B/R's Sun Belt All-Conference College Football Team of the 21st Century
The Sun Belt is building momentum as a conference that can produce quality college football teams. After not putting a single team in the final AP Top 25 in any of its first 18 years of existence, Appalachian State ended the 2019 campaign at No. 19, followed by Coastal Carolina (No. 14) and Louisiana-Lafayette (No. 15) both flirting with a spot in a New Year's Six bowl last year.
But while the league didn't start churning out Top 25 teams until recently, it has produced more than a full starting roster worth of quality players since the beginning of the century.
For the Power Five leagues in this series, we've been able to spend a lot of the discussion on things like Heisman Trophy voting and consensus All-American honors to help convey who was the best of the best at the various positions in any given year. We don't have that luxury with the Sun Belt, which has only produced one consensus All-American and nary a top 10 finisher for the Heisman.
Even if we wanted to let the NFL draft serve as an indicator of the top talent in the league, the Sun Belt has only produced two first-round picks and fewer than three dozen players drafted in the top 150 overall.
Still, there was no shortage of quality options, even if the names aren't exactly of the household variety.
Two housekeeping notes before we dive in:
- The 21st century began on January 1, 2001. That means the 2000 season does not count.
- Only seasons in which the program was part of the Sun Belt counted. Three schools (Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette and Louisiana-Monroe) have been in the league from start to finish, but a total of 18 programs have spent at least some time in the Sun Belt in the past two decades.
B/R's All-21st Century Series
The Pick: Ryan Aplin, Arkansas State
If you want to be a quarterback in the Sun Belt, you'd better be able to run. Of the 27 guys who sit atop the conference's career passing yards leaderboard, two-thirds (18) also had at least 600 career rushing yards.
And few in the league have been better at both than Arkansas State's Ryan Aplin was.
Although he didn't become the Red Wolves' starter until the final month of his freshman season, Aplin's 10,758 passing yards rank second all-time in Sun Belt history, and his 31 rushing touchdowns rank second among quarterbacks.
It wasn't garbage-time stat-stuffing for a bad team, either. This program drastically turned a corner under Aplin's leadership at QB.
Prior to 2011, Arkansas State hadn't won seven or more games in a season since 1978. However, the Red Wolves went 10-3 in each of his final two seasons, starting a streak of nine consecutive bowl game appearances.
Aplin had 24 passing touchdowns against only four interceptions his senior year, and he was named Sun Belt Player of the Year in both 2011 and 2012. He's the league's only offensive player to earn that honor twice.
Coastal Carolina quarterback Grayson McCall was named Sun Belt POY this past season as a freshman and might finish his career as the obvious choice for best quarterback in conference history. As things currently stand, though, the only viable contender to Aplin is Appalachian State's Taylor Lamb, who threw for 90 touchdowns and rushed for 23 more in App State's first four years back at the FBS level.
The Picks: Elijah McGuire, Louisiana-Lafayette; Matt Breida, Georgia Southern
Running backs seem to grow on trees for the Ragin' Cajuns.
Tyrell Fenroy racked up 4,646 rushing yards and 48 touchdowns with Louisiana-Lafayette, both of which still rank first in conference history. Alonzo Harris finished his career with 3,330 yards and 44 touchdowns. And the one-two punch of Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas had a combined total of 6,839 rushing yards and 79 touchdowns over the past four years.
The best of the bunch, though, was Elijah McGuire.
McGuire averaged 7.9 yards per carry between his first two seasons with the Ragin' Cajuns. That rate dropped considerably in his final two seasons, but he finished his career with 4,301 rushing yards, 1,394 receiving yards and 52 total touchdowns from scrimmage.
On the yards-per-carry front, no one did it better than Georgia Southern's Matt Breida.
Breida averaged 8.3 yards per carry and had a total of 3,094 rushing yards between the 2014 and 2015 seasons with the Eagles. That number plummeted the following year when new head coach Tyson Summers came in and tried to abandon the triple-option offense that worked so well the previous years. But Breida still ended his college career at a rate of 6.9 yards per carry, best among Sun Belt players with at least 300 career rushing attempts.
Honorable mentions go to Western Kentucky's Bobby Rainey and New Mexico State's Larry Rose III, each of whom had at least 4,500 rushing yards and 35 touchdowns despite playing on teams that did not win many games. Western Kentucky went winless in 2009 in spite of getting more than 2,000 all-purpose yards from Rainey.
Fret not, Hilltoppers fans. Another backfield star will make an appearance later on this roster.
Wide Receiver and Tight End
WR: T.Y. Hilton, Florida International; Omar Bayless, Arkansas State
TE: Ladarius Green, Louisiana-Lafayette
As a freshman at FIU, T.Y. Hilton had more than 1,000 receiving yards while averaging 24.7 yards per reception. Among players to accumulate at least 1,000 yards in a single season, it was the fourth-highest yards-per-catch rate of the past 20 years regardless of conference.
Hilton became more of a possession, short-yardage receiver in his subsequent three seasons. He ended his college career with 3,531 receiving yards, the most in Sun Belt history. He easily could have been our choice for all-purpose player, too, considering he had nearly 4,000 yards between rushing, kick returns and punt returns.
Omar Bayless exploded onto the national scene as a fifth-year senior, leading the nation with 127.2 receiving yards per game in 2019. Prior to that season, he had only one game with 85 or more receiving yards, yet he went for at least 130 yards in six of his first seven games in 2019.
Bayless' 1,653 receiving yards from that season put him atop the Sun Belt's single-season leaderboard by more than 300 yards.
And at tight end, Ladarius Green quietly had a remarkable college career with the Ragin' Cajuns, catching 149 passes for 2,201 yards and 22 touchdowns. He leads all Sun Belt tight ends in both of those categories and was a fourth-round draft pick in 2012.
OT: Antonio Garcia, Troy; Derek Newton, Arkansas State
OG: Robert Hunt, Louisiana; Kevin Dotson, Louisiana-Lafayette
C: Jake Scott, Idaho
I watch a ton of college football, but I'm not about to try to convince you that my expertise is offensive linemen from the Sun Belt. This starting five is based purely on the NFL draft, where this conference has had seven offensive linemen chosen in the past 20 years.
The only two tackles on that list are Troy's Antonio Garcia and Arkansas State's Derek Newton.
The Houston Texans selected Newton with a seventh-round pick in 2011, and he went on to become a key member of their O-line. They signed him to a five-year, $26.5 million extension in March 2016, but he suffered an effectively career-ending injury seven months later, tearing the patellar tendons in both knees on the same play.
Garcia was a third-round pick in 2017, though he has been unable to make it onto the field in the NFL.
Louisiana-Lafayette had a pair of guards taken in the 2020 draft: Robert Hunt early in the second round and Kevin Dotson late in the fourth round. Neither one opened his rookie season as a starter, but each one made at least one start this past season.
And while the Sun Belt has yet to have a center drafted, how about a guard who started for a Super Bowl champion? That would be Idaho's Jake Scott, whom the Indianapolis Colts took in the fifth round in 2004 before quickly earning a starting gig. Less than three years later, he was a world champion.
DE: Ja'Von Rolland-Jones, Arkansas State; Tarron Jackson, Coastal Carolina
DT: Brandon Kennedy, North Texas; Jeff Littlejohn, Middle Tennessee
Ja'Von Rolland-Jones terrorized Sun Belt quarterbacks from 2014-17. The edge-rusher had 7.5 sacks as a freshman, 8.5 as a sophomore and 13.0 in each of his junior and senior seasons. That's 42 total sacks, second to only Louisiana Tech's Jaylon Ferguson (45) since the NCAA started officially tracking sacks in 2005.
And that lone consensus All-American we mentioned back in the intro? It was Coastal Carolina's Tarron Jackson this past season. The defensive end for the Chanticleers had 14 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks in 2020, bringing his career totals to 42.0 and 24.5. He was drafted in the sixth round by the Philadelphia Eagles in May.
At tackle, Brandon Kennedy was named Sun Belt Player of the Year in both 2002 and 2003. While sacks weren't officially recorded then, North Texas credits Kennedy with 44 tackles for loss over his final two seasons, including 10 sacks in 2002. Those would be impressive numbers for an edge-rusher, but they are ridiculous numbers for a nose tackle. Even Ndamukong Suh had only 36.5 tackles for loss in his final two seasons at Nebraska.
And MTSU's Jeff Littlejohn was named the Sun Belt's Defensive Player of the Year in 2005 with 7.5 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks and an interception. The Blue Raiders couldn't score worth a darn that year, but Littlejohn led a fierce defense that pulled off a stunning road win over Jay Cutler and the Vanderbilt Commodores.
The Picks: DeMarcus Ware, Troy; Akeem Davis-Gaither, Appalachian State; Demario Davis, Arkansas State
DeMarcus Ware and Osi Umenyiora played together as defensive linemen at Troy, which was quite the recruiting achievement for such a small program. However, neither of those future NFL stars was listed as one of our All-Sun Belt linemen because a) Troy was independent until 2004, meaning Umenyiora never played in this conference and b) Ware was drafted to play outside linebacker and was doggone good at it.
Regardless of which position you want to list him at, Ware was undeniably special. During hs senior year (his only year in the Sun Belt), he was named the conference's Defensive Player of the Year with 53 tackles and 10.5 sacks. He was then chosen with the 11th pick in the 2005 NFL draft, becoming the league's first-ever first-round draft pick.
Akeem Davis-Gaither wasn't quite that much of a backfield disrupter, but he was the linchpin of an excellent Appalachian State defense in both 2018 and 2019. Between those two seasons, he was involved in 197 tackles, including 24 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks and 15 passes defended. The Mountaineers went 24-3 those two years, holding opponents below 18 points per game.
Over Demario Davis' final three years at Arkansas State, he accumulated more than 200 tackles, seven sacks, four interceptions and a pair of defensive touchdowns. And though we previously credited Ryan Aplin with turning that Red Wolves program around, Davis' presence in the middle of the defense didn't hurt.
Cornerback: Leodis McKelvin, Troy; Charles Tillman, Louisiana-Lafayette
Safety: Johnathan Cyprien, FIU; Tyrell Johnson, Arkansas State
While we wouldn't call the Sun Belt an NFL factory at any position, defensive back is where the league has most consistently churned out next-level talent. A total of 18 Sun Belt players have been chosen with a top-90 pick in an NFL draft, and eight of those players were defensive backs. (Plus Ike Taylor, who went 125th overall in 2003 before spending 12 seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers.)
Indisputably at the top of that list are cornerbacks Leodis McKelvin and Charles "Peanut" Tillman.
McKelvin had only four interceptions in his four seasons at Troy, but he was great in coverage because of the speed he often displayed as a returner (seven touchdowns on punts, one on a kickoff). He was respectable at the art of breaking up passes, but he was elite at keeping receivers in front of him. Like DeMarcus Ware in 2005, McKelvin went 11th overall in his draft year three seasons later.
Tillman made 12 interceptions over his final three seasons at Louisiana-Lafayette, a mere precursor for the 38 picks he would rack up in his NFL career.
Safety was a bit of a tougher call here, but it's hard to argue with second-round draft picks Johnathan Cyprien and Tyrell Johnson, both of whom seemed to be everywhere on the field all of the time.
Cyprien had 365 tackles and seven interceptions en route to becoming the No. 33 pick in the 2013 NFL draft. Johnson finished just narrowly behind Cyprien in tackles with 363 of them, but he had 13 interceptions and was named first-team All-Sun Belt each year from 2005-07.
Kicker: Brett Baer, Louisiana-Lafayette
Punter: Joel Stelly, Louisiana-Monroe
Returner: Darryl Surgent, Louisiana-Lafayette
All-Purpose: Antonio Andrews, Western Kentucky
In terms of field-goal percentage, Brett Baer was the best FBS kicker of the past two decades. He went 45-of-50 on field-goal attempts for a 90 percent mark that ranks best among players with at least 50 tries. He did miss seven extra-point attempts in his career, so the chip shots were a bit of a problem for him.
Among Sun Belt punters, Joel Stelly reigns supreme with a career yards-per-punt mark (44.3) that's a full yard better than any other player in the league with at least 125 punts. And that's even with a dreadful freshman season in which he averaged 32.8 yards per punt. Focus solely on his final three seasons, and that average balloons to 45.4 yards per punt.
For returner, we could have gone with T.Y. Hilton or Leodis McKelvin. The former had 3,469 combined punt-return and kick-return yards and six touchdowns. The latter had marks of 3,817 and eight, respectively. But rather than double-dipping on guys whom we chose here at other positions, let's go with Darryl Surgent, who had 2,725 kick-return yards, 497 punt-return yards and four touchdowns between those two roles.
And in case you were wondering why we didn't choose him as one of the running backs, Antonio Andrews was an easy choice for all-purpose player.
After playing second fiddle to Bobby Rainey for his first two seasons at Western Kentucky, Andrews blossomed into a star in 2012-13. Between those two seasons, he had 3,458 rushing yards, 910 receiving yards, 1,081 kick-return yards and 331 punt-return yards, averaging 231.2 all-purpose yards per game. He led the nation in all-purpose yards per game in each season, and his mark of 243.5 in 2012 was the second-best of the past decade, trailing only Christian McCaffrey's 276.0 in 2015.