On Monday, CFBHuddle.com unveiled its picks for the preseason Group of Five All-American team. It’s the defense and special teams turn, and one thing is abundantly clear: I think highly of the defenses at Boise State, Louisiana Tech and Utah State. Not coincidentally, all three are teams capable of competing for their respective conference championships, and the below defensive stars will help lead the way.
GROUP OF FIVE ALL-AMERICAN DEFENSE
Vernon Butler, Louisiana Tech
Louisiana Tech has produced notable, NFL-caliber defensive line talent in recent years. This coming season’s lineup features Vontarrius Dora at end, who should get plenty of opportunities to rack up sacks with Vernon Butler commanding attention on the interior.
Butler was a monster in the middle for the Bulldogs last season, racking up 13 tackles for loss. With Butler plugging gaps, Louisiana Tech had the nation’s No. 17-ranked run defense, which allowed the blitzing ends and linebackers to roll up 38 sacks — 16th-best in college football.
Kamalei Correa, Boise State
Kamalei Correa carries on Boise State’s tradition of aggressive, blitz-heavy defense. In a breakout sophomore season last year, Correa led the way with 12 sacks, tied with Clemson star Vic Beasley for eighth-most in the nation.
An outstanding Fiesta Bowl performance, which earned Correa All-Bowl Team recognition from ESPN, serves as a launching into what should be a huge 2015 campaign.
Cody Grice, Akron
Akron nose guard Cody Grice turned heads last season when he lined up in the backfield as a touchdown-scoring H-back, but make no mistake: Grice’s best work is done on defense.
His statistics aren’t the most eye-popping: Grice recorded 2.5 sacks, 31 tackles and four tackles for loss in 2014. However, his ability to command blockers up the middle freed up teammates like Nordly Capi to get into the backfield. Grice was also integral in the Zips boasting an impressive rush defense that allowed just 3.9 yards per carry — 42nd in the nation — and 148.8 yards per game — 43rd in the nation.
Bronson Kaufusi, BYU
Former a two-sport standout, Bronson Kaufusi opted to focus on football in 2013. His future is definitely on the gridiron, as Kaufusi has a skill set similar to that of former BYU teammate-turned-first round draft pick Ziggy Ansah.
Like Ansah, Kaufusi is a terror in the backfield. Kaufusi made a team-high 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014, approaching Ansah’s output of 13 from 2012. Kaufusi also led the Cougars in sacks with seven, more than Ansah’s final-year total of 4.5.
Kaufusi’s ability to transition from defensive end to outside linebacker seamlessly makes him an intriguing prospect for NFL scouts, and a handful for opposing offensive coordinators to game plan.
Kyler Fackrell, Utah State
Utah State’s defense sustained a huge blow in Week 1 last season when linebacker Kyler Fackrell was lost for the year with an ACL tear. At full strength in 2013, Fackrell was a key, all-around playmaker for the Aggies’ Mountain Division-winning team. He made 13 tackles for loss, five sacks, 82 tackles, an interception and forced a fumble that season. In a move perhaps foreshadowing fellow Utah State linebacker and G5 All-American Nick Vigil’s double-duty at running back, Fackrell even lined up at receiver in a red-zone situation to catch a touchdown pass.
Whether or not Fackrell will play more offense in 2015 is undetermined, but his return to the linebacker corps gives Utah State a huge boost in its pursuit of the Mountain West championship.
Nigel Harris, USF
The active, ball-hawking style of Nigel Harris produced a nation’s best five forced fumbles in fumble; one fewer than Arizona’s Scooby Wright, which was the nation’s best, but at a 0.45 per game clip that slightly outpaced that of Heisman contender Wright.
Harris can be an effective blitzer for the Bulls, last season recording a team-best 9.5 tackles for loss. He was also second among all Bulls with 75 total tackles.
Tyler Matakevich, Temple
“A hardworking, nose-for-the-ball type of football player,” is how Tyler Matakevich told Andrew Albert of Philly.com he wants to be remembered for his time at Temple. “A kid that never stops. That’s it right there.”
“Rolling ball of knives” probably best describes Matakevich’s defensive style, however. The sideline-to-sideline pursuit Matakevich employs on just about every snap produced 117 tackles last season: far-and-away most on a defense that allowed just 3.78 yards per carry, and the third time in as many years Matakevich reached at least 100.
The nation has taken notice of Matakevich. He’s on the preseason watch list for the Chuck Bednarik Award.
Nick Vigil, Utah State
Nick Vigil was second among Aggies with 123 tackles last season, trailing only big brother Zach Vigil. With Zach gone, it’s Nick’s time to shine as the star of one of the nation’s best linebacker corps. Utah State had the nation’s No. 24 rush defense behind the strength of its linebackers last season, allowing a little more than 130 yards per game.
However, considering the Aggies share a division with two option offenses at Air Force and New Mexico, that overall output is quite impressive. And at just 3.3 yards yielded per carry, Utah State ranked No. 14 nationally. Vigil’s ascent to the leader of that impressive unit makes him an automatic candidate to win Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, and he’ll contend for the nation’s lead in tackles in 2015.
Donte Deayon, Boise State
Boise State features one of the best secondaries in all of college football, and certainly among the Group of Five. Donte Deayon’s contribution to that distinction last season came in the form of six interceptions and a pair of pick-sixes, a forced fumble, 46 tackles and nine passes broken up. Deayon also ran back a punt for a touchdown, just for good measure.
One of Deayon’s interceptions-for-touchdown came in the Fiesta Bowl, and proved to be crucial as Arizona battled back from a first-half Bronco lead.
Damontae Kazee, San Diego State
Damontae Kazee is probably best known for his spectacular interception against Ohio State in 2013.
That moment put Kazee on the map as a freshman, and as a sophomore, he developed into a truly lock-down corner for San Diego State, the nation’s No. 10-ranked pass defense. Kazee broke up 12 passes and intercepted another in 2014. He also made 58 tackles.
Darian Thompson, Boise State
Aforementioned Donte Deayon’s six picks were enough to tie him for sixth-most in the nation, but they weren’t even No. 1 among Bronco defenders. That honor went to safety Darian Thompson, whose seven interceptions were tied for the third-most among all FBS players.
But while Thompson has impressive statistical output, teammate and Boise State wide receiver Shane Williams-Rhodes told Chadd Cripe of the Idaho Statesman that Thompson’s greatest contribution to the Bronco defense might lie elsewhere.
“His work ethic is awesome. He’s always focused and full-go, always on point. He’s quiet, but everyone - even on offense - looks up to him.”
Xavier Woods, Louisiana Tech
Xavier Woods’ activity patrolling the back-line earned All-Conference USA recognition last season, and the Louisiana Tech junior heads into 2015 arguably the conference’s best defensive back. Woods finished 2014 with 71 tackles, second-most among all Bulldogs, but where he truly shined was creating turnovers. Woods forced a remarkable nine, including six interceptions — two of which he returned for touchdowns.
This pick-six against Louisiana-Lafayette was one of the most exciting plays of the entire 2014 college football season.
Expect more highlight-reel moments from Woods in 2015.
GROUP OF FIVE ALL-AMERICAN SPECIALISTS
Kicker: Trevor Moore, North Texas
An impressive debut season in which Trevor Moore went 15-of-17 on field-goal attempts, and 35-of-35 on PATs, landed the North Texas kicker on Freshman All-American honors. Moore’s 88.2 percent success rating on field goals ranked him just behind Florida State All-American Roberto Aguayo.
Punter: Austin Rehkow, Idaho
Austin Rehkow isn’t just the obvious choice at punter for the CFBHuddle.com Group of Five All-American team. The Idaho junior, who last year average 47.8 yards per kick and had a demonstrated knack for pinning opponents beyond their own 20-yard line, is a front-runner for the 2015 Ray Guy Award.
Kick Returner: Deandre Reaves, Marshall
Deandre Reaves provided one of the highlight moments of last bowl season when he took a kickoff 93 yards to the house in Marshall’s rout of Northern Illinois.
This was a fitting conclusion to a stellar season in special teams for Reaves, who Conference USA Championship Game performance of 88 yards returning on three attempts earned a College Football Performance Awards nomination.
Punt Returner: Lloyd Mills, San Diego State
With JoJo Natson gone from Utah State, San Diego State’s Lloyd Mills fills the void as the Mountain West’s top punt returner — and, perhaps, the best Group of Five punt returner in 2015. Mills ran one of his 18 attempts back for a touchdown last fall, and averaged just shy of 12 yards on each return. He’s a demonstration of Mills’ ability to turn on the jets when he finds an opening: