Martin Bayless was an absolute stud for the Bowling Green Falcons in the early 1980s. He totaled 27 interceptions in his collegiate career, including 10 in 1983. That performance helped him go in the fourth round of the 1984 NFL Draft, when the then St. Louis Cardinals took him. Over 13 years and five teams, Bayless built up a solid pro career. But it's his accomplishments in the MAC that led us to naming our award for the best MAC defensive back after him.
In 2013 Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward won it, and like Bayless, Ward went on to be taken in the NFL Draft (30th overall in May). Overshadowed in the spotlight by Buffalo's Khalil Mack, Ward's year flew under the radar to most outside of the MAC, but it was a dominant year. He had 89 tackles, 14 passes defended, and six interceptions (for the sixth best total in the nation). Now he's off in San Francisco where it looks like he'll have an immediate impact for the 49ers.
Given to the best defensive back in the MAC, this year's Martin Bayless Award competition seems like it'll be a great one. Below are the five candidates our staff feels are the most likely to win this award. But these are by no means the only five MAC defensive backs eligible to win it. Right now, it's anyone's award, they just have to go earn it.
A three-year starter, Dechane Durante has played along Jimmie Ward for the past few years. That was both a blessing and a curse. It created a dynamic defensive backfield, but it may have also led to Durante's play going underappreciated. A Third Team All-MAC performer in 2013, Durante totaled 55 tackles, five passes defended, three interceptions and two forced fumbles. Now, with Ward gone, much of the spotlight will be on him. A big, powerful safety, Durante is among the best at his position in all of college football, and with a strong season he could wind up going rather high in the spring's NFL Draft.
This Ohio junior was also featured on our list of the top candidates for the Zinc Zastudil, our special teams award. Bass is a smaller defensive back, at 5-foot-9, 190 pounds, but he's one hell of an athlete. This corner merited Second Team All-MAC honors in 2013 with 41 tackles, 17 passes defended and two interceptions. With a full season of starting under his belt, Bass seems poised to take on a bigger role in Ohio's defense.
It's hard to stand out on a 1-11 team, but Donald Celiscar did. The three-year starter totaled 60 tackles, 12 passes defended and three interceptions for the Broncos. One of the MAC's top corners, Celiscar earned Third Team All-MAC honors last year. Thus fall, entering his fourth season as a starter, the No. 34 player in the MAC (as determined by our countdown) could be in line for a monster season if WMU can get some help on the defensive front.
Celiscar's defensive backfield partner in crime, and the No. 38 player on our list, gives the Bronco's secondary one hell of a combination. Currie amassed an astonishing 113 tackles for WMU this past fall, including seven for loss. He also had three interceptions and two forced fumbles. A big safety, capable of getting dirty in the box, Currie is the perfect compliment to Celiscar. If he can somehow outdo his performance from last season, it'll be hard to see him not getting this honor.
Ryland Ward has started every game since 2011's season-opener. The Falcons' free safety has been overshadowed by BooBoo Gates in name power only. Ward has put up impressive numbers from the second he stepped foot on the Falcon's field. 2013 was no different. He had 81 tackles, second on BGSU's loaded defense, and two interceptions. Now the unquestioned leader of the secondary, Ward will hold down a unit that will be key to the Falcons' title defense hopes.
Like last year the MAC fans will have the final say in who earns this award. We'll update this watch list midway through the season, and again after the MAC Championship, with the award winners being announced after voting concludes one week after the 2014 MAC football championship.