Breakdowns

Best Defensive Players Returning to College Football

Best Defensive Players Returning to College Football

An extension to my recent editorial previewing CFB’s most productive returning offensive players, today we will be flipping to the opposite side of the ball examining the top defensive players returning to CFB this fall. Although the 2022 NFL Draft has yet to commence, it is never too soon to look at what players stand to make an impact in next year’s college football season.

The players were chosen by The 33rd Team’s scouting department as the top returning defenders in college football. Georgia, Alabama, and Clemson claim the most players on the list. This is no surprise considering all three teams ranked at or near the top of opponent points per game in 2021. Nonetheless, 2022 figures to be another exciting season laden with NFL talent. Without further ado, I present the best returning defensive players in college football.

Interior Defensive Line

Player School Sacks TFLs PFF Grade
Jalen Carter Georgia 4 21 85.4
Bryan Bresee Clemson 1 3 69.4
Myles Murphy Clemson 9 14 79.2

Jalen Carter 

Jalen Carter is a former five-star recruit, and he was the 18th overall recruit in the country in 2020, according to 247sports. Carter will enter his junior season at Georgia after winning a national championship this past year. Carter played in all 15 games of Georgia’s season, logging 396 snaps. Although Georgia had both Devonte Wyatt and Jordan Davis, Carter was too talented to leave off the field.

Among IDLs that played at least 390 snaps, Carter registered PFF’s 7th highest defensive grade. His 24 QB hurries were also good for 15th in the country. After making the coaches’ All-SEC Second Team, Carter will help Georgia continue their defensive dominance.

Bryan Bresee

Former No. 1 recruit in the nation, Bresee played in only four games this past season for the Tigers. Still, during those four games, Bresee impacted the game by collecting one sack, 3 QB hits, and 6 QB hurries. Bresee’s first year with the Tigers was promising too.

In 2020, he sacked the QB four times and accounted for 16 QB hurries across 12 games to win the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year. Bresee seems to impact all facets of the game as well, logging an interception and two pass breakups during his tenure at Clemson. Bresee will enter 2022 with a chance to play some significant time after missing games in both of his prior two seasons.

Myles Murphy

Murphy, Bresee’s teammate, is a standout on the defensive line himself. Murphy was a five-star recruit and the 7th overall recruit in the 2020 class according to 247sports. This past season, Murphy accumulated nine sacks, two forced fumbles, two pass breakups, and 33 QB hurries. He built off an impressive freshman campaign that saw him register the highest run defense PFF grade in the FBS. Murphy was a Second-Team All-ACC selection in 2021, and he will look to vault up to First-Team honors next year with his teammate, Bresee.

Edge Rusher

Player School Sacks TFLs PFF Grade
Will Anderson Jr. Alabama 15 31 89.8
Nolan Smith Georgia 7 8 84.6
Derick Hall Auburn 10 12 76.6

Will Anderson Jr.

Will Anderson was a five-star recruit out of Georgia in the 2020 recruiting class. Anderson quickly contributed to Alabama’s defense as a freshman in 2020, recording eight sacks and tying for 18th most in the country. This past year, Anderson upped the ante with an FBS-leading 15 sacks and 55 QB hurries, and 31 tackles for a loss.

Anderson was subsequently awarded the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, awarded to college football’s best defensive player. The Alabama standout was also selected for SEC Defensive Player of the Year and the All-SEC First Team by the coaches and the AP. Will Anderson was one of college football’s best defenders this past season, and he only stands to improve. He will continue to impose his will on offensive backfields next season, likely playing his way to a potential first-round selection come this time next year.

Nolan Smith

Nolan Smith was another five-star recruit and the second overall ranked recruit in the country in the 2019 class. In three years with Georgia, Nolan Smith has 15 sacks. He has consistently improved, increasing sack production and tackle production over his collegiate career.

This past season, Smith set a career-high in sacks with seven and tackles with 32. Not to mention, Smith posted the 5th best run defense PFF grade in the FBS.  Smith is undoubtedly an ascending player who played a key role in Georgia’s dominant season.

Derick Hall

Hall is the first former four-star recruit so far on this list. Hall was the 140th overall recruit in the class of 2019, according to ESPN 300. This past season, Hall was within striking distance of the top 20 in the country in sacks with 10. He added 30 tackles while earning All-SEC Second Team honors from the coaches. Hall’s ten sacks and 30 tackles to Auburn’s defense were both career highs. Hall will look to make another leap in what might be his last season in college before potentially entering the pro ranks.

Linebacker

Player School Tackles TFLs PFF Grade
Trenton Simpson Clemson 52 12 73.5
Noah Sewell Oregon 72 9 71.5
Jack Campbell Iowa 95 4 69.8

Trenton Simpson

Simpson was a five-star recruit and the top-ranked outside linebacker recruit in the 2020 class, according to 247sports. Simpson chose to stay home in North Carolina to attend Clemson. He played on nearly a quarter of Clemson’s snaps in his freshman season but still led the team in QB hits and tied for 5th in sacks with three.

This past year, Simpson tied for second on the team in sacks with seven, behind Myles Murphy, a player covered above. Simpson added a team-leading 52 tackles and two forced fumbles. His 88.3 PFF pash rush grade was good for 16th in the country. Overall, Simpson is a talented linebacker entering his junior season, where he looks to improve further.

Noah Sewell

Noah Sewell, brother of the 7th overall draft pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, Penei Sewell, also plays at Oregon. According to ESPN, Sewell was a four-star recruit and the 27th overall ranked recruit in the country in the class of 2020. Sewell tied for second on the Ducks in sacks as a freshman, only behind 2022 NFL Draft prospect, Kayvon Thibodeaux.

Sewell’s 34 tackles in 2020 were also good for second on the team, and the coaches in the Pac-12 selected him as the Freshman Defensive Player of the year. Sewell collected 72 tackles this past year, seizing the team lead by 15. Sewell’s four sacks were again second on the team behind Thibodeaux in 2021. Sewell also boasts an 88.6 pash rush PFF grade, ranking 4th best among linebackers who played at least 800 snaps in the FBS. Sewell will look to make another big jump in 2022, potentially adding another first-round pick to the Sewell family. 

Jack Campbell

According to ESPN, Campbell is a former three-star recruit and was rated outside of the top 300 in the country in the class of 2019. Campbell received offers from only Iowa, Iowa State, and Minnesota. Though it took him longer than top recruits to see the field, (only 41 snaps in 2019 and injury limiting him to five games in 2020) Campbell proved the doubters wrong in 2021, racking up the 3rd most tackles in the FBS. Consequently, Campbell was elected to the All-Big Ten Second Team by the Associated Press. Campbell will look to keep collecting tackles as he enters his draft-eligible season.

Cornerback

Player School INTs PBUs Yds Allowed PFF Grade
Antonio Johnson Texas A&M 1 1 228 87.4
Kelee Ringo Georgia 2 4 346 74.5
Eli Ricks Alabama 1 1 136 67.6

Antonio Johnson

Antonio Johnson was a four-star recruit, and the 211th ranked recruit nationally in the class of 2020. Johnson took a big step in 2021, earning AP All-SEC Second Team honors and the PFF All-American First Team. Johnson joined the Aggies and struggled initially, allowing 14 receptions on 15 targets across six games in his freshman season.

This past season, however, Johnson led the Aggies with a team-high 87.4 defensive grade, 89.5 run defense grade (4th best among cornerbacks with at least 500 snaps), and an 88.7 coverage grade (6th best among cornerbacks with at least 500 snaps). As a junior, Johnson surely hopes to continue his upward trajectory.

Kelee Ringo

According to ESPN, Ringo was a five-star recruit and the 8th overall recruit nationally in the class of 2020. After surgery on his shoulder, Ringo missed all of 2020, redshirting in his freshman season. In 2021, Ringo burst onto the scene during Georgia’s championship campaign as a redshirt freshman. Starting in all 15 games, Ringo ranked in the top five for both INTs and PBUs on the team. Ringo also ranked second on the team in NFL passer rating allowed among players with at least 400 coverage snaps, behind only 2022 NFL Draft prospect, Derion Kendrick.

Ringo also allowed the least yards among Georgia players with at least 400 coverage snaps. His 346 yards allowed was the 15th fewest in the FBS among cornerbacks that played at least 750 total snaps. As a result, Ringo was selected to the Coaches’ Freshman All-SEC Team. Not to mention, Ringo sealed the game in the CFP Championship Game with a 79-yard pick-six that put the Bulldogs up by 15 with 00:52 left on the clock. Ringo looks to take the reins in Georgia’s defensive backfield in 2022 as he becomes a draft-eligible player.

Eli Ricks

Ricks was a four-star recruit, and the 39th ranked player nationally in the class of 2020 per ESPN300. After spending his first two seasons in Baton Rouge with the LSU Tigers, Ricks is transferring to the Alabama Crimson Tide for the 2022 CFB Season. In his freshman year with the Tigers, Ricks earned Third Team All-American and Second Team All-SEC honors from the Associated Press, and All-SEC Freshman Team honors from the coaches.

During 2020, Ricks led the Tigers in picks while allowing the 2nd fewest yards among teammates who logged at least 250 coverage snaps and posted the highest PFF defensive grade on the team. This past year, Ricks played in only six games, missing the rest of the season with a shoulder injury. Ricks adds value and star power to Alabama’s defense, not that it needed it. In Year 3, Ricks will look to pick up where he left off at the end of his freshman season.

Safety

Player School INTs PBUs Yds Allowed PFF Grade
Jordan Battle Alabama 3 4 200 88
Demani Richardson Texas A&M 1 1 246 70.4
Brandon Joseph Northwestern 3 2 214 64.1

Jordan Battle

According to ESPN, Battle was a four-star recruit and the 92nd ranked player in the country for the class of 2019. Battle played in all of Alabama’s 13 games in his freshman season. In his sophomore season, Battle moved into a starting role at safety, allowing the fewest yards on the team among players with at least 100 coverage snaps. He added an interception and three PBUs to round out his year.

This past season, Battle improved further, trailing only Will Anderson Jr. in PFF’s defensive grade with 89.8. Battle also posted the Tide’s highest PFF coverage grade (and 4th highest in the country) while sharing the team lead in INTs (with 3) and PBUs (with 4). Battle’s three picks tied for 19th in the FBS, and his 200 yards allowed in coverage were the 2nd least in the FBS among players with at least 500 coverage snaps.

Battle finished 2021 with All-SEC First Team honors from the coaches and the Associated Press. Battle has contributed more and more to the Alabama defense as his career progresses. In Year 3, Battle only stands to improve and will likely be one of college football’s best safeties by season’s end. 

Demani Richardson

Richardson was a four-star recruit, and the 138th ranked player nationally for the class of 2019, according to ESPN. In his first year with the Aggies, he started 11 games and landed in the top three on the team in INTs, PBUs, and tackles, which earned him SEC All-Freshman Team honors.

In 2020, Richardson missed two games but still posted the fourth-highest PFF defensive grade on the team while earning the 4th highest PFF tackling grade in the FBS. Richardson played in all 12 of the Aggies’ games in his junior season. He tied for fourth on the team with two sacks and also tied for second on the team in interceptions. Richardson’s 246 yards allowed was the 7th fewest in the SEC among safeties with at least 400 coverage snaps. Overall, Richardson and Antonio Johnson will make up one of the SEC’s better defensive backfields in 2022. 

Brandon Joseph 

Brandon Joseph will be playing for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in 2022 after spending his first three years with the Northwestern Wildcats. Joseph was a three-star recruit and ranked outside the top 300 according to ESPN. In 2019, as a freshman, Joseph appeared in four games, thus retaining redshirt status. In 2020, however, Joseph made waves. He posted the 3rd highest PFF defensive grade in the FBS, led the FBS in interceptions, surrendered only 50 yards on 24 targets, and allowed an NFL passer rating of 2.8.

Joseph was elected to the AP All-American First-Team, All-Big Ten First Team, and won AP Big Ten Newcomer of the Year. Joseph regressed in 2021, allowing 26 receptions on 32 targets. Joseph will come into South Bend as top prospect Kyle Hamilton is leaving. Hopefully, Joseph can find some of that sophomore magic with a change of scenery.