Kim Klement/USA TODAY

Scouting Combine Research Series: Defensive Tackles (Part 2)

Whose ugly recruiting story played out nationally? Who was a hero after Hurricane Katrina? Who is the "Renaissance Man" of the group? Who was part of a horrific accident? Those answers and more as we get to know the top defensive tackles.

Here are the 21 defensive tackles who have been invited to the Scouting Combine. Players are listed in alphabetical order. Heights and weights come from CBSSports.com/NFLDraftScout.com. All players are seniors. For Part 1, CLICK HERE.

Malik McDowell, Michigan State (6-5, 276): Junior. McDowell earned awards all three seasons. After being a Freshman All-American, McDowell was second-team all-Big Ten as a sophomore with career-high totals of 4.5 sacks and 13 tackles for losses. Then came his junior campaign: second-team All-American and first-team all-conference. In nine games, he registered 34 tackles, 1.5 sacks and a team-high seven tackles for losses. In three seasons, McDowell posted 7.5 sacks and 24.5 TFLs.

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In June 2015, McDowell went to the Mayo Clinic in hopes of finding out why he was experiencing chest pains. The diagnosis? Growing pains. With that out of the way, McDowell tried to grow as a player. “It's possible for a D-lineman to be unstoppable every play," McDowell said before the 2016 season. “Even if the play isn't going to you, you blow your man up still. That's what makes, in my eyes, a good D-lineman. Being unstoppable.”

He was good. But he could have been better.

McDowell was one of the nation’s hot recruits. He wanted to go to Michigan State. His mom? Not so much. The saga played out in public fashion.

Larry Ogunjobi, Charlotte (6-2, 304): Charlotte’s had a football program for four years. There is no doubt Ogunjobi will be the first player drafted. As a senior, he had a career-high 65 tackles to go with three sacks and 13.5 tackles for losses to become the first first-team all-conference player in school history. He was second-team all-Conference USA as a junior with 62 tackles, 2.5 sacks and 14.5 TFLs. His four-year total is incredible compared to other 300-pounders: 13 sacks and 49 tackles for losses. He ranked eighth among active FBS defenders in TFLs.

Ogunjobi, a first-generation American and the son of Nigerian parents, is a big man. He was bigger when he was forced to start playing football as a high school sophomore. He was 350 pounds back then. “My parents said I was gaining too much weight, and they took away my video game system. They took me to a football field and said I was playing football. I said, ‘No, I’m not’ and they said, ‘Yes, you are.’ We had an exchange.”

Turns out, he liked football. And he badly wanted to get better. “I asked my coach what I had to do to get to the next level and he said I had to get stronger, get faster and perfect my technique. I started going to the YMCA after practice and bike five miles, run half a mile. Then I would be able to bike ten miles, run a mile. My body began to grow and change.”

Elijah Qualls, Washington (6-1, 321): Junior. Qualls was first-team all-Pac-12 as a junior with 78 tackles — he had 39 the previous two seasons combined — with three sacks and five tackles for losses. He had a breakout sophomore year with 26 tackles, 4.5 sacks and 4.5 TFLs.

Like so many kids, football would be Qualls’ salvation. He grew up in Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood, an area known more for crime and drugs than oak and parks. Kids get sucked in and can’t get out. Qualls figured he was doomed for the same fate. “As far as I was thinking, I wasn’t planning on going anywhere either.” How’s this for a first job: riding around the block and looking for police. “I don’t know why, but whatever,” he said. “I ride around the block and they give me some money for when the ice cream man comes around. I didn’t ask questions, I got ice cream.” To keep him out of trouble, Qualls’ stepfather signed him up for football when he was about 5. “I could put my anger to good use.”

Qualls was the voice of a defense that took the Huskies to the College Football Playoffs. “Aside from giving them the best look I possibly can by doing the best I possibly can at what I do, helping them get their mental game prepared is my other way of trying to get our offense better.”

Isaac Rochell, Notre Dame (6-4, 282): Rochelle was a three-year starter who rounded out his career with 56 tackles, including one sack and seven tackles for losses. As a junior, he tallied 63 tackles — most by an Irish defensive lineman since 2007 — with 7.5 for losses. He also had 7.5 TFLs as a sophomore. That gave him 22 TFLs in his last three years.

Rochell wants to operate his own nonprofit business. To learn more, he spent two weeks in Seattle in May working at Street Bean Coffee. Proceeds from every bag of coffee sold fund an hour of job training for a homeless young person in Seattle. “I learned a lot about homelessness and struggles. I met people who have been homeless since they were 12 years old. And, obviously, they didn’t make a decision to be homeless at 12 years old.” That’s typical of Rochell. In high school, rather than take a trip to the Bahamas with a classmate, he went on a mission trip to Nicaragua.

Tanzel Smart, Tulane (6-1, 296): Smart started the final 36 games of his college career and was first-team all-American Athletic Conference as a junior and senior. For his career, he tallied 40.5 tackles for losses. Smart ranked fourth in the conference in tackles for losses with 18.5 and eighth in sacks at 5.5 as a senior. As a junior, he had two sacks and 15 tackles for losses.

He might be undersized but he’s not under-talented. "Go out there and watch me practice, produce like God has been letting me do,” Smart said at the Senior Bowl. “At the end of the day, just watch me. Tulane was my biggest offer and it was a blessing that I got somewhere like Tulane. The college thing is out the window. Everybody's great here and come here to compete.”

Smart was the ultimate leader by example. “He never leaves the weight room,” former safety Darion Monroe said. “(Coach Curtis Johnson is) always telling us we need to be more like him. He’s one of the hardest-working guys, and it’s paying off for him.”

Vincent Taylor, Oklahoma State (6-2, 310): Junior. Taylor recorded 51 tackles, including seven sacks and 13 for losses, two forced fumbles and a whopping four blocked kicks during his final season. As a sophomore, he was a breakout player with 48 tackles, five sacks and 8.5 TFLs.

Taylor’s decision to enter the NFL draft was made with his father. “Team 96” is a tight-knit duo, with father leading son throughout the move following Hurricane Katrina. He was there for him still through a series of fights and suspensions at his new school in San Antonio. To get another fresh start, the Taylors moved to get Vincent into a different school district. From there, his life — and football career — soared.

Taylor has the state of Louisiana tattooed on his arm with the date of Katrina’s arrival. "No power. No food. Seeing dead bodies. Things got rough.” He was 10. But he also was a hero. They tried to ride out the storm at a hotel. When the levees broke, Taylor helped move the elderly and those in wheelchairs up more than a dozen flights of stairs to the roof of the hotel to keep them safe.

Dalvin Tomlinson, Alabama (6-3, 312): In his one and only season as a starter, Tomlinson was in on 62 tackles as a senior, a total that included three sacks and 5.5 tackles for losses. He had two sacks and six TFLs in his previous seasons. After redshirting in 2012, Tomlinson missed most of 2013 with a knee injury.

At Henry County (Ga.) High School, Tomlinson was a three-time state heavyweight champion. How dominant was he as a senior? He went 49-0 and pinned his championship opponent in just 9 seconds. His high school football coach, Mike Rozier, called Tomlinson “Renaissance Man.” That’s because Tomlinson was close to a 4.0 student, an artist and played the saxophone and trumpet. He also played soccer. He needed all of those distractions. His dad died of cancer when he was 5, his mom when he was 17.

The wrestling prowess came from “42 Minutes of Hell” practices, as he detailed in a loving tribute to his mom in The Players’ Tribune.

Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, USC (6-1, 350): At Utah, Tu’ikolovatu redshirted in 2009, went on a Mormon mission to the Phillippines for the 2010 through 2012 seasons and missed the 2013 season with a foot injury. After the long layoff, Tu’ikolovatu posted eight tackles in 2014 and made his first two career starts in 2015, tallying 28 tackles in 13 games. Having earned his degree, Tu’ikolovatu transferred to USC and became an impact performer with 53 tackles, a half-sack and two tackles for losses.

Tu’ikolovatu, who will turn 26 on June 28, spent a month living in a car with his wife before he found a place to stay at USC.

When his grandfather was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2009, family members moved in with him. “We were able to act as his hospice nurses, and it was a time that my family and I really enjoyed,” Tu’ikolovatu said. After his football career, he’d like to open elderly care facilities.

Tu’ikolovatu’s uncle is former Utah  defensive lineman Sione Pouha, who played with the New York Jets from 2005 through 2012.

Eddie Vanderdoes, UCLA (6-3, 320): Junior. After missing almost all of the 2015 season with a torn ACL, Vanderdoes was honorable mention all-Pac-12 as a senior with 29 tackles, including 1.5 sacks and 1.5 tackles for losses. He had 2.5 sacks and 12.5 TFLs for his career.

Vanderdoes ran for touchdowns as a freshman and sophomore. He was in the backfield in the season-opening game against Virginia in 2015 when defensive tackle Kenny Clark, now with the Packers, scored on a 3-yard touchdown reception. In celebration, Vanderdoes hoisted Clark in the air – then collapsed to the turf with a torn ACL. According to Vanderdoes and the coaches, his knee locked up earlier in the game and the injury did not happen during the celebration. “You want them, as a team, to congratulate each other,” former Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel said. “It’s hard to get to the end zone. That’s why you celebrate.”

Vanderdoes is a local legend in Auburn, Calif. So is this hamburger. In 2012, Local Heroes named a cheeseburger after Vanderdoes, calling it the “Big Eddie.” It has four quarter-pound patties, four slices of American cheese, eight slices of bacon, two onion rings, lettuce and special sauce. Price? 12 bucks.

Charles Walker, Oklahoma (6-2, 304): Junior. Walker played in eight games as a freshman and only four as a junior. In between, he was second-team all-Big 12 as a sophomore with 36 tackles, including six sacks and 10 for losses.

He missed the Orange Bowl because of a concussion, then suffered another on Oct. 1. About six weeks later, he left the team a month later to pursue the NFL. That did not sit well with defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. “Quitting on your teammates is hard to take, as a coach. That’s everything we stand for — our commitment to one another and, for whatever reason, that wasn’t there for him. He thought this was a better avenue so you would have to ask him for those (answers).”

Walker had plenty of reasons to turn pro. Well, one reason: his daughter, who was 2 at the start of fall camp. “I was a totally different guy than what I am today,” he said. “I didn't have the drive I have now, the ambition, the heart I have, how mentally I am now. Having a daughter really changed me.”

Carlos Watkins, Clemson (6-4, 312): As a senior, Watkins earned some first-team All-America accolades, was first-team all-ACC, the Tigers’ defensive co-MVP and a team captain. During his final season, he posted 82 tackles, including 10.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for losses. His sack total set a school record for a defensive tackle, snapping the record of 10 held by, among others, Michael Dean Perry and William “Refrigerator” Perry. Watkins was first-team all-ACC as a junior with 3.5 sacks, eight TFLs and a pick-six. In four seasons, Watkins finished with 14 sacks and 26 TFLs.

In September 2013, Watkins was a passenger in a fatal car crash. The SUV skidded on wet pavement and slammed into a telephone poll. The poll fell on top of the SUV and onto Watkins’ legs. He was stranded in the vehicle for two hours. A friend in the back seat was dead. “Once I woke up and turned around, I just saw his legs, and half of his body was outside the car.” As for Watkins, the pain was physical (blood clots) and mental. It was Watkins’ vehicle; he blames himself for what happened. “I could have been the one driving to prevent this.”

Clemson’s run to the national championship brought together past and present. One of the players from the Tigers’ last national champion was Chuck McSwain. McSwain coached Watkins at Chase High School in Forest City, N.C. "Chuck had a major role in me going to Clemson. My sophomore year, I wasn’t getting recruited by anybody and after my junior season I still wasn’t getting any letters. Then Chuck took my highlights and sent them to one of their coaches, and they offered me right away.”


Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.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.

 

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