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MWCConnection Roundtable: Who are the potential defensive breakout players on each team in 2023?

Let’s see what the team has to say.

NCAA Football: Mountain West Championship-Fresno State at Boise State Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

Last week we took a look at potential offensive breakout players. This week we flip the field to look at the other side of the ball. Who do you think will be the defensive breakout players on your teams?

Mike: I’m looking at Wyoming again this week. Per usual, the Cowboys should have one of the best defenses in the Mountain West during the 2023 season. It’s already packed with established talent, especially at linebacker and on the defensive line. It would be great to see one of the young linebackers step up this year behind Easton Gibbs and Shae Suiaunoa, like Read Sunn or Connor Shay. While it is hard to see either of them truly breaking out, it’s hard to see anyone breaking out on an established defensive, and linebackers may have a better chance due to playing more on special teams.

Graham: For Utah State some of the potential defensive breakout players this season are senior defensive tackle Hale Motu’Apuaka (35 tackles, five sacks, three tackles for loss), junior defensive tackle Poukesi Vakauta (13 tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack), and full safety Ike Larsen (33 tackles, one tackles for loss, two sacks). While Motu’Apuaka had more of a breakout with five sacks last season there is more room for him to have a bigger breakout season this year with more experience. Vakauta is now an upperclassman and will be an important contributor this fall on the defensive line. Another player that stands out with breakout potential is sophomore linebacker Max Alford who should be playing alongside fellow senior linebacker MJ Tafisi. Utah State needs to improve defensively, especially with Air Force, Fresno State, San Diego State, and Boise State on the schedule, if they are going to make a run at the Mountain West championship this season.

Jeff: San Diego State will be looking for someone to step up. The defensive line and defensive backs all took their hits. The linebackers did as well, but I’m going to say Cody Moon will be the key to the Aztec defense. The transfer from New Mexico has all the skills to be the leading tackler on the team. This will be a team by committee as to who will ride the momentum, but a team that has a strong linebacker can overcome issues at the other groupings.

Vic: The Spartans on defense collectively look faster and hungrier; probably because the staple names have graduated and a capable and rejuvenated lineup will make it interesting to say the least. All said, I’m leaning on two first-year guys to make it easier for myself - first-year guys who are fast and quick. Sophomore linebacker Ethan Powell is a true track guy and maybe the fastest on the team. Though the 6’2” 210 lb. Powell still might look raw, his speed and athleticism is something you can’t deny or coach, as they say. Powell looks to be a disruptor. The second guy that looks to pop out from early initial looks is DL JUCO Tavarius Pitts. The 6’1” 260 pounder can get low, turn the corner with authority and/or come straight in. He has a hand-clocked 4.6 forty time under his belt. Now, there are some other veteran guys who can still shine brighter, but speed like this enhances everyone on defense.

Matt: Fresno State definitely didn’t lose as much on defense as they did on offense after 2022, but they still need to replace multi-year starters in David Perales and Evan Williams (now at Oregon). Fresh off of his LA Bowl MVP performance, Devo Bridges looks slated to be the replacement for Perales at the edge, but Williams’ spot seems bigger in the secondary. The Bulldogs did get Kent State safety Dean Clark from the transfer portal, and he looks poised to be the breakout defensive player for the defending MWC champs. He arrives with two seasons of eligibility remaining, and had 116 tackles in 2021. Fresno long used Williams in run support as well as pass defense, so Clark appears to have a similar skillset to immediately fill a position of need.

NittanyFalcon: Most observers expect a big year from a Falcon defense that returns eight players from last year. The only question mark on the defense is at the cornerback positions due to the loss of Michael Mack in the transfer portal to Wisconsin and Eian Castonguay to an injury suffered in spring training camp. One spot will be filled by Jamari Bellamy, who was impressive as a part of the defensive backfield last year in rotational duty. He played in all 13 games as a sophomore last year and totaled 27 tackles along with 1 interception and 1 pass breakup. He’ll be getting a lot more playing time this year and those totals should expand quite a bit. At 6’ 2”, he has good length and likely will be tasked with coverage of the opponents #1 wide receiver.

Since I missed last week’s roundtable on offensive breakout players, I’ll comment on my pick for the Falcons this week. Sophomore slotback Kade Frew will be making his debut as a Falcon this year after a stellar high school career as a three sport star at The Bolles School in Jacksonville. Bolles is the school that has produced many Falcon stars including LB Kyle Johnson and NFL DL Jordan Jackson. He’ll no doubt be providing a big play threat as a running back and receiver who can evade the defense with speed and elusiveness. Veteran slotback Dane Kinnamon will be the likely starter at his position, but suffered last year from a nagging leg injury that could effect him this year. No matter which of the two will be playing, the Falcons will expect big production at the position.

Jack: For the Rams, a few names come to mind. Nose tackle Grady Kelly had 43 tackles as a freshman, and is poised to have an all-conference season if he improves as a pass rusher. Athletic linebacker Trey Paster transferred in from Cal, and has the talent to have a very first solid season in Fort Collins. Ayden Hector stands out as a player with star potential in the secondary. He had three interceptions as the starting slot corner last year. If he is even better this season, he will make a unit with Chogizie Anusiem and Jack Howell even scarier.

Dom: For Nevada, the linebacker position is going to be filled with potential breakout players. Drue Watts had a great freshman season with 57 tackles, nine tackles for loss, three sacks, and one interception. Naki Mateialona provided similar numbers, with 53 tackles and two sacks. Jackson LaDuke transferred to Nevada from Oregon, and provides a 6-3, 240 pound build to the linebacker position. The position lacked depth in 2022, but Watts and Mateialona made up for it in their on-field production. I expect both of them and LaDuke to breakout for Nevada, turning its linebacker position into one of the best for Nevada’s defense.