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Five big DE questions heading in to 2019 season

CLASS OF 2020 RANKINGS: Rivals250 | State | Position | Team

Pro Football Focus is an invaluable resource to dive deeper into statistics when thinking about college football and the NFL Draft. Here is a breakdown of defensive end storylines heading into next season, what their numbers could mean down the road and the opinion of National Recruiting Director Mike Farrell.


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Will A.J. Epenesa clean up next season?

A.J. Epenesa
A.J. Epenesa (AP Images)

Overview: Epenesa, a former five-star and the top-ranked strong-side defensive end in the 2017 class, definitely lived up to his billing this past season with 10 sacks and 26 hurries, as he was a terror off the edge for Iowa’s defense. Could his numbers balloon even more now that fellow defensive lineman Anthony Nelson is off to the NFL and won’t be swallowing up a lot of stats?

Nelson was also a force for the Hawkeyes, playing 199 more snaps than Epenesa last season and posting just as many sacks with three more hits on the quarterback. There is a good chance Epenesa has even better stats next season and he could be in the early first-round discussion with a big year for the Hawkeyes.

Farrell’s take: Epenesa is a special talent and the big question remains – does having Nelson on the line with him make him better or will he shine even more with him gone? The kid has a great work ethic and I think he will crush 2019 and have a huge year. Epenesa is not only sneaky fast off the ball but he is so good off contact and with his second move that he’s rarely ever out of the play. And he can play the run as well. He’s a guy NFL scouts will love on film next season and he’s already on the radar now.

Should Chase Young have been ranked No. 1 in 2017?

Chase Young
Chase Young (AP Images)

Overview: There were seven players ranked ahead of Young in the 2017 recruiting class - Najee Harris, Marvin Wilson, Cam Akers, Alex Leatherwood, Josh Kaindoh, Jaelan Phillips and Walker Little. This season will be telling for many of those prospects but there is a strong argument to be made that Young has had far more impact than any of those players and he could have an even bigger year this season.

Young’s numbers were mind-boggling a year ago: He had 11 sacks, he hit the quarterback 14 times and he had 50 quarterback hurries to lead the country, according to Pro Football Focus. That was two more than Florida State’s Brian Burns and far more than any other defensive end who could go in the first round of the NFL Draft. Young has proven to be super special for the Buckeyes and an argument could be made he should’ve been even higher in the 2017 rankings.

Farrell’s take: Hindsight is always 20-20 and it’s not like Young’s ranking was low. However, so far he has had the biggest impact of anyone in our top 10 in 2017 and he’s just getting started. The injury to Nick Bosa opened the door for Young and he ran right through it. You could argue that he will have better stats in 2019 and he will be considered as a top-five pick for the NFL Draft when he decides to come out. If we were re-ranking the five stars for 2017, many have made a big impact but Young could make a case for No. 1.

What should we expect out of Xavier Thomas?

Xavier Thomas
Xavier Thomas (AP Images)

Overview: The former five-star defensive end has waited his turn at Clemson and now it could be his time to unleash on college football. With a front four of Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins, Austin Bryant and Dexter Lawrence, Thomas only played 318 snaps this past season but still posted a high grade especially for pass rushing with four sacks and 17 quarterback hurries.

In comparison, Ferrell played 695 snaps as Clemson ran to the national championship. Bryant was at 668. Thomas’ snap count doesn’t even put him in the top 350 players nationally this past season. When he inevitably gets his chance to make an impact on Clemson’s defensive line, will he dominate?

Farrell’s take: Yes, he will, and I think he will be the best of the group. He’s strong, he’s explosive and he has a relentless style that will lead to many big plays in 2019 and beyond. And that’s saying something because Ferrell, Wilkins and Lawrence could all be first-rounders come April. I think if Thomas stays healthy, he’s another surefire first-rounder and should be a first-team All-ACC player this year.

Which 2019 five-star shines early?

DeMarvin Leal
DeMarvin Leal (Nick Lucero/

Overview: There were four five-star defensive ends in the 2019 class and all have the special ability to make an immediate impact in college.

At strong-side defensive end, Zacch Pickens could be the next star at South Carolina. DeMarvin Leal looked like a superstar at the All-American Bowl in San Antonio and he has the physical presence to do big things early at Texas A&M. Ohio State’s Zach Harrison might be the biggest project out of the group but he could also have the highest ceiling.

At weak-side defensive end, Kayvon Thibodeaux was an early enrollee at Oregon and he has rare size and speed to make big plays in the Pac-12. Which former five-star in particular will shine early in his college career?

Farrell’s take: Wow, this is a tough choice because they are are all so talented. I think Thibodeaux is the most game-ready right now so I’ll go with him because Pickens, Leal and Harrison are still a bit raw. But watch out for the others, especially Harrison, as well. If I had to rate their long-term potential I’d go Harrison, Leal, Pickens and Thibodeaux in that order.

Why aren’t we talking about Kenny Willekes?

Kenny Willekes
Kenny Willekes (AP Images)

Overview: When it comes to overall defensive grades, the names at the top of the list are commonplace and well-debated heading into the NFL Draft: Nick Bosa, Josh Allen, Zach Allen, Jachai Polite. And then at eighth overall is Willekes, the Michigan State defensive end who does not get enough praise, ink or hype as he possibly should because the unranked linebacker out of the 2015 class put up huge numbers for the Spartans last season.

Willekes was fourth on the team with 78 tackles and he led Michigan State by far with 20.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. He led the nation in hits on the passer (five more than Zach Allen, 11 more than Josh Allen) and it seems like somewhere in the debate over who is the best defensive end in a loaded group, Willekes’ name was completely forgotten. He has one more season in East Lansing to keep putting up massive stats.

Willekes is sitting out the spring after sustaining a broken leg in the Redbox Bowl, but is on schedule for a full recovery in time for summer conditioning and August camp.

Farrell’s take: I think Willekes gets overlooked a bit because Michigan State hasn’t been on the same radar as some of the other programs mentioned and the fact that he’s not in this draft pool but he’s an extremely active and productive player. His motor is non-stop and opponents have a hard time single-blocking him. Michigan State fans know how good he is but the rest of the country will soon learn as well.