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OAYP: 2019 Sun Belt Defensive Linemen Rankings

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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The new OAYP advanced metric ranks the Sun Belt's defensive linemen.

In case you missed it, I’ve already released the marginal OAYP rankings for all the qualifying Sun Belt offensive players and the edge defenders. Those, along with a more comprehensive explanation (in the QB rankings), can be found here:

QB | RB | WR | TE | OL | EDGE

Now we’re onto the interior defensive linemen, which includes defensive ends in three man fronts. As we did with all the offensive players, we’ll tier them out into ‘superstars’ (marginal OAYP >1.0), ‘second tier’ (marginal OAYP between 0.5-1.0), and potential breakout stars (players that didn’t get enough reps to qualify, but posted high OAYP scores on a smaller sample size).

This is a solid position group across the league with plenty of star power and depth. I also think the formula underrated more than a couple of guys, so it may be even better than OAYP would have you think.

*marginal OAYP in parentheses*

Superstars

-Kevin Thurmon, Arkansas State (1.53)
-Raymond Johnson, Georgia Southern (1.13)
-Forrest Merrill, Arkansas State (1.08)

Forrest Merrill is arguably more impactful for Arkansas State on a down to down basis, but OAYP is, in part, a sort of playmaker index for defensive players, and Kevin Thurmon was nothing if not a playmaker in 2018. These two have a mutually beneficial relationship, to be sure. Merrill is a cement block of a man at nose guard who eats double teams for breakfast, and still managed to put up 14 run stuffs, which was third on the team only behind Thurmon and Ronheen Bingham. Thurmon, meanwhile, took advantage of the attention that Merrill draws to rack up 15.5 stuffs, more tackles for loss than any Sun Belt returnee, and the most total QB pressures of any returning interior defender in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.

With the departure of Logan Hunt, Raymond Johnson will now step into a leadership role for a front seven that returns a ton of talent and promises to be among the league’s best. Classified as an edge defender by PFF, his 35 pressures last year are more than any other returning EDGE or interior lineman. Tack on more than 20 defensive stops, 12 run stuffs, the second most tackles for loss among interior returnees, and it’s clear that there aren’t really any weaknesses to his game. Johnson does everything well and is one of the biggest reasons Georgia Southern was able to play as bend-don’t break as they did with so much success.

Second Tier

-Ishmael Davis, Texas State (0.87)
-Marcus Webb, Troy (0.81)
-Tyree Turner, South Alabama (0.55)
-Chris Willis, App State (0.55)

Ishmael Davis was one of the most underrated players in the Sun Belt last year, but OAYP is giving him his fair due. An impact defensive lineman for what was quietly one of the better defenses in all of college football, he doesn’t offer a ton in the way of pass rushing, but proved to be quite stout against the run, posting double digit stuffs, and the second highest havoc play per tackle rate in the Bobcats’ front seven. Davis should thrive in Zac Spavital’s more aggressive defense this season, which could unlock some otherwise untapped pass rush potential.

For a lot of teams losing a player like Trevon Sanders as the spearhead of the defense would be potentially devastating, but Troy is in a decent spot with Marcus Webb and Will Choloh in the interior. Webb, in particular, has waited his turn and served admirably in a rotational capacity for a couple of years now, though he did earn six starts in 2018. His overall production took a step back after a splashy 2017 campaign, but the talent is clearly there to resume his previous form.

I mentioned that OAYP underrated more than a couple Sun Belt interior defenders earlier. There may be no better example of that than Tyree Turner. Granted, he’s still in the second tier, per the formula, and among the league’s best, in reality he may actually be the best in the conference. His run defense grade was the best in the SBC in 2018 at the position, as he led the group with a 9.7% run stop percentage and a remarkable 18 stuffs. There’s not a ton to love about South Alabama’s defense heading into 2019, but Tyree Turner is a bonafide stud.

App State famously (and incredibly successfully) favored smaller, faster playmaking defensive linemen under the Scott Satterfield regime. Only time will tell to what degree that will continue under the new coaching staff, but Chris Willis perfectly embodies that aforementioned mentality. With over a 40% havoc play per tackle rate, 6.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, and the most stuffs among Mountaineer returning defensive linemen, Willis is a nightmare to defend. Coupled with App State’s frontline pedigree, there’s no reason to expect a drop off from him or the rest of the Mountaineer defense in the foreseeable future.

Potential Breakout Stars

-Demetrius Taylor, App State (0.98)
-Travis Sailo, Texas State (0.94)

Another thing the previous App State regime did a great job of was rotating players along the defensive line. Not only did it allow players to stay fresh, but it provided multiple athletes to gain valuable, meaningful playing time. With Caleb Spurlin and the aforementioned Chris Willis back, Demetrius Taylor may not start, but he needs to get reps. Even on a smaller sample size, he recorded 4 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, and 5 run stuffs in 2018, and deserves an enhanced role in the defense.

Travis Sailo is in a similar spot. He’ll compete with Marcus Webb for defensive tackle snaps, but he did start four games in 2018, and rack up 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, five stuffs and a forced fumble. Again like App State, Troy playing elite defense is a near certainty. With all that talent, snaps can be hard to come by, but Sailo made the most of his last season and there’s no reason to expect that to change.

Full Marginal OAYP Rankings for Qualifying Sun Belt Defensive Linemen

1. Kevin Thurmon, Arkansas State (1.53)
2. Raymond Johnson, Georgia Southern (1.13)
3. Forrest Merrill, Arkansas State (1.08)
4. Ishmael Davis, Texas State (0.87)
5. Marcus Webb, Troy (0.81)
6. Tyree Turner, South Alabama (0.55)
7. Chris Willis, App State (0.55)
8. Larance Shaw, ULM (0.49)
9. Terry Thomas, Georgia State (0.42)
10. Quan Griffin, Georgia Southern (0.22)
11. Will Choloh, Troy (0.18)
12. Ty Phillips, Georgia Southern (0.04)
13. Caleb Spurlin, App State (0.0)
14. Jordon Beaton, South Alabama (-0.09)
15. Zi'Yon Hill, Louisiana (-0.29)
16. Caeveon Patton, Texas State (-0.33)
17. Jaylen Veasley, ULM (-0.37)
18. Mason Hussman, ULM (-0.44)
19. Hunter Moreton, Arkansas State (-0.53)
20. Jakharious Smith, Texas State (-0.82)
21. Dontae Wilson, Georgia State (-1.64)
22. Sterling Johnson, Coastal Carolina (-1.64)
23. Jonathan Clayton, Coastal Carolina (-1.73)

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP