AAC Preview: Top 10 defensive players
This week, we're continuing our in-depth look at the upcoming American Athletic Conference football season from various angles. Players, pivotal matchups, prevailing story lines -- all are being dissected. Today: top 10 defensive players (in alphabetical order)
CB Sean Chandler, Jr., Temple
Arguably the most inspirational guy on this list, Chandler's climb from an impoverished childhood to Division I dominance (66 tackles, four interceptions in '15) is chronicled in this video. Known widely as "Champ," Chandler hadn't completed his freshman season at Temple when Owls players voted to award him a single-digit jersey, which goes only to the program's toughest, most committed players.
LB Nico Marley, Sr., Tulane
Seems ol' Bob produced run-stoppers and reggae music with equal proficiency. The grandson of Bob and son of former University of Miami LB Rohan Marley, Nico enters his senior year with 36 starts and 36.5 tackles for loss (fourth-most in school history). Will be interesting to see how he adjusts to new coach Willie Fritz's emphasis on rugby-style, shoulder-level tackles to the midsection, a proven method Fritz gleaned from Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll.
CB Deatrick Nichols, Jr., USF
Nichols' production in 2015 (62 tackles, team-high four interceptions, two forced fumbles) reveals only part of the story. It's when he produced that propelled him to all-conference status. In the win against Syracue (which may have saved his coach's job), Nichols had a sack, forced fumble and 2.5 tackles for loss. Against Temple, where USF clinched bowl eligibility, he had a pick and a pass breakup. On the Friday night stage against Cincinnati, Nichols added two more interceptions including a pick-six.
DE Haason Reddick, Sr., Temple
The departure of first-team All-American (and Bednarik Award winner) Tyler Matakevich leaves a noticeable void in the middle of the Owls defense, but no such problem exists up front, thanks in part to Reddick. A disruptive force on the edge (12.5 tackles for loss, five sacks) last season, Reddick and classmate Praise Martin-Oguike form one of the conference's top d-line bookends.
MLB Auggie Sanchez, R-Jr., USF
This converted fullback has evolved into the undisputed quarterback of the "Bull Shark" 4-2-5 attack. Though not the most athletically gifted linebacker in the league, Sanchez compensates with instinctiveness, indefatigable study habits and old-school toughness. The team's defensive MVP last season, Sanchez's 117 tackles tied for second-most in a season in Bulls history.
DT B.J. Singleton, Sr., Houston
A second-team all-conference pick last season, Singleton was an interior force in the AAC title game, recording three tackles and three QB hurries in Houston's 24-13 win against Temple. His ability to take on multiple blockers in the center of Houston's 3-4 scheme has allowed Cougars linebackers to flourish (see Taylor, Steven).
DT Tanzel Smart, Sr., Tulane
One of the league's top NFL prospects, Smart (6-foot-1, 304 pounds) had 15 tackles for loss last season, an astounding total for an interior lineman. If his production and physical upside weren't enough, he's also believed to be one of the Green Wave's hardest workers.
CB Jamar Summers, Jr., Connecticut
Say this about the Huskies: They know how to produce quality DBs. A year after UConn FS Byron Jones was taken by Dallas in the first round of the NFL Draft, the Huskies have another potential pro in Summers, who finished third nationally with eight picks in 2015. One of those occurred in the waning moments against Houston at the UConn 29, preserving the Huskies' 20-17 upset.
LB Steven Taylor, Sr., Houston
For all of the Cougars' offensive potency last season, they ranked eighth against the run (108.9 ypg) and could be slightly better in '16. With potential NFL prospects (see Singleton, B.J.) taking on more than one blocker up front, the linebacker corps could flourish. Taylor, who led the league with 10 sacks last season, is arguably the best of the bunch.
LB Eric Wilson, Sr., Cincinnati
Any defensive renaissance in Cincy likely starts with Wilson, a Northwestern transfer who had a team-best 106 tackles for the Bearcats in 2015. At 6-foot-2, 219 pounds, he may project as a safety at the next level. We project with Wilson and a more seasoned supporting cast, the Bearcats will improve noticeably from last season, when they allowed more than 400 yards a game (78th nationally).