It’s supposed to be a secret ballot, but Columbus Lions coach Jason Gibson has no problem talking about his candidate.
His vote for AIFA Defensive Player of the Year will go to Lions defensive back Damian Daniels.
“Without a doubt, he’s the best player in the league at what he does,” Gibson said of his interceptions leader. “Nobody else out there in this league does what Damian does for this team week in and week out.”
Gibson isn’t playing favorites. Daniels is near the top of the American Indoor Football Association in nearly every statistical category for his position and, for the second time in three seasons, is averaging the most interceptions per game.
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Daniels is tied with Baltimore’s Amar Watson with 17 picks but has played two fewer games than his Mariners counterpart. Two seasons ago, Daniels finished with a league-record 17 picks and took home the league’s defensive MVP honor. He followed it up with 14 last year and now has tied his record again.
He could set a new league record tonight, when the Lions (11-3) host the Fayetteville Guard (8-6) in a first-round playoff game to determine who will represent the South Division in the next round.
“I don’t know about the other guy (Watson), since I haven’t really seen him play, except for the times we played against him,” Daniels said. “But this is something I’ve been doing for a long time. He’s just having a good season. This is what I do.”
Daniels has 46 interceptions in his past 46 games with the Lions.
Not only does Daniels average more interceptions, he is better at running them back than anyone else in the league. He averages more than 15 yards on each interception return and has returned four for touchdowns — one more than second-place Watson and at least two more than anyone else in the league.
Daniels’ teammates, although without a vote, are eager to lobby for the former Shaw player.
“If I could vote for anybody, I’d love to bring Damian Daniels another MVP back to Columbus, Ga.,” said Columbus defensive back Ramone Nickerson, who is second on the team with six interceptions.
Daniels has had an impact on his team’s performance each week. Of the Lions’ three losses, he played in only two. In both, he failed to come up with an interception.
But when he does, such as in his three-pick performances against South Carolina and Florence, it can make all the difference.
“It’s a change in momentum for the whole team, not just the defense, but for the whole team,” Lions defensive lineman Mike Berry said of Daniels’ picks.
The winner of tonight’s Columbus-Fayetteville game will meet the Reading Express, which won the North Division with a 50-20 thumping Thursday of Baltimore. The winner of that game will travel to the West Division winner, which will be determined Saturday, when the Wyoming Cavalry and Utah Valley Thunder play.