Robert Alford, CB, Southeastern Louisana, Senior
Alford is making himself a household name on the national scene, but Southland Conference quarterbacks already knew him quite well. The senior has established himself as one of the top pass defenders in the FCS. Last year, he had five interceptions and seven pass breakups, good for second and fourth in the conference, respectively, and he earned All-Southland second-team honors. This season, signal-callers shied away from his side of the field, yet he managed 39 tackles, five tackles for loss, four interceptions, eight pass breakups and 12 passes defended in 11 games. In the regular season, the all-conference first-team selection ranked second in the Southland in passes defended and was tied for first in interceptions. The senior also was effective on special teams, returning seven punts for 99 yards and one touchdown. He was selected to play in the 2013 Senior Bowl on Jan. 26 in Mobile, Ala.
Wes Dothard, LB, Chattanooga, Junior
Ball carriers better hold the ball tighter when they're around Dothard. Otherwise it's coming loose. After committing himself to improvement as a sophomore last season, Dothard went out and forced five fumbles to rank among the FCS leaders. The all-around inside 'backer also was in on 98 tackles, including 15.5 for loss, in a breakout sophomore campaign. This season, he totaled 94 tackles, six tackles for loss, one interception, two pass breakups and two forced fumbles in an another all-around effort. In the regular season, Chattanooga ranked 10th in the FCS in total defense, surrendering 307 yards per game.
Matt Evans, LB, New Hampshire, Senior
Having captured the 2011 Buck Buchanan Award as a junior, Evans will try to become only the second two-time winner (following Appalachian State linebacker Dexter Coakley in 1995-96) as a senior. Evans was the nation's leader in tackles during the regular season, including 24 against Lehigh, and finished the playoffs at No. 2 overall with nearly 13.8 per game. In his senior campaign this season, the All-America first-team choice had 115 tackles in the regular season and he led the FCS with 77 solo stops. He also registered 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. A tackle machine, he became UNH's all-time tackle leader in Week 10 versus William & Mary and entered the FCS playoffs with 449 career tackles, which was No. 1 in the FCS.
Jeremy Kimbrough, LB, Appalachian State, Senior
He might be chasing quarterbacks much of the time, but Kimbrough is the "quarterback" of Appalachian State's defense, a tenacious run-stopper whom many observers compare to former ASU standout and tackle machine Jacque Roman. Kimbrough, who gets his teammates ready into multiple sets, led the Mountaineers with 105 tackles and was an All-America second-team selection as a junior last season. This year, as a senior, he led his team in the regular season with 128 tackles and nine tackles for loss while adding 3.5 sacks and one interception. His parents are former athletes at the University of Tennessee.
Joseph LeBeau, DE, Jackson State, Senior
After transferring in from Arkansas Baptist Community College a year ago, LeBeau went on to win the 2011 SWAC Newcomer of the Year award, becoming the second straight Jackson State player to win the honor, following quarterback Casey Therriault. In his first season with the Tigers, he totaled 15.5 sacks (his 1.41 per game ranked second-best in the FCS) and 24.5 tackles for loss (2.23 per game, ranking fourth in the FCS right behind teammate Donavan Robinson). LeBeau uses his unique athleticism to get off the ball quickly and in 11 regular-season games this year, he totaled 54 tackles, 20.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. Quite simply, he's a game-changing edge rusher. LeBeau ranked third in the FCS in tackles for loss, behind two other SWAC defenders, with 1.86 tackles for loss per game.
Robert McCabe, LB, Georgetown, Senior
The Patriot League's preseason defensive player of the year lived up to the billing. This season, he won the postseason award after registering one of the finest campaigns in Georgetown history. A sure tackler, he finished the season leading the FCS in tackles with 159 - 28 more than any other player - and tackles per game at nearly 14.5. He also added 14.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. McCabe's coaches talk about his ability to read offenses and anticipate where a play is going. As a junior, he earned All-Patriot League first-team honors, setting Georgetown's single-season record with 134 tackles. Not only did he best that total this season, but he finished his career as Georgetown's career leader in tackles with 407.
Demetrius McCray, CB, Appalachian State, Senior
Talk about laying down the law, this criminal justice major is one of the FCS' top returning players at defending the pass. Last season, he intercepted five passes and broke up another nine attempts. This year, as one of the FCS' top lockdown cornerbacks, he totaled 51 tackles, four interceptions, four pass breakups and forced one fumble in the regular season. As a former high school quarterback who knows how to position himself for balls in the air, McCray has forced quarterbacks to throw to the other side of the field. As a sophomore in 2010, his first three career starts were against the University of Florida and in FCS playoff games. Ever since, his terrific coverage skills and tackling ability have kept McCray in the starting lineup.
Blake Peiffer, LB, Southeast Missouri State, Senior
Peiffer has done well to carry on the family legacy at Southeast Missouri State. His father, Dan, was a former center in the program and went on to play in the NFL. All Peiffer did last season was set the school record with 151 tackles from his outside linebacker spot. This season, he totaled 117 tackles, including 60 solo stops, eight tackles for loss, two pass breakups and two forced fumbles. Both physically strong and relentless in pursuit of ball carriers, the All-Ohio Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Year averaged 10.64 tackles per game, 5.45 solo and totaled at least 10 tackles six times in 11 games.
Stephon Robertson, LB, James Madison, Junior
Robertson has been the epitome of consistency during his time at James Madison. In 2010, as a redshirt freshman, he earned CAA Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, recording 90 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss. The following season as a sophomore, he earned All-CAA first-team and All-America third-team honors and led his team with 110 tackles (61 solo) and nine tackles for loss. This year, he was named the CAA's defensive player of the year after leading the Dukes in tackles with 101, tackles for loss (8.5) and pass breakups with five. He also recorded one sack, one interception and one forced fumble. As the leader of one of the CAA's top defensive units, Robertson helped the Dukes rank second in the conference in the regular season in scoring defense (21 points per game), second in total defense (323 yards per game) and first in rushing defense (122 yards per contest).
Brent Russell, NT, Georgia Southern, Senior
The two-time finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award has helped Georgia Southern reach the FCS semifinals in each of the past two seasons. He finished 12th in the voting in 2010 and sixth last season. He usually draws double teams, but remains dominant nonetheless. In 10 regular-season games this year, he totaled 35 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. In one-on-one matchups, Russell stands up opponents with outstanding leverage and strength. The 2011 Southern Conference Defensive Player of the Year, and a 2011 All-America first-team selection, had 53 tackles for loss and a school-record 24 sacks in his career heading into the FCS playoffs.
Caleb Schreibeis, DE, Montana State, Senior
Schreibeis had always been an outstanding contributor on the talented Montana State defensive line. But this year, as a team captain, not only has he made his brother Joe, a former MSU captain, proud, but he's also taken his play to the next level. With his team dealing with many injuries, the senior helped hold the defense together, registering 14.5 tackles for loss, 12 sacks, seven quarterback hurries and seven forced fumbles - all team highs - in 10 regular-season games (he missed one game). During the regular season, Schreibeis helped the MSU defense rank second in the Big Sky in rushing defense (96 yards per game) and first in total defense (310 yards per game), while opponents had nightmares on third down, converting just 28.8 percent of the time. He ranked fourth in the FCS, averaging 1.10 sacks per game, and his seven forced fumbles were tied for first in the FCS.
Tyler Starr, LB, South Dakota, Junior
Starr is appropriately named considering what he can do on the field. While playing defensive end last year, his speed off the edge wrecked havoc in opposing backfields. He had 19 tackles for loss and 14 sacks (all solos), and he forced seven fumbles, which was bettered by only one player in the FCS. This season, Starr switched to outside linebacker and registered 76 tackles, seven tackles for loss, four sacks, two pass breakups and two forced fumbles. Despite his team's 1-10 record, he proved doubters wrong against better quality competition in South Dakota's inaugural season in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
Jaquiski Tartt, S, Samford, Sophomore
Tartt played only one season of high school football, but it's hard to tell he had a late start. The redshirt sophomore has been harnessing his raw talent since arriving at Samford. He has been one of the nation's biggest individual surprises in 2012 and a playmaker all season, grabbing seven takeways and scoring touchdowns off both an interception return and a fumble return. A first-team All-Southern Conference selection, Tartt amassed 94 tackles, three tackles for loss, four interceptions, 10 pass breakups and 212 return yards. In 11 games, he ranked tied for 10th in the FCS in passes defended with 14 and averaged 1.27 per game. He finished the season with double-figure tackle totals in four games and helped the Bulldogs to a 7-4 record and their first national ranking since 1993.
Cooper Taylor, S, Richmond, Senior
Everybody's looking up to Taylor. Well, it may seem that way considering he stands 6-foot-5, 235 pounds as a safety. But the play of the second-year transfer from Georgia Tech stands tall as well. He is an intimidating force for the Spiders, deceptively fast for his size and known for his instincts. A CAA Football first-team selection, Taylor adapted his game, playing closer to the line to help against the run this season. The Spiders turned around a 3-8 campaign in 2011 to an 8-3 record in 2012, with great thanks to an improved defense. Taylor totaled 77 tackles, five tackles for loss, four interceptions, including one he returned for a touchdown against VMI, nine pass breakups and three forced fumbles. Taylor's father is former Georgia Tech quarterback Jim Bob Taylor, who went on to play for the Baltimore Colts in 1983.
Darnell Taylor, SS, Sam Houston State, Senior
The Southland Conference was laden with NFL-type defensive backs last season and Taylor emerged as the best in being named the conference's defensive player of the year. This season, he won the award again, after posting 79 tackles - 54 solo - two tackles for loss, two sacks, two interceptions, five pass breakups and one fumble recovery and one forced fumble in 11 games. His leadership helped the Bearkats earn a share of the Southland Conference and make a trip to the FCS playoffs for the second straight year. In the regular season, Sam Houston State ranked ninth in the FCS in total defense, allowing 305 yards per game. The All-America first-team selection entered the FCS playoffs with 311 tackles in his career, good for No. 13 in the FCS, while 210 of them had been solo stops. His twin brother Darius is a key linebacker for the Bearkats.
Brandon Thurmond, DE, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Senior
When it comes to breaking out in a timely fashion, it's clear Thurmond saved his best season for his senior campaign. In 11 regular-season games, he totaled 63 tackles, 22 tackles for loss, 16.5 sacks, seven quarterback hurries, three fumble recoveries and one forced fumble. He's improved drastically in just about every defensive category, compared to 25 tackles, seven tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and five quarterback hurries last year. The senior has played like a man possessed, searching to take down opposing signal-callers. In the regular season, he led the FCS in sacks and sacks per game (1.50) and ranked second in the FCS (by just one half tackle) in tackles for loss. The Golden Lions ranked No. 12 in the FCS in allowing 309 yards per game.
Jordan Tripp, LB, Montana, Junior
It's been hard to tell that Tripp missed most of the 2011 season with a shoulder injury and gained a medical hardship. This season, he was just been hard on the competition. The intense competitor has terrific size for a linebacker, but also is extremely fast to the ball, and he leads by example. In 11 games, he registered 95 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, one interception, four forced fumbles and one touchdown. Tripp was a special teams standout as a true freshman in 2009, then collected 99 tackles as a sophomore starter in 2010. He is the example of a blue collar Montana linebacker. A third-generation Grizzlies player, Tripp originally wore uniform No. 44, as his father Bryan did as a UM linebacker. But Tripp wore Montana's legacy uniform No. 37 this season. It's a tradition that started in 1987.
Colton Underwood, DE, Illinois State, Junior
Underwood apparently vacations in opposing teams' backfields. The junior uses a quick first step and his powerful upper body strength to get into backfields quickly and disrupt offenses. He is a versatile player who can move inside in ISU's nickel package. Underwood led the Missouri Valley Football Conference in sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (18) in 11 regular-season games this season. His 1.64 tackles for loss per game also ranked seventh in the FCS. Included was a 13-tackle, three-sack performance against Eastern Illinois and a career-high 15 tackles against Missouri State. He totaled 89 tackles and eight quarterback hurries, unheard of for a player of his size. His versatility and ability to play multiple positions on defense helped Illinois State reach the FCS playoffs. Underwood is an active volunteer with Illinois Special Olympics and his father Scott is a former player in the Redbirds program.
B.W. Webb, CB, William & Mary, Senior
The highly decorated Webb hauled in eight interceptions as a redshirt freshman in 2009, but only three in the last three seasons. The truth is, quarterbacks avoided throwing to his side of the field since he made his rookie splash. The 2009 CAA Football Defensive Rookie of the Year and a first-team all-conference selection in each of the last three seasons, Webb is a former high school sprinter who has slick cover skills. This season, Webb totaled 46 tackles, one tackle for loss, eight pass breakups, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble. The Tribe finished 2-9, but the team's defense, spearheaded by Webb, remained consistent. Doubling as a punt and kick returner, he brought back 11 punts for 123 yards and one touchdown and 11 kickoffs for 181 yards.
Marcus Williams, CB, North Dakota State, Junior
Somebody should check Williams' jersey for batteries. He was electrifying throughout the 2011 season, when North Dakota State rolled to its first FCS national championship. This season, as one of the most valuable parts of the FCS' top defensive unit, the same can be said. The All-America first-team selection took home the Missouri Valley Conference defensive player of the year award after recording four interceptions, four pass breakups, two touchdowns and 534 return yards in the regular season. Heading into the FCS playoffs, his 15 career interceptions were just one shy of the school record of 16. Williams also returned 11 kickoffs for 331 yards, an average of 30 yards per return, including one returned 98 yards for a touchdown in a MVC title-clinching win over Illinois State. He is considered an elite FCS prospect for the 2014 NFL Draft.
Samuel G. Freedman's "Breaking The Line" vividly recreates the world of black college football in the civil rights era with a gripping chronicle of the 1967 season for coach Eddie Robinson at Grambling State and Alonzo S. "Jake" Gaither at Florida A&M.