Scouting Combine Research Series: Defensive Ends (Part 2)

Who was a star basketball player who honed his skills in the boxing ring? What small-school star's abs have abs? What star rusher was taken under his father's wing? Those answers and more as we get to know the top defensive ends.

Here are the 28 defensive ends 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 unless noted. Many of these players project to 3-4 outside linebackers.

Ken Ekanem, Virginia Tech (6-3, 255): Ekanem had 7.5 sacks and 10 tackles for losses as a senior. He added 11 hurries. His best year came as a sophomore, when he led the ACC with 10.5 sacks.

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How did Ekanem end up at Tech? He had narrowed his choices to Oregon, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame. The cost of an airplane ticket to Oregon was too expensive, his mom said. Then he tore his ACL in the Virginia state championship game. “All I heard was five cracks and then a pop at the end,” Ekanem said. “I just remember screaming for five minutes straight. I knew it was done. I knew nothing good could come from five cracks and a pop at the end.” Notre Dame pulled its offer. “I was already leaning toward them, so it was really reassuring that Tech was definitely my best option,” Ekanem said. “Kind of funny how it worked out.”

Ekanem’s father, Ime, lives in Nigeria, having moved back to his native country in 2005. They are not close. “The main thing, he missed most of the Christmases but he always ended up making it back for my birthday. But once he missed my birthday I got a little emotional. ... I think it was sixth or seventh grade. I didn’t cry; I was just like, this is weird.” In 2014, Ime took a break from his campaign to be governor of a Nigerian state to watch his son play.

Daeshon Hall, Texas A&M (6-5, 265): Overshadowed by Myles Garrett, who could be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, Hall put up solid numbers. During his last three seasons, he rang up 16 sacks, 33.5 tackles for losses and four forced fumbles. As a junior, he had seven sacks and 14.5 TFLs; as a senior, he had 4.5 sacks and 13 TFLs and added 12 hurries. 

Hall’s football career started with a phone call from the basketball coach at his new school, Lancaster (Texas) High School. And his mom’s instinct. He blossomed as he added strength to his basketball player frame. Giving up basketball helped him pack on some needed pounds. He played as a a freshman at just over 200 pounds. "I ate a crazy amount of food, but I had a high metabolism so I would start off heavy but it would burn off," Hall said. "This year I'm doing a real good job of keeping and maintaining my weight."

Charles Harris, Missouri: Junior. Harris finished second on the team with 61 tackles, which included team-leading figures of nine sacks and 12 tackles for losses to earn first-team all-SEC. The 61 tackles were most among SEC defensive linemen. He added 10 hurries and two forced fumbles. The two-time all-conference selection finished his career ranked seventh in Mizzou history with 18 sacks and 11th with 34.5 TFLs as he reached his goal of becoming Mizzou’s next stud rusher.

“It’s pressure, but it’s not pressure on me,” Harris said. “People are going to say what they want to say, but I don’t really listen to it. I feel like I’m going to be great, whether that’s on the field, in a classroom with academics or giving back with my career. I’m going to be great no matter what. … I’ve worked too hard, and I’ve come too far for me not to be great.”

Harris was a star basketball player in high school — he originally committed to play basketball at Missouri Western — but it might be his boxing background as a youth in downtown Kansas City that’s most pertinent. “When I was in middle school, I kind of got tired of getting picked on, so I went to my neighborhood (YMCA) and took some boxing classes.” Before a breakout sophomore season of 18.5 TFLs, Harris returned to those boxing roots in his offseason training.

“There’s something about playing an individual sport where you have to only rely on yourself,” Tigers defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said. “Either you’re mentally ready or you’re not mentally ready. You have to be prepared, and then you’ve got to be tough. … When you go out there in the ring, when you go out there on the (wrestling) mat, it’s you and that guy. There’s nobody else, so you can’t come back and point a finger.”

Trey Hendrickson, Florida Atlantic (6-4, 255): Hendrickson put up big numbers during his final three seasons with 27.5 sacks, 39.5 tackles for losses and eight forced fumbles. All of those are school records. After piling up 13 sacks, 14.5 TFLs and five forced fumbles as a junior, Hendrickson faced more attention as a senior but was named Conference USA’s Defensive MVP with 9.5 sacks, 15 TFLs and one forced fumble. He led the nation with four blocked kicks.

Not bad for a two-star tight end out of Apopka, Fla. “When I first got here, I don't know that I saw this coming," said FAU coach Charlie Partridge, who has coached Hendrickson three of his four seasons. "I saw a kid that worked hard and had some raw talent but he has put himself in this position.”

Hendrickson’s competitiveness was on display at an early age. When he was 6, he lost to his dad in a one-on-one basketball game. "I beat him and he got mad," Collie Hendrickson said. "He wanted to beat me at 6 years old. He was always playing hard and never saw size as an obstacle.”

Tanoh Kpassagnon, Villanova (6-7, 280): Kpassagnon was named a first-team FCS All-American and Colonial Athletic Association Defensive Player of the Year as a senior as he led the CAA and ranked in the top 15 nationally with 11 sacks and 21.5 tackles for losses. Kpassagnon, who had 45 tackles and one forced fumble, recorded at least one sack in nine of 13 games. Kpassagnon was first-team all-conference as a junior, too, with 6.5 sacks, 9.5 TFLs and two blocked kicks.

With production, size and physique — it looks like his abs have abs — how did Kpassagnon wind up at Villanova? Rather than participate in camps meant to catch the eye of recruiters, Kpassagnon focused on the Future Business Leaders of America. He spent a month in Orlando, Fla., with his team working on a presentation on business ethics. A coach from Villanova only noticed Kpassagnon when he was at school to meet with another player. He went to Villanova only under one condition, laid out by his mother: admission into the school’s prestigious business school.

His mom, Winifred Wafuoyo, is a native of Uganda and a research scientist for McNeil Consumer Healthcare. His father, Patrice Kpassagnon Tagro, works in an economist in his native Ivory Coast. "I like hitting people," he said. "I'm not like a violent person, but it's a chance to release some stress; just the team atmosphere, too. I'm kind of an introvert naturally, but, my freshman year, I automatically had 90 other dudes I could go to like friends. It was a cool thing. I'm good at it. If you're good at something, it's pretty fun."

Carl Lawson, Auburn (6-2, 253): Junior. Lawson is one of the most confounding prospects in the draft. He earned some first-team All-America accolades with his nine sacks, 13.5 tackles for losses and 24 hurries. However, he wasn’t even a consensus first-team all-conference selection, since he posted only 30 tackles. He’s basically a one-hit wonder. He missed all of 2014 with a torn ACL. In 2015, he was limited to even games with a cracked hip and recorded just one sack and three TFLs.

“I need to get better as a football player, that's pretty much it,” Lawson said almost 12 months ago. “And I've got a lot to prove, a lot to prove to myself, nobody else. I still have a lot of stuff I want to accomplish. That's pretty much it. I just need to become a better football player.

His father, Carl, played fullback at Georgia Tech. Like father, like son. “If they didn’t have contact, he didn’t like it," Lawson Sr. says. "When I mean contact, I mean full scrimmage - Oklahoma drills, bull in the ring. That’s his kind of stuff.” There would be no contact as a high school freshman. Lawson didn’t play that year, though he was immersed in football, nonetheless, as Lawson Sr. had his son focus on speed, strength and agility.

Jeremiah Ledbetter, Arkansas  (6-3, 281): Ledbetter started both seasons after spending his first two seasons at Hutchinson (Kan.) Junior College. As a senior, he led the team with 5.5 sacks while contributing 49 tackles, 7.5 tackles for losses and one hurry. The tackle count tied for the team lead among defensive linemen. As a junior, he had 55 tackles, two sacks and 7.5 TFLs.

His father, Weldon, played fullback at Oklahoma and was drafted by the Buccaneers in 1983. It was his mom, however, who played a role in Ledbetter landing at Arkansas.

Avery Moss, Youngstown State: Moss started his career at Nebraska, taking a medical redshirt as a freshman in 2012 and then tallying 4.5 sacks and eight tackles for losses in 2013. However, in January 2014, he was banned from campus due to indecency charge.

Moss fought the ruling for a year before transferring to Youngstown State in January 2015. The coach at Youngstown is former Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. After making a minimal impact as a junior in 2015, Moss made a big impact as a senior. He was named first-team Ohio Valley Conference with 10.5 sacks, 17.5 tackles for losses and four forced fumbles.

“I think all throughout the year was a growing and maturing thing for me. I expanded my faith a lot,” Moss said. “For the most part, I do think I matured. I don’t want to say I’m a completely different person now, but I know right from wrong better. It’s stuff that comes with age I guess.”

Al-Quadin Muhammad, Miami (6-3, 236): Muhammad has more sacks of baggage than sacks on the field. One of the nation’s top prospects, Muhammad had two sacks in limited duty as a true freshman in 2013 and team-leading totals of five sacks and 8.5 tackles for losses in 2015. It’s what happened in 2014 and 2016 that are the issues. He was suspended for the 2014 season because of an on-campus fight. Before his promising 2015 season, he was suspended for the opener for a violation of team rules. Finally, in late August 2016, Muhammad was kicked off the team for receiving improper benefits from a luxury car-rental company.

Muhammad considered enrolling at Hampton but either didn’t show up or wasn’t allowed to show up.

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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