Since Conference USA’s inception in 1996, the league’s Defensive Player of the Year honors have primarily been awarded to defensive players in the front seven. While 2021’s list of top returners includes a litany of standout defensive backs, there’s a fair share of linebackers and defensive linemen who will look to challenge for the award. Here’s a look at 10 players who are prime candidates to contend for DPOY trophy.
Note: An earlier version did not include DeAngelo Malone’s return for an additional season.
10. LB - Hayes Maples, Southern Miss
A lightly-recruited two-star prospect coming out of high school, Hayes Maples had a breakout redshirt sophomore season in 2020. With the opt-outs of several key veterans on defense, Maples emerged and finished fourth in C-USA with 91 tackles in 10 games. The Hattiesburg native also racked up eight tackles for loss, which landed him fifth in the league. Expect Maples to again be among the league leaders in tackles with the benefit of a full 12-game slate in 2021.
9. LB - Tyler Grubbs, Lousiana Tech
All Grubbs did as a true freshman in 2020 is lead Conference USA in tackles. The New Orleans native finished one tackle shy of triple digits in 10 games last year for the Bulldogs. He’ll need a strong sophomore campaign to revitalize a Louisiana Tech defense that finished 11th out of 13 teams in total defense last season.
8. DB - Steven Gilmore, Marshall
Steven Gilmore is quietly becoming one of the best defensive backs in Conference USA. Building on a sophomore season that saw him record 50 tackles and lead the team in interceptions, Gilmore topped the entire league in passes defended with 12, in only 10 games. He’ll team with the returning Nazeeh Johnson to lead an excellent Herd secondary.
7. S - Reed Blankenship, Middle Tennessee
Since his arrival in Conference USA as a freshman in 2017, Reed Blakenship has been one of the top defensive players in the league. A combined 309 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, eight interceptions and 11 passes defended from the safety spot have landed the Alabama native among the all-time leaders in Blue Raider history on defense. After playing full seasons his first two years, he’s battled injuries and missed over 40 days last season due to COVID-19 protocols.
“He’s a heck of a football player. He was hurt a few years ago, but I went out of my way to shake his hand and talk to him pregame — as a coach that’s one of the best compliments you can give a player,” said a Conference USA assistant coach.
When healthy and available for an entire season, Blankenship averages 88 tackles, eight tackles for loss and three interceptions — numbers that would certainly put him in the discussion for DPOY.
6. LB - Trevor Harmanson, UTSA
Picking up where Roadrunners’ great Josiah Tauaefa left off, UTSA’s Trevor Harmanson has continued the excellent linebacking play in San Antonio. The 6-3, 230-pounder has been a consistent presence in the opposing team’s backfield with 17.5 tackles for loss in his first two seasons at the FBS level. If he can build off last year’s 73 tackles and nine behind the line of scrimmage, Harmanson should be a part of a UTSA team that looks to contend in the West.
5. DL - Praise Amaewhule, UTEP
Dana Dimel’s rebuilding efforts in El Paso took a step forward with last year’s three-win season. If the Miners are to continue in the right direction, a large part of that will come from the efforts of defensive lineman Praise Amaewhule. The redshirt sophomore ranked second in C-USA with seven sacks in only eight games and is arguably the top returning defensive lineman in the league entering 2021. When he didn’t get to the quarterback, he managed to get his hands in the passing lanes, batting down nine passes in 2020. His signature performance of last season came against Lousiana Tech, defending four passes and recording 3.5 sacks.
4. LB - Akileis Leroy, Florida Atlantic
After being ruled ineligible for the entirety of last season, Akileis “Keke” Leroy is back for Willie Taggart’s team in 2021. In 2019, Leroy arguably had a DPOY-worthy season but the award went to Western Kentucky’s DeAngelo Malone. The 5-11, 240-pound linebacker totaled 101 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks and three interceptions. New defensive coordinator Mike Stoops will have one of the top defensive players in the league at his disposal in Boca.
3. LB - Kristopher Moll, UAB
Moll has been a fixture on the league’s First Team All-Conference team over the past two seasons and there’s no reason to expect he won’t be there again in 2021. The Miami native had an outstanding 2019, notching 104 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and nine sacks. In UAB’s eight games last season, he led the Blazers with 59 tackles and had at least seven tackles in six of the team’s eight games. With the departure of standout rush-end Jordan Smith, expect Moll to take his game to another level and again lead an excellent UAB defense.
2. S - Rashad Wisdom, UTSA
It’s been eight seasons since a defensive back won the DPOY honors when UCF’s Kemal Ishmael won the award in 2012. UTSA’s Rashad Wisdom has an excellent chance to break the streak in 2021. After making the all-freshman team in 2019, Wisdom made the jump to all-conference, landing on the first team in 2020. The San Antonio native finished second in the league with 95 tackles, while also being more than formidable in pass coverage with his four interceptions. If the Roadrunners can unseat UAB in the West division and Wisdom’s output remains on par with his 2020 efforts, expect his name to be in the discussion for Defensive Player of the Year.
1. DL - DeAngelo Malone, Western Kentucky
2019’s Defensive Player of the Year is back for an additional season on the hill. After a standout junior season that saw Malone record 99 tackles, 20 tackles for loss and 11 sacks, Malone had a solid season in 2020, despite facing double-teams on a regular basis.
“In this league, you have some guys who could clearly play at a Power Five and some guys who are raw players who need a few years to grow into their bodies. He reminds me a lot of the kid from UTSA and Charlotte (Marcus Davenport and Alex Highsmith) that’s like how did he end up here,” said a Conference USA assistant coach about Malone.
The holder of a career 24.5 sacks, look for Malone to be a prime contender to win the award for the second time in his already decorated Conference USA career.