A locked-in college football schedule with no sudden changes. Tailgates with friends and family. Stadiums packed to the brim. Students storming the streets after a major upset win. It’s all coming soon — the college football landscape is returning to normal.
The 2021 college football season kicks off in just under two months, and what better way to prepare than by running through PFF’s preseason awards. The 600-page PFF College Football Magazine and PFF Preseason All-America Team dropped Monday, and 10 all-conference teams will be hitting PFF.com throughout the week.
Below is the PFF 2021 Preseason All-Sun Belt Team. The side was selected with the help of PFF grades and advanced statistics, which are now available to PFF’s CFB Premium Stats+ Subscribers.
First-Team: Grayson McCall, Coastal Carolina
McCall certainly did damage on the ground, but unlike most triple-option quarterbacks, he also showed an ability to carve defenses up through the air with pinpoint accuracy. McCall finished the season with the seventh-best big-time throw rate and fifth-lowest uncatchable pass rate on throws beyond the line of scrimmage. That led to a 92.5 passing grade on the year, trailing only now-New York Jet Zach Wilson for the best mark by a non-Power Five quarterback in the PFF College era.
First-Team: Camerun Peoples, Appalachian State
While his 2020 season was rather hot-and-cold, Peoples proved he has game-wrecking potential. His 29 runs of 10-plus yards — seven of which were touchdowns — tied for the most in the conference last season. Look for Peoples to rack up big runs on wide zone carries on a more consistent basis in 2021.
First-Team: Reese White, Coastal Carolina
White actually edged out Camerun Peoples to be the Sun Belt’s third-highest-graded ball-carrier of the 2020 season, behind only since departed Louisiana duo Trey Ragas and Elijah Mitchell. He’s not afraid of contact and will have no issue taking on more opportunities following C.J. Marable's departure.
First-Team: Jalen Tolbert, South Alabama
Tolbert made downfield plays week after week for the Jaguars in 2020. The 6-foot-3, 195-pounder finished the year with a 79.2 PFF grade, 13th among returning wideouts, and 15 receptions from passes thrown 20-plus yards downfield, tied with Jonathan Adams Jr. and DeVonta Smith for the most in the FBS.
First-Team: Jaivon Heiligh, Coastal Carolina
Heiligh was an integral part of last year’s Chanticleer offense, evidenced by his 89.8 receiving grade. He was targeted on nearly one-third of his routes ran last year — the 11th-highest rate in college football — and teamed up with quarterback Grayson McCall for a 136.4 passer rating when targeted.
First-Team: Sam Pinckney, Georgia State
Pinckney has established himself as one of the top wideouts in the Sun Belt thanks to his catch radius, physicality and ball skills. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound wideout is coming off a year in which he earned the third-best receiving grade in the conference (79.4). He ranked 22nd among FBS receivers in drop rate on targets beyond the line of scrimmage (2.1%) and 13th in contested-catch rate (52.6%).
First-Team: Isaiah Likely, Coastal Carolina
The former two-star wide receiver recruit who received only one FBS offer now has the third-best receiving grade in the FBS since 2019. Likely posted a 95.0 receiving grade over his last five games of 2020, the highest among FBS tight ends in that span. He hauled in 11-of-14 contested-catch opportunities over that same five-game stretch, and he did that while playing through a lower-body injury that required post-season surgery.
First-Team: Max Mitchell, Louisiana
This Louisiana offense helps Mitchell out a bit, as he doesn’t see a significant rate of true pass sets. But when he has had such a rep over the past couple of years, it almost always went his way. He has been one of the 25 highest-graded tackles on true pass sets since 2019. Mitchell also cracks the top 25 in positively graded run-block rate.
First-Team: Cooper Hodges, Appalachian State
Hodges is coming off a season in which he was nearly flawless as a pass blocker. He tied for the third-lowest pressure rate allowed among FBS offensive tackles (1.3%) en route to an 86.5 pass-block grade. He’s also been a feisty blocker in Appalachian State’s zone-heavy run scheme. Over the past two seasons, Hodges has racked up the second-most big-time blocks on zone runs among all FBS tackles, ranking behind only Kentucky’s Darrian Kinnard.
INTERIOR OFFENSIVE LINE
First-Team: Baer Hunter, Appalachian State
Hunter will be making the move to center this fall to replace Noah Hannon after three quality years at guard. The 6-foot-2, 290-pound interior offensive lineman has been a consistently sound performer in pass protection for the Mountaineers, allowing multiple pressures in only three of his 39 total games since 2018.
First-Team: O'Cyrus Torrence, Louisiana
Torrence was thrown into the fire as a three-star true freshman after an injury to the previous starter during Louisiana's season-opener. He had a bumpy start, allowing a couple of hurries, but was crisp from there on out in 2019. The 6-foot-5, 332-pound guard — who was actually 420 pounds in the eighth grade — proceeded to be the highest-graded true freshmen interior offensive lineman in 2019.
That success carried into 2020, as he was nearly flawless in pass protection, posting an 89.0 grade in that facet — third-best among FBS guards. Torrence didn’t allow a single sack or hit across 713 pass-block snaps at guard as an underclassman. That’s the most snaps played without a sack or hit allowed among all FBS guards in that span.
Georgia reportedly made a late push to bring in Torrence as a member of the team's 2019 class, but he opted to join the Ragin’ Cajuns. He got his opportunity to shine early and is currently seizing it.
First-Team: Jake Andrews, Troy
Andrews has established himself as one of the top offensive linemen in the Sun Belt after producing an impressive 79.7 PFF grade in 2020, sixth-best among returning Group of Five guards.
INTERIOR DEFENSIVE LINE
First-Team: Zi'Yon Hill, Louisiana
Hill took his play to new heights in 2020 after earning PFF grades of 67.9 and 69.6 in 2018 and 2019, respectively. He earned an 88.4 PFF grade last season, tying for the sixth-best in the FBS, and he was one of the five interior defensive linemen who were able to generate an 80.0-plus grade against the run and as a pass rusher.
First-Team: Will Choloh, Troy
After a couple of quality seasons playing mostly nose tackle, Choloh moved to exclusively 3-technique in 2020 and produced at an elite level as a pass rusher. He recorded a 90.3 pass-rush grade and an 18.3% win rate in 2020, both of which were top-five marks among FBS interior defensive linemen.
First-Team: Demetrius Taylor, Appalachian State
Taylor is among the group of players who will be making use of their “super senior” season. He returns to Appalachian State for his fifth year. That can only be good news for the program because he was among the few players who produced a 90.0-plus pass-rushing grade in 2020, and he came away with an impressive 20.6% pass-rush win rate that ranked 15th in the FBS.
First-Team: Jeffrey Gunter, Coastal Carolina
Gunter came back with a vengeance in 2020 after having to sit out in 2019. He finished last season with an 81.5 pass-rush grade. He recorded at least three pressures in 10 of his 12 starts and is one of the 10 highest-graded edge defenders returning in the Group of Five. Demetrius Taylor is the lone player among Sun Belt edge defenders with “elite” play on his resume, but Gunter could soon join him.
First-Team: Carlton Martial, Troy
Martial walked on for the Troy Trojans in 2017, made his first start in 2018 and has since been in the conversation for the best off-ball linebacker in the Group of Five. He’s on the smaller end, standing at 5-foot-9 and 216 pounds, but that hasn’t held him back. Martial posted PFF grades of 90.9, 91.3 and 82.4 in his three years on the field. He has accumulated 159 defensive stops in that span, the most among all FBS off-ball linebackers.
While the lowest-graded season of his career came in 2020, that 82.4 mark was still good enough to rank 12th in the FBS. And over his last six games, he was college football’s highest-graded off-ball linebacker.
First-Team: Brendan Harrington, Appalachian State
Harrington was a weapon in coverage last year, his first as a starter. He played 106 total snaps at outside linebacker, 287 at off-ball in the box and 304 in the slot, earning an 87.6 coverage grade that ranked fifth among all FBS linebackers. He allowed nine first downs (one was a touchdown) while intercepting four passes and breaking up another three.
First-Team: D'Jordan Strong, Coastal Carolina
Strong went from JUCO to being a top cornerback in the Group of Five in just a year’s time. He started right from the get-go in his first year with Coastal Carolina in 2020, and he finished with a top-three coverage grade among non-Power Five cornerbacks (81.5).
First-Team: Derrick Canteen, Georgia Southern
Georgia Southern returns a true ballhawk to its zone-heavy defense in Derrick Canteen. He came to the Eagles as a two-star recruit in 2019 and didn’t play a down at corner until he was thrust into a starting job in 2020. Last year, he finished with six interceptions and seven pass breakups en route to an 80.8 coverage grade, fourth in the Group of Five.
First-Team: Bralen Trahan, Louisiana
Led by defensive coordinator Patrick Toney, one of the rising defensive minds in college football, Louisiana fielded one of the best secondaries in the Group of Five in 2020. Trahan was the leader of that group. He trusts what he sees out there and was a true playmaker on the back end, with 11 combined pass breakups and interceptions, which led all FBS safeties.
First-Team: Keith Gallmon, South Alabama
Gallmon ended his 2019 sophomore campaign with a 76.8 PFF grade and then took his play to new heights in 2020, raising that grade by over 10 points to 86.9. He paired his 88.4 run-defense grade with an 84.7 coverage grade and missed only seven of his 92 tackle attempts in 2020.
First-Team: Percy Butler, Louisiana
Butler established himself as one of the top safeties in the Sun Belt ever since taking over a starting job in Week 1 of the 2019 season. Over the past two years, Butler is one of the five highest-graded safeties in the Group of Five. In 2020, Butler enjoyed much-improved ball production. He recorded seven combined pass breakups and interceptions in 2020, six more than in 2019. Look for that trend to continue this fall.