Oct. 13, 2012; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish nose guard Louis Nix (9) pressures Stanford Cardinal quarterback Josh Nunes (6) in the first quarter at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
As spotlighted in my interior offensive line rankings, when a defense can disrupt the middle of an offense, it can ruin the play almost immediately. Though edge rushers get a lot of the spotlight, it is guys like Geno Atkins, JJ Watt, and Gerald McCoy who make it all happen in the trenches. This class is loaded with talented players that can play in the interior of both 3-4 and 4-3 defenses and here are the best of them.
- Dominique Easley (Florida): Easley was having a dominant season before it was derailed by a knee injury. He is incredibly explosive off the line of scrimmage and can win with speed and strength. He is very aware in the run game and can impact there, but his ability as a pass rusher is scary and he can win from all over the defensive line to get disruption. If he can regain pre-injury ability, there is no doubt he can be the most impacting player in this interior class.
- Louis Nix (Notre Dame): While he didn’t lose his season to a knee injury, he was hindered by one all year and it really showed. However, rewind to his healthy season and a dominant presence is evident. Nix is gifted with incredible size, but it is paired with great quickness for a man his size, making him even more disruptive. Nix is being pigeonholed by many as a pure nose tackle for a 3-4 scheme when really his ability would be more impacting if given the ability to use quickness to shoot gaps. He can eat up space in the run game, but his pass rushing abilities go unheralded. Like Easley, I hope he can get healthy, because he is one monster of a player if he is.
- Daquan Jones (Penn State): Jones is another mammoth of a man in the middle of the defense. He has great size and strength, but is also very quick off the ball and has great versatility. He needs to improve consistency in pad level and get off, but it is not a glaring issue for him. He is still very valuable on every down though as he is a great run defender and disruptive pass rusher. With some refinement, Jones will be a very good and a very versatile player for years.
- Ra’Shede Hageman (Minnesota): First things first, Hageman is a freak of nature. Men of his size should not move the way he does and his strength is otherworldly. When he is “on” he is arguably the best of the bunch. The key is getting him to stay “on”. His technique, especially pad level coming out of his stance, makes him ineffective as he can get blown off the ball with ease. When he can get low, flashes of JJ Watt come to mind in what he is able to do from anywhere along the defensive line. He has some worrying technique issues, but if a coach can get inside his head and fix that, Hageman is going to become something rather scary.
- Will Sutton (ASU): Sutton is a phenomenal pass rusher and overall a disruptive force in the middle of the defense. His role is somewhat limited to a 3-Tech, but he can thrive in it. Despite being a relatively diminutive player, Sutton is able to make big impacts. He is very quick and has phenomenal hand usage to keep himself clean. He is a smart player in attacking the play and is much stronger than his frame would suggest. He put on a lot of weight this year in order to appeal to NFL teams, but he is at his best when he is light on his feet and disrupting the backfield.
- Ryan Carrethers (Arkansas State): Carrethers is a hulk of a man. The strength and motor he plays with are incredible. He does a great job of fighting through blocks, even double teams, to make the play. He can make an impact from all over the field. He is a still a bit raw, but he has a ton of great tools and if he lands in the right place, he could be good sooner than later.
- Aaron Donald (Pitt): One of the most productive defensive tackles in the country, Donald is a disruptive pass rusher who can immediately impact from the 3-Tech position in the NFL. Despite his size, Donald can disrupt using great quickness, hand usage and leverage. He is a very aware player who can contribute on every down. Be wary of the Geno Atkins comparisons (That is more Dominique Easley), Donald lacks the anchor of Atkins and can get pushed around in the run game and a lot of his game is predicated on keeping himself clean, so if a blocker gets their hands on him, he’s often done. Donald at the very least can come in and be a very good rotational player, but if he can develop a stronger base, maybe that Geno Atkins comparison doesn’t look so silly.
- Brent Urban (UVA): Urban is a strong presence as a run defender and arguably one of the better players in that regard. He is incredibly smart and aware against the run and uses great strength to bully blockers and make plays against the run. He does offer very little as a pass rusher right now, but it is somewhere he has the ability to improve massively. He also needs to improve his pad level coming off the ball. He is a valuable player with good tools and can impact immediately as a run defender. If teams are patient, he could turn into an all around contributor.
- Chris Whaley (Texas): The former running back has great movement skills and it really shows. He does a great job of using his quickness to flow to the ball carrier. A lot of his game is centered around eluding a blocker and I think that a man of his size should try to take on blocks a lot more than he does. Whaley has a ton of potential and he is a smart player. Could impact from multiple spots along the line if given time to grow into that role.
- Timmy Jernigan (FSU): Jernigan is a massive player and that is how he wins. His pure size and strength can create a mess in the middle of an offense. He is a stout run stuffer, but he does not offer much as a pass rusher. He also tends to get high in his stance and has some motor issues. When he fires out of his stance and can get low, he is a top notch run defender. If he can be more consistent, he could be a very valuable role player in the NFL.