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.
Here are numbers 20-11.
20. Johnny Ford: RB — Florida Atlantic
After two injury-plagued seasons at South Florida, Johnny Ford had a career resurgence in his first season with Florida Atlantic. The 5-5, 175-pound Ford led the Owls in rushing with 831 yards and added value as a receiver with 23 receptions for 280 yards in 2021. Entering his second season in Boca, Ford will look to build upon his status as one of the top all-purpose players in Conference USA.
19. Grant DuBose: WR — Charlotte
Charlotte wide receiver Grant DuBose has one of the more unique success stories in college football. After playing 10 games at Division II Miles College in 2019, followed by a 2020 season that was wiped out due to COVID — DuBose attended summer tryouts at Charlotte at the suggestion of backup quarterback James Foster. What ensued was an FBS-debut on national television that saw the 6-3, 200-pounder catch two touchdowns, en route to a 62-catch, 892-yard season.
18. Noah Wilder: LB — UAB
After starting his career at FCS Gardner-Webb, redshirt senior linebacker Noah Wilder has been one of the best players at his position in the league. Wilder recorded 85 tackles and 10 tackles for loss during his first season in Birmingham, followed by being named to the C-USA All-Conference Second Team in 2020. Last year, he had a career-high 93 tackles which was top-15 among all conference players.
17. Teja Young: S — Florida Atlantic
Whether it’s because of the Owls slight fall-off in play following the Lane Kiffin era — or the amount of defensive talent that has passed through Boca over the few seasons, Teja Young’s play has been overshadowed. Very much under the radar, Young put together an excellent 2021 season. The redshirt junior led the team in defensive snaps (848) and was the highest-graded coverage safety in Conference USA by Pro Football Focus.
He recorded 57 tackles with three interceptions and two pick-sixes last season. Entering 2022, Young was named to the preseason all-conference first team at safety.
“I’m ready to be the leader and the veteran of this group and we have huge goals for ourselves as a defense,” said Young.
16. Ahofitu Maka: C — UTSA
Boasting 37 career starts across an offensive line that’s led the way for one of the top rushers in college football and protecting arguably Conference USA’s top QB makes UTSA’s Ahofitu Maka an easy choice, despite playing the center position. At 6-3, 335-pounds, Maka has the size to play across the offensive line and has started at guard in addition to his duties as the anchor of the Roadrunners offensive line and will be a huge part of their offensive success in 2022.
15. Chris Reynolds: QB — Charlotte
Chris Reynolds finally earned the respect he deserves? At bare minimum, he’s certainly respected by the people inside the 49ers locker room. The diminutive Reynolds battled off challengers for his job over the past two seasons, while performing as one of the top quarterbacks in C-USA.
Over his four seasons in the Queen City, Reynolds has thrown for over 7,000 yards and 60 touchdowns while also adding just shy of 1,000 yards on the ground and 11 scores. If not for the aforementioned Harris and Bailey Zappe’s theatrics last year, Reynolds would have been an All-Conference performer.
“Back in 2017, I didn’t even know if I was gonna be invited to a fall camp. I was a walk-on and I was just grateful for an opportunity,” said Reynolds. “Now I’m presented with an opportunity to play a sixth year of college football.”
14. Evan Anderson: DT — Florida Atlantic
Just like his aforementioned teammate, Evan Anderson’s play may be overshadowed for various reasons. However, there’s no denying that the 6-3, 335-pound mountain of a defensive tackle is a special talent. After playing offensive line in high school, Anderson switched sides of the ball as a true freshman in 2020 and instantly became a force. Last year, he built upon that success recording 40 tackles and eight tackles for loss from the nose guard position.
“Big Slim, he’s a heck of an athlete and an incredible football player who is only getting better, he’s down from 355 pounds when he first came in to now around the 325-315 mark and he’s a huge part of our defense,” said Florida Atlantic head Coach Willie Taggart.
13. BeeJay Williamson: DB — Louisiana Tech
After having the league’s top defensive back in Amik Robertson, the Bulldogs have had the pleasure of wielding another excellent DB in BeeJay Williamson. Williamson has been named to the Conference USA All-Freshman Team, All-Conference Honorable Mention and All-Conference First-Team during his career in Ruston.
A three-year starter, the redshirt junior has six career interceptions and has tallied 143 tackles during his collegiate career.
12. Manase Mose: G/C — North Texas
North Texas’ offensive lineman Manase Mose has been one of the most versatile and consistent players in the league since making his collegiate debut in 2018. A sixth-year player, Mose has started 48 games for the Mean Green, being named to the honorable mention team twice and all-freshman team. After helping contribute to the passing theatrics of Mason Fine, Mose was the anchor of an offensive line that paved the way for over 3,000 yards rushing in 2021.
11. Breon Hayward: LB — UTEP
The Miners’ resurgence in 2021 was spearheaded a swarming defense that ranked second in C-USA in total defense and linebacker Breon Hayward was a leader among that unit. After starting his career at Marshall in 2018, Hayward spent time at JUCO Navarro College followed by six appearances as a reserve in 2020.
After earning a starting role last year, the 6-2, 230-pounder never looked back, finishing fourth in C-USA with 108 tackles and added 7.5 tackles for loss.