2023 D-I Men’s Defensive Player of the Year

These three defenders put forth awesome and impactful seasons.

Each year, Ultiworld presents our annual College Awards. Our staff evaluates the individual performances of players from throughout the season, talking to folks around college ultimate, watching film, and look at statistics, voting upon the awards to decide those to be honored. The regular season and the college Series are both considered, with extra emphasis for performances in the competitive and high-stakes environment at Nationals.

Our awards continue with the Defensive Player of the Year, recognizing the individual, and two runners-up, who we felt were the top defensive performers this spring. Whether through generating blocks, shutting down options, helping out teammates, or all of the above, these defenders stood out doing the tough work that too often go unrecognized.

D-I Men’s 2023 Defensive Of The Year

Itay Chang (Oregon)

Oregon’s Itay Chang gets low at the 2023 College Championships. Photo: William ‘Brody’ Brotman — UltiPhotos.com

[Media tent: Exterior] After a leak reveals that an O-line player won Defensive Player of the Year, a mob of angry and dejected D-liners descend upon Ultiworld headquarters with torches and pitchforks. They storm the gates of Fortress Eisenhood, capture Charlie and Keith, and demand to know who won their sacred honor. A bit confused, Charlie and Keith reply, “We thought he was one of you… it is the noble Itay Chang.” The mob go silent momentarily, collectively shrug, and then agree that he was the correct selection, a fine emblem of their values.

Chang primarily played offense in 2023 but has earned the utmost respect of all the best defenders in the country with an unparalleled defensive performance. He has all the brains, brawn, and grit necessary to be considered an elite defender. He was a superior hand-on-disc block-getter in the division – in fact, he led Nationals with nine recorded blocks – despite always guarding the best matchup on the opposing offense. Chang also has the rare mind that can read the field with exceptional rapidity, even as disc movement changes the point of attack. This ability allows him to anticipate where passes will be, both for some truly spectacular poaches and to bolster the team’s defenses calling out hair-trigger switches.

Lastly – and this is just science – Chang has that dog in him. He played an absurd amount of points and seemingly crossed over on Ego defensive points more often than not in 2023 bracket play. The O-line linchpin had an all-time season on defense and belongs with the pantheon of past winners.

First Runner-Up

Kuochuan Ponzio (Vermont)

Vermont’s Kuochuan (right) gets a block at the 2023 College Championships. Photo: William ‘Brody’ Brotman — UltiPhotos.com

Ponzio stood out among the deep army of Vermont defenders as their most trusted player when it came to locking up the best players on opposing offenses. While he is rarely one of the bigger players on the field, his defense makes an outsized impact. The best example of this phenomenon was in the Nationals quarterfinal against Pittsburgh: without their big-on-big standard matchup in Turner Allen,1 Chill turned to Ponzio to hold the line against the mythically large Henry Ing. With something like a 6-inch, 60-pound disparity, Ponzio did not seem like the likeliest candidate to slow down the soon-to-be Player of the Year. But he rose to the challenge and prevented Ing from dominating the game – an effort that, more than any other, ensured Vermont’s advancement to semis.

Second Runner-Up

Oscar Graff (Tufts)

Tufts’ Oscar Graff on the mark at Queen City Tune Up 2023. Photo: Katie Cooper – UltiPhotos.com

As with other luminaries Itay Chang and Henry Ing, sometimes the realities of gameplay in college necessitate that a team’s best defender play on an O-line. Such is the case with Oscar Graff, who blends the shiftiness and focus of a premier handler defender with the intensity of a goblin seemingly baiting a layout block on every cut (and blocking a good chunk of them). When push came to shove, Tufts always put Graff out there when they needed a break or were facing a matchup too difficult for a typical defender to take on. Just a sophomore, the itinerary for the Oscar Graff hype train is bound to make a few more stops at awards podiums near you.

  1. Who went out with concussion symptoms earlier in the tournament 

  1. Jake Thorne
    Jake Thorne

    Jake Thorne is a staff writer for Ultiworld with a focus on the college division. He is a graduate of Cal Poly SLO, where he played for four years. He now lives and works full-time in sales for a fintech company in San Francisco.

  2. Alex Rubin
    Alex Rubin

    Alex Rubin started writing for Ultiworld in 2018. He is a graduate of Northwestern University where he played for four years. After a stint in Los Angeles coaching high school and college teams, they moved to Chicago to experience real seasons and eat deep dish pizza. You can reach Alex through e-mail ([email protected]) or Twitter (@arubes14).

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