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C.J. Hicks leads a load of talented Ohio State defensive recruits who will have the chance to help right away.Credit: 247Sports
College football is back to its unpredictable ways, and we’re just two weeks into the 2021 season.
We’ve witnessed several colossal defensive breakdowns and even a dismissal of USC head coach Clay Helton following a 42-28 loss to Stanford, signaling that the university just got fed up with the same ol’ inconsistency.
Plenty of defensive woes face some of the country’s top programs, and they don’t even need an L in their record to notice the struggles. Recruiting can’t fix all that ails these teams in one cycle, but several incoming players can certainly help.
As a matter of fact, many could do so now.
Let’s take a look at some defensive standouts from the 2022 recruiting class who fit that bill.
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If you haven’t seen Florida State’s monumental collapse against FCS Jacksonville State in Saturday’s walk-off loss, check it out.
It’s clear the Seminoles need defensive back help in a hurry.
It isn’t just Damond Philyaw-Johnson’s 59-yard game-winning score. Florida State’s pass defense is last in the ACC through two games, averaging 304 yards allowed. Though this was never going to be an overnight rebuild for coach Mike Norvell, the loss to the Gamecocks will make the grumbles much louder.
Securing the nation’s No. 2 prospect in Travis Hunter, who hails from Georgia, will help. He headlines a stellar FSU class full of playmakers, and the 6’1″, 165-pound defensive back will see plenty of immediate action.
The electrifying athlete will help guard against debacles like Saturday night’s, and he will turn into a guy who can lock down one side of the field and even steal some touches on offense. The trick is keeping him in the fold with all other teams smelling blood in the water around the 0-2 ‘Noles.
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LSU’s 2019 national championship feels like eons ago.
Just think of how Tigers fans feel following last year’s 5-5 campaign and the fact that hated rival Alabama (and former LSU head coach Nick Saban) won another national title. Don’t forget Week 1, when coach Ed Orgeron and the Tigers went out West and lost to UCLA after his ill-fated trash talk with a fan.
The heat on Coach O is hotter than a late-summer bayou evening, and his terrific recruiting classes need to start showcasing their skills on the field. That goes for an uber-talented, underachieving LSU secondary.
Bigger weaknesses exist, but LSU has some incoming difference-makers (as always) in that unit, and Laterrance Welch and JaDarian Rhym may be called on to help immediately, especially if Derek Stingley Jr. heads to the NFL as expected.
The Tigers are worse in rush defense (10th in the SEC) than pass defense (seventh), but they haven’t been great at either, and the best playmakers in the ’22 haul for Coach O are in the defensive backfield.
The 6’1″, 180-pound Welch has a college-ready body, long arms and great coverage skills. He needs to help this team return to form on that side of the ball.
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It’s hard to contextualize Miami’s stats, considering the Hurricanes suffered a blowout against an Alabama team that looks like the nation’s best yet again.
But the Hurricanes have issues everywhere, as evidenced by a near-loss to Appalachian State in Week 2.
Head coach Manny Diaz’s expertise lies in defense. Even so, The U is 13th in the ACC in pass defense and No. 111 nationally, which is a huge reason Miami has the country’s No. 100 defense. Yuck.
The Hurricanes need elite cover corners.
Lexington, Mississippi’s Khamauri Rogers is arguably the most electrifying defensive back in the class, and he will team with fellow top-100 cornerback Trequan Fegans for a one-two combo as good as any DB class in the country.
Rogers is a long-armed playmaker with a slender 6’0″, 155-pound build who lets his athleticism take over and has the instincts to develop into one of the sport’s top back-end defenders. Diaz needs to turn things around this year, keep that duo in the fold and help rebuild the secondary in a hurry.
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Quiet buzz surrounded the Missouri Tigers entering the season, and second-year coach Eliah Drinkwitz has some talent on both sides of the ball and a strong recruiting start for this next cycle.
But after Saturday night’s 35-28 loss in Lexington against Kentucky, it’s obvious the Tigers are not ready for prime time. The season-opening 34-24 win over Central Michigan didn’t inspire a lot of confidence, either.
The Tigers need to build from the ground up at all three defensive levels, and lineman Marquis Gracial can help quicken the pace.
The 6’4″, 280-pound lineman from Saint Charles, Missouri, is a throwback to the Gary Pinkel days when Craig Kuligowski tutored some of the nation’s top players in the defensive trenches. Yes, Gracial has that type of athleticism and ability.
Drinkwitz has enjoyed extreme amounts of success convincing kids from Missouri and even Illinois to try to help him compete every year in the SEC East. After UK’s Chris Rodriguez Jr. rushed for 206 yards Saturday night, there’s little doubt Gracial will have plenty of chances to do that. He needs to bring a few of his friends to help turn things around too.
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North Carolina State linebacker Payton Wilson should have been on everybody’s short list to win the ACC Defensive Player of the Year award this season.
But the Wolfpack received devastating news Monday that the redshirt sophomore star will miss the rest of the campaign. He was seen on the sidelines icing his shoulder after exiting Saturday’s loss at Mississippi State, and he’ll need surgery, per the Raleigh News & Observer‘s Jonas Pope IV.
No one from the 2022 Wolfpack class would help fill that gap more than linebacker Torren Wright. The 6’3″, 215-pound defender is a sure tackler who can add weight and would almost certainly be in the rotation if he were on campus. Though NC State has to wait on him, it’s at least tantalizing for head coach Dave Doeren and Co. to think about a linebacking corps that features him alongside Wilson.
As for this season, a ton of question marks have erased a 45-0 win in the opener over South Florida. Even though the defense hasn’t been bad, losing Wilson and safety Cyrus Fagan (undisclosed injury) to season-ending setbacks will be difficult to overcome.
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New Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s unit has done some positive things during a 2-0 start, but a closer look reveals it still needs to be more consistent.
The game-changing, drive-killing efforts are there, but the Irish are allowing far too many big plays. The tackling was awful in the season-opening nail-biter win over Florida State, and Toledo nearly upset them last weekend thanks to some big runs.
Gaps abound in the front seven, and while it’s a concern while Notre Dame tries to avoid a “transition” year, nobody has addressed needs at linebacker like Freeman and head coach Brian Kelly.
A loaded Irish linebacker class features Jaylen Sneed, Niuafe Tuihalamaka and Joshua Burnham, all 4-star, top-130 players. Though Sneed is the most explosive of the group, Tuihalamaka would fit best on this year’s team and could find a quick path to playing time next year.
He is a traditional middle linebacker who is blessed with terrific size (6’2″, 235 lbs), sure tackling ability and the speed to play all over the place and even come off the edge. He’ll be outstanding for the Irish soon and was a huge recruiting win out of Mission Hills, California.
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It doesn’t take a magnifying glass to see the glaring holes in Ohio State’s defense.
The issues are especially visible in the front seven, where Minnesota and Oregon gashed them the past two weeks. Though you won’t find many difference-makers along the defensive front in Ohio State’s 2022 class, there are linebackers galore. That’s a good thing, too, considering they are needed.
C.J. Hicks is the biggest star of the bunch, and the 6’3″, 220-pound Dayton, Ohio, native looks like the type of player who will be called upon right away, whether he stays in the middle of the field or moves out to the edge. Gabe Powers is another terrific second-level defender who can help.
The Buckeyes are No. 123 in rush defense, allowing 236 rushing yards per game through the first two.
There could be a development issue for coordinator Kerry Coombs, as there aren’t enough stars in a unit that is loaded with some of the country’s top prospects from the past few recruiting cycles. They’ve got to get things turned around in a hurry, or there will be a new defensive coaching staff next year for the Buckeyes.
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Everybody who thought Oklahoma’s defensive struggles were over in 2021 probably cringed when watching the season-opening 40-35 win over Tulane.
On one hand, the Sooners might have relaxed a little after building a 37-14 lead. On the other, finishing games has haunted coordinator Alex Grinch’s bunch during his three-year tenure.
Oklahoma still is stocking difference-making depth on that side of the ball, and the Sooners need help at linebacker, where they will get 6’4″, 245-pound Kobie McKinzie in 2022.
The Lubbock, Texas, native will immediately help a pass rush that has some nice pieces but needs more playmakers, and he can move all over the field.
OU has gotten after the quarterback well this year, having posted eight sacks in two games. But the secondary has been forced to play on an island too much, and the unit isn’t good enough to do that on the back end. McKinzie would help the pass rush right away, and he is somebody Grinch, head coach Lincoln Riley and the rest of the Sooners should get excited about.
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You may ask why we’re picking on the Oregon Ducks after their monumental win over Ohio State and all the positivity they’re bringing to a Pac-12 conference in need of a boost.
Well, no contender has been smacked with the injury bug like the Ducks.
Defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux is out with a sprained ankle, and star underclassman linebacker Justin Flowe has suffered a foot setback. Linebackers Dru Mathis, Treven Ma’ae, Mase Funa and Keith Brown are banged up too. No team can deal with such a long list of ailments, no matter how well it has recruited.
TJ Dudley would be a nice asset for the ailing position group. Head coach Mario Cristobal won a strong recruiting battle over Alabama, Auburn, Texas and others for the Montgomery, Alabama, linebacker.
Dudley will enter a room loaded with talent and (hopefully) health next year, but he is still good enough to carve his own niche. If he were on campus already, he’d be getting reps for one of the nation’s most exciting young teams and a national title contender.
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All those good vibes from Texas’ opening win over Louisiana were flushed down the drain in the pandemonium that was Arkansas’ 40-21 defeat of the Longhorns.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a better collegiate game environment than the one in Fayetteville last Saturday. And in the midst of all the noise, Texas’ glaring needs were evident.
The Hogs dominated Texas’ front seven to the tune of 333 rushing yards on 47 carries for a 7.1-yard average. Seven Arkansas runners did the damage too. It didn’t matter who they put in; those guys dominated Texas’ defense.
Head coach Steve Sarkisian is doing a great job of recruiting, and one of the centerpieces of that class is Jaray Bledsoe, a 6’4″, 270-pound D-lineman from Marlin, Texas, who looks like he can add 30-40 more pounds and not miss a beat.
Some beef like that up front would have helped combat everything that fell through the open grates on Texas’ grill Saturday night.
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The USC Trojans fired coach Clay Helton on Monday after the weekend’s demoralizing loss to a bad Stanford team.
After bringing in last year’s dynamite recruiting class, Helton was off to another great start in the 2022 cycle, though it’s unclear whether any of those guys will look elsewhere.
Stars like cornerback Domani Jackson and lineman Mykel Williams are still in the fold, and if defensive coordinator Todd Orlando stays in L.A., they may stick around.
Both of those players will have suitors from all over the country, and with the lack of a pass rush the Trojans have mustered, they can’t afford to lose the 6’5″, 265-pound pass-rusher from Columbus, Georgia.
USC’s pass rush and difference-making ability in the trenches at the point of attack have been lacking, and it’s becoming obvious where the recruiting misses were in the 2019 and ’20 classes. Keeping Williams in the fold and developing him and others will go a long way toward turning things around.
The pantry is far from empty for the next USC coach.
All stats courtesy of CFBStats and Sports Reference. Recruiting rankings via 247Sports’ composite rankings unless otherwise noted.
Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.