Quinton Jefferson, Maryland (6-4, 289): Underclassman. Jefferson started as a sophomore in 2013 but sustained a season-ending knee injury early in the 2014 season. He recovered nicely, earning honorable-mention all-Big Ten this past season. He led the defensive line with 39 tackles while ranking second on the team with 6.5 sacks and third with 12.5 tackles for losses. Jackson has three children, a 4-year-old and twins with his wife, Nadia. "I always thought of myself of being a leader naturally, but now having the experience of having children of my own definitely helped me mature even more, say with decision-making. Now when I'm making a decision, it's not just affecting myself. I have to think about how it's going to affect my children and my wife. I think it now carries over. Decisions on the field I make I know can affect my team. It opens my mind to the fact that the decisions you make affect the people around you."
Austin Johnson, Penn State (6-4, 323): Underclassman. Johnson was second-team all-Big Ten after a tremendous season. His 78 tackles ranked third among defensive tackles in FBS, and he added 6.5 sacks, 15 tackles for losses and a 71-yard touchdown on a fumble return. He broke into the starting lineup in 2014, registering 49 tackles, including six for losses. “Probably the most athletic 315-pound guy I’ve been around,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. Johnson earned his degree in journalism in just three-and-a-half years, so he was eligible to play in the Senior Bowl. Because he was too big to play youth football, basketball was his first love. There were long hours shooting hoops in the driveway with his father and his sister, Kennedy, who plays at Michigan State. “My mom would yell at me to get inside to do my homework,” Johnson said. “That’s how long I’d be outside playing basketball.” When he was allowed to play football, he “absolutely hated it.” It took him forever to get his pads on. That all changed when he got to high school. “It’s just man against man and you just got to be the bigger man every play to win.”
Chris Jones, Mississippi State (6-5, 308): Underclassman. Jones was a Freshman All-American in 2013 but didn’t become a starter until 2015. His goal entering this season was to be “unblockable.” He didn’t earn any all-SEC accolades but he was a second-team All-American by Pro Football Focus. He had 44 tackles, including 7.5 tackles for losses and 2.5 sacks, to go along with four pass breakups. For his career, he registered 8.5 sacks and 18 tackles for losses. At Houston (Miss.) High School, he was a five-year letterman in basketball. During his recruitment, he said he received death threats.
Darius Latham, Indiana (6-5, 305): Underclassman. Latham was an honorable mention on the all-Big Ten team this past season with his 33 tackles (16 solos) including four sacks and 10 tackles for losses. He added one interception and two blocked kicks. Latham, who missed three games due to a pair suspensions during nonconference play, was a one-man wrecking crew vs. Rutgers with both blocked kicks and 2.5 TFLs. In three seasons, he had 7.5 sacks and 18.5 tackles for losses. Latham, a native of Indianapolis, signed with Indiana in hopes of helping turn around the program. A four-year letterman in basketball who was all-state as a senior, Latham considered walking on to the Hoosiers’ basketball squad.
Nile Lawrence-Stample, Florida State (6-1, 312): Lawrence-Stample recorded 36 tackles (23 solos) with 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for losses as a senior. Lawrence-Stample broke into the lineup with six starts as a sophomore. He hoped to use that as a springboard for his junior season. Instead, he sustained a torn pectoral during the third game of the season. He was expected to miss the rest of the year but was back on the field for the Rose Bowl, recording one tackle and one blocked extra point against Oregon. “I wanted to show the world and show my team that I’m for them. I’m not here to just watch my teammates play.” He’s not just a big guy. He was a 280-pound middle linebacker in high school. “Just because I’m so big, they don’t associate it,” Lawrence-Stample said of his makeup. “I try to close in as fast as I can on my players so it definitely helps being that fast at this speed and this weight.”
Luther Maddy, Virginia Tech (6-0, 285): How well-regarded was Maddy? In 2014, he played in only four games due to a torn meniscus that required two surgeries to repair. He still was voted honorable-mention all-ACC by the coaches. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster had concern about Maddy entering the 2015 season. "Did he have the durability? Was that knee going to continue to be strong enough? All those things were there in your thoughts." Maddy answered those questions in the affirmative. As a senior, Maddy had a career-high 57 tackles (17 solos) with 2.5 sacks and seven tackles for losses to earn first-team all-ACC. A high school teammate with defensive end prospect Dadi Nicolas, Maddy not only blossomed as a player but as a team leader and member of the community. Said coach Frank Beamer: "He’s made out of the right stuff. The guy that’s talking before the team needs to have the respect of the team, needs to be a guy that can play … and needs to be team-first, have a good heart. Luther’s all those.” Like Nicolas, Maddy is from Haiti. He saw athletics as a path out of Delray Beach, Fla. “Delray’s a tough area, especially these last couple years,” Maddy said. “Shootings, just guys being reckless, being stupid, being ignorant. ... Guys that I know have passed away, friends that I’ve known since high school in jail like that. I had my moments also when I was younger. I was never really that crazy kid. I was never a criminal or nothing like that, but I definitely had times where I could have gone in the wrong direction. But my parents and people around me helped influence in the right direction.” Maddy started 46 games and played in a team-record 56. He finished with 14 sacks and 29.5 tackles for losses. His best statistical season came in 2013, when he piled up 55 tackles (28 solos) with 6.5 sacks and 13.5 for losses.
Chris Mayes, Georgia (6-3, 323): Mayes had by far the best season of his career, tallying 41 tackles (16 solos) and one tackle for loss. In his previous two seasons, Mayes had a total of 38 tackles. He’s a big man who can move. Even at his size, he managed to fit in on Georgia’s attacking defense. Mayes opened his college career by playing one season at Mississippi Golf Coast Community College. Until then, he had played only two years of organized football.
Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss (6-3, 296): Underclassman. Nkemdiche was the crown jewel of a shockingly star-studded recruiting class in 2013. His career ended in shocking fashion, however. A couple weeks before the Sugar Bowl, he fell 15 feet to a concrete walkway after crawling out a fourth-floor window. He was charged with possession of marijuana and suspended for the game. Nkemdiche then declared for the draft. It put a sour note on a tremendous season, with Nkemdiche earning All-America honors. In 11 games, he had 29 tackles (13 solos), including three sacks and seven for losses. Plus, he scored three touchdowns on offense (two rushing, one receiving) and blocked a field goal on special teams. With that, he became the first defensive lineman to ever be named a finalist for the Paul Hornung Award, which goes to the nation’s most versatile player. Nkemdiche’s parents came to the United States from Nigeria. His mom, Beverly, returned to the country and works in the Legislature. Robert and his brother, Denzel, a starting linebacker, took a nine-day trip to Nigeria this past summer. “It was amazing, almost life-changing,” Robert said. “America has a perception of Africa, and it’s so not true. There are so many different parts, so many pretty parts, so many pretty souls there and America just trashes them and says it’s this dirty place that doesn’t have anything. But the people I saw there have spirituality and intuition, and it’s good people. I stayed up all night one time and just looked at the view, and it was amazing.” From his choice of clothing to his desire to learn how to skateboard to his hunger for books and freakish skill-set, he is a unique package. "When I say he bull-rushed me, oh, man," said left tackle Laremy Tunsil, a fellow five-star recruit and potential top-five pick. "I felt all 310 (pounds) just coming at me, full of muscle, six-pack and everything. I was like, 'I see why he's No. 1.' I've never seen somebody so explosive coming off the ball in my life."
Sheldon Rankins, Louisville (6-2, 304): Rankins started during his final two seasons at Louisville. As a junior, he was third-team all-ACC with 53 tackles (31 solos) — including team-high figures of eight sacks and 13.5 tackles for losses — while adding two interceptions. He was “extremely” close to entering the draft but came back for his senior season. In 2015, he was second-team all-ACC with 58 tackles (28 solos), including six sacks and 13 for losses. He returned a fumble 46 yards for a touchdown. "You stack me up with any defensive lineman in the country, and nine out of 10 guys are going to say Sheldon Rankins is one of the top guys," Rankins said. "I feel like my skill-set sets me apart. A lot of guys are able to play two downs, then have to come off the field on third down. I never come off the field. You can run right at me, I'll stop it. If you want to run away, I'll come down the line and make the play. You want to drop back on third down, I'll get after the quarterback and wreak havoc.” He learned some critical footwork while playing basketball. “Being a bigger guy, everyone wants to take a charge on me, get me easy fouls. So I had to have something to counter that. As soon as they plant their feet, spin right around them. I’ve transferred that to the football field. It comes natural and I’ve been able to be pretty successful with it.”
D.J. Reader, Clemson (6-3, 340): Reader stepped away from the team for the first six games of the season to deal with what he called a “mental issue.” In June 2014, his father died from kidney failure. “I just learned that I have a lot of growing up to do,” Reader said upon his return. “I just grew mentally, I’m a lot mentally stronger now and so I’m excited to see where that takes me.” Before the National Championship Game, Reader spoke more extensively about his heartache. “I just didn’t want it to get worse than what it was and I didn’t want to be fearful about that,” Reader said. “It’s a game, it’s not life. This is something that could mess with me for life if I don’t take care of it and I needed to do that.” Reader was home-schooled by his father and had a unique bond with him. When his father grew sick, Reader offered one of his kidneys. “He told me right away he wouldn’t let me do that.” In the final nine games, he recorded 13 tackles, with a half-sack and 1.5 tackles for losses. He finished his career with five sacks and nine tackles for losses, with his biggest production coming as a sophomore, with 43 tackles including three sacks and five for losses. In 2013, he played seven games as a first baseman, going 0-for-3 but boasting a .500 on-base percentage and not committing any errors in seven games. In high school, he was a three-time all-conference baseball player who could throw in the 90s.
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 email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.