Several of the nation’s top defenders have made their marks by forcing the football out of the opposition’s grasp. We take a look at four standouts who continue to impose their will.
Elijah Riley 6’0 205 CB-Senior Army
Riley ranks as one of the more physical cornerbacks in all of college football. His confidence rarely varies on the field (after either making or giving up a big play). His ability to jam wide receivers provided former Army defensive coordinator Jay Bateman (now DC at North Carolina) plenty of options for the nation’s eighth-ranked defense in 2018. Thus far in 2019, the Black Knights are still allowing just a little over 200 yards passing per game.
Versus Oklahoma in 2018, Riley challenged wide receivers in man coverage, tackled eventual Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray one-on-one in the open field and saved another would-be touchdown with an open field tackle. He stood his ground and challenged the Oklahoma wide receivers. Against Michigan in Week 2 of the 2019 campaign, he displayed his knack for timing blitzes and his ferocity as a tackler. Riley is a prospect with positional flexibility on Sunday afternoons. Don’t be surprised if teams project him to a strong, H-linebacker or free safety position (which he played some in a backup capacity earlier in his career).
Jake Hansen 6’1 225 LB-Senior Illinois
Hansen entered the collegiate ranks as a lightly-regarded two-star recruit from East Lake High School (Fla.). Fast forward four years later and the team captain ranks as the heart and soul of the team’s talented linebacker corps.
Illinois head coach Lovie Smith describes Hansen as “a football junkie.” His reactionary skills in coverage are impressive, evidenced by his first interception of the season versus Akron. On the play, he broke instinctively as an underneath defender in two-deep zone to record the pick. His ability to jar balls loose has grabbed the attention of the nation. The senior linebacker currently leads the country with seven forced fumbles. He is just as impressive timing blitzes, disguising defensive looks, covering tight ends or closing distances going sideways.
Joe Gaziano 6’4 275 DL-Senior Northwestern
Gaziano’s impressive resume’ is hard to match in terms of productivity. To put it in perspective, the Wildcats senior defensive lineman already has forced 10 career fumbles and broken up 11 passes (through October 26, 2019).
He aligns at the three-technique defensive tackle, right or left defensive end, and as an occasional two-point stand-up outside linebacker. While much of his success comes from positive hand usage and timing, he does contain a bit of rigidness changing directions. As evidenced by his game-changing strip-sack, forced fumble in the 2018 SDCCU Holiday Bowl, he can regain his footing after initially getting chipped while maintaining his courses.
Patrick Jones II 6’5 270 DE-Junior Pittsburgh
Jones’ flexibility is aided by a nimble, light-footed nature. The Panthers defensive end’s sinewy nature allows him to long-arm offensive lineman from the outside-in as a left defensive end (Ohio ’19). His quickness to stab linemen creates immediate separation. Defensive coordinator Randy Bates will occasionally use him in a cocked two-point alignment from the right outside linebacker spot in his four-man fronts. From this alignment, Jones II is adept at winning on inside movement (Duke ’19). In this same game (Duke ’19), he won by dipping his inside shoulder (right) when coming out of his four-point stance to force a fumble in the third quarter.
Blessed with a 34-inch vertical jump at over 260 pounds, the former Virginia high school product has a game that has blossomed this year after serving an apprenticeship role in 2018 (23 tackles, 4 QB sacks, 7.5 TFLs, FF).