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20 teams, 20 indispensable players

By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - A wide-open regular season makes it hard to get a clear picture of what's ahead in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

But we still head into the postseason with a type of 20:20 vision: 20 teams, 20 indispensable players.

Each team has a player who needs to be playing his best for however long his team remains alive.

The playoffs kick off Saturday with four first-round games and concludes Friday night, Jan. 7 in Frisco, Texas.

These standouts will be a focal point of every opponent's game plan:

Appalachian State - Senior outside linebacker D.J. Smith. The glue to the No. 1 seed's defense anticipates plays, which is confirmed by the fact his 122 tackles are twice as many as the next-highest total on the team. The Mountaineers need Smith to be flying around the field because they are vulnerable against the pass.

Southeast Missouri State RB Henry Harris is first in the FCS in all-purpose yards per game (219.8).
Bethune-Cookman - Senior quarterback Matt Johnson. So much rides on Johnson getting healthy by Dec. 4 (when New Hampshire visits in the second round). He suffered a severe separation of his non-throwing shoulder this past Saturday against Florida A&M. He has run the no-huddle offense to perfection this season. The Wildcats are second in the FCS in scoring, just a tad shy of 40 points per game.

Coastal Carolina - Senior quarterback Zach MacDowall. When the Chanticleers were 2-5, MacDowall had as many interceptions (nine) as he did touchdown passes. Since then he has spearheaded their four-game run to the playoffs, throwing for 11 touchdowns against only three interceptions and rushing for a touchdown in each win.

Delaware - Senior quarterback Pat Devlin. The Blue Hens were rolling early this season when Devlin wasn't completely healthy or hadn't been asked to win games. But his ability gives the Blue Hens the chance to be great. And he's been that in November.

Eastern Washington - Junior running back Taiwan Jones. Catch him if you can. He's not a back who can go 25 or 30 carries week after week, but he'll get that many touches through rushes, receptions and returns. That's more than enough to leave opponents grasping at air.

Georgia Southern - Sophomore nose tackle Brent Russell. It's hard for a nose tackle to rack up huge statistics, but that's not the best way to judge Russell. That offenses have to commit two linemen to blocking this future pro indicates his worth. He's as feared a defensive linemen as there is in the FCS.

Jacksonville State - Senior right tackle Curt Porter. He sleeps with a 6-foot stuffed catfish pillow named Charlie, but still dwarfs it with his 6 feet, 307 pounds. The All-America candidate has graded out at 92 percent for the season with 81 knockdowns. Enough said.

Lehigh - Senior left tackle Will Rackley. There's a good reason the Mountain Hawks have allowed only 10 sacks. Rackley, who is 6-4, 310 pounds, has dominant strength up front. Northern Iowa, ranked seventh in FCS in sacks, will come after Mountain Hawks quarterback Chris Lum in the first round. Rackley might stop them all.

Montana State - Redshirt freshman quarterback Denarius McGhee. Give credit to left tackle Mike Person for holding the line together during a run of injuries, but McGhee has become the fuel in the offense. He keeps plays alive and finds receivers. He is ninth in the FCS in total offense (283.3 ypg).

New Hampshire - Senior quarterback R.J. Toman. Sophomore linebacker Matt Evans has had an All-America season and is irreplaceable, but Toman is a three-year starter who they have relied on for so long that they need his veteran leadership. He has played well in recent weeks and beats opponents with both his arm and mobility.

North Dakota State - Senior defensive tackle Matt Gratzek. The Bison defense has really gotten after quarterbacks in the last month and the 6-2, 289-pound Gratzek has 10 QB hurries over the last four games since returning from injury. It's tough to stop his combination of size, speed and strength.

Northern Iowa - Sophomore quarterback Tirrell Rennie. No quarterback in the FCS can run like Rennie (1,205 rushing yards, 14 rushing touchdowns). He was roughed up in the Panthers' final game against Western Illinois, so they hope he will be back on track in the playoffs. Zach Davis is a solid backup, but they Panthers need Rennie at the controls.

Robert Morris - Senior running back Myles Russ. The Colonials' all-time leading rusher has to come up big. If he doesn't, it would deflate their squad emotionally. He is sixth nationally with a 124.6-yard average - going over 100 yards in each of the last four games - and provides the breakaway threat that takes pressure off sophomore quarterback Jeff Sinclair.

South Carolina State - Senior linebacker David Erby. To find Erby, look everywhere. He's all over the field. The MEAC's preseason defensive player of the year lived up to the billing for seasonal honors, flying to the ball to give the Bulldogs their growl.

Southeast Missouri State - Senior running back Henry Harris. The Redhawks would not have posted a seven-game improvement without Harris, who is first in the FCS in all-purpose yards per game (219.8). In the second round, it will be like a chess match, with Harris and Eastern Washington's Taiwan Jones, who is second in all-purpose yards per game, trying to match big gain for big gain.

Stephen F. Austin - Senior quarterback Jeremy Moses. He's not just a prolific passer, he's the player who gives swagger to his teammates. The way he picks apart defenses - going up and down the field, sideline to sideline - is deflating to opponents. The FCS' leading passer also has been extremely efficient, dropping his interceptions from 20 in 2008 and 21 last season to four this season.

Villanova - Senior quarterback Chris Whitney. It wasn't supposed to be Whitney's offense, it was supposed to be Matt Szczur's. But with Szczur, the wide receiver and Wildcat QB, injured most of the season, Whitney has performed admirably without him. He's a strong rushing who has gotten so much better as a passer.

Western Illinois - Senior quarterback Matt Barr. Second in the FCS in passing efficiency (163.4) and fifth in total offense (316.9 ypg), Barr has averaged 358 passing yards over the Leathernecks' last six games, while firing 16 touchdown passes against only four interceptions. He's made last year's struggling offense (he was injured after four games) into a powerhouse.

William & Mary - Senior defensive tackle Mike Stover. He's a total grinder, perhaps one of the more underrated defensive linemen in the FCS. On a defense that suffered key graduation losses after last season and then lost standout Jake Trantin early this season, Stover sets the tone for everybody else. He has 12 tackles for loss.

Wofford - Junior fullback Eric Breitenstein. Consider the Terriers were 3-8 last season after Breitenstein was lost for the season through two games. He's the motor in the triple option, rushing for 1,378 yards and 20 touchdowns this season. His worst two games of the season resulted in Wofford's only two losses.

FCS PLAYOFF PROJECTION ...

In the FCS Huddle's playoff projection can be found here

JUST THE PICKS

Last Week's Record: 42-12 (.778)

Season Record: 578-176 (.767)

X-projected winner

Thursday, Nov. 25

Tuskegee at X-Alabama State, 4 p.m.

Saturday, Nov. 27

FCS First Round

Lehigh at X-Northern Iowa, 1 p.m.

X-Western Illinois at Coastal Carolina, 1 p.m.

X-South Carolina State at Georgia Southern, 2 p.m.

Robert Morris at X-North Dakota State, 7 p.m.

Bayou Classic

X-Grambling State at Southern, 2 p.m.

Sacks or scores, contact Craig Haley at
chaley@sportsnetwork.com.


Follow Craig Haley on Twitter and Facebook.

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