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OAYP: 2019 Sun Belt EDGE Rankings

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

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

QB | RB | WR | TE | OL

Now it’s time to move to the other side of the ball, where we’ll start with the edge defenders -- defensive ends in four man fronts and outside linebackers 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).

With 20 qualified returnees and at least one from every team, the distribution here is pretty standard, and shouldn’t move a lot even after the national adjustments.

*marginal OAYP in parentheses*

Superstars

-Akeem Davis-Gaither, App State (1.78)
-Jarvis Hayes, Troy (1.3)
-Noel Cook, App State (1.15)

App State’s outside linebacker duo of Davis-Gaither and Cook was as symbiotic as it was menacing. The former was superb both against the run and in coverage, compiling 10 tackles for loss, 14 stuffs, 7 passes breakups, and allowing the third lowest passer rating in the league on throws into his coverage, among linebackers. The latter, meanwhile, contributed another 11.5 TFL’s of his own, and returns the second most sacks on the team. The Mountaineers lost some big name playmakers at every level of the defense, and coupled with having to break in a new coaching staff, could be poised for a moderate step back. However, with these two leading the way, there’s still plenty of reason to anticipate another top tier defense in Boone.

Troy has to deal with some personnel attrition, as well -- in the coaching staff, to graduation, and in two pretty prominent cases to the transfer portal. Because of those losses, it’s incumbent upon Jarvis Hayes to make his last season his best season. He will no longer enjoy the luxury of Trevon Sanders eating people alive in the interior, or Hunter Reese drawing attention away from him, but Hayes certainly has the potential to overcome all of that and more. Some guys shy away from an increased leadership burden. Others thrive with it. 2019 will tell us which one of those Jarvis Hayes is.

Second Tier

-William Bradley-King, Arkansas State (0.86)
-Kerry Starks, ULM (0.85)*
-Frankie Griffin, Texas State (0.74)
-Bennie Higgins, Louisiana (0.62)

*Kerry Starks was suspended indefinitely from ULM’s football team after an arrest earlier this offseason

William Bradley-King has some big shoes to fill as A-State has boasted the inarguable best edge rusher in the conference for each of the past three seasons: Ja’Von Rolland-Jones in 2016 and 2017, and then Ronheen Bingham last year. In some ways, though, it’s easy to see him successfully carrying on their legacy. It wasn’t all that surprising when Bingham broke out in 2018, since Joe Cauthen had done such a good job getting him rotational reps the year prior. Cauthen is gone, but he left behind similar experience for Bradley-King. With probably the best returning interior D-line duo in the league, Bradley-King is simply the next man up.

Texas State quietly had one of the better defenses in the Sun Belt in 2018, and return some of the best players in the league at linebacker and defensive back. Frankie Griffin is one of those guys. A personal favorite of mine, I think OAYP is somewhat underrating Griffin. A versatile athlete with an innate playmaking ability, he posted eight tackles for loss, a pair of sacks, and forced three fumbles. Only time will tell how new defensive coordinator Zac Spavital will impact this group’s progression -- his defenses were pretty stylistically different at Texas Tech than the previous Texas State regimes were -- but the talent and depth exists for the Bobcats to make another leap.

Louisiana will have a nice group of edge defenders this season with Bennie Higgins and Chauncey Manac, especially if Joe Dillon is right after missing last season with an injury. Dillon was a force as a freshman, but his production took a step back in 2017, so for the time being this is Higgins’ show. One of the teams’ top two players in basically every major statistical category for front seven defenders last year, he’s a big reason why the Ragin’ Cajuns will continue to improve under Billy Napier.

Potential Breakout Star

-Sam Miller, ULM (0.79)

ULM’s defense was pretty brutal last season, especially over the first half of the year, but there is reason for optimism. The defense returns plenty of talent, and even if Starks is done in Monroe, Sam Miller put up 4.5 tackles for loss and 3 sacks, despite playing a more limited sample size.

Full Marginal OAYP Rankings for Qualifying Sun Belt Edge Defenders

1. Akeem Davis-Gaither, App State (1.78)
2. Jarvis Hayes, Troy (1.3)
3. Noel Cook, App State (1.15)
4. William Bradley-King, Arkansas State (0.86)
5. Kerry Starks, ULM (0.85)
6. Frankie Griffin, Texas State (0.74)
7. Bennie Higgins, Louisiana (0.62)
8. Antione Barker, Troy (0.47)
9. Chauncey Manac, Louisiana (0.34)
10. Donald Louis, ULM (0.02)
11. Riley Cole, South Alabama (-0.16)
12. Tarron Jackson, Coastal Carolina (-0.25)
13. Randy Wade, Georgia Southern (-0.26)
14. Lane Ecton, Georgia Southern (-0.43)
15. Jay Bowdry, Georgia Southern (-0.47)
16. Clifton Lewis, Texas State (-0.53)
17. Ty Shelby, ULM (-0.64)
18. Taji Stewart, South Alabama (-0.77)
19. Victor Heyward, Georgia State (-2.14)
20. Jordan Strachan, Georgia State (-2.47)

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