2021 College Football Preseason All-Americans: Texas A&M dominate first-team honors

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First-team defense

Which players earned first-team college football preseason All-American recognition on defense?

EDGE: Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon

Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux has been one of the most impactful defensive college football players over the past two seasons. Emerging as a game wrecker in his first year, he set Oregon program records for sacks by a freshman while leading the team in tackles for loss. A Freshman All-American, Thibodeaux earned second-team All-Freshman from multiple media outlets.

The Oregon product heads into the 2021 college football season with 23.5 tackles for loss and 12 sacks to his name. His insane athletic ability helps him to be equally dominant as a pass rusher and run defender. Fast, agile, and blessed with impressive size, he’s a contender to be the most explosive defender — nay, player — in the country. Thibodeaux was one of the first names on all four ballots for our college football first-team All-Americans.

EDGE: George Karlaftis, Purdue

Don’t let a disrupted 2020 college football season confuse you; George Karlaftis is a destructive defensive end. The Purdue pass rusher earned Freshman All-American honors, tallying 17 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks in his freshman season. Although the Greek-born defensive lineman didn’t play a down of football until eighth grade, he has dominated at every step of his journey.

Even in just three games of action last year, Karlaftis demonstrated his devastating skill set. He’s big, strong, deceptively speedy, and has multiple pass-rush moves in his arsenal. The Boilermakers’ big defensive end has also showcased versatility, lining up across the defensive front over the past two years. As a result, Karlaftis is going to pose significant problems for college football offenses this fall.

Defensive Tackle: DeMarvin Leal, Texas A&M

This 2021 Texas A&M team is loaded with talent, and in DeMarvin Leal, they secure the fourth selection on our college football preseason first-team All-Americans. Versatile, strong, and athletic, Leal has predominantly lined up at defensive end for the Aggies but can punish from the defensive front’s interior.

During his two-year career for the Aggies, he has produced 75 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, and 1 forced fumble. Furthermore, he led Texas A&M in QB hurries last season. His incredible length has allowed him to disrupt the passing game with 3 pass breakups and 1 interception. Leal heads into the college football season as one of the most disruptive defensive playmakers in the nation.

Defensive Tackle: Bryan Bresee, Clemson

Remember the 2018 Clemson “Power Rangers” defensive line that helped power them to a National Championship? Well, Bryan Bresee is a dominant throwback to that unit, as the Tigers look to impose themselves on college football once again. Powerful enough to win inside, but with the athletic profile to win outside, Bresee is an absolute monster.

As the No. 1-ranked player in the 2020 recruiting class, expectations have always been high for Bresee. Regardless, he lived up to them and then some last year, finishing second in voting for the ACC Rookie of the Year. The Clemson defensive tackle amassed 23 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, and 1 forced fumble. Landing as one of our first-team college football preseason All-Americans sets another level of expectation for the Tigers’ defensive tackle. It would be a foolish man to bet against him living up to it in 2021.

Linebacker: Devin Lloyd, Utah

A former high school safety, Devin Lloyd has emerged as one of the best linebackers in college football. A tackling machine, he has averaged 6.6 tackles per game over his 22-game career. The leader of the Utah defense isn’t just racking up numbers with easy tackles down the field. He’s a disruptive monster in the backfield, tallying 21 tackles for loss and 8 sacks heading into the 2021 college football season.

Lloyd is coming off a year where he was named a finalist for the prestigious Butkus Award. Arguably, his 91 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, and 6.5 sacks should have seen him named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2019. The Utah linebacker will terrorize offenses in the conference again this year, with the Utes an under-the-radar contender in the Pac-12 and the college football world in general.

Linebacker: Noah Sewell, Oregon

Our first-team college football preseason All-American linebacker group has a distinctly Pac-12 flavor. Oregon’s Noah Sewell earns his spot following an outstanding true-freshman campaign. The former five-star recruit featured in the conference’s top 10 for solo tackles, total tackles, and forced fumbles. Additionally, he tallied 6.5 tackles for loss in just seven appearances last fall.

Sewell was named the Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year for those performances, and his appearance here predicts even more success this season. Intelligent, athletic, and violent as they come at the position, the Oregon linebacker is destined for more extraordinary things in 2021. With one brother, Penei, departed to the NFL, the Sewell family stranglehold on the Pac-12 continues with Noah.

Linebacker: DeMarvion Overshown, Texas

An intriguing addition to our first-team college football preseason All-Americans, DeMarvion Overshown has only been a linebacker for the Longhorns for one season. The former four-star safety spent his first two years in the secondary, logging 3 pass breakups and an interception in 2019. However, a lack of depth at the linebacker position last year led to a position change.

The move unleashed a monster in Overshown. A heavy hitter who moves effortlessly around the field, the Texas LB seamlessly shifted from the secondary. The Longhorns linebacker accumulated 60 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 1 sack, and 2 forced fumbles. Despite a shift in position, Overshown still used his playmaking ball skills in coverage with 7 passes defensed and 2 interceptions. Overshown achieved incredible production in just his first season at the position. Thus, the potential to develop into one of the top linebackers in the nation is palpable.

Cornerback: Kaiir Elam, Florida

The cornerback positions were amongst the most hotly contested on our first-team college football All-Americans. Yet, one player that was a consensus selection was Florida cornerback Kaiir Elam. The nephew of former Florida Gator and first-round NFL Draft selection Matt Elam, Kaiir has quickly established himself as one of the premier cornerbacks in college football.

Elam led the SEC in passes defensed in 2020, with his 11 pass breakups taking his career total to 14. The Florida cornerback has also snagged 2 interceptions in each of his first two seasons. Statistics aside, Elam owns rare ability at the position. He has exceptional size and length, incredible athletic ability, and thrives as a tackler. The race for CB1 of the 2022 NFL Draft is closer than most people will admit.

Cornerback: Derek Stingley Jr., LSU

Derek Stingley Jr. came to college football with a family heritage and five-star pedigree. Nevertheless, his sensational 2019 campaign exceeded all expectations. While LSU’s offense captured the attention of a nation, their true-freshman cornerback snagged 6 interceptions and was responsible for 15 passes defensed. His performances earned him All-American honors and catapulted him firmly into the conversation as the best defensive back in college football.

Despite a difficult 2020 season, Stingley once again projects to be one of the best in the country. The LSU cornerback possesses insane athletic ability and some of the best ball skills in football. Size, speed, and fluidity all combine to make Stingley a must-watch athlete this fall.

Cornerback: Ahmad Gardner, Cincinnati

“My main expectation is to be the #1 shutdown in all of college football, which I think is easy to do.”

With comments like that — given exclusively to Pro Football Network’s Cam Mellor — and the nickname “Sauce,” Ahmad Gardner has a high opinion of his ability. Thankfully for the Cincinnati cornerback, he has both the skill set and the statistics to back up his bravado.

A model of consistency at the position, Gardner logged 3 interceptions and 6 pass deflections in both of his two collegiate seasons. The numbers are impressive, but the play behind them surpasses the statistics. Ideal size for the position, athleticism for days, and possessing exceptional football intelligence, Gardner also has that swagger that delineates the great from the good when it comes to cornerback play.

Gardner is one of only two Group of Five players in our college football preseason first-team All-American list. That should tell you all you need to know about our opinion of his ability ahead of the 2021 season.

Safety: Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame

A consensus first-team college football preseason All-American safety, Kyle Hamilton has a case to make as the best player in college football this season. The leader of the Notre Dame secondary is a ridiculous playmaker at all three levels of the defense. Hamilton has the football intelligence to read the game impeccably, owns the length and ball skills to be effective in coverage, and possesses the physicality to be an enforcer whenever he needs to lay the wood.

He amassed 104 tackles in just two seasons, including 5.5 tackles for loss for the Fighting Irish. Furthermore, the Fighting Irish safety has 12 pass deflections and 5 interceptions on his résumé. He was instrumental in Notre Dame’s run to the College Football Playoffs last season. Although they may struggle to repeat that accomplishment, Hamilton will continue to be the heartbeat of the defense.

Safety: Brandon Joseph, Northwestern

Brandon Joseph has developed from an underrated high school safety to one of the best in the nation in just two years. The Northwestern playmaker earned Big Ten Newcomer of the Year after a sensational redshirt-freshman season last fall. Joseph racked up 46 tackles and 2 pass deflections while leading the nation with 6 interceptions.

A first-team All-American by multiple outlets following the 2020 season, he was a consensus selection for our college football preseason first-team All-American list. Joseph combines athleticism, exceptional football intelligence, and next-level ball skills to rank behind Notre Dame’s Hamilton as the best safety in college football. With Greg Newsome departed to the NFL, expect Joseph to establish himself even further in the Northwestern secondary this fall.

Defensive Flex: Tykee Smith, Georgia

Sneakily, West Virginia had the nation’s top passing defense last fall (159.6 passing yards per game). A massive component of that defensive success was versatile defensive back Tykee Smith. Over the previous two seasons, Smith secured 4 interceptions and 9 pass deflections. Meanwhile, he has been instrumental as a tackler, tallying 111 tackles, 10.5 for loss, and 1 forced fumble.

West Virginia is about to discover how instrumental Smith was. One of the prize players in the transfer portal this offseason, Smith landed with Georgia, where he’ll likely slide straight into a defense that suffered substantial losses to the NFL. In the spotlight of the SEC, Smith has the potential to be a standout player this season. His versatility makes him the perfect player to line up in our defensive flex spot.

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