Zaven Collins had an incredible season that landed him AAC Defensive Player of the Year in 2020. From a recruit no one wanted to the top of his conference and the NFL Draft, he’s proof that good things can happen to those who put in the work. This year features a number of guys who are in a similar boat with a few others that have big time potential at the next level. Who brings home the award this year? It’s a tight race.
1. CB Ahmad Gardner, Cincinnati
Make no mistake about it, Ahmad Gardner is the best defensive player in the AAC. An argument can also be made that he’s the best defensive player in the Group of 5, and one of the best cornerbacks in all of college football. A long player with a future in the NFL, Gardner already has six interceptions (two for touchdowns) to his name, and is getting to a point where teams don’t even bother looking his way.
2. LB Diego Fagot, Navy
A tackling machine with tremendous instincts, Fagot already has 188 tackles to his name. The Midshipmen defense struggled to get many stops last year, but it feels like they’re ready to bounce back in 2021. Winning Defensive Player of the Year wouldn’t surprise many, especially if he adds to his 24.5 career tackles for loss. It’s safe to say that if someone in navy and gold is making a play, it’s probably Fagot.
3. CB/Returner Marcus Jones, Houston
Jones gets the added advantage of returning punts, which isn’t a part of defense but could swing voters. Don’t get it twisted though, Jones can cover like the best of them. After transferring from Troy and labeled as a “return specialist,” Jones made a statement opposite of Damarion Williams. He also did that without sacrificing his explosiveness as a returner, so he’s be up for two Player of the Year awards in 2021.
4. DE Myjai Sanders, Cincinnati
Another Bearcat destined for the NFL, Sanders surprised the fans in Cincinnati by returning for another year. Tabbed as a potential second round pick, Sanders decided that he needed another year to hone his skills. His impact goes beyond the box score, which could hurt him for this award, but teams know they have to scheme around him, and that’s something that doesn’t get talked about enough.
5. S Quindell Johnson, Memphis
Memphis defense loses a few key pieces from the 2020 team, but Johnson returns. He did a little bit of everything for the Tigers, and didn’t get as much recognition as he deserves. Johnson’s the definition of a playmaker, and he returns with 81 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, five interceptions, nine passes defended, two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery. He has the tools to win Player of the Year, so don’t be surprised when he wins it.
6. CB Allie Green IV, Tulsa
Here’s the good thing and the bad thing about Allie Green IV: teams don’t like throwing at him. How is that a bad thing? If you’re trying to win AAC Defensive Player of the Year, it technically hurts you. While that might not matter to a future NFL draft pick, it matters in the voting. Green has one career interception and 10 passes defended to his name. If you just look at stats, you’d think that he’s not relevant, but if you watch the clip above you’d get a glimpse of how well he plays. It’s tough to throw to a guy that’s not open, and Green does a good job of taking his man out of the play.
7. LB Dorian Williams, Tulane
Lost in the Patrick Johnson and Cam Sample love (which was well deserved) was the fact that Williams had a big year at linebacker. He led the team in tackles (97) and tackles for loss (15.5). With Johnson and Sample off to the NFL, he becomes the guy teams must address in their film studies.
8. DT Jaxon Player, Tulsa
Another guy that shined in the shadows of a great. Zaven Collins stole the spotlight last year, winning AAC Defensive Player of the Year with his excellence, but Player did work in the trenches. He might not produce the best statistics of any player on this list, but his play also goes beyond the box score. Even while playing defensive tackle, he finished second on the team in tackles for loss.
9. DE Josh Celiscar, UCF
Josh Celiscar having himself quite the season already pic.twitter.com/H81nVCzyAW— Joe Broback (@joebroback) October 4, 2020
The dark horse of the list, Celiscar has a high ceiling. His play above is an example of what he can do, and now he’ll get a full season to showcase his talent. While he’s still refining his technique after one season, Celiscar’s a guy that can make big plays and big hits. Will he make enough of them to win this award? That remains the big question, but his 4.5 tackles for loss makes it seem like he hasn’t even scratched the surface of his potential.
10. LB Antonio Grier, USF
USF’s looking to take a step forward in 2021, and guys like Grier will lead the charge. After leading the team in tackles (56), it wouldn’t be shocking to see him have a big year. The Bulls need to find a way to keep teams off the scoreboard this year, as they finished 121st in scoring defense last season (39.9 points per game). Grier is a playmaker that can help make that happen.