Now I begin to look at the defenses in the Southern Conference, as we get into the grind of the summer months. I’ll start with the defensive lines around the SoCon, ranking the defensive fronts 1–9 below.
Like all of the offensive positions I have covered so far, the defensive linemen that have competed in the Southern Conference over the years has give Southern Conference defensive lines great tradition over the years. Players like Davis Tull (Chattanooga), Josh Jeffries (Appalachian State), Bryan Dailer (Furman), Avery Hall (Appalachian State), Clyde Simmons (Western Carolina), Anthony “Heavy” Jones (Wofford), Ameet Pall (Wofford) and James Russell (East Tennessee State) have all made their presence known as some of the greats down the years among the defensive linemen to have played in the Southern Conference.
In addition to ranking the top defensive lines in the SoCon, I will also be ranking the top 10 individual defensive linemen in the SoCon heading into the 2019 season.
There was plenty of talent lost from this position in the league from a year ago. Gone due to graduation are both the preseason and postseason SoCon Defensive Players of the Year, in Ahmad Gooden (Samford) and Isaiah Mack (Chattanooga), as well as other good, All-SoCon caliber players like Jaylan Reid (Furman), Miles Brown (Wofford) and Isaiah Bueler (Mercer).
The defensive line is not a strong position for the SoCon this fall, particularly at defensive end, due in large part to losses suffered by graduation.
- East Tennessee State — Maybe the biggest reason the ETSU Bucs were able to win the first Southern Conference title trophy in program history was the play of their front seven on the defensive side of the football. The Bucs return two of three starters to that unit this fall, including perhaps the best defensive player in all of the Southern Conference, in Nasir Player. Player was simply a beast last year, and he combines speed, power and intelligence into what he brings the Bucs at defensive end. Last year, he was a consensus first-team All-SoCon selection, and is a preseason first-team All-America selection, according to HEROSports.com, and was a preaseason All-America selection by AthlonSports. Player comes off a 2018 season, which saw him post 43 tackles, 11 tackles-for-loss and six sacks, and that was enough to garner him a spot on the STATS FCS third team All-America team at season’s end, while also ending the season as a Buck Buchanan Award finalist.The Bucs will have to replace nose tackle Tremond Ferrell, who has graduated, but do return defensive end Jason Maduafokwa. Maduafokwa is a good compliment to Player on the other side of the defensive line for the Bucs, and finished the campaign with 39 tackles, 12.5 tackles-for-loss and 6.5 sacks.
2. Samford — Though the Bulldogs lose the top defensive lineman in the Southern Conference to graduation, in Ahmad Gooden, two seasoned starters return to anchor what should be a very good front in the Southern Conference once again in 2019. The other starter that must be replaced as a result of graduation is nose tackle Horace Roberts. Returning to the fold for the Bulldog defensive front this fall will be both Jalen Nash and Justin Foster. Both should contend for all-league plaudits this fall, as Nash will line up at defensive end, while Foster will line up at defensive tackle once again. Last season, Nash posted 23 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, and 1.5 sacks. With Gooden now on an NFL roster as a free agent with the Denver Broncos, Nash will now be charged with being the Bulldogs’ primary pass-rusher heading into the season. Foster will occupy one of the interior positions on the defensive line, and he is coming off a solid 2018 season, which saw him post 28 tackles, four tackles-for-loss and a pair of sacks last fall. The best of the bunch returning up front for Samford this fall might be sophomore defensive end Nelson Jordan (34 tackles, 8.0 TFL, 5.0 sacks, 1 PBU, 5 QBHs), who was a SoCon All-Freshman selection last fall.
3. The Citadel—One of the sneaky good defensive lines that could make some waves in the Southern Conference this fall is The Citadel. Big Joseph Randolph II will be among the best in the SoCon this fall, and he’ll be a key piece for The Citadel’s defense, as the Bulldogs look to challenge for a SoCon title and get back towards the top of the SoCon this fall. Randolph II will start at the defensive tackle position, and the 2018 All-SoCon honoree is coming off a campaign, which saw him complete the season with some rather impressive numbers. He finished the 2018 campaign with 37 tackles, a team-leading 14.0 tackles-for-loss and was second on the team with four quarterback takedowns. Randolph II will contend for All-America honors this fall. Jalon Williams (10 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 2 QBHs) , Aaron Brawley (28 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 0.5 sack, 1 PBU, 2 blkd kicks) and Marquise Blount (4 tackles) will also return up front to team in the rotation with Randolph II. The Citadel still must replace a pair of solid starters in nose tackle Ken Allen, who has graduated, as well as defensive end Mason Kinsey, who is no longer with the program. Kinsey was a SoCon All-Freshman pick last fall. The Citadel’s defensive front helped pave the way for a pulverizing pass-rush last season, as the Bulldogs posted a league-leading 33 sacks.
T-3. Wofford— Nose tackle Thad Mangum (51 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 3 QBHs, 2 FRs) and defensive end Mikel Horton (13 tackles, 0.5 TFL) return along the Wofford defensive front, making them once again one of the most formidable defensive fronts in the Southern Conference. Horton has battled injuries each of the past injuries each of the past two seasons, participating in just 11 of 27 games for the Terriers, but managed to garner All-SoCon honors in eight games in 2017. He will likely be a candidate for All-America honors at season’s end. Players like Lee Basinger, Nathan Fuqua, Ameet Pall and Anthony “Heavy” Jones have been a part of that talented defensive line legacy the Terriers have been able to establish along the defensive front. Also set to battle for playing time alongside Mangum and Horton along the Wofford defensive line this fall are senior defensive end Robbie Armstrong (12 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1.0 sack) and junior defensive end Austin Lufkin (7 tackles, 1.0 TFL). Mangum started all 13 games for the Terriers last season, and ranked second on the team in tackles. He was a second-team All-SoCon pick last fall.
5. Mercer —The Mercer defense also finished the season ranking 85th nationally in scoring defense (32.5 PPG), 107th in pass defense (260.4 YPG), 103rd in rushing defense (220.3 YPG) and tied for 108th in sacks-per-game (1.09 SPG). The Bears will stay with a 4-2-5/multiple scheme on the defensive side of the football for the 2019 campaign. Leading the way along the defensive line this fallwill be Dorian Kithcart (20 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 QBH). Kithcart will enter the season as one of the top nose tackles in FCS football and will likely compete for All-America honors this fall. The redshirt senior is one of two starters returning along the defensive front, and he will team with defensive end Destin Guillen (13 tackles). Guillen is a redshirt senior out of Berea, S.C., and started the final game of the season against Furman last fall. One of the more impressive recruits along the defensive line for the Bears and in the Southern Conference as a whole from this past signing period was Richard Benton, Jr. out of Atlanta, GA. The 6-2, 243-lb defensive lineman could step in and play right away at the other defensive end position this fall. During his career at B.E.S.T. Academy, Benton was a four-time AA Region 6 All-State selection, and received 30 scholarship offers, including 17 from FBS programs. He finished out his prep career with 27 sacks, and 14 of those sacks came during his junior season. Redshirt junior Behr Cooper (15 tackles) could be in line to start alongside Kithcart at the other defensive tackle spot in 2019. Cooper served as a backup behind Kithcart at nose guard last season.
6. Furman — New defensive coordinator Enter Duane Vaughn, who was a tight end at Vanderbilt (2008–11), and spent time playing and coaching under former Furman legendary head coach Bobby Johnson during his time in Nashville. Now, Vaughn will look to take what he has learned under the former Paladin defensive master-mind and head coach, and apply it to his new post as the Paladins’ defensive coordinator. Vaughn will maintain his post as the coach of Furman’s outside linebackers coach. Vaughn is not expected to veer too far from what the Paladins did schematically under Skaggs, although there could be a few wrinkles. But despite a little bad news, as it turns out, the 2019 edition of the Death Dealer defense might be even better than last season’s unit. Furman’s defense returns seven starters from a unit that finished the 2018 season ranking 75th in the FCS in total defense (408.5 YPG), 61st in scoring defense (28.2 PPG), 46th in rushing defense (157.8 YPG), 105th in pass defense (250.7 YPG), 31st in sacks (2.7 SPG), and 98th in passing efficiency defense (146.14). Furman obviously struggled against the pass last year against the pass, but excelled as a pass-rushing force, which saw Hope play such a big role as a redshirt freshman last fall. Leading the Paladin defensive front this fall will be senior defensive end Jonah Tibbs (21 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 3 QBHs). Tibbs will team with junior Parker Stokes (25 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 QBH, 1 PBU) and sophomore Taylor Hodge (15 tackles, 1.0 TFL), who are projected as the starters at nose tackle and defensive tackle, respectively, coming out of spring practice. Both will have some large shoes to fill, particularly Stokes, who will be called upon to replace one of the top nose tackles in the Southern Conference over the past four years, in Jaylan Reid.
7. Chattanooga — It’s hard to envision Chattanooga ever being ranked as low as seventh in the league when ranking the defensive lines, especially after the success the Mocs have churned out over the past six or seven seasons along the defensive front. However, the Mocs suffered some pretty sizeable losses along the defensive front from last season, with the graduation of All-SoCon caliber defensive linemen Derek Mahaffey and Isaiah Mack to graduation. Mack was named the SoCon Defensive Player of the Year in 2018. The good news for the Mocs is that two starters — Devonsha Maxwell (32 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks) and Khayyan Edwards (46 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 2 PBU, 7 QBHs, 2 FFs) — will be the lone two returning starters to the defensive front. Maxwell was a SoCon All-Freshman pick last season after posting an outstanding inaugural campaign in the Mocs Blue and Gold at defensive end. Edwards moves up one level on defense from linebacker to defensive end, as the Mocs will utilize a 3–4 defensive line under first-year defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward. The well-traveled Ward, whose son starred at running back at The Citadel last season, will hope a couple of freshmen can come of age quickly, in transfer T.J. Cammack (Navy Prep) and freshman defensive end Tavi McLean looking to crack the two-deep in the fall. The Mocs also have also added two more defensive line transfers, in Dantrell Barkley (Charlotte), who transferred into UTC just prior to the summer semester, and 2018 transfer Tristan Mann (Georgia Southern). The Mocs ranked third in the SoCon last season with 30 sacks, however, half of those sacks were recorded by Mahaffey and Mack.
8. VMI — The Keydets return two of three starters along the defensive line for the 2019 season, and figure to be much improved along the defensive front this fall. Sophomore Warren Dabney (17 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 FR, 1 QBH) returns where he started all 11 games at nose tackle last fall. Returning at one of the defensive end positions will be Jarrod Richmond (39 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 3 QBHs, 1 PBU). Juniors Jordan Ward (26 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1 sack, 6 QBHs, 1 PBU) and Chuck Weatherman (25 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 4.0 sacks, 1 FF, 1 SAF) will compete to replace Zach Baker, who has graduated, at the other defensive end position in fall camp. The Keydets ranked eighth out of nine teams in sacks in 2018, recording 15 quarterback takedowns.
9. Western Carolina — Just one starter highlights the returnees along the Western Carolina defensive front, and that is sophomore nose tackle Adam Henderson (28 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 1 FR).The Catamounts will once again utilize a 3–4 defensive front under third-year defensive coordinator John Wiley. With Nate Link having decided not to return for his final season of eligibility with the Purple and Gold, look for sophomores K.J. Milner (15 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1.0 sack) and Ezekial Jeannette (5 tackles) along with junior Ricky Palao (24 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1.0 sack) to compete for the respective defensive end positions in the Catamount defense this fall. Palao had some outstanding performances during the 2018 season for the Catmounts, posting a career-high 11 stops against The Citadel, while posting 1.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and a sack in a loss to Chattanooga last fall. The Catamounts ranked last in the SoCon in sacks last fall, posting just 12 sacks on the season. Christian Harris is one of the most talented defensive lineman recruits in the FCS, and will have a chance to contribute right away for the Catamounts.
Ranking the SoCon Defensive Linemen Heading into 2019:
- DE — Nasir Player (ETSU)
- DT — Joseph Randolph II (The Citadel)
- NT — Dorian Kithcart (Mercer)
- DE — Mikel Horton (Wofford)
- DE— Nelson Jordan (Samford)
- DE — Jason Maduafokwa (ETSU)
- DE — Devonsha Maxwell (Chattanooga)
- DE — Justin Foster (Samford)
- DE — Thad Mangum (Wofford)
- NT — Adam Henderson (Western Carolina)