Welcome back to our annual offseason series, Conference USA Preseason Position Reviews. This year will be the fifth installment of the series in which we try to determine who has the best roster in C-USA on paper.
For those who are new, the format is simple. There are three grading categories: “Great Shape,” “Good Shape,” and “We’ll See.”
To elaborate on the grades, “We’ll See” means we have no idea if that position is going to turn out to be a plus due to a lack of proven contributors, questionable depth entering the season or the projected starter is coming in from another school.
“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 appearance on the all-conference team.
“Great Shape” means All-C-USA performers are at this position or there is good-to-great depth across the board.
We’ll be keeping track of the grades as each team will receive points based on the category their position groups were placed in. “Great Shape” will result in three points, “Good Shape” two points, “We’ll See” one point.
At the end of the series, there will be a final tally of which teams appear good enough on paper to contend for the conference title.
Part of the reason the Miners had their best season in years last season was an impressively stout defense. UTEP has all four of their starting defensive linemen returning this year, including Praise Amaewhule. Amaewhule racked up 13 tackles for losses, 10 quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles, 5.5 sacks, and seven pass breakups. If Amaewhule doesn’t give opposing offenses enough trouble, Jadrian Taylor on the other side is also a problem on the other side, totaling 6.5 sacks last season. All that, plus two experienced 300-pound defensive tackles in the middle with Kelton Moss and Keenan Stewart. This unit could help UTEP have one of their best teams in decades.
The Blazers’ defensive line once again looks like one of the best in C-USA. Edge rusher Kelle Sanders made 10 starts last season and recorded 30 tackles on the season with 3.5 TFLs, two sacks, one pass breakup. Kyle Sanders also adds to the edge attack (or the “jack linebacker”) after 6.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, an interception, and three pass breakups on somewhat limited snaps in 2021. Harrell has played four different positions in his time with the Blazers’ program. In the middle, Fish McWilliams and Kevin Penn are a fearsome duo of 300-pound juniors who will get starring roles this year after being rotation guys the last few years.
The massive 6’3”, 356-pound Evan Anderson headlines this group at nose tackle. Anderson received a second team All-Conference USA selection from PFF and was named a C-USA Honorable Mention in 2021 after totaling 8 tackles for loss with 13 solo tackles and 29 assisted tackles, with one sack. Him not being part of last year’s official all-league team is surprising. Jaylen Joyner, a returning starter with nine sacks over the last two years, also looks to continue to contribute on the end opposite of promising sophomore Decarius Hawthorne.
Middle Tennessee forced a lot of turnovers in 2021. Senior defensive end Jordan Ferguson is probably MTSU’s best defensive player. The Atlanta native had nine sacks last season, which was the most of any C-USA player returning for 2022. In addition to Ferguson, the Blue Raiders are pretty well situated along the defensive line. Ja’Kerrius Wyatt also adds some good experience to the group at defensive tackle, along with talented sophomores Marley Cook, Zaylin Wood, and Richard Kinley. The Blue Raiders have other issues to worry about, but this group should be a solid help.
Defensive line might just be Rice’s strongest position group. Tackles Ikenna Enchukwu and De’Braylon Carroll are tough enough to deal with, but then you also 326-pound sophomore Izeya Floyd likely starting at nose tackle. Floyd presents a nice option there are Carroll returns from a lower leg injury that kept him out all last season. Then, playing on the edge/rushing the pass, you have an experienced trio of Trey Schuman, Kenneth Orji, and Josh Pearcy. All that talent, but the Owls still had the second-worst scoring defense in C-USA last season. I would love to see this group take another big step forward this year, and possibly even get Enchukwu drafted into the NFL.
Redshirt senior DE Juwuan Jones looks poised for a strong year, but he has huge shoes to fill with DeAngelo Malone moving on to the NFL. Jones has been productive so far in his career with 17.5 sacks and 30 TFLs. At defensive tackle, Darius Shipp returns as a starter after an All-Conference Honorable Mention in 2021. Brodric Martin, a tackle who transferred from North Alabama following the 2020 season, should also see more playing time after only starting one game in 2021. Martin was named the team’s defensive MVP in spring practice this year.
The loss of Clarence Hicks’ pass-rush abilities will likely be noticeable, but the Roadrunners have a few other decent names returning. Defensive end Trumaine Bell had five sacks last year. Senior Brandon Matterson has contributed steadily, mostly off in the bench, for UTSA’s defensive line each of the last four years. He will likely be a consistent starter this year. Brandon Brown, sophomore nose tackle, looks poised for another big year after a C-USA All-Freshman Team selection and an All-Conference Honorable Mention. Brown is a huge reason teams had a fair amount of difficulty with the run game against UTSA last season.
This group has to be better in 2022. As we’ve noted in this series already, the Charlotte defense was poor and didn’t provide a lot of pressure on opposing offenses. This was especially true defending the run. Defensive end Markees Watts and nose tackle Jalar Holley return as starters this year, but they should get some help from some fresher faces. Central Michigan transfer Amir Siddiq had 33 tackles and four sacks last season and should help with the pass rush. Tackle Isaac Hampton came in from Miami (OH) last year and looked good at the start of the season, but suffered a season-ending injury after six games. Hampton returns this year and should add to the group significantly, if he stays healthy all year.
Let’s not mince words here: North Texas lost a concerning amount in the transfer portal when it comes to their front seven. Seven different defensive line players have left the school via the portal, including twin defensive ends Grayson and Gabriel Murphy (now at UCLA) who were major contributors last season. JUCO transfer defensive end Tom Trieb looks like he’ll be an immediate contributor, but how do you replace the rest of that depth? Why did every promising defensive lineman on this team (except Dion Novil, who graduated) decide to leave around the same time? Maybe we’ll get answers, maybe we won’t.
Defensive tackles Davon Strickland and Jeremy Passmore are back as two of just six returning starters from last year’s team. New Panthers’ head coach Mike MacIntyre has stated that he wants to mix up his fronts to keep defenses guessing, but it feels like this defense has some room to experiment here because of the lack of experience and low expectations. Strickland and Passmore could provide a nice plug in the middle, but it’s tough to see this unit being feared without an effective pass rusher.
Tech has plenty of experience returning in this group. DE Mykol Clark, DT Keive Rose, DT Tristan Allen, and DE Deshon Hall are all back. Frankly, none of the names mentioned were particularly great at creating pressure for opposing offenses. Tech finished outside the top 100 in total defense for FBS and allowed 39 scores on 43 opponent trips to the red zone last year. This group has to be better, but new defensive coordinator Scott Power could be the guy to fix it based on what he did at Stephen F. Austin. We’ll see.