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Dominating Defensive Players by FCS Conference in 2017

Darius Leonard.jpg

South Carolina State's Darius Leonard

Defensive coordinators have a hard enough time getting sleep when they’re facing a good defense.

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When the best defensive player in the conference is awaiting them on a fall Saturday, there’s nothing but insomnia.

Yes, 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 – with a No. 2 choice as well.

Big Sky

Cole Reyes, North Dakota, SS (R-Sr., 6-2, 205)

The anchor of one of the better secondaries in the FCS, Reyes was named the Big Sky’s 2016 defensive player of the year despite missing two games with an injury. He comes from all directions and is excellent at anticipating the ball. He had three interceptions and eight pass breakups for last year’s conference co-champ Fighting Hawks.

Hardly a Second Choice: Deion Harris, North Dakota, CB

Related: Top FCS 2018 NFL Draft Prospects to Watch

Big South

Anthony Ellis, Charleston Southern, DE (Sr., 6-1, 245)

Nobody in the Big South causes more disruption in an opposing backfield than Ellis, the conference’s 2016 defensive player of the year. Charleston Southern has won two straight conference titles and Ellis has had 33.5 tackles for a loss and 14 sacks over that period. He’s versatile enough to move inside if needed.

Hardly a Second Choice: Mike Basile, Monmouth, SS

CAA Football

Rob Rolle, Villanova, FS (Sr., 6-0, 190)

Villanova’s baseball program should consider Rolle for center field. He tied for the FCS high with seven interceptions as a junior, helping the Wildcats to rank first nationally in total defense and scoring defense. He uses excellent range and athleticism to cover a lot of ground.

Hardly a Second Choice: Andrew Ankrah, James Madison, DE/LB

Ivy League

Kurt Holuba, Princeton, DE (Sr., 6-3, 260)

Holuba saved his best for Ivy League games, recording seven of his eight sacks while finishing second in voting for the league’s defensive player of the year. He’s lean, but strong enough to play anywhere on the defensive line of the reigning league co-champion Tigers. He’s able to extend his arms to wrap up ball carriers and then power through them.

Hardly a Second Choice: Nick Gesualdi, Cornell, S


Darius Leonard, South Carolina State, LB (R-Sr., 6-3, 200)

A hybrid linebacker, Leonard flies around the field with an instinctive feel for the ball. He collected 19 tackles in a loss against FBS champ Clemson last September. He went on to become the fourth straight South Carolina State player to win MEAC defensive player of the year honors.

Hardly a Second Choice: Jeremy Taylor, North Carolina A&T, LB

Missouri Valley

Nick DeLuca, North Dakota State, LB (R-Sr., 6-3, 248)

DeLuca would be playing in the NFL in 2017 if a shoulder injury hadn’t ended his senior season after three game. He’s been in the middle of NDSU’s vaunted defense and has shown a keen proficiency in tracking down ball carriers. When he was healthy in 2015, he racked up 135 tackles – 54 more than any teammate.

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Hardly a Second Choice: Brett Taylor, Western Illinois, LB


Nathan Stone, Duquesne, LB (Sr., 6-0, 255)

The aptly named defensive wall hasn’t missed a start in his Duquesne career. He plays with physicality at inside linebacker. Stone splashed onto the scene with a 100-tackle season as the 2014 NEC rookie of the year and has gone on to become a first-team all-conference selection.

Hardly a Second Choice: Jevon Elmore, Central Connecticut State, CB

Ohio Valley

Darius Jackson, Jacksonville State, DE (R-Sr., 6-3, 237)

Jackson made his presence known as a sophomore on Jacksonville State’s FCS runner-up squad. Last year, he grabbed the spotlight by earning Ohio Valley Conference defensive player of the year honors. He has explosive speed coming from the edge (15 tackles for a loss, 10 sacks), but will man outside linebacker in a combo role.

Hardly a Second Choice: Ebenezer Ogundeko, Tennessee State, DE

Patriot League

Pat Afriyie, Colgate, DE (Sr., 6-2, 240)

A terror in the Patriot League, Afriyie has led the league in sacks and tackles for a loss for two straight years, including a whopping 21 as a junior. His athleticism and quickness help set apart the 2016 Patriot defensive player of the year. He projects as an outside linebacker at the next level.

Hardly a Second Choice: Abdullah Anderson, Bucknell, DT

Pioneer League

Johnathan Peterson, San Diego, DE (R-Sr., 6-1, 230)

Pioneer Football League quarterbacks are tied of meeting up with Peterson, who had 23 tackles for a loss, 12.5 sacks and 13 QB hurries as a junior, when San Diego swept to the league title. The Toreros went on to earn the first FCS playoff win in league history (against Cal Poly) and Peterson totaled six tackles, 1.5 tackles for a loss and a forced fumble.

Hardly a Second Choice: Christian Searles, Dayton, CB


Kailik Williams, The Citadel, SS (Sr., 5-11, 185)

The Southern Conference media selected Williams as the 2016 defensive player of the year. His value has been evident during the last two FCS playoffs as he’s been a standout for the two-time defending SoCon champion. Playing the “rover” position, Williams led the Bulldogs with 103 tackles, including 10 for a loss, with two interceptions and five pass breakups.

Hardly a Second Choice: Miles Brown, Wofford, DT

Related: FCS' Southern Conference to Challenge Best in FBS in 2017


P.J. Hall, Sam Houston State, DE (Sr., 6-1, 280)

An absolute beast throughout his career, Hall has 36 sacks and 67 tackles for a loss heading into his senior season. The runner-up to Northern Iowa’s Karter Schult for the 2016 STATS FCS Buck Buchanan Award routinely faces double-teams, but gets through with a powerful drive. He is expected to move inside to defensive tackle on the NFL level.

Hardly a Second Choice: Tremon Smith, Central Arkansas, CB


Keontre Anderson, Jackson State, DE (Sr., 6-4, 250)

Anderson wears No. 14, but don’t mistake him for a quarterback. Instead, he eats them up. As a junior, he led the FCS with 25.5 tackles for a loss while also posting nine sacks and six quarterback hurries. He frees himself with good decisions and possesses solid pass-rushing skills.

Hardly a Second Choice: Danny Johnson, Southern, CB

— 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 He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.

(Darius Leonard photo by South Carolina State Athletics, P.J. Hall photo by Sam Houston State Athletics)