Our Hustle Belt Awards Watch Lists continue today with a look at the ball-hawkers of the MAC: the defensive backs. Named after Martin Bayless, the former great Bowling Green safety who had a 13-year NFL career, this award goes to the best defensive back in the conference at the end of the season. Here's a look at the early favorites for the award.
1. Dayonne Nunley (Miami) — Dayonne Nunley is one hell of a ball player. The FBS's current active career leader in interceptions, and a two-time All-MAC player needs three more interceptions to crack the MAC's career Top-10 list. Arguably the best player on the RedHawks, he checked in as the No. 9 player on our countdown of the best in the conference. He's got some stiff competition, but if he can repeat last season's 63-tackle, 3-interception performance it will be hard for someone to knock him from this top spot.
2. Jimmie Ward (Northern Illinois) — The top defensive back in our Top-68 MAC players list, Ward is easily one of the best players in the conference. The high-flying safety has proven to be one of the more valuable defensive players in the conference, affecting the game in multiple ways. Back-to-back 100+ tackle seasons, and four interceptions in two seasons have helped him elevate his status. He's going to put up monster stats again, but is it going to be enough?
3. Najja Johnson (Buffalo) — The underrated corner led the MAC with five interceptions in 2012, but somehow didn't make the leagues postseason honors lists. That's OK though, because we've created our awards for just that reason, to give credit to the overlooked stars of the MAC. Johnson is one of a handful of stars for the Bulls, and he continues to exceed expectations in Buffalo. But will his lack of stats hurt his chances of moving up?
4. Travis Carrie (Ohio) — Entering the 2012 season Travis Carries was considered one of (if not) the best corner backs in the MAC. Then he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in fall camp and missed the whole season. Fully healthy and motivated to reclaim his top-dog status Carrie will try and duplicate his 49 tackles, four interceptions and 17 passes defended from 2011. If he can he'll put up a serious fight for this award.
5. 'BooBoo' Gates (Bowling Green) — The second safety on our list, like the awards namesake, is a Bowling Green Falcon. Jerry 'BooBoo' Gates is an monster in the defensive backfield. Coming off a 47-tackle two-interception season Gates seems poised for another great season, but on a defense full of stars, his stats could suffer, to no fault of his own. However, if Gates can improve upon his 2012 stats, while continuing to intimidate opposing quarterbacks, he could bring the first ever Martin Bayless Award home.
Who do you think will be the biggest riser in 2013? Who will slip the furthest? Who are the dark-horse candidates you think will be on this list by seasons end? Let us know in the comments section below.