College Football
NFL Draft: 10 elite defensive prospects to watch in Week 8's marquee matchups
College Football

NFL Draft: 10 elite defensive prospects to watch in Week 8's marquee matchups

Updated Oct. 18, 2023 2:52 p.m. ET

When you turn on the FOX broadcasts of the massive Big Ten matchup between Penn State and Ohio State on Saturday (Noon ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app), it will be easy to understand if Gus Johnson and Joel Klatt focus on offense.

After all, the hosting Buckeyes boast the best wide receiver prospect in several years in Marvin Harrison Jr., while the Nittany Lions have another likely top-10 NFL Draft prospect in left tackle Olu Fashanu

Similarly, when Joe Davis and Brock Huard announce the equally big Pac-12 clash between Utah and USC a little later (8 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app), reigning Heisman Trophy winner and projected future No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Caleb Williams will be the obvious center of attention.

But overshadowed by all this focus on the so-called "skill-position" players are some terrific NFL prospects on defense. That's what we're going to focus on here.


Let's take a look at the top five NFL prospects on defense in each of these two critical conference showdowns.

Players for each game are listed in the order of their anticipated selection in the 2024 NFL draft.

Penn State at Ohio State (Noon ET)

JT Tuimoloau, DE, Ohio State, 6-4, 270, junior

At a program well-known for signing elite recruits, Tuimoloau still stands apart, joining the Buckeyes as the most celebrated prep defender in the country two years ago. Last year, as a true sophomore, he earned First Team All-Big Ten honors by recording 28 tackles, including 10.5 for loss, three sacks and two interceptions, including a pick-six to seal the victory over Penn State.

For all of Tuimoloau's hype, he remains a pretty raw prospect. His greatest attribute at this time is his sheer power. He already possesses an NFL-caliber bull rush, driving would-be blockers deep into the pocket before tossing them aside like a used dishcloth when the ball carrier is near. For a big man, Tuimoloau boasts an impressive initial burst, and he closes quickly, showing the kind of speed-power combination that could force an NFL team to gamble on his upside with a first-round selection if he makes himself eligible for the 2024 Draft.

Ohio State's JT Tuimoloau recaps game of his life vs. Penn State

Chop Robinson, OLB/DE, Penn State, 6-3, 254, junior

The Nittany Lions lead the country in sacks per game, averaging 4.5 over their first six contests. Robinson "only" has three of his team's 27 sacks over that span, but his explosiveness generates many more big plays than his personal statistics suggest. He offers an exciting combination of burst, power and flexibility, with a compact frame that allows him to line up inside and out, up in the two-point stance, or with his hand in the dirt. He is equally adept at beating offensive tackles with his speed off the edge and "chopping" his way through the B gap with strong, coordinated hands.

Robinson projects very similarly to the NFL as recent Penn State edge rushers Arnold Ebiketie (2022), Jayson Oweh (2021) and Yetur Gross-Matos (2020), who were selected 38th, 31st and 38th overall of their draft classes, respectively.

Adisa Isaac, Edge Rusher, Penn State, 6-4, 249, redshirt senior

While the aforementioned Robinson is Penn State's most gifted rusher, Isaac currently leads the team in both sacks (five) and tackles for loss (7.5). And his production is no fluke. He led the team in tackles for loss a year ago (11) after missing 2021 with a torn Achilles.

Isaac has a lean, lanky frame and is a pure speed rusher, exploding off the ball like a sprinter out of the blocks. He complements his initial burst with very good lateral agility, which Penn State takes full advantage of on frequent twists and stunts with the defensive tackles aligned inside of him. He is very effective in this role, using his burst, bend and long arms to lasso ball carriers. Isaac projects as a Day 2 selection.

Ohio State vs. Penn State: Can Nittany Lions pull off the upset?

Tyleik Williams, Ohio State, DT, 6-3, 320, junior

One of the many challenges of evaluating underclassmen is that some college programs fail to properly update the sizes of their prospects. Williams is a perfect example of this, as the Buckeyes officially list him at 6-foot-3 and 280 pounds. He is considerably heavier than that, though, with other websites estimating the wide-bodied nose guard at closer to 330 pounds. Regardless of his actual weight, Williams is listed here because he combines impressive quickness and flexibility to go along with his girth and power, already nearly matching his previous career-high with six tackles for loss in just five games thus far this season.

Like most of the Buckeyes, Williams signed as a highly regarded recruit. He's earned Honorable Mention All-Big Ten honors after each of his first two seasons in Columbus and is well on his way toward even higher acclaim this season. He is built like former Ohio State standout Jonathan Hankins, a 6-foot-2, 320-pounder whom the New York Giants selected 49th overall back in 2013. Hankins is now starting for the Dallas Cowboys and is in his 11th NFL season. 

Denzel Burke, Ohio State, CB, 6-1, 190, junior 

Annually fielding one of the most talented teams in college football, it might surprise you to learn that it has actually been a couple of years since a member of the Ohio State secondary was drafted, the last being cornerback Shaun Wade (160th overall by Baltimore) in 2021. Buckeyes fans need not fret, as the mini-drought will be over once Burke elects to make himself eligible. The former four-star recruit has started all 29 games of his collegiate career, earning Freshman All-American accolades in 2021 after leading Ohio State with 13 passes defended and honorable mention All-Big Ten honors this past season. 

Burke offers excellent size for cornerback, with light feet and loose hips to turn and run with receivers, possessing very good speed and overall athleticism. He is an alert, aggressive defender with a knack for breaking up passes and delivering sound, physical hits. His matchup against Penn State's similarly built speedster KeAndre Lambert-Smith (6-foot-1, 185 pounds) is right there with Ohio State's multiple edge rushers against star left tackle Fashanu as the key matchup that may very well determine the winner of this game. 

Other draftable defenders in this game: Ohio State DE Jack Sawyer, Ohio State ILB Tommy Eichenberg, Penn State CB Kalen King, Ohio State DT Ty Hamilton, Ohio State OLB Steele Chambers

What is the bigger picture for Penn State, Ohio State?

Utah at USC (8 p.m. ET)

Jonah Elliss, Utah, Edge Rusher, 6-2, 246, junior

Any list of breakout stars in college football this season is incomplete if it doesn't include Elliss. To be clear, he was good a year ago, earning honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors with 26 tackles, including six tackles for loss and three sacks. But he's been dominant in 2023, currently leading Power 5 defenders with nine sacks through the first six games of the season. He's already eclipsed last year's production as a tackler (29), including behind the line of scrimmage (13).

While most fans are still just getting acquainted with Elliss, NFL scouts certainly know him — or at least his family. That is because his father, Luther, played a decade in the league for the Detroit Lions and Denver Broncos, and three of his older brothers spent time in the NFL, with Kaden (Atlanta Falcons) and Christian (Philadelphia Eagles) currently on rosters. 

Those NFL bloodlines virtually guaranteed that Elliss would be heavily scouted, but he is a legitimate prospect on his own merits, demonstrating the pass rush arsenal that should make his father (now Utah's defensive line coach) proud. As his size suggests, Elliss can challenge would-be blockers with his burst upfield, but it is his strength, savvy and slipperiness that make him a nightmare. Elliss rips through blocks with heavy, active hands and shows impressive lateral agility and vision to slither through cracks, consistently wreaking havoc at the line of scrimmage. Jonah may not be quite big or athletic enough to earn the first-round selection his father did back in 1995, but if he slips to Day 2, he'll ultimately prove a steal.

Calen Bullock, USC, FS, 6-3, 190, junior

USC head coach Lincoln Riley may be best known for producing big plays on offense, but in Bullock, he also boasts one of the country's preeminent ball hawks. Bullock led the Trojans with five interceptions a year ago (the most at USC since former first-round pick Adoree Jackson also snared five in 2016), earning All-American honors at free safety after also getting time at nickel and cornerback as a true freshman in 2021, when he picked off two passes. He already has another interception this year, and he's currently tied for the team lead with five PBUs, overall. 

Bullock has a lean, lanky frame that might give scouts some caution, but he's a fluid athlete who doesn't back away from contact. He's an aggressive and generally very reliable open-field tackler well suited to playing the center-field role as a traditional free safety. What makes him special, though, are his instincts and ball skills. Bullock does a terrific job of reading the eyes of opposing quarterbacks and getting an early jump, showing the range to handle single-high duties — a quality that typically earns prospects top-50 consideration.

USC vs. Utah preview: The Trojans MUST bounce back

Cole Bishop, Utah, S, 6-2, 207, junior

Utah has developed quite the reputation for developing linemen throughout the Kyle Whittingham era, but its pipeline to the NFL from the secondary is also impressive, with nine defensive backs drafted over the past decade. Perhaps that track record is what lured Bishop — who starred at the prep level in the football-loving state of Georgia — out West, where he since has earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors each of the past two seasons.

Listing Bishop as a safety is a bit misleading, as the Utes line him up all over the field and often in the box, where his size, physicality, and Jedi-like instincts have made him one of the most productive tacklers in the Pac-12. He led the Utes with 83 stops a season ago and currently ranks second on the team with 32, one behind true sophomore safety Sione Vaki (another future NFL draft pick). Bishop fills up the stat sheet like he does running lanes, registering 4.5 tackles for loss and two sacks among his overall stops, with two interceptions and both a forced and recovered fumble so far this season. 

Bishop may lack the pure speed teams prefer as a true free safety, but he plays faster than he may run in workouts, demonstrating excellent diagnostic skills, as well as fluid hips and quick feet to change directions in a blink. This allows him to be quite effective on short and intermediate coverage responsibilities, where he often drops down to handle slot receivers, tight ends and backs. He is a good communicator who leads the Utah secondary and projects as a future NFL starter with a solid Day 2 grade.

JaTravis Broughton, Utah, CB, 5-11, 190, redshirt senior

A year ago it was playmaker Clark Phillips III who dominated the press for Utah, earning unanimous All-American honors and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors after tying for the lead among all Power5 defenders with six interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns. He then surprisingly slid to the fourth round of the 2023 NFL draft (Atlanta Falcons) as scouts realized that his battery-mate, Broughton, flashed a better all-around skill set.

The compactly-built Broughton is at his best in press coverage, where he shows light feet and a fluid turning motion to easily run with receivers downfield. From this alignment, Broughton rarely allows even a sliver of space between himself and wideouts, often forcing quarterbacks to throw the ball elsewhere. This helps explain why he only has one pass breakup so far this season (and nine over his career) despite starting 27 games. He is a smooth, coordinated athlete who plays with aggression and physicality. In fact, it is this aggression that can be his kryptonite, as Broughton takes risky angles in pursuit with a couple of missed tackles (Oregon State) clouding his otherwise impressive tape this season. If he cleans up his tackling technique, Broughton could top his former teammate, Phillips, with a top-100 selection this spring. 

Jamil Muhammad, USC, Edge Rusher, 6-1, 250, redshirt senior

While not at the level of national award winners like Williams (2022 Heisman) and Jordan Addison (2021 Biletnikoff), the Trojans' pass rush has certainly been given a much-needed jolt this season by Muhammad, who is playing the best ball of his career after previously suiting up for Georgia State and Vanderbilt. Muhammad registered 44 tackles for Georgia State a year ago, including five for loss and 1.5 sacks. Nothing about those numbers — and that level of competition — foreshadowed his breakout performance thus far for USC in 2023, when he's exploded for 10 tackles for loss (including six sacks) over the first seven games.

With his stubby frame, Muhammad may not look the part of a traditional early-round NFL draft pick, but he uses his natural leverage advantage well, dipping under and sprinting past would-be blockers easily on speed rushes. He converts speed to power nicely, driving tackles 50-plus pounds heavier than him deep into the pocket with his leg drive and long arms, projecting as an intriguing bargain as a pass rush specialist at the next level, one likely available on Day 3. 

Other draftable defenders in this game: Utah DT Junior Tafuna, USC Edge rusher Solomon Byrd, USC Edge rusher Eric Gentry, Utah CB Zemaiah Vaughn, USC CB Christian Roland-Wallace, Utah CB Miles Battle, USC ILB Shane Lee

Rob Rang is an NFL Draft analyst for FOX Sports. He has been covering the NFL Draft for more than 20 years, with work at FOX, Sports Illustrated,, USA Today, Yahoo, and, among others. He also works as a scout with the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League. Follow him on Twitter @RobRang.


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