Randy Gregory, Nebraska (6-5, 255): After one season at Arizona Western Community College, Gregory arrived in Lincoln in 2013 to near-instant stardom. In 13 games (10 starts) he tallied 66 tackles, including a Big Ten-high 10.5 sacks and 19 tackles for losses. As a junior in 2014, he played in 11 games (10 starts) and registered 54 tackles, with seven sacks and 10 for losses. Despite missing two games and large parts of two others with injuries, he was named a third-team All-American and first-team all-Big Ten. He paid through pain throughout the season. His 17.5 sacks in two seasons rank ninth in school history. He wants to be more than just a pass rusher.
Marcus Hardison, Arizona State (6-3, 303): The junior-college transfer didn’t do much of anything as a junior as he acclimated himself to a challenging defensive scheme. Transferring was on his mind but he decided to “stick with it” and led the team with 10 sacks and 15 tackles for losses to earn all-Pac-12 second-team honors as a senior. With bad grades in high school, Hardison enrolled at Dodge City (Kan.) Community College — sight unseen.
Eli Harold, Virginia (6-4, 235): Even with a year of eligibility remaining, Harold finished 11th in school history with 17.5 sacks and 10th with 36.5 tackles for losses. As a senior, he was sixth in the ACC with seven sacks and third with 14.5 TFLs to earn all-conference second-team honors. Harold, who grew up without a father and lost his mother, made a close friend with a special bond at the Army All-American Bowl.
Zach Hodges, Harvard (6-2, 234): Hodges, the two-time Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year, had 8.5 sacks and 10 tackles for losses among his 26 tackles as a senior. For his career, he is Harvard's all-time leader with 27.0 career sacks. Hodges is the third Harvard player to be invited to the Combine and the first since quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2005. Hodges has overcome numerous heartbreaking obstacles. His father died when he was 6. His grandfather, who filled his dad’s role, died when he was 14. A couple years later, his mom died, as well. “I know death real well,” Hodges said. “Death is important. You lose the ones you love, because that’s how you realize how much they matter.”
Danielle Hunter, LSU (6-6, 241): Hunter left LSU following a junior season of just 1.5 sacks but a team-high 13 tackles for losses. His 63 tackles ranked third on the team. With long arms and big guns, Hunter goes by the name of “Tarzan.” He said he’s got 3 percent body fat.
Martin Ifedi, Memphis (6-3, 276): Big things were expected of Ifedi, who recorded 11.5 sacks as a junior. He missed the start of the season with a knee injury and settled for 2.5 sacks in nine games. Still, his 22.5 career sacks set the school record, and he was rewarded with first-team all-AAC honors. His 9.5 tackles for losses weren’t far off his 14.5 as a junior and 11 as a sophomore. He graduated in May after a spring semester with a 4.0 GPA and was nominated for the Allstate Good Works Team for his community involvement.
Owamagbe Odighizuwa, UCLA (6-3, 268): Odighizuwa was second-team all-Pac-12 after a career-high 61 tackles, a team-high 11.5 TFLs and six sacks. It was a big bounce-back season after missing all of 2013 with a pair of hip injuries that required surgery. Odighizuwa was born in Ohio but spent five years in Nigeria. That’s not the only thing that’s different about him. He graduated in May with a degree in philosophy. “I never put my eggs in one basket,”Odighizuwa said. “My number one goal — it still is — is to pursue the NFL. But I knew that at the end of the day, I like to put my eggs in multiple baskets. That’s kind of why I majored in philosophy. I wanted to make sure that if I leave, I wanted to have a degree so that not only can I do football, but that I can connect and network with other people.”
Nate Orchard, Utah (6-2, 255): Orchard didn’t have just a great season. He had the best season. Orchard was an All-American and won the Ted Hendricks Award, which goes to the nation’s best defensive end. After just 6.5 sacks and 17 tackles for losses in his first three seasons, Orchard had 18.5 sacks and 21 TFLs as a senior. He added three forced fumbles as the Pac-12’s offensive linemen voted him the conference’s best defensive lineman. When he was a 13-year-old named Nate Fakahafua with nothing but the clothes on his back, he went to the home of his club basketball coach, Nate Orchard, and eventually moved in.
Shane Ray, DE, Missouri (6-3, 247): In his first season as a starter, Ray produced a monster year while replacing Michael Sam and Kony Ealy. As a redshirt junior, Ray was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year while earning consensus first-team All-America status after leading the SEC in sacks and tackles for loss. His 14.5 sacks set a school record and ranked third nationally. His 22.5 tackles for loss also ranked third nationally. It’s been quite a journey from a ZIP code dubbed “The Murder Factory.” Football would become his salvation from crime, divorce and the heartbreak of having a cousin murdered “That was a crushing moment in my life,” he said. “When that happened, I started stepping outside my box and doing things that I didn’t have any idea why I was doing. I was getting in fights but also chilling with a lot of friends who were gang-banging and had guns. That’s all I grew up around.”
Cedric Reed, Texas (6-5, 270): Reed started the final 32 games of his four-year career. As a senior, he was a second-team all-Big 12 selection who tied for third on the team in sacks (5.5) — despite playing the season with a torn meniscus. For his career, he had 18 sacks, 37 tackles for losses and six forced fumbles. Basketball was his love until he found out how much he loved football.
Ryan Russell, Purdue (6-4, 273): The four-year starter closed his career with a senior season of three sacks, 6.5 tackles for losses and 44 tackles. He was the poster boy for the football team. Literally.
Preston Smith, Mississippi State (6-4, 267): The all-SEC first-team choice led the squad in tackles for losses (15), sacks (nine) and quarterback hurries (15) as a senior. He added two interceptions, forced two fumbles and ranked second in the SEC and eighth nationally in blocked kicks with two. His daughter was born early Dec. 31, 2013. That afternoon, he was MVP of the Liberty Bowl. "I want to provide for my child what I didn't get as a child," Smith said. "Coming up I didn't get a lot of things probably because my mama financially couldn't afford it being a single parent."
Za'Darius Smith, Kentucky (6-4, 265): Smith started all 12 games and tallied 4.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for losses among his 61 tackles. The junior-college transfer contributed six sacks and 6.5 TFLs in 2013. He was the face —and voice — of the program entering this season. While older brother Bo Meeks played eight games for the Broncos in 1993, basketball was Smith’s sport — until he figured out he wasn’t tall enough. He never played football until his senior year of high school.
Lynden Trail, Norfolk State (6-6, 260): Trail ended a decorated career in resounding fashion. He was a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award, which goes to the best defender in FCS. He became the first player in school history to be a three-time All-American and the first to play in the Senior Bowl. He tallied five sacks, 11.5 tackles for losses and 91 tackles as a senior and 19.5 sacks and 41 TFLs in his three seasons since transferring from Florida. If not for his mom not allowing him to attend a party, he might be dead.
Davis Tull, Tennessee-Chattanooga (6-2, 242): Tull is the Southern Conference’s three-time Defensive Player of the Year and a three-time FCS All-American. His 37 sacks rank first in conference history and fourth in FCS history. Among active FCS players, Tull ranked first in sacks and tackles for losses (60) and second in forced fumbles (10). As a senior, he registered 10 sacks and 18.5 TFLs while drawing six holding penalties. Oh, and he’s a three-time Capital One Academic All-District. Not bad for a guy who didn’t receive a single scholarship offer and almost quit during his freshman training camp. "When I got here I was a nobody. They didn't even know my name," the one-time walk-on said.
Zack Wagenmann, Montana (6-3, 258): Wagenmann dominated his FCS peers. The senior rang up 17.5 sacks, 22.5 tackles for losses, six forced fumbles and 74 tackles in 14 games to finish third in Buck Buchanan voting. His 17.5 sacks and career total of 34.5 are school records. Known for his long blond hair, big-time production and indomitable work ethic, Wagenmann wasn’t even sure he’d be good enough to play college ball. After the season, he cut his hair and donated it to Locks of Love.firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.