson Jr., Dallas Turner), at the position. Saban defenses were grounded by big, physical, freakish-athletic players in the trenches, and was one of the focal points of the incredible dynasty.

And it’d be foolish to not mention the 2016 and 2018 national title Clemson squads either — teams that were known for their world-class defensive linemen at the college level. All-Americans Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins, and Dexter Lawrence were all eventual first-round draft picks and headlined one of the nation’s premier defenses that ranked first in sacks (54) and tackles for loss (136) in 2018.

So, what does all of this entail?

Besides 2019 LSU, who serves as an outlier in this conversation due to having a historically good offense, every single national champion in recent years has had a superb defensive front and did a tremendous job investing in the position through the recruiting trail and transfer portal.

The cornerstone of a successful defense is one that possesses ultra-talented big men and/or high-quality depth in the trenches — players who are capable of wrecking a game and making a huge impact from a disruptive standpoint. National titles are molded by the production up front. At least that’s what recent history has told us. 

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