BOONE — With senior linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither winning Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year and running back Darrynton Evans being named Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year, App State led the way in the All-Sun Belt football awards announced by the league on Dec. 4.
Preparing to host Saturday’s Sun Belt Championship Game, the 21st-ranked Mountaineers (11-1, 7-1) had a league-leading six selections among the first-team offensive and defensive players. They also led the league with 21 total selections counting the three all-conference teams plus honorable mentions.
Offensive linemen Victor Johnson and Noah Hannon joined Evans on the first-team offense. Defensive lineman Demetrius Taylor and defensive back Shaun Jolly made the first-team defense alongside Davis-Gaither.
It was the third straight first-team honor for Johnson.
App State’s second-team picks were linebacker Jordan Fehr, safety Josh Thomas, receiver Thomas Hennigan, receiver Corey Sutton, offensive lineman Baer Hunter, offensive lineman Cooper Hodges, Evans as an all-purpose back and Evans also as a return specialist.
The Mountaineers had three third-team selections in quarterback Zac Thomas, defensive back Desmond Franklin and defensive lineman E.J. Scott. Offensive lineman Ryan Neuzil, linebacker Noel Cook, receiver Malik Williams and running back Marcus Williams Jr. received honorable mention.
Arkansas State receiver Omar Bayless (84 catches for 1,473 yards and 16 TDs) was named the Sun Belt Player of the Year, and Louisiana’s Billy Napier received the Coach of the Year award.
On Dec. 3, the grade-based PFF College site named its All-Sun Belt teams and gave first-team recognition to nine App State players: Zac Thomas, Evans, Hodges, Hannon, Neuzil, Davis-Gaither, Jolly, Josh Thomas and Franklin.
Among the other players who received higher-tier status from PFF than the league’s media/coaches were Williams (second team), Scott (second team), punter Xavier Subotsch (second team), cornerback Shemar Jean-Charles (third team), linebacker D’Marco Jackson (third team) and Hennigan (third-team punt returner).
App State, the first Sun Belt team to ever finish a regular season with 11 wins, will host Louisiana (10-2, 7-1) for the league title Saturday (noon, ESPN) in the Sun Belt’s first matchup of teams with double-digit wins.
Davis-Gaither, who was invited to the Reese’s Senior Bowl, has 85 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and six pass breakups. He also has six QB hurries, one interception and one game-ending block of a field goal for a team that leads the league in total defense (321.2 yards per game) and has allowed 18.8 points per game despite having two Power Five opponents on the schedule.
The defense allowed just 16.4 points and 277.6 yards per game in league play during the regular season, with four of App State’s last six Sun Belt opponents opting to change quarterbacks in the second half of lopsided games. That included the last three Sun Belt road games against South Alabama, Georgia State and Troy.
In App State’s four closest games to date, Davis-Gaither totaled 44 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, three pass break-ups, one interception and one blocked field goal. He had 10 tackles, a second-half pick and the game-ending block in a 34-31 road win against North Carolina, then 11 tackles with 2.5 tackles for loss and a contribution to a sack in the 17-7 road victory against Louisiana.
A month later, in a 20-15 win at South Carolina, he recorded seven tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, one sack, two pass break-ups and a drawn flag for offensive holding on the final play. According to PFF, Davis-Gaither has 23 total pressures this year, five batted passes (No. 1 among FBS linebackers) and grades exceeding 85.0 as both a pass rusher and run defender.
Versatile Evans recognized
The versatility of Evans also led to him being recognized in several areas. His 20 touchdowns are four more than the second-best total in the league, and he’s second in the Sun Belt with 1,740 all-purpose yards, including 1,250 rushing yards.
With a league-best 16 rushing touchdowns, three receiving touchdowns and one kickoff return for a touchdown, Evans has helped App State average a league-high 38.9 points per game.
According to PFF, he has broken 40 tackles this year, and his speed has helped him accumulate 660 rushing yards before contact.