Karl Joseph, West Virginia (5-11, 197): Joseph sustained a torn ACL at practice in early October. It was a devastating injury — Joseph led the nation with five interceptions. Joseph started all 42 games of his career and tallied 284 tackles (209 solo), 16.5 tackles for losses, two sacks, nine interceptions, 14 pass breakups, a school-record eight forced fumbles and six fumble recoveries. He had three interceptions vs. Georgia Southern in the opener; the Moutaineers allowed only two completions in that game. As a junior, he was first-team all-Big 12 with 92 tackles (62 solos and 4.5 for losses), plus an interception and three forced fumbles. Joseph considered entering the draft last year; he secured separate insurance policies to guard against permanent disability and loss-of-value. He is a punishing hitter. “When you watch him play, how he hits, he's the most physical football player I've ever been around,” WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said. “He's a big muscle.”
Jayron Kearse, Clemson (6-4, 220): Underclassman. Kearse was a second-team All-American during his final season, when he recorded 62 tackles (41 solo), including 6.5 for losses, plus one interception, six passes broken up and one forced fumble. Kearse tied for the team high with four interceptions as a freshman (despite starting only three times) and had two more as a sophomore. If you’re wondering if Kearse is related to Jevon Kearse, the answer is yes, Jevon is Jayron’s uncle. Jevon Kearse, was an All-America linebacker at Florida and an NFL All-Pro who had 74 sacks in 133 career games with the Titans and Eagles. A cousin, Phillip Buchanon, was a defensive back at Miami (Fla.) who intercepted 20 passes in 122 career games with the Buccaneers and Raiders. He is driven to be the best, even if it’s a spitting contest. “My goal this season is to have more than anybody than anybody else in whatever category there is,” Kearse said, “Just be the best all-around player I can be, the best safety in the ACC, the best safety in the nation, the best defensive back in the ACC and the nation.”
Miles Killebrew, Southern Utah (6-2, 219): Killebrew made the all-Big Sky at multiple positions as a senior. He made the first team as a safety, with his 123 tackles (74 solos) leading the Thunderbirds and ranking third in the conference. He hadded seven pass breakups. He also made the all-conference second team for his special-teams work, where he blocked two kicks. As a junior, he was second-team all-conference with 101 tackles (62 solo), four forced fumbles and three interceptions. With his size, he’s drawn comparisons to Arizona’s Deone Bucannon and Carolina’s Shaq Thompson — collegiate safeties who have starred as athletic linebackers. He loves to watch former Steelers star Troy Polamalu. “I’m learning now that it wasn’t just [Polamalu’s] physical ability,” Killebrew said. “Sure he had it, but he was so smart, man. He was so in tune with how the game works. That’s something I’ve really caught myself studying a lot more of as I’ve gotten closer to transitioning to the next level.”
Derrick Kindred, TCU (5-10, 210): Kindred was a two-year starter, earning honorable-mention all-Big 12 as a junior before winning first-team honors as a senior. In 2015, Kindred tallied 87 tackles (57 solos), including 3.5 for losses, and added two interceptions, three additional breakups, two forced fumbles and one recovery. Unbelievably, he played the entire season with a broken clavicle, an injury so painful he needed help getting his pads on. “The initial comment the trainers said is, ‘Coach, I don’t see any way they could handle the pain, but if he can handle the pain, we’re not going to tell him no,’ ” co-defensive coordinator Chad Glasgow said. About 20 minutes later, Kindred told coach Gary Patterson that he was going to play. TCU’s coaches and players kept the injury under wraps throughout the season. Kindred used the bum shoulder to force a fumble vs. Minnesota and knocked Oregon quarterback Vernon Adams out of the Alamo Bowl. “I was a team leader," Kindred said. "There weren't too many veteran guys on the back end of the defense. I never missed a game before, not in high school, either. I wasn't ready to start a new tradition." In 2014, Kindred’s stat line read 80 tackles (63 solos), four interceptions and five additional breakups.
Jordan Lomax, Iowa (5-10, 204): As a senior, Lomax was third-team all-Big Ten as well as a second-team Academic All-American. Along with one interception and six additional breakups, Lomax had 96 tackles (46 solos) and one forced fumble. As a junior, he was an honorable mention on the all-conference team with 92 tackles (44 solos), one interception, six additional breakups and one forced fumble. Lomax sat out the 2012 season with a shoulder injury. When he came back in 2013, he was supposed to start at corner. Instead, he injured a hamstring. By the time Lomax was healthy, Desmond King had taken hold of the cornerback job. Lomax was moved to safety. “I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to be a corner. I felt like I had proved myself to be a corner and that I would stay at that position. Finally after they did some more talking to me, they were able to convince me to move.” He’s so physical that he had longtime Hawkeyes observers comparing him to hard-hitting Bob Sanders.
Jordan Lucas, Penn State (6-0, 202): In his first season at safety, Lucas was fifth on the team in tackles with 56, including 2.5 losses, despite missing the final three games of his senior season due to a shoulder injury. He added registered three pass breakups and a forced fumble before the injury snapped his streaks of 40 consecutive games and 27 consecutive starts. Until 2015, those starts came at cornerback. He finished his career with 180 tackles (117 solos), 25 pass breakups, 11 tackles for losses and four sacks. He was such an impressive peson that a professor authored a column before Senior Day. He has the Nittany Lions logo tattooed on his chest and, just before the start of this season, he was baptized in Spring Creek, which runs through State College, Pa. He did it, in part, to honor his grandfather, who died when he was 7, and grandma, who died when he was 18. “She couldn’t really come to my games, because she was so old. So she would tell me that she was praying, that she hoped I’d do well. That’s why I like when people ask me if I have any rituals before games. I just talk to my grandparents.”
Jalen Mills, LSU (6-0, 194): How good is Mills? Even though he missed the start of the season with a broken fibula and played in only seven games with a permanent steel plate, he was voted a first-team All-American by CBSSports.com. He recorded 30 tackles (25 solo), with one tackle for loss, one sack and three passes broken up. Mills was a four-year starter, with 39 consecutive starts to open his career. Mills earned Freshman All-America honors at cornerback in 2012 (two interceptions, five pass breakups). Mills picked off three passes as a sophomore and one as a junior. He conisdered entering the draft last year. “I can’t lie to you. As a kid playing any sport you want to play professionally. I want to go to the NFL. I had the chance. It was right in front of me.” However, his mom wanted him to stick around to get his degree, and coach Les Miles traveled to Mills’ Dallas-area home and used his best recruiting pitch on mother and son. At the Senior Bowl, scouts wanted to hear about Mills’ health and his 2014 arrest. “After that situation, I came back to school, stayed clean as a whistle for a whole year. I don’t get in trouble. That’s not my character.”
Keanu Neal, Florida (6-1, 216): Underclassman. Despite missing the first two games of the season with a hamstring injury, Neal finished third on the team with 96 tackles. That included 51 solos, 3.5 for losses and one forced fumble. Neal was a two-year starter and played in 34 games. He finished his career with 146 tackles, four interceptions and two sacks. Neal, who honed his craft is known as a nice guy until the pads come on. Neal’s brother, Clinton Hart, was drafted by the Angles in 2000 but decided to focus on baseball. He played two years of arena football and one season in NFL Europe before getting a chance with the Eagles. He parlayed that into a seven-year NFL career that included 10 interceptions. "It's motivation, seeing what he went through and seeing how he pushed and how he persevered through all of that," Neal said. "It just shows that anything can happen." Hart used to call Neal “Cotton Candy.” Not anymore. “Keanu has a very mean side to him,'' Hart said. “A lot of people don't see it, and that's good, because that's what it takes to be a great football player. You have to a good person out in the community, but when you touch the football field, you have to change and transform into something different.”
Tyvis Powell, Ohio State (6-3, 209): Underclassman. In three seasons, Powell intercepted eight passes. In 2015, he had 71 tackles (40 solos), three interceptions and three pass breakups. He could have returned for his senior season but it took him just three-and-a-half years to get his degree in marketing. Because of that, he was able to compete in the Senior Bowl. In 2014, he ranked fourth on the team with 76 tackles (45 solos) and third with four interceptions. He came up big in the national championship run, with an interception against Alabama to clinch the semifinal victory and then earning defensive MVP honors in the championship game with nine tackles vs. Oregon. "My first impression was that I thought he was kind of a clown," said defensive coordinator Chris Ash, who while at Wisconsin recruited Powell but didn’t offer him a scholarship. "Because until you really get to know Tvyis, that's the impression you get. Because he is very intelligent, he's very witty and he makes good jokes." Powell’s high school coach, Sean Williams, nicknamed him “6-3 With Grades.” To get Powell in position to get a scholarship offer, Powell and Williams worked early in the morning every morning. Even at 5:15 a.m. on Christmas Eve. “I was trying to make him quit,” Williams said. “I made it so hard that I thought he wouldn’t come back the next day. I told my wife it would only last about two weeks. A year and a half later we were still going.”
Elijah Shumate, Notre Dame (6-0, 210): When Austin Collinsworth was injured before the start of the 2014 season, Shumate broke into the starting lineup, tallying 66 tackles (41 solos), 2.5 tackles for lossses, one sack and one interception. As a senior, he bumped up that production to 70 tackles (52 solos), 6.5 tackles for losses, one interception and two passes broken up. For his career, he had two interceptions and 10 pass breakups. He started “sky-rocketing” under the tutelage of former Notre Dame and NFL safety Todd Lyght.
Justin Simmons, Boston College (6-3, 198): Simmons had a huge season with five interceptions, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. He added 67 tackles (49 solos, one for a loss) and two additional passes defensed. Simmons started seven games as a freshman, none as a sophomore and all 13 as a junior, including six at cornerback to end the season as he learned a new position in a week to fill the void as one teammate was dismissed from the team and another was injured. “It was probably one of the toughest weeks of my college career so far, just jumping into it,’’ Simmons said of the midseason position switch. “But it helped with my versatility and learning the defense even moreso than I already thought I knew it.” In 2013, Simmons had to overcome a poor performance vs. Syracuse in which he missed three tackles in the backfield. It was a turning point in his career. “It was at that moment I knew I really had to pick up my slack,” Simmons said. “Next year, coming in as a junior, I knew I had to work on tackling. I had to be a leader. I had to know the defense inside and out.” Simmons had a career-high 76 tackles as a junior and finished his career with 229 tackles (165 solos), four tackles for losses, eight interceptions, 14 additional breakups and four forced fumbles.
A.J. Stamps, Kentucky (5-11, 205): Stamps started both seasons after helping East Mississippi Community College win a national championship as a cornerback in 2013. As a senior, Stamps finished second on the team with 67 tackles (37 solos) with one interception and eight additional passes defensed. He was demoted behind a freshman for two games before returning to the starting lineup late in the season. As a junior, he had a team-high four interceptions. The first of those interceptions was sensational. Stamps’ uncle, Sylvester Stamps, is a former NFL tight end who played or the Falcons and Buccaneers.
Darian Thompson, Boise State (6-2, 215): Thompson was a two-time All-American, two-time all-Mountain West Conference first-teamer and the league’s all-time leader in interceptions. His 19 career interceptions broke Eric Weddle’s record of 18. Thompson had all-around production his last two seasons, with 65 tackles (37 solos), including 8.5 for losses, with two forced fumbles and four pass breakups as a senior and 71 tackles (50 solos), including five for losses, as a junior. He’s Boise State’s two-time Defensive MVP and a graduate in health science. Thompson’s mom, Shannon, enrolled him in a private high school that had a zero-tolerance policy for fighting and drug-sniffing dogs. “Anything that he wanted, he worked for,” she said. “Since he was 7, he wanted to play in the NFL, and now it looks like he’s going to get there. He’s just driven.” Part of being driven is being a father to a daughter who was born in October. “I have people looking up to me,” he said. “With my immediate family back home — brother, sisters, mom, dad — they would love and they want me to be successful. But if I wasn’t successful, it’s not the end of the world. But if I’m not successful with my daughter, then it could be.”
ALSO IN THIS SERIES
Safeties, Part 1
Safeties, Part 2
Cornerbacks, Part 1 (FREE)
Cornerbacks, Part 2
Cornerbacks, Part 3
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.