College News & Analysis

“The Godfather”: Dontay Corleone on becoming the boss of Cincinnati’s defense

  • Cincinnati interior defensive lineman Dontay Corleone sits down for an exclusive interview with PFF.
  • The nation’s highest-graded defender in 2022: Corleone’s 93.8 grade as a redshirt freshman led all FBS defenders this past season.
  • One of the top returning defensive tackles in college football: Corleone placed second on PFF’s top returning interior defensive linemen list.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

For cinephiles, the name Don Corleone makes them think of Marlon Brando’s Academy Award-winning performance in 1972’s The Godfather.

For college football fans, that name belongs to one of the best defensive tackles in the country.

Dontay Corleone may be known as “The Godfather” by Cincinnati fans, but it was his mother who served as the true boss of his family.

“I grew up with three other siblings,” Corleone said in an exclusive interview with PFF. “We didn’t have another parent. She took care of us, working 16 hours a day. On a normal day in high school, when I woke up, she was just coming home. When I came home, she’s already back to work. So I never saw her during the day. Sometimes, she had to miss my high school games. It’s the small things that motivate me to change her life forever.”

Growing up in Cincinnati, Corleone always knew he wanted to be a Bearcat.

“My friends used to always take me to the basketball games here,” he said. “I just loved the environment. It’s cool to now be a part of it.”

Corleone redshirted in 2021, his first season at Cincinnati. That year, he was solely focused on learning from the veterans along the defensive line.

“I came into the deepest D-Line group you could ever have,” Corleone said. “Curtis Brooks, Myjai Sanders and Marcus Brown. All of them took me under their wing and helped me. My job was to soak in all the guidance they could give me. So that when my time came, I can do it right.”

He did precisely that this past season. Corleone’s 93.8 grade led all defenders in college football. The redshirt freshman particularly excelled as a run defender, where his 94.7 grade was the best mark since Micah Parsons in 2019.

Highest single-season run-defense grades in PFF College era (Since 2014 among DI, EDGE and LB)
Name School Position Season Run-Defense Grade
Quinnen Williams Alabama DI 2018 96.5
Maurice Hurst Michigan DI 2017 95.0
Reuben Foster Alabama LB 2016 94.9
Micah Parsons Penn State LB 2019 94.8
Dontay Corleone Cincinnati DI 2022 94.7
Vita Vea Washington DI 2017 94.7

Despite ranking just 256th among interior defensive linemen in run-defense snaps (172), Corleone registered the sixth-most run-stops (27). 

I always felt like I was a run stopper at heart,” he said. “I’m just more comfortable getting off the ball when I see the running back declare.” 

After the season, Corleone received validation for all the hard work he put in when he was named a third-team All-American by PFF.

“That's when I knew I was doing something,” he said. “That just built my confidence that I always had inside of me.”

He wasn’t the only Bearcat to make PFF’s All-American team. Ivan Pace Jr. was named first-team at linebacker and earned a 93.2 grade last season, second to only Corleone among all FBS defenders. It was the first time since PFF began charting college football in 2014 that the two highest-graded defenders in the nation played for the same team. Pace went undrafted in 2023 and signed with the Minnesota Vikings.

Not only did they play for the same college team, but Corleone and Pace also played together at Colerain high school as well. Their relationship spans even further than that too.

“I've known Ivan since middle school,” Corleon said. “He’s like a big brother to me. I want to see him win. I’m just mad he wasn’t drafted. That just hurt. I didn’t see my brother get drafted after he was a unanimous [All-American]. Those fans in Minnesota are going to realize they just got a dog. His size doesn’t matter. He’s going to play like he’s 6-foot-3. I know he’s going to prove everyone wrong.”

When Corleone committed to the Bearcats, the fans were the first to dub him, “The Godfather.” With Pace now in the NFL, he’s excited to earn that nickname this season as the boss of Cincinnati’s defense.

“I just took the role of it,” he said. “I feel like it. I think it’s pretty good off of my last name. I’ve loved it since Day 1.”

Ironically, Corleone still hasn’t seen any of The Godfather movies, but it’s something he’s hoping to change soon.

“I’ve tried,” he said with a laugh. “I’m going to try again soon. Last time, I got like 30 minutes in.”

Even if Corleone never gets around to watching Francis Ford Coppola’s films, his mentality warrants being crowned“The Don” of Cincinnati’s defense.

“If you line up against me, I’m going to go hard every play,” Corleone said. “I’m going to make you work. It’s serious now. I have to take it one day at a time and just get better every day.”

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