Yannick Ngakoue, Maryland (6-2, 250): Underclassman. Ngakoue was a two-year starter, earning honorable-mention all-Big Ten in 2014 and first-team honors in 2015. In his final season, he set a single-season school record with 13.5 sacks. In three seasons, Ngakoue’s 21.5 sacks rank fourth in school history and his 33 tackles for losses rank eighth. Ngakoue contributed six sacks and 13.5 TFLs in 2014. He transitioned from a 3-4 outside linebacker to a 4-3 defensive end in 2015, with coach Randy Edsall hoping to take advantage of Ngakoue’s explosion off the ball. His maturation began as a sophomore. “I think when you’re young and people correct you, you’re critical of the people correcting you instead of being critical of yourself,” defensive coordinator Brian Stewart said. “I think what he’s done a great job of is being critical of himself.”
Victor Ochi, Stony Brook (6-1, 244): Ochi, an All-America selection and the Colonial Athletic Association’s Co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2015, led FCS with 13.0 sacks during the regular season and paced the CAA with 16.5 tackles for a loss. He had four games with at least two sacks. He was a first-team All-American with 47 tackles (29 solos) and one forced fumble. Ochi was first-team all-conference as a junior, as well, with a career-high 57 tackles (34 solos), 11 sacks, 16.5 tackles for losses and two forced fumbles. He finished with 32.5 sacks, 50.5 TFLs — both school records — and four forced fumbles. Ochi grew up a big fan of Michael Strahan and Lawrence Taylor but didn’t start playing football until his sophomore year in high school. From age 9 through 12, Ochi lived in Nigeria with an aunt because his parents thought it was important for their children to be around another culture. "I had to let go of the sense of entitlement. When I was over in Nigeria, I had to work for things a lot more than I did here. You have to develop a work ethic to survive. And the sense of family is important . . . When I came back, people acknowledged me as a respectful, hard-working young man."
Montese Overton, East Carolina (6-2, 221): Overton had a strong senior season with 70 tackles (40 solos), 7.5 sacks, 10 tackles for losses and an impressive seven passes defensed to earn second-team all-conference. A lot of that production came against SMU, when he set an AAC record with four sacks — the most by an East Carolina player since 1997 — and added five tackles for losses. Overton, a two-time all-conference selection, booked 217 career tackles (120 solos) with 35.5 TFLs and 17.5 sacks. So long as the coaches weren’t a little quick on the trigger, he could have a huge Combine. Overton, the son of a former East Carolina basketball player, has been timed with a 4.31 in the 40, a 3.97 in the shuttle and a 6.91 in the three-cone drill. Rick Smith, ECU’s defensive coordinator, once worked at Alabama. He said Overton reminds him of former Alabama star and Pro Football Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas. “I’m quiet, not because I’m a mean person, but because I don’t really like talking,” said Overton. “This is a man’s game. I like getting my hands dirty, but I don’t do too much talking because my grandfather told me than men who are powerful don’t really say all too much. That’s me.” In May 2012, he was suspended after being arrested for animal cruelty.
Gionni Paul, Utah (5-10, 232): Paul dominated during his 20 games with the Utes. He had 61 tackles and four interceptions in 2014 despite missing five games due to a broken foot. That set the stage for a big senior season, with 117 tackles (55 solos), three sacks, 13.5 TFLs, four interceptions, two forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries. He was first-team all-Pac-12 by finishing second in the league in tackles, tying for first in recoveries and tying for third in interceptions. Before that, though, Paul made his presence felt at Utah. During a low-contact drill at practice in Paul’s redshirt season, he tackled a running back too hard for the tastes of quarterback Travis Wilson. "I mean, it was a fight," offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said. "It was a pretty awesome fight in practice, but it was one of those fights that almost was a positive. I think after it, both guys respected each other more because they knew they were both great competitors. And everybody learned something about Gionni that day." Paul spent his first two seasons at Miami, where he started seven times as a sophomore and was a two-time ACC Linebacker of the Week. However, he clashed with teammates and the coaching staff and left. "I wasn't a guy that my teammates would call on if anything goes wrong," he said. That changed when he arrived at Utah and with the arrival of his daughter, Skylar. "It drives me. I continue to work hard and hopefully get a shot at the next level. If not, then to be the greatest person and the greatest leader that I can be." He was named a team captain without playing a snap.
Joe Schobert, Wisconsin (6-2, 247): Playing outside linebacker in Wisconsin’s 3-4, Schobert was a one-man wrecking ball. He piled up 70 tackles (39 solos), 9.5 sacks, 19.5 tackles for losses, five forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries. Schobert was named the Big Ten Butkus–Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year and won the Jack Lambert Trophy as the nation’s top linebacker. As a junior, he made his mark with 69 tackles (44 solos), three sacks, 13.5 TFLs and two forced fumbles. Schobert was a star running back in high school — he rushed for 296 yards in the state title game for Waukesha (Wis.) West — who received zero recruiting interest. Zero. West coach Steve Rux recalled a conversation with a Badgers assistant late in Schobert’s senior season. “I said, ‘This guy’s really a great player,’” Rux said. “’Are you sure you can’t bring him in as a preferred walk-on?’ That’s where he wanted to be and I thought it was a great fit. Coach said ‘if he can get himself into school and get on campus, maybe we will take him after camp.’” With nothing more than a “maybe,” Schobert waited (and waited) for something more concrete. Following the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association all-star game in July 2012, he was set to walk on at FCS powerhouse North Dakota. When Schobert told one of the coaches at that game about his college plans, the coach called the staff at Wisconsin. Three days before heading to North Dakota, Badgers coach Bret Bielema told Schobert to come to Madison, instead. He’s so smooth that defensive coordinator Dave Aranda (now at LSU) called him “Sinatra.” A Big Ten Network analyst called him an “absolute animal.” Teammates call him a “freak.” That all showed up during a three-play sequence at the Outback Bowl.
Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame (6-3, 240): Underclassman. Smith’s college career ended with a torn ACL and LCL sustained during the Fiesta Bowl. He had a huge junior season at outside linebacker, with his team-high 113 tackles (68 solos) almost as many as the next two players on the list. He added nine tackles for losses and five passes defensed as he was a first-team All-American and won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker. Playing middle linebacker in 2014, he had 112 tackles and was a second-team All-American and a finalist for the Butkus. "It's like playing with LeBron James," Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire said in the preseason. "He just is better than a lot of the athletes he's around. … He just makes plays where it's like, that's just Jaylon.” Part of that is from his training. Since his sophomore year in high school, he’s worked with Michael Ledo, who owns AWP Sports Training in Smith’s hometown of Fort Wayne, Ind. “I trained him personally as a defensive back. I trained Jaylon with all my corners and DBs, and that's why he became one of the top players in the country. We'd go to 7-on-7 events and he'd line up at corner. He'd line up at safety. He'd line up at middle linebacker. People were like, 'Oh my God.' You'd throw on his highlight film and see him coming off the edge and blitzing — and he could cover people. That's the same reason Jaylon is so good right now and why he'll be a top draft pick, because of his versatility.” It’s all part of the plan for the thoughtful Smith. "If he wants to do something, he wants to know: How do you start? What do you do in the middle and the end?" his mom said. "He always wants to be the best at whatever he does — whether it was a spelling bee or a game of basketball." Not only is he athletic, but he’s smart and has a work ethic. As a high school All-American, he worked at Burger King “to get the full experience of the world.” Smith is the total package. “There are a lot of athletes like Jaylon," Notre Dame outside linebackers coach Bob Elliott said. “But those other athletes don't combine what Jaylon has with his football intellect and his attitude.” Smith’s older brother, Rod, was a running back at Ohio State. Jaylon finally got bragging rights when he surpassed his brother’s total number of offers coming out of high school. "It showed I can be as good as him. It showed I can be better, too."
Noah Spence, Eastern Kentucky (6-3, 254): Underclassman. Spence was the FCS Defensive Player of the Year by the College Football Performance Awards, the fourth-place finisher for the STATS FCS Defensive Player of the Year, the Ohio Valley Conference co-Defensive Player of the Year and a first-team All-American. In his only season at the school, Spence had 22.5 tackles for a loss and 11.5 sacks, the fourth-most in EKU single-season history. He also contributed 63 tackles (31 solo), 15 quarterback hurries, forced three fumbles and recovered two fumbles. He had at least one sack in nine of 11 games. This isn’t some small-school wonder. After being Pennsylvania’s two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Spence spent two years at Ohio State. As a sophomore, he started 13 games and was first-team all-Big Ten with eight sacks (second in the Big Ten) and 14.5 tackles for losses. For Spence, it was ecstasy and Ecstasy. A failed drug test late in 2013 cost him the end of the season, including the bowl game. His parents sided with Spence and even threatened legal action against the Big Ten. Then, in September 2014, he failed another drug test and drew a permanent ban from the conference. "I got real caught up in the college lifestyle," he said. "Every weekend, I was doing too much. I was young and stupid and I thought I could go out and party all the time." Spence says he’s a changed man. He spent the Senior Bowl telling his story to scouts and will do so again at the Combine.
Eric Striker, Oklahoma (5-11, 228): Striker was a three-year starter and three-year all-Big 12 player who tallying 23 sacks, 46.5 tackles for losses, two forced fumbles and 11 passes broken up during his career. During an All-American senior season, he had 67 tackles (41 solos), 7.5 sacks and a career-high 19 tackles for losses, plus his only career interception. He also earned some All-American accolades as a junior, when he 68 tackles (45 solo), nine sacks, 17 tackles for losses and a career-high five pass breakups. As a sophomore, he had three sacks and a forced fumble vs. Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Those are pretty good sack numbers but not quite as good as the 42 he had as a senior at Armwood High School in Tampa, Fla. He plays a good game. And talks it, too. He will be a go-to quote for reporters, wherever he lands. He knows the defense. And he knows about the New Deal. Striker became a national face on race in light of racism at an OU fraternity. “I hate to be defined as a football player. I’ve got a great personality. I’m humorous. I’m a political science major. I love everybody. I’m a people person. Football is not who I am. All you know is the number ‘19’ on the back of my jersey.”
Stephen Weatherly, Vanderbilt (6-5, 250): Underclassman. Weatherly started 21 games during his final two seasons as an outside linebacker in Vandy’s 3-4 scheme. In those seasons, he tallied 101 tackles (59 solos), eight sacks, 22 tackles for losses, three forced fumbles and four passes defensed. He’s played several instruments. At one point, he had to choose between band and football. “My best friend (in elementary school) played flute. So I was like, I'll play flute with him. From then I got further and further deeper into the band. Clarinet was pretty fun. I realized trumpets were the vocals of a song. I realized all the soul was in the sax. That's when I got into jazz a little bit. Then I realized all the bass and all the thump comes from the big boys in the back. Low brass.” He served as a co-host for an episode of the “Commodores Kitchen" cooking show. He said he once ate 42 cinnamon-sugar pretzel bites. “I brushed my teeth twice so that’s how bad it was afterwards (laughs). And, yeah, practice the next day was pretty interesting.”
ALSO IN THIS SERIES
Outside linebackers, Part 1
Outside linebackers, Part 2
Outside linebackers, Part 3 (FREE)
Inside linebackers, Part 1
Inside linebackers, Part 2 (FREE)
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.