The Big Sky Conference moved up its annual media days to begin on Thursday July 23. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic that is altering every corner of the sports world, all interviews with administrators, coaches and football players have been pre-recorded and will be broadcast virtually.
The annual media convention is highlighted by the preseason All-Big Sky team, which will be released Friday. Here is how Skyline Sports voted headed into a 2020 season filled with uncertainty.
Offensive Player of the Year – Samori Toure, Montana
For the first half of last season, Montana’s multi-faceted offense was one of the most explosive in the country. The Griz scored points in bunches, using an array of weapons in an attack orchestrated by senior quarterback Dalton Sneed that averaged nearly 50 points per game against FCS opponents during Montana’s first six games.
Sneed suffered an injury in UM’s first Big Sky loss at Sac State, wide receiver Sammy Akem lost the rest of his junior season to a lower leg injury before the calendar turned to November and all of a sudden, Toure was the focal point.
His seven-catch, 140-yard, three-touchdown performance in Montana’s road win at Portland State with Cam Humphrey under center sparked a torrid stretch run for Toure.
In Montana’s 73-28 win over Southeastern Louisiana in the second round of the FCS playoffs, Toure did the unthinkable; he shattered an FCS record previously held by Randy Moss. He caught 12 passes for an FCS Playoffs single-game record 303 yards and scored three touchdowns to etch his name in the record books.
Toure finished his breakout junior year with Griz single-season record of 87 catches for 1,495 yards. He also scored 13 touchdowns. Only former Eastern Washington superstar Cooper Kupp and former UC Davis record-setter Keelan Doss have put up better single seasons in the Big Sky over the last 50 years.
If Toure can replicate or increase his production from a year ago, he will be a Walter Payton Award finalist.
Defensive Player of the Year– Amandre Williams, Montana State
Montana’s Jace Lewis will be a popular pick here. And justifiably so. The Griz defensive scheme puts its two inside linebackers in a position to make more tackles both in the box and in open space than any scheme in the country. And Dante Olson, the 2019 Buck Buchanan Award and Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year, now plays for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Lewis, a preseason All-American entering his senior year, posted career-highs with 131 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks a season ago. So any recognition he garners is justified.
Williams, a 6-foot-2, 255-pounder with sneaky athleticism, played as well the final eight games of last season as any player on MSU’s fearsome defense. The Buck end’s improvement was a key for a defense that allowed single digits in points per game during a six-game winning streak that thrust Montana State into the semifinals of the FCS playoffs for the first time in 35 years.
The Washington transfer finished his junior season with 61 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and five sacks, production good enough to earn him third-team all-league honors.
With the graduation of so much production — defensive linemen Derek Marks and Bryce Sterk combined for 35 tackles for loss and 18 sacks while Troy Andersen, who will not play this season, piled up 11.5 tackles behind the line and 6.5 sacks — Williams will be relied on to be THE primary play-maker in MSU’s odd-man front defensive scheme.
Although Lewis is primed to have elevated opportunities with Olson in the NFL, he’ll have to compete for tackles and headlines with fellow preseason All-American safety Robby Hauck. Williams will be expected to make as many plays as possible as the most experienced returning player on MSU’s front seven.
Quarterback – Davis Alexander, Portland State — League voters will almost certainly go with Eastern Washington senior Eric Barriere after the duel threat threw 28 touchdowns and just four picks last season. But last season, opponents found a way to keep Barriere in the pocket, hindering how dangerous he is in the run-pass option elements of EWU’s offense as well as in the open field as a runner.
Alexander is among the toughest quarterbacks in the country. He has a strong arm, good leadership skills, great fortitude and sneaky athleticism. He threw for 2,928 yards, 25 touchdowns and eight picks last season while also rushing for 517 yards and five scores during his junior season. He is the catalyst for the Vikings.
Wide receivers – Sammy Akem, Montana — Although Toure garnered all the national accolades last season after Akem went down, many believe the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Akem is one of the most talented players in the country – period.
Before he went down, Akem had already hauled in 59 catches for 848 yards and five touchdowns. That gives him 118 catches for 1,727 yards and 18 touchdowns over his last 20 games. His return to full strength will be essential if UM’s national championship aspirations are to come to fruition.
Pierre Williams, Sac State — All the talk out of the camp of the reigning Big Sky champions this off-season has centered upon the transfer of quarterback Kevin Thomson, last season’s Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year. But Williams is one of the top talents in the league and one of an array of dangerous Sac State skill players. He was a first-team All-Big Sky selection as a sophomore after hauling in 54 catches for 931 yards and seven scores last season.
Samori Toure, Montana
Offensive Line, Lewis Kidd, Montana State; Taylor Tuiasosopo, Montana State
Connor Wood, Montana State — Offensive lines work best as a unit and Montana State’s suddenly veteran offensive line is the best in the Big Sky, bar none. Kidd is a senior and will likely be a captain for the Bobcats. He is a two-time All-Big Sky selection at offensive guard. The bruising, physical Tuiasosopo is one of the meanest interior linemen in the West and earned his first All-Big Sky nod last season. Wood is a junior entering his third year as a starter and fresh off his first all-league selection. Together, the trio represents more than half of what makes up the best front in the FCS this side of North Dakota State.
Tristen Taylor, Eastern Washington — The quarterbacks and receivers have always garnered the attention at EWU and elsewhere. But the Eagles have had more first-team all-conference offensive linemen than any team in the league over the last 20 years. Taylor, a three-time all-league pick, will try to extend that streak with his first-team selection this season.
Ty Whitworth, Weber State — Weber State head coach Jay Hill has done as good a job as any coach in the FCS at fortifying his fronts. And Whitworth is the best offensive lineman in the league when it comes to accolades, experience and talent. The 6-foot-4, 300-pounder is playing for his third straight selection to the all-conference first team during his senior year this fall.
Tight end – Marshel Martin, Sac State — With the graduation of Portland State’s Charlie Taumoepeau and UC Davis’s Wesley Preece, Martin is the most talented tight end in the league. He caught 39 passes for 559 yards and seven touchdowns last season, each the top number in the Big Sky for a tight end.
Running backs – Ulonzo Gilliam, UC Davis & Isaiah Ifanse, Montana State — Sac State’s Elijah Dotson led the league in rushing yards in 2018. Last season in Troy Taylor’s hard-charging spread attack, Dotson rushed for 742 yards but also caught 70 passes for more than 700 yards, which means he’s the best all-purpose player in the league.
Weber State’s Josh Davis was the Jerry Rice Award winner as the nation’s top freshman. He landed on All-American lists each of the last two years. But lately, his durability has been shaky as his workload increases.
Gilliam led the league with 1,249 rushing yards a season ago. He also led the Aggies with 57 catches. He is one of the most powerful, smooth runners in the country.
But when he’s at full strength, Ifanse is the best running back in the league. His combination of power, vision, toughness and physicality makes anyone who has seen him live wonder how he is not on an FBS roster.
Ifanse flirted with his second straight 1,000-yard season last year despite missing essentially the first half of the campaign. He returned with a vengeance to rush for 171 yards and three touchdowns in a 48-14 beatdown of rival Montana in Bozeman. A few weeks later, he rushed for 196 yards and a score in MSU’s 24-10 win over Austin Peay to vault into the FCS Final Four.
Running back is the most stacked offensive position in the Big Sky. Montana’s Marcus Knight scored a program record 25 touchdowns last season and did not receive all-league honors. Dotson gets our nod as an all-purpose player while Davis and Knight are the odd men out for no other reason than Ifanse and Gilliam are two of the Big Sky’s best individual talents.
Fullback – Clay Moss, Weber State — Coach Hill has a penchant for recruiting some of the best players in the league and the FCS at the least sexy positions, including fullback. Moss is exactly that: the unquestioned best fullback in the league who also doubles as one of the fiercest special teams in the conference. He was a first-team all-league pick a year ago.
All Purpose – Elijah Dotson, Sacramento State — Dotson might be the fastest skill player in the Big Sky. Taylor’s offense gets him in space more often than ever before. That spells trouble for defenses around the league.
Kicker – Trey Tuttle, Weber State — Tuttle scored 117 points in 2017, tied for the third-best single season total in league history. He is a three-time All-Big Sky pick and a two-time All-American selection who has made 61 career field goals, including 23 last season alone. He needs 16 more field goals to break former Montana kicker Dan Carpenter’s all-time league mark. His 323 career points are already fifth in league history and he needs 91 points to surpass Carpenter’s mark by a kicker of 413. Kupp scored an unbelievable 464 points as a wide receiver.
Punt/kick returner – Rashid Shaheed, Weber State — Shaheed follows the narrative of Hill recruiting and developing some of the best players in the country at lesser talked about positions. Shaheed has been the best punt and kick returner in the West since the day he stepped foot on campus. Shaheed is averaging nearly 30 yards per kick return and 12.2 yards per punt return during his All-American career. He enters his senior year with four kick return touchdowns.
Tackles — Chase Benson, Montana State — One must dive beyond the statistics and understand a player’s responsibility and impact within the scheme their team plays to fully understand the impact Benson makes.
He is one of the strongest players in the league, period. He can power clean over 400 pounds. He is also one of the strongest and most violent players at the point of attack.
Benson’s presence as the nose tackle in MSU’s scheme comes with production and sacrifice. Last season, he piled up 56 tackles, an unheard of number for a player playing his position. He also had four tackles for loss and three sacks. But more than his individual production, his ability to eat up blocks helped MSU roll up 41 sacks and 108 tackles for loss as a team.
Jared Scheiss, Weber State — Scheiss was and still is the most talented interior defensive lineman in the league. He had 55 tackles and 10.5 tackles for loss on a defensive line that former Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh called, “Maybe one of the best on the entire West Coast.”
Ends– George Tarlas, Weber State — As the cliche goes, college football programs want to reload rather than rebuild. But Weber State has prove it can, particularly along the offensive and defensive lines and in the defensive secondary.
Adam Rodriguez was arguably the best pure pass rusher in the Big Sky last season, although George Obinna of Sac State and Bryce Sterk at Montana State would have something to say about that.
When Rodriguez was on the shelf, Tarlas showed a glimpse of what the Wildcats hope to get a full dose of this season. Tarlas was an All-Big Sky selection despite not starting — co-defensive Player of the Year Jonah Williams anchored the other end — except when Rodriguez was on the shelf.
Tarlas rolled up nine sacks despite his rotational snaps, giving a preview to what Weber State hopes is the continuation of the most dominant defensive front play in the league.
Josiah Erickson, Sacramento State — Most of the best defensive ends in the league graduated, including Obinna, a hulking specimen who left Sac State as one of the greatest defensive players in program history.
Erickson didn’t garner the press clippings like Obinna or tackle Daryn Choates but he still produced. He was an All-Big Sky pick as a sophomore after notching 56 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and a pair of sacks.
Outside linebackers – Amandre Williams, Montana State (Above) –
Christian Ellis, Idaho — The latest of former NFL defensive lineman (and Idaho defensive line coach) Luther Ellis’s sons to rise to stardom is Christian, a productive and athletic linebacker who is one of the best in the league entering his senior year.
Idaho’s most talented player rolled up 104 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks a season ago.
Jace Lewis, Montana — Lewis had some of the best numbers in the country during a first-team all-conference junior year a season ago. He piled up 130 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. Can the 6-foot-1, 210-pounder handle an elevated role with Dante Olson in the NFL?
Tre Walker, Idaho — Walker was the only player in the league a year ago as prolific a tackler as any Griz. The hyperactive, fast inside linebacker sprinted his way to 138 tackles, including nine tackles for loss. He and Ellis make up one of the top linebacker duos in the conference. But the Vandals have plenty of internal issues to sort out to maximize the talent they have on their roster.
Defensive backs – Anthony Adams, Portland State — Portland State’s flex defense is one of the most unorthodox schemes in the country. Adams’ roll as a rover helps him move around and deceive opponents. It also affords him freedom to make more plays on the football than any defensive back in the league.
Last season, Adams made a slew of plays, leading the league with 19 pass breakups and ranking among the national leaders with five interceptions. His continued progression will be essential if Portland State wants to affirm its status as a dark horse in this season’s league race.
Daron Bland, Sacramento State — Bland is the best pure cornerback in the league and one of the top pro prospects in the Big Sky. The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder is great in coverage and excellent at being physical with receivers at the line of scrimmage. He is also not afraid of contact. Of his 43 tackles, the cornerback made 6.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage last season on the way to earning first-team All-Big Sky honors during his junior year for the Big Sky champs.
Robby Hauck, Montana – Montana’s stack defense is one of the most creative defenses in the country. It allows for the two inside linebackers to pile up tackles in bunches — Olson and Lewis had nearly 300 between the two of them last season. But it also means you have to have a fearless, aggressive strong safety who will run the alley with reckless abandon while also being able to make plays in the open field.
Enter Hauck, a undersized but explosive dynamo who has been compared by many to his uncle, former Griz All-American safety Tim Hauck. Robby Hauck, the son of UM head coach Bobby Hauck, is a sort of hybrid player who sometimes has responsibilities of a linebacker, sometimes plays like a rover, sometimes plays like a strong safety and sometimes has to roam the back end as the last line of defense.
He did it exceptionally well as a sophomore, piling up 129 tackles, five tackles for loss and three sacks on the way to All-Big Sky honors.
Devon King, UC Davis — King was a Freshman All-American from Hero Sports after leading the league with three forced fumbles two seasons ago. Last year, he earned all-league honors thanks to totaling 77 tackles, five tackles for loss and snaring three interceptions.
His continued progression as a junior will be key for a Davis team that needs to shore up a defense that gave up nearly 30 points per game last season.
Eddie Heckard, Weber State — Despite their run to the FCS semis last season, the Wildcats were particularly young in the defensive secondary. Heckard was the top talent among those previously inexperienced players, notching three interceptions on the way to earning second-team all-league honors as a freshman.
Punter – DJ Arnson, Northern Arizona – The elevation and protection of Walkup Skydome in Flagstaff will always be an advantage. But Arnson is a great talent. He averaged nearly 46 yards per punt during last year’s all-conference campaign.
Special teams – Emmanuel Daigbe, Portland State — He is the top returning special teams player in the league in terms of accolades and production for Bruce Barnum’s Vikings.