American Athletic Preview: All AAC Defense 2016

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Tyler Matakevich rose from All AAC Defense to national defensive player of the year last season. The Temple Owls linebacker is NFL-bound, leaving a spot for another American Athletic defensive standout to reach the pinnacle this year.

ALL-AAC 2016 DEFENSE

Among the great stories of the American’s rise a season ago: Temple’s emergence. The Owls broke into the Top 25 and reached the conference championship game on the strength of defense, setting the tone from Week 1 with a stifling effort against Penn State.

Matakevich led Temple in that historic, season-opening win, and steamrolled on through to winning the Bronko Nagurski Award. He’s gone for the NFL, but Temple remains loaded on the defensive side.

The Owls just might have the best AAC defense in 2016, but face stiff competition from divisional foe UConn. And, for as celebrated as the offense is down in Houston, one of the Coogs’ top performers plays linebacker.

DT Folorunso Fatukasi, Connecticut: The name is a mouthful, but you’ll want to know it sooner than later. Folorunso Fatukasi might very well be the best defensive tackle in the nation.

Think that’s hyperbolic? Don’t be so sure.

Last season, he racked up as many sacks as Oklahoma outside linebacker Eric Striker, forced as many fumbles as Florida State defensive end DeMarcus Walker. Fatukasi’s a unique blitzing force lined up on the interior of the line, but still fulfills the obligations typical of a tackle. He plugged gaps against the run effectively, as well.

The man nicknamed Foley might not match his statistics of a season ago, but only because he’s drawing double-teams that free up other Huskies.

DT Tanzel Smart, Tulane: Statistically, Tanzel Smart outpaced some noteworthy names in 2015 — counterparts like Alabama All-American A’Shawn Robinson. Small wonder the Tulane tackle earned 1st Team All AAC Defense.

DE Haason Reddick, Temple: Though Matakevich earned the bulk of attention, Haason Reddick quietly compiled a rather impressive resume a season ago: 12.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, five quarterback hurries and a forced fumble.

Reddick will be the key piece in Temple’s pass-rush game plan, pending his availability. He faces trial on the same assault charge that could sidelined offensive lineman Dion Dawkins.

DE Praise Martin-Oguike, Temple: Praise Martin-Oguike returned from a two-year layoff, the result of a false rape accusation.

Martin-Oguike made the most of his comeback, registering four sacks, nine tackles for loss, forcing three fumbles and blocking a pair of kicks in 2015. Playing opposite Reddick, opposing offensive lines have a difficult choice in determining how best to handle the Owls’ pressure up front.

LB Junior Joseph, Connecticut: Even in lean years, UConn produced a number of talented linebackers. Junior Joseph is the latest.

Joseph made the All AAC Defense Team a year ago, registering 93 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss as a key cog in the Huskies’ run defense.

LB Nico Marley, Tulane: A 1st Team All AAC selection in 2015, Nico Marley sets the foundation for a retooled Tulane defense in 2016.

The arrival of Willie Fritz brings a revamped scheme for the Green Wave, which Marley told Andrew Lopez of The Times-Picayune would pay dividends once mastered.

“People are learning. Everybody is learning. Other than that, we’re getting into the flow of things right now. Before, you could see where we were trying to master the defense and we weren’t really using our athletic ability. But now, everybody is just going into it and playing and just having fun.”

Georgia Southern had a Top 25 rush defense a season ago under Tulane’s new coordinator, Jack Curtis. The ball-hawking Marley should shine in Curtis’ more complex system.

LB Trent Martin, Tulsa: Trent Martin has an almost innate sense of where the ball will be, manifesting last year in 104 tackles, three pass break-ups and four forced balls.

That could be because Martin takes pride in his film study.

This “student of the game” ranks among the more seasoned players in all of college football, having received a medical hardship waiver after the 2013 season. He’s a sixth-year senior in the campaign to come.

LB Steven Taylor, Houston: Steven Taylor’s 2015 resume stands out as one of the best in college football: 92 tackles, two interceptions, 10 sacks, 18.5 tackles for loss, 12 quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles.

Whew!

Were it not for Matakevich’s monster year, Taylor may well have been the choice for AAC Defensive Player of the Year. He’ll make a push for the honor in 2016, though.

DB Brendon Clements, Navy: Brendon Clements served a suspension for much of the offseason, but was reinstated last month. His return gives Navy its most productive veteran on the defensive side.

Clements is a potential game-breaker, last season accounting for five forced turnovers. In addition to his four interceptions and forced fumble, he broke up six passes.

Opposing quarterbacks will likely throw away from him, at least initially, as Navy retools its secondary.

DB Deatrick Nichols, USF: One of the success stories of satellite camps, Willie Taggart has to be glad he found Deatrick Nichols.

The 2015 1st Team All AAC selection picked off four passes and made 8.5 tackles for loss to key a Bulls defense that ranked No. 35 nationally in points allowed.

DB Jamar Summers, Connecticut: Connecticut boasts one of the American’s deepest secondaries, if not one of the deepest secondaries in all of college football. Its anchor is returning All AAC selection Jamar Summers.

Summers matched All-Americans Desmond King (Iowa) and Damontae Kazee (San Diego State) with eight interceptions, and did so in one less appearance.

DB Zach Edwards, Cincinnati: Safety Zach Edwards did it all for the Cincy defense a season ago, contributing both in the Bearcats run stopping and pass coverage.

His 93 tackles registered second-highest among all Bearcats, while his three interceptions and remarkable eight pass break-ups led the squad. Having such a reliable defender on the back line this coming year should fear up Robert Prunty and Jeff Koonz’s defense to blitz more.