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Who’s the Best Duo in the Sun Belt?

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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There are a number of dynamic duos returning to the Sun Belt this year, but which one is the best of the best?

Everyone loves a good duo -- Michael and Scottie, Batman and Robin, Mick and Keith, apparently some people like peanut butter and jelly even though the former is gross. Football is no different. A dominant tandem, at any position, is always a nightmare for opposing coaches and the partnership, at its best, usually heighten one another’s devastation. So, with programs across the country participating in spring practice or preparing to do so, what will be the top returning twosome in the Sun Belt, in 2018?

To narrow the field I went back to my post-2018 Top 100 Sun Belt player rankings from January. Sure, a new face (or even a pair of new faces) could, and probably will, emerge next season, but a lot of things could happen. I feel more comfortable betting on something that did happen to continue happening. With that in mind, I combed through each set of rankings for a pair of players from the same position group on the same team. Also, with the offensive linemen, I initially only wanted to include players that played beside one another (i.e. left tackles and left guards, right tackles and right guards, or centers and guards), but at the behest of Southern Pigskin publisher B.J. Bennett I’m allowing tackle pairs and guard pairs (so a left tackle and right tackle or left guard and right guard, but not a right tackle and left guard or vice versa because that’s lame and cheating).

Here are the 17 eligible duos:

- App State’s backfield of QB Zac Thomas and RB Darrynton Evans
- App State pass catchers Corey Sutton and Collin Reed
- App State offensive linemen Noah Hannon and Ryan Neuzil
- App State linebackers Akeem Davis-Gaither and Jordan Fehr
- Arkansas State pass catchers Kirk Merritt and Javonis Isaac
- Arkansas State defensive linemen Forrest Merrill and William Bradley-King
- Arkansas State defensive backs Jerry Jacobs and Darreon Jackson
- Georgia Southern’s backfield of QB Shai Werts and RB Wesley Kennedy
- Georgia Southern defensive linemen Raymond Johnson and Ty Phillips
- Georgia Southern cornerbacks Kindle Vildor and Monquavion Brinson
- Georgia State offensive linemen Shamarious Gilmore and Hunter Atkinson
- Louisiana running backs Trey Ragas and Elijah Mitchell
- Louisiana offensive linemen Kevin Dotson and Robert Hunt
- Texas State linebackers Bryan London and Nikolas Daniels
- Texas State defensive backs Anthony Taylor and Josh Newman
- Troy defensive linemen Jarvis Hayes and Antoine Barker
- ULM offensive linemen Bobby Reynolds and T.J. Fiailoa

Now, rather than just do a basic evaluation of each duo and then rank them in the most boring way ever, I’ve devised a rubric of four prerequisites that must be met to filter out the best of the best from the best of the rest.

1. No Terrific Trios or Fearsome Foursomes

This is the part where we punish teams for literally being too good and/or deep at a given spot. If a third (or in one case even a fourth) player from the same position group also appeared in one of the top 100’s, the whole group is eliminated. It doesn’t feel right, but it’s a necessary evil.

The first ones to go here are the App State offensive linemen. Center Noah Hannon and guard Ryan Neuzil were listed as the eligible duo because they were the two highest ranked in the postseason Top 100, but all five of the Mountaineers’ starting offensive linemen were ranked, and only right tackle Chandler Greer is gone. Left tackle Vic Johnson came in shortly after Neuzil, and Baer Hunter wasn’t far behind. So, not only does App State return four starting offensive linemen, they return four of the best offensive linemen in the league. That’s not a duo, it’s a murderer’s row.

They aren’t the only App State duo that’s not actually a duo, either. Their entire starting linebacking corps was also ranked after last season, and Anthony Flory is the only departure. Akeem Davis-Gaither, Jordan Fehr, and Noel Cook are the team’s top three returnees in tackles and tackles for loss. Eliah Drinkwitz, in year one, will have to deal with some fairly significant personnel attrition in front and behind this group, but the core of App’s defense remains intact, and is too deep to be considered a duo.

Louisiana had the mosts tacked backfield in the league last year, especially if you factor in quarterback Andre Nunez, who became one of the conference’s most pleasant surprises of 2018. Nunez is gone, but Trey Ragas and Elijah Mitchell are back. Unfortunately, both for opposing defenses and for the purposes of this exercise, Raymond Calais is too. According to the postseason Top 100, the trio were the first, second, and eighth best ball carriers in the Sun Belt, in that order. Ragas was one of four SBC backs to break the millenium mark on the ground. Mitchell finished tied for the lead among running backs in rushing scores. And Calais was tops in yards per carry, coming in at just over nine per attempt. Is there such a thing as too much firepower in one running back room?

The Ragin’ Cajuns other set of candidates are eliminated here, too. That aforementioned three-headed monster wouldn’t have been nearly as effective as it was without Kevin Dotson and Robert Hunt paving the way. However, it wasn’t just the right side of the line setting the tone in the trenches. Center Cole Prudhomme was just as integral a piece of their run to the inaugural Sun Belt Conference title game. Dotson, the #1 guard and overall offensive lineman, Hunt, the #2 tackle and #3 overall offensive lineman, and Prudhomme, the #3 center and #12 overall offensive lineman, comprised an absolutely brutalizing trio that may be even better than the guys they were blocking for. In a trio competition, they might be the front runner, but a duo is two, and this ain’t that.

Remaining 13 Duos:

- App State’s backfield of QB Zac Thomas and RB Darrynton Evans
- App State pass catchers Corey Sutton and Collin Reed
- Arkansas State pass catchers Kirk Merritt and Javonis Isaac
- Arkansas State defensive linemen Forrest Merrill and William Bradley-King
- Arkansas State defensive backs Jerry Jacobs and Darreon Jackson
- Georgia Southern’s backfield of QB Shai Werts and RB Wesley Kennedy
- Georgia Southern defensive linemen Raymond Johnson and Ty Phillips
- Georgia Southern cornerbacks Kindle Vildor and Monquavion Brinson
- Georgia State offensive linemen Shamarious Gilmore and Hunter Atkinson
- Texas State linebackers Bryan London and Nikolas Daniels
- Texas State defensive backs Anthony Taylor and Josh Newman
- Troy defensive linemen Jarvis Hayes and Antoine Barker
- ULM offensive linemen Bobby Reynolds and T.J. Fiailoa

2. No member of the duo can be engaged in a (fairly) serious position battle.

There don’t seem to be any substantive battles going on for members of the remaining duos beyond the sort of typical coach speak, everybody competes for their job lie. Cool.

Remaining 13 Duos:

- App State’s backfield of QB Zac Thomas and RB Darrynton Evans
- App State pass catchers Corey Sutton and Collin Reed
- Arkansas State pass catchers Kirk Merritt and Javonis Isaac
- Arkansas State defensive linemen Forrest Merrill and William Bradley-King
- Arkansas State defensive backs Jerry Jacobs and Darreon Jackson
- Georgia Southern’s backfield of QB Shai Werts and RB Wesley Kennedy
- Georgia Southern defensive linemen Raymond Johnson and Ty Phillips
- Georgia Southern cornerbacks Kindle Vildor and Monquavion Brinson
- Georgia State offensive linemen Shamarious Gilmore and Hunter Atkinson
- Texas State linebackers Bryan London and Nikolas Daniels
- Texas State defensive backs Anthony Taylor and Josh Newman
- Troy defensive linemen Jarvis Hayes and Antoine Barker
- ULM offensive linemen Bobby Reynolds and T.J. Fiailoa

3. Obviously, the best duo in the Sun Belt must be the best on it’s own team.

App State, Arkansas State, Georgia Southern, and Texas State each have at least two remaining eligible duos. Now, theoretically, a single team could have the top two (or three, or four, etc.) duos in the league, but this isn’t a ranking, or even a tiering. There’s one duo that’s the best, and a bunch that, while very good, are not.

App State’s receiving corps, as a whole, might be better even better than its backfield, not only because of sheer ability, but because it’s a complementary group with each one boasting a unique, defined skillset. From Corey Sutton’s big play ability to Collin Reed and Thomas Hennigan’s reliability to Malik Williamson’s dynamism after the catch, there’s a little something for everybody. Yet, in the two games that Zac Thomas missed, the receivers had one of their four least productive and one of their four least efficient performances of the season. It’s a symbiotic relationship, to be sure, but Thomas and Darrynton Evans in the backfield gets the best of this one.

There are three horses in the race to rep Arkansas State in the next round. The first cut is pretty easily the defensive backs. Jacobs, #74 in the Top 100, and Jackson, #80, helped the Red Wolves to one of the two best pass defenses in the conference, but neither was even the best player in the secondary. That leaves the defensive line pair and a couple of pass catchers. For the record, we’re splitting hairs here. Each duo is highlighted by one elite player and a solid, albeit less than stellar, partner. Kirk Merritt is the best returning receiver in the conference. Forrest Merrill is probably the second best returning interior defender. Javonis Isaac may well be the best returning tight end in the league, but his impact is arguably less consequential than William Bradley-King’s, despite being better relative to his position. Let’s give Merritt and Isaac the slight edge here, because of positional relativity, but, again, it’s close.

Georgia Southern also still has three candidates in the race. We could mess around here for awhile and make some contrarian arguments, but this is pretty straightforward. Shai Werts had a year for the books and Wesley Kennedy, granted in a different role than he’ll play this season was one of the most explosive players in the country. I anticipate both of them taking another step forward in 2019, and Kennedy to emerge as one of the conference’s most prominent stars. Raymond Johnson developed into a one-man wrecking crew a year ago and should earn a preseason first team all-conference nod, while Ty Phillips was a useful contributor in an unsung role. And, compared to Vildor and Brinson, we’ve already spent far too much time prolonging the inevitable. Next.

Electing who moves on for Texas State is kind of a gimme, too. The Bobcats quietly had one of the better defenses around in 2018. The other side of the ball, save Keenen Brown, was the problem. The pass defense was especially impressive given the total inability to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Cornerback Anthony Taylor and safety Josh Newman, in particular, stood out among this very underrated secondary. Still, the stingy coverage was more of a cohesive effort than a byproduct of one or two elite players, whereas the run defense, which was also solid, relied heavily on the play of its two inside linebackers, almost to an inordinate degree. Bryan London and Nikolas Daniels move on.

Remaining 7 Duos:

- App State’s backfield of QB Zac Thomas and RB Darrynton Evans
- Arkansas State pass catchers Kirk Merritt and Javonis Isaac
- Georgia Southern cornerbacks Kindle Vildor and Monquavion Brinson
- Georgia State offensive linemen Shamarious Gilmore and Hunter Atkinson
- Texas State linebackers Bryan London and Nikolas Daniels
- Troy defensive linemen Jarvis Hayes and Antoine Barker
- ULM offensive linemen Bobby Reynolds and T.J. Fiailoa

4. The best duo must help their team to contend for titles.

Certainly, a number of very good, even great duos could be littered throughout college football’s more middling or even bad teams. To be the best duo, though, I want a pairing that has, at least, an outside chance to help their team win the Sun Belt title.

B.J. Bennett already covered Bryan London’s historic career for me, and Nikolas Daniels is the sort of a versatile linebacker that every modern defensive coordinator covets, as useful stopping the run as he is rushing the passer or dropping back into coverage. But, especially with Newman and Taylor coming back, defense isn’t Texas State’s problem. They just lost their best player from an already anemic offense, and though Jake Spavital should inject some immediate excitement into that unit, a full blown turnaround is too much to ask in year one.

Shamarious Gilmore has been one of the better interior offensive linemen in the league for two years running, and Hunter Atkinson stepped up in a big way last season. Georgia State’s offensive line, as a whole, still has some work to do, but these two are a pretty good starting point. Outside of that, there are more questions than answers for the Panthers going into 2019.

Honestly, I don’t know that I’m comfortable just saying that ULM can’t win the Sun Belt this year. It’s a longshot, but I did say “outside chance” after all, and the West seems pretty wide open. They had a chance to go compete for it in Boone just last season. Frankly, I’m just ready to get Bobby Reynolds and T.J. Fiailoa out of it. No shots, both are steady and helped the Warhawks to a top ten ranking in line yards, top 25 ranking in stuff rate, and top 30 ranking in sack rate, but individually, these two were in the 80’s and 90’s in the postseason Top 10, respectively. Maybe I need to reevaluate my own arbitrary rules, but I just don’t feel good about them getting into the final grouping. I can do whatever I want, though. It’s my piece. Make up your own stupid rules and write your own.

Remaining 4 Duos:

- App State’s backfield of QB Zac Thomas and RB Darrynton Evans
- Arkansas State pass catchers Kirk Merritt and Javonis Isaac
- Georgia Southern cornerbacks Kindle Vildor and Monquavion Brinson
- Troy defensive linemen Jarvis Hayes and Antoine Barker

We now have four eligible duos that survived our exhaustive elimination process. Time to get subjective.

Our first cut is going Troy defensive linemen Jarvis Hayes and Antoine Barker because they only survived Rule #3 thanks to the transfer portal. If Marcus Jones hadn’t entered the transfer portal, he and Tyler Murray would be here. If Tron Folsom hadn’t entered the transfer portal, he and Carlton Martial would be here. Hayes and Barker were both in the 80’s of the Top 100. I guess I could have removed them when I cheated and did it to Reynolds and Fiailoa, but that would have felt truly stupid. So, congrats, I guess.

We’re going to go ahead and lose the Merritt-Jackson pair, as well, for similar reasons. They were only just the best duo on their own team, which isn't that big a deal, but they lack a second elite piece. Merritt is a stud, and Isaac is useful, but I’d like to see the latter be as effective on a larger sample size.

Zac Thomas led the league in passer rating in 2018, finished second in yards per attempt, and was second with 21 touchdowns, while tossing just six interceptions. He also added another ten touchdowns and over 500 yards on the ground, putting him first in total offense per play. Meanwhile, Darrynton Evans led the league in rushing, and was the biggest home run hitter in the Sun Belt with a conference leading 16 carries of 20+ yards, all whilst establishing himself as the best kick returner in the SBC. Evans lacked the reliability of Jalin Moore, but more dynamic ball carriers are few and far between. Both of them placed in the top 30 of the post-2018 Sun Belt Top 100. There aren’t many better returning duos in college football.

But there is one in the Sun Belt. Georgia Southern cornerbacks Monquavion Brinson and Kindle Vildor were both in the top ten. They are, in some order, the top two returning cornerbacks, two of the top three returning defenders, and two of the top five overall returning players in the league. Vildor graded out as Pro Football Focus’ third best cornerback in the nation, and boasted four interceptions with a conference-high 15 passes defensed. Brinson simultaneously 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 best duos aren’t just a pair of great players. They’re pairs of great players that make each other better. They’re gifted talents that complement one another. What one lacks in X, the other makes up for, and vice versa. Throwing at Vildor in 2018 was a fool’s errand. Trying to get to the boundary on Brinson was a death sentence. And both were perfectly capable, if not almost as good at the other’s apparent strengths. Their semi-divergent, yet parallel skill sets, less a circle than a venn diagram, fit together like puzzle pieces -- a puzzle that opposing offenses rarely solve.

That’s the power of a great pair -- two elite players joining forces to form an entity that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

These two standouts from Statesboro are the best duo in the Sun Belt.

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