Published July 08, 2013
| Sports Network
Philadelphia, PA – There's plenty of talent to be found outside the Big Six power conferences in the FBS. You just have to do a little digging.
The following is a list of 10 defensive players from mid-major teams set to make a big impact on the upcoming college football season.
Kyle Van Noy, LB, BYU - At 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, Van Noy is a physical specimen who is virtually unblockable coming off the edge. As a junior in 2012, he made a habit of causing havoc in the backfield, racking up 22 tackles for losses and 13.0 sacks in 12 games for BYU. Van Noy has clearly established himself as one of the top pass-rushers in the nation, but he's far from one- dimensional, making plays all over the field with 53 tackles, two interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), six forced fumbles and two blocked kicks. Opting to remain on campus for his senior season rather than enter last April's NFL Draft shows the Third Team All-American's confidence in his ability to put up a repeat performance in 2013.
Andrew Jackson, LB, Western Kentucky - Jackson has been a tackling machine for the Hilltoppers since taking over the starting middle linebacker position as a sophomore in 2011, racking up 231 total stops over the past two seasons and establishing himself as perhaps the most dominating defensive force in the Sun Belt Conference. The two-time First Team All-Conference selection upped his big-play quota in 2012, recording 17.5 TFL and four forced fumbles, and as an experienced leader in the middle of the WKU defense, he'll be a crucial cog in the Hilltoppers' quest for a Sun Belt title in Bobby Petrino's first season as head coach.
Khalil Mack, LB, Buffalo - After redshirting in 2009, Mack was inserted into Buffalo's defensive rotation as a freshman in 2010 and has been a mainstay ever since. The outside linebacker made plays all over the field as a junior a season ago, and despite missing a game, he tallied team-highs in tackles (94), TFL (21), sacks (8.0) and forced fumbles (four). Mack has already set a school record with 56 career tackles behind the line of scrimmage, and with 20 more TFL in 2013, he will surpass Jason Babin's FBS record of 75 set with Western Michigan in 2003.
Derrick Mathews, LB, Houston - The Houston defense didn't have much to be excited about in 2012 after allowing 36.0 ppg to its opponents, but Mathews was one of the few bright spots. He took advantage of his ample opportunities for tackles with 126 stops (he was one of four Cougars to finish with at least 100 tackles in 2012), but he also showed big playmaking ability in his sophomore season with 17.0 TFL, 6.0 sacks, nine QB hurries and two forced fumbles. Mathews may not be as polished as the other linebackers on this list, but he is certainly every bit as dynamic. After two strong seasons to start his career with the Cougars, continued improvement in 2013 is well within reach.
Bene Benwikere, CB, San Jose State - Benwikere was a starter as a freshman in 2010 at SJSU before experiencing a setback in 2011, when he made just two starts in 10 games, while accumulating only 18 tackles and one interception. Luckily for the Spartans, Benwikere bounced back in a huge way in 2012 by being named a First Team All-Western Athletic Conference selection after picking off seven passes, including a school record-tying three in a win over Louisiana Tech. He's far from a one-trick pony, however, as he made 7.5 TFL a year ago, recovered a pair of fumbles, and has even returned punts in a pinch.
Jonathan Dowling, CB, Western Kentucky - While Andrew Jackson might man the controls for the Hilltoppers' front seven, Dowling is the clear leader of a ball-hawking secondary. The former Florida commit transferred from Gainesville without playing a single game, but he landed on his feet with WKU in 2012 and made a huge splash in his first season on campus by picking off an Sun Best Conference-best six passes. In addition to having a great nose for the ball, the 6-3 Dowling has the versatility to play both cornerback and safety, and he brings more than just great cover skills to the table (68 tackles, two FF in 2012).
Derron Smith, S, Fresno State - After losing most of the 2011 campaign due to a broken arm, Smith returned to the field better than ever as a redshirt sophomore in 2012. The First Team All-Mountain West Conference selection started all 13 games at free safety and was one of the biggest reasons the Bulldogs allowed less than 24 ppg, as he recorded 79 tackles and six interceptions. Smith's ability to create momentum-changing turnovers will surely make Fresno State one of the favorites in the MWC once again in 2013.
Demarcus Lawrence, DE, Boise State - Smith wasn't the only standout sophomore in the Mountain West in 2012. Following one dominant season in junior college, Lawrence added a game-changing element to the Broncos' front line in 2012, leading the team with 13.5 TFL and 9.5 sacks. At 6-3, 244 pounds, Lawrence is a pure 4-3 defensive end, equally strong as a pass-rusher and a run-stuffer. If his trend upward continues, he'll be a highly sought after commodity at the next level.
Roosevelt Nix, DT, Kent State - Nix has built himself quite a resume at Kent State, as he's already considered one of the best defensive players in program history. After becoming the first freshman to be named Mid-American Conference Defensive Player of the Year in the 45-year history of the award in 2010, Nix has not let off the gas pedal, earning First Team All-Conference honors in 2011 and 2012, while collecting 32 TFL and 10.5 sacks over the past two seasons. His ability to play all four positions along the Golden Flashes' defensive line gives him even more value than his gaudy numbers would suggest.
Travis Raciti, DT, San Jose State - At a mountainous 6-5, 290 pounds, Raciti is a prototypical defensive tackle who consistently gets leverage on the interior line. As a part of a dominant SJSU front four in 2012, which had three players with 10 or more TFL, Raciti was a mainstay with 13.0 TFL, 8.5 sacks and four passes deflected at the line of scrimmage. With Travis Johnson (21.5 TFL, 13.0 sacks in 2012) graduated, Raciti will be looked upon to be an even bigger piece of the Spartans' defensive puzzle in 2013.