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Two years ago, an obscure quarterback from a remote Mountain West outpost burst onto the national scene. By the start of the 2017 season, Wyoming’s Josh Allen had become a household name in college football circles, much because of his cachet in NFL scouting circles.
This season, Utah State redshirt junior Jordan Love is the buzzy rising prospect in the minds of the quarterback-hungry NFL. That means the NFL scouting glitterati are trading Laramie, Wyoming, for Logan, Utah, in search of the next under-the-radar prospect.
How did Love rise from an unknown recruit with one Division I scholarship offer to a coveted NFL prospect? It’s safe to say he grew into it. He arrived at Utah State as a 180-pound stringbean and has grown into a 6-foot-4, 220-pound NFL prototype. “He’s pretty when he plays the game,” Hawaii coach Nick Rolovich said. “He’s a really good athlete for a big guy and very accurate with the deep ball.”
With two seasons of eligibility remaining, it’s not fair to rush Love onto the radar of this year’s loaded NFL quarterback class. He’d be highly unlikely to uproot entrenched prospects like Oregon’s Justin Herbert, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa or Georgia’s Jake Fromm.
But there’s been enough production – 32 touchdowns, 3,567 passing yards and an 11-2 record last season – to allow Love to enter the general NFL conversation. The question will be when he’s ready. “He obviously has high-end potential,” said North Texas coach Seth Littrell, who saw Love throw for 359 yards and four touchdowns against his team in the New Mexico Bowl last season. “There’s no doubt he’s going to be playing at the next level.”
The variables of when Love could leave and where he’ll go will be dictated by his play. NFL personnel have been flowing through Logan this preseason, with one giving Yahoo Sports this pragmatic assessment.
“I liked everything about him – strong arm, good size, good athlete and quick release,” a veteran NFL scout told Yahoo Sports. “Can he make the first round? Maybe. He certainly has the tools, but I don’t know if he gets there. The LSU game is big for him.”
New coach Gary Andersen and new coordinator Mike Sanford, a crafty quarterback hand from his time at Notre Dame, have wisely declared that they’re not changing philosophically from the uptempo system former coach Matt Wells employed.
Love has two marquee early games – at Wake Forest on the first Friday night of the season and at LSU on Oct. 5. From his production and development in those games, we’ll get a sense of whether he’s shaping up more as a prospect for the 2020 or 2021 NFL draft.
Here are the rest of the Most Intriguing players and coaches outside the Power Five in college football this season. A tip of the cap to colleague Pat Forde for letting me extend his annual series. Check out his installments here.
2. D’Eriq King, Houston QB
He trailed only Dwayne Haskins and Kyler Murray in points responsible for last year, accounting for 302 points, including 14 rushing TDs and 36 passing. New Houston coach Dana Holgorsen expects those to dip with Houston’s slower tempo, telling Yahoo Sports: “I don’t care about statistics. I just don’t. I’m past that.” The tempo will slow from former offensive coordinator Kendal Briles’ system, as will King’s carries.
3. Lane Kiffin, FAU coach
This offseason has been the quietest and least controversial Kiffin stretch in recent memory, perhaps since his days as a USC assistant. Going 5-7 and finishing No. 88 nationally in total defense can do that to a guy. Kiffin opens at Ohio State to start the season, hoping for a better showing than the 63-14 loss to Oklahoma last year.
4. Brandon Wimbush, UCF QB
He’s got a high-wattage name from being a five-star recruit and decorated starter at Notre Dame. Accuracy issues ended his starting gig there, which included a 13-3 record. Can quarterback whisperer Josh Heupel find a way to get him comfortable and confident in UCF’s blockbuster offense?
5. Hugh Freeze, Liberty coach
A quintessential modern example of how winning trumps any type of untoward behavior in the coaching profession. Freeze got fired in the wake of a scandal that centered on him calling escorts on a school phone. He also left Ole Miss in shambles with NCAA issues. Can he clean up his act? Former Baylor AD Ian McCaw is betting on it. Freeze opens with a marquee home game against Syracuse.
6. Mason Fine, North Texas QB
He’s already won two Conference USA Player of the Year awards and thrown for a school-record 9,417 yards. Coach Seth Littrell expects an uptick in production in Fine’s senior year, as Littrell told Yahoo Sports he’s going to ratchet up the tempo this year. As for Fine? “He’s obsessed with football,” Littrell said. “His arm has gotten livelier and he’s processing faster.” So, watch out.
7. Zac Thomas, Appalachian State QB
He’s the Sun Belt’s version of Baker Mayfield, as he led Appalachian State to an 11-2 record last season and has draftable arm talent. The marriage with new head coach Eliah Drinkwitz should be a good one, as he tutored Ryan Finley deftly at NC State and developed a strong reputation for offensive acumen. There are few coaches with more pressure on them in year one than Drinkwitz, as he inherits a loaded team that returns 17 starters. Look out UNC in Week 3.
8. Curtis Weaver, Boise State DE
His 20.5 sacks over the last two seasons establish him as one of the elite NFL defensive line prospects, regardless of address. He’ll have a chance to showcase himself early next season, as Florida State’s offensive line was one of the worst position groups in all of college football last season. We’ll see if they can stay onside and figure out a way to block Weaver on Aug. 31.
9. Butch Davis, FIU coach
He’s a football Forrest Gump, having hopscotched through flashes of glory at The U, misery with the Browns, NCAA infamy at North Carolina and, finally, redemption in his presumptive final salvo at FIU. Davis will turn 68 this year and has the Conference USA favorite, as the Panthers return 18 starters from a 9-4 team. Expect the Nov. 23 game against Miami at Marlins Park to conjure some nostalgia.
10. Michael Warren II, Cincinnati
Opened the season with 141 yards and three touchdowns against UCLA. Closed it with 166 yards and two touchdowns against Virginia Tech. In between, he established himself as one of the country’s most productive tailbacks (1,561 total yards), regardless of level. He can prove it again when Cincinnati hosts UCLA and heads to Ohio State the first two weeks.
11. Mike Norvell, Memphis coach
The highest compliment to Norvell is that Memphis – long a Southern laughingstock – is a six-point favorite against Ole Miss in the opener. He was the play-caller for two dramatically different top-five overall offenses the past two seasons, as Memphis had the No. 4 rush offense last year and the No. 7 passing offense in 2017. Can new defensive coordinator Adam Fuller – hired from Marshall – jolt a unit that finished No. 116 last year?
12. Jeff Tedford, Fresno coach
If he were still in the Pac-12, he’d be regarded as about the fifth-best coach in that league. Yes, even higher than the current coach at USC, where Fresno opens the season in a tricky matchup for the Trojans. Tedford’s 22-6 record through two seasons at Fresno State makes one wonder if a Pac-12 school comes calling down the line.
13. Justin McMillan, Tulane QB
The LSU transfer helped Tulane close the year strong, posting a 5-1 record as a starter. You’d imagine any SEC transfer would be primed for a game at Auburn in Week 2. Tulane has one of the Group of Five’s best defensive lines, which includes star end Patrick Johnson. Don’t be surprised if they go bowling again.
14. Cole McDonald, Hawaii QB
Colt, Timmy and Cole? There are two one-named quarterbacks in Hawaii history, Colt Brennan and Timmy Chang, who threw for more than 31,000 yards. Cole McDonald threw 36 touchdown passes last year as a sophomore, showing the potential to someday join them in one-name lore. “I’m not sure he’s at that point yet,” Hawaii coach Nick Rolovich told Yahoo Sports. “But he has the opportunity with this season and returning teammates to get to that point.”
15. Jeff Monken, Army
Few programs head into 2019 on a better roll, as Army has won nine in a row, scored 70 in its bowl game and is coming off the most prolific two-year span in school history (21 wins). The most impressive feat may have been taking Oklahoma to overtime last year. Michigan fans better learn about star senior quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr., who visits the Big House in Week 2.
16. Bob Davie, New Mexico coach
The former Notre Dame coach is the odds-on favorite to be the first coach fired in college football this season. He resuscitated New Mexico from the ashes of the Mike Locksley era, but controversy has been rampant amid back-to-back 3-9 seasons.
17. Nathan Rourke, Ohio QB
All Frank Solich does is win football games, and he’s found a gem in the productive Rourke. He leads an offense that averaged 7.0 yards per play and more than 40 points per game last year. What can he do for an encore with a green supporting cast?
18. Kyahva Tezino, SDSU LB
San Diego State will always be built from the defensive side of the ball under Rocky Long, and Tezino is a returning All-Mountain West player with an NFL upside. He finished last season with 14.5 TFLs and 8.5 sacks. Look for those numbers to rise this season.
19. B.J. Smith, Troy RB
New coach Chip Lindsey inherits a gem, as Smith rushed for 1,186 yards and 13 TDs last year. He’s the Sun Belt’s preseason Player of the Year, and we can expect Lindsey to find creative ways to get him the ball this season.
20. Bill Clark, UAB coach
He authored one of the great stories in college football the past two seasons, bringing UAB from extinction to a 19-8 record. That included going to 11-3 last season with a roster filled with veteran transfers. Put Tennessee on upset alert on Nov. 2.
21. Jason Candle, Toledo
The buzziest coach amid a pedestrian group in the MAC, as only he and Buffalo’s Lance Leipold have been in serious consideration for bigger jobs recently. Toledo went just 7-6 last season after injuries derailed quarterback Mitch Guadagni’s season. A marquee game at Kentucky to open the year can change the Toledo narrative quickly.
22. Matt Entz, North Dakota State coach
NDSU has won seven of the past eight FCS national titles. With coach Chris Klieman off to Kansas State, Entz got promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach. No pressure, right? Look for Entz to keep the same program DNA, with star linebacker Jabril Cox already having caught the intrigue of NFL scouts and showing the trappings of the program’s next big star.
23. Chad Lunsford, Georgia Southern
No one in college football last season authored a more surprising 10-win season than Georgia Southern, as the Eagles went 2-10 the previous year. Lunsford took over midway through that year, and nothing portended that dramatic of a turnaround. Georgia Southern’s trip to LSU to open the year is shrouded by the arrest and suspension of star quarterback Shai Werts amid the now-infamous cocaine-bird poop incident.
24. Jake Maier, UC-Davis QB
Remember Dan Hawkins? He helped make Boise State great before fizzling out as Colorado’s coach. He’s found his groove at his alma mater, going 10-3 last season thanks, in part, to Maier throwing for 3,933 yards and 34 touchdowns. They open at Cal, which should be on alert after UC-Davis upset San Jose State last season.
25. Brennan Marion, William & Mary OC
He was the hit of the clinic circuit this offseason, as the Go-Go offense he created has become such a sensation that he has a book coming out in August. Marion played for Gus Malzahn at Tulsa when he was OC there and was recruited there by Norvell, and his offense is his twist — with two backs — on Malzahn’s system. Marion works for William & Mary head coach Mike London, who turned around Howard in short order with Brennan calling plays. The early showcase at Virginia could be fun.
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