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College football preview: The Year of the Defensive Linemen

August 27, 2018

They are known as the “Power Rangers,” a nickname given to Clemson’s starting defensive line, which seems only appropriate because, collectively, they perform like superheroes.

All four linemen are projected to be selected in the first few rounds of the NFL Draft next spring, quite possibly all taken in the first round. Even for a program that churns out top-tier talent every season, one position group loaded with a trove of surefire draft picks is rare.

“We’re getting a lot of attention and publicity,” tackle Christian Wilkins said, “but all of that goes away if we don’t play to our capabilities.”

The Power Rangers — a unit that some predict will rank among the greatest in college football history — shared the preseason spotlight with some of their peers around the country. This is the year of the defensive linemen in college football.

Clemson’s expectations soared through the clouds when Wilkins and defensive ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant shocked the sport by opting to return to school rather than enter the NFL Draft. Those three combined with returning tackle Dexter Lawrence give Clemson four All-America candidates along the line.

Houston junior tackle Ed Oliver, the first underclassman ever to win the Outland Trophy, might be the best player at any position in college football. Oliver is such a dominating force that he already has announced he will enter the draft after this season. The Big Ten features a pair of likely top-10 picks next spring in Ohio State end Nick Bosa and Michigan end Rashan Gary. Naturally, Alabama also boasts an All-America candidate with first-round talent in mountainous tackle Raekwon Davis (6-7, 306 pounds).

NFL mock drafts in August are like firing at a moving target, but one veteran NFL personnel evaluator noted that this defensive line class is “unusually deep.”

Especially at Clemson. The Tigers have finished in the top three nationally in sacks every season since 2015. They led the nation in tackles for loss four consecutive seasons before finishing sixth in that category last season. This fall, anything short of dominance by the Power Rangers will be viewed as a failure. Astronomical expectations are nothing new. If anything, they’ve grown tired of hearing compliments.

At ACC media day, Ferrell stuck his fingers in his ears when a reporter spoke glowingly about the line.

“Regardless of how talented you are or how much hype you got, the guys in front of you are trying to expose you,” he said. “We know because of all the hype every team is going to try and give us their best shot.”

The publicity tour continued when Sports Illustrated put the Power Rangers on a regional cover in its college football preview.

“We just got lucky and they chose us,” Bryant joked. “It was cool [but] I don’t think anybody cares that we’re on the cover of SI if we don’t fulfill our potential this season.”

Oliver got his own SI preseason cover too, under the headline “Big Boss.” He’s also been mentioned as a Heisman Trophy candidate, which underscores his dominance since defensive players don’t typically receive Heisman attention, nor does Oliver play for a highly visible Power Five program.

His recognition is based on historic production. Oliver’s 39.5 tackles for loss are second-best in NCAA history after two seasons and the most by a defensive tackle. His TFLs total more than doubles the previous record by a defensive tackle through two seasons — Pitt’s Aaron Donald had 19.

Oliver is so gifted athletically at 6-3, 290 pounds that Houston coach Major Applewhite has indicated he plans to use Oliver on offense too, likely in goal-line situations. “The guy is the most talented guy on the team,” Houston offensive coordinator Kendal Briles said, “so if we can incorporate him down there, then we’ll do it.”

Oliver has a preferred position. “I play a little running back,” he joked.

He does his best work tackling ball carriers. Oliver has amassed 139 tackles and 10.5 sacks in only 25 career games while facing constant double teams.

“I would hate to be a quarterback and have to run away from Ed,” Houston safety Garrett Davis said. “It makes it a lot easier when the quarterback is running for dear life and he’s just tossing the ball up in the air.”

Oliver made an unusual decision in declaring for the NFL Draft before his junior season. He said he wanted to focus on team goals and not face constant questions about his future.

“I’m not going to let that overshadow what we’re going to do,” he said, “because it’s going to be special.”

That adjective describes college football’s crop of defensive linemen. Special.

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