We continue our Conference USA Preseason Position Reviews by shifting our focus to the defense as the defensive line is next up. The grading categories: “Great Shape,” “Good Shape,” and “We’ll See.”
To elaborate on the grades, “We’ll See” means exactly what it means. We have no idea if that position is going to turn out to be a plus due to a lack of proven contributors and questionable depth. At this time, there’s no way to know.
“Good Shape” means known commodities are at the position but there’s still room for this unit to improve. Depth is above average to good, with a player or two having the potential to make an All-C-USA Team.
“Great Shape” means All-C-USA performers are at this position or there is good-to-great depth across the board. You obviously want your team to be here.
1. Middle Tennessee: Khalil Brooks made second-team All C-USA after recording 13.5 TFLs and 6.5 sacks. DQ Thomas also returns, as he recorded a team-high 7 sacks last season to go with his 13.5 TFLs. With Scott Schafer returning at defensive coordinator, expect MTSU to field one of the best defenses in C-USA once again.
2. FIU: Sage Lewis is the face of FIU’s defense. Lewis is a tackling machine as recorded a team-high 132 tackles with 4.5 TFLs, and 1 sack. While his disruption at the line can improve, his 9 passes defended shows his versatility. Joining Lewis is a talented but unproven crop of LBs. Jamal Gates and Rocky Jacques-Louis will have ample opportunities to live up to their recruiting hype after a couple of years of seeing limited snaps.
3. FAU: Rashad Smith is the star of the Owls’ front seven this season. Smith recorded 5.5 TFLs with 5 passes defensed and a team-high 4 INTs. last season. Akileis Leroy and Hosea Barnwell V are experienced LBs who are looking to carve out a role under new defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer.
4. Southern Miss: The depth is dangerously thin as USM is a few injuries away from playing freshmen. Racheem Boothe is a keeper, as he recorded 10 TFLs and 4 sacks last season. The only other experienced LB is Paxton Schrimsher. The senior had 4 TFLs and 1 sack as a backup last season.
5. Charlotte: Replacing Juwan Foggie will be tough, fortunately the 49ers have some solid options in seniors Jeff Gemmell and Anthony Butler. Gemmell and Butler combined for 13 TFLs and 5.5 sacks in 2018.
6. Louisiana Tech: Collin Scott appeared on the Honorable Mention team in 2018 after recording 9.5 TFLs, 4 sacks and 2 INTs. Scott is by far Tech’s most experienced LB. Seniors Randy Hogan and Connor Taylor must fight off a talented class of freshmen LBs as Tech signed two three-stars in Maki Carabin and Allen Walker in 2018, and redshirted three-star Isaiah Windmon.
7. Old Dominion: The Monarchs had one of the worst run defenses in the country last season. One silver lining is the LB corps that took their lumps in 2018 all return. Lawrence Garner, the most disruptive LB, recorded 9 TFLs, 5 passes defensed, and 12 run stuffs in 2018 and is the player to watch for here.
8. Rice: Similar to ODU, Rice experienced growing pains here. A lot of youth gave way to a bad defense. The players who saw the bulk of last year’s snaps return as sophomores and juniors. Junior Anthony Ekpe received an Honorable Mention after recording 6.5 TFLs and 6 sacks in 2018.
9. North Texas: E.J. Ejiya and Brandon Garner were the heart of the defense last season and both are gone. Jamie King and Joe Ozougwu are the next duo in line and both had their moments last season (combined for 11.5 TFLs and 4.5 sacks).
10. Marshall: The Herd have talent here, but they are very inexperienced. Omari Cobb returns as the only significant contributor (6.5 TFLs, 3.5 sacks) from last year’s team. Former blue-chip recruit Jaquan Yulee has yet to live up to the recruiting hype. Perhaps this is the year?
11. UTSA: Josiah Tauaefa and his glorious hair are gone. Les Maruo has departed too. The Roadrunners have talent here as several former three-star recruits are waiting in the wings, as is Virginia grad-transfer Dominic Sheppard.
12. UTEP: Sione Tupou returns as a solid contributor and one who will be relied on heavily but the Miners are here for a reason. A boatload of seniors figure to see snaps this year. Whether that translates into good production remains to be seen.
13. UAB: Fitzgerald Mofor returns and has proven to be a solid contributor but after Mofor is a list of unproven players. Thomas Johnston made waves as a prep recruit but has yet to carve out a defined role in Birmingham. After years of signing JUCO players, the Blazers signed four three-star LB recruits in 2018.
14. WKU: Your guess is as good as mine as to who the Tops will be fielding at LB this season as they are extremely thin. Stalwarts Ben Holt and Masai Whyte are gone. Left behind is a few redshirt freshmen and upperclassmen who have seen the field sparingly. They did receive good news for 2020 in this department though.