PHILADELPHIA -- The 2014 Buck Buchanan Award might be kept out of Montana State, but perhaps not the Big Sky Conference.
The last two recipients of the FCS' outstanding defensive player honor were defensive ends from Montana State. Although no Bobcats made the 20-player Watch List this year, three Big Sky players did. That's not surprising considering the conference from the western end of the FCS has claimed six of the last 11 Buchanans.
The Buchanan will celebrate its 20th anniversary this season and be presented by The Sports Network at the FCS national awards banquet on Dec. 15. Past recipients include two-time winner Dexter Coakley, Jared Allen (the first Big Sky winner in 2003), Rashean Mathis, Kroy Biermann and Montana State's back- to-back winners Caleb Schreibeis in 2012 and Brad Daly last season.
Two-time defending Big Sky champion Eastern Washington features a returning finalist in senior linebacker Ronnie Hamlin, who finished 12th a year ago. Five of the Big Sky winners have been defensive ends, and this year the conference has two nominees at the position in Southern Utah junior James Cowser and Montana senior Zack Wagenmann.
Five other nominees were finalists last season: Coastal Carolina linebacker Quinn Backus, who was seventh; Norfolk State linebacker Lynden Trail, eighth; Chattanooga defensive end Davis Tull, 13th; Missouri State safety Caleb Schaffitzel, 15th; and Harvard defensive end Zach Hodges, 16th. Each is a senior this season.
Also nominated to the Watch List were defensive tackles O.J. Mau of Gardner-Webb and Troy Moore of Sacred Heart, defensive ends Mike Reilly of William & Mary and Jonathan Woodard of Central Arkansas, linebackers Tony Bell of Tennessee-Martin and Stephen Hodge of Fordham, cornerbacks Harlan Miller of Southeastern Louisiana and Tye Smith of Towson, and safeties Daniel Fitzpatrick of Tennessee State, Jacob Hagen of Liberty, Colten Heagle of three-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State and Jaquiski Tartt of Samford. Each is a senior except Mau, Miller and Woodard, who are juniors.
It's a widespread list that breaks down to six defensive ends, five linebackers, five safeties, two defensive tackles and two cornerbacks. The Big South Conference, like the Big Sky, has the most nominees with three (Backus, Hagen and Mau).
Among the returnees, Backus plays bigger than his 5-foot-10, 215-pound size, having already captured Big South defensive player of the year honors after both his sophomore (2012) and junior (2013) seasons.
Trail, a hulking 6-7, 260 pounds, disrupted offenses a year ago with 12.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, eight pass breakups, 10 quarterback hurries and five forced fumbles. Fellow linebacker Hamlin enters his senior season ranked third in Eastern Washington history with 361 tackles.
A year ago, Tull became the first player to repeat as Southern Conference defensive player of the year since Coakley won three in a row from 1994-96.
Schaffitzel has a nose for the ball, having racked up 110 tackles as a safety last season. Hodges possesses the same trait, as evidenced by his 18.5 career sacks entering his senior season.
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