Our Most Intriguing series marches fearlessly onward. First week: the most intriguing coaches in college football. Last week: the most intriguing quarterbacks. This week: the 25 non-quarterbacks I’d pay cash money to see play:
1. Bryce Love, RB, Stanford. There is no bigger weapon from scrimmage than Love, who finished second in the 2017 Heisman Trophy balloting. (Also known as The Stanford Spot, previously occupied within the last decade by Toby Gerhart, Andrew Luck and Christian McCaffrey.) In his first season as a starter, Love produced 24 runs of 30 yards or longer, five more than the national runner-up in that category. And that’s with a persistent ankle injury slowing him down late in the season.
2. Ed Oliver, DT, Houston. Unblockable tower of power produces mayhem at the line of scrimmage, induces panic in quarterbacks and preoccupies offensive coordinators trying to account for him in blocking schemes. Oliver is considered the strong favorite to be the No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL draft, which would validate the five-star prospect’s decision to stay home for college and play for a non-blueblood in a non-Power Five conference.
3. Nick Bosa, DE, Ohio State. He’s one more productive season away from following big brother Joey from Columbus into the top five in the NFL draft. In a great year for edge rushers, Bosa looks like the best — lean and athletic but possessing plenty of power. Despite playing on a deep Ohio State line that limited his snap count, Bosa still produced team highs of 16 tackles for loss and 8 1/2 sacks last season.
4. Tony Pollard, RB-WR-KR, Memphis. If explosive plays are the most exciting plays in the sport, then Pollard is Mr. Excitement — his long plays are the longest possible. Pollard has six career touchdowns on kickoff returns in just two seasons, which means he has a great chance of tying or breaking the NCAA record of seven this year. Pollard also averaged 7.7 yards per carry and 14.9 yards per reception for the Tigers last season, making him a true triple threat.
5. David Sills V, WR, West Virginia. Few players have had as adventurous of a college journey as Sills: offered a scholarship to play quarterback at USC by Lane Kiffin as a seventh grader; went to West Virginia as a quarterback; didn’t win the job and transferred to a junior college to play QB; came back to West Virginia as a wide receiver; tied for the national lead in touchdown catches last year with 18. One out of every 3.3 receptions went for six points in 2017, making him the ultimate TD machine.
6. Jaquan Johnson, SS, Miami. The Hurricanes’ Turnover Chain became the star sideline trinket of the 2017 season, and Johnson was Mr. Turnover Chain. He led the team in forced fumbles with three and tied for the lead in interceptions with four. Oh yeah, he also led the ‘Canes in tackles with 96. Find the football, and you will find Johnson near it — and trying to take it away from the offense.
7. Devin Bush, LB, Michigan. He’s an undersized inside linebacker at 5-foot-11, 222 pounds, but he makes an oversized impact. One of the hardest hitters in college football, Bush often walks the blurry line between clean collisions and those that draw penalty flags and ejections. He led the Wolverines in total tackles last year with 102, and was second on the team in pass breakups with seven.
8. Dexter Lawrence, DT, Clemson. He’s a must-watch simply for his ability to defy human physics. It doesn’t seem possible for a 6-foot-4, 340-pounder to have the nimbleness and dexterity Lawrence possesses, in addition to the obvious brute strength. The junior said he was far from fully healthy last season and expects to be more routinely disruptive this year as the anchor of the Tigers’ ridiculously good defensive line. (Fellow Tigers lineman Christian Wilkins easily could be in this spot himself.)
9. Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin. Taylor is the leading returning Heisman Trophy vote getter after Love, as he finished sixth in the balloting in 2017. All Taylor did last year was break Adrian Peterson’s NCAA freshman rushing record by piling up 1,977 yards and averaging 6.6 yards per carry. Taylor spent the offseason working on pass catching and route running so he can be a greater contributor in the passing game.
10. A.J. Brown, WR, Mississippi. In a projected 2019 draft class that is heavy on defensive line studs, Brown might be the top offensive prospect. He’s a physical and tough wide receiver, checking in at 225 pounds and capable of manhandling corners and nicklebacks in one-on-one battles. Brown’s 1,252 receiving yards in 2017 were a Rebels record, but half of his six 100-yard receiving games were against South Alabama, Tennessee-Martin and Louisiana-Lafayette.
11. Raekwon Davis, DE, Alabama. The greatest force in college football in the last decade has been the Crimson Tide defense, but now it is facing its biggest rebuilding effort in that span — just three starters from 2017 return, and there are already injuries at linebacker. The rebuild starts with Davis, a 6-7, 306-pound colossus who is Alabama’s leading returnee in total tackles and tackles for loss. Davis also showed his athleticism with an interception and 19-yard return in the national championship game against Georgia.
12. Devin Singletary, RB, Florida Atlantic. Oklahoma had better be ready for this guy in the season opener. Singletary’s 32 rushing touchdowns led the nation by nine over runner-up Rashad Penny, and he scored 30 of those in the final 11 games. His 1,920 rushing yards ranked fourth nationally last year. Rest assured, Lane Kiffin will do what he can to pump up Singletary’s numbers if it will bring attention to his program.
13. Mecole Hardman, WR-KR-DB, Georgia. Explosive athlete who has hinted at his all-around ability and might now be ready to showcase it. Last time you saw Hardman, he was catching an 80-yard bomb in the national championship game against Alabama — one of two receiving scores he had that night. He’s also Georgia’s best kick returner, and is destined to take a punt or kickoff (or both) to the house in 2018. In a pinch he can also play cornerback, as he has in the past, and cover kicks on special teams.
14. Greedy Williams, CB, LSU. He wasn’t a top-100 recruit coming into college, and he was redshirted in 2016 — and then he blew up in his first year of action last year. Williams led all freshmen nationally with six interceptions, and his 11 passes broken up led LSU. At 6-foot-3, he’s a big corner who is a willing tackler and relishes matching up with physical receivers. And his grandmother-given nickname is Greedy. What’s not to like?
15. Marquise Brown, WR, Oklahoma. The Sooners have an array of exciting skill-position threats, but itty bitty Brown (5-foot-10, 168 pounds) might be the one who instills the most game-breaking fear in opposing defensive coordinators. He averaged a fat 19.2 yards per catch last season, highlighted by a 265-yard, two-touchdown torching of Oklahoma State. He also was Baker Mayfield’s most productive receiver in Oklahoma’s two last and biggest games, totaling a combined 201 receiving yards against TCU in the Big 12 title game and against Georgia in the College Football Playoff.
16. Noah Fant, TE, Iowa. The consensus top tight end in the nation is hardly just a possession receiver — he’s a playmaker. Fant led the Hawkeyes in yards per catch at 16.5, and his 11 touchdowns tied for the national lead among tight ends. With another year of perfecting chemistry with quarterback Nate Stanley, he should have a huge season.
17. Cameron Smith, LB, USC. He has a solid chance of leaving school as the top tackler in USC history — which, given the run of defensive players over the years, is saying something. Smith has 273 stops through three seasons, establishing himself as a freshman sensation and adding to it each of the past two years. He also interned at a winery and is an aspiring wine steward, perhaps making him the nation’s most cultured middle linebacker.
18. Trey Adams, OT, Washington. Offensive tackles often are the biggest men on the field, and none at the top level of college football are as big as Adams, who checks in at 6-8, 327. Adams missed much of last season after a knee injury but still projects as the top left tackle prospect in the 2019 draft. His ability to protect QB Jake Browning’s blind side and open holes for RB Myles Gaskin will be key to Washington’s College Football Playoff hopes.
19. KaVontae Turpin, WR-KR, TCU. He’s a five-tool scorer, producing touchdowns last year rushing, receiving, passing, on a punt return and on a kickoff return. When he’s focused (and not dealing with off-field issues), Turpin might be the most dangerous punt returner in the nation — he’s taken one back for six in each of his three college seasons to date. He’s absolutely tiny, officially listed at 5-foot-9, 153 pounds, but hard to catch.
20. Zach Allen, DE, Boston College. You don’t often find defensive ends racking up 100 total tackles in a season, but Allen did it last year for a surprising Eagles team. That underscores his steep career trajectory: from a three-star recruit, to two total tackles as primarily a special teams player as a freshman, to 36 as a sophomore, to the century mark as a junior. Now the NFL is taking a hard look at him.
21. Emanuel Hall, WR, Missouri. The nation’s most dangerous deep threat, averaging 24.8 yards per reception last year and a staggering 49.5 yards on his eight touchdown receptions. Hall was on the other end of some cannon-shot deep balls from quarterback Drew Lock, and if he stays healthy after battling hamstring issues both early and late in 2017, his reception total could double last year’s 33. He’s worked hard to improve his route running and become a more complete receiver.
22. Damien Harris, RB, Alabama. He averaged 7.4 yards per carry last year and 7.1 the previous year, ranking second and third in Crimson Tide single-season history behind a record 7.5 in 1950. If he finally gets more than 10 carries per game, Harris could become Alabama’s latest Heisman Trophy candidate at running back. He already has ascended to player spokesman role with the media, emblematic of Nick Saban’s trust in Harris.
23. Michael Deiter, OG, Wisconsin. John Madden used to say that he watched the offensive guards at the beginning of every play because their actions told him where the ball was going. If you want to be like Madden, this is the guard to watch — a 6-foot-6, 321-pound road grader who anchors the nation’s best offensive line. Joint decision with fellow linemen Beau Benzschawel and David Edwards to shun the NFL and stay in college one more season was a huge one for the Badgers.
24. Britain Covey, WR-KR, Utah. He hasn’t played since a splashy freshman season in 2015, thanks to a two-year Mormon mission in South America. Covey was a revelation back then, a shifty runner on short passes, punts and kickoffs. The Utes’ offense has been upgraded since then, so Covey could produce big numbers if he shakes off the missionary rust.
25. Rodrigo Blankenship, PK, Georgia. Achieved cult-hero status last year for the mustache, pink cleats and rec specs he wore on the field, but there’s more to him than that. Blankenship was fabulously clutch in the College Football Playoff, nailing a 55-yard field goal in the semifinals against Oklahoma and a 51-yarder in overtime against Alabama that looked for a few minutes like it might win the national title. “Hot Rod” also produced a Georgia 2018 season hype video this summer.
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