The Big Sky Conference has long been known for its star quarterbacks, including six who have won the Walter Payton Award as the FCS offensive player of the year.
In 2020, the Big Sky could be dominated by the linebackers who will try to disrupt the signal-callers. They abound across the largest FCS conference.
Here are 10 reasons to love the linebackers in the Big Sky:
All Big Sky linebackers — even the unknowns at this point — can look to many past greats in the conference for inspiration, most recently former Montana All-American Dante Olson, the 2019 Buck Buchanan Award recipient. After beginning his career as a special teams standout, Olson grabbed a starting role in 2018 and ran (really, dominated) with it, leading the FCS in tackles per game in each of the past two seasons.
This is one of the top units in the FCS. Charles Akanno (6-1, 247), Christian Elliss (6-2, 233), and Tre Walker (6-1, 235) are both All-Big Sky and All-America candidates. Washington State transfer Fa'Avae Fa'Avae (6-0, 230) makes the Vandals even deeper.
Jace Lewis (6-0, 230) was in Dante Olson's shadow nationally last season, but the Big Sky coaches respected him enough to make him first-team all-conference. Lewis racked up 131 tackles as a junior.
4. Montana State
Athletic playmaker Troy Andersen (6-2, 233) is yet another Big Sky linebacker who's an NFL prospect, and he wasn't even the team's leading tackler. It was running mate Callahan O'Reilly (6-2, 228).
5. Eastern Washington
Chris Ojoh (6-1, 220) saves his best performances for big games and was second in tackles on the Eagles' 2018 FCS runner-up squad. He missed much of last season but returns to rejoin last year's No. 2 tackler, Jack Sendelbach (6-3, 235), who has been granted a sixth year of eligibility.
6. Cal Poly
Rising senior inside linebacker Matt Shotwell (6-0, 230) has led the team in tackles each of the past two seasons. His oldest brother, Kyle, was the 2006 Buchanan Award winner as a Mustang linebacker.
7. UC Davis
Last season, Nick Eaton (6-2, 215) was the Big Sky Freshman of the Year. The athletic pass rusher forced five fumbles, which tied for the FCS lead.
8. Weber State
The three-time reigning Big Sky champ continues to produce the conference's best defense. The defensive line drew the headlines last season, but the top two tacklers were linebackers Conner Mortensen (6-0, 215) and Noah Vaea (5-11, 220).
9. Sacramento State
The other 2019 Big Sky co-champ returns Marcus Hawkins (5-11, 225), who earned second-team all-conference honors last year as a junior college transfer. The Hornets' leading tackler had 10 stops each against Fresno State, Eastern Washington, and UC Davis.
10. Northern Arizona
The more, the merrier. The Lumberjacks get back a healthier Tristen Vance (6-1, 230), who was the team's second-leading tackler in 2018, in a deep unit with veterans Harrison Beemiller (6-0, 210), Brooklyn Hardiman (6-2, 230), Keenan Mitchell (6-1, 225), and Carson Taylor (6-4, 236).
— 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.
(Photo courtesy of UC Davis Athletics)