Kim Klement/USA TODAY

Scouting Combine Research Series: Defensive Ends (Part 3)

Who went from Tonga to unstoppable pass rusher? What elite rusher is a "unique cat" on and off the field? Who has a split personality? 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.

Ifeadi Odenigbo, Northwestern (6-3, 250): Odenigbo tallied 10 sacks, 12 tackles for losses, six hurries and two forced fumbles as a senior to earn all-Big Ten second team. After playing only one game as a freshman in 2012, Odenigbo registered 23.5 sacks, 26.5 tackles for losses and five forced fumbles in four seasons. Almost half of his career total of 61 tackles came behind the line of scrimmage.

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He arrived at Illinois weighing 205 pounds but packed on the muscle throughout his career. Helping beyond the muscle is the continued mentorship of former teammate Dean Lowry, a rookie with the Packers in 2016. Even with Lowry in Green Bay, they talked often.

"I talk to him once a week," Odenigbo said. "He is a constant reminder. He is someone, when I first got here, he and I really pushed each other. Seeing him graduate, seeing his hard work pay off, he is a constant reminder that all of this hard work I'm doing, it is not for nothing."

Odenigbo didn’t play football until his sophomore year of high school. That’s because his parents, Linda and Thomas, thought it was too violent. But they made a bargain with their son: He could play football if he got a 3.5 grade-point average. "By the grace of God, I got my transcript and my GPA was 3.5 on the dot," Odenigbo said. "I'm telling you, someone out there is watching me.”

His “little” brother, Tito, is a 290-pound defensive tackle for Illinois. They are the sons of Nigerian immigrants.

Carroll Phillips, Illinois: As a senior, Phillips became the Illini’s first first-team all-Big Ten selection since 2011. Among his 56 tackles were nine sacks and 20 tackles for losses. The TFLs count is tied for fifth-most in school history, and his 19 solo TFLs ranked second in the nation during the regular season. He added three hurries and one forced fumble. It was from-out-of-nowhere production for a player who had a combined total of three sacks and 5.5 TFLs the previous two seasons.

Academic issues kept him out of Cincinnati coming out of Miami Central so he spent a year at a junior college for arriving in Illinois. “It’s shaped me in a lot of ways, mainly just always stay hungry and always stay humble,” Phillips said of Copiah-Lincoln Community College. “Being down there in Wesson, Miss., really woke me up and made me want it. It helped me see what I really want out of life. I knew the next time I got on a big stage, I had to take advantage of it.”

Phillips is used to struggling. Rather than being consumed by the streets of Miami, Phillips found a mentor and a job at a mortuary. “My philosophy to all of them was this: If it wasn’t for football, knowing the conditions you grew up in, you might end up on my table,” said Dwight Jackson of Richardson Mortuary. “It’s a great motivational tool.”

He is cousins with rapper Luther Campbell.

Garrett Sickels, Penn State (6-4, 250): Junior. Sickels left Penn State following a season in which he posted career-high totals of 47 tackles, six sacks and 12.5 tackles for losses. Sickels, who added four hurries, was named second-team all-Big Ten. After serving a first-half suspension against Ohio State, Sickels dominated with 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for losses in an upset victory. In three years, he had 11 sacks and 20.5 TFLs.

Sickels is putting his money where his muscles are: For every rep he does on the 225-pound bench press at the Combine, he will donate $250 to his Reps for Research campaign. The fund drive is in line with his duties as president/director of operations for Penn State's Uplifting Athletes chapter, which has raised more than $1 million for rare diseases since the first Penn State Lift for Life in 2003.

Sickels was 10 pounds and 24 inches at birth. He’s a big kid with a big heart.

Dawuane Smoot, Illinois (6-3, 255): Smoot was third-team all-Big Ten as a senior with five sacks, 10 hurries, 15 tackles for losses and two forced fumbles. He was a consistent playmaker for the Illini, with 16.5 career sacks and 38.5 career tackles for losses ranking in the top 10 in school history. He was honorable mention all-Big Ten as a junior with eight sacks, 15 TFLs and three forced fumbles.

For his production, Smoot’s accolades seem to be lacking. That’s not anything out of the ordinary. He’s used to being overlooked. As a high school hurdler he, well, didn’t look like a hurdler. Not at 225 pounds. “I was really underestimated at the time. I got to the nationals (in 2010). It kind of just happened. I was doing track and (was) a bigger guy. Then I got taller and got skinny. I would play (with competitors in track) and say I run a 17(-second time) when I really run a 15. I feel like I've always been an underdog.”

Pita Taumoepenu, Utah (6-1, 242): Taumoepenu rates as one of the best pass rushers in Utah history with 21.5 sacks. He was a nonfactor as a freshman — more on that in a moment — but had 20.5 sacks, 23.5 tackles for losses and four forced fumbles during his final three seasons. He was an honorable mention on the all-Pac-12 team as a senior with his nine sacks, 12 tackles for losses, three forced fumbles and four pressures.

Taumoepenu was born in Texas but moved to Tonga with his grandparents when he was 6 months old to experience his culture. He was good enough to join the country’s U-20 national rugby team but his mom wanted him to go to college. So, at age 17, he moved back to the United States. His first time playing football was as a high school senior. He was a natural, racking up a Utah-record 25 sacks. Not say there wasn’t a learning curve. "He put (his shoulder pads) on backwards, and guys had to teach him how to put them on properly," said high school coach Cary Whittingham, the brother of Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "We're talking about a kid with no experience whatsoever."

As for being a nonfactor as a freshman, he missed the first month of his freshman season while Utah officials straightened out the paperwork stemming from going to high school in two countries. Ultimately, his success was foreshadowed by his grandparents. “Growing up in Tonga, my grandparents tell me, ‘One day, you’re going to be a football player.’ I said, ‘What is football?’ I didn’t know football. I played rugby. … I used to walk with my grandfather to the farm every day after school. I tell him, ‘Stop telling me this. We’re on a farm. This is what I’m going to do when I grow up.’”

Solomon Thomas, Stanford (6-2, 275): Junior. Thomas won the Morris Trophy, which goes to the best lineman in the Pac-12, and was named a second-team All-American. He tallied 62 tackles, including eight sacks and 15 tackles for losses, and added seven hurries and a forced fumble. Thomas was an honorable mention on the all-conference team as a sophomore with 3.5 sacks and 10.5 TFLs.

Athleticism runs in the family. His dad played basketball at Wooster, his mom ran track at Wooster and an uncle ran track at Indiana, where he was a four-time Big Ten hurdles champion. Speaking of family, his father was an international sales manager for Procter & Gamble. Thus, Thomas spent about five years in Australia when he was a kid. He was born seven months premature and weighed only 4 pounds. He grew in a hurry. Oh, and he thinks he can talk to gorillas.

DeMarcus Walker, Florida State (6-2, 273): Walker wasted no time in embarking on becoming a consensus first-team All-American. In the opener against Ole Miss, he piled up 4.5 sacks — all in the second half. For an exclamation point, he had four tackles for losses in the Orange Bowl against Michigan. By season’s end, Walker posted 16 sacks and 21.5 tackles for losses among 68 tackles. He added three forced fumbles, four additional hurries and a game-clinching blocked extra point vs. Miami to capture ACC Defensive Player of the Year. Walker was second-team all ACC as a junior with 10.5 sacks, 15.5 TFLs and four forced fumbles. His four-year total: 27 sacks, 41.5 tackles for losses and eight forced fumbles.

The game against Ole Miss was the stuff of legend. He’s one of only 10 players since 2004 with at least 4.5 sacks in a game against an FBS opponent. And, according to ESPN, he’s the only player since at least 2004 with 4.5 sacks in a half. "I was in Mamba mode," Walker said of Kobe Bryant’s nickname. "I was in savage mode, living legend."

He’s not a savage off the field, though. “Everybody loves DeMarcus,” Sandalwood High School coach Adam Geis. “He’d hang out with video gamers and band people as much as his teammates. I’d get knocks on my door from a little kid with a trumpet in his hand, looking for DeMarcus. He’s a unique cat, a good human being. I’ll pull for him every day of his life.”

He authored this letter to his mom just before his final home game.

Or, he could say thank you by making dinner. Wait, he already did — shrimp and lobster alfredo.

Jordan Willis, Kansas State (6-4, 255): Willis closed his career with a bang. He earned All-America and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year accolades with a school-record-tying 11.5 sacks, and added 17.5 tackles for losses, 52 tackles, three forced fumbles and four hurries. Willis started the final 39 games of his career and finished with 26 sacks, 40.5 tackles for losses and seven forced fumbles. Willis tallied 9.5 sacks, 15.5 TFLs and four forced fumbles as a junior.

This story from his senior year at Rockhurst High School in Kansas City speaks to Willis’ split personality: He’s so quiet that he wasn’t voted team captain; he’s so intelligent and thoughtful that he was voted school council president. K-State offered him a scholarship after his sophomore year — before he played a snap on the varsity.

This story says a lot, too. Willis graduated on a Saturday. The Wildcats, in the midst of their bowl preparation, practiced on that Saturday. Willis was excused from practice but showed up, anyway. “This is my life, Kansas State and football. There’s other stuff that is important, too, but this is what I love doing. It didn’t feel right for me not to go to practice. We were having time off the last couple of days and I didn’t know what to do with myself because this is what I want to do. It means a lot to me.”

Deatrich Wise Jr., Arkansas (6-5, 275): Wise started only 10 games in four seasons but recorded career totals of 16.5 sacks and 23 tackles for losses. Eight of the 10 starts came as a senior, when he had a career-high 49 tackles and added 3.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for losses despite playing through a broken hand sustained in the opening game He was at his best as a junior, when he had eight sacks, 10 TFLs and three forced fumbles while starting zero games.

Deatrich Wise Sr. was drafted by the Seahawks in the ninth round in 1988 and played two seasons in the Canadian Football League and four seasons in the Arena Football League. Wise’s parents preached the importance of community service. A young Wise showed that when he gave one of his classmates his coat. “My dad always said, ‘No matter what you do on the field, if someone can say that you were a good man and always gave back, that’s one of the highest compliments you can receive.’”

Chris Wormley, Michigan (6-5, 297): Wormley was first-team all-Big Ten as a senior, when he notched 5.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for losses among his 39 tackles. He added three blocked kicks and five forced fumbles. He was second-team all-conference as a junior with 6.5 sacks and 14.5 TFLs. Wormley started 30 games in his career, tallying 18 sacks and 33 TFLs. He missed all of 2012, his true freshman season, with a torn ACL.

Wormley was voted a team captain and took an offseason trip to Israel with teammates. In the process, he made his mom proud. Wormley grew up in Toledo, Ohio — a stone’s throw from the Michigan border. The Michigan-Ohio State rivalry split the city and the family. “You’re 45 minutes from Ann Arbor, you’re 2 1/2 (hours) from Columbus, you’re about 2 1/2 hours from South Bend, and Lansing is about two hours away, too,” Wormley said. “So you can get to those places all in a weekend drive. It makes for an interesting college football Saturday in Toledo, if you’re going to different restaurants, or if you’re watching football with friends.”

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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