The brightest stars in the Sun Belt return in 2017

Ja'Von Rolland-Jones, the 2016 Sun Belt Player of the Year, returns for another year of #SunBeltHeat. (Used with permission from Arkansas State Athletics)

The Sun Belt had a decent football season in 2016, punctuated by a strong 4-2 post season record and a bump in NFL draft picks. Will the Sun Belt turn up the heat in 2017? Unlike larger conferences who simply replace outgoing seniors and early draftees with more 4 and five star talent, the Sun Belt relies on cultivating talent through four or more years of hard-nosed pigskin apprenticeship. Sun Belt fans can watch a player’s entire career unfold. Guys like Elijah McGuire, Robert Davis and Austin Rehkow may not star for your team, but longevity made them familiar names to watch.

Who’s back for 2017? I can tell you that an assload of stud quarterbacks return. Significant talent makes a comeback on the defensive side of the ball as well; three players received premium post-season conference awards last year. Running backs took a hit with three of the conference’s most accomplished riding off into the sunset, but big playmakers remain. The Sun Belt appears to be a conference loaded with experience at key positions. Let’s take a peak.

Brandon Silvers threw 23 TDs to lead Troy’s resurgent offense in 2016

The Quarterbacks

This may be a special year for QB play in the Sun Belt. The conference’s top seven highest rated quarterbacks in 2016 return this season. Teams with returning talent behind center always seem to have a better chance for success. The Sun Belt one of the more experienced conferences on the offensive side of the ball in all of college football.

Justice Hanson, Arkansas State, Junior (Best QB Rating, 138.9)

Matt Linehan, Idaho, Senior (Most passing yards, 3,184)

Brandon Silvers, Troy, Senior (Most TDs, 23)

Taylor Lamb, Appalachian State, Senior (60.6% PCT)

Dallas Davis, South Alabama, Junior (2,706 passing yards)

Gone: Anthony Jennings, Tyler Jones

 

Limited by injury in 2016, Rose III is still the most talented RB in the Sun Belt.

The Running Backs

The Sun Belt lost three of its most accomplished running backs, but the backs who remain are not without major skills. Led by 2016 Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year Jalin Moore, 2017’s class features some NFL talent (Chunn, Rose3)  and unconventional playmakers (Wand and Moore).

Jalin Moore, Appalachian State, Junior (Leading rusher, 1,402 yards, SBC Offensive POY)

Jordan Chunn, Troy, Senior (Most TDs, 16)

Warren Wand, Arkansas State, Junior (1,158 yards from scrimmage)

Larry Rose III, New Mexico St, Senior (1,651 yards in 2015)

Gone: Elija McGuire, Marcus Cox, Matt Breida

 

Penny Hart was the Sun Belt Freshman POY in 2015. Can he return from injury?

The Wide Receivers

Troy features the most potent receiving tandem in the Sun Belt with Emmanuel Thompson and Deondre Douglas, but the conference’s best receiver might be a guy who didn’t play a down in 2016. Penny Hart was the Sun Belt’s leading receiver in 2015 and was named The SBC Freshman of the Year after hauling in 71 receptions for 1,099 yards. Hart redshirted is sophomore season after breaking his foot against Appalachian State in Week 4. The best thing for Georgia State is a healthy Hart.

Emmanuel Thompson, Troy, Senior (Most receptions, 80)

Deondre Douglas, Troy, Junior (740 yards, 6 TDs)

Keenan Barnes, Louisiana, Junior (6 TDs)

Shaedon Meadors, Appalachian State, Senior (716 yards)

Penny Hart, Georgia State, Sophomore (DNP 2016, 2015 FOY)

Chris Jones, Coastal Carolina, Senior

Gone: Robert Davis, Josh Magee, Kendall Sanders

 

Xavier Johnson didn’t have a breakout season in 2016, but he did pound in a career high 10 touchdowns.

Best of the Rest on Offense

One position in the Sun Belt that suffers a significant power drain is tight end. Gone are Idaho’s talented tandem of Trent Cowers and Deon Watson, Keith Rucker of Georgia State, and NFL bound Gerald Everett of South Alabama. But Arkansas State’s Blake Mack and his 34 receptions return, and so does Ari Werts of Georgia State who hauled in 3 TD passes last year.

Blake Mack, TE, Arkansas State, Senior

Ari Werts, TE, Georgia State, Junior

Colby Gossett, OL, Appalachian State, Senior

Xavier Johnson RB/PR, South Alabama, Senior

Tryston Mizerak, OL, Texas State, Senior

Gone: Gerald Everett, Parker Collins, Antonio Garcia

 

Ja’Von Rolland-Jones enters his senior season already the Red Wolves all-time sack leader

The Defense

Look at the star power returning on defense. Then pick your eyeballs off the floor and look again. Three Sun Belt “Player of the Year” recipients return to wreak havoc on opposing offenses. Will defense be the strength of the Sun Belt in 2017?

Ja’Von Rolland-Jones, DE, Arkansas State, Senior (SBC POY)

Clifton Duck, DB, Appalachian State, Junior (SBC Freshman of the Year)

Aikeem Coleman, DL, Idaho, Senior (SBC Newcomer of the Year)

Gabe Loyd, LB, Texas State, Senior

Jeremy Reaves, DB, South Alabama, Senior

Tee Simms, DL, Appalachian State, Senior

Justin Clifton, DB, Arkansas State, Junior

Shane Johnson, LB, Coastal Carolina, Senior

Joe Dillon, DL, ULL, Sophomore*

Gone:  Mondo Williams, Money Hunter, Bobby Baker

* currently suspended from the team

...
About Jeremy Harper 145 Articles
A former notary public, Jeremy Harper is a professional copywriter and a sports columnist of dubious reputation who spends his free time staring blankly into space.