The old saying in football is “defense wins championships." With nine of the top 15 finishers in 2021 Buck Buchanan Award voting — plus the last two winners of the award — returning, defense should be pivotal to the year’s FCS championship race.
But what FCS defenders in 2022 are most important? It starts with the returning defensive players.
The key word is returning. That means no incoming freshmen and no transfers, regardless of if they played at an FCS school in the year prior.
That said, let's break down the best of the best.
The top 10 returning FCS defensive players for 2022
DL Devonnsha Maxwell | Chattanooga
Chattanooga's Devonnsha Maxwell placed his name in the upper echelon of FCS defenders last season with his 12 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss. About 40 percent of Maxwell's tackles in 2021 came behind the line of scrimmage as he paced the SoCon's best statistical defense.
Maxwell brings versatility to Chattanooga's defensive line with his ability to move across the front. In 2022, he should create matchup problems wherever he starts a play, whether it's in the middle or on the edge.
S Kedrick Whitehead | Delaware
Delaware safety Kedrick Whitehead enters his fifth season for the Blue Hens with three consecutive All-American seasons behind him. He has over 223 career tackles, flying all around Delaware's defense. More importantly, he's the vocal leader of the defense. In 2022, Whitehead brings the Blue Hens leadership and experience as one of the best defenders in the FCS.
LB Isaiah Land | Florida A&M
Reigning Buck Buchanan Award winner Isaiah Land enters 2022 as the top defender in the FCS, hoping to build after a season where he led the FCS in sacks (19) and tackles for loss (25.5). Land tested the transfer portal waters but chose to return to Florida A&M to lead a defense that finished top 10 in scoring last year. Land should be dominant in the SWAC again in 2022, thanks to his speed and bend off the edge.
LB Jacob Dobbs | Holy Cross
Holy Cross' Jacob Dobbs has earned All-American honors every season since first taking the field as a freshman back in 2019. But no season was better than 2021, when Dobbs won Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year after finishing with 137 tackles (75 solo), 17.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks, ranking in the top 10 in the FCS in solo tackles and total tackles. Dobbs was a key part of a Holy Cross defense that led the nation in total defense. He also finished in the top-10 of Buchanan Award voting.
Moreover, Dobbs led Holy Cross to its first FCS playoff win in program history in 2021. This year, it's only up as the Crusaders again have playoff expectations, a doable feat with Dobbs manning the middle of the defense.
CB Montrae Braswell | Missouri State
Montrae Braswell is a dynamic athlete on the outside of Missouri State's defense. Braswell grabbed four interceptions in 2021, earning All-American honors from multiple outlets in the secondary. He isn't afraid to come up and make tackles either as shown by his 33 solo tackles.
What makes Braswell even more special is his ability to contribute in the return game. He earned 2021 All-American honors as a return specialist.
Braswell's duality makes him one of the FCS's best defenders entering this year.
CB Justin Ford | Montana
Justin Ford was one of two Montana Grizzlies to finish top four in Buchanan Award voting in 2021. Ford was the best ball hawk in the FCS in 2021, nabbing nine interceptions, taking two back to the end zone. As a standout cornerback, Ford's numbers may not be as impressive in 2022, but if that's the case, it's likely due to offenses avoiding him rather than Ford dropping off.
LB Patrick O'Connell | Montana
Finishing just ahead of Ford in 2021's Buchanan voting was his teammate Patrick O'Connell, a versatile do-it-all linebacker. O'Connell can rush the passer and set the edge, as shown by his 14 sacks and 22 tackles for loss. But his 105 tackles show he can play as a stand-up linebacker too. If that wasn't enough, O'Connell's four forced fumbles displays his ability to make game-changing plays.
In 2022, O'Connell should lead a Montana defense that will again be among the FCS's best.
DE Josiah Silver | New Hampshire
New Hampshire's Josiah Silver burst onto the scene as a freshman last year, making 12.5 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss while forcing six fumbles — second-most in the FCS — en route to CAA Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
Silver has now had a collegiate offseason to get even better and build off from his first year of experience. Silver should continue to cause problems for opposing offenses in 2022.
LB Stone Snyder | VMI
VMI's Stone Snyder has long been one of the FCS's best defenders. Snyder is the back-to-back SoCon Defensive Player of the Year, earning consecutive All-American honors in each season. Snyder finished with the sixth-most tackles per game in 2021, almost always found around the football. Expect more of the same from Snyder in 2022.
DL Nate Lynn | William & Mary
In his first year as a starter, Nate Lynn tied a William & Mary record with 12 sacks while forcing six fumbles and making 13.5 tackles for loss. Lynn earned All-American honors for his efforts. In 2022, Lynn is the star defender on a rising Tribe defense.
The next 10
- LB Ryan Greenhagen | Fordham
- S Robby Hauck | Montana
- DB Michael Tutsie | North Dakota State
- S Anthony Adams | Portland State
- LB Tristan Wheeler | Richmond
- LB Adam Bock | South Dakota State
- CB Zy Alexander | Southeastern Louisiana
- CB Ferlando Jordan | Southeastern Louisiana
- DE Jordan Lewis | Southern
- LB Kelechi Anyalebechi | UIW