First-Rate: Defensive Line


Irish Illustrated’s 11th annual First-Rate series continues with the fifth installment – defensive line. The rankings are placed in descending order, the lower the score the better. The cumulative scores of 10 categories – including coaching and schedules – will determine the “talent ranking” among Notre Dame and its 12 opponents in 2021.

13. Navy (DT-J’arius Warren, NG-Donald Berniard)

Although the Midshipmen return DT-J’arius Warren, a competent interior defensive lineman with 33 tackles and three stops for loss last year, this is just a middle-of-the-road-to-lower AAC defensive line after allowing 205 yards rushing per game and a 4.9-yard average per carry. Navy doesn’t compensate with an ability to get to the quarterback. They managed just six sacks in 10 games and that was with since-departed DE-Jackson Perkins, who was Navy’s best defensive lineman in 2020.

12. Stanford (DE-Thomas Booker, DT-Dalyn Wade-Perry, DE-Aaron Armitage)

When you see that DE-Thomas Booker and DT-Dalyn Wade-Perry are back with promising DE-Aaron Armitage, it appears on paper that the Cardinal have the makings of a decent defensive line. But with Booker and Wade-Perry in the lineup last year – Booker was a 2nd-team all-Pac-12 choice — the Cardinal allowed 222 yards rushing (112th nationally) and 5.46 yards per rushing attempt (115th). 

11. Georgia Tech (DE-Antonneous Clayton, DE-Kevin Harris, DE-Jordan Domineck, DE-Keion White, TK Chimedza, NG-Djimon Brooks)

A look at the list of proven defensive linemen on the 2021 Yellow Jackets roster makes one wonder why they still allowed 189 yards rushing per game (90th) and a 4.4 average per carry (71st). Maybe it was just a lack of maturation. Seniors DE-Antonneous Clayton, a Florida transfer who decided to stay another year, and NG-Djimon Brooks, plus Old Dominion transfer Keion White (62 tackles, 19 tackles for loss in 2019), give Georgia Tech an older look. The defensive end position is further bolstered by Jordan Domineck (60 tackles, 13 tackles for loss in 2019-20) and Alabama transfer DE-Kevin Harris, a four-star prospect out of high school. 

10. Florida State (DE-Jermaine Johnson, DE-Keir Thomas, NT-Fabien Lovett, NT-Robert Cooper, DT-Dennis Briggs)

The transfer freedom that now exists in college football makes pre-season projections like this one difficult. On one hand, the Seminoles allowed 199 yards rushing per game (97th) last year and 5.1 yards per carry (103rd). Florida State had just 10 sacks in nine games, and that was with fourth-round draft picks DE-Janarius Robinson (7 tackles for loss, 3 sacks) and DE-Joshua Kaindoh, and DT-Marvin Wilson.

But help is on the way with the addition of Georgia transfer Jermaine Johnson and South Carolina transfer Keir Thomas. Johnson had four sacks and 11 QB hurries in ’20 and reportedly had an impressive spring in Tallahassee. Thomas had 32 tackles, five-and-a-half tackles for loss and three sacks for the Gamecocks last year. The interior is well fortified with former Mississippi State NT-Fabien Lovett, 335-pound NT-Robert Cooper and DT-Dennis Briggs.

The Seminoles should be markedly improved along the defensive line in 2021, but until the statistics reflect it…

9. Purdue (DE-George Karlaftis, DE-DaMarcus Mitchell, DT-Lawrence Johnson, DT-Anthony Watts, DT-Branson Deen)

Very good against the run, well-below average rushing the quarterback. That’s the reality of the 2020 Purdue defensive line that was 18th nationally in yards per carry (3.43) but 123rd in sacks at less than one per game (five in six games). The projected standout is former Notre Dame recruit DE-George Karlaftis, who has nine-and-a-half sacks in two seasons in West Lafayette. DE-DaMarcus Mitchell (6 tackles for loss) is a bookend complement to Karlaftis.

The Boilers benefit from the return of sixth-year DT-Anthony Watts, but have some young talent in DT-Branson Deen and DT-Lawrence Johnson, and South Carolina transfer DE-Joseph Anderson.

8. Toledo (DE-Jamal Hines, DT-Desjuan Johnson, DE-Terrance Taylor, NG-Judge Culpepper, DT-David Hand)

It’s always difficult to slot a Group of 5 unit amidst Power 5 personnel. But Toledo, a frontrunner with Western Michigan to win the MAC West, has an established, deep front with five players boasting ample starting experience. Toledo allowed just 129 yards rushing per game last year and 3.7 yards per carry after surrendering 5.4 in 2019.

The Rockets are led by second-team all-MAC selections DE-Jamal Hines and DT-Desjuan Johnson. Hines has 130 tackles and 22 tackles for loss in his collegiate career while Johnson has 75 career stops and 15 tackles for loss. DE-Terrance Taylor (20 tackles) lines up opposite Hines. Penn State transfer NG-Judge Culpepper – the son of Florida Gator great Brad Culpepper – will help patrol the inside with DT-Davis Hand, who has six career starts and 38 tackles. 

7. Virginia Tech (DE-Amare Barno, DT-Norell Pollard, DE-TyJuan Garbutt, DT-Jordan Williams, DE-Emmanuel Belmar)

A star is rising in Blacksburg. DE-Amare Barno headlines a veteran, deep defensive line that should have been better than its 181 yards rushing per game allowed and 4.9 yards per carry. Look for improvement, although the loss of third-team all-ACC Jarrod Hewitt and DE-Justus Reed is significant after their 12 combined sacks in 2020. Virginia Tech was ninth in sacks per game last year. Barno led the ACC in tackles for loss with 16 (and 6½ sacks). 

DT-Norell Pollard (30 tackles, 2½ sacks, 5 QBH) is productive on the interior with Clemson transfer DT-Jordan Williams expected to make a difference. The Hokies benefit from the return of injured DE-TyJuan Garbutt (11 starts in 2019). DE-Emmanuel Belmar has 29 starts, 81 tackles and nine sacks in his career.

6. USC (DT-Tuli Tuipulotu, DE-Korey Foreman, DE-Nick Figueroa, NT-Ishmael Sopher)

The inconsistency of a program with this level of talent is sinful at times. From 2012-19 – eight seasons — USC averaged nearly five losses per year. They were 5-1 in an abridged 2020, but the defense allowed more than four yards per carry for the sixth straight season. 

There’s talent up front, although the loss of sixth-round draft choice DT-Marlon Tuipulotu will hurt. Younger brother DT-Tuli Tuipulotu now moves to the forefront with true freshman Korey Foreman – 247Sports No. 1-ranked composite prospect in the Class of 2021 – stepping into the starting lineup. Also expected to provide instant impact is Alabama transfer NT-Ishmael Sopher while underrated DE-Nick Figueroa (7 tackles for loss in ’20) must overcome off-season shoulder surgery. The Trojans are looking for a bounce-back season from DT-Jacob Lichtenstein, who missed the last two seasons due to injury.

5. Virginia (DE-Mandy Alonso, DE-Adeeb Atariwa, DE-Aaron Famui)

HC-Bronco Mendenhall’s defense – his calling card – slid to allowing nearly 30 points and 450 yards per game. But it wasn’t for a lack of a quality run defense with a pass rush that accounted for more than three sacks per outing. The Cavaliers allowed 139 yards rushing per game and 3.7 yards per carry, but lost DE-Jowon Briggs to the Cincinnati Bearcats.

There remains a nice mix of talent with DE-Mandy Alonso (26 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 6 QBH) and DE-Adeeb Atariwa, who played 39 games and made 87 tackles while at James Madison. The Cavaliers will benefit from the return of DE-Aaron Famui, who opted out last year after making 40 tackles and five sacks in 2018-19. Virginia is high on NT-Jahmeer Carter (14 tackles as a freshman), but caught a tough break when Georgia Tech DE-Chico Bennett suffered a torn ACL in the spring.

4. Wisconsin (DE-Matt Henningsen, NT-Keeanu Benton, DT-Lawrence Johnson, DT-DaMarcus Mitchell)

With the loss of DE-Isaiahh Loudermilk and DE-Garrett Rand, the numbers don’t say this is an impressive group. But Jim Leonhard’s team defense (96 yards rushing per game, 3.3 yards per carry) is ultra-productive. The linebackers generally get the headlines, but it’s the interference provided up front that perennially makes this one of the best run defenses in the country.

A lack of experience/depth could be an issue early. Two sophomores (NT-Keeanu Benton and DE-Isaiah Mullens) and a junior (DE-Matt Henningsen) are expected to start. Henningsen has 15 career starts, 56 tackles and five sacks, but most of that productivity came in 2018-19. The depth will have to come from freshmen DE-Cade McDonald and DE-James Thompson. Oregon transfer DE-Isaac Townsend may help.

3. North Carolina (DE-Tomari Fox, NG-Raymond Vohasek,, DT-Jahlil Taylor, DT-Myles Murphy)

Most pre-season publications are extremely high on North Carolina’s defensive line. To be sure, there are some talented players such as yeoman NG-Raymond Vohasek, who earned honorable mention all-ACC honors for his seven tackles for loss, three-and-a-half sacks, four quarterback hurries and two passes broken up. But for a defense that had 36 sacks in 12 games, the 154 yards rushing against and 4.3 yards per carry indicates that the unit is getting gashed on the ground.

DE-Tomari Fox (46 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 4 sacks) is a budding standout. NG-Jahlil Taylor and DT-Myles Murphy join Vohasek on the interior. Freshman DE-Jahvaree Ritzie had an impressive spring and likely steps into the starting lineup. Further interior depth will come from DT-Kevin Hester and NG-Kedrick Bingley-Jones.

2. Cincinnati (DE-Myjai Sanders, DT-Jowon Briggs, NG-Curtis Brooks, DE-Jabari Taylor, DE-Malik Vann)

This defensive front is for real. The Bearcats allowed 111 yards rushing per game (13th) and 3.1 yards per carry (8th). They lost DE-Elijah Ponder, a 2nd-team all-AAC selection. But the rest of a dynamic crew that registered 30 sacks in 10 games is back, led by DE-Myjai Sanders, a 1st-team all-AAC selection with seven of his career 11 sacks coming last year. 

NG-Curtis Brooks (27 tackles, 3 tackles for loss) and DE-Jabari Taylor (17 tackles, 3½ tackles for loss) figure to round out the starting front, but Virginia transfer Jowon Briggs (20 tackles, 4 tackles for loss) will take this crew up a notch. Yes, DC-Marcus Freeman lives in Notre Dame’s world now. But new DC-Mike Tressel spent 14 mostly-productive seasons at Michigan State and has plenty of talent to tap into.

1. Notre Dame (DE-Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, NT-Kurt Hinish, DE-Isaiah Foskey, DT-Jayson Ademilola)

The Irish completed a three-year run with DC-Clark Lea that hadn’t been matched from a scoring defense standpoint since Lou Holtz’s/Notre Dame’s 23-game winning streak in 1988-89, and that’s in an era before scoring underwent a significant rise.

The loss of DE-Ade Ogundeji and DE-Daelin Hayes is added on to the loss of Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara from a year earlier. So Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa was moved from tackle to Big end in the spring with very positive results. Now the Irish have to get Vyper DE-Isaiah Foskey and Jordan Botelho up to speed/consistency. Underrated DE-Justin Ademilola joins MTA on the strongside.

Notre Dame’s defensive line strength shows most favorably on the interior where the Irish literally are three-deep at the three-technique (Jayson Ademilola, Rylie Mills, Jacob Lacey) and nose tackle (Kurt Hinish, Howard Cross III, Aidan Keanaaina). The Irish allowed just 113 yards rushing per game and 3.8 yards per carry while recording 31 sacks in 12 games. It’s not a strong year for offensive lines among Irish opponents, which should lead to another big year statistically in Marcus Freeman’s debut season in South Bend. 

First-Rate (5 of 10 categories)

1. North Carolina (10 – QB 1st, RB 3rd, WR/TE 2nd, OL 1st, DL 3rd)

2. Notre Dame (16 – QB 4th, RB 1st, WR/TE 8th, OL 2nd, DL 1st)

3. Cincinnati (24 – QB 2nd, RB 6th, WR/TE 4th, OL 10th, DL 2nd) 

4. USC (26 – QB 3rd, RB 7th, WR/TE 1st, OL 9th, DL 6th)

5. Georgia Tech (29 – QB 8th, RB 2nd, WR/TE 5th, OL 3rd, DL 11th)

6. Wisconsin (31 – QB 5th, RB 9th, WR/TE 7th, OL 6th, DL 4th)

7t. Florida State (36 – QB 6th, RB 5th, WR/TE 10th, OL 5th, DL 10th)

7t. Virginia Tech (36 – QB 12th, RB 10th, WR/TE 3rd, OL 4th, DL 7th)

9. Virginia (41 – QB 7th, RB 11th), WR/TE 11th, OL 7th, DL 5th)

10. Toledo (43 – QB 11th, RB 4th, WR/TE 9th, OL 11th, DL 8th)

11. Purdue (48 – QB 9th, RB 12th, WR/TE 6th, OL 12th, DL 9th)

12. Stanford (50 – QB 10th, RB 8th, WR/TE 12th, OL 8th, DL 12th)

13. Navy (65 – QB 13th, RB 13th, WR/TE 13th, OL 13th, DL 13th)


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