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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. The conference as a whole looks to be on the upswing heading into next season.
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: QB Chase Brice
Replacing a three year starter at quarterback like Zac Thomas wasn’t going to be easy, but the transfer portal snag of Brice alleviated the loss. He’s played a ton of meaningful football in the ACC at both Clemson and Duke. Even though his stint last year with the Blue Devils was hardly a success, it helped him grow.
When surrounded by superior athletes at Clemson, he was very efficient and took care of the ball. He now has a chance to learn from his mistakes at Duke and comes into a very promising situation for the Mountaineers. Brice has plenty of arm strength, accuracy and undervalued escapability to be a hit in the Sun Belt. Plus, his leadership and experience against top tier talent will help him coach up and motivate his teammates.
Arkansas State Red Wolves: QB Layne Hatcher
It’s finally time for the Red Wolves faithful to hop aboard the Layne Train. Hatcher has been sharing time as part of a two quarterback system with now Utah State quarterback Logan Bonner. Even while sharing duties, he’s gone for 5,004 yards and 46 TDs against 12 INTs in his first two seasons.
He’s got the mental mindset down in the pocket as he makes his decisions quickly. Hatcher really throws a great deep ball, which helped elevate the passing offense over the last few seasons. With Butch Jones coming in after taking a back seat for a couple years of at Alabama, he’ll install some great offensive concepts to keep this offense rolling.
Coastal Carolina Chanticleers: TE Isaiah Likely
There’s a lot to love about what this tight end brings to the table, especially in the receiving game. This isn’t your average dink and dunk target who is trying to move the sticks. Likely is a legitimate deep threat who in 10 games played in 2020, had seven games with a reception of over 23 yards (two over 70 yards).
He has ball skills of a receiver who can track like an outfielder and make over the shoulder grabs. The Chanticleers misdirection offense with Grayson McCall at the helm will always keep a defense on their toes. A player with Likely’s athleticism should be thrown the football in every single man coverage situation, period.
Georgia State Panthers: RB Destin Coates
After a solid 2019 season where Coates boasted a nice 6.7 YPC, it was almost irrefutable that he’d be in for an even better 2020. That didn’t pan out though as his average actually dropped down to a staggering 4.6 per attempt. The Panthers attempt to ease in their first year starting quarterback, Cornelious Brown IV, came with the usual lumps. However, there’s an easy way to get the Panther offense back on track.
Coates should be getting the ball every first down simply because of his ability to make people miss in space and fall forward. He’s extremely effective on outside zone plays and can built up a head of steam on RPOs (run-pass options). There’s no reason he doesn’t eclipse the 6.0 average again, and should really get close to the 250 carry mark.
Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns: RB Chris Smith
With the departure of Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas to the NFL, its Smith’s time to shine. The Ragin’ Cajuns will be replacing 272 carries, 1,636 yards and 20 total TDs from the above tandem. Head coach Billy Napier heavily relies on the zone run scheme to open up the passing lanes for quarterback Levi Lewis.
Smith will carry the ball a ton being the most experienced back, but Napier always loves to use a committee. In the last three seasons Louisiana has had seven occasions where a player had over 115 carries (Mitchell-3, Ragas-3, Raymond Calais-1). On the flip side, nobody has crossed the 200 carry threshold. With the lack of experience behind him, Smith may be the first.
South Alabama Jaguars: QB Jake Bentley
It’s hard to believe that at one point in his career Bentley was a projected first round draft pick. He had NFL caliber weapons at South Carolina like Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards, and life was good. His decision to come back as a senior proved costly as he suffered a season ending foot injury in the first game of season against North Carolina.
Bentley’s attempt to right the ship with a transfer to Utah in 2020 didn’t go according to plan. He took advantage of the COVID eligibility rule and is giving it one last shot in Mobile with the Jaguars. This is important for a few reasons.
For one, he’s already where he needs to be for the Senior Bowl as it takes place in Mobile, so he’s a lock to be invited and showcase his skills. Also he gets a complete offseason unlike last year with the late starting PAC-12. Time to learn the system will pay off immensely for the most experienced quarterback in all of college football.
Texas State Bobcats: WR Javen Banks
Banks is easily considered the home run threat for the Bobcats’ offense. He wasn’t ultra productive in the receptions category with only 16, but the fact he scored four receiving TDs is incredible. That means he’s scoring on 25% of the catches he makes, compared to 2019 where he scored on 20% of his receptions.
Alert to head coach Jake Spavital! It’s money in the bank when you throw it to Banks. He’s got the leaping ability to out jump defenders for the ball and then the speed to outrun them. He NEEDS to be getting force fed five or six receptions per game.