Quinn Backus, LB, Coastal Carolina, Jr., 5-10, 215
Everyone knew about Coastal Carolina's offense entering the 2013 season and how prolific it is against FCS opponents. But the defense quietly slipped under the radar. With a fast start to the season, the Chanticleers no longer had its defense go overlooked and a large part of that had to do with the play of Backus. The junior, although undersized, has the ability to bring down any ball carrier. He also is adept at dropping into coverage to play pass defense. As a sophomore, Backus was named the 2012 Big South Defensive Player of the Year, winning the conference's defensive player of the week accolade five times. He entered the 2013 season as the conference's preseason defensive player of the year.
Clarence Bumpas, LB, Northern Colorado, Sr., 6-2, 236
When Bumpas was lost for the season with an arm injury last year, Northern Colorado coaches continued to put him on the travel team because of the spirit and leadership he brings to the Bears. They like the way the Colorado Springs resident tackles ball carriers, too, and the Bears are glad to have him back this season. The physical Bumpas led the Big Sky Conference with 145 tackles as a sophomore in 2011. Now in his third season since transferring in from Kansas State, the senior works sideline to sideline, using his long arms and hands to defeat blocks and pursue ball carriers. Defensive coordinator Zach Shay says Bumpas makes "knock-em back tackles."
Jerome Couplin III, S, William & Mary, Sr., 6-2, 215
Couplin is the senior leader of the nation's best scoring defense. He anchors the defensive backfield from the safety position and has helped the Tribe record two shutout wins this season. Couplin's 6-foot-2 frame allows him to cover the biggest receivers and tight ends, while his speed is only an asset in deep coverage formats. He also has speedy ability to make it behind the line of scrimmage from the safety position and use his great hands to strip ball carriers of the football. On a defense as highly acclaimed as William & Mary's, Couplin's knack for standing out has proven he's a true leader and role model for underclassmen.
Brad Daly, DE, Montana State, Sr., 6-1, 240
Daly has been an absolute monster off the line for the Bobcats this season, and has certainly proved his name belongs with the top defensive ends in the FCS. Through September, the senior led the nation in tackles for loss with 12 and in sacks with nine. What makes Daly so special isn't his size on the defensive line - in fact, Daly would likely be classified as an undersized lineman at 6-foot-1. But he does have incredible speed and explosiveness from his end position, which figures in well with his constant chase of the opposing quarterback and running backs. Entering the season, Daly ranked first in career sacks among active FCS players. He played on the end opposite the 2012 Buck Buchanan Award recipient, Montana State's Caleb Schreibeis.
Terrence Fede, DE, Marist, R-Sr., 6-5, 270
Fede is the leader of a Marist defense that has posted two shutouts in Pioneer Football League play this season. As a junior a year ago, Fede led the Red Foxes with nine sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss, and this season the senior is doing the same while rankings among the national leaders. In a 37-0 Marist win over Valparaiso, Fede led the Red Foxes with eight tackles, including two sacks, a forced fumble and four quarterback hurries. The 6-foot-5 senior has the perfect combination of size and speed off the defensive line. He's able to overpower opponents on the offensive line to disrupt the backfield.
Ronnie Hamlin, LB, Eastern Washington, Jr., 6-2, 210
Two of the past five Buck Buchanan Award recipients have come from Eastern Washington and Hamlin hopes to be the next one. He was a redshirt freshman in 2010 when his teammate J.C. Sherritt won the award. The long-haired strong-side inside linebacker has come back fast the last two seasons, including a 136-tackle season last year (ranking fifth in school history) when the Eagles won a share of the Big Sky Conference title and reached the FCS semifinals. He sets the example by how hard he plays each down. It's possible Hamlin, from Lacey, Wash., will petition the NCAA for a sixth season of eligibility after this season, so EWU is listing him as a junior for his fifth season in school.
Zach Hodges, DE, Harvard, Jr., 6-3, 235
When Harvard got off to a dominating start this season, the play of Hodges on the defensive line was a big part of the reason. The junior from Atlanta is a lean defensive end with raw power and speed, making it hard for opposing offensive linemen to contain him. Hodges shows up in nearly every portion of the stat sheet as a distruptive force. He's forced and collected turnovers, and stopped opponents' quarterbacks and run games with multiple tackles for loss and sacks. The NFL prospect recovered two fumbles in Harvard's season-opening win at San Siego, including one he took back for a 53-yard touchdown. He was named the Ivy League defensive player of the week in the first two weeks of his senior season.
Caraun Reid, DT, Princeton, Sr., 6-2, 305
While Princeton defensive end Mike Catapano was working his way to being the Ivy League defensive player of the year last season, Reid was busy a few feet away taking on double teams and making life easier on all his defensive mates. The two-time all-league first-team selection still placed sixth in the league in sacks (5.5) and ninth in tackles for loss (9.5) despite the extra attention of opposing offenses. He has the speed, lateral movement and skill to play anywhere on the line. From the Bronx, N.Y., Reid was granted another year of eligibility at Princeton this season because he sat out much of his sophomore year in 2010 with a pectoral injury.
Shaquille Riddick, DE, Gardner-Webb, Jr., 6-7, 240
Riddick has been a staple on the Runnin' Bulldogs' defense this season, helping his team hold explosive offenses like Richmond and Wofford to a combined 10 points (which included a shutout against the Terriers). Riddick's big 6-foot-7 frame is an annoyance to opposing running backs and quarterbacks trying to escape his reach. But it's Riddick's athleticism that truly makes him a threat off the defensive line. The former high school basketball and football player uses his explosiveness to get around an offensive line. He dominated then-Big South Conference leader Charleston Southern, notching eight tackles, including four tackles for loss, two sacks and four quarterback pressures, in the upset win. Although the Runnin' Bulldogs slipped a bit in the second half of their season, Riddick maintained his stellar play on the defensive line.
Stephon Robertson, LB, James Madison, Sr., 5-11, 220
He lines up in the middle of James Madison's defense, but Robertson doesn't stay there for long. He has a sideline-to-sideline nose for the ball. While starting 34 of 35 games during his first three seasons, he has been the epitome of consistency. In 2010, he earned CAA Defensive Rookie of the Year honors after recording 90 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss. As a sophomore, he earned All-CAA first-team honors and led his team with 113 tackles and nine tackles for loss. Last year, he was named the CAA's defensive player of the year and finished eighth in the Buck Buchanan Award voting after leading the Dukes in tackles with 101, tackles for loss (8.5) and pass breakups with five. The Alexandria, Va., resident enters his senior season with 304 career tackles.
Caleb Schaffitzel, S, Missouri State, Jr., 6-0, 214
Considering how Schaffitzel punishes offenses from his safety position, it might be odd to learn he is the all-time leading rusher and scorer in Missouri high school history. The Fair Grove resident is that athletic as well as physical as a linebacker. Extremely fast, Schaffitzel totaled a school-record 216 return yards off five interceptions during his banner sophomore season last year, when he earned All-Missouri Valley Football Conference first-team honors. He also totaled 20 tackles in a game against Louisville. A scholar-athlete, his smart style helps separate him as well.
Justin Shade, LB, Samford, Sr., 5-10, 229
Samford is enjoying a stellar season in the wide-open Southern Conference race, and its defensive unit is a major part of the reason why. The Bulldogs are led defensively by Shade, who is a tackle machine and has strength to bring down any player by himself. Samford's defense forces opponents to punt so frequently; the Bulldogs pride themselves on stopping third-down attempts and getting the ball back in the hands of their offense. Shade is relatively undersized as a 5-10 linebacker, but he makes up for it with his ability to bring down any ball carrier, whether that be in the opponents' backfield or anywhere else on the field in coverage. Shade led his defensive unit against Southeastern Louisiana late in September with 19 total tackles - his season high. Against Appalachian State in October, he recorded three sacks.
Robert Simpson, DT, Mississippi Valley State, Sr., 6-4, 255
Simpson opened his junior season with 3.5 tackles for loss in a game and never stopped camping out in opponents' backfields. He totaled 22.5 tackles for loss over the campaign, ranking second in the FCS with an average of 2.05 per game. His drops were for 121 yards, the highest total nationally. The dominating defensive tackle from Gulfport, Miss., defended his home turf well while earning a spot on The Sports Network FCS All-America third team. In perhaps his finest performance, Simpson collected 14 tackles, including 3.5 for loss, against Southwestern Athletic Conference rival Jackson State.
Tyler Starr, LB, South Dakota, Sr., 6-4, 235
The sack numbers fell for Starr last year while he made the transition from defensive end to a huge outside linebacker (6-foot-4, 235 pounds), but it didn't stop him from playing well in South Dakota's new 3-4 system. His coaches laud him for being so coachable. He is athletic, tenacious to the ball and heady when he's around it. He collected 14 solo sacks in 2011, and with nine forced fumbles in 22 career games, Starr is the FCS' active leader in that category. The aptly named player, from Little Rock, Iowa, finished 20th in the 2012 Buck Buchanan Award voting. He is considered a prospect for the 2014 NFL Draft.
Joe Thomas, LB, South Carolina State, R-Sr., 6-0, 230
Thomas is seemingly everywhere. The redshirt senior is having an immensely positive impact on his Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference defense, which ranks near the top of the FCS in scoring defense. His best game statistically this season is one that helped turn his squad's 0-2 start into a five-game win streak that started against Alabama A&M. Thomas recorded five tackles for loss that week, along with three of his sacks. He was named the MEAC defensive player of the week after his performance against Alabama A&M. In South Carolina State's loss to MEAC powerhouse Bethune-Cookman, Thomas paced the defense with 16 total tackles and two tackles for loss. If Thomas leads by example, he sets the bar high for the rest of his teammates.
Lynden Trail, DE/OLB, Norfolk State, R-Jr., 6-7, 260
Trail is an absolute monster on the Spartans' defensive line, and standing at 6-foot-7 is a large (no pun intended) reason why. But what makes Trail so unique is his speed and agility for such a big player. Though he doesn't lead the Spartans in sacks and tackles for loss this season, he leads in pass breakups and forced fumbles, and is tied for second on the team in interceptions. That's because, from his end position, Trail is adept at dropping back into pass coverage to handle slot receivers and tight ends, especially against spread teams. As a high school track star, his speed comes in handy on the football field. A Miami native, Trail received offers out of high school to play at schools like USC, LSU, Florida State, Michigan and Miami. He ultimately chose to play at Florida, then ended up transferring to Norfolk State. As a testament to his versatility, Trail also has multiple receiving touchdowns this season as a tight end.
Jordan Tripp, LB, Montana, Sr., 6-4, 237
Talk about hometown heroes, Tripp, from Missoula, was a one-man wrecking crew for Montana last year after he returned from an injury-shortened 2011 season. In 11 games, he registered 95 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, two quarterback hurries, one interception, two pass breakups and four forced fumbles and scored one touchdown. The All-Big Sky Conference standout finished 10th in the Buck Buchanan Award voting. Tripp is one of the fastest Griz players despite his big size - 6-foot-3 1/2, 237 pounds. He originally wore uniform No. 44 - as his father Bryan did as a UM linebacker - but Tripp fashioned Montana's legacy uniform No. 37 last season as part of a tradition that started in 1987.
Davis Tull, DE, Chattanooga, Jr., 6-3, 230
Rev him up, Chattanooga coach Russ Huesman says Tull has one of the best motors he has ever seen in a player. When Tull combines his relentless style with athletic ability and intelligent decisions, it produces a special player. How special? He developed into the 2012 Southern Conference defensive player of the year - the first sophomore to win the award since Appalachian State great Dexter Coakley in 1993. He led the conference and was second in the FCS with a Mocs-record 12.5 sacks and totaled 18.5 tackles for loss. This came on top of a late surge in his freshman season of 2011. Oh yes, Huesman also calls the Knoxville, Tenn., product the hardest worker on his football team.
Colton Underwood, DE, Illinois State, Sr., 6-4, 260
No matter where Illinois State puts Underwood on the defensive line, he gets into opposing backfields. He's a big, physical defensive end with a quick first step who can move inside to become an athletic three-technique and create matchup problems for guards and center. Selected to The Sports Network FCS All-America first team last year, he had 95 tackles with 19.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks as the Redbirds reached the FCS quarterfinals. Underwood, who was sixth in the 2012 Buck Buchanan Award voting, is an active volunteer with Illinois Special Olympics (he's from Washington, Ill.) and his father Scott is a former player in the Redbirds program.
Marcus Williams, CB, North Dakota State, Sr., 5-11, 194
The most electrifying defensive player in the FCS just may reside in Fargo with two-time defending national champion North Dakota State. Williams enters his senior season with 18 career interceptions - a school record and the most among active FCS players - and he's returned five for touchdowns. The 2012 Missouri Valley Football Conference defensive player of the year and a two-time All-America first-team selection, he finished ninth in the Buck Buchanan Award voting last year. Also a standout kick returner, the Minneapolis resident is considered one of the top FCS prospects for the 2014 NFL Draft. But before he gets to that point, he is focused on getting the Bison a third straight national title.
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.