After an extended break, we return to our series previewing the best opposing players Kentucky football will be facing in 2016.
Today we focus on the top five defensive lineman that will go up against the Cats.
1. Derek Barnett, Tennessee: The Volunteers’ star defensive end is rated as the top edge rusher and the No. 4 college football player overall by Pro Football Focus. A junior, Barnett was the first true freshman to start an opener in UT history. He has recorded 10 sacks each of his first two seasons in Knoxville.
A 6-foot-3, 265-pound native of Nashville, Barnett had 20 tackles for loss as a freshman in 2014. That number slipped to 12.5 in 2015, but Barnett finished the season strong. He recorded nine sacks over his final eight games. Phil Steele ranks Barnett as the fourth-best draft eligible defensive end in college football.
It will be interesting to see what Tennessee’s new defensive coordinator will do with Barnett. Bob Shoop was James Franklin’s defensive coordinator at Vanderbilt and then Penn State before accepting Butch Jones’ offer to join the UT staff for 2016. Shoop has an excellent reputation and did a terrific job at Vanderbilt with lesser talent.
2. Charles Harris, Missouri: Mizzou’s star defensive end came into his own last year, following in the footsteps of previous Tiger defensive line star such as Aldon Smith, Sheldon Richardson, Markus Golden, Kony Ealy, Michael Sam and Shane Ray.
Redshirted in 2013, Harris started just one game behind Golden in 2014. Then last year, Harris recorded an SEC-high 18.5 tackles for loss and was credited with seven sacks. The 6-foot-3, 255-pounder is rated as the 13th-best player in college football by Pro Football Focus. Harris is ranked as the fifth-best draft eligible defensive end by Phil Steele.
Considering that last year was Harris’ first as a starter, the Kansas City, Missouri native should be even more of a factor this year for first-year head coach Barry Odom, who was Mizzou’s defensive coordinator last season.
3. Jonathan Allen, Alabama: CBS Sports ranks Allen the No. 1 defensive end in all of college football. Phil Steele rates him as the No. 2 draft eligible defensive end. And Allen should be more of a presence this season now that fellow DL Jarran Reed and A’Shawn Robinson have moved on to the NFL.
A 6-3, 294-pound senior from Leesburg, Virginia, Allen was a first-team All-SEC selection after recording 12 sacks. Eleven of those sacks came against ranked teams. Allen also had 5.5 sacks as a sophomore in 2014. He surprised some by returning for his senior year.
Pro Football Focus ranked Allen as the 19th-best player in college football for 2016. ESPN’s Todd McShay has Allen ranked as his No. 1 defensive end for the 2017 NFL Draft. “With an excellent combination of quickness and power, Allen constantly pushes the pocket as a pass-rusher, particularly from the interior,” McShay wrote for espn.com. “He has the length, frame and athletic ability to develop into an every-down NFL defensive end, regardless of scheme.”
4. DeAngelo Brown, Louisville: Yes, Louisville lost an ultra-talented defensive tackle in Sheldon Rankins, a first-round pick of the New Orleans Saints who unfortunately fractured his leg in training camp. But Brown should step in and fill Rankin’s shoes for 2016.
Ranked as the 95th-best player in college football by Pro Football Focus, Brown is a 6-foot, 310-pound nose guard from Savannah, Georgia. He recorded 40 tackles and 1.5 sacks last season, but showed his worth by using his strength to occupy blockers, allowing Louisville’s linebackers to make plays.
ESPN ranks Brown as the 25th-best player in the ACC. CBS Sports put Brown at No. 10 in its rankings of defensive tackle prospects. Phil Steel has Brown at No. 37 in his rankings of best draft eligible defensive tackles.
5. Bryan Cox, Jr., Florida: The senior defensive end is the son of former NFL star Bryan Cox and with the Gators losing a pair of excellent pass rushers in Jonathan Bullard and Alex McAllister, defensive coordinator Geoff Collins will be counting on Cox.
Just a three-star prospect out of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, Cox is now rated as the No. 4 best defensive lineman by CBS Sports. He started 13 of 14 games last season, recording 10.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. He also forced a game-changing fumble in Florida’s 28-27 win over Tennessee.
A 6-3, 260-pounder, Cox is ranked as the 23rd best draft eligible defensive end by Phil Steele. Cox should benefit from the emergence of Caleb Brantley at defensive tackle for the Gators. In fact, ESPN’s Todd McShay ranks Brantley as the third-best defensive tackle prospect for next year’s draft.
Associated Press pre-season college football poll
▪ 1. Alabama
▪ 2. Clemson
▪ 3. Oklahoma
▪ 4. Florida State
▪ 5. LSU
▪ 6. Ohio State
▪ 7. Michigan
▪ 8. Stanford
▪ 9. Tennessee
▪ 10. Notre Dame
▪ 11. Ole Miss
▪ 12. Michigan State
▪ 13. TCU
▪ 14. Washington
▪ 15. Houston
▪ 16. UCLA
▪ 17. Iowa
▪ 18. Georgia
▪ 19. Louisville
▪ 20. USC
▪ 21. Oklahoma State
▪ 22. North Carolina
▪ 23. Baylor
▪ 24. Oregon
▪ 25. Florida