College Football Players Who Will Benefit the Most from New Head Coaches
Rashad Still was barely even a factor last season for Minnesota, but he could become one of the best wide receivers in the Big Ten under his new head coach, P.J. Fleck.
Following coaching changes last offseason, Memphis wide receiver Anthony Miller, East Carolina wide receiver Zay Jones and Toledo quarterback Logan Woodside each had dramatic boosts in production to rank in the top 10 nationally in total yards at their respective positions. Whether that improvement was directly tied to the change in leadership is open to interpretation, but the fact remains that each guy was more impressive with a new head coach on the sideline.
With that in mind, we went on a quest to identify the players most likely to flourish with a new boss calling the shots.
In addition to Still's likely breakout year for the Golden Gophers, quarterbacks like Purdue's David Blough and Texas' Shane Buechele ought to thrive under their new offensive-minded head coaches. On the other side of things, South Florida, California and Cincinnati have defenders who seem primed to shine under signal-callers with a defensive slant.
Players on the following slides are ranked in ascending order of likelihood of increasing each of their primary stats—either yards and touchdowns or sacks and tackles—by at least 50 percent next season.
8. Bruce Hector, DT, South Florida
2016 Stats: 33 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 6 sacks
As it turns out, trying to bring a defensive-minded coach to the Big 12 didn't work for Texas. After going 23-3 in his final two seasons at Louisville, Charlie Strong failed to finish any of his three seasons with the Longhorns with a .500-or-better record.
But Strong gets a fresh start with a South Florida program that just had one of its most disappointing defensive seasons to date, allowing 31.6 points per game and 5.8 yards per play. The Bulls were still able to win 11 games thanks to Willie Taggart's offensive mind and quarterback Quinton Flowers' 42 touchdowns, but that type of defensive effort won't fly in 2017.
The last time Strong coached in the AAC (2013), he had two linemen with at least 10 sacks and four defenders with at least 13 tackles for a loss. It's a given that Auggie Sanchez—South Florida's returning leader in tackles and sacks—is going to shine as a senior linebacker. However, it's the second and third members of the front seven who should most benefit from the addition of Strong.
The smart money is on senior defensive tackle Bruce Hector becoming one of those guys.
Hector has 11 sacks over the past two seasons, and he finished strong in South Florida's 2016 bowl game with a pair of sacks in the win over South Carolina.
7. Devante Downs, LB, California
2016 Stats: 83 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks, one interception, two passes defended
An unfortunate side effect of Sonny Dykes' Bear Raid offense is that California had arguably the worst defense in the nation over the course of the past four years. The Golden Bears allowed 42.6 points per game last season, this after giving up 45.9 on average in Dykes' first season as head coach in 2013. They went 5-7 in 2016 and only held three opponents below 43 points.
With its next head coach, California is hoping to resolve that problem.
For the last 11 years, Justin Wilcox has been a defensive coordinator at Boise State, Tennessee, Washington, USC and Wisconsin. During that time, he worked with eventual first-round picks Kyle Wilson, Shaq Thompson, Marcus Peters, Leonard Williams and T.J. Watt.
The type of player that has flourished the most in Wilcox's systems is a versatile linebacker. We're talking about guys like Watt and T.J. Edwards, who made Wisconsin so difficult to score against last year because either one could rush the QB or drop back in coverage with equal effectiveness.
With that in mind, look for senior linebacker Devante Downs to become Wilcox's most important asset in bringing this defense back from the dead. Downs led the team in tackles last season and was the only Golden Bear to record at least one sack and one interception.
6. David Blough, QB, Purdue
2016 Stats: 3,352 passing yards, 57.1 completion percentage, 25 TDs, 21 INTs, 119.4 rating
Spanning from Len Dawson through Bob Griese, Jim Everett, Jeff George, Kyle Orton and Drew Brees, Purdue has had a starting quarterback in the NFL for the vast majority of the past six decades. And with Jeff Brohm now calling the shots, the Boilermakers are hoping David Blough will join that club in the next few years.
Former Purdue head coach Darrell Hazell had spent more than a quarter of a century working with running backs and wide receivers. But between college, the NFL and even a year in the defunct XFL, Brohm was a quarterback for 12 years and has another 12 years of experience coaching quarterbacks.
Take one look at the passers who came through Western Kentucky in his three seasons as the head coach of the Hilltoppers and there's little question Brohm could turn Blough into a stud. Brandon Doughty threw for 4,830 yards and 49 TDs in 2014 before going for 5,055 yards and 48 TDs the following year. This past season, South Florida transfer Mike White threw for 4,363 yards and 37 TDs for the 11-3 Hilltoppers.
In each of the past three seasons, Western Kentucky had a QB ranked in the top three in the nation in passer efficiency rating, according to CFBstats.com.
And there's no question Blough has the arm to be special. Even in a struggling offense that finished at the bottom of the Big Ten standings, he completed 13 passes that went at least 40 yards last year, tied on the national leaderboard with the likes of 2017 Heisman Trophy candidates Lamar Jackson, Jake Browning and Quinton Flowers.
Efficiency is where Blough has struggled thus far in his career, but Brohm should help in that department. According to Nathan Baird of the Journal & Courier, Blough completed 14 of 22 passes for 192 yards and a touchdown in Purdue's spring game.
5. Kevin Mouhon, DE, Cincinnati
2016 Stats: 50 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 1.0 sack, two passes defended
When Tommy Tuberville first took over at Cincinnati, it was one of the better defensive teams in the country. The Bearcats allowed 18.5 points per game in their final season with Butch Jones as head coach, but they became significantly more porous over the next four years. In 2015, they gave up more than 31 points per contest, including a 65-point game to South Florida.
Meanwhile, Luke Fickell spent more than a decade as the defensive coordinator at Ohio State, which has produced so many defensive studs during that time that the Buckeyes were declared the victors of our fictitious alumni tournament last week. Since Fickell became a defensive assistant in 2004, the Buckeyes have held opponents below 23 points per game every season.
But he won't have much returning defensive talent in his first campaign with Cincinnati. All three of last year's leading tacklers (Eric Wilson, Zach Edwards and Antonio Kinard) were seniors, leaving defensive end Kevin Mouhon as one of the top tacklers for Fickell to try to build the defense around.
Mouhon led the team in tackles for a loss last season, which is something Fickell can work with. Goodness knows Ohio State blew up plenty of plays in the backfield under his watch.
Defensive line coach Al Washington told Dan Hoard of the Bearcats' official website:
Mouhon is a very intelligent football player. He has great instincts, he's very explosive, and what we're trying to do right now is develop the fundamentals so that he can become more consistent. I think he's a first, second, and third down defensive end. Whatever you tell the kid to do, he'll do it and I'm very excited to see his development.
As one of the lowest scoring teams in the country in 2016 (19.3 PPG), Cincinnati has a lot of work to do on both ends of the field. But given his pedigree as a defensive mind, look for Fickell to first focus on keeping the opposition from running up the score.
4. Wyatt Demps, WR, Nevada
2016 Stats: 53 receptions, 686 yards, nine TDs
Over the past several years under Brian Polian, Nevada's passing game has been anemic. In 2015, the Wolf Pack averaged just 164.5 passing yards per game. This past season wasn't much better, as they lost veteran QB Tyler Stewart to a shoulder injury and ended up without a quarterback with 10 or more TDs.
New head coach Jay Norvell could be just the man to turn Nevada back into the high-powered offense it was with Colin Kaepernick under center in the late 2000s.
Though a linebacker in his playing days, Norvell has been predominantly a wide receivers coach for nearly three decades. Under his tutelage, Oklahoma churned out future pros like Kenny Stills, Ryan Broyles and Sterling Shepard.
As the clear-cut No. 1 wide receiver for Nevada—running back James Butler was No. 2 in receiving yards and touchdowns last year—Wyatt Demps should be the primary beneficiary of Norvell's arrival.
Demps was already a bit of a breakout star as a junior, putting up the above numbers after accounting for 27 receptions and no scores in 2015. Another significant spike in production should be coming his way in 2017.
3. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon
2016 Stats: 945 rushing yards, nine rushing TDs; 144 receiving yards, one receiving TD
For the first time in the 2010s, Oregon's offense failed to average at least 43.0 points per game, accounting for just 35.4 in 2016. The Ducks' average scoring margin had gradually been declining since Mark Helfrich took over for Chip Kelly in 2013. Then they lost eight or more games in a season for the first time in a quarter of a century.
A coaching change was inevitable, but the hope is that a shift from one offensive-minded leader to another will pay dividends for running back Royce Freeman.
Helfrich certainly had plenty of experience running offenses. Prior to becoming the head coach at Oregon, he spent nearly 15 years as an OC and/or QBs coach at Boise State, Arizona State, Colorado and Oregon.
What he didn't have, though, was experience turning around a program as its head coach, which Willie Taggart brings to the table.
The former quarterback for Western Kentucky carries nearly two decades' worth of coaching experience to Eugene, having (re)built Western Kentucky and South Florida seemingly overnight. The Hilltoppers and Bulls went a combined 3-21 in the season before he arrived, but he leveraged a lethal rushing attack to take those schools to three bowl games in seven years.
With the exception of his first year at USF, Taggart has had at least one 1,000-yard rusher in each of his seasons as a head coach, including both Quinton Flowers (1,530) and Marlon Mack (1,187) this past year. And in each of his three years at Western Kentucky, Taggart had a top-five rusher nationally.
Enter Royce Freeman, who rushed for 1,838 yards as a sophomore prior to an injury-riddled junior year. If he can stay healthy in 2017, he could lead the nation in rushing yards with room to spare.
2. Shane Buechele, QB, Texas
2016 Stats: 2,958 passing yards, 60.4 completion percentage, 21 TDs, 11 INTs, 136.0 rating
Among true freshmen, no one threw for more yards in 2016 than Shane Buechele. And with 2,000-yard rusher D'Onta Foreman off to the NFL, Texas was bound to become more dependent on its passing game next season.
Coaching change or not, this Longhorn was going to be a top-25 candidate for the 2017 Heisman.
But there's no question the move from Charlie Strong to Tom Herman should help Buechele's chances of becoming a star.
Though Strong was the head coach at Louisville when QB Teddy Bridgewater took the nation by storm, the former defensive back had spent most of his coaching career focused exclusively on the defensive side of the field. Longtime offensive assistant coach Shawn Watson was the OC responsible for calling Bridgewater's plays, and he was relieved of his duties at Texas before Buechele arrived.
Herman, on the other hand, was a collegiate wide receiver who spent nearly a decade as a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator with four different programs prior to turning Houston back into an offensive machine.
In a Big 12 conference where most secondaries are about as bulletproof as a screen door, Herman could help turn Buechele into a monster.
Though Herman was unwilling to commit to Buechele as his starter, the quarterback had a great performance in the Longhorns' spring game. According to ESPN.com's Max Olson, he completed 23 of 39 passes for 369 yards with three scores.
1. Rashad Still, WR, Minnesota
2016 Stats: 18 receptions, 349 yards, 0 TD
Give him a little bit of time to work his magic and P.J. Fleck is something of a wide receiver whisperer.
In Fleck's second and final season at Rutgers, Mohamed Sanu suddenly blossomed into a 1,200-yard receiver and a third-round draft pick. Over the last four seasons at Western Michigan, Fleck helped Corey Davis become the career leader in FBS receiving yards and the No. 5 overall pick in the 2017 draft.
And he has already pinpointed Rashad Still as his next masterpiece-in-waiting.
He has to be a bell cow. [...] (No.) 88 will get the football. And, I told him earlier in the week, I said, 'You can either handle this like a mature man and understand what I'm telling you, that you are going to get the ball and stop working, or you know you're gonna get the football and you change your best and become one of the best wide receivers in the Big Ten.
Still didn't do much of anything last season, but neither did Minnesota's passing offense as a whole. The Golden Gophers had a grand total of nine receiving touchdowns, most of which graduated along with Drew Wolitarsky. But as the returning leader in yards, Still is clearly going to be their main guy.
On the first play from scrimmage in their spring game, Still had a 47-yard catch that could be the start of a beautiful calendar year.
Kerry Miller covers college football and college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.