The Best College Football Players You've Never Heard of
College football is a big, sometimes-complicated sport. With 10 leagues and 129 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision alone, it's easy to focus on your team or your league and let the rest fly by in the background, unless it's highlighted by ESPN.
By midseason, games are on every night from Tuesday through Saturday, a football potpourri. Talented players get brief spotlights, but don't get the attention that Power Five standouts often receive. They fly under the radar, for various reasons. Here's a look at the best college football players you've never heard of, be it from Group of Five leagues or players who haven't yet broken out (but will very soon) at a higher level.
Arkansas State DE Ja'Von Rolland-Jones
Arkansas State has had plenty of coaching turnover, but the Red Wolves have stayed steady as a consistent postseason contender and one of the Sun Belt's best teams. It helps when you have talent like defensive end Ja'Von Rolland-Jones on hand. Last fall, Rolland-Jones became the first defender to win Sun Belt Player of the Year honors since 2003.
He did so with an impressive pass-rushing season. Rolland-Jones started only eight games but still piled up 13.5 sacks, fifth-best nationally, as well as 56 tackles. He led the Sun Belt in tackles for loss as well. The scary part? He’s just developing into a polished all-around player. With another year in college, the Red Wolf could sink his teeth into some national attention.
Florida State WR Nyqwan Murray
Florida State and Jimbo Fisher enter 2017 with their sights set on returning to college football's elite following a pair of good (but not great by FSU standards) 10-win seasons. The Seminoles return a wealth of talent, but they must replace leading receiver Travis Rudolph, who left for the NFL following his junior season.
The top candidate? Junior wideout Nyqwan Murray. Murray was FSU's second-leading receiver a year ago with 27 catches for 441 yards and five scores. But he had more than two catches in a game only twice, although he did flash some potential.
He caught two passes in the Orange Bowl, but both were impactful—a 12-yard touchdown and a 92-yard touchdown for a total of 104 yards.
With an emerging star in quarterback Deondre Francois, Murray is in line for a huge junior season in Florida State's potent offense as the likely No. 1 receiver.
Hawaii LB Jahlani Tavai
Hawaii enjoyed a resurgent season in 2016. In coach Nick Rolovich's first season, the Warriors went 7-7 and capped the year with a Hawaii Bowl win over Middle Tennessee. However, playing away from the mainland with midnight ET kickoff times, some might not have pinpointed reasons for their success.
One huge factor? Middle linebacker Jahlani Tavai. Tavai put together an incredible sophomore season with 129 tackles (86 solo), 19.5 tackles for loss and 7.0 sacks. He was the first Hawaii player to top 100 tackles in a season since 2011. He led the Mountain West in tackles for loss and finished No. 29 in tackles.
Tavai is an active player who makes plays all over the field. And if Hawaii can make a run at a Mountain West title, his national profile should grow accordingly in 2017.
Louisiana Tech DE Jaylon Ferguson
Coach Skip Holtz has found a home at Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs have established themselves as one of Conference USA's top teams, going 9-5 last fall and winning the C-USA West Division. Defensive end Jaylon Ferguson played a huge role. The 6'5", 255-pound athlete had an excellent sophomore season, making 49 tackles with 14.5 sacks and 16 tackles for loss
Ferguson set La Tech's single-season sacks record and earned first-team All-C-USA honors. He has good length but also holds up well against the run. Pass rushing is his calling card, though; Ferguson is already third in Louisiana Tech history in career sacks. This quick, athletic end should be on the NFL's radar.
Oklahoma RB Abdul Adams
Coming off consecutive league titles, Oklahoma should again be the class of the Big 12 in 2017. The Sooners are deep and talented, but they have a significant opening in the backfield after both Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine declared early for the NFL draft.
The next man up? Abdul Adams. The 5'10", 208-pounder was OU’s No. 3 back as a freshman, rushing for 283 yards on 53 carries. He was solid when given the opportunity, rushing for 91 yards against both Louisiana-Monroe and Kansas.
Adams is a quick back with twitchy speed and movements, and he is able to catch passes out of the backfield. He's the favorite to win the starting role, and will run behind Oklahoma's excellent offensive line if he is the lead back this fall.
SMU WR Courtland Sutton
Chad Morris has SMU on the right track. The former Clemson offensive coordinator was a very sought-after head-coaching prospect, and in two seasons he's taken the Mustangs from a one-win team to just short of the postseason last fall with a 5-7 record.
It helps to have a receiver like Courtland Sutton on the roster. Sutton stands 6'4", 215 pounds and is a physical athlete. Last fall, Sutton had 76 catches for 1,246 yards and 10 touchdowns. He had five 100-yard receiving games, including an amazing 13-catch, 252-yard, two-score day in a 35-27 loss to South Florida.
Sutton had the option to enter the NFL draft as a redshirt sophomore, but he's excited to return for his junior season, as he told Bill Nichols of the Dallas Morning News.
"Coming back next year is only going to solidify my stock," Sutton said. "I won't have to worry about the ifs. Once I get another year under my belt, mature a little more, that's only going to help my stock be solidified as a top pick next year. I'm committed to being the best receiver in college football next year."
Sutton is a solid route-runner with good hands. For the Mustangs to break through to bowl contention, he'll need to be even better this fall. And that’s entirely possible.
Southern Miss RB Ito Smith
Southern Miss took a bit of a step back in 2016, finishing 7-6 after a New Orleans Bowl win over Louisiana-Lafayette, but it'd be hard to blame Ito Smith for any of the issues. The Golden Eagles back stands just 5'9", 195 pounds, but he carried a big offensive load.
He averaged 147.5 all-purpose yards per game, No. 6 in Conference USA. Smith rushed for 1,459 yards with 17 touchdowns and also caught 43 passes for 459 yards (both third-best on USM’s roster). He begins his senior season third all time on the Golden Eagles' all-purpose yardage list.
Smith will begin 2017 as the fifth-leading returning rusher in FBS, and he'll play a major role in the Eagles' push for a C-USA championship.
Toledo WR Cody Thompson
Toledo has become a proving ground for major college coaches, with Iowa State's Matt Campbell the latest to make the jump from the MAC to a Power Five job. Toledo didn't flinch in promoting Matt Candle to Campbell's old seat, and Candle rewarded the school's faith with a 9-4 debut season.
The Rockets have plenty of offensive firepower on hand, and senior receiver Cody Thompson leads the way. Last fall, Thompson made 64 catches for 1,269 yards and 11 touchdowns, putting up six 100-yard games and burning Central Michigan for four touchdowns in a 31-17 victory.
Thompson is an explosive pass-catcher and a precise route-runner. Expect his numbers to rise, especially with one of the MAC's top quarterbacks, Logan Woodside, throwing him the ball on a consistent basis.
Western Kentucky QB Mike White
After Jeff Brohm was lured away by Purdue, Western Kentucky made a solid hire by securing Notre Dame's Mike Sanford as its new head coach. Sanford walks into a solid situation in Bowling Green; the Hilltoppers finished 11-3 in 2016 and won the Conference USA championship. He also inherits one of the nation's most prolific quarterbacks in senior Mike White.
Last fall, White threw for 4,363 yards (fifth-best nationally) with 37 touchdowns against seven interceptions. He had eight 300-yard passing games and threw for 421 yards in the C-USA title game win over Louisiana Tech as well as 517 in the season opener against Rice. If Sanford is smart, he'll keep the wide-open offense in place and allow White and the 'Toppers to pile up the yardage and points all season long.
Wyoming S Andrew Wingard
Wyoming found its way out of the college football wilderness in 2016. In his third season in Laramie, coach Craig Bohl turned the Cowboys around after going 6-18 in his first two years, finishing 8-6 with a trip to the Mountain West championship game.
Safety Andrew Wingard was a key cog. He led Wyoming with 131 tackles and earned first-team All-Mountain West honors. Wingard is a constant presence for the Cowboy defense, having started 25 of 26 games in his collegiate career.
He'll be a rock for Wyoming's defense once again this fall. Expect big tackle numbers, hard hitting and excellent tackling as he tries to push the Cowboys to a Mountain West championship.