Western Kentucky's Bobby Rainey is one of the nation's top returning rushers.
Athlon Sports continues its countdown to the college football season with a look at the top 25 players for 2011 in the Sun Belt.
Several factors worked into the criteria for developing the 25-player list:
Previous production was weighed, but a heavy emphasis was placed on what we expect will happen in 2011.
In addition to just how good we think a player is, we weighed what impact he will have on his team’s success?
Positional importance – although running backs always produce the stats, we gave linemen a bump in our rankings to show how valuable they are to the team.
Pro potential – how highly-regarded is the player by NFL Draft standards?
1. Bobby Rainey, RB, Western Kentucky (SR)
2010 Stats: 1,649 yards, 15 TDs, 29 rec., 230 yds.
Rainey finished third in the nation in rushing, coming in at more than 137 yards per game. He had seven two-TD games, one of them a 45-carry, 256-yard explosion in a narrow loss to Middle Tennessee State. His 340 carries led the nation, but rather than wear down, Rainey topped 150 yards in each of the season's last four games. Rainey is the only Sun Belt player on the Maxwell Award's preseason watch list, which may be the one factor that puts him ahead of Lance Dunbar.
2. Lance Dunbar, RB, North Texas (SR)
2010 Stats: 1,553 yards, 13 TDs, 28 rec., 332 yds., 3 TDs
Dunbar doesn’t get much credit on the national level, but he’s posted some impressive numbers the last two years in Denton. He has back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and finished just behind Western Kentucky’s Bobby Rainey for the conference rushing title last year. Dunbar performed well against BCS competition last season, rushing for 117 yards against Clemson and gashing Kansas State’s for 270 yards and three scores. Dunbar may not rank as our No. 1 player for 2011 – but he’s not far behind Rainey.
3. T.Y. Hilton, WR, FIU (SR)
2010 Stats: 59 rec., 848 yards, 5 TDs, 282 rush yds., 4 rush TDs, 2 kickoff return TDs
Hilton is an all-purpose weapon, one that FIU coach Mario Cristobal is far from shy about deploying. As a junior, Hilton finished eighth in the nation in all-purpose yardage and 12th in kickoff return average. He was just as dangerous from scrimmage, posting 233 total yards against Troy. 158 of those, plus two touchdowns, came on the ground. He begins the season on the Biletnikoff Award watch list, the only Sun Belt receiver honored.
4. Jonathan Massaquoi, DE, Troy (JR)
2010 Stats: 76 tackles, 20.5 TFL, 13.5 sacks, 1 FF
After redshirting in 2009, Massaquoi emerged as one of the Sun Belt’s top players last season. He wrecked havoc in opposing backfields all year, leading the conference in sacks and tackles for a loss. The junior is an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-Sun Belt selection and could contend for All-American honors with another big season. He's also on the preseason watch list for the Walter Camp Award, an amazing accomplishment for any defensive player, let alone one from the Belt. Barring injury, Massaquoi should be the Sun Belt’s top defensive player.
5. Ladarius Green, TE, UL Lafayette (SR)
2010 Stats: 44 rec., 794 yds., 7 TDs
Despite missing two games due to injury, Green led all tight ends in college football with 794 receiving yards and an average of 79.4 yards per game. The senior ranks seventh in school history in career receiving yards and is tied for fourth in receiving touchdowns. Green has produced against BCS competition as well, catching four passes for 87 yards and a score against Georgia and five balls for 68 yards against Nebraska in 2009. The senior is an Athlon Sports preseason second-team All-American and even with a new offensive coordinator, will remain the focal point of the passing attack.
6. Ryan Aplin, QB, Arkansas State (JR)
2010 Stats: 2,934 yards, 21 TDs, 11 INTs, 477 rush yards, 11 TDs
Aplin set school records in completions, passing yards, passing touchdowns, and total offense in his first full season as the Red Wolves’ starter. His encore chances are helped by the return of most of his skill-position weapons, but could be hurt by the rebuilding of the offensive line. Aplin topped 60 yards rushing five times and had three multi-TD games, so if he is forced to run for his life, defenses have to pay close attention. His best individual game came in a one-point loss to Western Kentucky in which he threw for 306 yards and three scores while adding 96 yards and two more touchdowns with his legs.
7. Corey Robinson, QB, Troy (SO)
2010 Stats: 3,726 yds., 28 TDs, 15 INTs
Robinson claimed Sun Belt Freshman of the Year honors last season, after leading Troy to a 8-5 record and a win over Ohio in the New Orleans Bowl. He closed 2010 on a high note, throwing three straight 300-yard games and only one interception during that stretch. Robinson tossed 15 picks last year, and the Troy coaching staff would like to see that number trimmed considerably in 2011. The Trojans are the frontrunner to win the conference title this year and Robinson’s continued improvement is a big reason why.
8. Jonathan Cyprien, S, FIU (JR)
2010 Stats: 113 tackles, 3 FF, 6 PBU
Cyprien had five games with 10 or more tackles, and his 113 total stops ranked second in the conference. He forced two fumbles in the Panthers’ heartbreaking September loss to Texas A&M, then followed up with nine solo tackles two weeks later against Pitt. FIU’s defense was strong enough to hold All-Sun Belt QB Ryan Aplin to a season-low 126 passing yards in a win that clinched the Golden Panthers a share of the conference crown.
9. Tourek Williams, DE, FIU (JR)
2010 Stats: 46 tackles, 13.5 TFL, 6 sacks
The aforementioned great game against Arkansas State wasn’t FIU’s only defensive highlight, as the team led the Sun Belt in pass efficiency, scoring, and total defense. Williams finished second on the team with six sacks, including two against UL Monroe. The other Louisiana team fared little better, as Williams recorded nine tackles, two assisted sacks, and two assists for loss against UL Lafayette. He’ll need to keep the production high without his all-conference wingman Jarvis Wilson on the other side.
10. Demario Davis, LB, Arkansas State (SR)
2010 Stats: 63 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2 FF
Davis made first-team All-Sun Belt last season on the back of some solid single-game performances. He racked up nine tackles against both Louisville and Western Kentucky, and also picked off two passes against MTSU. He wasn’t as destructive in 2010 as he was in 2009, but with one of the Belt’s best defensive lines in front of him, Davis has a chance to rebound this season. He’s one of only two Sun Belt players on the Lombardi Award watch list.
11. James Brown, OT, Troy (SR)
Troy led the Sun Belt with an average of 34.1 points and 453.5 yards per game last season. A key factor in the Trojans’ offensive attack was the offensive line. Tackle James Brown has started the last two years and earned second-team all-conference honors last season. Only two starters are back this year, but Brown is expected to be one of the top linemen in the conference. The senior has been assigned to protect the blindside of quarterback Corey Robinson, who must stay healthy for the Trojans to lead the conference in scoring in 2011.
12. Xavier Lamb, LB, Troy (SR)
2010 Stats: 91 tackles, 8 TFL, 4 PBU
With four games of double-digit tackles, Lamb proved that he had a very effective nose for the football last season. Given the unenviable task of replacing three-time all-conference selection Boris Lee, Lamb led the team in stops and finished in the Sun Belt’s top 10.
13. Darriet Perry, RB, FIU (SR)
2010 Stats: 839 yards, 16 TDs
Perry spearheaded a running-back rotation that helped FIU finish second in the Sun Belt and 27th nationally in rushing. His 16 rushing scores tied him for 13th in the nation. Perry’s 4.94 yards per carry average was slightly better than Bobby Rainey’s, but on half as many carries.
14. Marcus Bartels, S, FAU (SR)
2010 Stats: 104 tackles, 5 TFL, 2 INTs, 7 PBU
Bartels recorded fewer than six tackles in a contest only once, and that was in a game where he recorded both of his interceptions to hand FIU their only conference loss. It would be no surprise if he broke 100 stops for the third straight year, as FAU returns only three defensive starters.
15. Luther Ambrose, WR, UL Monroe (SR)
2010 Stats: 65 rec., 752 yds., 6 TDs
Ambrose has improved his numbers each year in Monroe and returns for his senior season as one of the top receivers in the Sun Belt. Ambrose finished third in the conference in receptions last season and earned second-team All-Sun Belt honors. The senior’s accolades aren’t limited to the gridiron, as he is one of the fastest players in college football. Ambrose was the 2010 Sun Belt Outdoor Champion in the 100 and 200 meter dash and was named a NCAA Track & Field All-American. With eight starters returning, the Warhawks should be one of the most improved offenses in the Sun Belt.
16. Dorvus Woods, DT, Arkansas State (SR)
2010 Stats: 45 tackles, 9 TFL, 3 sacks, 2 FF, 2 FR
Woods posted solid games against the Red Wolves’ biggest opponents. He had four tackles, one for loss, and two QB hurries against Auburn and five tackles, two for loss, and a sack against Louisville. In seven of ASU’s 12 games, Woods had at least one stop for a loss.
17. Kolton Browning, QB, UL Monroe (SO)
2010 Stats: 2,552 yards, 18 TDs, 12 INTs, 385 rush yards, 4 TDs
Browning had some huge games late in the season, including a narrow loss to FIU in which he threw for 339 yards and three scores, adding 70 yards rushing. Two weeks later, he torched North Texas for five TD strikes and 247 yards, plus another 73 on the ground.
18. Darius Prelow, S, UL Monroe (SR)
2010 Stats: 74 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 2 INTs, 7 PBU
Prelow has been a two-year starter for the Warhawk defense, earning second-team All-Sun Belt honors last year. He finished third in the conference in pass breakups and tied for second with two interceptions. Prelow will be moved from safety to a rover position, but should remain one of the top Warhawk defenders.
19. Tom Castilaw, C, Arkansas State (SR)
Castilaw is the anchor of the Red Wolves’ offensive line, especially since he’s the only returning starter. The second-team All-Sun Belt performer has been granted a sixth year of eligibility to help the Wolves’ offense try to duplicate a season that saw them set a school total offense record.
20. Wes Jeffries, OT, Western Kentucky (SR)
Jeffries has been a steady presence over the last three seasons on the Western Kentucky line. Although he has yet to earn all-conference honors, the senior was a key factor in Bobby Rainey’s Sun Belt rushing title last year.
21. Winston Fraser, LB, FIU (JR)
2010 Stats: 72 tackles, 9 TFL, 2 FF
Fraser was a steady producer for the Golden Panthers, recording six or more tackles in nine of their 13 games last season. He also had a flair for the dramatic, picking off his only pass of the season in the last 10 seconds to force overtime against UL Monroe.
22. Kelcie McCray, S, Arkansas State (SR)
2010 Stats: 79 tackles, 2 INTs
McCray has started 24 straight games for ASU, and he is a preseason second-team All-Sun Belt pick by Athlon. He had four games with double-digit tackles in 2010, including 11 in a two-point loss to Indiana.
23. Ken Dorsey, DE, UL Monroe (SR)
2010 Stats: 52 tackles, 12 TFL, 5 sacks, 1 FF
In his first season as a starter, Dorsey earned second-team All-Sun Belt honors last year. He ranked fifth in the conference with 13 tackles for a loss, while also registering five sacks. Expect Dorsey to earn first-team all-conference honors this season.
24. Kevin Cyrille, DE, FAU (SR)
2010 Stats: 32 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 2 sacks
Cyrille is one of only three starters returning for the Florida Atlantic defense. The senior needs to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but expects to be one of the leaders for the Owls in 2011.
25. Royce Hill, CB, North Texas (SR)
2010 Stats: 39 tackles, 6 PBU
Hill has started 33 of 36 games since joining the Mean Green. He recorded one interception in 2010, but it was a clutch one, helping UNT hang on in a tense fourth quarter against Florida Atlantic.