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It was a solid season all around for the Sun Belt in 2020, which was highlighted by an incredible run by Coastal Carolina who almost finished undefeated. Also, we saw Power Five squads like Iowa State and Kansas State fall on their home turf to Louisiana and Arkansas State. Let’s take a look at some lesser known players that will be imperative to their teams’ success, and household names in 2021:
Appalachian State Mountaineers: ILB D’Marco Jackson
In reality, all four starting linebackers for the Mountaineers could be on this list. This whole unit is hands down the best in the Sun Belt and quietly one of the best in the nation. Just for how he can impact the game in all areas, we’re rolling with Jackson here.
Last season he was second on the team in tackles with 86, just five shy of the team lead with his partner in the middle, Trey Cobb. His greatness didn’t stop there though, as he was able to snag 2.5 sacks, six passes defensed and two interceptions. Jackson plays strong as one of the bigger linebackers in the conference, being able to eat blocks and finish the play. With another highlight reel season, it’s quite possible that he’ll be hearing his name called at the 2022 NFL Draft.
Arkansas State Red Wolves: STAR CJ Harris
It’s ironic that a player like Harris is without a doubt, the “STAR” of the Red Wolves. In layman’s terms, this is just a gloried hybrid position. Even though he’s tabbed to pull many duties for the defense, it’s quite obvious that his strength is in run support. It’s as if he’s shot out of a cannon when he comes flying downhill to drive ball carriers in reverse.
It all starts with his eyes, as Harris is lightning fast to read the play and react. He just needs more time to really gel in this defense as he was a JUCO transfer that didn’t have the full camp to adjust in 2020. With a full offseason under an experienced coach like Butch Jones, this rising talent will be able to reach his potential as a hybrid, becoming efficient in both coverage and run support.
Coastal Carolina Chanticleers: LB Teddy Gallagher
With arguably one of the best mullets in college football, Gallagher is hard to miss. Opposite from his luscious locks is a tenacious defender who loves to bring the hammer. He’s the unquestioned leader of Jamey Chadwell’s defensive unit and is looking to propel himself up the draft board.
The stat sheet isn’t completely eye popping but that’s just because of how he’s utilized. He’s too valuable to send in on blitzes as he’s collected 216 tackles in three years, with only 2.5 career sacks. Look for him to nearly eclipse that 100 tackle threshold in a season where Coastal could possibly play 14 games.
Georgia Southern Eagles: SS Anthony Wilson
Wilson had a strong coming out party as a redshirt freshman, placing second on the team in tackles with 67. For a youngster he really plays like an experienced and savvy veteran. You can really see him quickly diagnose the play call and go into attack mode.
It’s rare for a year one player to exhibit those instincts on defense and guess right so frequently. When Wilson gets to the ball carrier he usually drives the player backwards. That ability to translate speed into power won’t go unnoticed, and there’s a good possibility that he could be an early exit for the NFL Draft in two years.
Georgia State Panthers: DE Hardrick Willis
As a team last year, the Panthers were one of the most efficient at getting to the quarterback. Even though there were teams who played a lot less football than usual years, it takes nothing away from the fact that they racked up 35 sacks as a team. That was good enough for seventh best in the whole country, tying them with SEC superpowers like Florida and Alabama.
In order to continue the trend of collapsing the pocket, the Panthers need a huge season from Willis. The sack leader from last season, Jordan Strachan, is off to South Carolina, leaving a 10.5 sack gap. As the returning leader in that category, Willis needs to continue his yearly production increase and turn his six into a double digit performance in 2021. He’s definitely up to the task.
Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns: CB Eric Garror
This is a young rising talent that can possibly make it to the NFL as a nickel back. He’s excellent in man coverage and for and for an undersized corner, he high points the football efficiently. The timing he exhibits on downfield shots to separate the receiver from the football is ideal.
His versatility is a main reason he’s on this list. He is the primary punt returner on this squad who puts up a solid return average. As seen week one against Iowa State last season, he can house it in the blink of an eye. Something about defensive backs as returners is just different, such as the college greats like Charles Woodson and Devin Hester.
Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks: LB Traveion Webster
It’s obvious that Webster is the most important piece of this defense. The Warhawks ranked seventh worst in the country in yards allowed per play last season. None of that really has to do with Webster as the supporting cast isn’t much help.
Not only was he the leading tackler on the team with 82, but he was also the leader in sacks with 2.5. Originally a safety out of high school, he still plays with a lot of quickness to the ball. He’s got great finishing ability which could propel him to the 100 tackle mark, and potentially join an All-Sun Belt team.
South Alabama Jaguars: LB Nick Mobley and SS Keith Gallmon
A nice double dip here in Mobile for two studs on the defensive side. Mobley is ultra talented and ruthless as anyone in run defense. He’s on a streak of back to back 90+ tackle seasons and will undoubtedly be able to hit triple digits in a full season. He fits the mold perfectly of star linebackers in this conference who are sub six foot and 220 lbs. that who have speed to match up with ball carriers.
For Gallmon, it’s uncanny for a safety to rack up 59 solo tackles in a season but he did just that. On his way to a total of 84 on the season, he accompanied that with 10 passes defensed and an interception. It’s rare for a non-Power Five safety to be able to impact the game with Gallmon’s frequency.
Both of these guys will be imperative to the Jaguars quest at a Sun Belt crown, especially since they should have a legitimate offense with Jake Bentley under center.
Troy Trojans: LB Carlton Martial
The term tackle machine is floated around a lot, but Martial is the well-oiled edition. In his final four regular season games of 2020 he collected 59 tackles, highlighted by a 21 tackle performance against Coastal Carolina. He’s literally all over the place, shooting through gaps to stop ball carriers.
Martial is only 5’9” and 216 lbs, but has incredible vision and play recognition. His size has never been a hindrance though and it’s actually as if he embraces it. This amazing story of a walk-on who turned into superstar and team leader is one of the better storylines in all of college football.