A terrific mix of returning finalists and first-time nominees combine to form the deep, talented watch list for the 2017 STATS FCS Buck Buchanan Award, which was announced Friday.
Sam Houston State senior defensive end P.J. Hall, the runner-up for FCS defensive player of the year honors last season, headlines the list of 21 players. But with eight other returning finalists part of the watch list, there's potential for a wide-open race.
The Buchanan Award, first awarded in 1995, has sent past winners such as Dexter Coakley, Rashean Mathis, Jared Allen, Arthur Moats and Kyle Emanuel on to the NFL. Northern Iowa defensive end Karter Schult was the 2016 recipient.
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The watch list will have updates during the season. A national panel of over 150 sports information and media relations directors, broadcasters, writers and other dignitaries will vote on 25 finalists following the regular season.
The 6-foot-1, 280-pound Hall has posted three straight spectacular seasons, last year setting career highs with 24 1/2 tackles for loss and 13 sacks. The Southland Conference defensive player of the year helped Sam Houston State to a conference title and a No. 1 ranking during the regular season.
Jacksonville State senior defensive end Darius Jackson, the Ohio Valley Conference defensive player of the year, wasn't far behind in the voting, finishing fourth. Western Illinois linebacker Brett Taylor (seventh), South Carolina State linebacker Darius Leonard (10th), Houston Baptist linebacker Garrett Dolan (11th), Colgate defensive end Pat Afriyie (13th), North Dakota strong safety Cole Reyes (14th), Charleston Southern defensive end Anthony Ellis (21st) and Monmouth strong safety Mike Basile (24th) also were finalists.
Also nominated to the watch list were defensive ends Keontre Anderson of Jackson State, Andrew Ankrah of James Madison, Kurt Holuba of Princeton, Greg Menard of North Dakota State and Ebenezer Ogundeko of Tennessee State; linebackers Nick DeLuca of North Dakota State and Christian Rozeboom of South Dakota State; cornerbacks Davontae Harris of Illinois State and Tremon Smith of Central Arkansas; safeties Marlon Bridges of Jacksonville State, Rob Rolle of Villanova and Kailik Williams of The Citadel.
The breakdown of the watch list by position: nine defensive ends, five linebackers, five safeties and two cornerbacks. The Missouri Valley Football Conference had the most nominees with five, while the Ohio Valley Conference and Southland Conference had three each.
Also this season, STATS will present the Walter Payton Award (FCS offensive player of the year), Jerry Rice Award (FCS freshman player of the year), Eddie Robinson Award (FCS coach of the year) and Doris Robinson Scholar-Athlete of the Year. STATS will hold its national awards banquet the night of Jan. 5 in Frisco, Texas, on the eve of the FCS national championship game.
The preseason nominees to the STATS FCS Buck Buchanan Award Watch List:
Pat Afriyie, Colgate, DE, Sr., 6-2, 240, Sandy Hook, Connecticut
Offenses in the Patriot League have to alter their schemes when they face Afriyie. He's led the league in sacks and tackles for loss for two straight years, including 10 and 21, respectively, in 2016. … Earned the Patriot defensive player of the year award as well as a second straight appearance on the all-league first team. … Uses athleticism, quickness and an ability to read offensive play selection to get to quarterbacks and ball carriers. … Colgate utilizes Afriyie extensively on special teams as well. … Finished 13th in voting for the 2016 STATS FCS Buck Buchanan Award.
Keontre Anderson, Jackson State, DE, Sr., 6-4, 250, Canton, Mississippi
Has followed the lead of Jackson State players Teddrick Terrell and Javancy Jones to become a standout as well. Consistently overpowers offensive lineman to put pressure on an opponent's pass and run games. … As a junior, Anderson racked up 25½ tackles for loss in 11 games - nearly half of his 55 tackles - to lead the FCS. Added nine sacks and six quarterback hurries in his dominant line. … Collected eight sacks as a sophomore in 2015. … Possesses speed and quick hands and make good decisions.
Andrew Ankrah, James Madison, DE, R-Sr., 6-4, 240, Gaithersburg, Maryland
A two-time All-CAA Football first-team selection, Ankrah is primed for a banner senior season for 2016 FCS national champion James Madison. … Physically imposing, the defensive end and hybrid linebacker was a late-bloomer, having not turned serious about football until his senior year of high school. His older brother Jason has played in the NFL and CFL in recent seasons. … Collected 3½ sacks and forced a pair of fumbles in James Madison's 2015 win at SMU. … Was selected to the STATS FCS All-America second team as a sophomore.
Mike Basile, Monmouth, SS, Sr., 6-1, 200, Brick, New Jersey
After leading the Big South with a Monmouth-record 119 tackles as a sophomore, Basile followed up with 110 more as a junior on his way to his third consecutive appearance on the all-conference first team. He also earned 2016 STATS FCS All-America second-team honors - the highest ever for a Monmouth player. … A versatile defender who gets to the ball in run support and against the pass. … Splashed onto the scene as the 2014 Big South rookie of the year. … On special teams, Basile excels at blocking kicks, including three in the first four games of his junior season. … Finished 24th in voting for the 2016 STATS FCS Buck Buchanan Award.
Marlon Bridges, Jacksonville State, FS, R-So., 6-1, 220, Lanett, Alabama
Few freshmen were as productive as Bridges was during the 2016 season. He started his Jacksonville State career by winning Ohio Valley Conference Freshman of the Year honors. … Brought physicality to one of the nation's better defenses with a team-leading 87 tackles. He also led the FCS with five forced fumbles. … Added four interceptions, six break-ups and four tackles for loss to his versatile line. … Named to the 2016 STATS FCS All-America third team and finished fifth in voting for the Jerry Rice Award.
Nick DeLuca, North Dakota State, LB, R-Sr., 6-3, 248, Omaha, Nebraska
DeLuca, who mans the all-important middle linebacker spot for North Dakota State's vaunted defense, received a medical hardship for his 2016 season, which was cut short by a shoulder injury. … As the leader of the 2015 FCS championship-winning defense, DeLuca had 135 tackles - 54 more than any teammate. He also was solid in pass coverage, intercepting two passes and breaking up another six passes. … Named to the All-Missouri Valley Football Conference first team as a junior. … Broke into a key role late in the 2014 season, leading the team in tackles in his five starts, including four in the FCS playoffs.
Garrett Dolan, Houston Baptist, LB, Sr., 6-2, 240, Mont Belvieu, Texas
Dolan has been a building block for Houston Baptist's young program. He's led the Huskies in tackles in each of his three seasons. … Gritty run stopper racked up double-figure tackle totals seven times as a junior, including three games with at least 17, while ranking second in the FCS with 135 stops. … Opened the 2016 season by tying his school record with 18 tackles against Central Arkansas in a Southland Conference game. … Finished his sophomore season ranked 11th in the FCS in tackles per game. … Named to the 2016 STATS FCS All-America third team and finished 11th in voting for the STATS FCS Buck Buchanan Award.
Anthony Ellis, Charleston Southern, DE, Sr., 6-1, 245, Apopka, Florida
With Ellis as an anchor, Charleston Southern has had one of the better defensive lines in the FCS in recent seasons. … With a quiet swagger, Ellis plays with versatility, smaller than a typical defensive tackle, but bigger than a typical defensive end. … Was named the Big South's 2016 defensive player of the year and an STATS FCS All-America second-teamer after totaling 45 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and seven sacks. Those numbers were similar to his sophomore campaign, when he had 54 stops, 17½ tackles for loss and seven sacks. … Has helped the Buccaneers win back-to-back Big South titles. … Finished 21st in voting for the 2016 STATS FCS Buck Buchanan Award.
P.J. Hall, Sam Houston State, R-DE, Sr., 6-1, 280, Seguin, Texas
The runner-up for the 2016 STATS FCS Buck Buchanan Award seeks to take the next step as a senior. He was named the Southland Conference defensive player of the year as well as to the all-conference first team for a third time. … Despite commanding double-teams, he has totaled 36 sacks and 67 tackles for loss through his three seasons. … Uses his strength to overpower opposing linemen. He is expected to move inside to defensive tackle on the NFL level. … Hall helped the Bearkats to FCS national semifinal appearances in each of his first two seasons and to the quarterfinals in 2016. … On special teams, he blocked five kicks in each of his first two seasons.
Davontae Harris, Illinois State, CB, R-Sr., 6-0, 200, Wichita, Kansas
Harris knows when to lift his game as he has saved some of his best games for the FCS playoffs, which Illinois State qualified for in three straight seasons. … The speedy, physical corner made the 2016 All-Missouri Valley Football Conference first team while ranking first in the conference in passes defended with 15 (13 pass breakups and two interceptions). He also led the Redbirds with 10 passes defended as a sophomore. … With his excellent size, Harris is considered a prospect for the 2018 NFL Draft.
Kurt Holuba, Princeton, DE, Sr., 6-3, 260, Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey
Anchored the Ivy League's leading defense and finished second in voting for the 2016 Bushnell Cup as the league's defensive player of the year. … Totaled eight sacks for the Ivy League co-champion Tigers, leading all players with seven in league play. He racked up 10 tackles and three sacks against rival Harvard. … Versatile enough to play on the interior of the defensive line or on the edge. … Older brothers Rob and Jack played in the Ivy League at Princeton and Harvard, respectively.
Darius Jackson, Jacksonville State, DE, R-Sr., 6-3, 237, Bessemer, Alabama
The Ohio Valley Conference's 2016 preseason defensive player of the year lived up to the billing by earning the postseason award as well. He topped the conference with 15 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. … Has explosive speed coming from the edge, but also drops back to outside linebacker in a combo type of role. Usually draws double-teams from an offense. … Equally important as the defensive statistics is Jackson has been part of three straight Gamecocks' teams to finish unbeaten in the OVC. … Finished fourth in voting for the 2016 STATS FCS Buck Buchanan Award. During the regular season, those teams only lost to FBS opponents.
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Darius Leonard, South Carolina State, LB, R-Sr., 6-3, 200, Lake View, South Carolina
An instinctive feel for the game and a relentless style of play helped Leonard earn the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference's 2016 defensive player of the year award. He was the fourth straight South Carolina State winner. … Ranked first in the MEAC and sixth in the FCS with 11.3 tackles per game. … Collected a career-high 19 tackles in a game against Clemson, the eventual FBS national champion. … Was named the 2014 MEAC rookie of the year. … Finished 10th in voting for the 2016 STATS FCS Buck Buchanan Award.
Greg Menard, North Dakota State, DE, Sr., 6-2, 238, Lakeview, Minnesota
The top pass rusher on what has consistently been the best defense in the FCS. … Menard came on strong as a true freshman in 2014 behind defensive end Kyle Emanuel, the FCS defensive player of the year, and as a junior he was nominated to the STATS FCS Buck Buchanan Award Watch List. … Had 15½ tackles for loss with 11 sacks and four quarterback hurries in 2016. Also led the Bison with 14½ tackles for loss and 10 sacks as a sophomore, when he was a third-team All-American. … Particularly strong on passing downs, he uses speed, a high motor and athleticism to attack opposing quarterbacks from their blind side.
Ebenezer Ogundeko, Tennessee State, DE, R-Sr., 6-3, 255, Brooklyn, New York
A former Clemson reserve, "Ebo" been a terror in Ohio Valley Conference backfields. He made the 2015 All-OVC first team in his first season at Tennessee State. … Was off to a big start in 2016 before being hampered by an injury. In eight games, he had 48 tackles and led the Tigers in tackles for loss (11), sacks (5½), quarterback hurries (five) and fumble recoveries (two). … Likes to power around the edge to get into backfields. … Nominated to the 2016 STATS FCS Buck Buchanan Award and considered a 2018 NFL Draft prospect.
Cole Reyes, North Dakota, SS, R-Sr., 6-2, 205, Schaumburg, Illinois
Helped North Dakota to a share of the 2016 Big Sky title and an FCS playoff appearance - both firsts for the program - while earning the conference's defensive player of the year award. … Was named to the STATS FCS All-America first team and finished 14th in voting for the Buck Buchanan Award. … Gritty playmaker fills the box score. He had three interceptions and eight pass breakups despite missing two games due to injury as a junior. … Jumped into the starting lineup as a redshirt freshman in 2014 and hasn't looked back as he enters his senior season.
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Rob Rolle, Villanova, FS, Sr., 6-0, 190, Newfield, New Jersey
Rolle posted a breakout season in 2016 on a Villanova defense that ranked first in the FCS in total defense and scoring defense. … His seven interceptions tied for the national high. He had a pair of picks in wins over Lafayette and Maine, and had a 100-plus-yard interception return for a touchdown against Towson. He added five more pass breakups for 12 passes defended. … Rolle is well-suited for safety with his lankiness and athleticism as he is able to cover a lot of ground.
Christian Rozeboom, South Dakota State, LB, R-So., 6-2, 225, Sioux Center, Iowa
As a freshman, Rozeboom narrowly missed winning the 2016 STATS FCS Jerry Rice Award, finishing one point behind Duquesne running back A.J. Hines in the voting. He was named the Missouri Valley Football Conference's freshman of the year. … Athletic playmaker who makes call from the middle linebacker position. … Started all 13 games and led South Dakota State with 132 tackles as the Jackrabbits reached the FCS playoff quarterfinals for the first time. … Collected a career-high 20 tackles and forced a fumble in a road win at Southern Illinois Oct. 8, 2016.
Tremon Smith, Central Arkansas, CB, Sr., 6-0, 186, Anniston, Alabama
Opposing quarterbacks seek to avoid throwing toward the two-time All-Southland Conference first-team cornerback. … Enters his senior season with 10 career interceptions and 37 passes defended. … Helped Central Arkansas qualify for the 2016 FCS playoffs and have one of the nation's better defenses. … Highly skilled with great hands and turn-and-run ability. … Also Central Arkansas' punt returner, he averaged nine yards on 25 returns in 2016.
Brett Taylor, Western Illinois, LB, R-Sr., 6-2, 230, Macomb, Illinois
Western Illinois coaches wisely kept the Macomb resident from living city limits. The hometown product has turned into a first-team All-American with the Leathernecks. … With his nose for the ball, Taylor averaged 12.2 tackles per game in 2016, reaching double figures in 10 of 11 games. Included among his 134 tackles were a national-best 92 solo stops. … Had 144 tackles in his sophomore season - over 60 more than his closest teammate. … Finished seventh in voting for the 2016 STATS FCS Buck Buchanan Award.
LB Brett Taylor just named to 2017 Buck Buchanan Award watch list pic.twitter.com/K14hbFmQbK— Nico Haeflinger (@KHQANico) August 4, 2017
Kailik Williams, The Citadel, SS, Sr., 5-11, 185, Ormond Beach, Florida
Plays the demanding "rover" position on The Citadel defense. … Was named to the All-Southern Conference first team and picked by the conference media as its defensive player of the year in 2016. … Finished with a team-high 103 tackles, including 10 for loss, with seven passes defended (two interceptions and five pass breakups) as The Citadel won a second consecutive SoCon title for the first time. … Known for his "Pitch Six" play in a 2016 overtime win at Wofford when he caught an option pitch and returned for a touchdown. … Had been a standout in the Bulldogs' three playoff games in 2015 and '16.