Knowing what wins championships, it’s no coincidence the program with the most dominating defense in the FCS has won the last five national titles.
North Dakota State is the model for athletic, aggressive, physical and ball-hawking defense.
There is great defensive talent across the FCS, and not surprisingly, most of the best in each of the 13 conferences will have their team in contention for a championship this season.
Here’s a look at the most dominating defensive players by FCS conference:
Caleb Kidder, DE, Montana (R-Sr., 6-5, 275)
Kidder is so highly regarded at Montana that he’s wearing the No. 37 legacy jersey, which represents the tradition and honor of the program, for the second consecutive season. He totaled 82 tackles at defensive tackle a year ago, and his relentless style has led to him being moved to defensive end as a senior. Apology to: Michael Needham, LB, Southern Utah
Anthony Ellis, DE, Charleston Southern (Jr., 6-1, 245)
The talk of last year’s preseason camp had a breakout season on the Big South champion Buccaneers’ premier defense. Though quiet off the field, Ellis led by example on it, totaling 17.5 tackles for a loss and seven sacks as a disruptive force. Apology to: Mike Basile, S, Monmouth
Andrew Ankrah, OLB, James Madison (R-Jr., 6-4, 234)
The younger brother of NFL linebacker Jason, Andrew Ankrah is a physical freak at outside linebacker, blessed with quickness and long arms. He ranked second in CAA Football in sacks (10.5) and first in forced fumbles (five) last season, highlighted by 3.5 sacks and a pair of forced fumbles in JMU’s FBS win at SMU. Apology to: Casey DeAndrade, CB, New Hampshire
Folarin Orimolade, OLB, Dartmouth (Sr., 5-11, 240)
With terrific quickness, Orimolade gets into opposing backfields. He finished second in the Ivy League in both sacks (eight) and tackles for a loss (12) and led the league in forced fumbles (four) last season, when Dartmouth earned a share of its first Ivy title since 1996. Apology to: Dorian Williams, CB/FS, Princeton
Darius Leonard, OLB, South Carolina State (R-Jr., 6-3, 200)
Part of a program that produced two NFL Draft choices in April (defensive tackle Javon Hargrave and tight end Temarrick Hemingway), Leonard flies around the field as a hybrid linebacker. He has an instinctive feel for the game, totaling 13.5 tackles for a loss, five sacks and three takeaways last season. Apology to: Marquis Ragland, DT, North Carolina A&T
Nick DeLuca, MLB, North Dakota State (Sr., 6-3, 245)
Playing middle linebacker at NDSU basically puts DeLuca at the center of the FCS. He’s bigger than past Bison greats at the position. Last season, his 135 tackles were 54 more than any teammate on a squad that captured its fifth straight FCS national title. Apology to: Karter Schult, DE, Northern Iowa
Christian Kuntz, LB, Duquesne (R-Sr., 6-1, 220)
A knee injury that cost Kuntz the 2014 season didn’t slow his return last year. He racked up 26 tackles for a loss, 11 sacks and 10 passes defended (four interceptions and six breakups) while earning the Northeast Conference’s defensive player of the year award. He’s playing collegiately in his hometown of Pittsburgh. Apology to: James Rentz, LB, Sacred Heart
Ebenezer Ogundeko, DE, Tennessee State (R-Jr., 6-3, 255)
The former Clemson reserve is the only returning player from last year’s All-OVC first-team defense. He’s far from being a finished product, but he’s continually productive. The edge rusher had 10 tackles for a loss and five sacks in only nine games as a redshirt sophomore. Apology to: Roper Garrett, ILB, Southeast Missouri State
Pat Afriyie, DE, Colgate (Jr., 6-2, 235)
Opponents game plan against the most feared pass rusher in the Patriot League, but without great success. The athletic Afriyie posted 17.5 tackles for a loss and 9.5 sacks – both league highs – with five forced fumbles as Colgate won the Patriot title and reached the FCS quarterfinals last year. Apology to: Jihaad Pretlow, CB, Fordham
Donald Payne, S, Stetson (Sr., 6-0, 217)
Payne has put up ridiculous numbers throughout his career, including 126 tackles, 16 tackles for a loss and 14 passes defended (two interceptions, 12 breakups) last year. He roams the field, attacking ball carriers from the edge or dropping into pass coverage. He’s made the All-Pioneer Football League first team three times and was the league’s 2015 defensive player of the year. Apology to: Jamal Agnew, CB, San Diego
Keionta Davis, DE, Chattanooga (R-Sr., 6-4, 260)
Playing in his hometown, Davis broke former teammate Davis Tull’s single-season school record with 13.5 sacks last year. His 17 tackles for a loss also led the Southern Conference. With good size, he mixes athleticism into his physical style. Apology to: Dee Delaney, CB, The Citadel
P.J. Hall, DE, Sam Houston State (R-Jr., 6-1, 280)
Over his first two seasons, Hall has totaled an incredible 52 tackles for a loss – already the school record – and 23 sacks. He breaks out of double-teams to get to ball carriers. He’s also broken up 16 passes and blocked 10 kicks in his career, helping Sam Houston reach the FCS semifinals in each of the past two seasons. Apology to: Isaiah Golden, DT, McNeese State
Kourtney Berry, MLB, Alabama State (R-Sr., 6-1, 215)
Berry has 363 career tackles, leading the SWAC in tackles in 2013 and last season while ranking second in '14. Not surprising, the sideline-to-sideline dominator has been on the all-conference first team in each of this three seasons. He was the 2015 SWAC defensive player of the year. Apology to: Javancy Jones, DE, Jackson State
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Top photo of P.J. Hall courtesy of Sam Houston State Athletics, Keionta Davis photo courtesy of University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Athletic Communications)