Shaq Lawson, Clemson (6-3, 270): Underclassman. Lawson led the nation with 25.5 tackles for losses. Among his 60 tackles (36 solos) were 12.5 sacks. He added one forced fumble and 15 quarterback pressures as he was a consensus All-American who was a finalist for the Nagurski, Lombardi and Hendricks awards. After tallying 7.5 sacks during his first two seasons, Lawson didn’t shrink from the pressure of replacing Vic Beasley, who was the eighth pick of the 2015 draft. During fall camp, defensive coordinator Brent Venables said Lawson was “giggling and laughing” on his way to the quarterback. “He hasn’t always liked to do the little things right all the time, but he is now, and that comes with maturity,” Venables said. “He does like to compete and have a good time while he works hard. I think that’s an inherited gene that he has. A lot of them will work hard, but not a lot of them will like it – and Shaq does.” Before he was Shaq Lawson, Clemson’s sacker of quarterbacks, he was Shaq Lawson, Clemson’s seller of popcorn. “I was about to go (to Tennessee), but I’m glad I stayed at home,” Lawson said. “After my pops died, I just wanted to be closer with my brothers and little sister, so that pretty much changed my decision.”
Dean Lowry, Northwestern (6-6, 295): Lowry was a three-year starter. As a junior, he was an honorable mention on the all-Big Ten team with 41 tackles, including eight for losses. As a senior, he earned second-team honors with 52 tackles (31 solos) and three sacks. Of his 13.5 tackles for losses — second-best on the team — a whopping six came against Nebraska. That was the most by a Big Ten player in 10 years. He’s grown up — no, he’s grown bigger — since being a 225-pound, two-star recruit. “Dean has worked himself to be 286 pounds and hasn’t lost any speed,” defensive line coach Marty Long said. “That makes him very unique. He had to play as a true freshman without any strength, just length. He was a string bean of a kid who went out and survived because he moved a lot and made plans, and now he is seeing the benefit of a great couple of offseasons.”
Alex McCalister, Florida (6-5, 240): Underclassman. McCalister’s final season couldn’t have ended much worse. He was suspended for the first game of the season, missed the final few games with a foot injury, then was dismissed from the team for breaking team rules in mid-December. On the field, he was a difference-maker with 6.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for losses in 2015 and six and nine tackles for losses in 2014. His high school coach has his back, though. “He’s just so bright. He’s like a ray of sunlight. It’s kind of crazy. You get around him and you smile. It’s just the way he is. It’s the way he was brought up. He’s just well-liked.” The North Carolina native hoped to play basketball for the Tar Heels. Just one problem, though. "He didn't even know who I was," McCalister said of UNC coach Roy Williams. He arrived at Florida weighing about 210 pounds. "[He was] a stick," linebacker Mike Taylor said. "Like the dude from, 'A Bug's Life.'"
Carl Nassib, Penn State (6-7, 273): Maybe someday, Nassib will sack his brother. Ryan Nassib was a star quarterback at Syracuse and a fourth-round pick by the Giants in 2013. While Ryan was blessed with the arm, Carl was blessed with size. As a senior, Nassib was named CBS Sports’ National Defensive Player of the Year and the 13th unanimous All-American in school history with an NCAA-leading totals of 15.5 sacks and six forced fumbles. He also won the Lombardi Award as the nation's top lineman (offense or defense), the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation's top defensive end, the Lott IMPACT Trophy for the top defensive player that represent the qualities embodied by Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott (Integrity, Maturity, Performance, Academics, Community and Tenacity) and the Big Ten’s Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year. Even though he played only four snaps in the final two regular-season games, Among his 46 tackles (31 solos), Nassib finished second in the Big Ten with 19.5 tackles for losses and broke the school’s single-season record for sacks. Incredibly, all of this comes from a former walk-on who didn’t even start a game in high school. He was 6-foot-6 and 218 pounds when he arrived on campus. "He came in and I basically questioned ... how important football was to him," Bill O'Brien, the former Penn State and current Houston Texans coach, told Houston’s Fox TV affiliate. “He said to me, 'Football is really important to me. I'm going to play pro football.' I said to him, 'Are you kidding me? You're going to play pro football? You need to be concerned about playing at Penn State, forget about pro football.' He proved me wrong." How did all of this happen? Work ethic, weights and Chipotle. “I just remember that every time I talked to Carl he was always, ‘Just leaving the weight room, just leaving the weight room,’” Ryan Nassib said. “Everything that’s coming to him now, he absolutely deserves because he started from scratch. Every year, he just got a little bit better and a little bit stronger.”
Giorgio Newberry, Florida State (6-5, 296): During his first three seasons, Newberry’s contributions were meager, to say the least. He's switched positions three times, including a move to tight end in 2013. He moved back to the defensive side of the ball in 2014 and entered his senior season with only 14 tackles. “‘I don’t have much time,’” Newberry thought to himself after talking to coach Jimbo Fisher in the spring. “There’s some players who come in college, they’re here and they leave. He pushed me because he knew I could do a lot better and could help the team.”
Playing mostly as a situational pass rusher as a senior, Newberrry recorded 21 tackles (10 solos) with two sacks and three tackles for losses. He added three fumble recoveries and batted down a pass to save FSU’s victory over Miami.
Dadi Nicolas, Virginia Tech (6-3, 235): After recording six sacks and 10.5 tackles for losses during his first two seasons, Nicolas had a breakout junior campaign of nine sacks,18.5 tackles, 72 tackles (33 solos) and two blocked kicks to earn second-team all-ACC. Nicholas, however, couldn’t build upon that production. As a senior, Nicolas had 2.5 sacks and seven tackles for losses among his 45 tackles (21 solos), though he did add two forced fumbles to earn third-team all-ACC. A big reason for the dip in production is Nicolas sustained a broken hand during fall camp. Defensive line coach Charley Wiles called him “Lobster Boy,” adding "He's being Dadi other than he hasn't finished some of those sacks that he's had. But all over the field and running and getting off blocks. Being a big-time factor out there. I know if you're the opponent looking at video, you're like, 'We've got to block that kid.'" Nicolas was suspended for half of a game against Virginia after making contact with the referee vs. North Carolina. In 2000, Delray Beach, Fla., police officer Frank Umbriac met a boy named Wedley Estime as part of a program pairing police officers with at-risk kids. Wedley came to the United States from Haiti when he was 3 months old. Wedley later changed his name to Dadi Nicolas. "He was a typical little boy who was funny and real nice, very considerate of other people," said Umbriac. "Lot of energy. Always had that energy. Just an all-around good kid. And the big challenge that he faced was the surroundings with his peers. There were a lot of negative influences around him. And that's part of why I'm so impressed with him for so many reasons. He grew up with way less than a lot of people have and didn't complain about it.... He's a very positive person, a very upbeat person, a very happy person." Nicolas played only one year of high school football. And about that name change ...
Shawn Oakman, Baylor (6-8, 269): Oakman, with his freakish height and ability, had a huge junior season with 11 sacks, 19.5 tackles for losses and three forced fumbles to earn All-America accolades. He returned for his senior season, intent on becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. That’s not going to happen. Oakman wound up with 4.5 sacks, 14.5 tackles for losses and two forced fumbles as he settled for second-team all-Big 12. His tackle count dropped from 52 (with 37 solos) to 43 (with 32 solos). His final season got off to a bad start with a Week 1 suspension. In the Senior Bowl, he had two sacks and forced a fumble to win MVP honors. His career total of 17.5 sacks set a school record. Gil Brandt, who directed the Cowboys’ personnel department for almost 30 years and helps run the Scouting Combine, could only think of one prospect who could match Oakman’s physical traits: Ed “Too Tall” Jones. Oakman redshirted at Penn State in 2011 and didn’t play in 2012, either, as he was dismissed from the football team and sat out the season due to NCAA transfer rules. He owns three bulldogs and a python and wants to get an octopus.
Emmanuel Ogbah, Oklahoma State (6-3, 275): Underclassman. Ogbah turned in back-to-back dominant seasons for the Cowboys. As a junior, he was voted the Big 12’s Defensive Lineman of the Year — the first OSU player to win that honor — with his 11 sacks, 17 tackles for losses and one forced fumble. As a senior, he rang up 13 sacks and 17.5 tackles for losses, plus forced three fumbles, as he was named the Big 12’s co-Defensive Player of the Year and a finalist for the Ted Hendricks Award, which goes to the nation’s top defensive end. Ogbah had 63 tackles (42 solos) in 2015, an improvement over his 50 (38 solos) in 2014. Ogbah finished his three-year career with 26 sacks — second among all active players and just one behind Michigan State’s Shilique Calhoun, who needed four years to get his 27. Ogbah was born in Lagos, Nigeria. He almost didn’t survive as his umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck. His parents gave him the middle name Ikechukwu, which means “God’s power” in Igbo, a native language of Nigeria. Ogbah arrived in the United States when he was 9. “Emmanuel was raised in the fear of God like my other children,” his father, Richard, said. “We instilled in them that hard work makes your dreams come true. I always remind them to remember whose child they are wherever they go.” He started playing football in seventh grade, attracted to the sport because of former Oklahoma State offensive lineman Russell Okung, who’s also of Nigerian descent. While he’s on the road to stardom, Nigeria was struck by an ebola outbreak in 2014 and is grappling with terrorism. “I live every day thinking everything happens for a reason,” Ogbah said. “I still have family back there. I can eventually help them out.”
Romeo Okwara, Notre Dame (6-5, 266): Okwara had 4.5 sacks, seven tackles for losses and three forced fumbles in his first three seasons for Notre Dame. As a senior, the man named after musician Lenny Kravitz’s nickname of “Romeo Blue” played some pretty mean music with eight sacks and 12.5 tackles for losses among his 49 total tackles (32 solo). He added one forced fumble. You might call him a late bloomer but he wasn’t even 17 when he arrived on the Notre Dame campus. Okwara moved to the United States from Nigeria when he was 10. He played football for the first time in seventh grade but didn’t even make his eighth-grade team. “As we talk to NFL scouts, we tell them, ‘Look, you are getting a kid just learning how to play the game,’ and that is what we are seeing,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. He earned his degree in accounting in December at the ripe old age of 20 and spent three weeks in Greece this past summer. "While we were over there, I did a presentation on the Elgin Marbles, parts of the Acropolis that were confiscated by the British and put in the British Museum. Greece is still fighting to recover them and restore their archaeological sites. It was really cool to learn about that.”
Drew Ott, Iowa (6-5, 272): Ott’s senior season — though perhaps not his college career — ended with a torn ACL. In six games, Ott made only 11 tackles (eight solos) but were they impactful: five sacks, 7.5 tackles for losses and three forced fumbles. Impressively, he played through a dislocated left elbow for four games. He applied for an extra year of eligibility, with a decision still pending. Along the way, he gained a mentor in Aaron Kampman, the former Iowa and Green Bay Packers standout. Kampman was impressed by Ott’s on-the-field performance, then felt for him after the knee injury. Knee injuries ended Kampman’s NFL career. “You clear away all the junk and find out who’s with you and who’s not with you,” Kampman said. “It’s easy for an injured player to walk around the facility and feel like a ghost. What I’ve tried to help him with is to understand that he’s still at it every day. Rehab is his game. This is a bump in the road, but it’s not going to define him.” Ott was a three-year starter, including as a junior, when he was second-team all-Big Ten with eight sacks and 12 tackles for losses among his 57 tackles (26 solos). The native of Trumbull, Neb., was Nebraska’s Gatorade Player of the Year as a high school senior. His team played eight-man football.
D.J. Pettway, Alabama (6-2, 270): Pettway put up meager stats during his career, with totals of 6.5 sacks and 12 tackles for losses among his 49 total tackles (27 solos). As a senior, he had two sacks and five TFLs. Perhaps the biggest play of his career was a blocked field goal before halftime of the National Championship Game vs. Clemson. It was a happy ending to his story. In February 2013, he was arrested and charged with second-degree armed robbery. Coach Nick Saban kicked him off the team. Pettway landed at East Mississippi Community College. Saban, convinced Pettway was a changed man, brought him back in 2014. "Where do you want them to be? Guy makes a mistake. Where do you want them to be? Want them to be in the street? Or do you want them to be here, graduating?" Saban said. Saban’s judgment was proved correct. He earned a degree in health and environmental sciences in just three-and-a-half years.
Charles Tapper, Oklahoma (6-3, 276): Tapper is a three-time all-Big 12 selection. He earned first-team honors as a sophomore, an honorable mention as a junior and first-team honors again as a senior, when he also earned some All-America attention. In 2015, he had career highs across the board — 50 tackles (31 solos), seven sacks, 10 tackles for losses, four forced fumbles, three passes defensed). His career totals of 15.5 sacks and 26.5 tackles for losses came during his final three seasons. That’s pretty good considering the Baltimore native’s first love was basketball and he didn’t start playing football until his junior year of high school. Moreover, Tapper has a genetic disorder that can cause complications when paired with physical exertion. “The sickle cell shouldn’t be able to hold me back because it didn’t hold me back for 21, 22 years. So what’s stopping me now?" Tapper strives to set a good example for his younger brothers, who his mom adopted when they were infants. Now, they’re 11 and 13. Following a win over Iowa State this season, Tapper took them into the victorious locker room. “To see their smiles while we were celebrating, that was pretty special. They got to sit there and they got to experience all those things. You want your little brothers to experience so they can seek and want to do those kinds of things when they get older.” It’s a role he embraces since his father died when he was only 4.
Ron Thompson, Syracuse (6-3, 255): Underclassman. Thompson was recruited as a four-star tight end but sat out the 2012 season following surgery to fix a blood-flow problem in his hip. He moved to the defensive line during spring practices in 2013 and became an instant-impact player. Starting at defensive tackle for his final two seasons, Thompson had three sacks, seven tackles for losses and two forced fumbles as a defensive tackle in 2014 and seven sacks, 9.5 tackles for losses and four forced fumbles as a defensive end in 2015, when he earned all-ACC third-team honors. He chipped in 35 tackles (30 solos) this season. "I feel like I finally get to play my position. I always had to play a different position, but I finally feel like I got a grasp on this position. I can just celebrate." One Syracuse coach called Thompson a “freak of nature.”
Jihad Ward, Illinois (6-5, 296): After spending two years at junior college, Ward was an honorable mention on the all-Big Ten team as a junior (51 tackles, 21 solos, three sacks, 8.5 tackles for losses, two forced fumbles) and senior (53 tackles, 24 solos, 1.5 sacks, 3.5 tackles for losses, one forced fumble). Ward will have earned his shot at the NFL. At Globe Tech junior college in New York, he woke up at 5 a.m. and didn’t get home until 11 p.m. His commute included a couple of lengthy walks and a ferry ride to and from his dorm on State Island. All told, his trek might take him four-plus hours a day. "Sometimes I didn't have any money, and you had to pray that the bus driver is going to let you slide. As soon as you finish class, you figure out: 'How the hell am I going to get home?’”
ALSO IN THIS SERIES
Defensive ends, Part 1
Defensive ends, Part 2
Defensive tackles, Part 1 (FREE)
Defensive tackles, Part 2 (FREE)
Defensive tackles, Part 3 (FREE)
Offensive tackles, Part 1
Offensive tackles, Part 2
Offensive guards, Part 1 (FREE)
Offensive guards, Part 2 (FREE)
Tight ends, Part 1 (FREE)
Tight ends, Part 2 (FREE)
Wide receivers, Part 1 (FREE)
Wide receivers, Part 2
Wide receivers, Part 3
Wide receivers, Part 4 (FREE)
Running backs, Part 1 (FREE)
Running backs, Part 2
Running backs, Part 3
Quarterbacks, Part 1 (FREE)
Quarterbacks, Part 2 (FREE)
Quarterbacks, Part 3 (FREE)
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.