7 Breakout Defensive College Football Players for ’17

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The Open Man’s college football 2017 Listapalooza kicked off with the spotlight on offensive players. It’s the defense’s turn, and this coming season’s crop of players features countless potential playmakers.

Derek Baity, Kentucky CB

One could fairly argue Kentucky’s Derek Baity already had his breakout season. After all, the cornerback ranked second among all SEC players in passes defended last season, per Pro Football Focus, trailing only All-American Minkah Fitzpatrick.

That’s some truly elite company. However, Baity isn’t exactly a widely heralded name throughout college football; he was excluded from Athlon’s preseason All-SEC team, for example. Given Kentucky’s defense allowed more than 31 points per game, one can understand why the nation might sleep on a Wildcat defender. Baity will wake up plenty of sleepers in due time.

Blake Cashman, Minnesota OLB

Momentum for a breakout 2017 season began for Blake Cashman in his final outing of 2016. Cashman was electric in Minnesota’s Holiday Bowl win over Washington State, winning Most Valuable Player with 12 tackles — two for loss — and a sack. The Cougars were held to just 12 points, 26.2 below their average, and their lowest output of the season.

Cashman’s tremendous Holiday Bowl was the second of two truly standout performances late in the campaign, the other coming in a 10-tackle showing against Big Ten West counterpart Northwestern. This former walk-on appears headed for big things in 2017, playing a key role in the Golden Gophers’ pass-rush defense, while also providing support for the No. 14-ranked rushing defense.

James Hearns, Louisville OLB

James Hearns returned to the field this spring after missing Louisville’s Citrus Bowl matchup with LSU. The imposing pass-rusher should be back to form in his return from a gunshot wound.

Before the injury, Hearns racked up 10 tackles for loss, eight sacks and seven quarterback hurries. He combines NFL size — at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, he could play a strict defensive end role in most college defenses — with and ability to evade would-be blockers off the edge.

Jack Jones, USC CB

Jack Jones has all the uncanny star power necessary to thrive in Los Angeles. A product of Long Beach and former 5-star recruit from prep powerhouse Long Beach Poly, this alum of the Snoop League announced his commitment to USC in 2016 with the Dogg Father alongside him.

Talk about making a splash. Now, he’s ready to bring that same swagger to the field in a greater capacity for the USC defense.

Following the Trojans’ spring game in April, Jones spoke unambiguously about his intentions for the 2017 season. He said his pursuit was to be the best, full-stop. USC needs him to be, considering Jones takes on duties Adoree’ Jackson previously manned. Jackson was the 2016 Thorpe Award winner, which sets a profoundly high bar. Considering Jones gave 2017 Heisman Trophy contender Sam Darnold fits in USC practices, the Long Beach native has the game to meet that standard.

Kendall Joseph, Clemson ILB

Gone from Clemson’s national championship-winning defense is Ben Boulware, an All-American who leaves a considerable void in Death Valley. Most teams would take a step back losing a playmaker of Boulware’s caliber, but Kendall Joseph is more than ready fill the superstar’s shoes.

Joseph is coming off a 2016 in which he racked up 108 tackles — 12.5 of them for loss. His statistics already say, “Star.” But after finishing 2016 as an All-ACC Honorable Mention selection, Joseph prepares to take over as leader of the outstanding Tigers defense, and perhaps garner the same All-America accolades that came for his former teammate, Boulware.

Auggie Sanchez, USF OLB

If you don’t know fifth-year USF senior Auggie Sanchez now, you will by season’s end. Sanchez is back in Tampa for his final season after two consecutive seasons with 100-plus tackles, poised to lead the defense of a Top 25 team.

Sanchez missed spring practices to recover from shoulder surgery, but should be at full strength by the start of the campaign. He’s the same kind of aggressive and tenacious, ball-pursuing middle linebacker as Brandon Spikes. The former Florida Gator Spikes was an All-American under new USF head coach Charlie Strong in 2008. Should the Bulls meet expectations — which includes winning the Group of Five’s automatic berth into a New Year’s Six bowl game — expect similar accolades in Sanchez’s future.

Josh Sweat, Florida State DE

The former 5-star recruit and No. 8 overall ranked prospect from college football’s 2015 signing class is poised to reach his full potential in 2017. That’s not to diminish what he’s already accomplished in his time at Florida State — hardly. With 11.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks and six quarterback hurries, Sweat was already a force.

However, this 6-foot-5, 250-pound end has all the tools to become transcendent; a rusher in league with recent standouts like Joey Bosa and Jadeveon Clowney. As the star up front for Florida State, Sweat could very well lead the nation in sacks in 2017.