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*Would like Reed Blankenship or Kristopher Moll as the pictured player*
The footprint of Conference USA (CUSA) is one of the greatest in all of college football. It stretches from the depths of Florida, way up the Atlantic coastline and then all the way down to El-Paso. Even though the reputation of the programs within it are no match for many of the Power Five schools that occupy the same lands, it needs to be addressed that there is still tons of talent on the field.
Let’s dive in to some of these highly talented, but less known players:
Charlotte 49ers: DE Markees Watts
Watts lit up the stat sheet in 2019 with 62 tackles (13 for loss), 9.5 sacks and forced three fumbles. His 2020 didn’t go as planned, only playing in four games but still managing to get two sacks. The comeback for him should be massive because of what he brings to the table.
He’s got strong and fast hands to knock away the hands of offensive lineman. Also he has a burst that is immediate with the snap of the football that helps him blow past the edge. Watts won’t be an NFL defensive end, but will certainly have a shot to be a 3-4 OLB as an edge rusher.
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs: LB Tyler Grubbs
Grubbs had quite the coming out party in 2020 as a true freshman. He lead the Bulldogs in tackles with 96 total on the season. Everyone was so enthralled with now Philadelphia Eagle Milton Williams on the defensive line that they didn’t really recognize and respect Grubbs’ greatness.
He is quick to diagnose the play and trusts his eyes, allowing him to play fast. When he gets to the ball carrier he is strong and the point of attack and can get anyone to the ground. His abilities to perform at such a high level in the middle will catch the eyes of NFL scouts.
Marshall Thundering Herd: FS Nazeeh Johnson
He’s the unquestioned leader of not just the secondary, but for the whole Marshall defense. Johnson is very active in coverage but also solid in run support. His 29 solo tackles ranked second best on the team as he finished with a total of 59.
The backend organization relies primarily on Johnson and he does a tremendous job. It’s almost like he’s in the middle offensive huddle as he seems to arrive at the perfect time and place. At the end of the day there isn’t too much flash to his game, but his mentality and drive to make the play every time make him a must-see talent.
Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders: FS Reed Blankenship
Some scouting agencies and big boards are starting to realize what a talent Blankenship is and it’s honestly a relief. I’ve been drawn to his game for a long time, especially since his 107 tackle and four interception season in 2018. He’s a player who is a legitimate heat seeking missile and has all the physical tools to succeed in the NFL.
He’s a safety who has already surpassed the 300 tackle mark, and with a full 2021 will likely eclipse the 400 mark. That is absurd for most college players, especially for someone who isn’t a linebacker. I’ve personally seen him as high as the third best safety on draft boards, but if this is your first time hearing about him, grab your popcorn and watch #12.
North Texas Mean Green: LB KD Davis
When you lead the team in tackles you’re doing something right as a defender. Davis has done that two years in a row now at the middle linebacker position, and it’s not a fluke. Maybe just a little undersized in being under 6’0” but the way he plays doesn’t really need the height.
He’s a ferocious attacker who loves to have meet and greets with ball carriers at the line of scrimmage. Though Davis lacks impact play in the passing game, which will probably hurt draft stock down the road, his rush stopping ability is elite. In a full season the likelihood that he crosses the 100 tackle threshold is almost certain.
Southern Miss Golden Eagles: DL Dominic Quewon
I put Quewon here for the sole purpose of his ability to get to the quarterback and force fumbles. He’s got a great burst off the edge and can hand fight to get outside leverage, then sweep around to get into the pocket. If he can start turning those sack-fumbles into recoveries of his own, then he’ll start climbing up the draft board.
UAB Blazers: STAR Kristopher Moll
Moll is hands down one of my favorite defenders in all of college football because he is absolutely ruthless. When he arrived in Birmingham it was to play safety for the Blazers. Even though he did so effectively, his past two seasons as a linebacker were amazing, notably 2019 with 103 tackles, nine sacks and four forced fumbles.
Well now Moll is moving back to the secondary as a hybrid in the STAR role. His pursuit is so sudden and his finishing ability is near the top in all of college football. I can’t wait to see what 2021 brings this talented defender and how high up the draft board he soars.
UTEP Miners: DE Praise Amaewhule
When you’re able to average at least one sack per game played then you’re in really good shape. That’s exactly what Amaewhule dude as he recorded seven sacks in only seven games played. The most impressive aspect of this stat line was how he was able to stack them up in a few games, like the impressive 3.5 sacks he got against Louisiana Tech.
Even though he’s a raw talent and needs some polishing to get to the next level, the increase in production is promising. Not only is the sack line solid but his deflected passes at the line went from three to eight this past season. Making disruptions in the pass game by getting hands in the passing lane is a veteran mindset, and with more experience Amaewhule may start to shoot up the draft board.
UTSA Roadrunners: Safety Rashad Wisdom
Even though Wisdom was a three star prospect out of high school, he plays to an exponentially higher level. He’s a product of the Judson Rockets, an ultra successful program in Converse, Texas. To be quite honest, he’s still a rocket as launches himself downhill in an instant to make a play.
Wisdom is a rightful owner of the #0 on the defense as it seems to always go to one of the best players on the field. Not only did he become a feared ball hawk in 2020 with four interceptions, but also he was tied for third in the country with 60 solo tackles. This will be a player who will rise up draft boards and deliver UTSA with their second ever draft pick on the defensive side of the ball.
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers: EDGE DeAngelo Malone
Malone exploded onto the scene in 2019 as he sacked the quarterback 11.5 times and also had 21 tackles for loss. Last year teams made a concerted effort to slow him down by trying to chip or double team him. Even with the extra attention he was able to still collect six sacks and force two fumbles.
Malone was actually highly projected into the 2021 NFL Draft as an outside linebacker, but he decided to return to Bowling Green for one last ride. His burst on the corner is top shelf, and his ability to make offensive tackles completely uncomfortable is noticeable. Another season of high production and maybe added weight could spotlight his versatility to either be a 3-4 OLB or 4-3 DE at the next level.