(STATS) - The FCS is a haven for players who generally fall just short on the prototypical size chart for the FBS level.
And yet so many undersized linebackers continually come up big in the FCS ranks.
They're overlooked, motivated and really good.
Tyler Drake of Penn, Stephen Hodge of Fordham, John Hugunin of Drake and Christian Kuntz of Duquesne fall under all those categories this season. As a result, they each earned a nomination Wednesday to the STATS FCS Defensive Player of the Year Watch List, as did Sam Houston State defensive end P.J. Hall, who returned to the list one year after finishing third in the national freshman of the year award.
Voting for the defensive player of the year award will take place next week, with the top three vote-getters from 25 finalists being invited to the STATS FCS Awards Banquet on Jan. 8 in Frisco, Texas.
Tyler Drake, Penn, LB, Sr., 6-2, 220, Plantation, Florida=
Penn has enjoyed a resurgence after two straight losing seasons with Drake as its top defensive playmaker working all over the field. He ranks first in the Ivy League in sacks (8.5), tackles for loss (12) and forced fumbles (four), and third in tackles per game (8.1). He helped the Quakers move into a tie for first place Saturday by ending Harvard's FCS-high 22-game winning streak. His younger brother Dylan also plays in the conference at Yale, with Tyler earning family bragging rights with a win last month.
P.J. Hall, Sam Houston State, DE, R-So., 6-1, 270, Seguin, Texas=
Hall had a slower-than-expected start this season while continually facing double-teams from opponents, but the third-place finisher for 2014 national freshman of the year has been on a recent tear in Southland Conference play, wrecking so many of his opponents' game plans. He leads Sam Houston in tackles (45) - which isn't common for a defensive end - as well as tackles for loss (12) and sacks (seven). He also has intercepted a pass, recovered a fumble, forced a fumble, blocked a kick and broken up two passes. A year ago, he blocked an FCS-high five kicks.
Stephen Hodge, Fordham, LB, R-Sr., 6-2, 196, Medford, New Jersey=
Hodge won the 2013 Patriot League defensive player of the year award and may win it again for Fordham's nationally ranked team as he's come back in a big way from a preseason knee injury a year ago. He fills the box score, as evident through his 109 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, three interceptions, three pass breakups, two quarterback hurries, one fumble recovery, two forced fumbles and one blocked kick. A wide receiver in high school, he uses his speed to his advantage as he flies around the field.
John Hugunin, Drake, LB, R-Sr., 5-11, 232, Oswego, Illinois=
To emphasize Hugunin's stellar play this season, note that his nine forced fumbles are four more than any other player in the FCS. He was named the STATS FCS National Defensive Player of the Week for his 20-tackle game against Jacksonville, including 1.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. He ranks third in the Pioneer Football League with 10.3 tackles per game and his 14 tackles for loss are tied for the second-most. In 10 games, he has 104 tackles with five sacks, three fumble recoveries, one interception, three pass breakups, one blocked punt and one safety. He will finish as Drake's tackle leader for the third time in his career.
Christian Kuntz, Duquesne, LB, R-Jr., 6-1, 210, Pittsburgh=
Like Hodge, Kuntz missed the 2014 season with a knee injury, but he's made up for lost time while helping Duquesne move into first place in the Northeast Conference with a chance to earn the title and a first-ever bid to the FCS playoffs. While starring for the Dukes in his hometown of Pittsburgh, he has surpassed his 2013 total of 19.5 tackles for loss with 20.5 this season, which ranks third nationally. He's third in the NEC with 6.5 sacks, and he has 59 tackles, four interceptions, six pass breakups, six quarterback hurries, one fumble recovery and one forced fumble.
Other players on the STATS FCS Defensive Player of the Year Watch List are defensive ends James Cowser of Southern Utah, Keionta Davis of Chattanooga, Tyrone Holmes of Montana, Victor Ochi of Stony Brook, Derek Rivers of Youngstown State, Noah Spence of Eastern Kentucky and Chima Uzowihe of Liberty; defensive tackles Javon Hargrave of South Carolina State and O.J. Mau of Gardner-Webb; linebackers Kourtney Berry of Alabama State, Don Cherry of Villanova, Deon King of Norfolk State, Darnell Sankey of Sacramento State and Myke Tavarres of Incarnate Word; cornerbacks DeVonta "Dee" Delaney of The Citadel, Deiondre' Hall of Northern Iowa, Jermaine Hough of Jacksonville State and Harlan Miller of Southeastern Louisiana; and safeties DeAndre Houston-Carson and William & Mary and Patrick Onwuasor of Portland State.
A national panel of over 150 sports information and media relations directors, broadcasters, writers and other dignitaries will select the award winner.