Former Northern Iowa defensive end Karlter Schult was a runaway winner of the 2016 Buck Buchanan Award, which honors the national defensive player of the year in the FCS.
This year, the field is more open with leading candidates. There’s even some defensive backs in the mix, which is saying a lot considering a defensive lineman or linebacker has won the award all but one time since it was first presented in 1995.
Here’s a look at some of the top defensive players in the FCS heading into the November stretch run of the FCS regular season:
1. Darius Jackson, DE, Jacksonville State
The reigning Ohio Valley Conference defensive player of the year opened his senior season with four quarterback hurries in the Gamecocks’ season-opening win over Chattanooga. He hasn’t looked back, totaling 40 tackles, 15.5 tackles for 81 yards in loss, four sacks, 12 QB hurries, a fumble recovery and two forced fumbles. Jackson (6-foot-3, 242 pounds), who was fourth in the Buchanan voting last year, is part of a senior class that is seeking its fourth straight unbeaten season in the OVC.
2. Darius Leonard, LB, South Carolina State
The lanky Leonard (6-3, 235) has impressive range, which explains his No. 4 ranking in the FCS in tackles per game (11.9). He’s been in double figures six times in eight games, with a high of 18, including 14 solos, versus Morgan State. He has a pair of interceptions, including a pick-six. He’s been in opposing backfields for seven tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and seven QB hurries.
3. Mike Basile, S, Monmouth
A four-year standout, Basile (6-1, 200) has worked through the highs and lows of the Hawks’ program to deliver a huge senior season. He already has a whopping 66 solo tackles among his 87 stops, and is six tackles away from 400 in his career. He gets to the backfield (7.5 tackles for a loss) and is disruptive in pass coverage (one interception, three breakups).
4. Tremon Smith, CB, Central Arkansas
Opposing quarterbacks are warned not to throw Smith’s way. His five interceptions – one which he returned for a touchdown – are tied for the national high and his 15 passes defended (interceptions and pass breakups) rank second nationally. Smith (6-0, 190), who has terrific hands and turn-and-run ability, has 52 passes defended in his career – the most among active FCS players.
5. Brett Taylor, LB, Western Illinois
WIU’s hometown product in Macomb collected 144 tackles as a sophomore and 134 last season, and he’s on his way to setting a career high as he leads the FCS with 118 stops on a whopping 14.8 per game. Included was an incredible 28 tackles against South Dakota. Taylor (6-2, 230) has never been a sack artist in his career, but he has 10.5 tackles for a loss.
6. Warren Messer, LB, Elon
The all-around play of the gritty junior has been pivotal during Elon’s turnaround this season. The Phoenix have won seven straight games by a combined 28 points. Messer (5-11, 229) has been in on 76 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss, four sacks, two interceptions, three pass breakups, three QB hurries, a forced fumble and a safety.
Others: Nick DeLuca, LB, North Dakota State; Jared Farley, LB, Northern Iowa; Ahmad Gooden, DE, Samford; P.J. Hall, DE, Sam Houston 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.
(Darius Jackson photo courtesy of Jacksonville State Athletics, Darius Leonard photo courtesy of South Carolina State Athletics)