Here we continue our position series in the Sun Belt as we move to the defensive side of the ball. If you’re running behind, you can check out quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers/tight ends, and offensive lines at the links. Here the Sun Belt has some impressive pass rushers returning and we’ll go over how each program stands entering the fall. Let’s ride!
Top of the Food Chain
UL-Lafayette: Experience and a Young Star
The Cajuns entered 2016 with some questions about the front of their 4-2-5 scheme but those were easily answered. The emergence of a redshirt freshman by the name of Joe Dillon made a very nice addition to a solid front seven last fall. The Tylertown, Mississippi native led the defensive line in tackles while also recording 12.5 TFL (tackles for loss) and 7 sacks. The sophomore should be a consensus All-Sun Belt selection. Joining Dillon will be six seniors with extensive experience at both tackle and end. Trev Miller will line up opposite of Dillon at the other edge and recorded 4 sacks in his first year over from Itawamba CC. Tabaris Lee (6’2”, 295 lbs.) and Kevon Perry (6’1”, 301 lbs.) provide ULL with some nice size inside. The Cajuns should be able to be a legit two-deep at each position and have the most depth in the Sun Belt. JUCO transfer Bennie Higgins should be added to the mix coming over from Mississippi Delta JC. The Cajuns were awesome against the run last year (34th in S&P+) and that should continue with the best front in the league. UL-Lafayette must find someone to complement Dillon as they were only 97th in adjusted sack rate and struggled to stop the pass all of 2016.
Arkansas State: Potential All-American
The defending Sun Belt Player of the Year Ja’Von Rolland-Jones is returning to Jonesboro and he seems poised for a record setting year. JRJ recorded 20.5 TFL last year to go along with 13.5 sacks. He has improved on his sack number each season and should be a wrecking ball this fall coming off the edge.
Meanwhile, the Red Wolves lost a a chunk of the supporting cast among the front and will need Alabama transfer Dee Liner to really up his game. The Muscle Shoals, Alabama native will need a big year at defensive tackle and he certainly has the potential. Meanwhile, the Red Wolves will be searching at the other two positions along the frontline. Senior Caleb Caston, redshirt junior Jarrod Chandler, and junior Griffin Riggs could all split time at the edge opposite JRJ. The addition of JUCO transfers Tony Adams and Josh Curry should address Arkansas State’s nose position. However, depth could be a concern for Arkansas State upfront this fall.
Appalachian State: Sound and Physical
App State had the best defense in the Sun Belt last fall, coming in at 27th in S&P+, and a lot of that had to do with the front of their 3-4 defense. In coordinator Nate Woody’s scheme, the job of the front is to occupy blockers. However, the Mountaineers have some dudes that can make some plays as well. Ends Caleb Fuller and Tee Sims combined for 17.5 TFL and 10 sacks last season. That’s nearly a third of their tackles. That’s an impressive group to have on the edge. Meanwhile, tackle Myquan Stout will have a chance to be one of the best nose techniques in the conference. For depth, App State is expecting for junior Okon Godwin, junior E.J. Scott and redshirt freshman Chris Willis to compete for time. The Mountaineers pulled in two three-star prospects this past recruiting class in Zeke Brandle and Jermaine McDaniel who could help contribute. McDaniel was in for the spring and had offers from Coastal Carolina, Old Dominion, Georgia Tech, and Miami (OH).
South Alabama: A Lot Of Depth
The Jags return nearly all of their defensive line production from last year and their putrid numbers against the rush and the pass have to improve. Sophomore tackle Tyree Turner is the star of the group as he posted 50 tackles in his rookie campaign. Louisville transfer Finesse Middleton flashed potential as a pass rusher last season and he should flourish in a starter’s role. Senior Chason Milner gives USA a solid back up at end while nose Zach Belfort gets the job done inside. With 2015 starters Tre Alford and Jimmie Gibson returning from injury, this unit has a chance to go 10-deep. Look for Missouri transfer Rocel McWilliams to make an impact this fall. This may be the most talented group in the Sun Belt. We’ll see if they can put up results.
Room For Improvement
Troy: Replacing a Pass Rush Specialist
Defensive end Rashad Dillard was a monster coming of the edge for the Trojans last fall as he recorded 13.5 TFL and 7.5 sacks. He leaves some big shoes to fill, but the Troy program has big expectations for JUCO transfer Rasool Clemons. Clemons should be an opening day starter for Vic Koenning’s defense and the one time Ole Miss commit has the size (6’5” 240 lbs.) to contribute at the FBS level. Meanwhile, Clemons will have plenty of help as Troy has the most impressive interior d-line combination in the Sun Belt. Baron Poole II and Jamal Stadom both enter their senior years after impressing as juniors. The combo combined for 17.5 TFL and their quickness gives a lot of offensive lines problems. Meanwhile, senior Seth Calloway is being slid out to defensive end and he should be solid on the edge. Depth is a concern and true freshman Travon Mathis could come in at play at either tackle or end. The success of this group will likely come down to if Clemons can come close to producing the pass rush that Dillard gave Troy. If not, Koenning will have to get extra creative.
Georgia State: Starters Are Strong But That Bench...
In Shawn Elliott’s first season in Atlanta he’ll inherit an impressive front four. Junior Marterious Allen and redshirt senior Mackeny Cheridor may be the best edge duo in the league and the two will be counted on to produce a lot of havoc in coordinator Nate Fuqua’s scheme. Meanwhile redshirt senior Julien Laurent should be a productive player inside and sophomore Terry Thomas returns after contributing 17 tackles as a true frosh. After these four, it’s gets very thin for the Panthers. If any of these guys are bit by the injury bug, things could get ugly for Georgia State. The stats weren’t pretty for the Panthers last year but the starters in Atlanta are as strong as any in the league.
Idaho: Can Aikeem Coleman Do It All?
Coleman was the biggest surprise in the Fun Belt in 2016 and he was recognized at the conclusion of the season as he was named Newcomer of the Year. The senior from Hattiesburg, MS recorded 41 tackles, 11 TFL, and eight sacks in his first season in Moscow. However, the Vandals lost the other starters in their 3-4 scheme upfront and that is where questions will need to be answered. Senior Arie Anderson will need to step up production after moving over from the JUCO ranks and playing in a reserve role in 2016. Zach Cable has played in a limited role in his first three years at Idaho and will be thrown into the mix. Depth is a big question and Idaho was at the bottom of the league in recruiting. Coleman will need to be a superstar.
Georgia Southern: Tyson Summers Addressed Some Needs
The Georgia Southern defensive line was respectable last season as their defensive line graded out well everywhere except for adjusted sack rate. A big jump is needed to be made by that group, but the potential is there. Junior defensive end Logan Hunt is the best player returning and Southern will need the Sandersville, Georgia native to really step up his production (34 tackles, 3 TFL in 2016). Hunt will be joined by defensive end Deshon Cooper, who redshirted last season after transferring from Copiah-Lincoln CC, and senior tackle Darrius Sapp. Summers did a solid job on the recruiting trail by scooping up three 3-star prospects that all will have a chance to contribute. Savannah, Georgia native Brian Miller had an impressive offer list and could play either inside or outside. Georgia Southern should probably go young sooner rather than later.
It’s Still Ugly
New Mexico State: Experience But Little Production
The Aggies were absolutely horrible on defense last year 120th overall, 87th against the rush, and 126th against the pass. They were in the cellar of the Sun Belt all season and wasted what was a decent offense. However, the good news for head coach Doug Martin is that the Aggies get a lot back in 2017. Among the returnees are six defensive lineman that recorded tackles last season. Seniors Stody Bradley and Kourtland Busby were the most productive of the group as they combined for 12 TFL and two sacks. Junior Jassavia Reese also returns and could be a starter on opening day. Sophomore Roy Lopez returns at nose and he had a decent freshman season recording 23 tackles. The Aggies should have enough bodies to go eight-deep and JUCO transfer Tre Randle is an impressive looking prospect at 6’7” 245 lbs. The Aggies will be much improved on the d-line from 2016 but that’s not saying much.
ULM: Production Returning But the Numbers in 2016 Were Ugly
It’s definitely rebuild time in Monroe and the defensive line is no different. The Warhawks ranked in the triple-digits in nearly all rushing statistics and were very poor in rushing the passer. However, ULM gets a lot of guys back this fall and senior defensive end Caleb Tucker will lead the way. The Monroe native and Houston transfer led the defensive line in tackles, TFL, and sacks last year. Inside, junior Tyler Johnson and sophomore Jaylen Weasley give the Warhawks some size while junior Shaquille Warren is versatile enough to play inside or out. Sophomores Donald Louis, Jr. and Sam Miller got some reps as freshman and will need to take a big step forward in year two. The numbers are there for a nice rotation, we’ll see if the production can improve.
Coastal Carolina: Do the Chants Have the Size To Compete?
It will be Coastal’s first year competing at the FBS level, and man, they are really small on the defensive line. The Chants return players that come in at 230, 240, 255, 265, and 270 lbs. That’s worrisome going against some big, physical offensive lines week in and week out. Senior Marcus Williamson is the best of the bunch as he recorded 48 tackles, nine TFL, and 3.5 sacks. Opposite of Williamson, sophomore Myles White is solid complement at the other edge in CCU’s 4-3 scheme. White recorded 6.5 TFL and 3.5 sacks as a freshman last season. Inside is where the Chants may be in trouble as they are going to be pretty small but Dwayne Price and Ja’ree Tolbert have some experience. Incoming freshman Octavius Pringle is listed at 6’2” 280 lbs. and Coastal will need size to beef up the rotation.
Texas State: Still Rebuilding
Going into Everett Withers’ seconds season in San Marcos, the defensive line is still a work in progress. The Bobcats return three players that received playing time last season and the good thing is they will all be underclassmen in 2017. Junior Ishmael Davis led the way and recorded 42 tackles, six TFL, one sack, and two blocked kicks. Sophomores Jordan Mittie and Dean Taylor produced as true frosh and combined for 5.5 TFL and two sacks. The Bobcats will be looking to the Sun Belt’s top recruiting class for help as JUCO Sami Awad may be the opening day starter at nose and freshman Gjemar Daniels provides some good size for the tackle position. It’s still won’t be pretty but the Texas State d-line will be improved.