In his first season as a starter, Malik Hooker blossomed into one of the best defensive players in college football.
The Ohio State safety had mostly played on special teams before stepping into a major role in his third season for the Buckeyes and turned into an All-American and first-round NFL draft pick.
Jonathan Allen went from a key member of Alabama’s defensive line rotation in 2015 to the Crimson Tide’s most dominant lineman and a Heisman Trophy contender in 2016.
Who will be this season’s breakout stars on defense? Here are six possibilities:
Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama
Since 2011, Alabama has had a first-team All-America linebacker every year but 2014. From Donta Hightower to C.J. Mosley to Reggie Ragland to Reuben Foster. Next up is Evans, who played a supporting role last season but has shown the versatility to play inside and out and stay on the field for all downs. Evans had 53 tackles and four sacks last season. He should lead the next dominant Crimson Tide defense along with former top recruit Da’Shawn Hand on the line.
Rashan Gary, DT, Michigan
Last season was a good one for freshman defensive linemen. Houston’s Ed Oliver was an All-American and Clemson’s Dexter Lawrence was a force for a national championship team.
It was Gary, though, who was the consensus No. 1 recruit in that class. He was a contributor to last season’s excellent Michigan defense, making 27 tackles and five for loss. The Wolverines said goodbye to almost all of the starters from that defense. Gary and fellow sophomore Devin Bush, a linebacker, are expected to be the stars on Michigan’s rebuilt defense.
Rasheem Green, DL, USC
Green led USC in sacks with six from defensive tackle last season as a sophomore. The Trojans will come into this season with much hype, but they are still building the type of defensive line depth found on elite teams. Green’s development into consistent game-changer would help USC live up to the hype.
Daelin Hayes, DE, Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish had 12 sacks last season, tied for 118th in the nation. Hayes, who played sparingly as a freshman after being a four-star recruit, is a big part of what new defensive coordinator Mike Elko hopes will be the solution to Notre Dame’s pass rush problems. Hayes was the best defensive player on the field at the Irish spring game.
Caleb Kelly, LB, Oklahoma
Kelly was one of the most highly touted players in last year’s Oklahoma recruiting class and moved into the starting lineup midway through his freshman year. He finished the season with a season-high 12 tackles in the Sugar Bowl victory against Auburn. He could be the best linebacker in the Big 12.
Josh Sweat, DE, Florida State
Sweat was good as a freshman in 2015, making nine starts and registering five tackles for loss. Last season, injuries delayed his progress, but he finished with seven sacks in his final seven games. With career sacks leader DeMarcus Walker gone, Sweat could turn into the Seminoles’ most feared pass rusher.
Six more defensive players set to blossom in 2016:
Nick Bosa, DE, Ohio State
Brandon Facyson, CB, Virginia Tech
Jonathan Kongbo, DE, Tennessee
Byron Murphy, CB, Washington
Delvon Randall, S, Temple
Tralund Webber, DE, Oklahoma State
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