Want to take a moment to thank the following head coaches for their time in talking about players on their roster and across the league: Mike MacIntyre — Florida International, Willie Taggart — Florida Atlantic, Sonny Cumbie — Louisiana Tech, Rick Stockstill — Middle Tennessee State, Seth Littrell — North Texas, Dana Dimel, Jeff Traylor — UTSA, Tyson Helton — Western Kentucky. I’d also like to thank the Conference USA assistants who spoke about the league’s players on condition of anonymity.
Over the past three seasons, Conference USA has seen 20 players drafted and over 30 players land on NFL rosters. Despite the loss of three programs, the league is still littered with talent across the remaining 11 member programs. While only 27 will be recognized at the end of the season as an All-Conference first-team performer, here’s my choices for the top-35 players heading into the 2022 season.
For readers' knowledge, here’s an outline of the methodology in selecting this list: 1. This list consists of returning players from last year. Meaning standout transfers such as Jarret Doege or Trelon Smith weren’t eligible. 2. Any player who made Conference USA’s first or second-team all-conference list in 2021 was automatically given a spot in the top-35.
Let’s start with numbers 35-21.
35. Trevor Harmanson: LB — UTSA
Redshirt senior linebacker Trevor Harmanson is a major piece to a UTSA defense that finished second in run defense last season. The 6-3, 225-pound inside linebacker has made 32 starts including 24 over the past two seasons in the Roadrunners’ 3-4 scheme. In his three-year career, Harmanson has made 177 stops with 20 tackles for loss and two interceptions.
34. Shadrick Byrd: RB/KR — Charlotte
After starting his career at Iowa, Charlotte’s Shadrick Byrd was one of the most versatile all-purpose players in Conference USA during his debut season. The Alabama native had over 50 rushing yards in seven contests and at least 30 yards receiving in four. Byrd also served as the Niners primary kick-return man, en route to finishing fourth overall in all-purpose yards with 1,455.
“Shad was a major part of what we were able to do offensively last season and we’re looking forward to that again this year,” said Charlotte head coach Will Healy.
33. Corey Mayfield Jr.: CB — UTSA
With 47 career games and 35 starts to his name, UTSA’s Corey Mayfield Jr. is one of the best and most reliable defensive backs in C-USA. The 5-11, 195-pound senior is equally excellent in pass coverage as he is playing the run, tallying 102 tackles and four interceptions with 14 pass breakups during his time in San Antonio.
32. Gavin Hardison: QB — UTEP
For the first time since 2014, UTEP qualified for a bowl game in 2021 and a large part of it was due to the play of the defense, run game and standout wideouts Jacob Cowing and Justin Garrett. Somewhat of a forgotten man in that puzzle is talented signal-caller Gavin Hardison. The Hobbs, NM native was unheralded coming out of New Mexico Military Institute in 2018, joining the program alongside former three-star recruit TJ Goodwin, who was expected to be the future at the position.
After beating out Goodwin during a pandemic-shortened 2020, Hardison threw for 3,218 yards and 18 touchdowns during last year’s seven-win campaign.
“With Gavin’s experience in this system, he has complete autonomy to check in and out of plays and we’re expecting his understanding of this offense to lead to a lot of success,” said UTEP head coach Dana Dimel.
31. Makai Hart: OL — UTSA
UTSA right tackle Makai Hart has been a consistent all-conference performer on the Roadrunners offensive line. The 6-4, 310-pounder joined UTSA as a JUCO product in 2020 and instantly became a contributor on a line that sprung Sincere McCormick to multiple 1,000-yard seasons and quarterback Frank Harris in 2021.
30. Starling Thomas V: DB — UAB
UAB has been a program spearheaded by excellent defensive play over the past four seasons and a major part of that success last year was the play of cornerback Starling Thomas V. After missing all of 2020 to injury, Thomas regained his starting role in 2021 and racked up 41 tackles and two interceptions while adding eight passes defended.
29. Smoke Harris: WR — Louisiana Tech
At 5-6, 190-pounds, Smoke Harris is one of the most unique talents in Conference USA. After biding his time in a loaded wide receiver room, Harris made the most of his featured role operating out of the slot in 2021. He caught at least six passes in nine contests last year and led the Bulldogs with 71 grabs for 756 yards and six touchdowns. He also earned a spot on C-USA’s second-team all-conference as a punt returner.
28. Tyrice Knight: LB — UTEP
After starting his collegiate career at Independence Community College in Kansas, UTEP linebacker Tyrice Knight has undoubtedly been a tackling machine in El Paso. In an abbreviated 2020 campaign, Knight racked up 58 tackles — including 25 over the final two games. He carried over that strong play to 2021, notching over 100 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss along with two sacks and an interception.
27. Victor Tucker: WR — Charlotte
Despite an uncharacteristically down season statistically last year, Charlotte’s Vic Tucker is and has been one of the top receiving talents in the league over his five seasons. Tucker has earned an All-Conference nod from at least one publication or the league in every year he’s played and has the opportunity to become the Niners all-time leading receiver in 2022.
“I think I’m one of the best wideouts in the nation and when I’m out there it’s me vs me, can’t none of the DB’s guard me,” said Tucker.
26. Teldrick Ross: DB — Middle Tennessee
Despite being listed as a safety, Middle Tennessee’s Teldrick Ross led the Blue Raiders in snaps played at corner last year (629) and was a valuable piece of a defense that saw opposing offenses target him immensely. The redshirt junior had 48 tackles and a team-leading 12 pass breakups last year. With the departure of Greg Grate to the portal and graduation of Reed Blankenship, expect Ross to lead the way for MTSU’s secondary in 2022.
25. Davon Strickland: DT — FIU
Conference USA has been littered with defensive tackle talent over the past few seasons. As a result, FIU’s Davon Strickland’s play has gone under the radar. After two years as a reserve, Strickland had an impressive showing in the Panthers’ five-game 2020, with three sacks and 16 tackles. He followed that up by recording 53 tackles and six tackles for loss with three sacks in 2021 — the 53 tackles was the second-most by a DT in the league.
“It’s an honor to be recognized amongst the top players in the league, but my number one focus is getting this team back where we need to be, competing in this league,” said Strickland
24. Joshua Simon: TE — Western Kentucky
Western Kentucky has a long lineage of excellent tight end play and Josh Simon is no exception to the rule. After recording 63 catches for 800 yards in his first two collegiate seasons, Simon was on his way to another stellar campaign — hauling in two touchdowns before suffering a season-ending injury in the Hilltoppers season opener.
“Excited to have Josh back, unfortunately he got banged up early in the year, he’s running like a deer and is fully healthy so I can’t say enough about him and getting him back this year, he’ll be one of the top players in Conference USA when the season is over,” said Tyson Helton.
23. Sidney Wells: G — UAB
UAB has consistently produced excellent offensive line play over their recent stretch of success. A major part of that has been the play of tackle Sidney Wells. In 27 starts over the past three years, Wells has been named to the C-USA All-Conference First Team once and was on the Outland Trophy watch list last year before suffering a season-ending injury after the Blazers fourth contest. The 6-4, 330-pounder has been rated as the team’s top offensive lineman by Pro Football Focus over the last two years.
22. Markees Watts: LB/DE — Charlotte
In a classic example of not measuring a player by his size, Charlotte’s Markees Watts has tallied over 60 tackles and at least seven tackles for loss as both a defensive end and outside linebacker. At 6-0, 220-pounds, he’s not the prototypical edge player, but the redshirt senior always manages to be around the football.
21. Grayson Cash: S — UAB
UAB’s Grayson Cash might not always fill-up the stat sheet — but his impact is never missed in the game’s largest moments. The redshirt senior has a knack for big plays, recording pick-six against Florida Atlantic last season and two game-sealing interceptions in 2020. Cash was named second-team all-conference at safety last season and is arguably the league’s top safety entering 2022.