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The five most important players on UTSA’s defense

Expected to be one of the toughest in Conference USA, UTSA’s defense is loaded with playmakers this year.

NCAA Football: New Mexico Bowl-New Mexico at Texas-San Antonio Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

One of the main generators fueling the hype behind this season’s Roadrunners team - beside the rising popularity of Frank Wilson - is the program’s defense. The unit, which finished fourth overall in C-USA last season and second in the western division, is stacked with talent in every position group. The depth of this defense will allow for UTSA to have their best season to date, and compete with the upper-echelon foes on their schedule like Houston and La Tech. If the Roadrunners are to live up to this year’s high expectations, their defense will need to sit atop C-USA West.

The unit combines veteran experience with strong young talent and together they make up the focal point of UTSA’s game plan. A big part last year’s success came from their defense being the best part of their offense. Not many opponents were able to sustain long, grueling drives against UTSA last year, which gave the offense plenty of opportunity to score. They’re strong on third down and generate turnovers every week. In fact, they led the conference in forced fumbles last year.

These are the playmakers that will anchor UTSA’s defense this year:

Josiah Tauaefa - Linebacker, So.

The new face of the Roadrunners, Josiah Tauaefa, begins his sophomore campaign being named preseason first-team All-Conference USA. In his first year of play, the Polynesian Hercules put the league on notice after ranking third overall in total tackles and being named Conference USA Freshman of the Year. He set a program record for the most tackles in a single season and was second among freshmen in tackles for the entire FBS.

This year his numbers and accolades will be only more impressive after a full season of experience under his belt. The 6’1”, 240 pound middle linebacker plays the purest, yet most ferocious form of football. The speed/size combination is one thing, but Tauaefa has a very high football IQ. He has a natural feel for the game that allows him to anticipate where the ball is going. Honestly, his nose for the football is almost like a sixth sense; he always seems to be where the ball is going before it gets there.

Tauaefa assumes a tremendous responsibility at middle linebacker, but Wilson and defensive coordinator Pete Golding trust the young sophomore to continue to excel as a defensive leader.

Marcus Davenport - Defensive End, Sr.

Davenport is one of the most seasoned veterans on the Roadrunners’ defense. He’s played in 35 of UTSA’s last 37 games going back to 2014, and this year will be he’ll be a three-year starter. Last season he led the team in sacks and was second in tackles for loss as the premier backfield rusher. He’ll have the same expectations this year in causing pressure, and he’ll also assume leadership of UTSA’s defensive line.

Davenport is a hometown kid out of Stevens High School, and through his time at UTSA he’s really blossomed into quite the rusher. He had to grow up quickly as a freshman getting snaps in 11 contests, and held his own fairly well. After his sophomore year he earned honorable mention All-Conference and last season he was named to the second team. 2016 was a standout year for him, registering a career-high 11 tackles against UTSA’s toughest opponent, #22 Texas A&M. His numbers improve every year, and expect him to go out with force as he attempts to battle for a late-round draft selection.

Davenport enters this season number two in pass rush productivity and number four in total backfield pressures among returning C-USA edge defenders. He was also named to 247 Sports’ Top 247 Players in college football. He’s got pro talent in every regard; a lot people are going to learn his name this year.

Nate Gaines - Free Safety, Sr.

Nate Gaines takes over as defensive team captain following the departure of Michael Egwuagu. Gaines has the responsibility of blanketing the field but has really developed into a ball hawk as he batted down eight passes last year and nine the year prior. Gaines has a burst of speed the enables him to cover the secondary with precision. Him and Egwuagu became quite the duo over the past two seasons, developing a “bash brothers” type of identity on the field as the two racked up tackles and lateraled interception returns into the endzone.

This year, Gaines assumes full responsibility as the defense’s voice and leader in the huddle. He’s the longest-tenured Roadrunner in the secondary. Gaines’ strongest attribute is his speed and length; over the last two seasons he’s proven capable of hanging with the better receivers in the conference. One point of emphasis he needs to up this season is his interceptions total. If Gaines can manage to force more turnovers to couple his pass break-ups and high tackle numbers, he could find an opportunity as an undrafted free agent or late-round pick.

Devron Davis - Cornerback, Sr.

The cornerback group is probably the only part of UTSA’s defense with legitimate question marks. Most of the group is relatively young only having last season under their belts with UTSA. Davis pairs with Austin Jupe as the only seniors in the unit, but we anticipate Davis getting tasked with the hardest assignment on the field. Last season he really strutted his stuff against #22 Texas A&M and also had a keynote performance against Arizona State.

He got ample time at Merced (California) JUCO before transferring over to UTSA, and received all-conference accolades with the Golden Coast League following his sophomore season. Last year with the Roadrunners he saw action in all 13 games and proved himself as a starter in the final three. He’s got good break-up ability and never got burned in the secondary. Pro Football Focus holds him in high regards as a draft prospect.

La’Kel Bass - Linebacker, Sr.

UTSA’s biggest strength on defense is undoubtedly the linebacker unit. Alongside the phenom Tauaefa is hard-nosed veteran La’Kel Bass. Bass tranferred to UTSA in the spring of 2015 and played in every game last year. He racked up 11 tackles for loss and was second overall on the team in total tackles with 87. There was actually a four-game stretch in which Bass led the team in tackles every week.

We saw him cause a lot of backfield havoc throughout the year, and this blitz will be what makes UTSA so terrorizing. Golding’s arsenal of schemes will pain opposing offensive lines, especially with Bass coming up the alley. Also, this team is very difficult to beat in the flat with this group of linebackers. All of them are quick enough to pick up a receiver and stop a running back. Bass has the talent to earn an at least honorable mention All-Conference, and now with a full season under Golding’s defense I expect him to be one of the more dominant linebackers in the league.

Honorable Mention

Marcos Curry - Linebacker, Sr.

Longest tenured linebacker on UTSA’s roster, Curry has been fine-tuned into a sound ball stopper for the Roadrunners.

Kevin Strong, Jr. - Defensive End, Jr.

One of Larry Coker’s most coveted recruits, Strong is poised to have a breakout season this year. The league will be on notice after the first leg of the schedule.

Austin Jupe III - Cornerback, Sr.

Jupe showed some great flashes last season, he’ll continue to be tasked with the harder assignments for UTSA.