Defense, as they say, wins championships and such was the case last season in the FCS when South Dakota State stymied almost everyone they played en route to a title. The Jacks, though, aren’t the only ones who boast a strong defense... of course. The individual talent around the country on that side of the ball is truly staggering as we enter the 2023 season.
Which players will be the best of the best in the subdivision this fall?
Let’s dive into it.
20. Colton Adams, LB - Alabama State
Colton Adams had a breakout season for the Hornets in 2022, posting career highs in nearly every major stat category. Alabama State’s stud linebacker tallied 128 total tackles and 12 tackles for loss, both team-high marks. Adams also got in on two sacks and forced a fumble. He was voted a member of the All-SWAC First-Team defense last fall and was named a HERO Sports Sophomore All-American. With his junior season on the horizon, Adams again should be one of the best defenders in his conference and in the country.
19. Ty French, DE - Gardner-Webb
Gardner-Webb defensive end Ty French has steadily been improving since joining the Runnin’ Bulldogs in 2020 with his best season yet coming last fall. French got in on 75 tackles a year ago and made 16 of those behind the line of scrimmage. He also brought down opposing QBs 12.5 times. French showed a tremendous nose for the ball in 2022 when he forced four fumbles and recovered three more. He was voted the Big South’s Defensive Player of the Year for those efforts and, now going into his senior season, he’ll be the guy on the defense once again.
18. Hugh Ryan, CB - Furman
One of the surprise teams in the FCS last season was Furman. The Paladins rose back into relevancy thanks in large part to a tenacious defense that was spearheaded by cornerback Hugh Ryan. Ryan came away with four interceptions last season and made 69 tackles as a redshirt junior in 2022. He broke up 12 passes and forced a fumble too. Ryan was an All-SoCon First Team selection by both the media and coaches for his performance. Expectations are high for the Paladins again this season and Ryan should be at the center of them.
17. David Hoage, LB - Northern Colorado
Despite missing the 2022 season with an injury, UNC linebacker David Hoage is primed to be one of the country’s best defenders this year. In two years with the Bears he’s made 23.5 tackles for loss and registered 10.5 sacks. Hoage has also pounced on three fumbles. The senior led the Big Sky Conference in stops behind the line in 2021 with 22 and led the team with eight quarterback hurries that season. He will look to aid an ailing Northern Colorado defense that missed him greatly a season ago but if he can avoid injury again, there’s no reason Haoge won’t be a tackling machine in 2023.
16. Devin Haskins, CB - Holy Cross
He may have been electric on special teams last year, but Devin Haskins is also a game-changer on Holy Cross’ defense. He pulled in a career-best four interceptions last year and made a whopping 16 PBUs (seventh best in the FCS). He’s made 72 solo tackles in his career and was an All-Patriot League First Team selection in 2022. Haskins has a knack for being at the right place at the precisely right time and that makes for long games for the receivers he’s assigned to. It should much of the same on the back end for Holy Cross this season.
15. Rex Connors, S - UC Davis
Rex Connors may have only been a redshirt freshman last fall but he made a name for himself on the UC Davis defense. Connors grabbed five interceptions for the Aggies last year and if that wasn’t enough to create a no-fly zone for opposing offenses, he batted away ten more passes on top of that. He led the team with 88 tackles and was named a freshman All-American by HERO Sports in 2022. It certainly feels like this season could be one where Connors blows the hinges off his potential and breaks loose. If UC Davis has success in 2023 bet on #4 being a big reason why.
14. Eli Mostaert, DT - North Dakota State
North Dakota State has experienced a tornado of an offseason thanks to several big names hitting the transfer portal. The steady hand that’s stuck around, however, is tackle Eli Mostaert. The senior has unfinished business after losing most of 2022 to a broken leg. Mostaert has 83 tackles on his Bison career along with 13 sacks and a fumble recovery. He was named to the HERO Sports Freshman and Sophomore All-American teams in his first two seasons in Fargo and likely could have gotten a third had it not been for his injury. If he can stay healthy this season, Mostaert should again find himself among the best defenders in the country.
13. Jay Person, DE - Chattanooga
Chattanooga’s defense put up 35 sacks in 2022 and defensive end Jay Person was in on eight of them, and that’s without playing a full season. Person, despite only appearing in nine contests for the Mocs last year, still managed 16.5 tackles for loss and 45 total stops. He was on the Buck Buchanan Award watchlist for much of the season last year and entered last season as a First-Team All-SoCon player. Person should be appearing on NFL Draft boards by next spring and will be a pillar for the Mocs defense in 2023.
12. Winston Reid, LB - Weber State
Weber State’s Winston Reid is steadily working his way into the Wildcats history books and 2023 could see him set several program marks. He already is third-best in school history with seven career forced fumbles and averages nearly five tackles per contest in college. Reid posted 112 total stops in 2022, making 68 of them on his own. He was a major contributor in the turnover game also, forcing five fumbles, recovering one and snagging an interception last fall. The Utah native is on pace for another stellar run this time out and should have Weber State’s defense looking tough as ever.
11. Tristan Wheeler, LB - Richmond
Tristan Wheeler has been Mr. Consistency for the Richmond defense for several seasons. Starting 37 straight games, Wheeler holds the school record for the most consecutive starts and has done nothing but produce since his freshman campaign in 2019. He’s posted back-to-back seasons in which he’s notched at least 100 tackles, been responsible for six turnovers and has made 366 total stops for the Spiders in his career. Wheeler has put up some huge individual performances including a 19-tackle game against Virginia last season. He is three consecutive First-Team All-CAA accolades under his belt and is poised for another this year.
10. Lawrence Johnson, S - Southeast Missouri State
Lawrence Johnson knows how to bottle up receivers with the best of them and he showed as much last year. The grad senior led the Redhawks D with 86 tackles a season ago, 10 of which came for a loss. Johnson helped in on four sacks and broke up nine passes as well. He was voted in as an All-Ohio Valley First-Team defender for those impressive numbers. Now in his final season, expect Johnson to continue to a be force in the secondary for SEMO. Receivers are in for a chore when they line up against #7.
9. Khalil Baker, S - North Carolina Central
Solid safety play can sometimes be difficult to come by but not for NC Central. The program has itself a star with Khalil Baker. A senior this year, Baker was instrumental in the Eagles run to their first-ever Celebration Bowl crown. He grabbed four picks last year, taking one back for a touchdown. Baker was also responsible for 61 stops, nine knocked away passes and a fumble recovery. He was named last season’s MEAC Defensive Player of the Year and the MVP in the Celebration Bowl victory over Jackson State. Baker locks down his area of the field as good as anyone and his senior season could easily be his best yet.
8. Jacob Dobbs, LB - Holy Cross
Holy Cross star linebacker Jacob Dobbs was plagued with an unfortunate elbow injury that sidelined him for much of the season in 2022 but that won’t stop him from coming in on our Top-10. Dobbs has had a sensational career with the Crusaders where’s all he’s done is establish himself as one of the best to ever wear the purple and white. He has 309 tackles on his decorated tenure along with 34.5 tackles for loss, four interceptions, eight defended passes and four fumble recoveries. Dobbs is a ball magnet and all indications are that he’s made a strong recovery from his injury. If that’s the case, expect Holy Cross to make another run this season and count on Dobbs being a major contributor.
7. Adam Bock, LB - South Dakota State
South Dakota State claimed its first national championship last year with the aid of a really stout defense. One of the anchors of that unit was linebacker Adam Bock. Bock, now a senior with the Jacks, has a tremendous nose for the ball. Although he missed some time due to an injury in 2022, he still was able to ring up 76 tackles and force a fumble. On his career, Bock has been responsible for five turnovers and 22.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage. He’s a two-time First-Team All-Missouri Valley selection and was a Buck Buchanan Award finalist in 2021. If Bock can fend off the injury bug this season then there’s no reason he won’t be a top linebacker in the country.
6. Nate Lynn, DE - William & Mary
Nate Lynn has been a problem for opposing offenses for several years now. The William & Mary edge rusher has 20 sacks and 10 forced fumbles on his career along with 134 total stops. Lynn finished ninth in the polls for the Buck Buchanan Award in 2021 and was named to the honor’s watchlist last fall as well. He was an All-CAA First-Team pick in 2022 thanks in large part to his team-high 11 quarterback hurries and 61 tackles. If Lynn can stay healthy then this fall could be one for the books for the senior.
5. David Walker, DE - Central Arkansas
David Walker’s first season at UCA was one that got fans excited in 2022. Coming in from Division II’s Southern Arkansas, he lit it up for the Bears in his sophomore campaign, finishing tied with the Duquesne’s Todd Hill as the FCS’ leader in tackles for loss of which he had 22.5. Walker also accounted for 12 sacks and a forced fumble. He was difficult to contain all year and already has had his name tossed around in NFL Draft conversations. Walker is only a junior in 2023 and could very well end up as the subdivision’s best DE by the time the dust settles this season.
4. Josiah Silver, DE - New Hampshire
New Hampshire made a much-anticipated return to the playoffs last season and Josiah Silver was at the center of it all, at least defensively. The 6-foot-2, DE appeared in 13 games for UNH last fall and dropped the hammer on his opposition all season long. Silver racked up 17.5 tackles for loss, bringing his career total up to 38. He also forced two fumbles, recovered one and authored 8.5 sacks. Silver is as tough to block on the line of scrimmage as it gets and he poses a scheming headache for opposing run games. Now in his junior season, Silver again shapes up to be one of the premier edge rushers in the nation.
3. Thor Griffith, DT - Harvard
Harvard’s Thor Griffith has already generated some NFL Draft buzz and he still has a whole season to go. Hailing from Portsmouth, NH, Griffith has done nothing but dominate for the Crimson since coming aboard in 2020. In two seasons he’s already tallied 10 sacks and 77 tackles. In 2021 he was a finalist for the Jerry Rice Award, an honor given to the top freshman player in the FCS... an impressive feat for a defensive player. Griffith was a First-Team All-Ivy League selection last season for his 12 tackles for loss and five sacks. There’s no reason he can’t be one of the top defensive lineman in the country again this time around.
2. Maxwell Anderson, CB - Weber State
Maxwell Anderson is the best DB in the nation and was an absolute terror for opposing passers in 2022, snagging five interceptions (sixth in the FCS) and registering 44 tackles. Anderson was the Big Sky Conference leader in defended passes with 16 last season as well. If all that wasn’t enough, however, he picked up two blocks on field goal attempts as well. He was named an All-American by four different media outlets for his great efforts last season. Barring injury, the only way Anderson’s numbers should go down in 2023 is if quarterbacks stop throwing his way.
1. John Pius, LB - William & Mary
William & Mary is well-represented in the Top-10 and their star middle man takes our top spot on the list. John Pius is a game-wrecker in every way and his breakout performance last year helped the Tribe go 11-2 and reach the quarterfinals. Pius logged 72 stops, 19.5 tackles for loss and 11 sacks as a sophomore last year, numbers that had him come in second in line for the Buck Buchanan Award. He was rightfully dubbed the CAA’s Defensive Player of the Year as well. Pius will be only a junior this season and should continue to build on an already-impressive career. CAA offenses should be put on notice right now.