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Most Intriguing week rolls on. Today’s topic: The Most Intriguing Non-Quarterbacks in college football. Last year, this list was dominated by defensive linemen. In 2019, there are a lot of intriguing wide receivers out there:
1. Justyn Ross, WR, Clemson
Quarterback Trevor Lawrence had the best Clemson season among true freshmen — but only barely over this guy. Ross was a precocious talent who morphed into a monster in the College Football Playoff, strafing Notre Dame and Alabama for 12 catches, 301 receiving yards and three touchdowns — and all of those TDs were longer than 40 yards. Ross had eight games with at least one catch longer than 40 and six with one longer than 50, which is how you average 21.7 yards per reception. That’s the highest average for any returning player with more than 25 catches last season. He’s 6-foot-4, 205 pounds and a whole lot of trouble for defensive backs. On a team loaded at wideout, he stands out.
2. Jerry Jeudy, WR, Alabama
No returning player scored more receiving touchdowns in 2018 than Jeudy, who had 14. His chemistry with Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is obvious, and it starts from the team bus — they sit next to each other on the way to the stadium before every game. Together, they transformed the Alabama passing game into a more lethal downfield threat than it had ever been. Jeudy’s 19.34 yards per reception broke the school single-season record for players who made more than 50 catches. The junior’s combination of speed, hands and moves after the catch could make him the first receiver taken in the 2020 NFL draft.
3. Grant Delpit, S, LSU
Even by the Tigers’ lofty defensive back standards, Delpit is on his way to becoming one of the best in school history. Put him in coverage, blitz him, use him in run support — Delpit can do it all. As a sophomore in 2018, he led LSU in interceptions (five) and tied for the lead in passes broken up (nine), but also tied for the lead in sacks (five), had 9.5 tackles for loss and four quarterback hurries — a unique combination. Throw in 74 total tackles and there is nothing Delpit could not or did not do defensively for Dave Aranda. He might do even more in 2019. If LSU has a breakthrough season (i.e., beats Alabama), could Delpit be the rare defensive Heisman Trophy candidate?
4. Chase Young, DE, Ohio State
The latest freak to roll off the Ohio State edge-rush assembly line, following the brothers Bosa and others. Young took on a bigger role last year when Nick Bosa only played three games, and the sophomore produced team-highs of 9.5 sacks, nine quarterback hurries and 14.5 tackles for loss. At 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds, Young has the prototype size, length and athleticism for the position. With a productive season, he likely will be in the discussion for the No. 1 overall pick in the draft next spring — or at the very least the No. 1 non-quarterback, depending on team need.
5. Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin
If he plays all four years of college ball, there’s a great chance he’s the FBS all-time leading rusher. And if he plays only three years, there’s still a chance he’s the FBS all-time leading rusher. That would require an insanely productive season (2,227 yards), but it’s only 33 more yards than Taylor rushed for last season. Even by Wisconsin’s fabled running back standards — Alan Ameche, Ron Dayne, Melvin Gordon, Montee Ball, etc. — Taylor will finish his career among the very best. He spent time this past spring with the Wisconsin track team, running on the 4x100 relay and fine-tuning his speed. The one thing he needs to do better in 2019: Hold onto the ball. Taylor has lost 10 fumbles in two seasons.
6. Rondale Moore, WR-KR, Purdue
He decommitted from Texas and signed with Purdue, and Boilermakers coach Jeff Brohm wasted no time putting his prize recruit on display. Moore racked up 313 all-purpose yards in the season opener against Northwestern, scoring two touchdowns. The 5-foot-9 jitterbug also was huge in Purdue’s memorable upset romp over Ohio State, with 170 receiving yards and two TDs. He wound up fourth nationally in all-purpose yards, playing wideout, running back and returning kicks. Moore wound up leading the nation in receptions as a true freshman with 114, which is the second-most in a season in Big Ten history.
7. Laviska Shenault, WR, Colorado
Midway through the 2018 season he was the most productive receiver in the country, averaging 10 receptions per game, scoring 11 touchdowns and leading the Buffaloes to a 5-1 start. Then he injured a toe, missed three games and played through the pain for the final three contests. Not coincidentally, Colorado lost every one of those games. Despite that, Shenault led the nation in receptions per game at 9.6. Shenault had offseason surgery on both the injured toe and a torn labrum but is expected to be 100 percent to start the year. He will again team up with quarterback Steven Montez to form one of the nation’s most dynamic pass-and-catch duos, this time in a different offense under a new coaching staff.
8. Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State
Made history last year, becoming the first freshman in the history of Linebacker U to lead the Nittany Lions in tackles (83). His steady build throughout the season climaxed with a 14-tackle effort against Kentucky in their bowl game, stamping him as a force for 2019. Parsons is startlingly fast at 245 pounds, which made him a demon on kickoff coverage last year — and it just might earn him a role on the kickoff return team this season. Parsons said this month that his goal is to return at least one kickoff for Penn State, which would be a sight to behold.
9. D’Andre Swift, RB, Georgia
Kirby Smart plucked him out of Philadelphia, to the dismay of many Big Ten schools, and he’s been a dazzling playmaker between the hedges. Swift was a 1,000-yard rusher despite only getting 11.6 carries per game last season, a number that should increase now that sidekick Elijah Holyfield has moved on to the NFL. He also caught 32 passes, which actually makes him the Bulldogs’ leading returning receiver. Among current college players, Swift’s change-of-direction moves rank among the very best.
10. CeeDee Lamb, WR-KR, Oklahoma
Speaking of shifty dudes — whether the quarterback was Baker Mayfield his freshman year or Kyler Murray last year, Lamb has been making big plays for the Sooners. Now he just has to establish chemistry with a third starting QB, Jalen Hurts. With Marquis Brown gone to the NFL, Lamb is now the unquestioned star of the wideout corps, with nearly 2,000 receiving yards and 18 touchdown catches in two seasons. He’s also a slippery punt returner — and as Georgia fans may recall from the 2018 Rose Bowl, he can throw a touchdown pass off a reverse when called upon.
11. Daniel Faalele, OT, Minnesota
Size has always mattered in football, and nobody has more of it than Faalele, a mountain of a lineman from Australia. He was listed last year at 6-foot-9, 400 pounds, having arrived in the United States and put on a football helmet just a couple of years earlier. Faalele was sufficiently raw that he seemed a likely redshirt candidate in 2018 as a true freshman, but he worked his way into the lineup and wound up starting the last eight games of the season. Minnesota could be a Big Ten West dark horse this season, with a surprisingly nimble mastodon of an offensive tackle up front.
12. Ke’Shawn Vaughn, RB, Vanderbilt
He transferred home to Nashville from Illinois after a promising freshman season and a diminished role as a sophomore, then blew up last year in his first season as a Commodore. Among returning players who had more than 150 carries last season, only one had a better per-carry average than Vaughn’s 7.92. That was Clemson’s Travis Etienne (8.13, see below), who had a lot of help from his teammates spreading the field and giving him running lanes. Vaughn, not so much help. “Ke’Shawn is the best running back in the SEC, point blank period,” said teammate Kalija Lipscomb. That’s putting Vaughn in fast company, but he might be right.
13. Paddy Fisher, LB, Northwestern
A Northwestern team that was outscored on the season wound up going 9-5 and making the Big Ten championship game in part due to a plus-seven turnover margin. Fisher’s team-high five forced fumbles was a key part of that. He forced four more the previous season as a freshman. The Texan has a proverbial nose for the football, either stripping it or tackling the guy carrying it (330 total tackles in two seasons). If the Wildcats are going to repeat as Big Ten West champions, Fisher and a defense that returns its five leading tacklers from 2018 will be a big reason why.
14. Collin Johnson, WR, Texas
Longhorns quarterback Sam Ehlinger had the luxury of throwing to a pair of ginormous wideouts who used their size to win jump balls. Lil’Jordan Humphrey (6-5, 225) went pro, but Johnson (6-6, 220) is back to Moss Big 12 defensive backs for another fall — an interesting proposition, given the fact that his father, Johnny, is a College Hall of Fame DB. Johnson was especially effective against rival Oklahoma last year, racking up 14 catches for 258 yards in two games last season. Early reports out of fall camp say he’s better than ever, and should be the centerpiece of the Texas passing game.
15. Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson
Eight yards per carry and a nation-leading 24 rushing touchdowns tell you how good he is. Specifically, he saved the Tigers’ bacon against Syracuse in September, after quarterback Trevor Lawrence was injured and someone had to drag the Clemson offense downfield — Etienne produced a career-high 203 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Only twice all season did the Louisiana product rush for less than five yards per carry. Give him Jonathan Taylor-level rushing attempts and he could really produce some crazy numbers.
16. Trey Adams, OT, Washington
He missed 16 straight games over the past two seasons, and many thought he would turn pro last winter. But the fifth-year senior is back, determined to put a back injury and torn ACL in the past and play a full season. Adams made it back to start in the Pac-12 championship game and the Rose Bowl, and NFL scouts will be keenly interested in how the 6-8, 306-pound left tackle performs. Quarterback Jacob Eason will surely appreciate the blind-side protection a healthy Adams can provide.
17. Tarik Black, WR, Michigan
Everyone is waiting to see how good he can be, if only his body will cooperate. Black has missed most of his two seasons at Michigan due to foot injuries, having played in a total of nine games and made 15 catches. The early flashes were impressive — 11 receptions for 149 yards in his first three college games, before the first injury struck. Last season he made minimal impact after missing the first seven games. But with other Michigan receivers sitting out the spring due to their own injuries, Black had a chance to shine in Josh Gattis’ new offense. He could combine with Nick Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones to give the Wolverines the best wideout corps not in Tuscaloosa or Clemson.
18. Raekwon Davis, DE, Alabama
For years, the Crimson Tide has led the nation in Off The Bus Factor — players who intimidate coming off the bus with their sheer size and physique. Davis is the first guy off the Tide bus this year, a 6-7, 309-pound colossus of a defensive end. But the fact that he’s here for a senior season indicates that he hasn’t put it all together yet. Davis’ production dipped from 2017 to ’18 — down from 8.5 sacks to 1.5, from 10 tackles for loss to 5.5, and from 67 total tackles to 55. A consistent season could make him a high draft pick.
19. Michael Warren, RB, Cincinnati
The Bearcats got a lot better in 2018 in no small part because Warren got a lot better. After running for 324 yards and one touchdown in the first season under Luke Fickell, Warren blew up for 1,329 rushing yards and 19 rushing TDs. He was the tireless centerpiece of a fairly conservative offense, carrying the ball 244 times as Cincinnati earned most of its 11 victories with defense. The experienced Bearcats open the season with big opportunities against UCLA and Ohio State, and Warren could make a national name for himself in those games.
20. Julian Okwara, DE, Notre Dame
Younger brother of former Fighting Irish star and current NFL player Romeo Okwara, he broke last season to lead the team in sacks (eight) and quarterback hurries (a whopping 21). It’s the second number that offers a tantalizing hint of how good he could be — coaches showed Okwara film of how many sacks he missed, estimating that he could have easily led the nation in that category by finishing off plays. He’s a bit undersized at 240 pounds, but that provides him a speed advantage that can create mayhem.
21. Albert Okwuegbunam, TE, Missouri
He’s said that he expects to be the best tight end in America in 2019, and anything less would be a disappointment. The 6-5, 255-pound junior has the tools to do it, starting with soft hands and deluxe athleticism. He had 43 receptions and six touchdowns before injury cost him the last four games of 2018, and has 17 career TDs. Albert O figures to be new quarterback Kelly Bryant’s go-to guy, especially in the red zone and on third downs.
22. Britain Covey, WR-KR, Utah
He was an intriguing multipurpose threat as a freshman in 2015, disappeared for a two-year Mormon mission, then came back better last year despite myriad injuries. Covey produced 1,174 all-purpose yards, dabbling in rushing, receiving and returning kicks. He even completed all three of his pass attempts, two of them for touchdowns. Covey played the first 13 games of the year despite breaking a wrist midseason, and then was finally shelved by a torn ACL in the Pac-12 title game. His healthy return would help spice up the Utah offense.
23. Curtis Weaver, DE, Boise State
Weaver could be the next NFL player out of the Broncos’ pro pipeline. The junior has only started eight games at Boise, but still was named All-Mountain West each of his first two seasons. Last year Weaver was second in the league in both tackles for loss (15) and sacks (9.5). The 6-3, 264-pound Californian is an athletic challenge for offensive tackles and should be primed for his most productive season yet.
24. Maurice Ffrench, WR-KR, Pittsburgh
Start with the name — the double ‘F’ certainly adds an element of intrigue. Perhaps it connotes to Freakishly Fast: Ffrench took two kickoff returns to the house for touchdowns in 2018, on his way to 10 total TDs for the season. Further solidifying the Ffrench connection with quarterback Kenny Pickett will be a key for Pitt this season, after being heavily reliant on the running game last year.
25. Rodrigo Blankenship, K, Georgia
The cult hero rec specs kicker has been Mr. Reliable for three seasons for the Bulldogs: He’s never missed a college extra point; connected on 82.8 percent of his field goals; and last year pounded 85 percent of his kickoffs for touchbacks. The only time bad things happen for Rodrigo is when Kirby Smart calls a fake — he was tackled for a two-yard loss on one lamentable call against LSU, and threw an incomplete pass against Auburn. Let the man kick, Kirby.
Just missed the list: Isaiah Simmons, LB, Clemson; Derrick Brown, DT, Auburn; J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ohio State; Walker Little, OT, Stanford; Braden Mann, P, Texas A&M; Lynn Bowden, WR-KR, Kentucky; Eno Benjamin, RB, Arizona State; A.J. Dillon, RB, Boston College; Tylan Wallace, WR, Oklahoma State; Shaquille Quarterman, LB, Miami; Tyler Biadasz, C, Wisconsin; Najee Harris, RB, Alabama; Colin Schooler, LB, Arizona; AJ Epenesa, DE, Iowa; Richie Grant, S, Central Florida; Tyler Johnson, WR, Minnesota; JD Spielman, WR, Nebraska.
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