Sun Belt ties conference record with seven selections in 2020 NFL Draft

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Robert Hunt

The Sun Belt Conference boasted another strong showing in the NFL Draft as seven former football standouts were selected in the 2020 edition of the league’s Player Selection Meeting.

Louisiana offensive lineman Robert Hunt was selected in the second round (39th overall) by the Miami Dolphins, Appalachian State running back Darrynton Evans was chosen in the third round  (93rd overall) by the Tennessee Titans, Appalachian State linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither was picked in the fourth round (107th overall) by the Cincinnati Bengals, Louisiana offensive lineman Kevin was taken in the fourth round (135th overall) by the Pittsburgh Steelers, Georgia Southern defensive back Kindle Vildor was picked in the fifth round (163rd overall) by the Chicago Bears, Georgia Southern placekicker Tyler Bass was selected in the sixth round (188th overall) by the Buffalo Bills and Louisiana running back Raymond Calais was taken in the seventh round (245th overall) by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Seven NFL Draft selections for the Sun Belt tied for the most in conference history with the seven picks in 2010. This year’s draft selections marked the 13th-straight year the Sun Belt had at least one player selected and the 12th time in 13 years the conference boasted multiple picks in the same draft.

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Robert Hunt, Louisiana – 39th overall selection (Second Round), Miami Dolphins
Hunt became the first former Sun Belt football standout drafted as the Dolphins selected the former Ragin’ Cajun as the 39th overall pick.

Hunt is Louisiana’s third-highest selection in the NFL Draft behind Charles Tillman, who was picked by the Chicago Bears 35th overall in 2003 and Anthony Clement, who was chosen 36th overall by the Arizona Cardinals in 1998. He is the first Louisiana player selected since 2018 when Tracy Walker was selected in the third round by the Detroit Lions and Simeon Thomas was selected in the sixth round by the Cleveland Browns.

The Burkeville, Texas, native capped his final season for the Ragin’ Cajuns with his second All-Sun Belt recognition after once again anchoring an offensive line that paved the way to one of the best offensive seasons in school history. Louisiana was among the FBS leaders ranking sixth in rushing offense (257.4) and 10th in scoring offense (37.9). Hunt was a stalwart for the Cajuns with three years of starting experience, including the last two seasons at right tackle. He played and started in all 14 games in 2019. Hunt received an invitation to the Reese’s Senior Bowl but did not participate. He was recognized as a midseason second-team All-America selection by Pro Football Focus.

Hunt started 45 games on the offensive line during his Louisiana career, blocked for two 1,000-yard rushers in Trey Ragas and Elijah Mitchell.

Darrynton Evans, Appalachian State – 93rd overall selection (Third Round) – Tennessee Titans
Evans was the second former Sun Belt standout drafted as the 93rd overall selection of the Titans, becoming the highest pick of a Sun Belt running back in conference history. All three Sun Belt running backs previously drafted were sixth-round selections – Florida Atlantic’s Alfred Morris in 2012, Louisiana’s Elijah McGuire by the New York Jets in 2017 and ULM’s Marcus Green by the Atlanta Falcons in 2018.

The first Appalachian State player drafted since Colby Gossett was taken in the sixth round by the Minnesota Vikings, Evans closed his decorated career with numerous accolades, including Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year and first-team All-Sun Belt honors. He led draft-eligible running backs in 2019 with four rushing touchdowns of at least 50 yards, was third with 43 runs of at least 10 yards and ranked second with a 136.8 passer rating when targeted by a throw. Evans amassed 2,884 career rushing yards, which ranks ninth in school history, despite being the Mountaineers’ primary running back for just 23 games.

This past season, Evans rushed for 1,480 yards, totaled 2,064 all-purpose yards and ranked third nationally by scoring 24 touchdowns (18 rushing). Against Charlotte, he became the first FBS player this millennium to post at least 200 rushing yards (234), score three rushing touchdowns and have a kickoff return for a touchdown in the same game.

The two-time Sun Belt Championship Game and 2019 R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl Most Valuable Player finished both the 2018 and 2019 seasons as the Sun Belt’s rushing champion with single-year totals of 1,187 and 1,480 rushing yards, respectively. A dangerous kickoff returner with three returns for touchdowns among his 34 career touchdowns, he amassed 4,642 career all-purpose yards.

Evans was the talk of the NFL Combine, noted as the “best-kept secret” of this year’s running back class.

Akeem Davis-Gaither, Appalachian State – 107th overall selection (Fourth Round) – Cincinnati Bengals
Davis-Gaither was the second Appalachian State player selected as the first pick of the fourth round (107th overall) by the Cincinnati Bengals, making the Mountaineers the first Sun Belt squad to have two players drafted that early in conference history. Previously, Louisiana had a second player selected 110th in 2012, 125th in 2003 and 188th in 2018.

Davis-Gaither completed his career earning fourth-team All-America recognition from Phil Steele to go along with Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year and first-team All-Sun Belt honors. Davis-Gaither compiled 104 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks, eight pass breakups, six quarterback hurries in final season in Boone. In Appalachian State’s upset at North Carolina, he grabbed an interception and got his hand on the game-ending block of the Tar Heels’ field attempt that would have sent the game into overtime. His eight pass breakups rank fourth in the FBS among non-defensive backs.

In his two seasons as a full-time starter, Davis-Gaither accumulated 209 tackles, 24.5 tackles for loss and 15 pass breakups (tied for No. 3 nationally among non-DBs) while leading defenses that ranked No. 4 and No. 21 in fewest points allowed per game. He played on Appalachian State teams that went a combined 54-12 with a 5-0 bowl record and four straight conference titles, making him part of just the fifth class in college football history to win five bowl games and four conference championships. The other five-year classes came from Nebraska (1969-73), Alabama (1975-79), Florida State (1991-95) and Marshall (1988-2002).

The Thomasville, N.C., native enjoyed a strong showing at the Reese’s Senior Bowl, highlighted throughout the week by and The Draft Network.

Kevin Dotson, Louisiana – 135th overall selection (Fourth Round) – Pittsburgh Steelers
Selected in the fourth round (135th overall) by the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dotson gave Louisiana a second pick in the same NFL Draft for the fourth time in school history (2003, 2012, 2018, 2020).

The Plaquemine, La., native was the first selection in this year’s draft who did not receive an invitation to the NFL Combine.

Dotson earned All-America honors from the Associated Press, USA Today, Sports Illustrated and Pro Football Focus and became the first player in school history to earn first-team recognition from the AP.

Dotson garnered high praise from Pro Football Focus throughout the year after he was named the highest-graded interior offensive linemen in the country with a mark of 91.2 on Nov. 23. He was also named to the PFF 2019 Midseason All-America Team and earned a spot on PFF’s National Team of the Week on Nov. 10

Dotson was critical for Louisiana’s elite rushing attack this season, which ranks second in the nation in yards per carry (6.39), third in rushing touchdowns (41) and fifth in total rushing yards (3,449). He is also a member of an offensive line that ranks eighth in the country in sacks allowed (1.15).

Dotson earned his 52nd collegiate start, the second-longest start streak in the country, in Louisiana’s LendingTree Bowl win over Miami (Ohio).

Kindle Vildor, Georgia Southern – 163rd overall selection (Fifth Round) – Chicago Bears
Vildor joined the NFL Draft party when the Chicago Bears made him a fifth-round pick (163rd overall). The College Park, Ga., native was the franchise’s second pick of the round and fourth pick in two days.

Vildor earned second-team All-Sun Belt honors to cap off his senior season in Statesboro. He played and started in 11 games, seeing action on 667 plays (621 defensive snaps). He tallied 27 tackles, including 3.0 for loss, to go along with two interceptions and six pass breakups.

Vildor was a two-time first-team All-Sun Belt selection and was named an All-American in 2018 by Pro Football Focus. For his career, he had 95 tackles, 24 pass breakups and 10 interceptions.

The 2019 Sun Belt Preseason Defensive Player of the Year had two tackles, two pass breakups and an interception against Liberty in the FBC Mortgage Cure Bowl. He grabbed an interception for the South team in the Reese’s Senior Bowl.

Tyler Bass, Georgia Southern – 188th overall section (Sixth Round) – Buffalo Bills
Bass closed his career being named Chris Sailer Kicking All-America and second-team All-Sun Belt after handling all the field goals, PATs and kickoffs in all 13 games for Georgia Southern. He connected on single-season school-record 20 field goals on 28 attempts and made all 36 of his PAT attempts. Bass led the team with 96 points, good for fourth in the Sun Belt among placekickers. He also had 55 touchbacks on 72 kickoffs.

Bass knocked home two field goals and four extra points for the North team in the Reese’s Senior Bowl and also participated in the NFL Combine.

For his career, Bass’ 54 field goals made rank fourth in Sun Belt history and his .794 field goal percentage (54 of 68) ranks seventh in conference history. His career-long field goal was 50 yards. He also connected on 114 PATs.

Raymond Calais, Louisiana – 245th overall selection (Seventh Round) – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Calais capped off a historic draft for Louisiana with his seventh-round selection (245th overall) by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was the third Ragin’ Cajun drafted, the most in school history. Three times previously (2003, 2012, 2018) Louisiana boasted two picks in the same draft.

Calais was a key contributor in Louisiana’s three-headed ground attack that shattered the school’s single-season record with 42 rushing touchdowns. The third-team All-Sun Belt selection was responsible for six of those touchdowns, rushing for 886 yards on 117 carries. He also added 10 receptions for 67 yards and one receiving touchdown. On special teams, he was the Ragin’ Cajuns’ top kickoff returner averaging 28.5 yards per return.

The Breaux Bridge, La., native showed off his speed in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl when he took the opening kickoff of the second half 100 yards for a touchdown. He also led the American team in rushing, toting the ball four times for 25 yards.

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