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Tuesday, March 25, 2014
Top 10 defensive 'prove-it' players for 2014
By Travis Haney
Top 10 'prove-it' players on offense | Defense
A year ago, Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss signed a recruiting class that caused head turning from the SEC to the Pac-12. It created a buzz. And it was a sensation that wasn’t entirely unfamiliar to the Rebels, or to Freeze.
Ed Orgeron compiled a high-end class in 2006, but he could never turn it into wins. Freeze was on that staff, as an administrator and then an assistant, so he has seen firsthand that recruiting alone will not save a staff. Freeze has won 15 games in his first two seasons, an establishment of moderate success but success that must be built upon in one of the country’s toughest divisions.
Vegas, for one, is a believer that 2014 will be the year the Rebels will rise. A team that has gone 3-5 in the SEC in Freeze’s first two seasons is 40-1 to win the national title, according to the Las Vegas Hotel.
If it works out for Freeze, or if it doesn’t, we’ll point back to that 2013 class. That means we likely will point in particular to defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche, RecruitingNation’s No. 1 overall prospect in 2013.
And that’s why Nkemdiche is atop the list of defensive players with the most to prove in the 2014 season:
1. Robert Nkemdiche, DL, Ole Miss Rebels
Nkemdiche was the jewel of Freeze’s top-five haul, a Clemson flip the Rebels hoped would provide an immediate impact. He did, starting 10 games and collecting 34 tackles (8.5 for a loss). But only six of those games were starts at his recruited position, defensive end. The Ole Miss staff, and other coaches around the country, figured out pretty quickly that Nkemdiche was going to be too big to play end.
If people saw “No. 1-ranked defensive end prospect” and thought this would be the next Jadeveon Clowney, or even Da'Quan Bowers, they learned otherwise once the season started.
“His legs. That’s what I remember most when I saw their first game,” one SEC assistant said. “I said, ‘Those are a tackle’s legs.’”
He was right. Nkemdiche played the final four games inside, and that’s where he has started this spring. The 6-foot-4, 277-pound lineman’s impact can still be great -- look at the way Alabama and LSU have made stars of D-tackles -- but it will not come quite the way some thought it might.
There also are off-field issues with which to deal. Nkemdiche’s brother, Denzel, has been suspended from the team, and both brothers are facing a lawsuit stemming from an incident at a party. The school is standing behind the Nkemdiches in the legal matter, although it isn’t exactly how anyone would choose to enter a second college season. That leaves Nkemdiche with quite a bit to prove, on a team that has a similar burden as Freeze’s job clock begins to tick.
2. Mario Edwards, DE, Florida State Seminoles
Like Nkemdiche (and Clowney and Bowers), Edwards was an end ranked as RecruitingNation’s No. 1 overall prospect. After playing in rotation two seasons ago, he made a jump a year ago to start 11 games and finished with 28 tackles (9.5 for a loss) and three takeaways, including a pick-six in the team’s romp at Clemson.
So why’s Edwards a prove-it guy? For one, there’s more there than a player who was on the media and coaches’ third-string all-conference team. He was scratching at the surface a year ago. Additionally, the Seminoles are hungry for new defensive leadership after so many veterans graduated or left early for the NFL. The returning players also will have to help ease yet another coordinator change, after Jeremy Pruitt left for Georgia.
For either of those roles, or both, that puts the onus on Edwards to elevate himself in what figures to be his final season in Tallahassee.
3. Vic Beasley, DE, Clemson Tigers
After recording eight sacks by the first weekend in October, Beasley had caught Mel Kiper’s eye. Kiper had Beasley at No. 8 on his Big Board. As the prodigious sack rate declined, though, so did Beasley’s draft stock. He ultimately ended up with a second-round grade from the draft advisory board. Subsequently, Beasley decided to return to Clemson.
If you’ve learned anything about the draft process, you know it runs in cycles. It depends on what happens next. Beasley still finished the season with 13.0 sacks, so it wasn’t as if he was worthless in the last two-thirds of the year. At 6-2, 235, he physically is comparable to UCLA’s Anthony Barr, who has likewise seen his draft stock fluctuate even with fairly consistent production.
So Beasley gets another season in which to prove his professional worth while trying to get his team over two final hurdles, FSU and South Carolina. The Tigers have lost only to the Seminoles and Gamecocks each of the past two seasons. The program has climbed, but Beasley returned to go out on top, or as close to it as he can get.
4. Quandre Diggs, CB, Texas Longhorns
When I interviewed Diggs and fellow corner Carrington Byndom in summer 2012, I left Austin convinced that they’d both leave early for the draft. Their résumés and maturity suggested that it would happen. But the Longhorns, particularly those individuals I met and liked, really struggled thereafter.
Byndom remained until he graduated, and Diggs -- the brother of former UT standout Quentin Jammer -- now begins his senior season. Diggs and the Horns are still working off the same “get back to where we should be” mantra that was in place when I first spoke with him, but many things have obviously changed, beginning at the top of the program.
Realistically, most understand that a rebuild is not going to happen in one year, but Diggs and the seniors will set the foundation. It will be interesting to see how much tighter and more detail-oriented the defense plays with new coach Charlie Strong, a longtime defensive coordinator, running things.
5. Arik Armstead, DL, Oregon Ducks
What we know: Armstead is big -- 6-8 and 300 pounds kind of big -- and he is athletic, enough to be the No. 24 overall prospect from our 2012 class.
What we do not yet know: what his future holds. Armstead has seen time at defensive end and tackle, and the staff reportedly has not yet given up on the idea of trying Armstead at offensive tackle.
Armstead started five games a year ago, ending up with 13 tackles. He has not hit his ceiling on the defensive line, but there will be more opportunity with veteran Taylor Hart gone. Whether it’s on offense or defense, the coaching staff figures to find a way to make Armstead an impact player. Of note in terms of focus, Armstead was a two-sport athlete until he quit the basketball team in January. So his gaze is now fixed solely on his primary sport and potential cash cow.
6. Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn Tigers
Lawson, the No. 2 overall prospect in 2013, showed promise as a freshman, but he admitted recently that he didn’t pick up the college game and its speed as quickly as he would have liked.
That’s a good sign for Auburn after a season in which he had four sacks and played more as the season went along for the eventual national runners-up.
7. Eddie Vanderdoes, DE, UCLA Bruins
When I visited Bruins camp in August, the staff noted that Vanderdoes was talented but learning. The freshman’s ability was on display when he had 11 of his 39 tackles in the Oct. 19 game at Stanford. Once he "gets it," those sorts of games might become more commonplace.
UCLA has employed young players such as Vanderdoes, our 10th overall prospect in 2013, up front and in the back end of its defense since coach Jim Mora arrived. The maturation of that youth is one reason I think the Bruins will be playoff contenders this fall.
8. Tyriq McCord, LB, Miami Hurricanes
Miami’s D ended up 80th in yards-per-play against in 2013, something that contributed greatly to the team’s 2-4 finish after a 7-0 start (that and better competition).
McCord is a player coach Al Golden mentioned to me last summer as a possible breakout star. Although he had four sacks and two takeaways in limited snaps, he will need to show he can be something other than a rush specialist. With Denzel Perryman headed to Mike linebacker, McCord needs to evolve into a three-down outside ’backer for the Hurricanes.
9. Curt Maggitt, LB, Tennessee Volunteers
The Volunteers are hungry for experience and leadership at a number of positions. Maggitt was forced to redshirt last season after tearing an ACL in 2012. He has 17 career starts, which essentially makes the redshirt junior the Yoda of the defense. Maggitt needs to prove he can stay on the field, and lead while doing so.
The modest goal of getting back to a bowl game remains the focus for the Vols, but games at Oklahoma, Georgia and South Carolina, as well as Alabama at home, could again make that difficult.
10. Jaylon Smith, LB, Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Smith played in all 13 games and was the Irish’s third-leading tackler (67) as a freshman. That’s a heck of a starting point and gave me pause before including him here.
But the No. 7 overall prospect in 2013 is worthy of inclusion because he could be All-America good, something he will have to prove in the next season or two. With the defense’s veteran presence depleted and coordinator Bob Diaco now the head coach at UConn, Smith will have to do and be more as a sophomore. At 6-3, 230, he could shift around in the defense, playing a number of positions.