SoCon Football 2022: Ranking the league’s top 20 players

Ranking the top 20 players in the SoCon

Chattanooga’s Devonnsha Maxwell is closing in on school and SoCon history/photo courtesy of UTC athletics

1. Devonnsha Maxwell (DE, Chattanooga/42 tackles, 15.5 TFL, 12.0 sacks, 5 QBHs, 1 FF),Chattanooga has maybe the most dominant overall defensive player in FCS football. He’s the most dominant player to line up along the defensive front since Davis Tull starred for the Mocs defense from 2011-14. Tull, of course, set the Mocs school record for sacks, with 37 quarterback takedowns. Maxwell is arguably just as dominant. Maxwell is well within reach of Tull’s school-record, having posted 29.5 career quarterback hits. With eight sacks this fall, Maxwell would not only set the school record, but would be the SoCon’s all-time record holder if he can enjoy the kind of season that many envision for arguably the SoCon’s top NFL prospect entering the 2022 season.

2. Jacob Saylors (RB, East Tennessee State/143 rush att, 1,019 yds, 10 TDs, 7.1 YPC)–The SoCon’s top offensive weapon entering the 2022 season, and was one of two players on the Bucs roster to rush for 1,000 yards for ETSU last season, joining the school’s all-time leading rusher, Quay Holmes. Saylors is not only a danger as a running threat, but is also a threat to take the distance on a pass out of the backfield, or on a kick or punt return. His 1,019 yards rushing last season marked the eighth-highest rushing total in a season in ETSU history. His historic season was highlighted by a school-record rushing performance in the wild 55-35 win over Western Carolina, as he finished the contest with 266 yards rushing and three touchdowns. Saylors was recognized as a member of the STATS FCS preseason Walter Payton Award watch list.

3. Tyler Riddell (QB, East Tennessee State/211-of-338, 2,464 yds, 19 TDs, 5 INTs)–A poised signal-caller that led the Bucs magical run to an 11-win campaign last season. Riddell led the league in completion percentage last fall, connecting on an impressive 62.4% of his passes last season. The Tampa, FL native proved to be an exceptional decision maker with the football last season, as evidenced by only throwing five INTs. Riddell, a redshirt freshman last fall, garnered HERO Sports Freshman All-America accolades, as well as earning Freshman All-America honors from Phil Steele’s Magazine. Riddell finished the season with four games with multiple touchdown passes, which included a trio of games that saw him make three scoring tosses. His 19 TD passes during the 2021 season were the second-most in a single-season in ETSU history, while his 211 completions in a single-season rank third in program history, and his 339 attempts rank as the fourth-most pass attempts in Bucs football history. His 2,.464 passing yards in a single-season also ranked fourth in program history. 

4. Ailym Ford (RB, Chattanooga/203 rush att, 1,071 yds, 11 TDs, 5.3 YPC/3 rec, 15 yds, 5.0 YPR)–Ford could have easily been named the SoCon’s preseason Offensive Player of the Year-he’s that dominant of a running back. Add to that the fact that the Florence, S.C., native also runs behind arguably the league’s top offensive line.  Last season, Ford  and Tyrell Price were a strong duo rushing the football for Chattanooga, as the duo combined to rush for 1,975 yards on 336 rush attempts and 20 TDs. Ford has already become the fastest Mocs running back to reach 1,500 yards rushing in a career. He has rushed for 2,546 yards in his career, which includes 22 rushing scores in his career. Ford returns as the career-active leading rusher in the Southern Conference. Ford is on pace to set the school’s all-time rushing mark. Ford will enter the campaign on the STATS FCS radar for the Walter Payton Award, as he begins the season among 35 players recognized by the web site that sponsors the FCS Top 25 poll of record.

Furman All-America tight end Ryan Miller

5. Ryan Miller (TE, Furman/43 rec, 749 yds, 7 TDs, 17.4 YPR),–Furman’s Ryan Miller has emerged as one of the top tight ends in all of college football over the past couple of seasons, and during a pair of trying seasons offensively for the Paladins, it was Miller that emerged as a big-time playmaker. The Paladin coaching staff took advantage of the graduate’s impressive speed, causing headaches and matchup issues for opposing issues. He was a consensus First-Team All-SoCon selection during the 2021 campaign, leading the Paladins with 43 receptions for 749 yards and seven TDs last fall, and averaged a league-best 17.4 yards-per-catch in doing so. Miller started the season with a bang, hauling in an 87-yard pass from Hamp Sisson, doing most of the work with his feet by out-pacing the North Carolina A&T secondary in the process, as his play highlighted Furman’s season-opening 29-18 win over the Aggies. Entering his fifth and final season for the Paladins, Miller already ranks 18th in program history in receiving yards, while already being tied for fourth in school history in scoring catches. So far in his standout Paladin career, Miller has 79 catches for 1,384 yards and 16 touchdowns. Miller joins both ETSU’s Jacob Saylors and Chattanooga’s Ailym Ford as a part of the STATS FCS preseason Walter Payton Award watch list.

6. Stone Snyder (LB, VMI/ 120 tackles, 11.0 TFL, 4.0 sacks, 3 FRs)–Snyder is not only the top linebacker in the Southern Conference, but also likely to complete his career in Lexington as one of the top defensive performers to ever grace the field for the Keydets. Snyder will once again be in the mix for the Buck Buchanan Award this fall, which is awarded to the top defensive player in FCS football. In the spring and fall seasons combined, Snyder posted an impressive 208 total stops. He has already been a SoCon Defensive Player of the Year, two-time FCS All-American and a Buck Buchanan Award finalist in his career. Snyder was VMI’s lone offensive player or defensive player chosen to the league’s first team.

7. McClendon Curtis (OG, Chattanooga)–The Mocs might have lost Cole Strange to being the highest draft pick in the NFL Draft for a SoCon player since 1974, however, Chattanooga’s offensive line doesn’t rebuild–it reloads. That’s because player’s like McClendon Curtis are waiting to carry the mantle for UTC this fall. Curtis is a 6-6, 328-lb, senior from the Scenic City, and is easily the most reconizable figure along the Mocs’ offensive front. He will start at the right guard position heading into the 2022 season, and like his teammate Strange last season, has NFL aspirations. He has played in 38-career games for the Mocs, having logged 27 starts, making him one of the most experienced player’s on the roster. During the 2021 season, Curtis was a first-team All-SoCon selection and is likely the favorite to win the league’s prestigious Jacobs Blocking Award heading into the 2022 season. He started all 11 games at right guard for UTC in 2021 and is one two Mocs to be in their sixth year on the UTC roster.

8. Raphael Williams (WR,Western Carolina/ 73 rec, 959 yds, 9 TDs, 13.1 YPR)–Raphael Williams burst onto the scene in 2021 and was a major part of WCU’s resurgence during the second half of the season. Williams had an impressive five 100-yard reception games, including three games in which he reached double-digit receptions in three games. In a two-week span vs The Citadel and Wofford last season, Williams enjoyed two of his breakout performances on the season. Williams ended up posting 28 catches for 324 yards and four touchdowns. It would be the prelude to Williams ending the season by being named the 2021 first-team All-SoCon honors. 

VMI redshirt sophomore signal-caller Seth Morgan

9. Seth Morgan (QB, VMI/201-of-326 passing, 2,175 yds, 14 TDs, 11 INTs/191 rush yds, 3 TDs)–Seth Morgan might be my favorite quarterback in the Southern Conference. He’s feisty, and he’s confident. Those two intangibles will take you a long way as a quarterback. He has been VMI’s starting signal-caller for 1.5 seasons now, but it already seems like he’s a graduate student. He’s learned to mature in his time starting in Scott Wachenheim’s air-raid offense. Morgan led a VMI offense that finished the 2021 season ranking 24th nationally in total offense (417.9 YPG), 28th in scoring offense (31.3 PPG), and 23rd nationally in passing offense (256.9 YPG). The preseason second-team All-SoCon pick had his most memorable afternoon under center in VMI’s thrilling 46-45 win over Samford last season, as he passed for a career-high 472 yards and three touchdowns on 28-for-41 passing in the contest. Morgan also led the Keydets to maybe their best win of the season against Chattanooga, helping a Keydets offense that would ultimately rack up 485 yards, which included 306 on 30-of-42 passing through the air, and throwing three touchdowns, as the Mocs held on for what was a memorable 37-34 overtime win at Foster Stadium over the 19th-ranked Mocs. The 485 yards surrendered by the Mocs offense would end up being a season-high yield.  Morgan will enter the 2022 season as a preseason second-team All-SoCon selection. 

Mercer quarterback Fred Payton

10. Fred Payton (QB, Mercer/112-of-195 passing,1,663 yds, 12 TDs, 10 INTs )–Fred Payton was perhaps the most underrated signal-caller in FCS football last season, but all he did was nearly lead Mercer to a first-ever Southern Conference title and subsequent FCS playoff bid. Payton was an excellent decision maker in his first season as the starter in head coach Drew Cronic’s hybrid/spread option offense. With big weapons at his disposal once again this fall in the passing attack, look for Payton to flourish once again, and for his passing numbers to be slightly higher at the end of the 2022 campaign than they were in his first season running the Mercer offense. Payton started all 10 games for the Bears last season, with his best passing performance coming against Wofford, as he threw for 353 yards and three scores in what was a dominating 45-14 win. 

11. Michael Mason (DL, Wofford/44 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles)–If it weren’t for Chattanooga’s Devonnsha Maxwell, it would probably be Michael Mason we are all talking about as the top defensive lineman in the Southern Conference. In much the same way as Maxwell, Mason’s dominance on the gridiron in the SoCon each Saturday is noticeable. Mason’s number in his three previous seasons at Wofford back up those aforementioned credentials of being dominant, as he has posted 108 tackles, 20.5 tackles-for-loss, 12.5 sacks and has forced an impressive five fumbles during his outstanding career in Spartanburg. He was outstanding all season for the Terriers in 2021, particularly in non-conference games against Elon and Kennesaw State. In the Terriers’ lone win a year ago, which was a 24-22 victory at Elon, Mason posted six tackles, a sack and forced a key fumble in the win. A week later in a loss to the Owls, Mason posted nine tackles, a sack and forced a fumble. He will once again be the lynchpin of a Wofford defense that hopes to see improvement after ranking 114th out of 123 FCS teams in total defense last fall.

12. Lance Wise (DB, Mercer/59 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 3 INTs, 1 FR, 1 FF, 1 PBU, 1 TD)–You don’t get far when talking about the Mercer defense without mentioning the name junior safety Lance Wise. Wise is a noted leader on the Mercer defense, and he enters the season as a STATS FCS third-team All-America, as well as being a first-team All-SoCon pick. He’s a big hitter in a Mercer secondary that has become known for just that very thing in recent seasons. The 5-9, 190-lb safety and he started nine games last season for the Bears. Wise ended up being named the Southern Conference Player of the Month for the month of October last season. He posted 13 tackles in the regular-season finale against East Tennessee State. He recorded INTs against Western Carolina, The Citadel and Chattanooga last season. In the 34-7 win over the Bulldogs, he had a 34-yard INT return for a score in the fourth quarter. He also recorded a fumble recovery against the Catamounts last season. Wise will be asked to lead a secondary that will have some new faces on the back line of the Bears’ defense this fall.

Furman offensive tackle Anderson Tomlin

13. Anderson Tomlin (OT, Furman)–Furman’s Anderson Tomlin might be the best story of any player on the Furman football team. He’s a player that came out of obscurity at Mountain Brooke High School as a junior to garnering a scholarship to play Division I football at Furman University by his senior season. He gained nearly 80 lbs between his junior and senior campaigns as a prep, and his shear work ethic turned him from being a player that transformed himself after transitioning from the defensive line to the offensive front. He transformed his body, too, after being a 160-lb sophomore defensive lineman into being a 280-lb offensive lineman by the time he was a senior. After moving back from Utah as a sophomore to Mountain Brook, where he pretty much cut his teeth as a youth, Tomlin had to convince his high school coach to give him a second chance to make a first impression. His persuasiveness and persistence paid off, and Tomlin is reaping the rewards for his hard work, garnering preseason All-America honors as well as first-team All-SoCon accolades. He’ll be a member of a Paladin offensive line that should be among the best in the SoCon this fall. Tomlin joined teammate Ryan Miller as a member of the STATS FCS preseason second-team All-America squad.

14. Nathan East (LB, Samford/97 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 7 QBHs) –Like Furman’s Tomlin, Samford’s Nathan East has been a player that has relied on a relentless work ethic and his Christian faith, which has helped propel him into being one of the best defensive players in the Southern Conference. He heads into his final season as a Bulldog with 279 tackles in his Samford career to date, making him near the top, if not at the top, in the SoCon as one of the active career leader’s in total tackles among those returning in the SoCon for the 2022 season. In addition to his impressive total tackles tally in his Samford career, East also has posted 15.5 tackles-for-loss, two sacks, eight passes defended and a fumble recovery. In Samford’s 35-14 win over The Citadel this past season, posting a season-high 15 tackles. East will be the leader of a Samford defense, which is looking to put a horrendous 2021 campaign behind them, ranking last (123rd) in the FCS in total defense.

Chattanooga senior linebacker Ty Boeck

15. Ty Boeck (LB, Chattanooga/90 tackles, 9.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 1 FF)–Boeck is a 6-1, 218-lb senior native of Soddy Daisy, TN., and has proven himself as one of the top linebackers in both the Southern Conference and in the FCS as a whole. Coming into his final season as a Mocs linebacker, Boeck has seen action in 37 games, logging 26 starts during that span. He has been a second-team All-SoCon selection in both the 2019 and 2020-21 seasons, respectively, while capturing first-team All-SoCon honors last fall. Last season, Boeck was the SoCon’s Player of the Month for the opening month of the 2021 season. He turned in several outstanding tackling performances last season for UTC, including a career-high 16-tackle effort in the loss at VMI. Boeck had four games in which he recorded double-digit tackle performances in the fall of 2021.  One of his better career performances also came in Chattanooga’s 28-23 setback at Kentucky last season. He finished that contest with 13 tackles, one sack, and forced a fumble against the Wildcats to garner SoCon Defensive Player of the Week honors. He enters his final season as a Moc having totaled 229 tackles, 14.5 tackles-for-loss and 4.5 sacks.

The Citadel defensive back Destin Mack

16. Destin Mack (CB, The Citadel/45 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 5 INTs)Destin Mack heads into his final season at The Citadel having become the latest in what has become a lineage of accomplished defensive backs to come through the low country. The Citadel has had some great ones over the past couple of decades, including Cortez Allen, Dee Delaney, and T.J. Rose to name a few. Mack tied for the SoCon lead in interceptions last season, as he picked off five passes, and enters his final season in Charleston having recorded a total of seven picks. Mack will team with the 2021 SoCon Freshman of the Year, Dominic Poole, giving the Bulldogs arguably the best starting cornerback tandem in the SoCon heading into the 2022 campaign. Mack had 142 return yards on his five picks, which ranked third overall in the FCS in interception return yards.

17. Tavon Matthews (ETSU)–Matthews returns to anchor an ETSU offensive line that should again be among the best in the nation. Matthews,  a rising junior, finished off his sophomore campaign by garnering HERO Sports Sophomore Second Team All-America honors, as well as being named to both the Coaches and Media’s second-team All-SoCon squad to conclude the 2021 season. He was a key member of last season’s historic ground attack, and started and was a major part of ETSU’s top rushing performance of the season, which was a 309-yard rushing output in what was a 38-6 home win over the Delaware State Hornets. Prior to his performance in the 2021 season, he logged action on all 401 snaps the previous spring (2020 season) and finished with 13 knockdown blocks. He heads into the 2022 season having appeared in and started 31-straight games for the Bucs. Matthews should find himself a part of most of the preseason All-SoCon teams in various college football publications and websites that cover the FCS and SoCon. 

18. Jerry Rice (PK, VMI/17-of-19 FGs, 39-of-39 on PATs)–Naturally, the best place-kicker in the Southern Conference has the name of a Hall-of-Fame former FCS wide receiver out of Mississippi Valley State. While that distinction is out of the way, this Rice, who plies his trade kicking the football through the uprights, is a high-level player, and one of the best in all Division I college football–FCS or FBS–when faced with a kick that could determine the outcome of a game. He went a perfect 5-for-5 on field goals in VMI’s dramatic win over No. 19 Chattanooga last season.

19. Tyler Smith (OL, Western Carolina)–Smith enters his junior campaign having made 32-consecutive starts along the offensive line for Western Carolina, and was the fulcrum of a unit that ranked among the nation’s top offenses last fall. Smith was part of an offensive front that helped the Catamounts put together a 2021 campaign that saw the Catamounts finish out the season ranking eighth nationally in total offense (471.5 YPG), while posting the nation’s 24th best scoring offense (32.4 PPG). He was a preseason first-team All-SoCon selection by the league’s head coaches. The starting left tackle was one of two Catamount offensive linemen to see action in all 11 games for the Purple and Gold last season.

20. Travis Blackshear (CB, Furman/52 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 5 INTs, 5 PBUs, 2 FRs, 1 FF)--The 5-11, 180-lb redshirt senior from Savannah, GA, is coming off a season in which he garnered consensus second team All-SoCon honors. After initially exploring both professional and transfer portal options for his redshirt senior season, Blackshear opted to stay and play his final season, afforded by the COVID-19 pandemic, in Greenville. During the 2021 season, Blackshear started all 11 games for the Paladins, and his 52 tackles last season ranked him third overall on the team. The speedster will be Furman’s primary lockdown corner, and could also factor in on special teams this fall. His five interceptions in 2021 were tied for the league lead last season. Blackshear follows in a great line of Furman corners, which includes the likes of Ryan Steed (2008-11), William Middleton (2005-08), Andre Worrell (1990-93) and Rodney Johnson (1999-2003) to name a few. In four seasons thus far as a Paladin cornerback, Blackshear has seen action in 34 games, which includes having made 28 starts, posting 125-career tackles, 4.0 TFL, two sacks, 18 passes defended, eight INTs, forced three fumbles and recovered three. 

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