Top 25 college football players to watch in 2017 (non-QB division)
Back by popular demand (or force of habit), it’s the College Football Most Intriguing lists. First, we had the Most Intriguing Coaches of 2017. Then last week, the Most Intriguing Quarterbacks. Now, it’s time for the Most Intriguing Non-QBs in the sport.
1. Bo Scarbrough, RB, Alabama. Tantalizing talent whose full potential has remained under wraps, due to injuries, suspension and Lane Kiffin play calls. If Scarbrough hadn’t broken a leg in the third quarter against Clemson last January, ‘Bama may be hunting a three-peat in 2017. In three postseason games last year against quality defenses, the 232-pound hulk ran for 363 yards and six TDs. Does he finally break out in what should be a high-powered offense?
2. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State. Sculpted junior will be a high NFL draft pick, but not before racking up more huge stats at State College. At a school with a long list of great running backs, Barkley could leave as the all-time leading rusher – in three seasons. No returning player in FBS had more than Barkley’s 22 touchdowns from scrimmage in 2016, and he ripped USC for 306 total yards in the Rose Bowl. Can he elevate PSU to national title contention for the first time in years?
3. Scott Frantz, OT, Kansas State. Came out publicly as gay this summer, the third active college football player to do so according to OutSports.com. Frantz is the most accomplished of the three. The sophomore is considered a pro prospect whose stock rose after holding Texas A&M defensive end and eventual No. 1 overall NFL pick Myles Garrett without a sack last year in the Texas Bowl.
4. Ed Oliver, DT, Houston. Houston native shocked people by staying home, then quickly showed why he was such a huge recruiting coup. The freakishly athletic 295-pounder disrupted Oklahoma in a season-opening upset and terrorized Louisville in another national statement game, finishing his true freshman season with 23 tackles for loss and nine passes broken up. NFL draft 2019, mark him down as a top pick.
5. James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State. Arguably the nation’s No. 1 receiver and inarguably its top breakaway threat, averaging a fat 17.8 yards per catch for his career. Small-town Texan was the only player in FBS to have three catches of 80-plus yards last season. Follows the lineage of Dez Bryant and Justin Blackmon, and could end up as just the second 4,000-yard career receiver in Cowboys history.
6. Orlando Brown, OT, Oklahoma. The 6-foot-8, 340-pound monstrosity follows the large footsteps of his late father, Orlando “Zeus” Brown, who played 11 years in the NFL and then sued the league when an official’s flag hit him in the eye and damaged his vision. Orlando Jr. weighed more than 400 pounds as a teenager but has overhauled his eating habits to slim down and become a lock first-round pick.
7. Derrius Guice, RB, LSU. What if Leonard Fournette’s backup is better than Leonard Fournette? That may be the case with Guice, who actually was LSU’s leading rusher last year. Now that he’s not splitting carries with a top-five NFL pick, Guice could really put up some numbers as the centerpiece of what Ed Orgeron swears will be a new and improved offense.
8. Joel Lanning, LB/QB, Iowa State. It’s not unusual for quarterbacks to change positions. It is highly unusual for one to become a linebacker. It might be unprecedented for a former starting QB to move to middle linebacker – and quickly become the likely starter. The Cyclones also have dabbled with Lanning at H-back and as a short-yardage QB, making him the most unique player in the country.
9. Christian Wilkins, DE, Clemson. Freakish defensive linemen have become the coin of the realm in college football, and Wilkins is among the most athletic. He’s 6-3, 310, runs a 4.8 40-yard dash and has the explosiveness off the snap to live in opposing backfields. He leads one of the two best defensive lines in the country – but will he keep his hands to himself this season?
10. Derwin James, S, Florida State. When the sophomore was injured in the second game of 2016, the Seminoles were surrendering an average of 21 points and 337 yards. Next three games they gave up an average of 45 points and 504 yards. That’s how important the insanely athletic and versatile safety is. He had 91 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and broke up four passes as a freshman in ’15.
11. Arden Key, DE, LSU. Mega-talent with mega-uncertainties. The 6-6, 238-pound Key set the school single-season sack record last year with 12, but he also was suspended for the Texas A&M game, left school last spring for “personal reasons,” had shoulder surgery and now is doubtful for the opener against BYU due to the shoulder, according to coach Ed Orgeron. No idea what happens next.
12. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, RBs, Georgia. Had to do them as a combo entry because they’ve been in lockstep their entire college careers. They’re roommates with dissimilar personalities (Michel is a rapper, Chubb is nearly silent) and similar career arcs. With a combined 6,800 rushing yards, they surprised a lot of people by returning in tandem (of course) for their senior seasons.
13. Rashan Gary, DT, Michigan. On a team flush with veteran defensive linemen, they still couldn’t keep Gary off the field last year as a true freshman. He was too good to redshirt, showcasing the startling athleticism that made him Rivals.com’s No. 1 recruit out of high school in New Jersey. With huge graduation losses, Michigan needs Gary to transform from role player to star immediately.
14. Minkah Fitzpatrick, SS, Alabama. No program finds more ways to score than the Crimson Tide, and no current ‘Bama player is as adept at scoring without playing a snap of offense. Fitzpatrick has five touchdowns in two seasons – four on interception returns and one on a punt he blocked and returned. He also has 111 career tackles. Nick Saban on Fitzpatrick: “He’s phenomenal. He does it every day.”
15. Justin Jackson, RB, Northwestern. Scary to think where the Wildcats’ fitful offense would be without him the last three years. No active FBS player has carried the ball more than Jackson (855 times) and only one has more rushing yards (he has 4,129) or all-purpose yards (4,711). Northwestern could be the surprise team in the Big Ten; if it happens then Jackson assuredly will be carrying the load.
16. Quadree Henderson, RB/KR, Pittsburgh. If he has the ball, stuff is going to happen – and he has the ball a lot. Nobody with more than 125 touches in 2016 averaged more than Henderson’s 15.8 yards per play, and his 10 total touchdowns came running, receiving, on punt returns and kickoff returns. The 5-8 speedster took a nation-leading three kickoffs to the house and had four of 80 yards or longer.
17. Vita Vea, DT, Washington. To run up the middle on the Huskies, you must deal with a refrigerator with legs. At 6-5 and 346 pounds, Vea is an immovable object whose presence has helped improve Washington’s defense the last two seasons – then he bypassed the 2016 draft despite being a projected second-round pick. Scariest thing on Vea’s résumé: he was a high school running back.
18. Antonio Callaway, WR/KR, Florida. Is he worth all the trouble? We’ll see. Callaway has the talent (89 receptions in two seasons and 11 touchdowns receiving, running and returning kicks), and what has been a stagnant Florida offense desperately needs him if it’s going to break out this year. But he’s had three disciplinary issues as a Gator and is one of seven players suspended for the season opener.
19. Bryce Love, RB, Stanford. The next Christian McCaffrey? Maybe. Love averaged more yards per touch from scrimmage last year, and truly emerged in the bowl game McCaffrey skipped. Love ran for 119 yards and caught a 49-yard touchdown pass in the victory over North Carolina. Stanford’s leading rusher has averaged a whopping 277 carries per season since ’09; can the 191-pound Love hold up?
20. Nick Bosa, DE, Ohio State. If the Buckeyes defensive line is going to back up the bold words of coordinator Greg Schiano, who said this unit is better than the ones he coached in the NFL, then Bosa will be a key. Joey’s little brother was a stud in his own right as a true freshman, with five sacks and seven tackles for loss. Playing time is spread out on this absurdly deep line, but Bosa will make an impact.
21. Dexter Lawrence, DT, Clemson. The other big (really big) reason why the Tigers have such a vaunted defensive front. Lawrence was a 6-5, 340-pound freshman who immediately lived up to his pre-college hype, producing six sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss for the national champions. The NFL can’t get at him until 2019, but like Ed Oliver, he won’t have to wait long on draft day to hear his name called.
22. Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU. Lightly recruited in general and considered a better prospect at safety, Sutton might be the first receiver taken in the ‘18 draft. At 6-4 and 218 pounds, he has the size the pros covet, and with 2,135 yards and 19 touchdowns in two seasons he has the production to match. Sutton nearly turned pro last year but chose to return and should graduate in December.
23. Jaire Alexander, CB/KR, Louisville. Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson is a dazzling runner, but he’s not the fastest guy on his own team – Alexander wins that footrace. The Charlotte native went unrecruited by the major programs in his home state but has become a star at Louisville, with five interceptions and nine pass breakups last year, plus a 69-yard punt return TD against Florida State.
24. LJ Scott, RB, Michigan State. The last great football moment the Spartans had was the freshman Scott’s extraordinary goal-line run to beat Iowa and win the Big Ten title in 2015. Since then the program has crashed, although Scott was productive last year (994 rushing yards). Can he lead a program renaissance as a junior?
25. Zach Sinor, P, Oklahoma State. The man has launched his own hilarious Heisman campaign, and the school has played along. Check out his website and consider how glorious it would be to see this guy in New York in December. (No it’s not going to happen, but play along for the sheer absurdity of it.)
Just Missed The List: Christian Kirk, WR/KR, Texas A&M; Cameron Smith, LB, USC; Malik Jefferson, LB, Texas; Martez Ivy, OT, Florida; Harold Landry, DE, Boston College; Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama; Jack Cichy, LB, Wisconsin; Mike Gesicki, TE, Penn State; Equanimeous St. Brown, WR, Notre Dame; Josey Jewell, LB, Iowa; Daniel Carlson, PK, Auburn; Greg Little, OT, Mississippi; Richie James, WR, Middle Tennessee State; Billy Price, C, Ohio State; Bradley Chubb, DE, North Carolina State; Tarvarus McFadden, CB, Florida State; Da’Ron Payne, DT, Alabama; Connor Williams, Texas.
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