College News & Analysis

Top 10 returning edge defenders in college football for the 2022 season

Indianapolis, IN, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Will Anderson Jr. (31) reacts after being beat by the Georgia Bulldogs in the 2022 CFP college football national championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It’s officially reset time in college football.

We are on to the 2022 season, where teams across the country will compete for a chance to play for the College Football Playoff National Championship at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif. There’s still a lot to be figured out between now and then with team rosters and depth charts — the transfer portal deadline is months away. But the 2022 NFL Draft deadline is approaching for those who are eligible, so we now know which of college football’s top talents will be leaving and returning for this season.

As such, there's no better time to dive into early position rankings of the top returning players in college football. Below are the top 10 edge defenders returning to college football this fall. Please note this has nothing to do with pro potential.

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1. WILL ANDERSON JR., ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE

There’s no more dominant player returning to college football than Alabama’s Will Anderson Jr. The 6-foot-4, 243-pound edge rusher is a high-level playmaker who ranked top-five at his position this past season in tackles for loss or no gain against the run (15) and positively-graded run play rate. His 81 quarterback pressures also led all players regardless of position.

The former five-star recruit earned a PFF grade of 79.1 as a true freshman (2020) and 89.8 as a sophomore (2021), which is rare to see at that age, especially in the SEC.

2. NOLAN SMITH, GEORGIA BULLDOGS

After spending a couple of years as a reserve, Smith finally stepped into a starting job in 2021 and looked like the player many were expecting back when he first committed to the ‘Dawgs, ending the year with an 84.5 PFF grade.

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart preaches disciplined run defense, and Smith more than held his own in that department, as his 90.3 run-defense grade ranked fourth among FBS edge defenders in 2021.

The former No. 1 overall recruit's play recognition, athleticism and technique in the run game is special, but his pass-rushing needs some work. However, if he can build upon his 78.9 pass-rushing grade in 2022, the 6-foot-3, 235-pound edge defender will be a force to be reckoned with in the SEC.

3. NICK HERBIG, WISCONSIN BADGERS

Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard likes to dial up pressure in creative ways, which is why edge defender Nick Herbig served in a hybrid role, playing 208 pass-rush snaps and 153 coverage snaps at outside linebacker in 2021.

At 6-foot-2 and 227 pounds, Herbig may not be the biggest edge defender, but he is agile, has good pop in his hands and has an excellent pass-rush plan. The 2020 top-150 recruit ended up with a 91.4 pass-rush grade, a 26.4% win rate and a 20.7% pressure rate for the 2021 season — all of which ranked top-five in the Power Five.

4. ANDRE CARTER II, ARMY BLACK KNIGHTS

It isn’t every season a player from Army ranks among the top five players returning at the position. Still, Carter posted top-tier pass-rush numbers in his 2021 junior campaign — he earned a 93.3 pass-rush grade and generated 58 pressures, 15 of which were sacks.

The 6-foot-7, 265-pound edge defender’s 25.9% pass-rush win rate was one of the five highest marks at the position in 2021.

5. ZION TUPUOLA-FETUI, WASHINGTON HUSKIES

Tupuola-Fetui will enter the 2022 season as a huge wild card. This past year, he was well on the way to a breakout season before an Achilles injury forced him to the sidelines. The 6-foot-4, 260-pound edge defender still managed to play a handful of games midway through the year, recording nine pressures and a 72.1 pass-rush grade on 58 pass-rush snaps before suffering another injury. 

In 2020, the Washington edge posted an elite 91.8 pass-rushing grade and 20 pressures — three of which were strip-sacks — on 22 pass rushes. He is the perfect representation of a power player and has a menacing bull rush. If he can stay healthy in 2022, he can be one of the best players in the country.

6. FELIX ANUDIKE-UZOMAH, KANSAS STATE WILDCATS

Anudike-Uzomah was one of the biggest surprises of the 2021 season. The 6-foot-3, 255-pound edge defender was a three-star recruit in the 2020 class and ranked 2,423rd nationally in the cycle, according to 247Sports Composite Rating. He rushed the passer only 34 times his first year on campus before earning an 89.9 pass-rush grade and racking up 43 pressures — and 13 sacks — as a starter in 2021. He got even better against the run, too, earning an 86.9 run-defense grade over his final seven games.


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7. ZACH HARRISON, OHIO STATE BUCKEYES

Despite his low sack total, Harrison has put up some top-level numbers as a part of the Buckeyes pass rush over the last couple of seasons. Since 2020, the 6-foot-6, 272-pound edge defender has earned a 90.5 pass-rush grade and 19.4% pass-rush win rate.

While the 2019 five-star recruit has the physical tools, the consistency is sorely lacking. He recorded zero pressures in two of his final four games and produced just two or fewer pressures in 11 of his 19 career games. 

8. ISAIAH FOSKEY, NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH

The former two-way high school player has developed into one of the top edge defenders in the country. A 2019 four-star recruit, Foskey went from a 63.5 PFF grade as a key reserve in 2020 to an 80.7 mark in 2021.

The 6-foot-5, 260-pound edge defender has the length and athleticism and has improved leaps and bounds with his play strength and technique this past season. Oh, and he’s versatile, too, as he's a key piece on special teams and also plays some off-ball linebacker.

9. MYLES MURPHY, CLEMSON TIGERS

Murphy showed up to campus as the No. 7-ranked recruit overall in the 2020 class and never wavered with the upgrade in competition — he posted PFF grades of 85.2 and 79.2 as a true freshman and sophomore.

The 6-foot-5, 275-pound edge defender has been at his best against the run. Since 2020, his PFF run-defense grade ranks first among Power Five edge defenders, just edging out Aidan Hutchinson and Will Anderson Jr.

10. XAVIER THOMAS, CLEMSON TIGERS

A long battle with COVID-19 disrupted Thomas’ 2020 junior year, but he still managed to play 119 snaps in what was supposed to be a bounce-back season after a sophomore slump in 2019. The 2018 No. 3 overall recruit went from an 83.4 PFF grade as a freshman to a 69.8 mark the year after.

Thomas got back on the right track this past season, earning a 76.7 pass-rush grade and 18.7% pass-rush win rate, 11th and fourth, respectively, among returning Power Five edge defenders.

What’s most encouraging about his performance this past season is his true pass-rush grade was nearly 25 grading points higher than the last time we saw him consistently on the field in 2019.

SLEEPERS TO WATCH: JACK SAWYER, OHIO STATE BUCKEYES & KOREY FOREMAN, USC TROJANS

These two top-five ranked recruits flashed a lot of promise in their limited reps as true freshmen.

Sawyer hadn’t played a down of football since 2019 after getting hurt and subsequently opting out of the 2020 season to end his high school career. He then came to Ohio State and got 101 pass-rush snaps as a reserve and recorded 11 pressures en route to a 78.6 pass-rush grade. He’s explosive, powerful and more advanced from a technical standpoint than most his age. He could be the next Ohio State household name on the edge.

As for Foreman, he also generated 11 pressures and produced a 73.0 PFF grade across 113 total snaps. With Drake Jackson now off to the NFL, he’ll be expected to be the man to anchor USC’s defensive line, along with Tuli Tuipulotu. Perhaps the most exciting aspect is that the five-star will be coached by Shaun Nua in 2022, who comes from Michigan after developing Aidan Hutchinson into one of the best edge rushers in the country.

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