When a freight train comes barreling through, there is little time to react. It is a metaphor all too familiar to quarterbacks at any level.
There are plenty of defensive linemen who can make plays upfield, but only a few of them who excel in that regard and are true difference makers.
Here are the top defensive ends entering the 2013 season:
JADEVEON CLOWNEY (South Carolina): Regarded as not only the top returning defensive player, but the most talented player on either side of the football, the 6-foot-6, 276-pound Clowney is unstoppable. In just two short years in Columbia, he has NFL scouts drooling. Finishing last in the NFL is certainly not a good thing, but this season the silver lining for that unfortunate team will be the ability to grab Clowney. After earning Freshman All-America honors in 2011, Clowney terrorized offensive linemen and quarterbacks alike to the tune of unanimous first-team All-America honors as a sophomore this past season. He won the Hendricks Award as the nation's top defensive end in 2012, finishing with 54 tackles, 23.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks. His tackle, forced fumble and subsequent recovery against Michigan in the Outback Bowl will go down as one of the greatest defensive plays in recent memory.
STEPHON TUITT (Notre Dame): One of the biggest surprises in all of the FBS last season was Notre Dame's run to the BCS Championship Game. The Irish were fueled by one of the nation's stingiest defenses and a lynchpin of the unit was Tuitt. Manti Te'o receive much of the media attention, but it was Tuitt and fellow defensive lineman Louis Nix who freed up Te'o to make plays. A backup as a freshman, the 6-6, 303-pound Tuitt became a force in 2012, earning All- America accolades while amassing 47 total tackles, 12 sacks, three forced fumbles and a 77-yard fumble return for a touchdown. He has the size and versatility to play inside in a 4-3 formation or as an every down end in a 3-4. Another year with statistics like 2012 and Tuitt will probably cut his collegiate career short and move on to the fame and fortune of the NFL.
WILL SUTTON (Arizona State): The 6-1, 288-pound Sutton proved to be extremely hard to block in 2012, earning consensus All-America honors, while being tabbed the Pac-12 Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year. Sutton finished the season with 63 total tackles, 23.5 TFL and 13 sacks. The only knock on this Sun Devil is his size. Despite it, he can play both inside and out and presents real problems for blockers with his burst and exceptional speed. He really made a name for himself as a pass rushing tackle this past season, but is still a bit of a "tweener." His unique skill set should make him a valued commodity to more than one or two NFL teams.
TRENT MURPHY (Stanford): A Third-Team All-American in 2012, the 6-6, 261-pound Murphy was a key part of Stanford's star-studded defense. As a junior, Murphy finished 2012 with 56 tackles, 18 TFL and 10 sacks. A physically superior playmaker, Murphy uses strong technique along with strength to overwhelm would-be blockers. The post-Andrew Luck era didn't see much in terms of a letdown and Stanford's dominant defense, led by Murphy, was a big reason why. David Shaw has another talent-rich defense at his disposal in 2013 and double- digit wins have become the norm on the Farm. Expect Murphy to continue to make plays, as the Cardinal will once again be serious threats in the Pac-12.
SCOTT CRICHTON (Oregon State): There isn't a national buzz surrounding the Beavers like there is for their brethren in Eugene, but the 6-3, 260-pound Crichton has carved out a nice little reputation as one of the top defensive players in the Pac-12 despite not being decked out in flashy attire week after week. A first-team All-Pac-12 selection in 2012, Crichton finished the year with 44 tackles, 17.5 TFL and nine sacks. His ability to improve his technique and become a factor on every play could move him into elite status come NFL draft time.
MORGAN BRESLIN (USC): Yet another Pac-12 star on the rise, this highly touted junior college transfer didn't disappoint last season, although USC as a whole certainly did. The 6-2, 250-pound Breslin showed impressive pass rush skills off the edge, finishing the season with 62 tackles, 19.5 TFL and 13 sacks. That marked the most tackles for loss and sacks by a USC player since 2003 (Kenechi Udeze). A finalist for the Hendricks Award, Breslin earned some All-America honors, while being named to the All-Pac-12 second team. USC's new look on defense and Breslin's lack of size may force him to make his mark at outside linebacker this year, but he is at his best when let loose on opposing quarterbacks. Lane Kiffin would be best served to put this senior in a position to do just that.
AARON LYNCH (South Florida): It may be odd to put a player on this list who didn't even play last season, but that is a testament to the 6-6, 262-pound Lynch's potential. A Notre Dame transfer, Lynch sat out last season in accordance with transfer rules. He showed off his talents in his one season in South Bend, starting six games and earning first-team Freshman All-America honors, finishing with 33 tackles, 7 TFL, 5.5 sacks and one forced fumble. His leaving Notre Dame comes with no red flags, as it was a simple case of him wanting to be closer to home. The Irish's loss is USF's gain, and Lynch has an opportunity to really shine with the Bulls and take his talent to a new level in 2013.
JACKSON JEFFCOAT (Texas): This 6-5, 245-pound Longhorn played just a half- season last year, starting the first six games before suffering a season- ending injury. However, his short sample of work in 2012 was enough to land him on this list, as he still finished second on the team in TFL (11), sacks (four) and forced fumbles (two). In 2011, Jeffcoat earned All-Big 12 second- team honors and was on pace to improve on that in 2012. Jeffcoat has the pedigree as he is the son of former Dallas Cowboy Jim Jeffcoat. With exceptional speed coming off the edge and a non-stop motor to chase down the ball, the younger Jeffcoat is certainly on his way to following in his father's footsteps as a difference maker in the NFL.
JEREMIAH ATTAOCHU (Georgia Tech): A prototypical edge rusher, the 6-3, 240- pound Attaochu is at his best when turning upfield and finding his target. He earned All-ACC honorable mention last season while putting up some impressive numbers, finishing with 69 total tackles, 12 TFL and 10 sacks. Attaochu will make the move from rush linebacker to defensive end as a senior and it should be a a smooth transition, due to his athleticism and burst off the ball. He has gotten better and better every year in Atlanta and could really make a name for himself both in the ACC and on the national level with another jump in production.
HENRY ANDERSON (Stanford): The Cardinal are not lacking at the end position and the 6-6, 282-pound Anderson is as responsible for that as anyone on the roster. In 2012, he saw his first real extended action, starting all 14 games for Stanford and finishing with 51 tackles, 13 TFL and 5.5 sacks. It is a pick- your-poison defense at Stanford with players like Trent Murphy and Ben Gardner commanding attention as well. Favorable assignments should lead to better numbers in 2013 for Anderson, who continues to get better and better.
HONORABLE MENTION: Ben Gardner (Stanford), Cassius Marsh (UCLA), Dominique Easley (Florida), Kareem Martin (North Carolina), James Gayle (Virginia Tech).