NOTE: This is the fourth installment of a summer-long series projecting the Top 10 players at each position for the 2014 Big Sky Conference football season.
The Big Sky Conference continues to be a breeding ground for great defensive linemen -- and Buck Buchanan Award winners. Montana State defensive end Brad Daly, after sharing the league's defensive player of the year award with Cal Poly tackle Sullivan Grosz, won the Buchanan Award as the top defensive player in the FCS in 2013.
It was the Bobcats' second straight Buchanan win (D-end Caleb Schreibeis won it the year prior), and served as the Big Sky's sixth Buchanan since 2003. Five of those, by the way, were defensive linemen. Who's next?
TOP 10 DEFENSIVE LINEMEN
1. JAMES COWSER, DE, JR., SOUTHERN UTAH 2013: 78 tkl, 19 tfl, 10½ sacks, 8 qbh, 2 ff, 2 fum rec, 1 int. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: How Cowser wasn't a first-team All-Big Sky selection after last season is a mystery. How he wasn't a unanimous preseason pick for 2014 is also puzzling. Helping SUU to a surprising playoff berth, Cowser had more tackles than any Big Sky lineman last year, and his sacks and tackles-for-loss totals were second only to Buchanan Award winner Brad Daly. With linebacker Zak Browning gone, Cowser will command more attention from offenses, and that might tamp down his numbers. But his impact, which is significant, won't decrease.
2. ZACK WAGENMANN, DE, SR., MONTANA 2013: 64 tkl, 16½ tfl, 8½ sacks, 6 qbh, 3 ff, 1 fum rec. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Wagenmann has been tabbed as the Big Sky's preseason defensive MVP, and he's definitely one of the front-runners. Wagenmann rushes the quarterback as well as, if not better than, anybody in the Big Sky. He and Tyrone Holmes have the potential to be one of the very best defensive end duos in the FCS. Montana's defense struggled at times against the pass last year, so that's a big key. This year Wagenmann assumes the Grizzlies' famed No. 37 jersey from fellow Missoula native Jordan Tripp, and he won't disappoint.
3. AUSTIN GRAVES, DE, SR., IDAHO STATE 2013: 64 tkl, 14½ tfl, 5 sacks, 5 qbh, 1 fum rec. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Graves had a really big season for Idaho State's much-maligned defense, with his tackle-for-loss totals especially standing out. A Kennewick, Wash., product, Graves began his career at Washington State but transferred to ISU before ever playing in a game. Graves is 6-2 and 241 pounds, which coach Mike Kramer says is the perfect size for a Big Sky Conference defensive end. Kramer also noted the fact that Graves does not wear down late in the season due to his lean muscle mass. Graves is considered a supremely smart player.
4. LEXINGTON SMITH, DT, SR., NORTHERN COLORADO 2013: 55 tkl, 6 tfl, 3½ sacks, 3 qbh. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Smith had his third straight solid season in 2013, eclipsing the 50-tackle mark for the first time. Now as a senior, Smith is taking on more of a leadership role for a Northern Colorado team that continues to struggle to find success at the Division I level. Long gone are the days of the Bears' Division II dominance. The only thing keeping Smith from greater recognition is UNC's inability to win games (the Bears lost 11 games for the second time in the past three season). He may be underrated, but the 6-3, 300-pounder is a force.
5. DYLAN ZYLSTRA, DT, SR., EASTERN WASHINGTON 2013: 42 tkl, 5½ tfl, 1½ sacks, 3 qbh. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Zylstra is one of the Eagles' more consistent defensive players, having made 86 tackles in 35 career games. He was the backup at nose tackle behind Will Katoa last season, but is being plugged in as the starter at defensive tackle this season because he has the most experience. Zylstra is a two-time honorable mention All-Big Sky selection and is in line for greater accolades. Offense has been the name of the game in Cheney for the past four or five years, but Zylstra and Co. are looking to earn more respect for the Eagles' defense.
6. TONGA TAKAI, DT, SR., MONTANA 2013: 32 tkl, 2½ tfl, 1 sack, 3 qbh. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Takai is a 300-pounder that's a load to handle up front. He may be big, but Grizzlies coach Mick Delaney has lauded Takai's strength and quickness in the middle. The 2014 season will mark Takai's third straight as a starter, and his teammates gave him a big vote of confidence in the offseason when they named him a defensive co-captain along with Wagenmann. With second-team all-conference tackle Alex Bienemann graduated, Takai will team with Caleb Kidder inside. The Grizzlies look to again be in the upper echelon of run defenses in the Big Sky.
7. JAKE IRWIN, DE, SR., CAL POLY 2013: 24 tkl, 2½ tfl, 2 qbh. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Grosz was the Big Sky's co-defensive MVP (along with Daly) and he'll be missed in Cal Poly's defense, especially up front. So Irwin will be asked to pick up some of the slack. Irwin started nine games last year and is penciled in to start for the Mustangs at left defensive end, although he did miss spring practice due to injury. Irwin has made 64 tackles in the past two seasons. He was shut out in the sack department last season, but don't expect that to happen again. The Mustangs, who went 6-6 last year, want to be a playoff team. We'll see how Irwin and the defense respond.
8. EVAN DAY, DE, SR., EASTERN WASHINGTON 2013: 49 tkl, 9½ tfl, 6 sacks, 2 qbh, 1 ff. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Day's sack total were the most on Eastern Washington's defense in 2013, and he went through a stretch in which he registered a sack in five consecutive games. Day has put up 14 sacks in his first three seasons, and looks to build on those solid numbers. The one question mark is Day's health. He suffered a knee injury during spring ball and is expected to miss the first part of the season. On the field, Day is an important player because of his veteran status: His 17 career starts rank third behind EWU LB's Ronnie Hamlin (37) and Cody McCarthy (20).
9. JUNIOR ALEXIS, DT, JR., PORTLAND STATE 2013: 27 tkl, 5½ tfl, 4½ sacks. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Portland State's defense was great against the run last year, holding seven of their final 10 opponents to less than 100 yards rushing. Alexis had a hand in that. After leading the team in sacks in 2013, Alexis will be called on to have a bigger impact as a starter this season. The 290-pounder transferred to Portland State from the University of Miami after the 2011 season and started just twice last year. The Vikings' D seems to get stronger when they're pushed back: PSU allowed opponents into the red zone 49 times and gave up 29 TDs.
10. ODIN COE, DE, JR., MONTANA STATE 2013: 44 tkl, 7½ tfl, 2 sacks, 3 qbh, 1 ff. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Why not? It can't be wise to leave Coe off this list when you consider the previous two players at the 'Bandit' position at Montana State went on to win the Buck Buchanan Award. Health is a concern for Coe, and he is coming off ankle surgery. But if he's on the field he could be one of the big breakout players in the Big Sky. Defensive line coach Bo Beck has worked some magic in Bozeman, and Coe is next in line. Will the Camas, Wash., product fill the big shoes left behind and become the successor to MSU's defensive end tradition?
*** NATIONAL NO. 1: DAVIS TULL, DE, SR., CHATTANOOGA. Tull had nine sacks last year, and is the active career leader in sacks in the FCS with 26½. He is the first player to win back-to-back SoCon defensive player of the year awards since Appalachian State’s Dexter Coakley won three in a row (1994-96). The 6-3, 240-pound Tull should be in the Buchanan race all year.
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LAST YEAR: 2013 defensive line rankings
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