(STATS) - There is a wide-open feel to who's the best defensive player in the FCS.
None of the top 10 vote-getters for last year's STATS FCS Defensive Player of the Year - an award won by Montana defensive end Tyrone Holmes - has returned for the 2016 season.
Pass rushers have come to the forefront with winning national honors, but this year's 22-player preseason watch list, which was announced Friday, had widespread talent, both conference-wise and position-wise.
Returning finalists were linebackers Christian Kuntz of Duquesne and Kourtney Berry of Alabama State; defensive ends Keionta Davis of Chattanooga, P.J. Hall of Sam Houston State and Derek Rivers of Youngstown State; and cornerback Dee Delaney of The Citadel. Kuntz, the Northeast Conference defensive player of the year, finished the highest at No. 11 in the national voting last season.
Also named to the watch list were defensive ends Pat Afriyie of Colgate, Andrew Ankrah of James Madison, Anthony Ellis of Charleston Southern, Javancy Jones of Jackson State, Caleb Kidder of Montana, Greg Menard of North Dakota State, Ebenezer Ogundeko of Tennessee State and Karter Schult of Northern Iowa; linebackers Dylan Cole of Missouri State, Nick DeLuca of North Dakota State, Darius Leonard of South Carolina State, Folarin Orimolade of Dartmouth and James Rentz of Sacred Heart; cornerback Casey DeAndrade of New Hampshire; and safeties David Jones of Richmond and Donald Payne of Stetson.
The breakdown by position for the preseason watch list: 11 defensive ends, seven linebackers and four defensive backs. All 13 FCS conferences had at least one nominee, with the most coming from the Missouri Valley (five) and CAA Football (three).
The list included players from nine programs which won conference titles a year ago, with DeLuca and Menard teammates from NDSU's Missouri Valley power which has won a record five straight FCS national titles.
The STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year Watch List can undergo revision during the 2016 season. A national panel of over 150 sports information and media relations directors, broadcasters, writers and other dignitaries will vote on the winner following the regular season.
Also this season, STATS will honor the outstanding offensive player in the FCS, a freshman player of the year, a coach of the year and the Eddie & Doris Robinson Scholar-Athlete of the Year.
2016 STATS FCS Defensive Player of the Year Award Watch List=
Pat Afriyie, Colgate, DE, Jr., 6-2, 235=
The most feared pass rusher in the Patriot League, Afriyie helped Colgate win an outright league title and reach the FCS quarterfinals in 2015. … He led the league with 9 1/2 sacks (nine solo) and 17 1/2 tackles for loss (17 solo) and was the Raiders' leader with five forced fumbles and five quarterback hurries. Collected 2 1/2 sacks and 3 1/2 tackles for loss against Yale. … Uses athleticism, quickness and ability to read offensive play selection to get to quarterbacks and ball carriers in the backfield. … Colgate utilizes Afriyie extensively on special teams as well.
Andrew Ankrah, James Madison, DE, Jr., 6-4, 234=
Physically imposing defensive end and hybrid linebacker who was a late-bloomer, having not taken football seriously until his senior year of high school. … He uses quickness and long arms to get to quarterbacks. Also has a 35-inch vertical leap. … Had 3 /2 sacks and forced a pair of fumbles in James Madison's 2015 win at SMU. … Named to the CAA Football first team and the STATS FCS All-America second team. … Ankrah's parents are from Ghana and moved to the United States as young adults. His older brother Jason has played in the NFL in recent seasons.
Kourtney Berry, Alabama State, LB, Sr., 6-0, 215=
Berry was named to the All-Southwestern Athletic Conference first team in each of his first three seasons at Alabama State. Also was the conference's newcomer of the year in 2013, a third-team All-American in 2014 and a second-team All-American in 2015. … Using a physical, sideline-to-sideline style of play, Berry enters his final season with 363 career tackles, leading the conference in tackles in 2013 and '15 and finishing second in 2014. He made every start in those first three seasons ... Lauded for his smart approach to the game, concentrating on the details. … Born on New Year's Day in 1994, Berry is a cousin to his first head coach at Alabama State, Reggie Barlow.
Dylan Cole, Missouri State, LB, Sr., 6-1, 236=
Cole, a fourth-year starter, is a bit overlooked nationally because of Missouri State's recent struggles in the nation's toughest FCS conference - the Missouri Valley. However, conference opponents know him well as he led the Bears in tackles in every game while posting a Valley-best 152 stops in 2015. … He ranked third in the nation with 13.8 tackles per game, and it was 15.4 in conference play. … His attacking style and ability to cover ground from Will linebacker creates matchup problems in both the run and passing games. … Collected a career-high 21 tackles against South Dakota State.
Keionta Davis, Chattanooga, DE, Sr., 6-4, 260=
While playing collegiately in his hometown of Chattanooga, Davis has become a premier pass rusher who will draw NFL interest in 2017. … He has good size (6-foot-4, 260 pounds) and plays with explosiveness and athleticism. … Davis broke former teammate Davis Tull's single-season school record with 13 1/2 sacks in 2015. His 17 tackles for loss led the Southern Conference. … Selected to the 2015 STATS FCS All-America second team. … Has helped the Mocs capture at least a share of three straight SoCon championships.
Casey DeAndrade, New Hampshire, CB, Sr., 5-11, 212=
DeAndrade has specialized in game-changing plays throughout his UNH career. As a three-year starter, he has come up with 11 takeaways (six interceptions, five fumble recoveries), broken up 43 passes and been a standout punt returner. … Both big and fast for a cover corner, he relies on instincts and a disciplined style. In 2015, he led the Wildcats in total tackles (76) and solo tackles (55). … Made the All-CAA Football first team at both defensive back and punt returner as a sophomore and junior. He helped the Wildcats to the No. 1 national ranking in 2014.
Dee Delaney, The Citadel, CB, Jr., 6-1, 191=
A wide receiver in high school, Delaney has continued to find the ball in college through interceptions and pass breakups. Has a lanky body to excel in man-to-man coverage. … Delaney says he subscribes to an even-keel approach in which he respects all opposing receivers. … Helped The Citadel to a share of the 2015 Southern Conference title - the program's first since 1992. … While earning a spot on the STATS FCS All-America first team as a sophomore, he led the SoCon with five interceptions and tied for the conference high with 13 tackles for loss.
Nick DeLuca, North Dakota State, LB, Sr., 6-3, 245=
DeLuca mans the all-important middle linebacker spot for North Dakota State's national championship-winning defense. He's bigger (6-foot-3, 245 pounds) than others who have anchored the middle … On a defensive unit with many standouts, DeLuca's 135 tackles in 2015 were 54 more than any teammate. He also was solid in pass coverage, intercepting two passes and breaking up another six. … Broke into a key role late in the 2014 season, leading the team in tackles in his five starts, including four in the FCS playoffs.
Anthony Ellis, Charleston Southern, DE, Jr., 6-1, 245=
It's no coincidence Ellis had a breakout season in 2015 and Charleston Southern had one of the stingier defenses in the FCS. He totaled 17 1/2 tackles for loss, including seven sacks, among his 54 stops. … Well-rounded, Ellis also had three fumble recoveries, forced a pair, intercepted a pass and blocked a kick. The Buccaneers won the Big South title and Ellis was named to the all-conference first team. … Versatile on the Buccaneers' defensive line, he is smaller than a typical D-tackle but bigger than a typical D-end. Though quiet off the field, he brings confidence and a swagger to the team.
P.J. Hall, Sam Houston State, DE, Jr., 6-1, 280=
The word "beast" comes to mind with the 6-foot-1, 280-pound Hall. He is a physical pass rusher who commands double-teams, yet gets to ball carriers with strength and surprising speed. … The All-Southland Conference standout, a STATS FCS second-team All-American in 2015, racked up 52 tackles for loss in his first two seasons, setting the school record. The total included 23 sacks. … He helped the Bearkats to FCS national semifinal appearances in each of his first two seasons. … He finished third in the voting for the 2014 national freshman of the year award.
David Jones, Richmond, FS, Sr., 6-1, 187=
Jones was the ultimate ball hawk in 2015 as he tied for the FCS high with nine interceptions. His breakthrough season helped Richmond earn a share of the CAA Football title and reach the FCS semifinals. ... Highlighting the campaign were his five takeaways against Albany - a school-record four interceptions and a fumble recovery. The four picks tied the conference mark … Using athleticism in coverage, Jones has taught himself to read quarterbacks. … Also totaled 97 tackles, second-best on the team. … Returning from a broken arm suffered on a punt return against North Dakota State in the FCS semifinals.
Javancy Jones, Jackson State, DE, Sr., 6-2, 230=
Has rotated between defensive end and outside linebacker at Jackson State and been a fierce pass rusher from both positions. … Racked up 91 tackles, 24 1/2 tackles for loss, nine sacks, five quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles as a junior. … Played with two broken hands as a sophomore in 2014 yet had 108 tackles, including 18 for loss. … Was named the SWAC's 2013 freshman of the year. … All-conference selection attended the NCAA Student-Athlete Leadership Forum during the offseason.
Caleb Kidder, Montana, DL, Sr., 6-5, 275=
Brings size and a ball-hungry attitude to the Montana defensive line. Disruptive from either the tackle or end position, Kidder will concentrate on replacing defensive end Tyrone Holmes, the 2015 STATS FCS Defensive Player of the Year, in 2016. … Over his junior and senior seasons, Kidder is wearing Montana's No. 37 legacy jersey, which represents leadership. He lived up to the responsibility in 2015 as the All-Big Sky Conference standout totaled 82 tackles, including 10 for loss. He also broke up six passes with one interception. … Lauded by coaches for his tough, relentless style of play. … Sat out the 2014 season with a wrist injury.
Christian Kuntz, Duquesne, LB, Sr., 6-1, 220=
After missing the 2014 campaign with ACL and meniscus tears, Kuntz returned to the Duquesne lineup as an unstoppable playmaker, leading the Dukes to the Northeast Conference title and earning STATS FCS All-America first-team honors. … The NEC defensive player of the year's ability to rush the quarterback or drop back in coverage reflected as a junior, when he racked up 26 tackles for loss and 11 sacks among his 72 tackles with four interceptions, six pass breakups, six quarterbacks hurries, one fumble recovery and two forced fumbles. … Led the FCS in tackles for loss (1.8 per game) in 2013 while earning All-NEC first-team and All-America third-team honors. … Hometown product of Pittsburgh.
Darius Leonard, South Carolina State, LB, Jr., 6-3, 200=
Leonard is next up as the standout on South Carolina State's perennial power in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. … He made the All-MEAC first team in 2015, totaling 70 tackles, 13 1/2 tackles for loss, five sacks, two interceptions, two pass breakups, two quarterback hurries, one fumble recovery and one forced fumble. … Also was the MEAC rookie of the year in 2014. … SCSU linebackers coach Jonathan Saxon lauds Leonard for his instinctive feel for the game. Leonard is relentless and physical with a high football IQ. … Will likely transition to safety at the pro level.
Greg Menard, North Dakota State, DE, Jr., 6-2, 240=
Came on strong as a freshman in 2014 behind defensive end Kyle Emanuel, the FCS defensive player of the year, and then was a dominant starter for North Dakota State's fifth straight national championship squad in 2015. … Led the Bison in sacks (10), tackles for loss (14 1/2) and quarterback hurries (15), adding 48 tackles, two fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles. … Named to the STATS FCS All-America third team. … Particularly strong on passing downs, he uses speed, a high motor and athleticism to attack opposing quarterbacks from their blind side.
Ebenezer Ogundeko, Tennessee State, DE, Jr., 6-3, 255=
"Ebo" was one of the Ohio Valley Conference's top newcomers in 2015. The former Clemson reserve, who ran into off-the-field problems there, made the All-OVC first team, but his best days at Tennessee State appear ahead of him. … He totaled 52 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, five sacks, three quarterback hurries and a forced fumble in only nine games as a redshirt sophomore. … Versatile enough to get around the edge to a quarterback or power through an opponent. He plays with great effort and intensity.
Folarin Orimolade, Dartmouth, LB, Sr., 5-11, 240=
On a Dartmouth defense that was senior-laden in 2015, it was hard to overshadow Orimolade, who made the All-Ivy League first team and helped the Big Green claim a share of its first league title since 1996. … The outside linebacker finished second in the Ivy League in both sacks (eight) and tackles for loss (12), and led the league in forced fumbles (four). … Though undersized, Orimolade's strength allows him to handle defensive linemen and his quickness can be overwhelming to the opposition. … More than one-third of his tackles through his first three seasons went for losses.
Donald Payne, Stetson, S, Sr., 6-1, 219=
Athletic playmaker has a nose for the football and fills the stat sheet in every way. With his exceptional size for safety (6-foot-1, 219 pounds), he is dangerous on rushes from the edge or with dropping into pass coverage. … Has been named to the All-Pioneer Football League first team in each of his first three seasons and was the defensive player of the year in 2015. … His statistics have been astounding, including a national-high 185 tackles in 2014, when he had 30 tackles (12 solo, 18 assists) against Campbell. Over his first three seasons, he totaled 51 tackles for loss, eight interceptions and 32 pass breakups. … Was named the national freshman of the week after his first career game in 2013 and went on to finish seventh in the postseason voting for FCS freshman of the year.
James Rentz, Sacred Heart, LB, Sr., 6-2, 245=
Two-time Northeast Conference first-team selection reacts well at the snap of the ball and has power and speed in and around the box. A move from middle to outside linebacker aided him in using his strengths … Helped Sacred Heart to a second straight NEC title in 2014 and has led the Pioneers in sacks in back-to-back seasons. … Blocked two field goals when Sacred Heart beat Bryant to clinch the 2014 NEC title. … Sacred Heart defensive coordinator Dave Wissman lauds Rentz as much for his ability to be coached as for his playmaking skills. … Won a Florida state weight lifting title while in high school.
Derek Rivers, Youngstown State, DE, Sr., 6-5, 255=
The trim, but good-sized Rivers (6-foot-5, 255 pounds) enters his senior season already holding the Youngstown State record for career sacks (26). … Ever-improving, Rivers has ability to move around the defensive line or play back in coverage. … He made the All-Missouri Valley first team as both a sophomore and junior, and the STATS FCS All-America third team in 2015. Finished his junior season with 15 1/2 tackles for loss and 13 quarterback hurries, including 11 over the final five games. … He loves to study game film, and that helps him to read offenses well. … Considered an NFL prospect in 2017.
Karter Schult, Northern Iowa, DE, Sr., 6-2, 265=
With a breakout season in 2015, Schult earned STATS FCS All-America second-team honors. He set Northern Iowa records for tackles for loss in a game (five) and season (23). His 15 sacks ranked second for a UNI season and he finished 2015 with 82 tackles as the Panthers reached the FCS quarterfinals. … Destroyed Illinois State with five tackles for loss and two sacks and had another 4 1/2 tackles for loss with three sacks against South Dakota State. … Capable of playing inside or on the edge of the UNI defensive line. Figures to draw double-teams throughout his senior season.