Welcome back to our annual offseason series, Conference USA Preseason Position Reviews. This year will be the fifth installment of the series in which we try to determine who has the best roster in C-USA on paper.
For those who are new around here, the format is simple. There are three grading categories: “Great Shape,” “Good Shape,” and “We’ll See.” If you don’t know what those categories mean, then I suggest you go back and check out the other posts in this season’s series so far.
We’ll be keeping track of the grades as each team will receive points based on the category their position groups were placed in. “Great Shape” will result in three points, “Good Shape” two points, “We’ll See” one point.
At the end of the series, there will be a final tally of which teams appear good enough on paper to contend for the conference title.
Please note that only defensive tackles and nose tackles from odd-man fronts are included in our rankings. Edge players that play a hybrid of defensive end and outside linebacker are included in our linebacker preview.
UTSA – With the additions of Tulane transfer Brandon Brown and Kansas State transfer Ronald Triplette, the Roadrunners’ defensive line suddenly went from a strong unit to an excessively deep unit. UTSA returns all but 36 snaps from last year’s defensive line which saw strong performances from defensive tackles Brandon Matterson, Christian Clayton, and Jaylon Haynes. Defensive ends Lorenzo Dantzler and DeQuarius Henry also played at a high-level last season, while pass-rushing specialist Trumane Bell recorded five sacks. The Roadrunners go three deep at every position.
UAB – Honorable mention all-conference selection Tyree Turner highlights this group as he returns for his SEVENTH season of NCAA football (five at South Alabama, two at UAB). Turner primarily protected against the run as a defensive tackle but Bill Clark started to use Turner as a nose tackle more often later in the season. Antonio Moultrie is also back after earning second-team all-conference honors last season. Moultrie is a dynamic player at 6’4”, 285. The big man saw snaps at nose tackle, defensive tackle, defensive end, and outside linebacker last fall. That versatility gives Defensive Coordinator David Reeves a lot of different options for blitz packages. The only notable loss for UAB is super senior Tony Fair who opted to transfer to Auburn for his final season of play. Fair was adept as a space eater in the middle of the defense, but guys like Micario Stanley and Fish McWilliams will have an opportunity to step up and fill the void.
UTEP – The Miners’ one-two punch of Praise Amaewhule and Keenan Stewart are among the best duos you’ll find along any defensive line in this conference. Amaewhule recorded six sacks in eight games at defensive end, while Stewart was credited with 16 quarterback hurries from the defensive tackle spot where his alignment was mixed between a 1 technique and a 3 technique as UTEP shifted from even to odd-man fronts. Amaewhule has put on extra weight this offseason to prepare for the NFL Draft. Kelton Moss will man the other defensive tackle spot after recording 10 stops last season, while Jadrian Taylor and Josh Ortega will battle it out at defensive end. Taylor was effective as a pass rusher last season but struggled with bringing down ball carriers.
Marshall – Defensive tackle Jamare Edwards returns after a stellar 2020 which built upon his promising 2019 debut. Edwards is an elite player in run defense and also contributes well in the pass rush. The second-team all-conference selection could have NFL opportunities develop for him if he keeps progressing in 2021. Freshman Immanuel Bush worked his way into the rotation last season and performed well at defensive tackle. While Bush is undersized, he boasts impressive strength and flexibility as a former wrestler. Rodney Croom will look to bounce back from a slightly underwhelming season. Esaias Carpenter will round out the returners after a solid but inconsistent 2020 season. Carpenter will need to be more involved in the pass rush with the Herd losing standout edge rusher Darius Hodge. Former four-star recruit Steven Faucheux will be joining the program from Purdue, but Faucheux did not record a snap in his two seasons with the Boilermakers.
WKU – NFL Draft hopeful Deangelo Malone returns for another year at defensive end after falling just a bit short of expectations in 2020 (six sacks vs 14 in 2019 and eight in 2018). While Malone’s return is welcomed news for Hilltopper fans, Freshman All-American Ricky Barber will be finishing his career at UCF instead of in Bowling Green as former WKU defensive line coach Kenny Martin also heads to Orlando. Juwuan Jones will complement Malone at the other defensive end position, but WKU will need to find a standout on the interior to draw double teams off of Malone and Jones.
FAU – Freshman Evan Anderson was incredibly impressive in his first year in Boca as he excelled against both the run and the pass. Surprisingly explosive at 6’3”, 325 pounds, Anderson is a force in the A gap for the Owls’ defense. Defensive tackle Jaylen Joyner is the best player on this line and returns after recording six sacks and 40 tackles in 2020. The Owls have a lot of young talent that should benefit from receiving plenty of snaps last season.
USM – I think the USM defensive line is the definition of the “Good Shape” category. They return their top three defensive linemen from last season (Tahj Sykes, Terence Cherry, and Eriq Kitchen) however only one of the Golden Eagles’ linemen won all-conference recognition last season (Sykes was an honorable mention). USM has bodies on the roster but they need to find more standouts. The good news is that hope is on the way —USM could definitely end the season with one of the best defensive lines in the league. Jacques Turner (18 career sacks) returns after sitting out the 2020 season, while three other P5 transfers are set to join the roster in the fall. Similar to FAU, the raw talent level is so high that I have faith things will work out for this unit.
UNT – The Mean Green’s run defense was atrocious last year despite having the best nose tackle in the conference in Dion Novil. UNT’s inability to stop the run (or the pass, or anything), spurred Seth Littrell to bring veteran defensive coordinator Phil Bennett out of retirement. Bennett will move the defense to a four man front which means that twins Grayson Murphy and Gabriel Murphy will move to a traditional defensive end role. One of the biggest questions for this team is whether or not the Murphy twins will be able to smoothly transition to having their hand in the turf as undersized defensive ends. Will they be able to hold up against the run while retaining their explosiveness in the pass rush?
Rice – Interior linemen Elijah Garcia and De’Braylon Carroll are among the best in the conference while defensive end Trey Schuman also returns after leading the team in TFL last year (4.5 in 5 games). While those three make a solid core for the unit, the depth surrounding them is unproven. Incoming freshman Cal Verner could be forced into action early at defensive end thanks to his mature technical ability on the edge.
La Tech – Defensive tackle Milton Williams was drafted in the third round of the NFL Draft and the Bulldogs will greatly miss his massive presence in the gut of the defense. While Williams is off to greener pastures, Louisiana Tech will get a boost from the return of Willie Baker. After sitting out the 2020 season, Baker is listed as a defensive lineman on the roster after starting games at both defensive end and outside linebacker in 2019. Redshirt freshman Keivie Rose figures to land starting snaps at defensive tackle after recording 23 tackles last season. C-USA honorable mention Eric Kendizor also returns at defensive end.
FIU – The Panthers employed a deep rotation in 2020 with seven different players seeing over 100 snaps despite FIU playing just five games last season. However, due to graduation and the transfer portal, look for some new faces to try and bolster a defensive line that for the third straight season finished in the bottom third in C-USA in sacks per game from the down linemen. Former Indiana defensive tackle Jeremy Passmore and Texas State LB/DL Hal Vinson have joined the group that returns stalwart end Kevin Oliver. Keep an eye on redshirt sophomore Davon Strickland as the defensive tackle earned C-USA All-Conference honorable mention in his first full season in the rotation.
Charlotte – The 49ers were dealt a tough blow when Timmy Horne accepted a graduate transfer opportunity at Kansas State. With Charlotte’s best player on the defensive line now out of the program they’ll look for Mikel Horton to take the next step after starting in three of the 49ers’ six games last fall. Former SEC lineman Siah Sa’o has potential as a space-eater in the middle of the defense, while Iowa State transfer Joshua Bailey could bring some much-needed athleticism to the unit.
ODU – Marcus Haynes is the only standout left from 2019’s defensive line (5.5 career sacks) so ODU is pretty much starting over at this position. Minnesota transfer Deeve Harris likely has the highest ceiling on the line, however, Harris recorded just one tackle in the Big 10. Expect a lot of young Monarchs to see the field extensively this fall.
MTSU – Defensive end Jordan Ferguson is a cornerstone of the defense but there are a lot of question marks after that. Defensive tackle Rakavian Poydras has graduated, leaving the interior of the defense sparse in talent. Young defensive ends Jorden Starling and Richard Kinley have shown some promise and Memphis transfer Joseph Honeysucker could factor into the equation.