Some of the best players on the defensive side of the football in the SoCon this fall will be defensive linemen, and the SoCon has a good tradition of such players, although it may not be as extensive as that of the running-back position.
The past three winners of the SoCon Defensive Player of the Year Award have been defensive linemen, showing the real strength at this position in recent history.
Over the years there have been plenty of great defensive linemen to come through the conference.
The league's reigning defensive player of the year is a nose tackle, Georgia Southern's Brent Russell. Russell put his name alongside some of the greats to play nose tackle in league history, such as Alex Mash (Georgia Southern) and Allen Edwards (Furman).
Few SoCon fans will forget some of the greats from former league schools Marshall and East Tennessee State, as well, which produced defensive tackle Billy Lyons (Marshall) and defensive end James Russell (ETSU).
Appalachian State has had a plethora of talent along the defensive line over the years, producing some of the league’s most feared defensive-end tandems, including Josh Jeffries and K.T. Stovall in the late '90s and early 2000s, while bookends Marques Murrell and Jason Hunter helped the Apps to their first national title, in 2005.
In this article I will attempt to rank the top nine defensive lines in the Southern Conference as cohesive units.
The top three in my list have veteran returnees that are poised to anchor their respective defensive units this fall.
The Chattanooga Mocs return nine starters from a defensive that led the league and ranked 13th in the FCS in total defense last fall.
The strength of that defense, last fall, as it should once again be this season, was the defensive line.
The Mocs welcome the return of all four starters along the defensive front from a year ago, and three of those starters garnered All-SoCon honors of some sort.
The unquestioned leader of the unit heading into the campaign will be left defensive end Joshua Williams (42 tackles, 10.0 TFL, 9.5 sacks, 7 QBHs), who has already broken the school’s all-time sacks record in just three seasons as a starter along the defensive front.
He has 21.5 career quarterback takedowns, including a league-leading 9.5 sacks last season, which earned him first-team All-SoCon praise.
Williams enjoyed his best game of the 2011 season and arguably the best game of his career in UTC’s win over Samford, recording seven tackles and a career-high three sacks, capturing SoCon player-of-the-week accolades in the process.
Williams’ partner in crime at defensive end this fall will be talented sophomore Davis Tull (30 tackles, 8.0 TFL, 5.0 sacks, 1 FF). Tull was an instrumental piece on the UTC defensive line last fall, which lost incumbent starter and All-SoCon defensive end Chris Donald to wrist problems that ended his career prematurely.
Tull was thrust into the starting rotation, and he made an immediate impact, garnering SoCon All-Freshman praise for his performance last season.
Tull enjoyed the top game of his 2011 campaign against Furman, recording eight tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack in the 14-7 loss to the Paladins.
Set to anchor the interior of the UTC defensive line this fall will be Toyvian Brand (15 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 FR) and nose tackle Josh Freeman (23 tackles, 2 FRs). Freeman earned SoCon all-freshman praise last fall, while Brand started five of nine games for the Mocs and is poised to be a star of the future along the front.
2. Georgia Southern
Georgia Southern is expected to be a national-title contender once again this fall, and one of the main reasons is that the Eagles return the top defensive player in the Southern Conference, and perhaps the entire FCS, with the return of senior nose tackle Brent Russell (67 tackles, 16.5 TFLs, 6.5 sacks).
Russell enters the campaign as a leading candidate for the Buck Buchanan Award, and his presence in the middle of the GSU defense makes offensive lines around the league have to overcompensate.
Certainly Russell has already established himself among the pantheon of great SoCon defensive linemen in his three seasons of service so far. Russell also continues to ascend the GSU all-time sacks ledger, as he enters the season ranking fifth on the school’s all-time scroll, with 19.5 sacks.
It could be argued that Russell is the best nose tackle ever to suit up for a SoCon team.
It’s not just what he does for the GSU defense but also how he forces opposing offensive coordinators to scheme their offensive game plans around his presence in the middle.
Last season Russell had his top performance of the campaign against Furman, recording 10 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack in the 24-17 loss at No. 5 Appalachian State.
Joining the Buchanan Award candidate at defensive tackle this fall will be junior Blake Riley (24 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 0.5 sack, 1 FR), who was solid in his first season as a full-time starter along the GSU defensive line.
Riley didn’t put up huge numbers last fall, but he did well supporting Russell in the middle of the GSU line and making the Eagles a tough unit to run the football against last fall.
In fact the Eagles completed the 2011 season ranking third in the league against the run (149.8 YPG) last fall.
Slated to start at the respective defensive end positions for the Eagles heading into the 2012 season will be returning veterans Josh Gebhardt (22 tackles, 3.0 TFLs, 2.0 sack, 1 blocked kick) and Javon Mention (30 tackles, 8.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks).
Both Mention and Gebhardt aren’t what I would necessarily refer to as great edge-rushing defensive ends, but they are solid, and Mention is one of the top athletes on the GSU defense, beginning his career as an outside linebacker.
While the only standout is Russell on this defensive front, it’s still a defensive line worth taking note of in 2012 and will be the anchor of what should be one of the strongest defenses in the SoCon this fall.
3. Appalachian State
For the most part, folks would agree that Appalachian State’s transition to the 3-4 defensive alignment last season was a big success, and that was due in large part to a strong but youthful defensive front.
The defensive ends for the Mountaineers will both be sophomores this fall; however, both are extremely talented performers. Those two performers expected to step to the forefront this fall are Ronald Blair (40 tackles, 11.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks) and James “Deuce” Robinson (16 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks).
Both Robinson and Blair were young last season, but both proved to be solid all year when thrust into the lineup for the Apps.
ASU must replace its nose tackle from a year ago, Dan Wylie, and Wylie was one of the better, more-experienced defensive linemen in the SoCon last season.
Set to replace Wylie along the defensive front at nose tackle this fall will be redshirt freshman Thomas Bronson, who is coming off a strong spring and has now gained 40 lbs since arriving on campus last season.
4. The Citadel
Had Derek Douglas (43 tackles, 14.5 TFL) not gone down with a knee injury in the spring, I would likely have the Bulldogs third instead of fourth in this ranking. One thing that is certain is that The Citadel seems to turn out talent along the defensive line each season.
Douglas, an all-league selection last fall, is expected to be back by the middle of the season.
Chris Billingslea (53 tackles, 11.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 3 FRs) will be asked to pick up much of the slack in the absence of Douglas this fall. Billingslea was voted second-team All-SoCon by the league’s coaches and media last fall.
Billingslea will become the centerpiece of the defensive front with the injury sustained by Douglas in spring drills.
Last season Billingslea was a workhorse along the defensive line for the Bulldogs, even picking up a blocked punt and returning it 19 yards for a score in a win over VMI.
Billingslea had a sack and 2.5 tackles for loss in a win over Western Carolina and recorded seven tackles apiece in losses to Appalachian State and Furman.
The fifth-year senior heads into the campaign having started 28 straight games along The Citadel's defensive front. Once again this fall, Billingslea is slated to start at the left defensive-end position.
Like Appalachian State, The Citadel plays more of a 3-4 defensive scheme, with the Bulldogs being a little more multiple with their respective schemes.
The Bulldogs like to walk up a linebacker or safety as an extra rush end, and on some occasions, to use LBs and safeties to overload one side.
With the absence of Derek Douglas to start the season and with the graduation of Quintin Turner, the Bulldogs will have two new starters at DT this fall.
Sophomore Sammy Ojjeh (4 tackles) and junior Bay Amrhein (11 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 0.5 sack) will be asked to pick up the slack at least for the early part of the campaign, until Douglas returns. Both were impressive in their own rights last fall and have good quickness off the line of scrimmage. Both are also coming off solid performances in the spring.
Historically, the defensive line has not been a strength of the Furman defense, but the Paladins should be able to more than hold their own this season, with one of the best bookend tandems in the league, returning both Josh Lynn (49 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 5.0 sacks, 1 FR) and Shawn Boone (27 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks) at their respective positions.
Lynn has a chance to finish out his career in strong fashion after being made a consensus second-team All-SoCon selection by the league’s coaches and media last fall.
Lynn has been one of the building blocks that has seen a resurgence of the Furman defensive line from what it had been in the recent past.
His emergence as defensive leader for the Paladins last season—when he led the team in sacks, recording five quarterback takedowns—helped the Paladins defense record more sacks (21) last season than they had the previous two seasons combined (17).
Lynn enters his senior season with plenty of momentum and already having fashioned a strong career on the gridiron for the Paladins. He has posted a total of seven sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss in his strong career for the Paladins at bookend.
He enjoyed his top game of the 2011 campaign against Elon, tying a career-high 11 tackles, and recorded a pair of sacks in the 47-21 win at Western Carolina.
Shawn Boone (27 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks) will join Lynn at defensive end this fall, and the pair will form a reputable duo.
Boone burst onto the scene by earning All-SoCon freshman honors in 2010, and most remember him for his acrobatic interception which he tipped to himself for a TD against South Carolina that year.
He is a player that I think will have a breakout season on the defensive side of the ball for the Paladins this season, and he might bring the best athletic attributes to the Furman defensive line.
The junior DE had some solid performances for the Paladins last fall, with his strongest effort coming in the season-opening loss at Coastal Carolina, in which he posted six tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack.
Furman’s weakness over the years on its defensive line hasn’t necessarily been at defensive end but rather at defensive tackle, due in large part to being a bit undersized at the position.
However, the Paladins made big strides in their physicality along the defensive front last fall.
Slated at the two defensive interior positions this fall will be veterans Colton Keig (32 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 FR) and Neal Rogers (21 tackles, 1.0 TFL). Tyreek Phillips (23 tackles, 1.5 TFL) has also made strides at defensive tackle, after coming to Furman as a raw athlete with undeveloped skills. Phillips is coming off a strong spring and could challenge for a starting job this fall.
New defensive line coach Jimmy Lindsey has hit the ground running, and he will now look to do at Furman what he did last season under Russell Huesman at UTC, which is help the team get to the top of the defensive-line rankings in the very near future.
Like Appalachian State, Wofford is a team that utilizes the 3-4 defensive alignment, and Mike Ayers has seemingly been able to generate pressure with just three down linemen, year in and year out.
Ayers and his defensive staff have some work to do this fall, having to replace all three defensive linemen, with all three garnering first- or second-team All-SoCon honors last season, and Ameet Pall finished his career as one of the greats to ever suit up in the Old Gold and Black, earning the SoCon Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2010.
The leader of the unit this fall will be defensive end Zach Bobb (13 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1.5 TFL), who backed up All-SoCon defensive end Alex Goultry last season, is coming off a strong spring and is now poised to take the leadership role along the defensive front in 2012.
Bobb saw only limited action, but as is the case with the Wofford offensive line, it is uncanny at how well the Wofford coaches develop talent in the defensive trenches time and time again.
One thing is for sure: You can bet the unit will be physical.
The other two players penciled in as starters heading into fall camp will be Tarek Odom (15 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 0.5 sack) and Allen Smith (8 tackles, 0.5 TFL). Odom served as All-SoCon defensive tackle Eric Eberhardt’s understudy last fall, and like Bobb, will have some big shoes to fill in 2012.
The good thing about Odom is he has the size and strength to play the nose tackle position and the athleticism and agility to line up on the end.
Odom could be a breakout player for the Terriers this fall, and he has played both positions in his career for Wofford.
In 2009 Elon had one of the top defensive lines in all of the FCS, led by All-Americans Eric Ludwig and Andre Campbell. The Phoenix set a school record for sacks, with 34, in the process.
However, since that successful season along the defensive front, the Phoenix defensive line has seen somewhat of a downgrade, and the defensive numbers have, as a result, also suffered the consequences. Elon hasn’t been able to generate a great pass rush with its front four since that ‘09 campaign.
Elon is coming off a season which saw it finish ranked tied for seventh in the league in sacks with Samford, completing the campaign with 17 quarterback takedowns.
In Elon’s defense it hasn’t had the type of experience that it enjoyed in ‘09 with Campbell and Ludwig.
However, I believe this season that Elon will begin to see a resurgence along its defensive front, and with all four starters returning, the line will certainly be a more seasoned group than the green unit that took the field for the Phoenix in 2011.
Three juniors and one senior return along the defensive front for the Phoenix this fall, led by Olufemi Lamikanra (32 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 1 FR). Lamikanra is the lone senior returning along the front for the Phoenix, and he will enter the campaign as one of the top defensive tackles in the SoCon.
Lamikanra enjoyed his best game of his season against Furman, registering seven tackles, a tackle for loss and half a sack. Lamikanra is really undersized to be playing on the defensive interior, at just 230 lbs; however, his athleticism helps compensate for his lack of size.
Set to line up alongside Lamikanra this fall for the Phoenix will be junior nose tackle Tony Thompson (24 tackles, 7.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 1 FR). Thompson’s seven tackles for loss last fall led all Elon defensive linemen.
Thompson really came into his own in his first season as a full-time starter and nose guard, and he enjoyed the top performance of his sophomore campaign against Furman, posting five tackles, a tackle for loss and half a sack.
The Phoenix also have emerging talents at the respective bookend positions, returning junior starters Jay Brown (30 tackles, 5.0 TFL) and Jordan Jones (30 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 3 PBUs).
I look for Jones to be the breakout player along the defensive front this fall. He really played well down the stretch for the Phoenix in 2011; he recorded solo sacks in games against North Carolina Central and Samford, while recording half a sack in the regular-season finale, against Appalachian State. Jones also enjoyed his best game in terms of tackles in the 28-24 loss to the Mountaineers, including three solo stops.
I look at the Elon defensive line as one of the units that is ascending, and it could become a top-tier unit before season’s end. If the Phoenix see a big improvement along their defensive front, the unit has a chance to give Elon one of the top defenses in the SoCon in 2012.
The Phoenix finished ranking fourth in the SoCon in total defense (344.9 YPG) last fall.
Samford is one of the teams in the league that was most decimated by graduation, losing three of four starters from last season.
The top returnee along the Samford defensive front this fall will be senior defensive end Nicholas Williams (23 tackles, 3.0 TFLs). Williams is the lone holdover from last year’s unit and will be the player around whom Pat Sullivan will look to build his young Samford defensive front this fall.
Williams, a 310-pound native of Birmingham, Ala., is a massive presence at bookend. In 2011 Williams started all 11 games on the defensive front for Samford, and he will be making the move from defensive tackle to defensive end with the graduation of both Alex Davis and Austin Hayes.
Williams proved to be a solid force in the middle last fall and was effective at closing down the running lanes in the middle of the Bulldogs defense last season. Seventeen of his 23 tackles were solo stops.
The three new starters along the defensive line could be any combination of the following five players: Jeremy Towns (DNP in 2011 because of injury), Caleb Hullett (17 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1.0 sack), Jerry Mathis (18 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1 FR), Brinson Porter (3 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1.0 sack) and Aaron Bethune (21 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 1 FR). All four of the aforementioned DL reserves saw some quality action in 2011.
Porter, Mathis and Hullett will all be entering their sophomore campaigns, while Bethune and Towns will be seniors, joining Williams as the most experienced returnees along the defensive front.
Bethune and Porter should both see action at defensive end, but I expect the starters to be Bethune and Williams this fall.
Towns, a player who has courageously battled back from a career-threatening injury, will likely start at one of the defensive-tackle positions and will likely be joined inside by Mathis in the starting rotation.
This is a defensive line on the upswing and a unit that should get plenty of experienced leadership from its returnees this fall.
Bethune is a player that could be a real breakout performer for the Bulldogs this fall, and having Towns’ experience and savvy back will certainly serve Bill D’Ottavio’s defense well.
Still, this unit lacks the kind of pass rush and athleticism that some of the other units around the league possess.
9. Western Carolina
The good news for Western Carolina football fans and for the Catamount defensive linemen is that new head coach Mark Speir is no stranger to developing defensive-line talent.
He helped develop some of the the league’s top defensive ends during his time at Appalachian State, coaching Jason Hunter, Marques Murrell, Anthony Williams and Gary Tharrington to All-SoCon and All-America honors during his tenure as D-line coach.
Now he will be asked to take a Western Carolina defensive line that caught a lot of the blame for the Catamounts’ inability to stop the run at the point of attack last fall, ranking dead last in the FCS in rushing defense in 2011 (334.1 YPG/120th in FCS).
The good news is that he does have some decent talent and experience returning to work with this fall, as three starters return along the defensive front for the 2012 season.
Speir might need a translator, but two of his most talented returnees along the defensive front this fall will be from Russia and American Samoa, with the return of Andre Shishkin (51 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 blocked kick) and Rainey Ala (17 tackles, 2 FR, 1 blocked kick).
Shiskin and Ala will give the Catamounts one of the most athletic defensive-tackle tandems in the league this fall, and it is also an area in which the Catamounts figure to have quality depth, also returning a pair of experienced seniors, in Eric Banford (25 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1.0 sack) and Bevans Robbs (3 tackles).
Seniors Nick Woodward and Brian Johnson (29 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks) came out of the spring penciled in as the starters at the respective defensive end positions. Johnson has a chance to emerge as an all-conference type of performer this fall.
Johnson is a hard worker, and I expect that under the watchful eye of the new staff, especially Speir, Johnson will have his best season yet as a Catamount.
Ranking The Defensive Linemen
Top 10 Defensive Tackles
1. Brent Russell—Georgia Southern
2. Olufemi Lamakanra—Elon
3. Joshua Freeman—Chattanooga
4. Andre Shishkin—Western Carolina
5. Tony Thompson—Elon
6. Colton Keig—Furman
7. Blake Riley—Georgia Southern
8. Jerry Mathis—Samford
9. Toyvian Brand—Chattanooga
10. Sammy Ojjeh—The Citadel
Top 10 Defensive Ends
1. Josh Williams—Chattanooga
2. Derek Douglas—The Citadel
3. Josh Lynn—Furman
4. Chris Billingslea—The Citadel
5. Davis Tull—Chattanooga
6. Ronald Blair—Appalachian State
7. Javon Mention—Georgia Southern
8. James “Deuce” Robinson—Appalachian State
9. Shawn Boone—Furman
10. Zach Bobb—Wofford