Ranking the Top 25 Juniors for the 2017 College Football Season

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistApril 13, 2017

Ranking the Top 25 Juniors for the 2017 College Football Season

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    The upcoming 2017 college football season is going to anoint its share of superstar playmakers. Many of those are rising juniors who have the ability to elevate their teams' status with their play.

    From a bumper crop of running backs to a slew of quarterbacks and offensive linemen, the group of players who'll be eligible for next year's NFL draft looks stacked.

    But some of the guys who'll make waves in college football this upcoming season may not have the most cut-and-dry pro future. That doesn't change anything about their ability to dominate on the collegiate gridiron.

    So, as we approach that time when last year's collegeiate stars are getting ready to become the NFL studs of tomorrow, let's look ahead at the rising juniors who have the talent to take over.

    Many of them will be buzz-makers this time next year as pro teams look to restock. Others will be heading into their senior seasons and ready to rack up on the sport's hardware and All-America teams.

    Using talent, past performance and pro potential as our barometer, let's peel back the top 25 juniors heading into the 2017 college football campaign.

25. Quadree Henderson, Pittsburgh Wide Receiver

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    Sophomore year results: Quadree Henderson earned second-team All-American honors for his ability to generate yards in numerous ways, from returning kicks and punts to ripping off more than 600 rushing yards. He found the end zone in four different ways and led the nation in combined kickoff-return yards.

    Junior year outlook: With running back James Conner and quarterback Nathan Peterman gone, Pittsburgh will be looking for offensive stars. The Panthers would do well to get the ball in Henderson's hands in a variety of ways, and they will. As a result, the 5'8", 190-pound dynamo will again be one of the nation's top all-around stars.

    NFL potential: He's Rocket Ismail reincarnated, but will it translate in the NFL game? With blazing speed and the ability to generate yards in countless ways, Henderson has a bright future in the league. Though he looks like a four-year college player, he'll be a longtime pro if he stays healthy. Teams will salivate over his ball skills and elusiveness.

24. Adonis Alexander, Virginia Tech Cornerback

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    Alexander (No. 36)
    Alexander (No. 36)Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Sophomore year results: Adonis Alexander's numbers took a slight dip in 2016 after a breakout freshman season where he registered four interceptions and 55 tackles. He had just two picks and 43 stops last year, but he showed plenty of glimpses of his immense potential.

    Junior year outlook: This may be a dark-horse pick. But teaming with Brandon Facyson and Greg Stroman, Alexander should anchor one of the best secondaries in the country. Teams can't shy away from him. He'll put everything together this year and grow into the shutdown cornerback he's expected to be.

    NFL potential: At 6'3", 192 pounds, Alexander already has a pro body, and there have been no sign that he's anything besides a budding star prospect. He needs to learn some consistency in his footwork, but he has all the raw tools to be special and has first-round talent written all over him, maybe as early as the 2018 NFL draft.

23. Bo Scarbrough, Alabama Running Back

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Sophomore year results: Those reverberations of, "Run the [darn] ball," you heard coming out of Tuscaloosa last year when it came to the national runner-up Crimson Tide had a lot to do with Bo Scarbrough's underused talent. He teamed with Damien Harris, Joshua Jacobs and quarterback Jalen Hurts to form an unstoppable rushing attack.

    Junior year outlook: After just 812 yards—just third on his own teamand 11 touchdowns, Scarbrough's numbers should match his physical talent with former coordinator Lane Kiffin gone. According to ESPN.com's Alex Scarborough, new coordinator Brian Daboll likes to feature his running backs, and his junior with a similar last name is too good not to feed the ball.

    NFL potential: The pro football factory that exists in Tuscaloosa churns out running backs at a high rate, and there's little doubt Scarbrough already has an NFL body at 6'2", 228 pounds. He's shown the ability to take over games with his power and speed combo, and he'll have a strong NFL career as a primary rusher.

22. Mitch Hyatt, Clemson Offensive Tackle

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Sophomore year results: Mitch Hyatt was a first-team All-ACC selection at tackle by the media and took second-team honors from the coaches, tying for second on the national champion Tigers with 32.5 knockdown blocks, according to his Clemson bio. The former star recruit is living up to that billing.

    Junior year outlook: At 6'5", 295 pounds, there's a reason why everybody wanted Hyatt, and he's showing it. He'll anchor that Clemson offensive line as it looks to replace quarterback Deshaun Watson and running back Wayne Gallman. There may be some early-season bumps in the road to repeat, but it won't be because of Hyatt.

    NFL potential: Hyatt has premier athleticism and the size to anchor the blind side of an NFL franchise for years to come. If he continues to progress the way he has during his first two seasons, he's a three-year collegian. Whenever he he elects to come out, his floor is a starting guard. At best, he's a perennial All-Pro.

21. Sam Hubbard, Ohio State Defensive End

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    Sophomore year results: After a freshman year that saw him used primarily as a pass-rush specialist who finished with 6.5 sacks, Sam Hubbard's numbers dipped a bit. He finished with just 3.5 sacks, but he had 46 tackles, including 8.5 for a loss. He flashed some ability to dominate, though.

    Junior year outlook: Hubbard is no longer known as just a freak athlete. He is becoming a household name in the Big Ten, and though it's tough to live up to Joey Bosa comparisons, Hubbard should anchor yet another explosive Buckeyes defense in 2017. It wouldn't be a reach to expect double-digit sack numbers from him.

    NFL potential: There has been a lot of talk this spring about Hubbard playing outside linebacker, as discussed by Landof10.com's Ryan Ginn. The redshirt junior has practiced at tight end, linebacker and enjoyed success at end. That kind of athleticism makes him a strong bet to be a first-round NFL talent who'll produce big numbers on the next level.

20. Kamryn Pettway, Auburn Running Back

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Sophomore year results: With injuries and defections galore on the Plains, Kamryn Pettway found himself thrust into the starting lineup, and the move paid immediate dividends. He transformed Auburn's offense and finished the year with 1,224 yards and seven touchdowns despite missing extensive time with injury.

    Junior year outlook: Pettway's redshirt junior year could produce some huge numbers if he stays healthy. He told AL.com's Wesley Sinor this past weekend the Heisman Trophy is "very possible" with the addition of quarterback Jarrett Stidham. The signal-caller's progress would mean teams couldn't key on Pettway, whose physicality translates well in the rugged SEC.

    NFL potential: ESPN.com NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper had Pettway's grade if he came out this year as a second- or third-rounder. So, Pettway will almost certainly head to the pros after the '17 season, especially if he improves on his sophomore season. With his size, he's got the ability to be a runner in the mold of Jerome Bettis at the next level.

19. Myles Gaskin, Washington Running Back

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    Sophomore year results: Washington quarterback Jake Browning got a bunch of the headlines, but running back Myles Gaskin was just as big a part of the Huskies' College Football Playoff run. He finished with 1,373 rushing yards on a 5.8 average, scoring 11 touchdowns after a 14-score freshman campaign.

    Junior year outlook: Sharing time with fellow pro prospect Lavon Coleman for another year will keep Gaskin healthy, and the fresh legs will bode well for him putting up another big year in the Pac-12. Don't be surprised to see his rushing numbers go down and Coleman's go up. But Gaskin is a glue guy.

    NFL potential: At 5'10", 193 pounds, Gaskin isn't going to wow anybody with his size or speed. WalterFootball.com has him currently as the 15th-rated running back in the 2018 class, which means he's probably going to be a four-year collegian. He'll be a nice complementary back in the league.

18. Malik Jefferson, Texas Outside Linebacker

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    Michael Thomas/Associated Press

    Sophomore year results: Malik Jefferson had a dynamite defensive season, though he probably could stand to be around the ball a little more. He finished with just 60 tackles, but nine of those were for a loss, and he also added 6.5 sacks. He can flat out get in the backfield.

    Junior year outlook: With Todd Orlando calling the defensive shots for the Longhorns, Jefferson will break out. His new coordinator will put him in position to make plays, and he'll be all over the field for a much-improved Texas defense. This will be his final year in Austin.

    NFL potential: Jefferson gallops across the field like a gazelle, and there's no question why he was such a highly sought-after recruit when you watch him play. That athleticism will translate well in the NFL combine, and once he polishes some of the rust, he'll be a very versatile NFL defender who'll eventually become an All-Pro.

17. Josh Rosen, UCLA Quarterback

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Sophomore year results: In an injury-shortened campaign that saw him play just six games, Josh Rosen finished with 1,915 passing yards, 10 touchdowns and five interceptions while completing 59 percent of his passes. An injury to his throwing shoulder ended his season and led to surgery.

    Junior year outlook: Everybody should be concerned anytime there's a shoulder injury to a thrower, but Rosen has the talent and makeup to rebound. He has to become a better decision-maker, and that should happen in 2017. But with the Bruins searching for offensive playmakers, Rosen may be forced to try to do too much.

    NFL potential: Regardless of the numbers he puts up this year, Rosen will be a high draft selection. At 6'4", 210 pounds and blessed with exceptional arm strength, Rosen has been anointed as a pro prospect since high school. He won't be an immediate NFL star, but he will develop into a good signal-caller. Think Carson Palmer.

16. Josh Allen, Wyoming Quarterback

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    Ryan Kang/Associated Press

    Sophomore year results: Josh Allen may just be the best player you've never heard of. Last season, he came of age in a conference that also boasted under-the-radar running back Donnel Pumphrey. He completed 56 percent of his passes for 3,203 yards, 28 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, eschewing the NFL for another year in Big Sky country.

    Junior year outlook: Allen will develop and take the Mountain West Conference by storm, improving his accuracy while trimming down his touchdown-to-interception ratio. He'll be playing in front of plenty of national audiences, too, as he takes on Oregon as well as a full MWC slate. Look for him to put up XBox numbers.

    NFL potential: At 6'5" and 222 pounds, he has the size, strength, athleticism and arm strength that make him a top-flight prospect who is sure to be a top-10 pick. He did the right thing sticking around for another year to marinate, and it will pay off big-time when he gets taken quickly and becomes somebody's franchise quarterback.

15. Tarvarus McFadden, Florida State Cornerback

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Sophomore year results: There's rarely a dearth of talent in the Florida State secondary where Tarvarus McFadden has roamed the past two years. He looked like the next great one, epitomizing the "shutdown corner" moniker after a rocky start. He wound up with 19 tackles and eight interceptions.

    Junior year outlook: With backfield mate Derwin James back in the fold, McFadden will shine and show out. After winning the Jack Tatum Award a year ago that goes to the nation's top cornerback, he'll improve on his tackle numbers. His interceptions will go down, but that's just because folks have learned their lesson.

    NFL potential: Few defensive backs have as high of a ceiling as McFadden. At 6'2", 198 pounds, he's got ideal size NFL teams covet. He is fast and is blessed with great ball skills. He looks like a longtime pro starter, following in the footsteps of the guy he replaced in the starting lineup at FSU, Jalen Ramsey.

14. Connor Williams, Texas Offensive Tackle

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    Michael Thomas/Associated Press

    Sophomore year results: Enjoying a fantastic year blocking for D'Onta Foreman, Connor Williams wound up a second-team Associated Press All-American for his standout season. The 6'6", 288-pound lineman solidified the left tackle job as a true freshman and continued his career as one of the nation's best a season ago.

    Junior year outlook: A look at all the accolades Williams received a year ago is dizzying, but he'll be even better this year. With Tom Herman now coaching the Longhorns, Texas could improve from its strong offensive 2016 year, and Williams is a building block around which that will happen. He's an elite exterior lineman.

    NFL potential: Williams is arguably the best returning offensive lineman in all of college football, and he's a first-round lock in the NFL if he keeps progressing. He has a premier tackle body, and his athleticism will make him a commodity. He's also extremely intelligent and will anchor the line of a franchise for years, whether that's on the right or left side.

13. Orlando Brown Jr., Oklahoma Offensive Tackle

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Sophomore year results: It's remarkable how far Orlando Brown Jr. has come. After battling weight issues and ballooning to more than 400 pounds in high school, he dedicated himself to a workout regimen and transformed himself into one of the top tackles in the country as a sophomore, earning Big 12 offensive lineman of the year after surrendering just one sack in 659 snaps.

    Junior year outlook: Anchors like Brown will make things easier on an Oklahoma team having to replace Samaje Perine, Joe Mixon and Dede Westbrook. Brown will prove to be one of the best linemen in the country and will go high in the NFL draft.

    NFL potential: At 6'8", 360 pounds, he's a big, violent lineman who is a can't-miss NFL prospect. He isn't the most athletic offensive lineman in the country, but he's so big that it's difficult to get around him. If he ever gets his hands on you, you're done. He has franchise tackle written all over him and will make a ton of money.

12. Arden Key, LSU Defensive End

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    Sophomore year results: Arden Key finished with 32 tackles, 12.5 tackles for a loss and 11 sacks, joining Myles Garrett, Derek Barnett and Charles Harris among the SEC's most prolific pass-rushers. He introduced himself to quarterbacks as a big, unblockable athlete.

    Junior year outlook: His second year under coordinator Dave Aranda's tutelage will produce even bigger numbers for Key, who'll lead the league in sacks and cement himself as one of the nation's premier quarterback-hasslers. That will translate into a high draft pick.

    NFL potential: Key is a 6'6", 238-pound freak of nature who has a future in the NFL as a pass-rushing specialist. He has the frame that could easily hold 260 pounds without losing much of his burst, and his wingspan and first step make him a commodity. He's a future impact playmaker on the next level and the kind of player teams will trade up to get.

11. Calvin Ridley, Alabama Wide Receiver

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    Sophomore year results: His production dipped a bit in 2016 with true freshman Jalen Hurts struggling to complete deep balls, but Calvin Ridley is still an explosive playmaker. He had 72 catches for 769 yards and seven scores. Though he wasn't quite the deep threat he was as a 1,000-yard freshman, it wasn't his fault.

    Junior year outlook: Being a year into Hurts' development should help the Crimson Tide's passing game. If not, he won't be the quarterback. Regardless of who plays the position, Ridley will be the go-to guy. He'll have plenty of big plays downfield and again be Bama's top threat to make game-breaking plays by stretching the field.

    NFL potential: Ridley is the top receiving prospect who will be draft-eligible in 2018. He's a lot like former Alabama player and current Oakland star Amari Cooper and will have a similar pro impact. The 6'1", 188-pound target isn't going to wow anybody with his size, but all he does is make plays. That won't be overlooked.

10. Christian Wilkins, Clemson Defensive Tackle

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Sophomore year results: Christian Wilkins finished as a third-team Associated Press All-American with a breakout sophomore season that got better as the Tigers improved throughout the season. He had 48 tackles from an interior line position, with 13 of those coming for a loss. He added 3.5 sacks.

    Junior year outlook: One of the nation's top defensive tackles again will make his presence known. The Tigers actually had a young defense in 2016, and though they'll have to replace some stars up the middle, Wilkins will increase his tackles and prove he's one of the best interior pass-rushers in the college game.

    NFL potential: Wilkins is 6'4", 310 pounds and athletic. He can play inside in a 4-3 defensive scheme and is talented and quick enough to play on the edge in a 3-4. That versatility will make him a commodity much the way A'Shawn Robinson was at Alabama last year. He's going to go high in the draft, and Wilkins will play a long time in the league if healthy.

9. Trace McSorley, Penn State Quarterback

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    Sophomore year results: Trace McSorley threw for 3,614 yards, 29 touchdowns and just eight interceptions in a breakout sophomore season that saw him team with Saquon Barkley to transform Penn State's offense into one of the nation's most explosive. He solidified himself as a star.

    Junior year outlook: With so much talent around him, there's no reason McSorley shouldn't be in the mix for conference player of the year and the Nittany Lions be a favorite to repeat as the Big Ten champions. He's a four-year player in Happy Valley, and that's big news for coach James Franklin. Look for the signal-caller to keep flinging darts and posting big numbers.

    NFL potential: Not too great. At 6'0" tall with just mediocre arm strength, nobody is going to be beating down McSorley's door. But the kid's a winner. He wasn't a high-profile recruit, and all he does is win and do it with style points. It wouldn't be abnormal to see him latch on and make a pro roster down the road. Regardless, he's a great college quarterback.

8. Ronald Jones II, USC Running Back

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Sophomore year results: He finished with 1,082 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns a year after coming within 13 yards of that threshold as a freshman. Jones displayed his explosive ability, finishing his second consecutive season averaging more than six yards per carry.

    Junior year outlook: You may think this is high for Jones to be ranked, but he's about to bust through and become a household name. With quarterback Sam Darnold taking most of the headlines for the Trojans, Jones will finish with 1,400-plus yards, a load of touchdowns and stealing some of Darnold's Heisman buzz.

    NFL potential: At 6'1", 195 pounds and blazing fast, Jones will remind some of Kansas City Chiefs star Jamaal Charles. He has that kind of playmaking ability that will translate well to the NFL game. He has proven he can be an every-down back or an explosive change-of-pace guy. That will serve him well in a strong NFL career.

7. Jake Browning, Washington Quarterback

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    Sophomore year results: Jake Browning had a huge sophomore season, completing 62 percent of his passes for 3,430 yards, 43 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. He displayed pinpoint precision, though he struggled against Colorado in the Pac-12 Championship Game and Alabama in the College Football Playoff to close the season.

    Junior year outlook: Not having John Ross will sting, but Browning still has an able stable of playmakers around him, led by Dante Pettis. He'll toss up some more big numbers that will put him at the top of a lot of award lists and will probably stick around for another season with coach Chris Petersen after that.

    NFL potential: At 6'2", 209 pounds, Browning has a bit more pro potential than McSorley, but he isn't going to threaten the top of any draft boards. He also doesn't have the biggest arm. WalterFootball.com has him as the 11th-rated draft-eligible quarterback in the 2018 draft and fourth in his own conference. But Browning is a winner who's proven a lot of naysayers wrong.

6. Derwin James, Florida State Safety

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Sophomore year results: After an incredible freshman season that saw him fill up the stat sheets with 91 tackles and 4.5 sacks, Florida State star defensive back Derwin James was injured early in the 2016 season. he finished his shortened campaign with 11 tackles and an interception. His departure left a gulf in FSU's struggling defense.

    Junior year outlook: Back and healthy, James will be a first-team All-American and head to the NFL a year early. Head coach Jimbo Fisher will look for ways to get him the ball in the return game, and it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility to see him even get a handful of offensive touches. When you have a player of his physical ilk, you need to get him the ball.

    NFL potential: Much like McFadden, James is a definitive next-level talent with as high of a ceiling as any safety from the past few classes. FoxSports.com's Bruce Feldman talked to a college coach who said James was the closest thing to the late, great Sean Taylor that he's seen. That's unreal praise.

5. Christian Kirk, Texas A&M Wide Receiver

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Sophomore year results: Christian Kirk wound up with 928 receiving yards and nine scores in 2016 after a 1,000-yard first year in Texas A&M. He also averaged 21.7 yards per kick return and scored three touchdowns after taking two to paydirt as a freshman. He also averaged 28.8 yards per punt return.

    Junior year outlook: Kirk may take a back seat to Ridley in receiving yards in 2017 with a new quarterback throwing him the ball, but it's everything else he does that makes him such a star. He's a return-game threat and can take it to the house any time he touches it. Kirk is a special talent, and the folks in College Station need to enjoy him while he's around.

    NFL potential: As versatile as Kirk is, he'll be a top-10 NFL draft pick as early as next year. Though he's just 5'11", 200 pounds, he plays a lot like NFL great Steve Smith. Teams will be champing at the bit to get Kirk because he's such a dynamic, versatile talent who can contribute in many ways. He'll have a long, strong pro career.

4. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama Safety

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    David Goldman/Associated Press

    Sophomore year results: From the moment he stepped onto campus, Minkah Fitzpatrick found a huge role in one of the best defenses of the past decade. He's that good. The 6'1", 200-pound sophomore was a first-team All-American who finished with 66 tackles, including 5.5 for a loss, 1.5 sacks and six interceptions. He can do it all.

    Junior year outlook: It's tough to see the Crimson Tide's defense taking too much of a dip, even with all the talent they lost. Players like Fitzpatrick will still make it tick. Look for him to still be a ball-hawking playmaker who can roam around, deliver big hits and make game-changing turnovers. He's that kind of player.

    NFL potential: Fitzpatrick is already one of the decorated Tide defensive backs at a program known for churning them out. He's a physical freak who is like a coach on the third level of the defense, wise beyond his years. He may not tear up the combine, but every team in the league needing a safety will target him early. He's an All-Pro waiting to happen.

3. Lamar Jackson, Louisville Quarterback

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    Sophomore year results: Yeah, Lamar Jackson didn't do too badly. He only won the Heisman Trophy, throwing for 3,543 yards, 30 touchdowns and nine interceptions while adding 1,571 rushing yards and 21 more touchdowns. He was one of the most prolific playmakers in the nation.

    Junior year outlook: Is the book out on Jackson? That's the question everybody wants to know after teams such as LSU, Houston and even Kentucky found ways to limit his massive production. That sputtering finish knocks him back a couple of notches, but there's no denying he's one of college football's most electric returning players. If he puts it all together again, he could repeat.

    NFL potential: That's the million-dollar question. Somebody is going to take a chance on his generational talent, and it's a high-risk, high-reward proposition. Several signal-callers will be rated above him, but Jackson is still a first-round talent. But consistency needs to develop in the wake of Robert Griffin III's cautionary tale.

2. Derrius Guice, LSU Running Back

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    Sophomore year results: So, the NFL draft's top running back prospect stood in Derrius Guice's path to playing time in 2016, huh? No problem. He made his mark, anyway, especially with Leonard Fournette dealing with injuries. He finished with an All-SEC sophomore year, rushing for 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns.

    Junior year outlook: Put him above Lamar Jackson? Really? Well, he averaged 7.6 yards per carry in the SEC last year, and he doesn't have to share carries with Fournette this year. Not only that; he has new offensive coordinator Matt Canada calling plays and a seasoned quarterback in Danny Etling. He could be a Heisman Trophy dark horse.

    NFL potential: At 5'11", 222 pounds, Guice is a short, compact and fast back who makes one-cut runs like Reggie Bush did at USC. Yes, he's that kind of player, and he'll prove it to the world in 2017. With the short shelf life of NFL running backs, look for Guice to head to the league and battle Saquon Barkley for the top back taken. He'll make some team very happy for a long time.

1. Saquon Barkley, Penn State Running Back

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    Doug Benc/Associated Press

    Sophomore year results: Saquon Barkley quietly had the kind of season in 2016 as a mere sophomore that legends are forged from. He wound up with 1,496 rushing yards and scored 18 touchdowns. He added 28 catches for 402 yards and scored four more times. That season was good enough for third-team AP All-American honors.

    Junior year outlook: With so many weapons on the Nittany Lions' offense, it's possible Barkley could have an even better year. He'll eclipse 1,500 yards and continue to prove to NFL teams that he's the perfect all-around back who will be sitting among the Heisman Trophy finalists. He's the pick here to win it.

    NFL potential: WalterFootball.com has Barkley going seventh overall to Indianapolis in a way-too-early mock draft for next year. Barkley told Paul Myerberg of USA Today Sports he wants to break all PSU rushing records while there, and with his 4.33 speed and 5'11", 223-pound size, he's a perfect size-speed combo. He's the kind of player who doesn't come around often, and he's a no-doubt NFL star.

    All stats gathered on CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted. Recruit rankings and information courtesy of Scout unless otherwise noted.

    Brad Shepard covers college football for Bleacher Report.