Every Top 25 College Football Team's Most Under-the-Radar Player

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistJuly 8, 2016

Every Top 25 College Football Team's Most Under-the-Radar Player

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    Being among the best teams in college football requires a healthy dose of star power, those well-known players everyone can identify. But just as important, if not more so, are the ones who operate outside of the spotlight yet still have a major impact on a team's performance.

    These are the players you wouldn't normally mention first, second or even third when discussing a team's best assets.

    It's not meant to be a slight against them but rather an indication that they've flown under the radar to this point and haven't caught everyone's attention.

    That could all change this season.

    Using Bleacher Report's most recent Top 25 rankings, we've picked out an under-the-radar player from each team. These may still not end up being their squad's best performers, but as the 2016 season progresses, you should start hearing their names more often.

No. 25 Miami (Florida): David Njoku

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Year: Redshirt sophomore

    Position: Tight end

    Height, weight: 6'4”, 240 lbs

    His career to this point has been slow to develop, but 2016 offers David Njoku a chance to break through and be a real factor in Miami's pass offense. His first season produced 21 catches for 362 yards and a touchdown, a five-yard catch that set the tone early in the Hurricanes' November win over Virginia.

    Outside of that game, though, Njoku didn't get many opportunities. He still managed to pull in five catches for at least 25 yards but was mostly forgotten in red-zone situations other than on his lone TD grab.

    Tight ends caught 26 TDs in Mark Richt's final six seasons at Georgia, so expect Njoku to be more involved this season.

No. 24 Wisconsin: Troy Fumagalli

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    Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    Year: Junior

    Position: Tight end

    Height, weight: 6'6”, 251 lbs

    Wisconsin has had at least one tight end catch 25 or more passes in each of the past eight seasons, including the 28 that Troy Fumagalli had last year. But unlike most of his predecessors, he wasn't among the 45 players to make the early “watch list” for the John Mackey Award given to the nation's top tight end.

    Fumagalli has 42 catches in two seasons with the Badgers but has scored just oncein the first quarter of a 23-21 home win over Nebraska last October when he had career highs in catches (six) and yards (60).

    With leading receiver Alex Erickson no longer around, more targets could be coming Fumagalli's way.

No. 23 Washington State: Gerard Wicks

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    Andres Leighton/Associated Press

    Year: Redshirt junior

    Position: Running back

    Height, weight: 6'0”, 226 lbs

    On most other teams, Gerard Wicks would likely be a far more integral part of the process. At Washington State, he's mostly been an afterthought, though a quite productive one at that.

    The Cougars throw the ball more than any other team in FBS, their 738 attempts in 13 games last season being 118 more than the field.

    Consequently, WSU ran the ball just 294 times, 62 fewer times than any other school, and Wicks only managed 107 carries all season. He averaged 5.7 carries and had three of WSU's five rushing TDs, his 610 yards being the most of any back in Mike Leach's four seasons leading the Cougars.

    Though he benefits from opponents not keying on the run, Wicks is elusive in the open field. Almost 21 percent of his rushes went for at least 10 yards.

No. 22 Oregon: Torrodney Prevot

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    Ryan Kang/Associated Press

    Year: Senior

    Position: Defensive end

    Height, weight: 6'3”, 225 lbs

    The hiring of Brady Hoke as Oregon's defensive coordinator called for plenty of changes to how the Ducks will look when they don't have the ball. Hoke is switching the front seven to a 4-3, and to help accommodate that move, he's converted Torrodney Prevot from the linebacker spot he's played in the last three years.

    Prevot started at linebacker last year, when he had 48 tackles with 7.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks, with much of his production coming when he'd come off the edge.

    That made getting him closer to the line a natural move and will allow him to factor into more plays than ever before.

    "He's an athletic talent with a quick reaction time, making him a prime candidate to lead the Ducks in sacks and tackles for loss this coming season," 247Sports' Matt Prehm wrote.

21. TCU: Denzel Johnson

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Year: Senior

    Position: Safety

    Height, weight: 6'2”, 210 lbs

    The injury bug that plagued most of TCU's defense last season managed to avoid Denzel Johnson, one of a small group of Horned Frogs defenders who appeared in every game. Johnson started all 13 in the secondary, his first year as a starter, leading the team with 13.5 tackles for loss.

    Though he only had one interception, Johnson broke up eight passes. The last of those ended TCU's epic comeback win over Oregon in the Alamo Bowl, batting away a throw in the end zone on fourth down in the third overtime.

    Earlier that game, Johnson broke up a fake punt pass that could have led to a Ducks touchdown and what would have been a 38-0 lead.

    Because the Big 12 is loaded with both strong running backs and big-play passing offenses, players like Johnson are in high demand. "Hybrid safeties who can play downhill against the run and still cover tight ends and running backs out of the backfield dictate the difference between allowing a touchdown or a field goal," Mike Craven of Texas Football wrote.

20. Iowa: Akrum Wadley

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Year: Junior

    Position: Running back

    Height, weight: 5'11”, 185 lbs

    Iowa's running back depth was such that Akrum Wadley sat out five games and didn't see a carry in a sixth last season. But when leading rusher Jordan Canzeri got hurt early in an October game at Northwestern, it was Wadley who burst onto the scene with a record-setting performance.

    His four rushing touchdowns set a school single-game mark, part of his 204 yards on 26 carries in the 40-10 win. That earned Wadley starts against Maryland and Indiana in which he gained another 187 yards.

    Once Canzeri was healthy, though, Wadley went back to minimal use with only 18 carries in Iowa's final five games.

    With Canzeri having graduated, Wadley and LeShun Daniels, Jr. figure to split the workload. If Wadley explodes like he did in 2015, though, he may get the bulk of the work.

19. North Carolina: Andre Smith

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Year: Sophomore

    Position: Linebacker

    Height, weight: 6'0”, 235 lbs

    North Carolina made major improvements on defense last year, though late-season breakdowns kept the overall numbers from looking as impressive. New coordinator Gene Chizik was deserving of credit for these upgrades, but so was the play of some newcomers like Andre Smith.

    As a true freshman, he ranked sixth on the team in tackles despite not starting one game. His breakout game came in a Thursday night contest at Pittsburgh when he had 11 takedowns, six of the solo variety, in the 26-19 win.

    Smith figures to take on a much larger role with fellow linebackers Shakeel Rashad and Jeff Schoettmer taking their combined 223 tackles with them as graduates.

18. Washington: Dante Pettis

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    Jennifer Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

    Year: Junior

    Position: Wide receiver

    Height, weight: 6'1”, 187 lbs

    Dante Pettis isn't even the most well-known football player in his family but if he continues to improve with Washington, that could soon change. The cousin of former Boise State standout receiver Austin Pettis, Dante has 47 catches in two seasons but scored just two touchdowns.

    His 30 receptions last year are the most of any returning Huskies pass-catcher, putting him in position to assume the lead role out there.

    However, Washington also brings back big-play target John Ross, who missed all of 2015 due to injury.

    Pettis has also proved to be a valuable weapon on special teams, having returned two punts for TDs last year while averaging a Pac-12-best 16.94 yards per return.

17. USC: Malik Dorton

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Year: Redshirt sophomore

    Position: Defensive end

    Height, weight: 6'2”, 280 lbs

    USC has a major shortage of experience among its defensive linemen, which made the recent pickup of Utah transfer Stevie Tu'ikolovatu so important. His two sacks and six tackles for loss last year are more than any returner up front for the Trojans, who lost several players to graduation and Kenny Bigelow to a knee injury.

    Malik Dorton could be the biggest beneficiary from all this, as the converted linebacker has the size to play in the middle but can also fly off the edge. That will work well in defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast's 5-2 alignment.

    Dorton took the majority of first-team snaps at defensive end during the spring, per Conquest Chronicles' Andy Green.

16. Michigan State: Montae Nicholson

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Year: Junior

    Position: Safety

    Height, weight: 6'2”, 220 lbs

    The "no-fly zone" culture that former defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi created has lived on since he left to coach Pittsburgh, though the results weren't as strong in 2015 as in previous seasons. Michigan State was ninth in the Big Ten in pass defense despite Montae Nicholson emerging as a force at strong safety.

    Nicholson's three interceptions tied with the more well-known Demetrious Cox for the team lead, while his 83 tackles were tops among defensive backs and third-most on the Spartans.

    A great open-field defender, Nicholson had 52 solo takedowns, including seven in the Cotton Bowl loss to Alabama.

    His most impressive play of last year might have been in the win over Oregon, when he made up ground on a receiver and ripped a pass from his hands in the air, returning it 30 yards. That set up an MSU touchdown three plays later for an early 14-7 lead.

15. Georgia: Dominick Sanders

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    Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

    Year: Junior

    Position: Safety

    Height, weight: 6'0”, 189 lbs

    New Georgia coach Kirby Smart knows his defense, having orchestrated some stout units in his time at Alabama. Dominick Sanders fits what Smart wants from his players, both in terms of performance and presence, which is why he's bringing the strong safety to SEC media days next week.

    Set to start in the secondary for the third year, Sanders has nine career interceptions, including six as a sophomore. He benefited from having a veteran front seven to feed off. This fall, the back line is where the experience lies.

    "The secondary likely needs to be the strength of this year’s defense, and Sanders is front and center to that," Seth Emerson of DawgNation.com wrote.

    Sanders might be called on to be more involved in stopping the run this year. He had five tackles for loss in 2015.

14. Stanford: Bryce Love

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Year: Sophomore

    Position: Running back

    Height, weight: 5'10”, 181 lbs

    Contrary to how the numbers played out, Christian McCaffrey wasn't Stanford's only ball-carrier in 2015.

    Sure, he set a school record with 2,019 yards and averaged more than 24 rushes per game, but the Cardinal ran it 43.6 times per contest and had to look elsewhere on those occasions when McCaffrey needed a breather.

    Bryce Love wasn't the first choice for these fill-in carries, nor was he the second. His freshman season included just 29 carries along with 15 receptions, but he made the most of every opportunity by averaging 7.79 yards on the ground and 16.67 through the air.

    His promise was partly responsible for Barry Sanders Jr.'s choice to transfer to Oklahoma State for his final season, and with Remound Wright having graduated, that moves Love up to the second spot behind McCaffrey.

    If he can remain as productive as in 2015 but with more use, Stanford's run game won't be known as a one-man attack much longer.

13. Louisville: Trumaine Washington

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Year: Junior

    Position: Cornerback

    Height, weight: 5'10”, 183 lbs

    Louisville's pass defense ranked a respectable 51st in the nation last year, allowing 212.5 yards per game while intercepting 17 passes.

    A team-high four of those picks were by Trumaine Washington, though because of the presence of high-profile transfers Josh Harvey-Clemson and Shaq Wiggins, his work didn't draw the attention it deserved.

    Washington also forced three fumbles, one of which was then scooped up by teammate Sheldon Rankins for a touchdown that helped the Cardinal squeak out a 17-14 win over Boston College in October.

    Add in 56 tackles, seven tackles for loss and two sacks, and Washington managed to contribute all over on defense.

12. Houston: Steven Taylor

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    David Goldman/Associated Press

    Year: Senior

    Position: Linebacker

    Height, weight: 6'1”, 225 lbs

    Houston's rise to the top of the mid-major ranks (and its push to be among the nation's elite) has been fueled by a hot young coach and his dynamic dual-threat quarterback. Tom Herman went 13-1 in his first season on the job, with Greg Ward Jr. showing off on a weekly basis with his arm and legs.

    The Cougars wouldn't have done so well in 2015, though, without a ball-hawking defense that led FBS with 35 turnovers forced.

    And in the middle of that defense was a do-everything player as valuable as Ward was to the offense but without as much fanfare.

    Steven Taylor had two interceptions and forced two turnovers while also producing 10 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss among his 92 tackles. His block of a potential game-tying field goal with 49 seconds left gave Houston an early upset win at Louisville that set the tone for the entire season.

11. Notre Dame: Shaun Crawford

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    Year: Sophomore

    Position: Cornerback

    Height, weight: 5'8 ½”, 180 lbs

    Shaun Crawford hasn't been so much “under the radar” as completely off it to this point, the result of missing the 2015 season with a torn ACL. Now he's in line to be a starter alongside Cole Luke in Notre Dame's revamped secondary.

    A strong spring moved Crawford into this spot, and his chances of starting were enhanced when Devin Butler suffered a foot injury in June that could keep him out all fall.

    Though on the small side for his position, Crawford still figures to be a key asset because of his coverage instincts.

    "In today’s pass-heavy football, Crawford’s ability to play on the inside and against slot receivers is a key skill," Keith Arnold of NBC Sports wrote.

10. Ohio State: Noah Brown

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Year: Sophomore

    Position: Wide receiver

    Height, weight: 6'2”, 222 lbs

    Much of Ohio State's offensive issues last season were blamed on the way the quarterback position was handled, yet it didn't help either J.T. Barrett or Cardale Jones that the Buckeyes were severely lacking in quality receivers.

    Noah Brown would have been a key asset in that group, but a broken leg suffered during fall practice ended his 2015 season before it started.

    With the Buckeyes even less experienced this time around at wideout, getting Brown back at full strength is an even bigger deal. He only has one career catch, a nine-yard reception in a blowout win over Illinois in October 2014, but as a true freshman that year, he developed a reputation for his work ethic and perimeter blocking skills.

    This season will be when he gets to show off the pass-catching portion of his skill set.

    "Nobody had really seen what he could do, but Noah is a big-time player," teammate Curtis Samuel told Land-Grant Holy Land's Ian Hartitz.

9. Ole Miss: Damore'ea Stringfellow

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Year: Junior

    Position: Wide receiver

    Height, weight: 6'2”, 211 lbs

    Ole Miss is technically the third FBS program that Damore'ea Stringfellow has been a part of, as he briefly committed to Nebraska after announcing his transfer from Washington in 2014.

    He opted to join the Rebels instead, and after sitting out that season, he had a strong debut last fall with 36 catches for 503 yards and five touchdowns.

    He was one of six Ole Miss players to catch at least 30 balls in 2015 as quarterback Chad Kelly spread the ball around. His top two targets—Laquon Treadwell and Cody Core—have moved on, so Stringfellow figures to get more involved this season as he and Quincy Adeboyejo vie for the No. 1 receiver spot.

    Listed by the Clarion-Ledger's Daniel Paulling as Ole Miss' fourth-most important player for 2016, Stringfellow "sits in a perfect position to lead the Rebels in catches and touchdowns this season as Kelly’s go-to target," assuming an ankle injury he suffered in the Sugar Bowl (and re-aggravated in the spring) doesn't slow him down.

8. Baylor: Johnny Jefferson

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Year: Junior

    Position: Running back

    Height, weight: 5'10”, 205 lbs

    Raise your hand if you knew who Johnny Jefferson was before he blew up during Baylor's record-setting performance in the Russell Athletic Bowl.

    Jefferson made the most of his first career start in December, stepping in for the injured Shock Linwood and rushing for 299 yards and three touchdowns in the Bears' 49-38 win over North Carolina.

    That gave him an even 1,000 yards for the year with eight TDs and a strong 7.35 yards-per-carry average, yet that work was overshadowed by Baylor's overall rushing numbers, a bowl-record 645 yards and seven TDs on 84 carries.

    With Linwood set to return to his starting spot in 2016, Jefferson moves back down the depth chart but should see more action. Devin Chafin was dismissed from the team during the spring, and it stands to reason Jefferson will assume a lot of Chafin's touches and could spell Linwood more as well.

7. Tennessee: Darrin Kirkland Jr.

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Year: Sophomore

    Position: Linebacker

    Height, weight: 6'1”, 230 lbs

    Tennessee has brought in so many talented young players in the last few seasons that there's not enough room for each to get their fair amount of publicity.

    The Volunteers' 2015 class was highlighted by defensive linemen Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle, offensive linemen Jack Jones and Drew Richmond, wide receiver Preston Williams and junior college running back Alvin Kamara.

    And then there was Darrin Kirkland Jr., who would have rated as a higher-profile prospect at other schools but ended up being just part of the pack in Knoxville. Unable to garner the same kind of hype as most of his teammates, Kirkland had to settle for standing out via his performance.

    Kirkland started 10 games at middle linebacker last year, his 66 tackles being fourth-most in school history for a true freshman (per his online bio). He made for a great complement alongside Jalen Reeves-Maybin yet couldn't get out from Reeves-Maybin's sizable shadow.

    As Wes Rucker of 247Sports noted, that could change this fall based on Kirkland's dedication in the weight room. "Every time I see [Vols sophomore] MLB Darrin Kirkland, he looks bigger," Rucker tweeted last week.

6. Oklahoma: Mark Andrews

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Year: Redshirt sophomore

    Position: Tight end

    Height, weight: 6'5”, 244 lbs

    Oklahoma's switch to the Air Raid offense last season increased the chances for every member of its receiving unit to get involved. After redshirting in 2014, Mark Andrews was getting his first shot to make an impact yet only managed 19 receptions.

    There were some big ones among that small tally, though, with his seven touchdowns coming second only to Sterling Shepard. Five of his scores came in the red zone, including an 11-yard TD catch late in the first half of the Orange Bowl that gave the Sooners a 17-16 lead over Clemson in a game they'd end up losing 37-17.

    Andrews isn't the kind of player Oklahoma will look at when trying to replace Shepard—that would be Dede Westbrook—but he does figure to get more targets with slot receiver Durron Neal having graduated.

5. LSU: Travin Dural

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    Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

    Year: Senior

    Position: Wide receiver

    Height, weight: 6'2”, 203 lbs

    Believe it or not, LSU does have wide receivers on its roster. At times, it might feel like those guys running routes on offense are just decoys considering how often the ball is handed to Leonard Fournette, yet the Tigers did occasionally throw the ball in 2015albeit with mixed results.

    Because Brandon Harris completed only 53.6 percent of his passes last year, averaging just over 12 completions per game, it was easy to forget who was getting thrown to.

    Malachi Dupre is by far LSU's most recognizable receiver, but Travin Dural warrants his own attention.

    In two seasons with the Tigers, his numbers don't jump off the page (72 catches and 12 touchdowns, including seven TDs in his sophomore year), but when he pulls the ball in, big things will happen. He's averaged 19.9 yards per reception over his career.

    A torn hamstring cut Dural's junior year short, yet he's on pace to return for the preseason and again be a key target.

4. Michigan: Taco Charlton

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    Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

    Year: Senior

    Position: Defensive end

    Height, weight: 6'6”, 285 lbs

    Michigan had the nation's fourth-ranked defense last year, allowing just over 280 yards per game and allowing the offense to develop slowly over the course of the season.

    It wasn't a very star-driven group, though notables such as Willie Henry and Chris Wormly stood out up front while Jourdan Lewis anchored a strong secondary.

    Taco Charlton's play on the defensive line was just as essential, though not as outwardly noticeable. He only started three games but played in all 13, often as a pass-rushing specialist, and finished third on the team with 5.5 sacks.

    According to Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com, Charlton was rated by Pro Football Focus as the sixth-best defensive end in FBS against the pass last season.

    With Michigan switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3, Charlton's versatility will be even more valuable. He's able to handle both the interior and exterior roles and thus can be moved around by new defensive coordinator Don Brown to have the best fit depending on the scenario.

3. Florida State: Ro'Derrick Hoskins

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    Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

    Year: Redshirt junior

    Position: Linebacker

    Height, weight: 6'2”, 245 lbs

    Florida State's defense is loaded with former 4- and 5-star prospects at varying stages of their career. Yet in the middle is a less heralded player who's managed to carve out his own place among all that blue-chip talent.

    Ro'Derrick Hoskins started six games at linebacker in 2015 for the Seminoles, handling both inside and outside spots and faring well in the various nickel and dime packages as well. He recorded 52 tackles, the same number as star defensive back Jalen Ramsey, along with 6.5 tackles for loss.

    Despite his play, most of the discussion surrounding FSU's linebacker corps centers around higher-profile players.

    Matthew Thomas, who has been held back by injuries and eligibility issues, along with freshmen Josh Brown and Dontavious Jackson, are generating plenty of buzz while Hoskins just continues to produce without much notice.

2. Clemson: Hunter Renfrow

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Year: Redshirt sophomore

    Position: Wide receiver

    Height, weight: 5'10”, 175 lbs

    Clemson's wide receiver corps suffered a major blow early in 2015 when Mike Williams injured his neck in the season opener. He was lost for the year, requiring everyone else to up their game to pick up the slack.

    This was an across-the-board effort that included unexpected contributions from a former walk-on in Hunter Renfrow.

    Renfrow ended up starting 10 games last year, finishing with 33 catches for 492 yards and five touchdowns. His value increased exponentially during the playoffs, with a TD against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl and two more in the national title game against Alabama.

    Deon Cain's suspension opened the door for Renfrow to shine, and he didn't disappoint.

    Williams has returned and figures to take back his spot near the top of the depth chart alongside Artavis Scott, and Cain is expected back as well. Whether he starts or is a reserve, though, don't expect any less of an effort from Renfrow.

1. Alabama: Gehrig Dieter

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Year: Senior

    Position: Wide receiver

    Height, weight: 6'3”, 207 lbs

    Alabama dominates on the recruiting trail each year, basically picking which players it wants to join the program as freshmen and then turning them into stars.

    But even big-time programs like this one need some extra help from time to time, and for the second year in a row, the Crimson Tide will be turning to a graduate transfer to help bolster their wide receiver corps.

    Last season, it was ex-Oregon State wideout Richard Mullaney, who had 38 receptions and five touchdowns. This year, it's Gehrig Dieter, who figures to fill a similar role in Alabama's offense as a possession receiver with the capability to make a big play on occasion.

    Dieter caught 94 passes for 1,033 yards and 10 TDs in 2015 for Bowling Green, and in his career (which began at SMU), he has 139 receptions. That's more than any active Alabama receiver.

    He won't be the top targetnot with Calvin Ridley aroundand ArDarius Stewart is coming off a strong sophomore year. But much like with Mullaney, when the Tide need to get the first down, they'll often turn to Dieter.

    All recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports, unless otherwise noted. All statistics provided by cfbstats.com, unless otherwise noted.

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.


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