Among Group of Five defensive ends, who’ll be the most oppressive pass rushers in 2017?
The Group of Five has a rich history of birthing speedy, pin-your-ears-back edge rushers who establish squatter’s rights in opposing backfields. Over the past decade, defensive ends like TCU’s Jerry Hughes, Marshall’s Vinny Curry, Boise State’s Kamalei Correa and Florida Atlantic’s Trey Hendrickson have tormented lesser competition with their grit, determination and blazing speed. This year’s collection of smaller school pass rushers will be every bit as disruptive, bolstered by an SEC addition who’s set to make life miserable for Conference USA offensive tackles.
Top Returning Group Of Five, Independent DEs
10. Anthony Winbush, Ball State
9. Aikeem Coleman, Idaho
8. Oshane Ximines, Old Dominion
7. Malik Reed, Nevada
6. Tee Sims, Appalachian State
5. Walter Brady, Middle Tennessee
That Brady suffered off-field problems while at Mizzou is no indictment on his ability to hunt down opposing quarterbacks. In fact, in 2015 he led the nation’s freshmen with seven sacks. And he did so in the SEC, whipping blockers with his motor, quickness and balance coming around the edge. Plus, the 6-3, 268-pound Brady didn’t need any formal introductions in Murfreesboro, since he’d originally committed to Rick Stockstill and the Blue Raiders three years earlier. If he maintains his focus, he’ll become an instant Conference USA star.
4. Joe Ostman, Central Michigan
Ostman returns for his fifth season, having received a medical redshirt for missing most of 2015 with an ankle injury. He’s used being undersized and overlooked coming out of high school as motivational tools with the Chippewas. And now that he’s up to 6-3 and 255 pounds, the hyperactive Ostman is in a much better position to compete on every down. In his return from injury last year, he posted 64 tackles and team-highs with 13.5 stops for loss, nine sacks, seven hurries and two forced fumbles to earn Second Team All-MAC.
3. Jaylon Ferguson, Louisiana Tech
Ruston has produced three NFL defensive linemen this decade. Ferguson will become the fourth in 2018 or 2019. He’s an SEC-caliber edge rusher facing Conference USA competition, a blatant mismatch he exploits each weekend in the fall. No longer stick-figured at 6-5 and 255 pounds, Ferguson is now nuancing his closing speed and long arms with the improved strength to power through congestion when necessary. A Freshman All-American in 2015, he further raised the bar last fall with a league-best 14.5 sacks and four forced fumbles.
2. Ja’Von Rolland-Jones, Arkansas State
After three straight seasons as an all-conference performer, Rolland-Jones outgrew the Sun Belt world a long time ago. The harrowing news for league tackles is that he’s back for his senior year in 2017. Rolland-Jones is a 6-2, 244-pound blur coming around the edge, with the lean and body control to easily tuck below stiff linemen en route to the backfield. Think second coming of Vic Beasley. He was sensational again last fall, amassing 57 tackles, 20.5 stops for loss and 13.5 sacks.
1. Justin Lawler, SMU
Lawler is this year’s most complete defensive end from outside the Power Five conferences. He operates with perpetual energy from snap to whistle. And at 6-4 and 251 pounds, he has enough size and strength, especially in his hands, to shed blockers and support the run. Lawler was second on the Mustangs in 2016 with 65 tackles, while leading the squad with 15 stops for minus yards, six sacks, seven hurries and a pair of blocked kicks. His knack for commanding double-teams and eating up blocks makes him valuable even when he’s not in on the play.