SEC football: The 10 best defensive players SEC teams will face during bowl season
The SEC never has a shortage of terrific bowl games scheduled, and this year should be no different. As is usually the case, the SEC will likely have a talent edge in most matchups, but that’s not to say there won’t be a plethora of players from other conferences and schools that SEC teams will need to game plan for.
Previously, we took a look at the top 10 offensive players the SEC will face this bowl season, so now we’ll turn our attention to the top 10 defensive players.
10. Jordan Brailford, DE, Oklahoma State (vs. Missouri, Liberty Bowl)
The junior edge rusher took advantage of the wide-open passing attacks of the Big 12, feasting on quarterbacks in their countless dropbacks and winding up with 53 tackles, 17 tackles for loss and 10 sacks, the latter leading the conference. The Cowboys do a good job of moving him around and rushing him from different positions to keep giving the offense different looks, so opponents can’t focus protection schemes on him.
9. Charles Omenihu, DE, Texas (vs. Georgia, Sugar Bowl)
The 6-6, 275-pound Omenihu doesn’t have great power in his base and can be mauled on double teams, but he’s a very good athlete with length and quickness. He was very disruptive for the Longhorns this year, finishing with 16 TFLs and 9.5 sacks, leading the team in both categories. He’s at his best when shooting the gaps, using his timing and burst to penetrate backfields and disrupt rushing lanes.
8. Chase Winovich, DE, Michigan (vs. Florida, Peach Bowl)
The vocal edge rusher for the Wolverines has been their most consistent pass rusher over the past two seasons, though he did see his numbers dip this year to 52 tackles, 13 TFLs and 4 sacks – down from 73, 19 and 8.5. Arguably as important as his ability to get after the passer is the fiery brand of leadership he employs on the field, on the sidelines and in the locker room. He’s not the most gifted athlete, but he’s technically sound and savvy.
7. Kris Boyd, CB, Texas
Boyd was one of the better cover corners in the Big 12 this year, showing physicality in press and decent fluidity and quickness in transition with impressive recovery speed. Despite constantly being in on passes with his sticky coverage, he wasn’t able to haul in any interceptions, but he did defend a league-high 15 passes. He’s also relatively strong against the run and can make plays coming downhill.
6. Juan Thornhill, S, Virginia (vs. South Carolina, Belk Bowl)
Thornhill was a big-time playmaker in the Hoos defense this year, leading the team in both tackles (92) and interceptions (5). It’s not like he has just burst onto the scene, either, because he has quietly been one of the better defensive backs in the ACC the past three years, racking up 200 tackles, 11 TFLs and 12 INTs over the past 35 games. He’s a ball hawk in coverage with enough range to click and close, but he also has the physicality at 210 pounds to come up and stuff the run.
5. Anthony Nelson, DE, Iowa (vs. Mississippi State, Outback Bowl)
Nelson (6-7, 275) is a big and powerful defensive lineman who is very strong at the point of attack, with the ability to jar offensive linemen with his heavy hands. He’s a bit plodding and cumbersome and won’t convince you he can win with speed off the edge, but he’s strong against the run and can win one-on-ones with his natural power. He wound up finishing the regular season with 41 tackles, 11 TFLs and 9.5 sacks.
4. Amani Oruwariye, CB, Penn State (vs. Kentucky, Citrus Bowl)
The senior has arguably been the Lions’ most consistent cover corner the past two years and has hauled in 7 INTs and defended 18 passes over the past 23 games. He has good size for the position (6-1, 200) and is strong in press, with the ability to jam and lock on the inside hips of receivers. He’s not great against the run, but he’s a guy whom you feel comfortable putting on an island against opposing teams’ No. 1 receivers.
3. A.J. Epenesa, DE, Iowa
Similarly to Nelson, who rushes opposite him, Epenesa is a big body at 6-5, 277 pounds who primarily wins with power, but he offers more athleticism and quickness than his counterpart. He was arguably the Hawkeyes’ best playmaker on defense this year, finishing with 35 tackles, 15.5 TFLs, 9.5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles. The Mississippi State offensive line struggled to protect the edges this year, though they mainly struggled with speed and not power, so it’ll be interesting to see how these Iowa DEs fare against the MSU OTs.
2. Yetur Gross-Matos, DE, Penn State
The 6-5, 260-pounder blew up in his sophomore year this fall, tallying 54 tackles, 20 TFLs (eighth-best nationally), 8 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. He’s still very raw from a technique standpoint – he’s still learning how to use his hands effectively and consistently – but he’s a very disruptive player who has prototypical length, twitch, burst and lateral quickness. He’s a gifted athlete who is on his way to becoming one of the premier edge rushers in the 2020 draft class.
1. Devin Bush, LB, Michigan
For you Alabama fans out there, Bush will very likely remind you an awful lot of Mack Wilson with his skill set and style of play. Bush (5-11, 233) doesn’t have ideal power to stack and shed interior linemen against the inside run game, but he’s exceptionally fast and athletic, with sideline-to-sideline range and playmaking ability. He’s effective blitzing both A and B gaps and is strong dropping back into coverage, as he can effectively cover TEs and RBs in man. He has been a force leading the Wolverines defense the past two years, racking up 172 tackles, 18.5 TFLs and 10 sacks.