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The Sun Belt Build-a-Team Challenge

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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Build the best team possible using different position groups from teams within the Sun Belt Conference.

“I want to play a game,” - Jigsaw (and me).

Objective:

Build the best team possible using different position groups from teams within the Sun Belt Conference.

Rules:

- Fill out a squad with the following position groups: Quarterback, Running Backs, Pass Catchers (Receivers & Tight Ends), Offensive Line, Defensive Line, Linebackers, Defensive Backs, Special Teams (Kickers, Punters, Returners, Coverage Units, etc.)

Easy enough.

- Ideally, the pieces should fit together, although there is something to be said for overwhelming talent. Finding the balance is key.

Whatever.

- Only one position group per Sun Belt team. (ie, if you take Coastal Carolina’s special teams, you can’t have their offensive line)

Now, we’re having fun.

 

Taking this exercise entirely too seriously, I began with a multi-faceted approach.

First, I divided each position group into tiers. The top tier consisted of teams from which I would be comfortable selecting that unit. The tiers were not based on quantity -- there were, incredibly, six quarterbacks that I would have been fine with, but only two defensive lines -- simply whether or not I would, ultimately, be disappointed to end up with the unit.

Then, I determined positional value. My general thesis was that I a) need a great quarterback, b) need to protect said quarterback, and c) need to be able to get after opposing quarterbacks.

With that in mind, I scanned my word document for programs that appeared in the top tier of only one position group, save the three most important (as mentioned above).

A given program fit that bill in two of the eight categories. Beyond that, perhaps by dumb luck, I had the two programs ranked #1 in their respective position groups, making it a no-brainer. The groups were Texas State’s linebackers and Georgia Southern’s special teams.

Next, it was time to fill the positions I deemed most important. Now, because of the depth at quarterback, I granted heightened value to the offensive and defensive lines.

Louisiana-Monroe was my highest rated protection unit. I also would have been comfortable with their quarterback Caleb Evans, or their group of pass catcher, that I also had at number one. Again, because of the depth, losing Evans was not of great concern. However, given the other top pass catching groups, and knowing that I may want to use those programs at different spots, the Warhawks gave me pause. All things considered, though, the top offensive line would have been silly to turn down.

As far as the defensive front, it was a pretty easy decision. There are certainly better run stopping units than the Red Wolves’ line, but not any better pass rusher. So, with Texas State’s linebacking corps already on board, a group that is more than capable of handling the rush defense responsibilities, I’ll take the best pass rushers. This group also happens to house the best outright player in the conference in Ja’Von Rolland-Jones, so there’s that, too.

For clarity, the team, at the halfway point, looks like this:

Quarterback: Open
Running Back: Open
Pass Catchers: Open
Offensive Line: Louisiana-Monroe
Defensive Line: Arkansas State
Linebackers: Texas State
Defensive Backs: Open
Special Teams: Georgia Southern

Bear in mind, the programs that occupy those position groups are ineligible for further use.

This is where I started to have problems. This story would have likely been posted yesterday had I not run into this quandary. In any case, while it seems obvious to get a quarterback, given that I stated that it would be my most important position, I felt that the depth there, relative to the defensive back spot, warranted deeper consideration. What made things so hairy was that, by my estimation, App State possesses both the top quarterback and secondary.

I’ll save you the details, but I ended up going with Taylor Lamb at quarterback and snagging Troy’s defensive backfield. Granted, rounding out an already stout defense with the Trojans’ backend is hardly settling, it just meant that I couldn't have Jordan Chunn and their backfield.

With Chunn and company no longer available, the only other option at running back was New Mexico State, with Larry Rose III and Jason Huntley. Frankly, this may have worked out even better, though, on account of their versatility as pass catchers out of the backfield.

That just left receivers/tight ends. Looking purely at wideouts, Louisiana-Monroe would be hard to beat. Factoring in tight ends, Blake Mack might would have pushed Arkansas State over the top. That said, both of those programs had position groups already in use and were, thusly, ineligible. Taking the landscape of the remaining options, the best receiver in the conference, Penny Hart, and the second best tight end, Ari Werts, made Georgia State the clear choice.

Here’s what I ended up with, in full:

Quarterback

Appalachian State -- Taylor Lamb leads the conference in touchdown/turnover ratio, yards per play, and deep ball (throws of 20+ yards downfield) passer rating, with its third highest overall passer rating. His dual-threat ability, deep ball prowess, and decision making earned him the number one spot on my board. Having the best player at the most important position is a nice starting point.

Running Backs

New Mexico State -- Larry Rose III has been one of the most consistent producers, not just in the Sun Belt, but in the country, for years. Alongside sophomore Jason Huntley, the two have combined for 934 rushing yards and 581 receiving yards, while both are in the top ten in yards per play from scrimmage, among SBC running backs. Rose III has also forced more missed tackles than all but one other running back in the conference.

Pass Catchers

Georgia State -- As previously stated, Penny Hart is the best receiver in the Sun Belt. He leads the league in yards per game, touchdowns, and yards per route run. Tight end Ari Werts, who is probably the second best at his position in the conference, offers a reliable safety valve, as well. He’s second among tight ends in yards per route run, yards per game, and drop rate, securing all but one catchable target this season. The pass catching backs from New Mexico State do enough to mitigate the lack of a truly threatening #2 wide receiver.

Offensive Line

Louisiana-Monroe -- The Warhawks, led by Frank Sutton Jr., are third in the Sun Belt in opponent adjusted sack rate and first in line yards. They were the top ranked program on my board for this position group and given its importance, this was a relatively easy one.

Defensive Line

Arkansas State -- The Red Wolves’ defensive line, alone, has combined for 26.5 sacks, which is a higher per game average than any other Sun Belt team’s entire defense. Ja’Von Rolland-Jones, the best player in the conference, and Ronheen Bingham have the top two pressure rates among Sun Belt edge rushers. Caleb Caston has the second highest pressure rate on interior rushes in the league. Overall, the group is in the top five nationally in both havoc rate and opponent adjusted sack rate. Any relative deficiencies against the run are worth the price of admission, and will be covered up, in large part, by the next group, anyway.

Linebackers

Texas State -- Schematically, Arkansas State’s line and Texas State’s linebackers don’t mix that well, on paper. The calculus here was that Bryan London, Gabe Lloyd, and Frankie Griffin are all awesome against the run, and I don’t care if they never get a sack, so it should work itself out. Just those three have combined for a ridiculous 36 run stuffs, and the group is fifth in the nation for LB havoc rate. With all that in mind, it’s hard to ignore talent just because the pieces might not fit perfectly.

Defensive Backs

Troy -- Troy was in the conversation at almost every position group. App State was the top team on my defensive back board, but after taking Taylor Lamb, Troy was the only reasonably close replacement. The Trojans are tenth in the country in pass defense IsoPPP (which measure explosiveness) and three of their starting defensive backs are in the top seven in the Sun Belt for opposing passer rating on throws into their coverage. They are also third in interceptions and only App State has more passes defensed.

Special Teams

Georgia Southern -- Georgia Southern was at the top of my board here. South Alabama was in the conversation, too, as was Arkansas State. With the Red Wolves ineligible, however, it was a two horse race. The main difference was that whereas South Alabama struggles on kickoffs, both coverage and returns, Georgia Southern’s only area that needs improvement (on special teams, that is) is it’s punting. The Eagles also lead the conference in combined opponent adjusted special teams efficiency.


There you have it. Based on the limitations I placed on myself, that’s the best team, made up of different position groups from around the SBC, that stipends can buy. Feel free to go through the exercise yourself and share your results with me on Twitter, @JimJohnsonSP.

Just know, it won’t beat mine.

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