July 22, 2024

Meet college football’s 12 under-the-radar defensive players who already have NFL scouts buzzing

Summertime is a great chance to gain some perspective on the talent pool in college football. So every year, I take some time to ask NFL scouts how draft-eligible college players are viewed as prospects by those in the NFL space.

In the coming weeks, I’ll share different pieces of feedback that have come from those conversations. Yesterday, we covered 12 under-the-radar draft prospects on offense generating buzz among NFL scouts. Now, here are 12 defensive players (listed alphabetically):

Syracuse S Alijah Clark

School measurements: 6-foot-1, 186 pounds

A former top-150 overall recruit, Clark has been a starter for Syracuse for the last two years. At least some scouts see the Rutgers transfer coming off the board in the first few rounds of next year’s draft. He has limited ball production (with no interceptions and just five pass breakups the last two seasons) but recorded 120 total tackles during that time and helped Syracuse rank 14th nationally in pass defense in 2022.

Pro Football Focus gave him the fourth-best pass defense grade among ACC safeties last season.

“Really talented and gifted player,” a coach who worked at Syracuse in 2022 and 2023 told CBS Sports. “Physical and athletic. Can lose focus and attention at times, but looks the part.”

UTSA DL Joe Evans

Official measurements: 6-foot-2 2/8, 344 pounds

UTSA has two players that scouts see as potential top-160 NFL Draft picks. Wide receiver De’Corian Clark is one and Evans is the other. While his stats won’t blow you away (just 36 total tackles and 3.5 sacks the last two years), PFF gave him the third-highest run defense grade in the nation among interior defenders last year. 

He made 10 starts at LSU before transferring to UTSA.

“He’s a dog,” a UTSA coach told CBS Sports. “Has size, strength, speed and knowledge of the game.”

Marshall EDGE Mike Green

School measurements: 6-foot-4, 238 pounds

Despite only making one start for Marshall last season, the Virginia transfer flashed next-level ability while posting 43 tackles, nine tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. At least some scouts already have draftable grades for Green heading into the season.

“I like him,” an NFL scout told CBS Sports. “He’s got potential to me to kind of jump up. He’s definitely a draftable guy. I don’t know if it’ll be Day 2 or Day 3, but he’s definitely got potential.”

Green ended last season on a strong note with 14 tackles and 2.5 sacks in Marshall’s final three regular season games.

“He’s strong, can bend, has twitch, can rush with speed and power, understands the game and reminds me of (former Alabama star and recent Minnesota Vikings first-round pick) Dallas Turner,” Marshall head coach and former Alabama assistant Charles Huff told CBS Sports. “Excited to see him play this year. Light came on for him the second half of the season last year and he’s been on fire ever since.”

Boston College DL Cam Horsley

School measurements: 6-foot-3, 315 pounds

Boston College has quietly placed at least one player in the first three rounds of the NFL draft each of the last nine years. Entering his fourth year as a starter, Horsley has a chance to make it 10 years in a row for the Eagles.

While multiple scouts told CBS Sports that they view Horsley as more of a mid-Day 3 prospect entering the season, one of the scouting services used by NFL teams gave him a Day 2 grade. PFF ranked Horsley as seventh-best against the run among ACC interior defenders last year.

“He’s a little raw to me, but the guy plays hard,” an NFL scout told CBS Sports. “You notice him on tape. He’s long-armed and has enough size. I think he has a little bit of scheme versatility, where he can do some 3-4 and some two-gap stuff, but he definitely has some ability to play one one-gap and get up field. I like his play strength. He’s got an active motor. I thought he was pretty gap sound. Most of the time you watch him play, he could hold his gap. And I thought he played with his hands pretty well.”

Minnesota EDGE Jah Joyner

Official measurements: 6-foot-4 2/8, 256 pounds

Minnesota offensive tackle Aireontae Ersery is on our list of under-the-radar offensive players generating buzz with NFL scouts. One of his teammates on the other side of the ball could also get drafted in the first few rounds. Although Joyner only made one start for the Golden Gophers last year, he tied for third in the Big Ten with 7.5 sacks. Six of those sacks came in Minnesota’s final six games. 

It was a breakthrough for Joyner, who came into last season with just 16 total tackles and 2.5 sacks through three years.

“Jah has a high level skill set just off of raw talent and ability,” a Minnesota staffer told CBS Sports. “His first step is almost unmatched. The way he can reach and contort his body is awesome. It helps that he has an 82-inch wingspan. His pass-rush ability is continually improving. And he’s smart. He’s learning how to play the game. Where he has to improve is consistently playing the run. He is more than capable, but sometimes it doesn’t show up on film. However, when it does show up, he is able to use his length and his strength and it’s cool to see.”

South Carolina DL DeAndre Jules

Official measurements: 6-foot-3 7/8, 323 pounds

While Jules flew under the radar compared to other transfer pickups for South Carolina this offseason, he gives the Gamecocks a defensive lineman that at least some NFL scouts view as a Day 2 or early Day 3 talent. The Pitt transfer strictly served as a backup through his first four years but broke out last season with 24 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.

“I like Jules a lot,” a South Carolina staffer told CBS Sports. “Really good run player. Physical at the point of attack. Has a unique skill set of size and quickness that allows him to be effective.”

UCF LB DeShawn Pace

School measurements: 6-foot-2, 220 pounds

The brother of Minnesota Vikings standout linebacker Ivan Pace, this UCF star is in line to join his brother in the NFL soon. The younger Pace posted team-high totals of 80 tackles and 11 tackles for loss along with six pass breakups in a hybrid linebacker/defensive back role at Cincinnati before transferring to UCF this offseason.

Along with defensive end Malachi Lawrence and defensive tackle Lee Hunter, he’s one of a few UCF defenders with real NFL Draft potential.

“Athletic, instinctive, playmaker and has leadership ability,” a UCF staffer told CBS Sports.

Tulane CB Caleb Ransaw

Official measurements: 5-foot-10 7/8, 194 pounds

One of the top players from Jon Sumrall’s 11-win team at Troy last season, Ransaw elected to follow his coach to Tulane. Although he didn’t receive All-Sun Belt recognition last year, Pro Football Focus gave Ransaw the 26th-best grade nationally among cornerbacks, including the fifth-highest run-defense mark for his position.

One of the scouting services used by NFL teams gave him a Day 2 grade entering the season.

“Has the physical traits to be an elite player — big, fast, strong, explosive, etc. and has the football I.Q. to match,” Sumrall told CBS Sports. “Loves the game and studies it.”

ECU CB Shavon Revel

School measurements: 6-foot-3, 185 pounds

My colleague Chris Hummer recently profiled Revel, who turned down six-figure transfer opportunities at bigger schools to stay at ECU. It was a huge win for the Pirates to keep him. One of the scouting services used by NFL teams has Revel with not only a Day 2 grade, it ranks him as one of the top cornerbacks in the class.

“Length and ball skills,” an NFL scouting source told CBS Sports. “One of the first games I watched was against SMU and (SMU head coach Rhett Lashlee) just made a point of like: We’re just going to keep throwing deep balls with this guy. I think they threw it at him like eight or nine times and he gave up like one catch for like 11 yards or something and I think he had six or seven PBUs (pass breakups) on top of that too. So that was like the first game I watched and I was like: This guy’s big, he’s long, he can run and he can play the ball. These guys are highly coveted.”

South Carolina State LB Aaron Smith

Official measurements: 6-foot 6/8, 226 pounds

Smith is the first of three FCS players at the tail end of this list. Multiple NFL scouting sources view him as a draftable talent. One even sees him as a mid-Day 3  player at this point (in the fifth-round range).

Smith had 63 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and five sacks in 11 games last season after tallying 49 tackles, nine tackles for loss and four sacks in 2022.

Eastern Kentucky Mike Smith

School measurements: 6-foot-1, 206 pounds

A least some scouts view Smith as a mid-Day 3 prospect entering the season. The Appalachian State transfer recorded 56 tackles, two interceptions and 13 pass break-ups for Eastern Kentucky last season. He ended the year with seven tackles and three pass breakups in a win over Stephen F. Austin.

Villanova CB Isas Waxter

School measurements: 6-foot-2, 215 pounds

Waxter is in position to be the second Villanova cornerback drafted in the last three years, following 2022 Buffalo Bills sixth-round pick and current starter Christian Bedford. Waxter was a second-team All-CAA selection for Villanova last year after missing the entire 2022 season due to an injury. He tallied three interceptions and 11 pass break-ups while helping his team win 10 games and finish 15th in the FCS in pass defense. That includes interceptions in two of Villanova’s final three games.

“I don’t know if he’s going to be an early pick but he has some buzz and he’s a bigger kid,” that scout told CBS Sports. “He thought about coming out last year and luckily they got him to stay. Almost 6-1 1/2, about 200 pounds. Good looking kid. He’s a little raw. I don’t know if he’s the football player that the last kid that’s in Buffalo was, but he’s definitely a better athlete and a better looking prospect already. He’s going to have a big year and a lot of people will be going through there, no question.”