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Best Small-School College Football Players You've Likely Never Heard of

David KenyonFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 10, 2017

Best Small-School College Football Players You've Likely Never Heard of

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    Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

    Players from power-conference programs almost exclusively receive the country's attention; however, small-school standouts deserve a little more time in the spotlight.

    It takes a special type of superstar to gain national recognition, like Keenan Reynolds, Greg Ward Jr., Tyler Matakevich, Brandon Doughty and Jeremy McNichols managed to accomplish in 2015.

    Each of the listed players attends "Group of Five" schools and will be eligible for the 2016 season. The parameters extended to non-Notre Dame independents as well.

Honorable Mentions

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    Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

    Penny Hart, WR, Georgia State: Hart burst onto the Sun Belt Conference scene as a true freshman with 71 receptions, 1,099 yards and eight touchdowns. He'll be the primary target for Georgia State's new quarterback, perhaps Utah transfer Conner Manning.

    Hayden Hunt, P, Colorado State: Over the last three seasons, Hunt has raised his average from 41.9 yards per punt to 43.8 to 46.0. He claimed third-team AP All-America honors in 2015.

    Shawun Lurry, CB, Northern Illinois: In 2015, Lurry notched a Football Bowl Subdivision-best nine interceptions. He added 43 total tackles and 15 pass breakups.

    Nick Mullens, QB, Southern Miss: Mullens was one of 13 quarterbacks to average 300-plus yards per game last season. He threw 38 touchdowns compared to just 12 interceptions. Whether or not he excels without Michael Thomas is a key to watch in 2016.

    Austin Rehkow, K/P, Idaho: Though he fell short of a third straight All-American bid as a punter, Rehkow set a school record with 23 made field goals. His career average is 47.2 yards per punt.

    Ja'Von Rolland-Jones, DE, Arkansas State: The defensive end followed up a 7.5-sack freshman campaign with 8.5 last year. Overall, Rolland-Jones has 24.5 tackles for loss and six forced fumbles.

Weston Steelhammer, S, Air Force

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Weston Steelhammer is properly named for his duties.

    Last season, the 6'2", 200-pound safety recorded a team-best 80 tackles—10.5 of which were for loss. Steelhammer also snatched five interceptions and broke up seven passes.

    He's a two-time first-team All-Mountain West honoree for Air Force, which has risen from 116th in total defense to 32nd since 2013.

    Steelhammer is both a vital part of that progression and a key to the Falcons potentially repeating as division champions.

Kareem Hunt, RB, Toledo

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    Andrew Weber/Getty Images

    Suspension and injury shortened Kareem Hunt's junior campaign, but he still managed 973 yards and 12 touchdowns.

    As a freshman in 2013, the Toledo running back notched 866 yards and six scores. Hunt piled up 1,631 yards and 16 touchdowns the next year, which ranked 10th in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

    Hunt elected to return for his final season of eligibility instead of pursuing the NFL, and he could set the program's career record with 1,379 yards.

    Toledo will be a favorite to win the MAC West, largely thanks to Hunt's impact.

Taywan Taylor, WR, Western Kentucky

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    Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

    If the Hilltoppers can settle the quarterback vacancy, they won't have a problem on the outside.

    Taywan Taylor was a decent yet unassuming target in 2014, registering 45 catches for 767 yards and seven touchdowns. Jared Dangerfield figured to reprise his role as the No. 1 guy.

    Well, things changed.

    Taylor exploded for 86 receptions, 1,467 yards and 17 touchdowns, ranking 20th, third and second in the nation, respectively. He was first-team All-Conference USA.

    With another season like that, Taylor might garner some All-American recognition.

Nate Holley, S, Kent State

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    Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

    Generally, linebackers rack up the most tackles. Nate Holley is a significant exception.

    The Kent State safety amassed 137 stops and two forced fumbles in 2014. He had fewer than 10 tackles only three times. In each of those games, Holley notched nine.

    Last season, the 5'11", 208-pounder finished with 139 tackles. Holley had eight outings of at least 12, adding his first career interception.

    He is a two-time first-team All-MAC honoree.

Matt Breida, RB, Georgia Southern

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    Todd Bennett/Getty Images

    Just one FBS player averaged better than seven yards per carry in both 2014 and 2015. That would be Matt Breida.

    As a sophomore, the Georgia Southern runner shredded defenses for 1,485 yards and 17 touchdowns. His 8.7-yard average ranked second among players with at least 100 attempts.

    Breida recorded 1,608 yards and another 17 scores last season, boasting a 7.9-yard clip that paced 100-plus carriers. He claimed first-team All-Sun Belt distinction for the second time.

    Coaching changes may lead to a drop in numbers, but Breida was college football's most efficient back over a two-season stretch.

Quinton Flowers, QB, South Florida

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    Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

    Ward asserted himself in the national picture because of Houston's strong start. Plus, he was simply fun to watch. Quinton Flowers is the same type of player.

    After receiving limited reps as a freshman, Flowers earned the No. 1 role and put together an encouraging campaign. He tallied 2,296 yards, 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

    What made Flowers special, however, was his running ability. He scampered for 991 yards and 12 scores.

    Flowers wasn't an all-conference player because he was caught behind more deserving candidates such as Reynolds, Ward and Paxton Lynch. But we noticed.

Trey Hendrickson, DE, Florida Atlantic

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    Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    Carl Nassib, Emmanuel Ogbah, Shaq Lawson and Myles Garrett were atop the nation's sack leaderboard in 2015. The unknown name among that crowd was Trey Hendrickson.

    But the Florida Atlantic defensive end certainly earned that place.

    Hendrickson registered 13.0 sacks, soaring to the program's career record with 19.5. He also forced an outstanding five fumbles and added seven quarterback hurries.

    The 6'4", 265-pounder will attempt to build on a first-team All-Conference USA selection next year. Chances are Hendrickson will complete that task.

Donnel Pumphrey, RB, San Diego State

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    Eric Jamison/Associated Press

    Don't let the diminutive 5'9", 180-pound frame fool you. Donnel Pumphrey is a weapon.

    He compiled an encouraging freshman season, notching 752 rushing yards and eight touchdowns as well as 234 receiving yards and two scores. That was merely a precursor to excellence.

    Pumphrey slashed opponents for 1,873 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2014. As a junior, he totaled 2,069 all-purpose yards and 21 trips to the end zone, including a passing score.

    In addition to a pair of first-team All-Mountain West accolades, Pumphrey was named the conference's offensive player of the year last season.

Richie James, WR, Middle Tennessee State

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    Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

    Taking a redshirt season isn't always the preferred route, but it definitely paid off for Brent Stockstill and Richie James.

    Stockstill topped the 4,000-yard mark through the air, connecting with James 108 times—the second-most in the country. The wideout accumulated 1,346 and eight touchdowns.

    James, who also rushed for 146 yards and a score, joined Taylor and Hendrickson on the All-Conference USA first team.

    Middle Tennessee State won't be a powerhouse anytime soon, but there's little doubt the Stockstill-James combination will be productive.

Larry Rose III, RB, New Mexico State

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    Andres Leighton/Associated Press

    Eight players in FBS history have eclipsed the 1,000-yard barrier in all four seasons of eligibility. Larry Rose III could add one more to that exclusive list.

    Despite playing just 10 games as a freshman, the New Mexico State running back finished the year with 1,102 yards and nine touchdowns. He added 172 receiving yards and one trip across the plane for an All-Sun Belt honorable mention nod.

    Rose racked up 1,651 rushing yards and 14 scores last season while also reeling in 30 passes for 283 yards and two touchdowns.

    Through two seasons, Rose has garnered honorable mention and first-team All-Sun Belt honors as well as s third-team AP All-American nod.

Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    A strong case can be made that Corey Davis was college football's best receiver over a three-year span from 2013 to 2015. And he still has one more season.

    During the wideout's initial season at Western Michigan, Davis secured 67 passes for 941 yards and six touchdowns en route to second-team All-MAC and conference freshman of the year.

    The last two campaigns, he's claimed first-team all-conference after tallying 78 catches, 1,408 yards and 15 TDs and 90 catches, 1,436 yards and 12 TDs. Davis currently ranks 26th in FBS history with 3,778 career yards.

    If the 6'3", 205-pounder is able to match the numbers he has twice compiled, he will leave college as the all-time record holder.


    Stats from cfbstats.com or B/R research. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.

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