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OAYP: 2019 Sun Belt Position Rankings

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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Your hub for every qualifying Sun Belt returnee, ranked by the new OAYP advanced metric.

Earlier in the offseason I released the 2018 OAYP rankings as part of the debut of a new advanced metric to evaluate college football teams. Last season’s scores will obviously factor into the eventual 2019 preseason rankings, but those alone are only reflective, not predictive.

In order to make the aforementioned OAYP metric predictive, we’re factoring in individual player OAYP scores for projected starters and key contributors. Those numbers are a sort of spiritual descendant of adjusted yards per attempt, the quarterback metric first introduced in the book The Hidden Game of Football by Bob Carroll, Pete Palmer, and John Thorn, and Pro Football Reference founder Doug Drinen’s ‘approximate value’ measure.

The basic premise is to cross the efficiency measure of the former, but across all positions, with the value principles of the latter -- hopefully as a way of more accurately depicting a given team’s returning production. Returning good players is more valuable than returning only average or subpar players, and not all production is created equal, so this should ideally prove to be more predictive than simply looking at the raw number of returning starters or the percentages of returning production.

Below you’ll find all of the guys classified as superstars (marginal OAYP >1.0) for each position group. You can click the link on each header for breakdowns on the second tier players and potential breakout stars, as well as the full rankings for returning qualifiers.

QUARTERBACKS

-Zac Thomas, App State (1.05)

In Thomas’ first year as a starter, he led the Mountaineers to the Sun Belt title in the league’s inaugural championship game, was named the conference’s Offensive Player of the Year, and led the SBC in passer rating, while also finishing in the national top 20 in pass efficiency, and rushing touchdowns by a quarterback. According to CFB Reference, just 15 other players since 2000 have had as many rushing and passing scores as Thomas, whilst throwing as few or fewer interceptions -- a list that includes the likes of three former Heisman Trophy winners: Tim Tebow, Robert Griffin III, and Marcus Mariota, among others.

Even with a new coaching staff in Boone, there’s no reason to expect a step back from Thomas in 2019. In fact, given all the returning pieces around him, it’s probably more realistic to expect an even better encore performance under Eliah Drinkwitz and company.

RUNNING BACKS

-Elijah Mitchell, Louisiana (1.8)

According to CFB Reference, only 30 players since the turn of the century have had at least 13 rushing touchdowns and three receiving touchdowns in the same season, while averaging 6 or more yards per carry. Of that group -- which includes the likes of Christian McCaffrey, Mark Ingram, Larry Johnson, Melvin Gordon, and Chris Johnson -- Elijah Mitchell did so with the fewest touches. Mitchell gained at least five yards on 52.4% of his carries, and had more runs of 20+ yards than all but three players in the conference, despite ranking ninth in carries. Plus, when you factor in his receiving production, he had the most gains of 30+ yards from scrimmage in the league. A dynamic open field threat and pass catcher out of the backfield, Mitchell is one of the premier home run hitters in the Sun Belt.

RECEIVERS

-Corey Sutton, App State (2.02)
-Ja'Marcus Bradley, Louisiana (1.42)

Corey Sutton emerged as the Sun Belt’s premier big play receiver in 2018. After transferring from Kansas State and sitting out the 2017 season, Sutton led the league with an average of 17.6 yards per reception and ten touchdowns, the most by a Mountaineer since 2011. B.J. Bennett also recently pointed out that the only returning receivers with at least 10 touchdowns with 17.5 yards per catch or more last fall are Alabama's Jerry Jeudy, the Biletnikoff Award winner, Oklahoma's CeeDee Lamb and Sutton. Plus, according to Pro Football Focus, he leads all Sun Belt returnees in yards per route run, having averaged a full yard more than Ja’Marcus Bradley a season ago.

Speaking of Bradley, second among SBC returnees in yards per route run, the Ragin’ Cajun also tied Sutton atop the conference with ten receiving scores of his own. He also brings back the highest contested catch rate in the league, reeling in 50% such targets in 2018, which is a good 10% higher than his nearest competitor, and almost 15% higher than even that of Sutton’s, who is third.

TIGHT ENDS

-Javonis Isaac, Arkansas State (2.52)

After an up and down sophomore campaign in which Isaac missed three games, and produced sporadically but with flashes of dominance, 2019 could see him breakout out like Blake Mack did his junior year. Arkansas State’s offense may not be all that stylistically different, even with all of the coaching changes, but having to replace Justice Hansen behind center is a tall task. Then again, what can make a new quarterback’s life easier better than a big vertical threat at tight end, like Isaac, who led the Red Wolves last year in yards per catch, yards per target, success rate, marginal efficiency and explosiveness, and returns more touchdowns than any of their pass catchers, save Kirk Merritt?

OFFENSIVE LINE

-Robert Hunt, T, Louisiana (2.52)
-Kevin Dotson, G, Louisiana (2.28)
-Noah Hannon, C, App State (1.43)
-Victor Johnson, T, App State (1.32)
-Hunter Atkinson, T, Georgia State (1.05)

It should come as no surprise that the top four Sun Belt offensive linemen come from the league’s two best offensive lines. Nor should it be much of a shock that those two schools happen to be the league’s two reigning division champs. Football, after all, is a game still won in the trenches.

Robert Hunt and Kevin Dotson are, in some order, the best two blockers in the Sun Belt. OAYP gives Hunt the edge, but that’s not the end-all-be-all. Hunt does have the advantage of playing tackle, which is more valuable, but one could make a strong argument that Dotson is better, regardless of positional value. Plus, their marginal scores are calculated differently since each is relative to their respective positions. The tackle group this year is more top heavy, but the guard spot is arguably a little deeper. In any case, these two getting to play next one another is downright unfair. According to PFF, Hunt allowed only one sack and one QB hit in the regular season last year, and graded out as the league’s single best pass blocker. Dotson, meanwhile, gave up just four pressures and graded out as the best run blocking guard in the conference.

Of course, App State has a terrific twosome of its own, up front. Noah Hannon has now started 26 consecutive games at center, while Vic Johnson has started all but one contest at right tackle since he first took the field as a redshirt freshman in 2016. Those two helped lead the Mountaineers to a top 25 national ranking in both rushing yards per game and fewest sacks allowed for the fifth straight year.

As a whole, Georgia State’s offensive line was not great last year, but it was real studs and duds situation. Hunter Atkinson and Shamarious Gilmore were two of the best in the conference at their positions. Curiously, those two are the lone returning starters on the line. Atkinson earned third team All-Sun Belt honors for his efforts, while Gilmore allowed just seven pressures on more snaps than all but one other guard in the league. Even though there will be three new starters on Georgia State’s 2019 offensive line, it’s safe to expect this group to be much improved, if for no other reason than these two.

EDGE DEFENDERS

-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.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN

-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.

LINEBACKERS

-Carlton Martial, Troy (1.88)
-Bryan London, Texas State (1.42)
-Jordan Fehr, App State (1.19)
-Nikolas Daniels, Texas State (1.09)

As a redshirt freshman, Carlton Martial tallied 76 tackles, 8.5 for a loss, 3 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 14 combined QB pressures, 13 run stuffs, and graded out as one of Pro Football Focus’ top five run defenders on his way to earning Freshman All-American honors. Steady as steady comes, he was a consistent force with flashes of brilliance. He’ll take on more of a leadership role in 2019 after Hunter Reese graduated and Tron Folsom transferred, but Troy should be just fine at the position between he and Justin Whisenhunt.

Jordan Fehr will also bear more of the leadership brunt this season, even though App State returns three of their four starting linebackers, in light of Anthony Flory’s departure. Loaded as the group was a year ago, Fehr was the only one selected to the all-conference first team thanks to his do-it-all versatility. As effective in run defense as he is getting after opposing passers or dropping into coverage, anything less than another first team All-Sun Belt nod would be a surprise.

He’ll have stiff competition, though, from two guys out of Texas State. B.J. Bennett recently pointed out:

Few players in the country have a resume quite like Bryan London's. The Texas State linebacker is college football's active tackling leader with 341 career stops, adding 17 tackles for loss, eleven pass break-ups and six forced fumbles, all, remarkably, with a senior season still to go. In two of his three years in the Sun Belt Conference, London has led the league in solo tackles. He is athletic, consistent and instinctive. He is also on the verge of history.

London, already, ranks in the top ten all-time in the Sun Belt in career tackles. At his current underclassman rate of over nine tackles per game, London will move into first place on the list, becoming the conference's career leader, before the midway point of this upcoming season. Additionally, it's very likely that he will join the exclusive 450-tackle club, a select collection of defenders that has only a dozen members over the last 15 years.

London is the prototype, returning a league best 13.5% run stop percentage, among linebackers, not to mention PFF’s highest coverage grade. Daniels, meanwhile, offers high end pass rush potential, tallying the most pressures in the Sun Belt last year at the position. These two also ended up first and second in the Sun Belt in tackles last year, with 109 and 108, respectively. Troy obviously has a top notch duo and Georgia Southern has a couple of guys ready to make the leap, but until proven otherwise this is clearly the top inside linebacker duo in the conference.

CORNERBACKS

-Kindle Vildor, Georgia Southern (1.67)
-Monquavion Brinson, Georgia Southern (1.63)
-Jerry Jacobs, Arkansas State (1.6)
-Anthony Taylor, Texas State (1.5)
-Tyler Murray, Troy (1.36)
-Jarron Morris, Texas State (1.06)

Good luck trying to throw the ball against Georgia Southern or Texas State this year.

Regardless of position, there’s no better duo in the Sun Belt, and few in the entire country, than Kindle Vildor and Monquavion Brinson. The former returns as Pro Football Focus’ second highest graded cornerback in the nation after recording four interceptions, tops among conference returnees, a league leading 15 total passes defended, allowing 0.87 yards per coverage snap, a 56.9% catch rate, and a 52.5 passer rating on throws into his coverage, which was also good for second among returning SBC corners. The latter racked up 11 passes defended, forcing an incompletion on over 15% of the throws into his coverage, allowed an 81.9 passer rating, and proved himself as one of the best run defenders in the country, grading out at 90.4 against such plays, with a top tier 89.3 tackling grade, while leading Georgia Southern in solo stops. The loss of Joshua Moon at safety would hurt a lot of teams, but these guys don’t need much of a safety net. Vildor and Brinson are reasons 1A and 1B that the Eagles could play as bend-don’t-break as they did last year with so much success.

The only returning cornerback in the league that allowed a lower passer rating on throws into his coverage than Vildor did last year is Jerry Jacobs, with a 47.1 passer rating allowed. He also returns the second most passes defended, behind Vildor, and tied him for the lead in picks, among returnees. I don’t necessarily feel like OAYP underrated his partner Jeremy Smith. Like I said, the top is so strong that everyone else’s numbers are skewed. But, in any case, those two could break through and rival even the units in Statesboro and San Marcos.

Tyler Murray is uniquely positioned among this group, as he played primarily from the slot in 2018. That said, in a league that boasted solid nickelback play from a handful of athletes, none were better than Murray. The loss of multi-year standout Blace Brown to graduation, and breakout star Marcus Jones to transfer, leaves Troy with two solid but less experienced boundary corners in Terence Dunlap and Will Sunderland -- both of whom did at least score positively above the mean, per OAYP. Still, that puts quite a burden on Murray’s shoulders. Although, if anyone can handle it, this do-it-all virtuoso can after posting 5.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions, five pass breakups, a forced fumble, and 8.5 run stuffs a year ago.

These defensive rankings have been littered with Texas State Bobcats throughout the top two tiers. If this group adapts well to Zac Spavital’s new philosophy, the talent exists for this to be one of the conference’s scariest defenses. And for all the experience in the linebacking corps, and the underrated play of the defensive line, the secondary is the biggest reason why that’s true. Anthony Taylor returns a top four passer rating allowed among returning Sun Belt cornerbacks, and was among the national leaders last season with 7.8 yards per reception allowed, while Jarron Morris allowed the lowest marginal efficiency of any of their secondary starters, and tallied the most passes defensed of any freshman in the conference. Plus, even though this duo isn’t as good as Georgia Southern’s, Texas State has three bonafide studs at cornerback to work with…

SAFETIES

-Desmond Franklin, App State (2.12)
-Josh Thomas, App State (2.03)
-Jashon Waddy, Texas State (1.31)
-BJ Edmonds, Arkansas State (1.13)

Clifton Duck and Tae Hayes are gone, along with fellow safety Austin Exford, which makes it all the more impressive that App State will still be so formidable in the secondary. Those cornerbacks helped, but they weren’t the only reason that the Mountaineers allowed the third fewest receptions of 30+ yards in the country. According to Pro Football Focus, Desmond Franklin allowed just 0.31 yards per snap in coverage and his 38.4 allowed passer rating on throws into his coverage was the best in the Sun Belt, regardless of position. He also tallied four picks and nine total passes defended, while Josh Thomas added another four interceptions of his own, which ties the two atop the conference among returnees. If Waddy and Edmonds are superstars, with marginal OAYP scores above 2.0, these two are super-duper-stars, and the legion of Boone should be as strong as ever.

That being said, Waddy and Edmonds are superstars in their own right. Waddy is an absolute playmaker. He had an interception, seven pass breakups, and two forced fumbles last year in his first season playing safety, and his 36.2% havoc play per tackle rate was the highest on the team, among Texas State’s starters and key contributors. BJ Edmonds put up similar numbers, recording three interceptions, six total passes defended, and a forced fumble. Both will also benefit from playing alongside another upper echelon safety, as well…

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