Three weeks, people. Three weeks! We’re just three short, glorious, measly Saturdays away from the start of college football season. And as we get closer, FOXSports.com will continue to be your one-stop shop for every piece of relevant preview content you need as we get ready for Week 1. We’ve already hit on a number of different topics, including look-backs for each conference and a preview of the 30 biggest games of the season. This week we begin breaking down the best players at each major position in the country. After hitting running backs on Tuesday, it’s time to look at the best pass rushers in college football. And man, what a list it is.
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10. Ejuan Price, DE, Pittsburgh
It’s amazing really, because the further you get down this list, the more obvious one thing becomes: It’s filled almost entirely with former five-star recruits, future NFL stars and can’t-miss prospects. Price is none of the three, making what he’s done at Pitt that much more fascinating. Instead, he is quite literally the exact opposite: a sixth-year senior who missed two separate full seasons to injuries and played in just six games total from 2012 to 2014, before breaking out last year. Finally healthy, he had a season to remember, tallying 19.5 tackles for loss, to go along with 11.5 sacks, which ranked him 10th nationally. In his second and final year under Pat Narduzzi, expect an even better 2016 for Price. He might not be college football’s biggest star, but just might be the sport’s biggest inspiration.
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9. Tim Williams, LB, Alabama
You know what makes Alabama great (if you’re a Crimson Tide fan), and terrifying if you’re an opponent? Williams ranked in Top 15 nationally in sacks last year and barely made any headlines at all on a defense filled with stars like Reggie Ragland, A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen. Instead, Williams had to settle for an ‘under the radar’ role last year (or at least as ‘under the radar' as anyone can be while tallying 10.5 sacks and 12.5 TFL’s in a season) before breaking out in a big way in the Alabama spring game. The stats don’t tell the story, but go back and watch the tape of A-Day, when Williams was a terror on defense, an overwhelming presence in the backfield and a guy who may have singlehandedly set back the Alabama quarterback race a couple months because of the havoc he caused. Look for Williams to emerge as not only an All-SEC-caliber player on defense for the Tide, but a potential All-American as well. He’s ‘Bama’s next big star on defense.
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8. Josh Carraway, DE, TCU
Through the years, few coaches in college football have been better at developing talent than Gary Patterson, and Carraway might be one of his biggest success stories yet. Carraway came to TCU as a two-star recruit (in the 29th-ranked class in the country overall), only to stay the course and emerge as an All-Big 12 player a season ago. He had one of the most complete seasons of any defense end in the country, tallying 47 total tackles, 11.5 TFL’s and nine sacks. Oh, and he also had a forced fumble, and three fumble recoveries. After two years of explosive offenses in Fort Worth, the Horned Frogs will be back to relying on their defense in 2016. No one will play a bigger role than Carraway.
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7. Dawuane Smoot, LB, Illinois
While guys like Chris Worley (Michigan) and Tyquan Lewis (Ohio State) have gotten more attention coming into the season, it’s Illinois’ Smoot who put up better numbers than any of them. His eight sacks are tied with two others (including Lewis) for the most of any returning Big Ten player, while his 15 tackles for loss is second only Northwestern linebacker Anthony Walker. But while those numbers are good, the best could be yet to come this season. With new coach -- and defensive whiz -- Lovie Smith running the Illini program, 16-year NFL vet Hardy Nickerson running the defense, and Nickerson’s son (Hardy Nickerson Jr.) coming over from Cal to help the linebacking corps, the Illini defense should be vastly improved this coming season. It should allow Smoot’s numbers to go through the roof as well.
6. Marquis Haynes, DE, Ole Miss
While Robert Nkemdiche got all the headlines on the Ole Miss defense last year, it's easy to forget that Haynes was actually the most productive member of the Landsharks' front seven last season. His 16.5 tackles for loss led the team, as did his 10 sacks. Nkemdiche isn’t around to steal headlines -- both good and bad -- anymore. Look for Haynes to become the star of the team and one of the breakout stars in all of college football this year.
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5. DeMarcus Walker, DE, Florida State
Florida State has real national championship hopes this season, and there isn’t a defensive player more valuable to those aspirations than Walker. The fifth-year senior has quietly gotten better each season of his career, including last year, where he emerged as one of the most versatile pass rushers in the sport. His stats across the board were spectacular, as he tallied 10.5 sacks, 15.5 tackles for loss, five pass break-ups and four forced fumbles. With a fully healthy Josh Sweat lining up on the opposite side of the line and taking some of the pressure off Walker, look for his numbers to be even better in 2016.
4. Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee
For the first time in a long time, Tennessee is a true title contender, and it's thanks in large part to a major talent upgrade across the board since Butch Jones took over. Most of the focus entering this season is on the star power on offense, where Jalen Hurd and Joshua Dobbs will be key, but don’t forget about the Vols' stacked defense. And, yes, that includes Barnett, one of the most consistently spectacular players in college football the past two years. Barnett has been a star since the moment he arrived in Knoxville, including in 2014 when he set Tennessee records for sacks (10) and tackles for loss (20.5) by a freshman. That’s a staggering accomplishment when you consider all the great D-linemen who’ve played on Rocky Top, including Reggie White and Albert Haynesworth. While Barnett's stats weren’t quite as good last year, it was due more to the emerging talent around Barnett rather than a dip in overall production. Still, his 10 sacks and 12.5 TFL’s were good enough to earn him All-SEC honors. Look for him to earn similar acclaim in 2016.
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3. Jonathan Allen, DE, Alabama
Of every player in college football who was expected to declare for the draft but didn’t, there was no bigger surprise than Allen. Simply put, had he declared after his junior year, it’s almost certain he would have gone in the top 15 picks. Instead, he decided to take a crack at one more title run in Tuscaloosa. Whether Alabama gets back there or not, it will be hard for Allen to top his numbers in 2015, which included a team-high 12 sacks and a team-high 14.5 TFL’s. Simply put, if you’re leading Alabama in any major category (let alone two) you’re a stud. And that’s exactly how opposing coaches describe Allen.
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2. DeVonte Fields, DE, Louisville
Since he first burst onto the college scene back in 2012, the issue with Fields has never been talent, but instead problems off the field. After earning All-Big 12 honors at TCU in 2012 (after tallying 10 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss), he was dismissed from TCU. But to his credit has bounced back in the two years since. After a season at junior college, Fields had a monster first year at Louisville in 2016 with 11 sacks. Fields also added 22.5 TFL’s -- the highest number for any player returning to college football this season.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAChristopher Hanewinckel
1. Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M
There aren’t many certainties in life, but death, taxes and ranking Myles Garrett as the top pass rusher in all of college football certainly qualify. Garrett has been a monster since the moment he stepped on campus, setting an SEC freshman record with 11.5 sacks in 2014. And he was even better last year, finishing with 12.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss -- ranking in top 10 nationally in both categories. Back for his second year in John Chavis’ defense and playing alongside Daeshon Hall, the only question is how much better those numbers ultimately will be.