We continue our Conference USA Preseason Position Reviews by looking at the defensive linemen in the conference. The grading categories: “Great Shape,” “Good Shape,” and “We’ll See.”
To elaborate on the grades, “We’ll See” means exactly what it means. We have no idea if that position is going to turn out to be a plus due to a lack of proven contributors and questionable depth. At this time, there’s no way to know.
“Good Shape” means known commodities are at the position, but there’s room for this unit to improve. Depth is above average to good, with a player or two having the potential to make an All-C-USA Team.
“Great Shape” means All-C-USA performers are at this position or there is good-to-great depth across the board. You want your team to be here.
1. WKU: The Hilltoppers will be anchored by DeAngelo Malone, the reigning Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year. WKU will feature seasoned depth along the line, as four of WKU’s top contributors return this season. Juwuan Jones is also a player to watch as he recorded 7 sacks last season.
2. UAB: The loss of Garrett Marino will sting, but the Blazers are pretty well stocked moving forward. Jordan Smith returns at the edge hybrid spot after being named to the Second Team All-Conference USA list. Few players in this conference can get after the quarterback like Smith can. Sophomore Alex Wright plays in the same role and is also incredibly explosive. Tony Fari is also a force in the interior, but the Blazers will be elite on the edge.
3. Southern Miss: Jacques Turner returns as one of the top players in the conference. The D’Iberville, Mississippi, product has totaled 31.5 TFLs and 14.5 sacks through his first three years at Southern Miss. JUCO transfer Eriq Kitchen also returns after making a strong impact in his first season in Hattiesburg, however there isn’t a ton of depth past these two.
4. North Texas: Dayton Leblanc made an immediate impact as a freshman, with 30 tackles and 2.5 TFLs while playing in all 12 games. Caleb Colvin started three games last year and should see more starts in 2020. Dion Novil is one of the best DL in the conference, a monster at 6’4”, 315 pounds. Novil has NFL potential. This is the final go-round for DT Bryce English who was highly rated coming out of HS but has rarely played at the collegiate level. The Mean Green just need a bit more depth.
5. ODU: Keion White is the name to watch along the Monarchs’ defensive line. White converted over from tight end last year and wasted no time in putting his athleticism into play. White totaled 19 tackles for loss and finished the season with 3.5 sacks. Former head coach Bobby Wilder’s son Derek returns as a starter, while Jeremy Meiser and Juwan Ross bring experience to the interior of the line.
6. FIU: Losing Teair Tart will hurt, but Alexy Jean-Baptiste returns to stabilize the position. Rashad Colson will look to step up after recording three tackles and 1.5 TFLs in the Camellia Bowl. Noah Curtis should also continue to trend towards being an impact player. Several guys have some starting experience, but these same returning players weren’t great against the run last year.
7. Rice: As is the case for the entirety of their defense, Rice returns several players with starting experience from last year’s team. While the Owls have experience in spades, they’re in need of a guy to take the step up to all-conference level play. Redshirt senior Elijah Garcia is on the bubble of being that type of player, while sophomore De’Braylon Carroll has sky-high potential and will be thrust into a starting role following the graduation of Myles Adams.
8. Charlotte: Replacing Alex Highsmith will be no easy task, as Highsmith was the focal point of the defense last year before being drafted into the NFL. Markees Watts returns as an all-conference performer. Timmy Horne is a big plug in the middle. Bryan Wallace played well as a freshman and could really blossom this season.
9. UTSA: With a new staff in place, UTSA will make the transition to an odd-man front. Thankfully for the Roadrunners, they return a good amount of talent from last year’s squad. Standout Solomon Wise will transition to an edge hybrid position, a better fit for him than a traditional defensive end. Guys like Jaylon Haynes and Lorenzo Dantzler have the talent to make UTSA’s transition to three down linemen a successful one. There isn’t a clear star on the line, but plenty of serviceable bodies.
10. Louisiana Tech: Milton Williams had a huge season last year with 9 TFLs as a sophomore, but he won’t have Courtney Wallace next to him drawing double teams anymore. The Bulldogs are short on experienced depth, as Willie Baker is the only returning starter other than Williams.
11. Marshall: Darius Hodge is an explosive and talented player who finished last season with 7 sacks. Koby Cumberlander had 4.5 sacks last year and will provide senior leadership. Rodney Croom is a steady presence but needs to make more plays behind the line of scrimmage.
12. UTEP: Redshirt sophomore Praise Amaewhule is a rare young bright spot for the Miners’ defense. The defensive end totaled 28 tackles and 5.5 TFLs last year, while also scoring a defensive touchdown. Defensive tackle Dedrick Simpson had some quality performances last season, as did Josh Ortega. UTEP will be very dependent on JUCO additions to add depth this season.
13. Middle Tennessee: Jorden Starling is a promising young DE that could turn the corner this season. Juju Williams redshirted after an injury last year, but he was a four star recruit coming out of high school. Jordan Ferguson made the C-USA All Freshman team two years ago but has struggled with injuries since then. Rakavian Poydras is a returning starter with 48 tackles and 7 TFL throughout his career. The Blue Raiders lost three seniors and need to find standouts to replace their production.
14. FAU: Leighton McCarthy returns at DE after posting 10 TFLs, 6 sacks, 30 tackles. The Owls lost a ton of senior leadership up front and will rely on new faces to have an immediate impact this season.