Future Power Rankings: College football’s best defenses over the next three years

College football can be cyclical, and the pendulum swung back toward defense in 2021.

Georgia won its first national title in 41 years behind a historically good defense that produced eight picks in last month’s NFL draft, including a record five in the first round. The Big 12, long both celebrated and mocked for its inflated points and yards totals, became a defense-driven league, and featured two top-10 scoring defenses (Baylor and Oklahoma State) in its championship game. Teams with historically strong defenses, such as Utah and Iowa, reached their respective conference championship games. Clemson had its worst offense since 2010 but still won 10 games behind a defense that ranked second nationally in points allowed (14.8 PPG) and third in yards per play allowed (4.44).

A great defense can propel teams to titles or cover up warts. After examining the future power rankings for quarterbacks and offenses, I’ll now use the crystal ball on the top 25 defenses around college football. These rankings assess the 2022, 2023 and 2024 seasons, accounting for current rosters, incoming recruits and transfers, and potential NFL departures. Coaching changes also are a factor, as several prominent coordinators and/or defensive-minded head coaches have changed addresses since the last defense future power rankings appeared in 2021.

The defense rankings contain a bit more variety than the others. Although Georgia and other annual CFP contenders get their due, this list shines a spotlight on a different subset of programs.

Let’s get started.

2021 future defense ranking: 1

Scouting the Tigers: In a close race for the top spot, Clemson leads off the rankings for the second consecutive year. The unit loses two outstanding cornerbacks (Mario Goodrich and Andrew Booth Jr.), mainstays at linebacker (James Skalski, Baylon Spector) and longtime coordinator Brent Venables. Still, the outlook remains extremely promising. Clemson’s defensive line has been a strength through the CFP era and will remain that way, especially in 2022 as All-America candidates Bryan Bresee, Tyler Davis and Myles Murphy all return. The line got a bonus boost as end Xavier Thomas, a two-time third-team All-ACC selection, is back for one final season. There’s veteran depth at end with seniors K.J. Henry and Justin Mascoll, who last season combined for seven sacks and 15 quarterback pressures. Tackle Ruke Orhorhoro in 2021 had 42 tackles, eight for loss, and should continue to add playing time, along with classmate Etinosa Reuben, sophomore Payton Page and others.

First-year defensive coordinator Wes Goodwin will oversee a new-look linebacker group, although Trenton Simpson returns for at least one more year after recording a team-high six sacks and starting 12 games in 2021. Dynamic sophomore Barrett Carter should see a much bigger role, and junior Keith Maguire might be Skalski’s replacement in the middle. Jeremiah Trotter Jr., Clemson’s top-ranked recruit and ESPN’s No. 7 overall player in the 2021 class, will be a big factor in the coming years, and junior Tyler Venables (33 tackles in 2021) is back at nickel. There are short-term questions in the secondary other than safety Andrew Mukuba, the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2021. Clemson will look for Lannden Zanders or Jalyn Phillips to emerge at the other safety spot, while the cornerback group features senior Sheridan Jones (three starts in 2021), sophomore Nate Wiggins, junior Fred Davis and junior Malcolm Greene, who also should see time at nickel. Clemson’s top two defensive recruits for the 2022 class are cornerbacks in Jeadyn Lukus (ESPN’s No. 35 recruit nationally) and Toriano Pride.

2021 future defense ranking: 2

Scouting the Bulldogs: The sheer number of defensive stars departing Athens made it tough to push Georgia to the top line, although I was tempted. The Bulldogs return several standouts, including tackle Jalen Carter, cornerback Kelee Ringo, safety Christopher Smith and linebacker Nolan Smith. Combined with excellent recruiting and a group waiting its turn for playing time, Georgia should be excellent on defense through 2024. The immediate priority is reloading the front seven around players such as Carter, Smith and senior outside linebacker Robert Beal Jr. Although linemen such as juniors Zion Logue, Nazir Stackhouse and Warren Brinson didn’t start in 2021, all played significant snaps, as did senior end Tramel Walthour. Georgia also could try to accelerate talented young players such as incoming freshmen Mykel Williams and Bear Alexander, two of ESPN’s top five tackle prospects in the 2022 class. Smith and Beal (team-high 6.5 sacks in 2021) will lead the outside linebacker group this fall, and sophomore Chaz Chambliss and junior MJ Sherman provide depth. Georgia also adds Jalon Walker and Marvin Jones Jr., two of ESPN’s top seven outside linebacker recruits in 2022.

Inside linebacker is a short-term area to watch after the NFL exits, but sophomore Jamon Dumas-Johnson should become a multiyear starter. Junior Trezmen Marshall and sophomore Smael Mondon Jr., Georgia’s top-rated recruit in 2021 (No. 11 nationally), are also set to take on bigger roles, as is Xavian Sorey Jr.. Georgia’s secondary was the unit’s weakness last year, and loses Lewis Cine, interceptions leader Derion Kendrick and others. Ringo and Smith provide a solid foundation, along with safeties Dan Jackson and William Poole, who combined for six starts in 2021. The depth piece is essential as sophomore cornerback Kamari Lassiter, sophomore safety David Daniel-Sisavanh and others compete for bigger roles. Georgia added an outstanding group of 2022 DB recruits, including ESPN five-star Malaki Starks and top-25 national prospect Jaheim Singletary. The team already has 2023 commitments from top-100 prospects Justyn Rhett, Marcus Washington and Gabriel Harris.

2021 future defense ranking: 4

Scouting the Aggies: After a 16-point jump in last year’s rankings, Texas A&M moves up only one spot but has a chance to keep rising. Aggies fans probably should be disappointed if their team doesn’t lead off these rankings in the next year or two. Few teams have a chance to out-recruit Georgia and Clemson on defense, but Texas A&M has put itself in position after a historic 2022 class. The team signed arguably the most impressive defensive line group ever, which included ESPN’s top two tackles (Walter Nolen and Gabe Brownlow-Dindy) and top two ends (Lebbeus Overton and Shemar Stewart). The class also includes cornerback Denver Harris, ESPN’s No. 25 overall recruit in the class, and two of ESPN’s top three safety prospects in Bryce Anderson and Jacoby Mathews. While not every elite recruit hits and some could end up transferring, Texas A&M has amassed an incredible group that should carry the defense through 2024. The biggest immediate need could be at end, as the Aggies lose All-American end DeMarvin Leal and edge rushers Micheal Clemons and Tyree Johnson. Sophomore Fadil Diggs played behind Clemons last year and should see an increased role, and freshmen Anthony Lucas and Tunmise Adeleye both stood out in spring practice. The tackle spot should be solid with juniors McKinnley Jackson and Isaiah Raikes.

The secondary shapes up well with senior safety Demani Richardson, a three-year starter with 172 career tackles, leading the group. He joins junior safety Antonio Johnson, the team’s leading returning tackler (79). Sophomore Tyreek Chappell will be a multiyear answer at cornerback, and junior cornerback Jaylon Jones started all 12 games in 2021. Sophomore Deuce Harmon should continue to emerge at cornerback, and a number of freshmen, including Harris, Anderson and Smoke Bouie, might enter the mix soon. Sophomore Edgerrin Cooper and senior Andre White Jr. will lead the linebackers after combining for 115 tackles last season, although Texas A&M is looking for more from the group. The Aggies’ 2023 recruiting is off to a good start with cornerback Jayvon Thomas, end Anthony James and others in the fold.

2021 future defense ranking: 3

Scouting the Tide: Alabama’s national title path in 2022 likely hinges on the defense making a small to moderate jump behind a talented front seven. The outlook after 2023 gets a bit murky, as Alabama will lose several standouts, most notably outside linebacker Will Anderson Jr., who collected 17.5 sacks and 34.5 tackles for loss during a breakout 2021 season. But recruiting remains very strong, as Alabama signed five-star defensive end Jeremiah Alexander, ESPN’s top inside linebacker prospect Shawn Murphy and other standouts in the 2022 class. The short-term forecast is excellent. Anderson, a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender, leads the front seven alongside senior linemen DJ Dale and Byron Young, senior linebacker Henry To’o To’o and sophomore linebacker Dallas Turner, who had 8.5 sacks last season and will play through at least 2023. Alabama has good depth such as senior end Justin Eboigbe, and the development of non-seniors such as linemen Tim Smith and Jamil Burroughs, and linebacker Chris Braswell, is worth monitoring. Alabama’s 2022 recruiting haul should fill gaps in 2023 and 2024 with Alexander, Murphy, 370-pound lineman Jaheim Oatis and others.

The secondary also looks solid in the short term as LSU cornerback transfer Eli Ricks joins the group, at least for one season. Kool-Aid McKinstry emerged as a starter at cornerback late in his freshman season and finished with 26 tackles. Senior Khyree Jackson is a veteran option, but Alabama should feature plenty of competition the next few seasons, especially if Tre’Quon Fegans and other young players emerge. Veteran safeties DeMarcco Hellams and Jordan Battle will stabilize the safety spot this fall, and junior Brian Branch returns at the star position after recording a team-high nine pass breakups in 2021. But Alabama will try to build greater depth throughout its secondary with non-seniors such as Malachi Moore. Coach Nick Saban and his staff also could look to the transfer portal for some additional help.

2021 future defense ranking: 9

Scouting the Badgers: Wisconsin’s defense has been one of the most consistently elite units since I started overseeing the future power rankings. The Badgers probably have been underrated, given their production since 2014: third nationally in points allowed (17.1 PPG) and fifth in yards per play allowed (4.76). Changes with personnel and coordinators haven’t impacted Wisconsin, although current playcaller Jim Leonhard has elevated the defense to a new level since his appointment in 2017. “There’s a standard,” coach Paul Chryst told me this spring. Wisconsin loses two excellent linebackers in Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn, and hopes All-Big Ten junior Nick Herbig and others can limit any drop-off. Herbig led Wisconsin in sacks (9) and finished second behind Chenal in tackles for loss (14.5), while forcing two fumbles. He leads an outside linebacker group that includes senior C.J. Goetz but will need others to emerge. The inside linebacker group will lean more on sophomore Jordan Turner, juniors Tatum Grass, junior Maema Njongmeta and Spencer Lytle, and sophomore Jake Chaney.

The defensive line has been able to reload over the years and gets senior nose tackle Keeanu Benton for one more year, alongside senior end Isaiah Mullens. Sophomore end James Thompson Jr. and junior end Rodas Johnson are among those who can lift the unit in 2023. Sophomore safety Hunter Wohler could be a multiyear mainstay after a strong spring and 17 tackles as a freshman. Although the ACL injury to Travian Blaylock stings, senior safety John Torchio tied for the team lead with three interceptions in 2021. But Wisconsin lacks game experience at the position. The Badgers were aggressive in the transfer portal at cornerback, adding Jay Shaw (UCLA), Justin Clark (Toledo) and Cedrick Dort Jr. (Kentucky), who started 25 games for the Wildcats. All three depart in 2023, along with veteran holdover Alexander Smith, so Wisconsin must accelerate non-seniors such as Semar Melvin. Most of Wisconsin’s recent recruiting splashes have come in the front seven.

2021 future defense ranking: 11

Scouting the Irish: Since Notre Dame hired defensive coordinator Mike Elko before the 2017 season, the unit has ranked ninth nationally in points allowed (19.4 PPG) and in the top 20 for most major categories. The past three playcallers — Elko, Clark Lea and Marcus Freeman — have become head coaches, with Freeman fast-tracking into the Notre Dame job after only one season as DC. He and former Miami and Temple coach Al Golden will oversee a defense that loses standout Kyle Hamilton and veteran linemen Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, but returns a good group at all three levels. The line received a nice postseason boost as sacks leader Isaiah Foskey returns for one more season, alongside senior end Justin Ademilola, promising junior end Rylie Mills and veteran tackles Jayson Ademilola, Howard Cross III, Jacob Lacey and Harvard transfer Chris Smith, a first-team All-Ivy League selection in 2021. The development of non-seniors such as Mills, Nana Osafo-Mensah, Tyson Ford and Jason Onye will be significant for 2023 and 2024. Notre Dame also has a commitment from Keon Keeley, ESPN’s top-rated defensive end and No. 23 overall recruit in the 2023 class, and two other ESPN 300 line recruits (Brenan Vernon and Boubacar Traore).

Linebacker should become more of a strength under Freeman, a former Ohio State linebacker who has coached the position extensively. JD Bertrand, who led Notre Dame with 101 tackles last season, has two years of eligibility left, as does Jack Kiser (eight starts in 2021) and Marist Liufau, who returns from a major ankle injury. Talented junior Jordan Botelho enters a big year after showing some flashes in 2021. Hamilton is irreplaceable, but Notre Dame added a big piece through the transfer portal in Brandon Joseph, an All-American at Northwestern in 2020. Joseph and veterans DJ Brown and Houston Griffith stabilize the position through 2022, while Ramon Henderson has multiple seasons of eligibility left. Cornerback also projects decently as TaRiq Bracy returns for a final season alongside juniors Cam Hart and Clarence Lewis, who have combined for 20 pass breakups in their careers. Secondary depth after 2023 is worth watching, especially given Notre Dame’s strong recruiting push under Freeman.

2021 future defense ranking: 13

Scouting the Hawkeyes: Can we start calling Iowa low-key DBU? Coordinator Phil Parker and his group aren’t the type to ask for labels, but they’ve produced the Big Ten’s Defensive Back of the Year five times in the 12-year history of the award, including four times since 2015. The most recent winner, cornerback Riley Moss, returns to lead an Iowa defense that helped the team reach the Big Ten championship game last fall. Moss, senior safety Kaevon Merriweather and junior cornerback Jermari Harris are the main holdovers for a secondary that loses star power but has a history of reloading. Harris matched Moss with four interceptions last season and could become the secondary’s next star. Iowa will need other non-seniors to emerge beginning this season, including junior safeties Quinn Schulte and Sebastian Castro, and sophomore cornerback Cooper DeJean. Incoming freshman safety Xavier Nwankpa is Iowa’s top-rated 2022 recruit (ESPN’s No. 9 safety and No. 155 overall prospect).

Linebacker is undoubtedly Iowa’s biggest immediate strength. Seniors Jack Campbell and Seth Benson both could be national awards candidates after combining for 248 tackles, three interceptions, 8.5 tackles for loss and 14 quarterback pressures last season. Junior Jestin Jacobs likely will start alongside them this fall, and he and other non-seniors — Castro, Jay Higgins, Kyler Fisher — should lead the group in 2023. The continued development of younger linebackers such as Karson Sharar and Jaden Harrell will be key. Iowa’s front four also projects well with veterans such as Logan Lee, Noah Shannon, Joe Evans and John Waggoner all back. Lee is the only non-senior, though, and Iowa will look for sophomore tackles Lukas Van Ness and Yahya Black, sophomore end Deontae Craig and others to keep taking on bigger roles. After Nwankpa, Iowa’s next highest-rated 2022 recruits are defensive ends, including ESPN 300 selection Aaron Graves.

2021 future defense ranking: 7

Scouting the Bearcats: Coach Luke Fickell’s defense delivered in 2021, propelling Cincinnati all the way to the College Football Playoff. As expected, the unit loses plenty of star power, including six NFL draft picks and standouts at all three levels. But Fickell and his staff have prepared for this transition, and the defense likely will avoid any significant backsliding. The front seven projects well, especially since linemen Malik Vann and Jabari Taylor returned for their fifth seasons. Virginia transfer Jowon Briggs started six games in his first season with UC, and retains multiple years of eligibility and the skills to play both inside and outside. Cincinnati’s priority is building depth for the fall but especially 2023 and 2024. Junior Eric Phillips appeared in nine games last season, but other younger linemen will be seeing their first significant action this fall. The team’s only ESPN 300 recruit for 2022 is a defensive lineman in Tampa product Mario Eugenio.

Junior Deshawn Pace likely will lead the linebacker group through 2023 after recording a team-high four interceptions to go with 94 tackles (9.5 for loss) last fall. Senior Ty Van Fossen, who had 70 tackles and made 10 starts, is also back following nine starts in 2021. Sophomore Jaheim Thomas and senior Wilson Huber (three sacks) both played a lot last fall. Sophomore Jack Dingle emerged this spring and should help supply depth for several years. Cincinnati’s secondary reload will be fascinating as All-Americans Sauce Gardner, Coby Bryant and others depart. Arquon Bush (42 tackles, three interceptions last fall) will occupy one cornerback spot through 2022, and sophomore Todd Bumphis ended the spring strong and could become a multiyear starter. Seniors Taj Ward and Justin Harris provide veteran depth, while Cincinnati has recruited well with Bumphis, Oliver Bridges and J.Q. Hardaway. Safety Ja’Von Hicks (29 career starts) is back for one final season, and Cincinnati will complement him with veteran Jacob Dingle and sophomores Bryon Threats and Armorion Smith.

2021 future defense ranking: 8

Scouting the Tigers: The not-so-great news is the unit will have its fourth playcaller in as many seasons this fall. The better news is coordinator Matt House comes in with a strong reputation, and inherits enough talent to generate immediate results. Ed Orgeron’s parting gift to LSU is a defensive line that could become one of the SEC’s best in 2022. Junior end BJ Ojulari led the team in both sacks (7) and quarterback pressures (9) last season, and will pair with senior Ali Gaye to form a formidable pass-rushing tandem. Senior Soni Fonua, who had 6.5 tackles for loss in nine games, adds short-term help, while incoming freshman Quency Wiggins, an ESPN 300 recruit, should work his way into the rotation immediately. Sophomore tackle Maason Smith was as advertised in 2021, recording four sacks in nine games. Smith and junior Jaquelin Roy (six tackles for loss, two fumble recoveries last fall) could occupy the starting tackle spots through 2023, but LSU has other options such as sophomore Mekhi Wingo, a Missouri transfer who earned freshman All-SEC honors in 2021. Redshirt freshman Bryce Langston is another interesting long-term option for what projects as an excellent group.

The secondary will have a distinctly different flavor, especially at cornerback, as LSU added transfers Jarrick Bernard-Converse (Oklahoma State), Mekhi Garner (Louisiana) and Greg Brooks Jr. (Arkansas). The three bring 97 career starts to LSU, and Garner could play through 2023. But there will be competition from younger players such as Sage Ryan and Laterrance Welch, who were both top-100 recruits in their respective classes. LSU has better depth at safety with seniors Jay Ward and Joe Foucha for one more year, and Major Burns (25 tackles, one interception in five games last fall) and others available for multiple seasons. Derrick Davis Jr., ESPN’s top-rated safety in the 2022 class, appeared in only one game last season, and redshirt freshman Matthew Langlois turned in a strong spring. Senior Micah Baskerville should lead the linebackers this fall, but the competition elsewhere will be fascinating. Mike Jones Jr. (34 tackles in 2021) has two years of eligibility left, but sophomores and freshmen will factor here, such as Greg Penn III, Virginia transfer West Weeks and Harold Perkins, ESPN’s top outside linebacker and No. 4 overall recruit for 2022.

2021 future defense ranking: 24

Scouting the Wolverines: Michigan’s defense earned a substantial jump in the rankings after helping the team to its first outright Big Ten title since 2003 and first-ever CFP appearance. The question is whether the unit can sustain and avoid a drop-off after losing standouts such as Aidan Hutchinson, the No. 2 overall pick in last month’s NFL draft, fellow end David Ojabo, safety Dax Hill, linebacker Josh Ross and others. Michigan also has a new coordinator in Jesse Minter, although he will run essentially the same system as predecessor Mike Macdonald. The long-term outlook remains strong, but Michigan has a lot to address this fall, and will lean on players such as sophomore linebackers Junior Colson and Nikhai Hill-Green, veteran cornerbacks D.J. Turner and Gemon Green, and safety R.J. Moten. Linebacker should be the most stable spot if Michigan can build around Colson and Hill-Green with players such as senior Michael Barrett and junior Kalel Mullings. The team also has a commitment from Raylen Wilson, ESPN’s No. 5 outside linebacker and No. 56 overall recruit in the 2023 class.

The line revamp will get most of the immediate focus. The interior depth projects well with seniors Mazi Smith, junior Kris Jenkins and promising young players such as freshman Mason Graham. Senior ends Mike Morris and Taylor Upshaw will see their playing time increase with Hutchinson and Ojabo gone. Michigan needs others, such as sophomore Jaylen Harrell and junior Braiden McGregor, the team’s top recruit in 2020, to emerge this fall and beyond. The addition of Derrick Moore, ESPN’s No. 4 end and No. 22 recruit for 2022, improves the long-term forecast. Green and Turner stabilize the cornerback position, but much of the intrigue will be on newcomers, including Mike Sainristil, the veteran wide receiver who worked as a defensive back this spring. Michigan added Will Johnson, ESPN’s No. 4 cornerback and No. 23 overall recruit in the 2022 class. Redshirt freshman Ja’Den McBurrows, who missed spring practice following surgery, should add depth. Safeties R.J. Moten and Rod Moore both have multiple years of eligibility left, as do Quinten Johnson, Caden Kolesar and Makari Paige.

2021 future defense ranking: 5

Scouting the Buckeyes: Although FPR is a projection and I’m confident the Buckeyes’ defense will make significant strides under new coordinator Jim Knowles, a drop is warranted. This unit has been mediocre to bad in three of the past four seasons, despite playing in a league not stacked with elite offenses. Coach Ryan Day made an excellent choice in Knowles, a veteran playcaller who not only improved Oklahoma State’s defense but changed the way the program won games in recent years. Talent is never the issue in Columbus, and Knowles inherits a depth chart that soon could blossom. Knowles’ impact might be felt most in the secondary, as Ohio State often will play five defensive backs. Safety Tanner McCalister followed Knowles from Oklahoma State, where he started 23 games the past two seasons. McCalister is pegged to start at nickel alongside junior Ronnie Hickman and senior Josh Proctor, who suffered a season-ending leg injury in Week 2 last fall. Sophomores Kourt Williams II and Cameron Martinez, who combined for 50 tackles in 2021, will be in the rotation and help more in 2023, along with dynamic freshman Kye Stokes. Sophomore Denzel Burke and senior Cameron Brown return at cornerback, where Ohio State seeks a bit more depth with sophomore Jordan Hancock and others. Sonny Styles headlined Ohio State’s recruiting class — ESPN rated him as the nation’s No. 15 overall recruit — and could fill a safety/linebacker hybrid role under Knowles.

There will be more competition at linebacker after a mostly subpar performance in 2021. Juniors Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers return and should start, but senior Teradja Mitchell, junior Cody Simon, redshirt freshman Reid Carrico and others are in the mix for typically two positions in Knowles’ scheme. Ohio State also signed ESPN five-star recruit C.J. Hicks and four-star prospect Gabe Powers in the 2022 class. Veteran line coach Larry Johnson could soon field an excellent group, especially if sophomore ends J.T. Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer accelerate their development this fall to complement seniors Zach Harrison and Javontae Jean-Baptiste. Seniors Taron Vincent and Jerron Cage will solidify the interior this fall, while sophomores Tyleik Williams and Ty Hamilton develop for the future. Styles and Hicks headline an excellent 2022 defensive recruiting haul, and Ohio State has a commitment from ESPN 300 junior cornerback Dijon Johnson.

2021 future defense ranking: 16

Scouting the Utes: Every few years, Utah’s defense seemingly has an exodus of NFL prospects, and then manages to reload. The Utes will face the same situation entering 2022 after All-American linebacker Devin Lloyd, first-team All-Pac-12 defensive end Mika Tafua and others move on. Although Utah loses standouts at all three levels, the secondary projects well in the short term with third-year cornerback Clark Phillips III and others returning. Phillips led Utah in forced fumbles (2) and pass breakups (14), tied for third in tackles (63) and ranked second in interceptions (2). Safety Cole Bishop, who had three sacks and nine tackles for loss in 2021, is another non-senior who could anchor the secondary for the next few years, along with cornerback JaTravis Broughton, who has seven career starts but missed most of last season with injury. Sophomore cornerback Faybian Marks, who had 25 tackles last season, is another multiyear building block, along with junior cornerback Malone Mataele. The bottom line is coach Kyle Whittingham and defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley have options in the back end, especially when some cornerbacks return from injuries.

Linebacker is the key group to watch in 2022, as both Lloyd and Nephi Sewell depart. Utah went to the transfer portal for Florida’s Mohamoud Diabate, who started 17 games and recorded 176 tackles, and Stanford‘s Gabe Reid, who had a team-high 10 tackles for loss last season. Sophomore Karene Reid will be a factor for the next few years after a 45-tackle performance in 2021. Utah also has a nice young core as freshmen Justin Medlock and Lander Barton stood out this spring, reflecting the program’s recruiting uptick at the position. The line projects well for the next few seasons with sophomore end Van Fillinger and sophomore tackle Junior Tafuna, who combined for 10 sacks and 15 tackles for loss last season. Senior tackle Devin Kaufusi has started two games in each of the past two seasons. Utah’s depth hinges on the development of several sophomores, including end Miki Suguturaga and tackle Aliki Vimahi. Three of Utah’s top four 2022 recruits are defenders, including Barton, an ESPN 300 prospect.

2021 future defense ranking: Not ranked

Scouting the Bears: The Big 12 is trending more toward defense, and Baylor finds itself in a really strong position after a surprise conference championship run under second-year coach Dave Aranda. Along with veteran coordinator Ron Roberts, Aranda should continue to see his vision reflected in how the defense attacks. Baylor loses standouts such as safety Jalen Pitre and linebacker Terrel Bernard, but returns one of the nation’s more formidable lines and other strengths. Few teams entering the fall will have a better combination of size, experience and skill in the interior. Baylor brings back juniors Siaki Ika and Gabe Hall, who combined for 10 sacks and 13 tackles for loss last season. Seniors Cole Maxwell and Brayden Utley also return, and Baylor added Jaxon Player, a two-time All-AAC selection at Tulsa who led the team with 14 tackles for loss in 2021. Baylor will need some post-2022 depth, especially if Ika and/or Hall don’t return. Linebacker also projects well, as senior Dillon Doyle and junior Matt Jones return after combining for 131 tackles last year. Sophomore Garmon Randolph made four starts last year and should take on a bigger role, along with junior Will Williams. Baylor also landed a commitment from ESPN 300 junior Christian Brathwaite.

The secondary is the immediate area of focus/concern, as Pitre and fellow safety JT Woods leave voids at safety. Christian Morgan‘s return will help, as he started 10 games in 2021 and recorded six pass breakups. But Baylor must develop around the senior with AJ McCarty, Devin Neal, nickel Lorando Johnson and others. The Bears regained veteran cornerbacks Al Walcott and Mark Milton for another season after both started games in 2021. The team’s top two defensive recruits are pegged for the secondary in ESPN four-star prospects Alfonzo Allen and Devyn Bobby. Baylor should soon become a destination for top regional recruits and transfer defenders because of Aranda’s reputation.

2021 future defense ranking: 6

Scouting the Ducks: The unit has been on a solid trajectory but enters a transition period with coach Dan Lanning’s arrival and the departure of standout end Kayvon Thibodeaux, playmaking safety Verone McKinley III and others. Lanning proved himself as both a tactician and a recruiter at Georgia, and should continue predecessor Mario Cristobal’s momentum in attracting top defenders to Eugene. The immediate forecast is a bit murky, but Oregon returns a foundational piece in sophomore linebacker Noah Sewell, who last fall had a team-high 114 tackles, ranked second behind Thibodeaux in sacks (4), and tied for the team lead in forced fumbles (2). Sewell is surrounded by non-senior linebackers whom Oregon needs to emerge, such as junior Mase Funa, redshirt freshman Justin Flowe, sophomores Keith Brown and Treven Ma’ae and others. Sophomore Bradyn Swinson is listed at defensive end but could play outside linebacker for Lanning and coordinator Tosh Lupoi after recording three sacks and making a start in 2021.

There’s some experience up front with senior tackle Popo Aumavae, junior end Brandon Dorlus and sophomore tackle Keyon Ware-Hudson, but all three missed time this spring following surgeries, allowing others to get more field time. The development of players such as sophomore tackle Sua’ava Poti, sophomore end Brandon Buckner and junior tackle Sam Taimani, a transfer from Washington, will help the long-term depth. Safeties Bennett Williams (three interceptions in 2021), Jamal Hill (seven starts in 2021) and Steve Stephens IV (eight starts) will lead a somewhat new-look secondary this fall. The cornerback spot has new faces, including Colorado transfer Christian Gonzalez and fellow sophomores Trikweze Bridges (three starts in 2021) and Dontae Manning (18 tackles as a reserve). Oregon should get most of its DB rotation back next fall, and added ESPN 300 recruits Jahlil Florence and Trejon Williams.

2021 future defense ranking: Not ranked

Scouting the Cowboys: The 2021 season showed that Oklahoma State could win primarily because of its defense, which finished fifth nationally and helped the team to a Fiesta Bowl title and a No. 7 finish. Oklahoma State now must try to maintain the trajectory after losing Jim Knowles and several standout players who left because of graduation or the transfer portal. Coach Mike Gundy made a bold move in hiring former Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason to replace Knowles. Mason, who built his reputation as Stanford’s defensive coordinator and spent last year at Auburn, inherits a group that projects well up front. This fall, Oklahoma State will lean on its line, which returns sophomore Collin Oliver, who earned Big 12 Freshman of the Year honors after recording 11.5 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss in 2021. Oliver is joined by veteran ends Brock Martin and Tyler Lacy, who combined for 12.5 sacks, 25.5 tackles for loss and 15 quarterback pressures last season. If Trace Ford stays healthy — he missed all of last season after earning honorable mention All-Big 12 honors in 2019 and 2020 — the Pokes’ pass rush could be scary. Oliver, Ford and Kody Walterscheid should carry the ends through 2023. Oklahoma State isn’t as deep at tackle but should be covered for 2022 with Brendon Evers and Sione Asi both back. The group will need redshirt freshman Aden Kelley and others to emerge for 2023 and 2024.

Linebacker is the group to watch entering 2022 as the Malcolm RodriguezDevin Harper combination will be missed. Several reserves should take on bigger roles, such as junior Mason Cobb, but Oklahoma State likely will lean on Xavier Benson, a starter at Texas Tech in 2019 who spent last season at Tyler Junior College in Texas. The Pokes have only one senior linebacker in Lamont Bishop and will look for growth from younger players such as Donovan Stephens and Nickolas Martin. Cornerback should be solid with a group of non-seniors that includes juniors Korie Black and Jabbar Muhammad, the likely starters, as well as junior Demarco Jones and De’kelvion Beamon, a 2022 recruit who reclassified and played a game last fall. Senior Jason Taylor II, who had 48 tackles and two interceptions last season, leads a mostly revamped safety group alongside Thomas Harper and several other seniors. Redshirt freshman Kendal Daniels, a former Texas A&M signee, is likely the future at the position, although Mason will look for other non-seniors to develop this fall.

2021 future defense ranking: Not ranked

Scouting the Aztecs: FPR isn’t perfect. Among the major mistakes I made last year was omitting San Diego State’s defense from the list. Lesson learned. The Aztecs have been among the nation’s most consistently stifling defenses, ranking fifth nationally in both points allowed and yards allowed since 2018. The unit returns seven starters and adds several potential impact transfers, including lineman Justus Tavai (Hawai’i) and linebacker Cooper McDonald (Washington). Experience will be a theme for the 2022 defense, especially up front. Senior Jonah Tavai is back for his final season after finishing second on the team in both sacks (8.5) and tackles for loss (14). His brother Justus made 19 starts at Hawai’i and finished his career with 72 tackles (10 for loss). Fellow senior Keshawn Banks is another formidable pass-rusher, racking up five sacks and 14 quarterback pressures in 2021. Together, they must fill the production void from losing Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year Cameron Thomas. SDSU also added Tulsa transfer Deven Lamp, a likely reserve. The outlook for 2023 hinges on non-seniors such as Garret Fountain (three sacks, six tackles for loss last season), Nassir Sims and Wyatt Draeger.

The linebacker group also will feature a brother pairing this fall as junior Cooper, who started 10 games at Washington, joins his brother Caden McDonald, a senior who had 49 tackles (6.5 for loss) last season. They will work alongside two other seniors in Michael Shawcroft and Seyddrick Lakalaka, who combined for 99 tackles (11 for loss) last fall. Other than Cooper McDonald, San Diego State needs non-seniors such as Vai Kaho and Zyrus Fiaseu to emerge. A competitive secondary has a nice balance between seniors (safeties Patrick McMorris and Cedarious Barfield, cornerback Dallas Branch) and underclassmen such as junior cornerback Noah Tumblin and sophomore cornerbacks Noah Avinger and Dezjhon Malone. SDSU lost some talented defensive backs after 2021 (Trenton Thompson, Tayler Hawkins) and more will exit after this year. Developing younger safeties such as Jatavious Magee will be important.

2021 future defense ranking: 17

Scouting the Lions: After a rough 2020 season for all three phases, Penn State’s defense rebounded nicely last fall to finish sixth nationally in points allowed (17.3). Coordinator Brent Pry left for the head-coaching job at Virginia Tech and the unit lost several standouts, including top pass-rusher Arnold Ebiketie and safety Jaquan Brisker. Coach James Franklin replaced Pry with Manny Diaz, the former Miami coach, who inherited a group with the talent to maintain a good trajectory this fall and beyond. Penn State’s Linebacker U label will be tested after the group loses Ellis Brooks, Brandon Smith and Jesse Luketa, who combined for 242 tackles (21 for loss) last fall. Third-year sophomore Curtis Jacobs will lead the group for at least another year after a productive 2021 season. Senior Jonathan Sutherland brings plenty of experience, mostly as a reserve, as does Charlie Katshir. Underclassmen such as sophomore Tyler Elsdon, Kobe King and Dominic DeLuca, who shined during the spring game, could work their way into the mix.

The secondary could become the unit’s strength in 2022, although Brisker will be missed. Ji’Ayir Brown had six interceptions last fall — most by a Penn State player since 2006 — and will return to start his final season. There will be competition next to him with non-seniors such as Keaton Ellis, Jaylen Reed, Zakee Wheatley and others. PSU signed two ESPN 300 safeties (Mehki Flowers, Cristian Driver) in the 2022 class. Junior Joey Porter Jr. should occupy a starting cornerback spot for at least another year, while sophomore Kalen King, junior Daequan Hardy and others will compete alongside him. Ebiketie’s pass-rushing will be missed, but Penn State’s defensive line wasn’t the same after an injury to P.J. Mustipher, who returns for a final season to solidify the interior. Coziah Izzard (21 tackles, two sacks in 2021) is a multiyear option at tackle, along with Amin Vanover. There’s decent depth at end with senior Nick Tarburton, junior Smith Vilbert, sophomore Zuriah Fisher and junior Adisa Isaac, who returns from injury. PSU also added Dani Dennis-Sutton, ESPN’s No. 9 end and No. 80 recruit in the 2022 class.

2021 future defense ranking: Not ranked

Scouting the Wildcats: As with San Diego State, Kentucky’s defense being left out of the last defense ranking was a major oversight on my part. Since 2018, the Wildcats rank 15th nationally in points allowed and 12th in pass defense. Despite a push from LSU, defensive coordinator Brad White remained in Lexington, where he and coach Mark Stoops continue to build one of the SEC’s most consistent units. There are some short-term questions after All-SEC end Joshua Paschal and others depart, but Kentucky still projects very well through 2022. Linebacker will be the strength this fall, as Kentucky brings back proven players such as DeAndre Square and Jacquez Jones. White needs sophomore Trevin Wallace and junior D’Eryk Jackson to continue their development for 2023. Junior J.J. Weaver is set to become Kentucky’s premier pass-rusher after recording a team-high six sacks last fall playing with Paschal. There’s good depth on the line edges with senior Jordan Wright (12 career starts, 15.5 tackles for loss) and sophomore Tre’vonn Rybka. The interior line boasts several solid non-seniors, including juniors Justin Rogers and Josaih Hayes, who combined for 30 tackles in 2021. Sophomore Octavious Oxendine and redshirt freshman Kahlil Saunders both showed production despite limited game opportunities last fall.

Cornerback could be a short-term issue for Kentucky, which returns junior Carrington Valentine but needs others, such as sophomores Andru Phillips and Maxwell Hairston, to emerge this fall. The recent addition of Ole Miss transfer Keidron Smith (224 tackles, five forced fumbles, five interceptions with the Rebels) should help. Fifth-year senior safety Tyrell Ajian returns for his third full season as a starter, while junior Jalen Geiger started two games in 2021. Geiger and younger players such as sophomore Jordan Lovett will stabilize the position in 2023. Kentucky signed a nice group of four-star defenders in the 2022 class, including ESPN 300 prospects Tyreese Fearbry and Keaten Wade.

2021 future defense ranking: 21

Scouting the Blazers: Few things in college football are as guaranteed as Bill Clark producing formidable defenses and putting UAB in contention for league titles. Since 2018, UAB has won two Conference USA championships and played for a third, riding a defense that ranked sixth nationally in points allowed and 14th in points allowed over the span. The Blazers also ranked in the top 10 nationally in sacks and pass defense. To sustain the trajectory in 2022, UAB will lean on a strong linebacker group and try to reload up front after losing Alex Wright, Antonio Moultrie, Kris Moll and others. Senior linebacker Noah Wilder returns after leading UAB with 93 tackles to go along with an interception last season. He will be joined by fellow veterans Deshaun Oliver Jr. and Kyle Harrell. Oliver can return in 2023 and might lead the group alongside fellow junior Michael Fairbanks II, who had 25 tackles last season, junior Nikia Eason Jr. and Alabama transfer Jackson Bratton (ESPN 300 recruit in 2020).

UAB’s linebacker lineup should help as the front finds its way this fall. Senior edge Kelle Sanders returns after recording 30 tackles and two sacks in 2021, but the Blazers are seeking bigger contributions from junior tackles Kevin Penn and Fish McWilliams, and senior Isaiah Forte. The secondary projects extremely well in the short term as UAB brings back a lot, namely senior safety Grayson Cash, senior cornerback Starling Thomas V, junior safety Keondre Swoopes and senior safety Will Boler. Cash had a team-high three interceptions and earned second-team All-Conference USA honors in 2021, while the others were honorable mention selections. Senior cornerback CD Daniels also returns after starting five games last season, and veteran reserve Devodric Bynum is back. The back end will be reloading in 2023, but the track record suggests UAB will remain strong there.

2021 future defense ranking: Not ranked

Scouting the Wolfpack: The hype continues to build for NC State entering the 2022 season, as coach Dave Doeren has assembled a team that can push for the school’s first ACC title since 1979. Although quarterback Devin Leary and the offense get most of the attention, the defense could be very good this fall, and possibly for the next few seasons. NC State ranked second in the league in defense last fall and returns several key pieces, including first-team All-ACC honorees Drake Thomas, Tanner Ingle and Cory Durden. Each man will lead one level of the defense this fall, and Thomas could play through 2023. Thomas and Payton Wilson, who was on the national awards radar in 2021 before an early-season shoulder injury, form one of the nation’s best linebacker tandems. They join senior Isaiah Moore, who had an excellent start to 2021 before a season-ending knee injury. Sophomore Devon Betty, who started the final four games and recorded 39 tackles (7.5 for loss), will be a key contributor for the next few years. So will junior Jaylon Scott, who started six games in 2021. NC State added ESPN 300 linebacker recruit Jordan Poole in 2021 and four-star linebacker recruit Torren Wright in the 2022 class.

Ingle leads a veteran secondary also featuring seniors Derrek Pitts Jr. and Tyler Baker-Williams, who combined for four interceptions and 10 pass breakups last season. Safety Cyrus Fagan also returns from injury and brings some starting experience. The secondary’s post-2022 outlook will depend on non-seniors such as sophomore cornerback Shyheim Battle, who had two interceptions and six pass breakups last season, junior safety Jakeen Harris (seven starts in 2021), sophomore cornerback Aydan White and possibly freshman Jackson Vick. Durden will anchor the front alongside junior end Savion Jackson and sophomore tackle C.J. Clark, who should be multiyear cornerstones. Sophomores Davin Vann and Joshua Harris provide some insurance at tackle, but NC State will need to boost the end spot for when Durden departs. Redshirt freshman Travali Price earned strong reviews this spring and could contribute more.

2021 future defense ranking: 12

Scouting the Gators: Florida is one of the tougher teams to project after so many changes, on both its roster and the coaching staff. But the foundation on defense, combined with a promising start to recruiting, vaults the Gators into the rankings for the first time in this year’s FPR series. Florida has reliable elements at all three levels, starting with tackle Gervon Dexter and rush end Brenton Cox Jr., who led the team in sacks (8.5), tackles for loss (14.5) and quarterback pressures (14). The development of others will be significant, particularly non-seniors such as end Princely Umanmielen, tackle Jalen Lee, nose Desmond Watson and end Tyreak Sapp. Florida signed ESPN 300 defensive tackle Chris McClellan in the 2022 class. Senior linebacker Ventrell Miller, who started 21 games in 2019 and 2020 before injury limited him to just two last fall, will anchor the defensive midsection alongside senior Amari Burney (44 tackles last season). Beyond 2022, redshirt freshman Scooby Williams and junior Diwun Black figure to be bigger factors, and Florida brings in Shemar James, an ESPN 300 recruit.

First-year coach Billy Napier inherits talent in the secondary such as senior safety Trey Dean III, the team’s tackles leader (92) in 2021, alongside interceptions leader Rashad Torrence II, who is just a sophomore. Nickel safety Tre’Vez Johnson is another sophomore, and Jadarrius Perkins has multiple seasons of eligibility left. The cornerback group includes Jason Marshall Jr., ESPN’s top-rated cornerback and No. 44 overall recruit in 2021, fellow sophomores Avery Helm and Jaydon Hill, and other non-seniors. Florida will bring in Kamari Wilson, ESPN’s top-rated safety and No. 18 overall recruit in the 2022 class, and should make a dent in its first full recruiting cycle under Napier.

2021 future defense ranking: 18

Scouting the Cyclones: The ISU program could be entering a transition year after losing key pieces at nearly every position. The defense wasn’t spared, as standouts such as linebacker Mike Rose, end Eyioma Uwazurike and safety Greg Eisworth II departed Ames. But the Cyclones also retained key personnel, including defensive coordinator Jon Heacock, whom Notre Dame pursued for the same role. ISU got a huge boost when end Will McDonald IV, a third-team AP All-America selection with a Big 12-leading 11.5 sacks and five forced fumbles, announced he would return for a final season. Defensive back Anthony Johnson Jr., who has earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors in each of the past three years, will rejoin Johnson Jr., linebackers O’Rien Vance and Gerry Vaughn, safety Beau Freyler and others. The back end should be solid with Johnson Jr., who has shifted from cornerback to safety, Freyler, junior cornerback T.J. Tampa (five starts last season), sophomore Myles Purchase, senior Tayvonn Kyle and others, possibly including freshman Trevon Howard. Freyler and Tampa likely will lead the group in 2023.

McDonald and senior tackle Isaiah Lee, who has started 11 games in the past two seasons, will anchor the line in the short term. ISU adds Minnesota transfer MJ Anderson, returns redshirt junior Blake Peterson, and will look for younger players such as J.R. Singleton and Joey Petersen to emerge this fall. Incoming freshman defensive tackle Hunter Deyo is Iowa State’s only ESPN 300 recruit in the 2022 class. Despite losing Rose and leading tackler Jake Hummel, the Cyclones return experience at linebacker with Vance and Vaughn, who combined to start 14 games last season. Colby Reeder, a 25-year-old transfer from Delaware, adds more experience to the group. The key will be what happens in 2023 and 2024, putting the spotlight on younger players such as Hunter Zenzen and Myles Mendeszoon.

2021 future defense ranking: 10

Scouting the Tigers: Auburn is one of the more difficult teams to forecast after the events of the winter. I have long been bullish on the Tigers’ defense, ranking it ninth in the 2020 FPR and 10th last year. The unit’s on-field performance in 2021 was decent, as Auburn allowed more than 24 points just three times. But after Auburn’s poor finish to the season, followed by the university’s inquiry into coach Bryan Harsin, and Mason’s departure to Oklahoma State, any forecast beyond 2022 is understandably murky. Still, the Tigers’ personnel jumps out, especially in the front seven. Auburn returns top pass-rusher Derick Hall, who led the team in both sacks (9) and tackles for loss (12.5) last season. Defensive end Colby Wooden (five sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss in 2021) also returns and has two seasons of eligibility left. Oregon transfer Jayson Jones is a big body (6-foot-6, 328 pounds) in the interior and has only sophomore eligibility, while Akron transfer Marcus Harris is just a junior. Auburn also gets Eku Leota (seven sacks, 10 tackles for loss) for one more year, and added defensive tackle Jeffrey M’Ba, ESPN’s top-rated junior college prospect for 2022.

Linebacker Owen Pappoe enters his final year at Auburn after being limited to five games last season. Pappoe, who has 163 career tackles, headlines a group also returning juniors Wesley Steiner and Cam Riley and North Carolina transfer Eugene Asante. Auburn also adds Robert Woodyard, ESPN’s No. 125 overall prospect in the class. The Tigers lose Roger McCreary and Smoke Monday in the secondary but return several non-seniors with starting experience, including junior cornerbacks Zion Puckett and Jaylin Simpson, and sophomore nickel Donovan Kaufman. Senior cornerback Nehemiah Pritchett also is back, and Auburn hit the portal for Oregon cornerback D.J. James. Several young defensive backs could be factors, including ESPN 300 recruits JaDarian Rhym, Austin Ausberry and Caleb Wooden.

2021 future defense ranking: 19

Scouting the Sooners: I don’t love Oklahoma’s personnel on defense and thought the unit would be further along than it was at the end of last season. But the presence of new coach Brent Venables, who served as a defensive coordinator at OU from 1999 to 2011 before a highly successful playcalling run at Clemson, keeps the Sooners in the top 25. Venables is more than capable of restoring Oklahoma’s reputation on defense, especially in a changing Big 12 and during the transition to the SEC. The Sooners will become a bigger threat to add top defensive recruits and transfers, as Venables showed by landing cornerback Gentry Williams, ESPN’s top-rated in-state prospect and No. 53 overall recruit for 2022. OU must overcome key losses in the front seven — Brian Asamoah, Nik Bonitto, Perrion Winfrey and Isaiah Thomas. The team will lean on junior lineman Jalen Redmond to grow as a pass-rusher, but there will be plenty of competition elsewhere up front. Venables has some veteran options in junior Reggie Grimes, senior Josh Ellison and Marcus Stripling, as well as transfers such as nose tackle Jeffery Johnson (Tulane) and Jonah Laulu (Hawai’i).

Senior DaShaun White (36 career starts) headlines a linebacker group with several question marks. Sophomore Danny Stutsman could be a multiyear answer in the middle, while junior Shane Whitter and several younger players, including ESPN four-star recruit Jaren Kanak, will compete for time. How quickly Venables turns to freshmen such as Kanak and Kip Lewis will be interesting. Journeyman senior T.D. Roof, son of new OU coordinator Ted Roof, could help with short-term depth. Who plays where in the secondary could be an evolution, although juniors Key Lawrence, Woodi Washington and D.J. Graham will see time, in addition to transfers Trey Morrison (North Carolina), C.J. Coldon (Wyoming) and Kani Walker (Louisville). Other than Morrison and returning starter Justin Broiles, Oklahoma’s secondary rotation is filled with non-seniors, including sophomore safety Billy Bowman. The new staff also could show more willingness to fast-track young players such as Williams.

2021 future defense ranking: Not ranked

Scouting the Broncos: Coach Andy Avalos not surprisingly has started to upgrade Boise State’s defense, which allowed only 19 points per game in his first season. Avalos, a former all-conference linebacker and defensive coordinator for the Broncos, will continue to focus on the unit he knows best. The defense could take a big step in 2022 as many key pieces return, especially in the front seven. Boise State is in depth-building mode more than trying to fill glaring holes on its depth chart. The secondary returns all five players who recorded multiple interceptions in 2022, led by senior safeties JL Skinner and Tyreque Jones, and senior cornerbacks Tyric LeBeauf, Caleb Biggers and Markel Reed. Younger players such as cornerback Kaonohi Kaniho and safety Seyi Oladipo also return after combining for four interceptions in 2021. Skinner, Oladipo and sophomore safety Jaylen Clark all recorded interceptions in Boise State’s spring game, which the defense dominated.

The front seven also boasts plenty of experience, which Boise State should supplement with transfers and several promising recruits. Sacks leader Scott Matlock returns for his final season at defensive tackle, and will play alongside fellow seniors Jackson Cravens, Shane Irwin and Divine Obichere up front. Boise State also added junior college transfers Deven Wright and Cortez Hogans, ESPN’s No. 2 and No. 4 juco defensive ends for 2022, and Washington State transfer Jack Beresford. Other non-seniors such as sophomore nose tackle Herbert Gums will help in 2023. Veteran linebackers such as Ezekiel Noa, a two-time honorable mention All-Mountain West honoree, and Demitri Washington are back for one more year, along with fellow seniors Brandon Hawkins and DJ Schramm. Boise State added transfer George Tarlas, an All-Big Sky selection who had 17 career sacks and seven forced fumbles at Weber State. ESPN 300 linebacker Dishawn Misa headlined Boise State’s 2022 recruiting class, and the team’s three highest-rated 2021 recruits were all linebackers.

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