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ESPN staff 493d

Who are the 13 most important players in Conference USA?

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, Marshall Thundering Herd, Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders, Florida Atlantic Owls, Old Dominion Monarchs, Florida International Golden Panthers, Charlotte 49ers, Southern Miss Golden Eagles, Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, Rice Owls, UTEP Miners, UTSA Roadrunners, North Texas Mean Green

This story appears in ESPN College Football 2016, on newsstands June 7. Order online today!

In Conference USA, the East's defending champion, Western Kentucky, welcomes back a showstopping wide receiver in Taywan Taylor while Southern Miss quarterback Nick Mullens is back in the West.

Those aren't the only players who dictate their teams' success in the conference.

East Division

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers: WR Taywan Taylor

 

Taylor caught 86 passes for 1,467 yards last year, tops in Conference USA and third in the FBS. His 17 TD catches was second nationally.

Marshall Thundering Herd: DL Gary Thompson

 

The 6-foot-1, 252-pound senior led the team with nine sacks, second best in Conference USA. He'll anchor the Herd's pass rush along with sophomore Ryan Bee (8.5 TFLs, four sacks).

Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders: QB Brent Stockstill

 

Coach Rick Stockstill's son was the only freshman in the country to throw for 4,000 yards, and his 77.7 QBR was the nation's 19th best. He threw 30 TDs to 9 INTs and had 66 completions for 20 or more yards.

Florida Atlantic Owls: DE Trey Hendrickson

 

Hendrickson's 13.5 sacks in 2015 was not only tops in the conference but also tied for second most nationally. The senior had at least 2.5 sacks in all three of FAU's wins.

Old Dominion Monarchs: Quarterbacks

 

Shuler Bentley started at quarterback as a freshman only to be replaced by ex-WR Washington, who then tore his ACL in November. Washington should be at full strength by August, so like the fast-paced offense, the position is wide open.

Florida Intl Golden Panthers: LB Anthony Wint

 

The junior made 88 tackles last season. With the loss of Michael Wakefield and Denzell Perine up front, a defense that allowed almost 30 points and 184.7 rushing yards per game will undoubtedly lean on the 224-pound 'backer.

Charlotte 49ers: Quarterbacks

 

Lee McNeill tossed one TD and 10 INTs, then was pulled for Brooks Barden (four TDs, five picks). They'll be pushed by transfers Hasaan Klugh (NC A&T), Cody Keith (ECU) and former four-star recruit Kevin Olsen (Miami).

West Division

Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles: QB Nick Mullens

 

Only five players threw for more than Mullen's 4,476 yards, and just three topped his 38 TDs.

Louisiana Tech Bulldogs: WR Trent Taylor

 

The senior hauled in 99 passes for 1,282 yards last season, the league's fourth most. He caught 75.6 percent of all targets.

Rice Owls: LB Alex Lyons

 

Despite the lack of a formidable defense, the senior linebacker turned in 77 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks and 4 passes broken up.

UTEP Miners: LB Alvin Jones

 

The junior averaged 7.8 tackles per game, and his 6.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss led all linebackers in the conference.

Texas San Antonio Roadrunners: RB Jarveon Williams

 

Williams was the most prominent piece in the offense last year, gaining 1,042 rushing yards without a fumble. Only three C-USA backs averaged more than his 6.0 yards per carry.

North Texas Mean Green: DE Jarrian Roberts

 

Roberts was one of the few bright spots for a defense that gave up more than 500 ypg. The senior recorded 6½ sacks and 10 TFLs.

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