One Hidden Gem on Each Top 25 College Football Team in 2017
College football has become a year-round sport with recruiting that sometimes begins when kids are 13 years old, yet even the favorites to compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff have hidden gems on their rosters that most casual/national fans couldn't pick out of a lineup.
Spoiler alert: You won't find any quarterbacks on this list. Though it was tempting to include one of Stanford's four options at QB.
Team rankings on the following slides are based on the Bleacher Report Top 25 from late April. And the players on the following slides are generally those who could put up big numbers in 2017 despite likely not being the No. 1 option at their position. In the case of some defensive players or niche specialists, though, it's OK if they're clearly going to be starters, since they're at lower-profile positions.
Take a gander at the 2016 stat lines for these guys while you can, because they're all going to start putting up bigger numbers a few months from now.
25. Kansas State: Reggie Walker, DE
2016 Stats: 38 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, two fumbles forced, two fumbles recovered
Kansas State had a few games last season with typical Big 12 scores—Read: lots of points on both sides—but the Wildcats arguably played better defense than any other team in the conference. Their ability to stop the run was a crucial stepping stone to that end, as they ranked 11th in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game.
Losing both Elijah Lee and Jordan Willis to the NFL will make repeating that feat a major challenge, but Reggie Walker will do everything in his power to make it happen.
As a redshirt freshman, Walker tallied more tackles for loss, sacks and fumble recoveries than any other returning Wildcat. As a result, he was named to the Freshman All-American team.
Under normal circumstances, that honor would result in an immediate disqualification from "hidden gem" status, but it evidently wasn't enough for the Big 12 coaches to vote Walker as one of the 10 defensive linemen on the All-Big 12 teams. Look for them to correct that error after the 2017 season.
24. Boise State: Sean Modster, WR
2016 Stats: eight receptions, 135 yards
Brett Rypien is back at QB for Boise State, but most of his targets are not. Of the four Broncos who had more than 15 receptions last season, only Cedrick Wilson is still on the roster. Granted, if you can only keep one guy, the one who averaged better than 20 yards per reception with 11 touchdowns is a good one to have. But it raises the question of who will step up to fill those voids.
Early signs point toward Sean Modster as one of those players.
According to BroncoSports.com, Modster's five receptions in Boise State's spring game were the most among all players. And his eight receptions in 2016 are the most among returning wide receivers other than Wilson. That he averaged nearly 17 yards on those catches only adds credence to the notion that he could be headed for a breakout year.
23. Texas: Kyle Porter, RB
2016 Stats: 46 carries, 205 yards; two receptions, 10 yards
D'Onta Foreman averaged nearly 30 carries per game last season, leaving next to nothing for the rest of the Longhorns depth chart. In fact, if we exclude the game against UTEP in which Foreman did not play, Texas running backs not named Foreman accounted for just 80 carries in the entire season—42 for Chris Warren III and 38 for Kyle Porter.
With Foreman off to the NFL, both of those backs should be headed for a massive boost in opportunity. Of the two, Warren figures to be the starter, which leaves Porter as the hidden gem who could put up big numbers.
The 4-star recruit from Katy, Texas, only averaged 4.5 yards per carry, but the fact that he got a touch in almost every game as a true freshman speaks volumes for his potential in this offense. If nothing else, he can be the back who makes plays in the passing game. Two receptions isn't much to write home about, but it's more than the zero that Warren had last year.
22. Florida: Johnny Townsend, P
2016 Stats: 64 punts, 3,065 yards, 47.9 yards per punt
We do have a fullback higher up on this list, but a great punter is about as hidden as a gem gets.
Florida's Johnny Townsend led the nation in yards per punt last season. What's remarkable about that stat is he didn't benefit from any absurd record-setting bounces. According to his ESPN game log, his longest punt of the entire season was 62 yards. Townsend just consistently booted the ball 50-plus yards down the field.
It didn't hurt matters that Florida's offense was so anemic (116th nationally in total yards per game) that he was almost always in a position to just kick it as far as possible. But even when the situation called for some finesse, Townsend was willing and able to oblige.
On the aforementioned game log, his performance against Missouri (four punts, 126 yards) stands out like a sore thumb. His longest punt in that game (35) was 17 yards shorter than the long in any other. But all four of those punts came from inside Missouri territory, where he pinned the Tigers inside their own 20 each time.
21. TCU: KaVontae Turpin, WR/KR/PR
2016 Stats: 30 receptions, 295 yards, one TD; nine carries, 84 yards
KaVontae Turpin isn't so much a hidden gem as a potentially forgotten one.
As a true freshman in 2015, he was TCU's second-leading receiver. After factoring in his 910 combined kick and punt return yards, Turpin finished the season with more all-purpose yards than any other (non-QB) Horned Frog. He even had a four-TD game in a win over Texas.
Two games into the 2016 season, it looked like he was going to be the singular star of the team. Including returns, he was averaging 236.0 all-purpose yards per game. He had seven receptions in each contest prior to the mid-September PCL injury that sidelined him for more than a month and kept him from making anything close to the same type of impact upon his return.
Between the injury and academic issues that kept him out of practices this spring, Kacey Brown of Sports Day DFW doesn't even have Turpin listed as a projected starter for 2017. If he's physically and academically good to go, though, expect him to shine.
20. Oregon: Taj Griffin, RB
2016 Stats: 37 carries, 183 yards, three TD; seven receptions, 89 yards, one TD
Oregon's running back situation is an embarrassment of riches. Royce Freeman has more than 4,000 career rushing yards and 44 rushing TDs and is back for one more year in the saddle. No. 2 on the depth chart is Tony Brooks-James, who averaged 7.6 yards per carry last year as a sophomore. The Ducks also have senior RB Kani Benoit, who has at least 50 carries and 300 yards in each of the past two years.
And then there's Taj Griffin.
Two seasons ago, the top-100 recruit ranked second on the team in rushing yards as a true freshman, averaging 7.4 yards on his 77 carries. But he took a step backward in his second year prior to suffering a season-ending knee injury in early November.
Even if he's fully healthy, it's tough to say where he'll fit into the offense in 2017. New Oregon head coach Willie Taggart has worked wonders with running backs over the past seven seasons, though. Griffin might have to wait another season to shine again, but he is one heck of an insurance policy in case Freeman or Brooks-James get hurt.
19. West Virginia: Kennedy McKoy, RB
2016 Stats: 73 carries, 472 yards, four TD; nine receptions, 64 yards, one TD
Injuries forced West Virginia to try anything and everything in the running game last season. Five different players rushed for at least 89 yards in a game and led the team in rushing attempts in at least one game. In other words, there was nothing resembling stability in the Mountaineers backfield.
For now, though, Kennedy McKoy figures to enter the season as WVU's No. 2 option at running back with a chance to pick up a significant role in the receiving game, as well.
When Rushel Shell suffered an ankle injury in late October, McKoy immediately picked up the slack. Over the next two-and-a-half games, he accounted for 283 rushing yards on better than 5.3 yards per carry. He was just about the entire offense for the Mountaineers in a four-point win over Texas. Had it not been for an injury suffered on his first touch in the following game, the true freshman might have rushed his way into a starting job for next season.
Instead, McKoy's replacement (JUCO transfer Justin Crawford) ran for 331 yards in that game and added another 209 two weeks later, cementing his spot as the top back heading into the offseason. Regardless, look for McKoy to eclipse 100 touches with room to spare.
18. Miami: RJ McIntosh Jr., DT
2016 Stats: 47 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, two passes defended
One year removed from allowing just 18.5 points per game, Miami's defensive front seven is going to be an even bigger problem for opposing teams.
There were eight Hurricanes who recorded at least 6.0 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks last season. All eight return for another year, led by defensive ends Joe Jackson and Chad Thomas, who had a combined 21.5 tackles for loss and 12.0 sacks in 2016. In what might be the best rush defense in the nation, quality players are going to slip through the cracks for national attention.
RJ McIntosh might be one of those players.
After barely seeing the field as a freshman, McIntosh recorded multiple tackles in 12 of 13 games as a sophomore, including taking part in at least one stuff behind the line of scrimmage in eight games. He led all Hurricane linemen in total tackles and will once again spearhead an attack that wins the battle of the trenches more often than not.
17. Stanford: JJ Arcega-Whiteside, WR
2016 Stats: 24 receptions, 379 yards, five TD
Figuring out life after Christian McCaffrey will be an adventure for Stanford, but JJ Arcega-Whiteside is one of the Cardinal who will statistically benefit from his departure.
Aside from McCaffrey's 16 TDs, Arcega-Whiteside's five were the most on the roster. Moreover, his 15.8 yards per catch was easily the highest mark among the five Stanford players with at least 10 receptions.
But his ceiling for the upcoming season may be directly tied to the health of the knee Keller Chryst injured in the Sun Bowl, as it was when Chryst became the starter at QB that Arcega-Whiteside shone the brightest. He had back-to-back 100-yard games at Oregon and California in mid-November in Stanford's two highest-scoring games of the season.
Even if Ryan Burns is the starter, though, there's still a good chance Arcega-Whiteside becomes the featured WR in this offense. After all, he was on the receiving end of three of Burns' five passing touchdowns last season.
16. South Florida: Elkanah Dillon, TE
2016 Stats: eight receptions, 177 yards, two TD
Tight ends haven't been given many targets at South Florida over the past few years, but they have made the most of their limited opportunities. Both Elkanah Dillon and Mitchell Wilcox averaged better than 22.0 yards per reception in 2016, albeit on a combined total of 20 catches.
Dillon put up similar numbers (nine receptions, 208 yards, two TD) as a freshman and figures to remain a big-play threat for the upcoming season.
If nothing else, he's one heck of a big target for Quinton Flowers to hit. Listed at 6'5" and 256 pounds, Dillon was the man Flowers found for a 25-yard TD strike on the first play of the Birmingham Bowl-winning overtime drive.
With Marlon Mack and Rodney Adams both out of the picture, there's a good chance Dillon is given a bigger piece of the pie as a junior.
15. Wisconsin: Taiwan Deal, RB
2016 Stats: 32 carries, 164 yards
Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale graduated, putting Wisconsin in a bit of a pickle at running back. Redshirt sophomore Bradrick Shaw and Pittsburgh transfer Chris James figure to be the two guys battling for the starting gig, but Taiwan Deal is going to be a major factor—if and when he's healthy.
Deal ran for more than 500 yards with six scores as a freshman in 2015 before Clement and Shaw knocked him down a few spots in the 2016 pecking order. When the Badgers' bowling ball was given touches, though, he was effective, averaging better than 5.0 yards per carry.
There was a reasonable chance he could have played his way into a starting job this spring, but he underwent offseason ankle surgery, subsequently missing all of spring camp. Deal also missed more than a month of action this past season due to a leg injury, so this wasn't the first time that bumps and bruises functioned as a speed bump on his path to a prominent role.
14. Louisville: Seth Dawkins, WR/KR
2016 Stats: 11 receptions, 191 yards, one TD; 14 kick returns, 306 yards
Lamar Jackson takes up all of the spotlight at Louisville, so one could make a hidden gem argument for just about anyone other than the Cardinals QB.
But one player in particular who figures to blow last year's numbers out of the water is sophomore wide receiver Seth Dawkins. This is largely because all three of Jackson's primary targets from last season (James Quick, Cole Hikutini and Jamari Staples) graduated, leaving more than 2,000 receiving yards up for grabs.
Dawkins was already starting to build a rapport with Jackson late in the year, making six of his 11 receptions in Louisville's final three games. Though he'll have competition from Jaylen Smith, Traveon Samuel and redshirt freshman Dez Fitzpatrick, the 6'3" part-time kick returner has both the size and the speed to become one of the go-to guys in this passing game.
13. Georgia: Aaron Davis, CB/S
2016 Stats: 55 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries
Georgia's defense is loaded with both returning talent and incoming potential. All four starting linebackers are back, and all four of the projected starters in the secondary recorded multiple interceptions last year. Factor in a great recruiting class anchored by defensive backs Richard LeCounte III and DeAngelo Gibbs, and trying to score against the Dawgs should be one heck of an adventure.
If any individuals in this system are going to be noticed for a job well done, the most likely culprits are linebackers Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter. But don't sleep on Aaron Davis becoming an All-SEC defender in the secondary.
Georgia's primary strong safety has started 30 games over the past three seasons, making a little bit of an impact all over the defense. In his career, he has defended eight passes with four interceptions, has either forced or recovered seven fumbles and has 141 tackles, including 2.5 sacks.
With former fellow jack-of-all-trades DB Maurice Smith out of eligibility, Davis could fill up a lot of defensive box scores in his final season.
12. Penn State: Saeed Blacknall, WR
2016 Stats: 15 receptions, 347 yards, three TD
Though his touches have been few and far between, Saeed Blacknall has been one of college football's biggest home run threats over the past two seasons. He averaged 23.1 yards per catch last year; this is after averaging 31.0 yards per reception as a sophomore.
And as he proved in the Big Ten championship game this past December, he isn't just some garbage-time box-score hero. Rather, his 155 receiving yards and two touchdowns were the catalyst that jump-started Penn State's come-from-behind victory over Wisconsin to reach the Rose Bowl.
Chris Godwin had been the No. 1 receiver for the Nittany Lions over the past two seasons, but Blacknall might finally become the primary deep threat in this offense with Godwin out of the picture.
At any rate, if Trace McSorley is going to vie for the Heisman, all those passing yards have to end up in someone's hands. Mike Gesicki, DeAndre Thompkins, DaeSean Hamilton and Saquon Barkley will likely all finish the season with more targets than Blacknall, but he should eclipse 500 receiving yards with room to spare.
11. Auburn: Will Hastings, WR
2016 Stats: 11 receptions, 98 yards, one TD
Since Cam Newton left after the 2010 season, Auburn's aerial attack has been...not great. But with Baylor transfer and former 5-star recruit Jarrett Stidham now eligible at QB, the expectation is that Auburn will pass it better and more often than in recent years.
One player who figures to benefit from that slight philosophical shift is former walk-on kicker, Will Hastings.
Don't be fooled by that classification. Hastings was a great wide receiver in high school. According to his Auburn bio, he is one of just two players in Arkansas state history to record more than 2,000 receiving yards in a single season. However, unable to get any scholarship offers as a wide receiver, he opted to walk-on as a kicker with the hopes of eventually proving himself as an option in the passing game.
Two years later, Hastings was the star of Auburn's 2017 spring game with seven receptions for 75 yards. And with no returning players on the roster who had more than 25 receptions or 300 receiving yards last season, who's to say Hastings can't become the No. 1 receiving option in this offense? After all, he did get out to a nice start last season with eight receptions in Auburn's first three games prior to dropping off the map.
10. Michigan: Chase Winovich, DE
2016 Stats: 32 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks, one forced fumble
Rashan Gary is the defensive end at Michigan that scouts and fans cannot wait to see in a starting role, but the man opposite Gary on the defensive line could be headed for a great season, too.
Chase Winovich is no stranger to going unnoticed for his individual accolades, though. Between 2017 first-round draft picks Jabrill Peppers and Taco Charlton, there wasn't much room leftover for attention for what Winovich was doing. But he had more sacks in 2016 than any other Wolverine on the 2017 roster.
Not bad for a guy who had a grand total of two tackles in his first two seasons in Ann Arbor.
It's alright if the folks in the stands are more focused on what Gary does this season, but opposing teams best be prepared for Michigan's second-best edge-rusher. Otherwise, Winovich will capitalize on the opportunity by repeatedly blowing plays up in the backfield.
9. Washington: Chico McClatcher, WR
2016 Stats: 31 receptions, 574 yards, five TD; 18 carries, 131 yards, one TD
Two years ago, Chico McClatcher was Washington's primary kick returner who occasionally made a cameo in the offense. But when John Ross returned from injury and got back to returning kicks, Chris Petersen put McClatcher to work as a slot receiver with big-play potential.
The move was an immediate success, as he averaged 3.0 receptions, 67.3 yards and 1.0 TD through the first four games of the season.
As the year progressed, Jake Browning went away from McClatcher and instead primarily targeted Ross and Dante Pettis. With Ross now in the NFL, though, McClatcher should be the No. 2 receiver for one of the top preseason candidates for the Heisman.
He gets bonus "hidden gem" points for his utility as an end-around rusher. Through two seasons, McClatcher has registered 37 carries, averaging 7.7 yards apiece. There's a lot of offensive potential crammed into this 5'7" package.
8. Oklahoma: Dimitri Flowers, FB
2016 Stats: 22 carries, 115 yards; 11 receptions, 200 yards, four TD
In the modern era of football, no gem is more hidden on the field than a fullback.
In fact, Dimitri Flowers was so hidden in Oklahoma's offense that even head coach Bob Stoops probably had no idea what he was capable of doing until he was forced into action. With Joe Mixon suspended and Samaje Perine injured for the game against Iowa State, Flowers stepped up with 34 receiving yards and a touchdown and all 115 of the rushing yards listed above.
Both regulars returned to the field the following week and that was all she wrote for Flowers' 2016 rushing career.
But perhaps he'll be more in the mix with both of those running backs now out of the picture? Abdul Adams (53 carries, 283 yards) should be the No. 1 guy this year, but the Sooners don't have nearly the same one-two backfield combo from the past two seasons. Even if it's just a couple of carries or a few more targets per game, Flowers ought to be a weekly staple in Oklahoma's offensive game plan.
7. Oklahoma State: Jeff Carr, RB
2016 Stats: 12 carries, 85 yards, one TD; one reception, four yards
Oklahoma State's offense is going to be a ton of fun to watch. QB Mason Rudolph is one of the top candidates for the 2017 Heisman. Justice Hill ran for 1,142 yards as a freshman and should be headed for an even better encore performance. And leading receivers James Washington and Jalen McCleskey both return for another year.
But the reserve running back job is completely up for grabs. Chris Carson (559 yards), Rennie Childs (237 yards) and Barry Sanders (93 yards) all graduated, leaving Jeff Carr as the only back aside from Hill with any college experience.
Carr made more of an impact as a freshman than he did as a sophomore. He was the primary kick returner for the Cowboys that year, and he accounted for three touchdowns on offense. When Hill arrived, though, Carr's role in the Oklahoma State offense was diminished.
The departures of Carson and Childs opens the door for Carr to once again become an important—albeit still minor—piece of the puzzle. In this explosive offense, even a part-time job should return solid dividends.
6. LSU: Devin White, LB
2016 Stats: 30 total tackles, 3.0 tackles for loss, 1.0 sack, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery
Nine different Tigers recorded at least 4.0 tackles for loss in 2016, but LSU is undergoing a total makeover on defense. Eight of those nine players are gone, and there's no telling whether the ninth will be back, as it has been more than three months since Arden Key took some time away from the team for personal reasons.
As a result, Devin White might be the defensive star for the purple and gold, despite appearing in just eight games as a freshman.
He sounds ready for the job, though.
White recently told Andrew Lopez of Nola.com that Kendell Beckwith, Duke Riley, Donnie Alexander, Jamal Adams and Leonard Fournette all took him under their collective wing last season to help him grow as a person, player and leader.
"When the season went on, I learned more and more and when I learned more and more and I started playing more and more. I started making plays. When Kendell got hurt, he taught me a lot because I was playing his role basically. Then he helped me out."
As far as this year is concerned, White added, "I don't feel pressure because I'm prepared."
5. Clemson: C.J. Fuller, RB
2016 Stats: 47 carries, 211 yards; seven receptions, 62 yards, two TD
After two years of Wayne Gallman as the workhorse running back, all signs point toward Clemson entering 2017 with a three-headed backfield by committee, consisting of C.J. Fuller, Tavien Feaster and Adam Choice.
"I thought that C.J. had the best spring in terms of his consistency from start to finish," Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott told Dan Hope of the Independent Mail. "If I had to start a game tomorrow, I'd run C.J. out there and then have Tavien and Choice ready to play."
Despite that vote of confidence from the man who will make the decision, most preseason eyes will be centered on Feaster—the former 5-star recruit who averaged 6.0 yards per carry as a true freshman last season.
But Fuller has seniority and is the better pass-blocker, which might be the most important trait in a Clemson running back as the Tigers potentially transition from Deshaun Watson to true freshman Hunter Johnson at QB. Moreover, Fuller has prove to be a capable receiver out of the backfield, putting another tiebreaker in his favor.
Regardless of who starts, there are plenty of touches to go around. Look for Fuller's role in this offense to explode in his third season.
4. USC: Aca'Cedric Ware, RB
2016 Stats: 78 carries, 397 yards, two TD; four receptions, 29 yards
In 2015, USC had the best recruiting class in the nation, but it's the two lowest-rated guys in that class who could make a huge impact in the upcoming season. Leading returning receiver Deontay Burnett is the obvious one, but reserve running back Aca'Cedric Ware should also be a crucial piece of the puzzle.
When given the opportunity, Ware was solid in 2016. Starting RB Justin Davis went down with a foot injury, after which Ware reeled off back-to-back 100-yard games. However, he suffered an ankle injury in a practice the following week and barely played the rest of the year. Based on how well Ronald Jones ran with Ware injured, he is the clear front-runner for the starting job heading into the season.
With Davis graduated and permanently out of the picture, though, look for Ware to be USC's second-leading rusher and its primary receiver/pass-blocker among the backfield options. Redshirt freshman Vavae Malepeai and true freshman Stephen Carr will challenge for touches, but Ware's overall importance in the Trojans offense should spike for a second consecutive year.
3. Ohio State: Damon Webb, CB/S
2016 Stats: 57 tackles, three passes defended, one INT (TD)
Ohio State's secondary in 2016 was easily one of the best in recent memory. At any rate, NFL teams certainly thought so, as Marshon Lattimore, Malik Hooker and Gareon Conley were all taken in the first round of the draft.
Because that trio was so great—a combined 15 interceptions and 21 passes defended—Damon Webb's contributions were overlooked in his transition from reserve cornerback to starting safety. And there's a good chance he'll be underappreciated again this year with all eyes on what should be a dominant defensive line.
But Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano is expecting big things from Webb, telling Jacob Myers of The Lantern in April:
"Right now, the guy who performed like a starter is Damon Webb. He had his best stretch of football that I've ever seen in him, and I haven't seen that much, but from what I've seen, it was his best stretch of football. He has a look about him, a focus that I think this is going to be a huge summer for him. He's going to come back and have a great senior year."
2. Florida State: Amir Rasul, RB
2016 Stats: six carries, 46 yards
After only really seeing the field for one 44-point blowout of Charleston Southern, Amir Rasul isn't remotely the favorite to start at running back for the Seminoles this year. That job will either go to Jacques Patrick or incoming freshman Cam Akers.
But with Dalvin Cook (288 carries, 1,765 yards) out of the picture, Rasul should at least get more than six touches as a sophomore. Heck, the running back could get more than six balls as a receiver, considering Florida State lost all four of its leaders in receptions from last season.
If nothing else, Jimbo Fisher can employ the former 4-star recruit as a change-of-pace back. Rasul is four inches shorter and 35 pounds lighter than Patrick and isn't nearly the bruiser that Akers figures to be. If Rasul proves capable of running basic routes and catching passes out of the backfield, perhaps he could carve out a Darren Sproles type of role in this offense.
1. Alabama: B.J. Emmons, RB
2016 Stats: 35 carries, 173 yards, one TD
Only at Alabama could a hidden gem be a former top-50 recruit who averaged nearly 5.0 yards per carry as a true freshman.
Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough and Joshua Jacobs all return for (at least) one more year at running back with the Crimson Tide. Each one averaged 6.5 yards per carry or better in 2016. Nick Saban also added the top running back in the nation in this year's class in Najee Harris. And QB Jalen Hurts led the team in both carries and rushing TDs last season.
Where exactly does B.J. Emmons fit into that equation—particularly after undergoing two surgeries for a foot injury suffered in October?
Even if he's fully healthy, there's a chance he barely touches the field. But Matt Zenitz of AL.com thinks Emmons has a shot in the RB competition after packing on nearly 30 pounds of muscle since early in his freshman season.
That probably makes him more of a wild card than a hidden gem, but Emmons will eventually be a significant factor for a title favorite. Whether that's in 2017, 2018 or 2019 remains to be seen.
Kerry Miller covers college football and college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.