By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - When he was a sophomore transfer in high school, Mark LeGree didn't have enough stature to complain about the No. 13 jersey assigned to him. Not only did he consider the number to be unlucky, but ugly, too.
A year later, LeGree didn't blink when he had an opportunity to change the number. He was playing so well by then that everyone else probably wanted to wear No. 13.
"I ended up keeping it and I look at it as I bring good luck to the bad luck number. So I love it now," LeGree says.
Six years after LeGree first received the number, Appalachian State loves the way No. 13 flies around at free safety. LeGree finished third in 2008 and fifth last year in voting for the Buck Buchanan Award, presented annually to the top FCS defensive player. This fall, he will return as a senior to complete one of the storied careers for a Mountaineers program with a strong history of outstanding defensive backs.
Considering Appalachian State lost four-year quarterback Armanti Edwards, who won the last two Walter Payton Awards as the FCS player of the year, the Mountaineers figure to be more defensively oriented this season. But their offense will keep getting back on the field if opponents draw too close to LeGree.
"I think I have great instincts. I can cover the field well," LeGree said. "I like to go after the ball and go get it. I'm a decent tackler. Lots of times people think of safeties more [in terms of] big hits - which I can deliver. But I enjoy things like pass breakups. I think I'm a good leader. The team looks up to me. All the defensive backs look at me when I need to make a check or make the call."
As a freshman, LeGree served as the top backup to former App State All-America Corey Lynch, now a regular with the NFL Tampa Bay Buccaneers. As a senior, LeGree will learn under new defensive coordinator Dale Jones, the longtime Mountaineers' assistant coach who was promoted this offseason, and new defensive backs coach Scot Sloan. The coaching staff is looking for the defensive backs to help out more versus the run this season.
LeGree was in on 70 tackles last season - five per game - while the Mountaineers finished 11-3 and reached the FCS semifinals. He's particularly effective in zone defense.
Only one defensive back has won the Buchanan Award since it was first handed out in 1995 - Bethune-Cookman free safety (and current Jacksonville Jaguar) Rashean Mathis in 2002. LeGree hopes Year 16 of the award turns sweet for him.
He already considers 13 to be sweet.
"All I can do is continue to stay consistent and just keep making plays on the field and try to help my teammates out as well," LeGree said.
"I'm thankful to be nominated, but, of course, you want to win that award, show that lots of hard work pays off."
Jeremy Caldwell, Eastern Kentucky, Junior - The All-Ohio Valley Conference first-team cornerback is a bona fide playmaker. Last season, he picked off seven passes, including a pair that he returned for touchdowns. He broke up another six passes and forced two fumbles, with 48 tackles, including 39 solo. Only 5-10, 172 pounds, he is a shutdown player who also returns kickoffs and punts for the Colonels.
T.J. Heath, Jacksonville State, Senior - The 6-1, 170-pound Heath outjumps receivers for the ball, sometimes going over the top of them. Behind his athleticism and ball skills, Heath finished third in the FCS in passes defended at 1.45 per game (six interceptions and 10 breakups) last season. He also made 34 tackles, forced a fumble and blocked a kick. The All-OVC first- team standout made The Sports Network All-America Third Team.
Jason House, Southern, Senior - Any player making a position change should want the production that House had in his new spot. As a junior last season, House made the move from wide receiver to free safety and produced an FCS-leading 10 interceptions. He totaled 230 yards on his returns - also an FCS-high - taking one all the way to the house for a touchdown. The 6-foot, 190-pounder, who made The Sports Network All-America third team, added 47 tackles, two pass breakups and a forced fumble.
Trumaine Johnson, Montana, Junior - Having stepped into the Grizzlies' lineup as a true freshman in 2008, the 6-3, 197-pound Johnson is tall, athletic and physical, and one of the top cover cornerbacks in the FCS. As a sophomore last season, he intercepted five passes and had 12 pass breakups to go along with 54 tackles. New head coach Robin Pflugrad apparently decided against playing the All-Big Sky first-team selection at wide receiver as well. It's hard to argue against the idea, because the Griz like to have Johnson on the field any way they can.
Korey Lindsey, Southern Illinois, Senior - Lindsey's anticipation puts him in position to make plays, as six interceptions and four more pass breakups attest. But the 6-foot, 190-pound Lindsey also is a sure tackler at cornerback, totaling 63 tackles while repeating on the Missouri Valley Football Conference first team last season. He also was named to The Sports Network All-America Second Team.
Mike McElroy, Southern Illinois, Senior - If having to face Lindsey isn't enough, Salukis opponents have to deal with McElroy in the same secondary. The free safety is the quarterback of the defense, playing with an intelligent and physical style. He intercepted seven passes and returned them for 131 yards, broke up another four passes and made 78 tackles as a junior. He was an All- MVFC first-team selection.
Josh Norman, Coastal Carolina, Junior - The Chanticleers can leave their All- Big South first-team cornerback (6-2, 190) alone in one-on-one coverage because of his athleticism, closing speed and good leaping ability. His eight interceptions were the second-most in the FCS last season, and he also had seven pass breakups, 43 tackles, a forced fumble and two blocked kicks. His older brother Marrio was a standout at safety for Coastal Carolina.
Justin Rogers, Richmond, Senior - Don't let the statistics fool you. Opposing quarterbacks don't like to throw toward Mr. Rogers' neighborhood because he's a shutdown corner with big-time playmaking ability. Blessed with good closing speed, the All-CAA first-team selection (5-10, 181) had 30 tackles, three interceptions and eight pass breakups as a junior. Lightning fast, he returns kicks for the Spiders. As a freshman in 2007, he averaged 30.4 yards on 33 returns, taking two all the way for touchdowns.
James Vercammen, Dayton, Senior - While playing the "Flyer" position, Vercammen is a hybrid linebacker/safety, although his 5-10, 192-pound size is suited for the secondary. Named to The Sports Network All-America Second Team in 2009, Vercammen totaled 134 tackles, including at least 10 in seven of Dayton's 11 games. He had 17 tackles for losses, six sacks and three pass breakups. He is relentless in moving across the field, and punishing ball carriers with his hits.