- Georgia leads the way: Even after losing Jalen Carter and Nolan Smith, the back-to-back champions once again have the best defensive line in college football.
- Ohio State comes in second: Four Buckeye defensive linemen made PFF’s All-Big Ten list, the most from any school for their conference.
- Michigan rounds out the top three: The Wolverines have one of the best defensive tackle duos in the country in Kris Jenkins and Mason Graham.
Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
The phrase “defense wins championships” gets thrown around far too much, especially considering the offensive boom that the sport has undergone in the last decade.
However, Georgia has proven over the previous two years that dominance along the defensive line can lead to national titles. Over the Bulldogs’ back-to-back national championship runs, five of their edge defenders or interior defensive linemen were selected in the first round of the NFL Draft.
Here are the 10 best defensive lines in college football heading into the 2023 season, starting with the two-time reigning champs.
1. Georgia Bulldogs
Mykel Williams enters his sophomore campaign as a top-five edge defender in the country. The former top-10 recruit tied for the most sacks (six) among true freshmen last season while his 33 pressures were tied for the second-most. Expect him to become more of a household name in 2023. Nazir Stackhouse made PFF’s preseason first-team All-SEC and was seventh among Power Five interior defensive linemen with an 86.1 run-defense grade last season. Warren Brinson is expected to start alongside him and was fifth among Power Five defensive tackles in 2022 with a 14.9% pass-rush win rate. The other edge spot will likely be manned by either Tramel Walthour or Chaz Chambliss, who each played over 200 snaps last year.
As for depth, the Bulldogs return interior defensive lineman Zion Logue, who played 332 snaps last season. Marvin Jones Jr. was a five-star edge defender in the 2022 class while edge defender Damon Wilson and interior defensive lineman Jordan Hall were five-star recruits from the 2023 cycle.
The #6 overall pick in the NFL Draft versus true freshman Mykel Williams pic.twitter.com/5Zff1R77Bo
— Graham Coffey (@GrahamCoffeyDC) April 28, 2023
2. Ohio State Buckeyes
Ohio State was the only school in the country that had four defensive linemen make PFF’s preseason all-conference lists.
J.T. Tuimoloau is a top-10 edge defender in the country and is a projected top-20 pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. Tyleik Williams was named to the second-team of our All-Big Ten list, and his 12.4% pass-rush win-rate in 2022 ranked second among Big Ten interior defensive linemen with at least 140 pass-rushing snaps. Michael Hall Jr. was third among that group with an 11.3% pressure rate last year and is a projected top-25 pick in the 2024 draft. Jack Sawyer was third-team preseason All-Big Ten and was one of 10 edge defenders in the conference last season with 70-plus grades as both a pass-rusher and run-defender.
That’s not even including Ty Hamilton, who was a starter for the Buckeyes in 2022 as an interior defensive lineman.
JT Tuimoloau's stat line vs. Penn State this past season was INSANE ????
-PBU that resulted in INTpic.twitter.com/7zx0yCAo9d
— 247Sports (@247Sports) July 19, 2023
3. Michigan Wolverines
The Wolverines have a top-five interior defensive lineman in the country in Kris Jenkins, whose 31 run-defense stops in 2022 were tied for the most among FBS defensive tackles. Next to him is Mason Graham, who was named to PFF’s preseason All-Big Ten second team. Last year, Graham led all true freshman defensive linemen with an 80.3 grade.
Josaiah Stewart was also on the second team of our preseason All-Big Ten list after transferring to Michigan from Coastal Carolina. As a true sophomore in 2022, his 40 pressures and 83.3 pass-rushing grade were top-20 marks among Group of Five edge defenders. Jaylen Harrell is also a returning starter along the edge and tied for seventh among Big Ten edge defenders with six sacks last season.
— Connor Rogers (@ConnorJRogers) July 20, 2023
4. Illinois Fighting Illini
Illinois has the best duo along the interior defensive line in college football. It starts with Jer’Zhan Newton, the country's best defensive tackle. He finished as the most valuable Power Five interior defensive lineman last season and led that same group with 59 pressures while his 13 tackles for loss/no-gain tied for the most among all interior defensive linemen in the country. Next to him is Keith Randolph Jr., whose 84.6 run-defense grade was eighth among Power Five defensive tackles in 2022.
The Fighting Illini also return both of their starting edge defenders from a year ago in Seth Coleman and Gabe Jacas, the former being named to PFF’s preseason All-Big Ten third-team. Among Big Ten edges in 2022, they each tied for sixth with 35 pressures.
Illinois is also expected to start junior TeRah Edwards on the interior, who played 206 snaps last season.
— Max Chadwick (@MaxChadwickCFB) July 17, 2023
5. Florida State Seminoles
One of the most surprising returners to college football is Florida State edge defender Jared Verse, who likely would’ve been a top-20 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft if he declared. Instead, he returns to Tallahassee as the best edge defender in college football. His 24.4% pass-rush win rate last season was fourth among Power Five edge defenders while his 10 tackles for loss/no gain tied for sixth. Patrick Payton is expected to start at the other edge spot and earned a 70.8 grade on 367 snaps in 2022. The Seminoles can also turn to Gilber Edmond, who was a starting edge for South Carolina last year.
Florida State also picked up a couple big transfers along the interior in Western Michigan’s Braden Fiske and Miami (FL)’s Darrell Jackson. Fiske’s 81 pressures over the last two seasons were tied for fifth among all defensive tackles in the country and his 47 run-defense stops tied for third. Jackson tallied 16 run-defense stops last year as a true sophomore, tied for fifth for ACC interior defensive linemen.
The Seminoles also return Fabien Lovett, a third-team preseason All-ACC selection for PFF. Dennis Briggs Jr. is also back after placing eighth among Power Five defensive tackles last season with a 13.7% pass-rush win rate.
Florida State DE 5 Jared Verse’s tape vs. LSU was the best individual effort I saw from an EDGE in a single game all of last season. I can’t wait to see what he has in store as an encore in 2023! pic.twitter.com/mItVe5eKgj
— Todd McShay (@McShay13) May 25, 2023
6. LSU Tigers
LSU’s placement on this list depends on where Harold Perkins Jr. lines up the most this season. If he plays mostly at edge defender, the Tigers would easily be in the top five. If he sticks to off-ball linebacker, LSU would rank lower in the top 10. That’s because as a true freshman, Perkins led all Power Five linebackers with a 91.0 pass-rushing grade and he tied for second among all linebackers in the country with 18 quarterback knockdowns (sacks/hits). The Tigers would be wise to let him pin his ears back and rush the quarterback instead of asking him to play in coverage, a lot like what the Dallas Cowboys eventually did with Micah Parsons.
LSU also returns Mekhi Wingo and Maason Smith along the interior defensive line. Wingo was named to PFF’s preseason All-SEC first-team and tied for the most sacks (four) among all defensive tackles in the conference a year ago. Smith played only eight snaps in 2022 before tearing his ACL but has the freakish physical tools that make him a projected first-round pick in the 2024 draft.
The Tigers also bring in Ovie Oghoufo from the transfer portal, who was one of Texas’ starting edges last season.
2️⃣ forced fumbles
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) November 12, 2022
7. Alabama Crimson Tide
Even after losing Will Anderson Jr., Alabama still has one of the best defensive fronts in college football.
Dallas Turner will attempt to fill Anderson’s massive shoes and is a top-five edge defender in the country. Over his first two seasons, Turner’s 14 sacks are tied for the most among returning Power Five edges. Chris Braswell will likely be the other starting edge and was named to the third-team preseason All-SEC by us. His 19.1% pass-rush win rate in 2022 led all SEC edge defenders.
Tim Smith also returns on the interior, and he was a starter last season. He’ll likely be joined by Jaheim Oatis and Justin Eboigbe, who each earned 75-plus grades as rotational defensive tackles a year ago.
Alabama also has the top edge defender from the 2022 recruiting class in Jeremiah Alexander returning. As for the 2023 class, Alabama brought in three five-star recruits along the defensive line: defensive tackle James Smith and edge defenders Keon Keeley and Yhonzae Pierre. Keeley was the No. 2 overall recruit in the class, trailing only Texas quarterback Arch Manning.
Dallas turner pic.twitter.com/2XACLLyKbR
— bama vids (@timeoop) October 3, 2022
8. UCLA Bruins
UCLA has the best group of edge defenders in college football, as it was the only school to have two of the top-10 edge defenders in the country on my list. Laiatu Latu was dominant in 2022 after missing the previous two seasons due to a neck injury. Among Power Five edge defenders, Latu was tied for second in pressures (64), third in pressure rate (21.7%) and tied for third in sacks (12). Gabriel Murphy was one of only three Power Five edge defenders who earned 80-plus grades as both a pass-rusher and run-defender last season. Gabriel’s twin brother, Grayson, also returns and was sixth among Power Five edges with 55 pressures and a 19.5% pressure rate last season.
The Bruins are noticeably weaker on the interior, but they do return a starter in Jay Toia while Dovid Magna earned a 66.9 grade on 240 snaps in 2022. The breakout candidate on the interior though is Gary Smith III, whose 84.7 run-defense grade last season led all Pac-12 defensive tackles with at least 240 snaps.
Laiatu Latu leads a great UCLA EDGE unit and is among most productive, explosive EDGEs in the country with awesome finishing ability.
NFL starter talent alongside Gabe/Grayson Murphy pic.twitter.com/l9ftfGKpA3
— Eric Galko (@EricGalko) June 23, 2023
9. Miami (FL) Hurricanes
The Hurricanes have two preseason first-team All-ACC members on their defensive line in interior defensive lineman Leonard Taylor and edge defender Akheem Mesidor. Taylor posted a 19.5% pass-rush win rate and a 16.2% pressure rate in 2022, trailing only Calijah Kancey among Power Five interior defensive linemen. Mesidor was the fifth highest-graded Power Five edge a year ago, finishing with an 87.1 mark.
Miami also returns Jahfari Harvey along the edge, who started last season and earned a respectable 76.2 grade. As for the other starting defensive tackle spot, the Hurricanes have a few options. They could turn to Jared Harrison-Hunte, who missed three games due to injuries last year but earned a 71.7 grade as a starter in 2021. Miami also brought in Branson Deen from Purdue, whose 34 pressures last season placed him sixth among Power Five interior defensive linemen. Thomas Gore also transferred in from Georgia State and has earned a 90.7 grade since 2021, sixth among all defensive tackles in the country.
Miami IDL Leonard Taylor III
Lower body explosion, violent hands, and backfield disruption. Three traits that repeatedly show up with him. pic.twitter.com/gAnHeWAcx0
— Jordan Reid (@Jordan_Reid) July 25, 2023
10. Penn State Nittany Lions
I asked Olu Fashanu, one of the top offensive tackles in college football, who his toughest opponents have been. He named four of his own teammates: Chop Robinson, Adisa Isaac, Dani Dennis-Sutton and Amin Vanover.
That makes sense considering the Nittany Lions have one of the deeper edge rotations in college football. It starts with Robinson, a top-three edge defender in college football. As a true sophomore, he led all Power Five edge defenders both in overall grade (90.6) and pass-rushing grade (92.4). Isaac tied for fourth among Big Ten edges in 2022 with 36 pressures. Dennis-Sutton and Vanover both earned 80-plus pass-rushing grades as well as rotational edges last season.
Hakeem Beamon is a returning starter on the interior and posted a 7.3% pressure rate last year, which tied for ninth among Big Ten defensive tackles.
4:44 isn’t just the title of Jay-Z’s critically-acclaimed 13th album.
It also represents the two superstars on Penn State’s defense.
— Max Chadwick (@MaxChadwickCFB) July 13, 2023