Building the Perfect College Football Offense for 2017
USC's Sam Darnold and Penn State's Saquon Barkley were opponents in the exhilarating Rose Bowl a few months ago, but the outstanding QB and RB would team up in the starting lineup if we could handpick the perfect offense from 2017 college football rosters.
Though there are some cases where the obvious choice is also the top projected 2018 draft pick at his position, this is more than simply an exercise in talent aggregation. For example, we're searching for a good combination of both pass and run blocking on the offensive line. And in the receiving corps, a nice blend of deep threats and possession receivers is the goal. Versatility is a big plus.
In other words, they need to all fit together in order to create a cohesive and unstoppable offense.
For each of the 11 positions in this three-WR, one-TE singleback formation, an explanation for each selected starter is provided, as well as a nomination for a backup, should the starter be unwilling or unable to play for any reason.
Left Tackle: Connor Williams, Texas
The Starter: Connor Williams, Texas
The Texas Longhorns allowed 2.67 sacks per game last year, tied for 101st in the nation in that category. It might seem careless to choose a starting left tackle from that porous offensive line, but Connor Williams was not to blame for their woes.
According to B/R's NFL draft guru Matt Miller, Williams has allowed just one sack in his two collegiate seasons. And, according to Pro Football Focus, there were only five times in the entire 2016 season that a Texas QB faced pressure because of the edge-rusher Williams was tasked with slowing down.
Former Texas play-caller Jay Norvell had high praise for Williams midway through his freshman year. Norvell told reporters at a press conference (h/t Ryan Autullo of the Austin American-Statesman), "He's extremely intelligent, and he's extremely competitive. And he's physically talented, which for a freshman is highly unusual. For him to play left tackle, to not worry about him is really rare."
Williams has only improved from there. He will enter his junior year on the short list of legitimate candidates to be taken with the No. 1 overall draft pick next April.
Runner-Up: Orlando Brown, Oklahoma
Left Guard: Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame
The Starter: Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame
Much like Connor Williams on the previous slide, Quenton Nelson was one of the lone bright spots on a disappointing team.
In both sacks allowed and yards per carry, Notre Dame was at or below the national average in the process of putting together a 4-8 record. But Nelson still ranked as one of the best individual run-blockers in the country and will likely be a first-round draft pick if he has another year as impressive as the previous two.
Heck, he likely would have been one this year. Had Nelson opted to forgo his senior season, ESPN's Todd McShay had him projected as a late first-round pick, writing in December (h/t ABC News):
"Nelson has established himself as one of the best guards in the country. He shows good effort, toughness and technique in the running game, and it's tough for pass-rushers to get around his 6-5, 325-pound frame. Nelson projects as a day one NFL starter."
In addition to his excellent run blocking, by Pro Football Focus grading, Nelson was also the best pass-blocker among the Fighting Irish linemen. This is precisely the versatility we want on this all-star team. Between the left tackle and left guard, opposing pass-rushers shouldn't get within five yards of the quarterback's blind side.
Runner-Up: Will Hernandez, UTEP
Center: Frank Ragnow, Arkansas
The Starter: Frank Ragnow, Arkansas
As far as Pro Football Focus is concerned, this one is a no-brainer. Frank Ragnow had an cumulative grading score of 36.0 last season. The next-closest center scored a 23.1. You don't need to know how those numbers are calculated in order to appreciate that finishing at least 55.8 percent ahead of everyone else in the country is impressive.
In particular, Ragnow was a monster as a run-blocker. The Razorbacks had a nightmarish time trying to run the ball off tackle after replacing three starting offensive linemen from the previous season, but Rawleigh Williams III and Devwah Whaley were able to rack up yards when running up the gut behind Ragnow.
He's more than just a bulldozer for opposing nose tackles, though. Ragnow was not responsible for a single sack in either of the past two seasons, and he is one of the best blockers on screen plays in the country. There's not a better total package at center.
Runner-Up: Mason Cole, Michigan
Right Guard: Billy Price, Ohio State
The Starter: Billy Price, Ohio State
It's fitting that Billy Price wears No. 54 for Ohio State. Provided he can avoid injury, that's potentially the number of consecutive games he will have started on the offensive line for the Buckeyes. His streak currently stands at 41 games, dating back to the start of Ohio State's 2014 national championship season.
Versatility is a major component of that longevity in the starting lineup. Listed out of high school as a defensive tackle on Scout, Price spent the majority of his first two seasons at left guard, moved to right guard as a junior and is expected to start at center as a senior. All the while, Ohio State went 37-4 and had one of the most unstoppable rushing attacks in the nation.
In addition to his skill as an interior blocker, Price brings a ton of much-needed leadership and winning experience to this offensive line. Connor Williams, Quenton Nelson and Frank Ragnow have great individual potential, but their teams went a combined 16-21 last season. They could use a guy like Price who won't tolerate a losing effort.
Runner-Up: Braden Smith, Auburn
Right Tackle: Jonah Williams, Alabama
The Starter: Jonah Williams, Alabama
Jonah Williams is the only player on this roster that isn't eligible for the 2018 NFL draft. But if Nick Saban deemed him worthy of a starting job immediately out of high school, we want him on our team.
According to Marq Burnett of SECCountry.com, Williams became just the second offensive tackle to start as a true freshman under Saban (the other was Cam Robinson, the No. 34 overall pick in the 2017 draft). And, according to a midseason ranking by Pro Football Focus, Williams was one of the best true freshmen in the nation, regardless of position.
A couple of rough games late in the year against LSU, Auburn and Chattanooga negatively impacted his overall rating for the season, but it didn't hurt his standing with his head coach. Williams is expected to become the starting left tackle for the Crimson Tide, tasked with protecting Jalen Hurts' blind side.
On this roster, though, he'll remain at right tackle, keeping edge-rushers from obstructing our quarterback's line of sight.
Runner-Up: Mike McGlinchey, Notre Dame
Quarterback: Sam Darnold, USC
The Starter: Sam Darnold, USC
To say the least, there are a lot of great options at quarterback. Gunslingers like Baker Mayfield, Mason Rudolph, Jake Browning and Trace McSorley would each be nice to have. If you prefer guys with a bit more mobility, Lamar Jackson, J.T. Barrett, Deondre Francois and Jalen Hurts could be downright lethal, too.
But the dozens of 2018 mock drafts that have Sam Darnold as a lock for a top-five pick can't possibly be wrong, can they?
As a redshirt freshman, Darnold was unflappable. USC got out to a slow start while figuring out its QB situation, but the Trojans finished the year on a nine-game winning streak with Darnold leading the way. He averaged 300 passing yards and 3.2 touchdowns per game while completing more than 67 percent of his pass attempts during that stretch.
It was his performance in the Rose Bowl that cemented his status as the most hyped QB of the 2017 season. With 453 yards and five scores against Penn State's defense, Darnold immediately became the front-runner for the 2017 Heisman and the most likely No. 1 pick in next year's draft. Put this man behind an offensive line that gives him all day to read the defense and he'll work the ball down the field with surgical precision.
Runner-Up: Lamar Jackson, Louisville
Running Back: Saquon Barkley, Penn State
The Starter: Saquon Barkley, Penn State
It was tempting to go with a two-RB formation, scrapping either the third wide receiver or the tight end.
But with a do-it-all stud like Saquon Barkley, why bother?
The breakaway speed and elusiveness are what make Barkley such a tantalizing prospect for NFL scouts. Of his 18 rushing touchdowns in 2016, seven came from at least 24 yards out, including four TD scampers of at least 55 yards. B/R's Matt Miller recently said Barkley could be even better than 2016 NFL rookie of the year, Ezekiel Elliott.
Barkley is so much more than just a speed demon, though. Ten of his 18 touchdowns came from within four yards of the goal line, as he is an every-down back capable of occasionally breaking tackles in addition to the would-be tacklers he can juke out of their shoes.
He's also one of the best available targets out of the backfield, finishing last season with 28 receptions for 402 yards. That versatility is what makes him the obvious pick for this spot.
Runner-Up: Derrius Guice, LSU
Deep Threat WR: James Washington, Oklahoma State
The Starter: James Washington, Oklahoma State
To properly spread out the defense to maximize what this offense can do, we want a wide receiver who is a threat to burn the secondary for a huge scoring play. After all, what's the point in picking a quarterback with a big arm if he's not going to occasionally unleash a 50-yard bomb?
That coveted deep threat is James Washington.
According to CFBstats.com, Washington ranked top 10 in the nation in receptions of at least 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 and 90 yards in 2016. He is one of just two players in the past seven seasons to have three catches or more go for at least 80 yards in a single year. In 10 out of 13 games last season, Washington had one or more receptions of at least 32 yards.
No matter how you slice it, he's the ideal target for the occasional "Go long" play call. He's a not a 10-receptions-per-game type of No. 1 receiver, but he's still going to end up with a ton of yards.
Runner-Up: Allenzae Staggers, Southern Miss
Jump Ball WR: Courtland Sutton, SMU
The Starter: Courtland Sutton, SMU
You can't teach height, but you can almost always use it in a wide receiver.
At 6'4", Courtland Sutton has been SMU's jump-ball aficionado for the past two seasons. Even when he's covered, throw the ball high in his direction and he'll most likely at least get a hand on it, possibly hauling it in for an acrobatic reception.
Toward the end of last year, heaving the ball his way was just about SMU's entire offense. He had 31 catches for 478 yards and five touchdowns in SMU's final three games. He accounted for more than 32 percent of the team's total offense in those contests.
Sutton is more than just the go-to guy for fade routes, though. He's also a great route-runner with the speed to outrun the secondary, either before or after the catch. He would be the do-it-all receiver on this team in advance of likely becoming the first wide receiver selected in the 2018 draft.
Runner-Up: Cedrick Wilson, Boise State
Possession WR: Linell Bonner, Houston
The Starter: Linell Bonner, Houston
There were 57 wide receivers with at least 65 receptions last season. According to Pro Football Focus, all but one of those frequent targets had at least two drops. Linell Bonner was the exception to that rule with just one.
Taking that one step further, 22 of the 23 players with at least 81 receptions had at least four drops, but Bonner had 100 receptions with only one miscue.
James Washington and Courtland Sutton can have the glory of the deep balls and touchdowns while Bonner puts in work on the short routes. The junior had seven games last season with at least eight receptions, including 17 catches for 235 yards in a shootout against Memphis.
Runner-Up: Richie James, Middle Tennessee
Tight End: Troy Fumagalli, Wisconsin
The Starter: Troy Fumagalli, Wisconsin
In this offense, the tight end falls somewhere between a luxury and a decoy. He would rarely be needed as a sixth blocker on the offensive line, and he would be the fourth or fifth option in the passing game.
That said, how much fun would it be to watch Troy Fumagalli running routes for an elite quarterback?
With all due respect to the likes of Joel Stave, Bart Houston and Alex Hornibrook, they aren't Sam Darnold. But last year, Wisconsin's quarterbacks figured out just how big a role Fumagalli can play in the offense. In the season opener against LSU, he had a career-high 100 receiving yards. The 6'6" tight end had another 84 yards against Ohio State and popped off for 83 yards and the game-sealing touchdown in the Cotton Bowl win over Western Michigan.
In that final game, Fumagalli had a ridiculous one-handed catch—with a hand that only has four digits because his index finger was amputated days after he was born. With that highlight-reel potential, he could be one heck of a secret weapon for this all-star team.
Runner-Up: Adam Breneman, Massachusetts
Kerry Miller covers college football and college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.