The Biggest College Football Stars Right Now
1. One More Year: Justin Jackson
A premiere running back for the Northwestern Wildcats, Justin Jackson finished the 2016 season by rushing for 224 yards and three touchdowns in the Pinstripe Bowl on December 28th, 2016.
Many thought that Jackson would make himself available for the 2017 NFL Draft. But Jackson is staying put at Northwestern, where he aims to rush for over 1,000 yards for a fourth straight season.
2. A Running Back’s Best Friend: Braden Smith
At 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds, Braden Smith is a can’t-miss force on the offensive line for the Auburn Tigers. Flourishing at both the tackle and guard spots, Smith was crucial in providing Auburn running backs with the blocks they needed to lead the SEC with an average of 271.3 rushing yards per game.
During his three-year career at Auburn, Smith has earned 27 starts. In 2016, he earned a spot on the second-team All-SEC.
3. The Jumper: Saquon Barkley
In 2015, Penn State Nittany Lions running back Saquon Barkley ran for over 1,000 yards. In 2016, he did it again.
In just two seasons, Barkley has already achieved YouTube fame with his penchant for leaping over would-be tacklers. According to Penn State offensive lineman Ryan Bates, Barkley is a “freak athlete.”
4. A Freshman Finds His Place: Jalen Hurts
As a true freshman, quarterback Jalen Hurts (assisted by a stellar defense) lead the Alabama Crimson Tide into the College Football Playoff and back to the national championship game.
Hurt threw for over 2,780 yards and rushed for 954 yards, which made him the Tide’s second-leading rusher. Hurts’ 13 rushing touchdown were more than any other player on the team.
5. Bringing Wins to South Florida: Quinton Flowers
The South Florida Bulldogs are winning again, mostly due to their quarterback Quinton Flowers. In 2016, Flowers averaged 334 total yards per a game and collected 42 total touchdowns.
As Flowers enters his senior year in 2017, his passing skills are expected to grow even more. Not only did Flowers passing yardage increase in 2016 (by almost 700 yards), his quarterback rating broke 150.
6. A Growing Guard: Quenton Nelson
A guard on the offensive line for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Nelson has performed exceptionally since he became a starter in 2015. That year, he started in 11 games and helped Notre Dame’s offense continue to soar in spite of numerous injuries.
At 6-foot-5 and 325 pounds, Nelson made crucial blocks on the move to help the Fighting Irish running game and continues to improve his pass-protection skills.
7. A Running Duck: Royce Freeman
The Oregon Ducks had a disappointing year, with a losing a record of 4-8. The Ducks’ running back,Royce Freeman excelled nonetheless. At 230 pounds, Freeman has a rare combination of size and speed, averaging 7.7 yards per carry.
Freeman is the second leader-rusher in Ducks’ history, with 4,146 yards. If Freeman gains 937 rushing yards next season, he will become Oregon’s all-time leading rusher.
8. Get Out of the Way: Zach Cunningham
A linebacker for the Vanderbilt Commodores, Zach Cunningham is best known for his uncanny ability to shed blocks. Last season, Cunningham lead the college football nation in stops, with 48.
Although missed tackles continue to haunt Cunningham, his athleticism is striking. With speed and physicality, Cunningham can cover both running backs and tight ends on pass plays while zipping to the ball on rushing plays.
9. Return to Glory: Tre’Davious White
In 2014, Tre’Davious White played like a future first-round NFL draft pick for the LSU Tigers. After regressing in 2015, White returned to glory in 2016.
As a cornerback, White was targeted 30 times in 2016 and allowed only 100 total yards. More so, White intercepted two passes and knocked away two more.
10. Ryan Rises: Ryan Ramczyk
Ryan Ramczyk became a star this season at left tackle for the Wisconsin Badgers. Not only was he impactful with his pass protection, but he was powerful in the run game as well.
Starting all 13 games for the Badgers this season, Ramczyk received an array of honors, including Associated Press first-team All-American, Walter Camp second-team All-American, and Sporting News first-team All-America.
11. A Nightmare for Quarterbacks: Sidney Jones
Opposing quarterbacks are scared of Sidney Jones, the cornerback for the Washington Huskies. They mostly avoided throwing the ball his way all season. When a pass did come Jones’ way, only four of them were caught for a mere total of 20 yards.
Jones sticks with receivers down the field and his 6-foot frame gives him some tantalizing height. For many, Jones is reminiscent of Seattle Seahawks superstar cornerback Richard Sherman.
12. The Captain Will Be Back: Mike McGlinchey
Mike McGlinchey had a spectacular season as the Notre Dame Fighting Irish’s left tackle. He cemented his place as one of college football’s most prolific run blockers and improved his ability to protect on passing plays.
Many believe that McGlinchey would have been a first round draft pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, but the Fighting Irish captain is returning to Notre Dame to try and bring the school a national championship.
13. Life in the End Zone: John Ross
Washington Huskies wide receiver John Ross is one of the most dangerous players in college football. It seems like every time he gets his hands on the football there’s a chance he will score a touchdown.
In 2016, Ross accumulated 19 touchdowns. Out of his 76 catches, 17 went for touchdowns. Ross collected the other two touchdowns by scoring on long runs and kickoff returns.
14. Nonstop Offense: Patrick Mahomes
The Texas Tech Raiders finished 5-7 this season, but their quarterback Patrick Mahomes was far from subpar. Mahomes lead all of college football with 5,052 passing yards. Additionally, Mahomes threw 41 touchdowns and ran for 12 more touchdowns.
On October 24th, 2016, Mahomes had one of the most sensational performances in all of college football. In a 66-59 lost to the Oklahoma Sooners, Mahomes set the college football record by gaining 819 yards of total offense. In that game, he also threw for over 700 yards.
15. There Will Be a Tackle: Reuben Foster
For many, Reuben Foster is the best linebacker in all of college football. The Alabama Crimson Tide had the best defense in college football and Reuben Foster was a big reason why, leading the team in tackles.
Bouncing off of blocks with agility and power, Foster had 94 takedowns, including four sacks and 12 tackles for a loss. Out of 44 tackle attempts, Foster only missed two.
16. Uncontainable: Tim Williams
An edge rusher for the Alabama Crimson Tide, Tim Williams is one of the quickest pass rushers in college football. Though not particularly big, when Williams gets low and starts bull-rushing, he becomes almost impossible to contain.
In 2016, Williams collected 8.5 sacks and 12 quarterback hurries. His play made him a second-team All-America selection
17. Throw Him the Ball: Zay Jones
In his four seasons as a wide receiver for the East Carolina Pirates, Zay Jones amassed 399 receptions.
Jones’ best season was his final one. In 2016, he set the all-time single-season catch mark with 158 receptions. Not only did he have 34 more catches than any other player in college football, he caught more balls than 13 entire teams this season.
18. Running for the End Zone: Jeremy McNichols
The Boise State Broncos went 10-3 this season. A large part of their success was due to their running back Jeremy McNichols. McNichols was in the end zone more than any other player in college football this season. He scored 27 times — 24 of those touchdowns came on the ground and three of them came through the air.
McNichols see the field clearly and is tough. When he has to, McNichols can carry his team. In a win over Colorado State on October 16th, 2016, McNichols carried the ball 40 times, setting a school record for most carries by a running back in a single game.
19. Hoping For a Better Finale: J.T. Barrett
The Ohio State Buckeyes scored a total of 66 touchdowns in the 2016 season. Their quarterback J.T. Barrett accounted for half of them. Barrett threw 24 touchdowns and rushed for nine.
Losing to Clemson 31-0 in the Fiesta Bowl on December 31, 2016, Barrett is returning to Ohio State for his senior year in order to conclude his college football career with a bang.
20. Hungry for Yards: Christian McCaffrey
In 2015, Christian McCaffrey, the Stanford Cardinals’ running back, set the college football division one record for most all-purpose yards in a single season (3,864).
McCaffrey didn’t break any records in 2016, but he did lead the country in average yards per game (211.5). His knack for collecting yards makes him a enticing prospect in the upcoming 2017 NFL Draft.
21. Stay Away: Malik Hooker
The Ohio State Buckeyes had the sixth best pass defense in college football. They picked off 19 passes and combined to hold opposing teams to a 47.3 percent competition rate. Safety Malik Hooker was an integral part of Ohio State’s success.
When quarterbacks tried to throw to receivers in Hooker’s area, trouble was likely to follow. Hooker tallied six interceptions. Three of those interceptions he returned for touchdowns.
22. Hurry Up: Derek Barnett
Tennessee Volunteers suffered a lot of injuries in 2016, but defensive end Derek Barnett remained a stable force on the field. Possessing supernatural awareness of the quarterback, Barnett collected 12 sacks to go along with his two forced fumbles and 18 tackles for a loss.
Over the course of his three years with the Volunteers, Barnett made himself a full-time presence in the opposing team’s backfield, collecting a total of 27 sacks, 28 hits on the quarterback, and 89 hurries.
23. Dominating as a Freshman: Ed Oliver
For many, defensive tackle Ed Oliver was the most sensational freshman of the 2016 college football season. Oliver was the star of the Houston Cougar’s defense, forcing three fumbles, sacking the quarterback five times, and amassing 19 tackles for loss.
Most impressive was Oliver’s performance against the Louisville Cardinals on November 17th, 2016. Going up against the eventual Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, Oliver was ruthless. Oliver swarmed the Cardinals’ star quarterback all night, collecting two sacks, two pass break ups, and forcing one fumble.
24. Already a Legend: Jake Browning
In 2016, the Washington Huskies made the College Football Playoff for the first time. Their quarterback Jake Browning was integral to their run. Throwing for 42 touchdown passes, Browning cemented his place in Huskies’ history in just his second year at the school.
Browning was named Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year, as well as first-team All-Pac-12. With a passer rating of 167.5, Browning finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
25. Making History: Donnel Pumphrey
Though only 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds, Donnel Pumphrey is one of the San Diego State Aztecs’ biggest stars. In 2016, Pumphrey ran for over 2,000 yards and 16 touchdowns.
In December 2016, Pumphrey became the all-time leading rusher in division one college football. He surpassed the record of Ron Dayne (6,397), the Heisman Trophy winner and standout running back for the Wisconsin Badgers.
26. Leaving as an MVP: Dalvin Cook
Dalvin Cook, running back for the Florida State Seminoles, finished 2016 with 1,765 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. Cook was valuable to the Seminoles pass game too. He was their second leading receiver, with 33 catches and 488 receiving yards.
Cook concluded his college football career with a 33-32 victory over the Michigan Wolverines in the Orange Bowl on December 30th, 2016. Rushing for over 140 yards, including one 71-yard run, Cook was named Orange Bowl MVP.
27. Sacking in the Sunshine State: DeMarcus Walker
2016 was a wonderful year for Florida State Seminoles defensive end DeMarcus Walker. He recorded 15 sacks, which tied him for the national lead in college football.
Walker was 2016 ACC Defensive Player of the Year and was a First Team All-American. Scouts predict Walker to be a late first-round draft pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
28. More Receiving Yards Than Anybody: Cory Davis
The Western Michigan Broncos went 13-0 this season, before losing in the Cotton Bowl to Wisconsin on January 2nd, 2017. The Broncos nearly undefeated season was due in large part to their wide receiver Cory Davis.
Catching over 90 passes for more than 1,400 yards, no player in college football history has earned more receiving yards than Davis (5,276). What’s particularly impressive is that over half of his receptions in 2016 lead to a first down.
29. Keeping It 100: D’Onta Foreman
As a running back for the Texas Longhorns, D’Onta Foreman played in 11 regular season games. In each game, he rushed for at least 100 yards. Such suburb stability made Foreman the nation’s leader in rushing yards with 2,028.
In three different games, Foreman rushed for over 200 yards. On November 11, 2016, against the Texas Tech Raiders, Foreman eclipsed 300 rushing yards, averaging 10.3 yards per carry and rushing for three touchdowns.
30. A Weapon on Offense, Defense, and Special Teams: Jabrill Peppers
Jabrill Peppers provided the Michigan Wolverines with a force that could be utilized on defense, offense, and special teams. As a linebacker, Peppers lead Michigan in solo tackles with 48 (15 of which were tackles for a loss).
On offense, Peppers ran for three touchdowns. Concerning special teams, Peppers averaged 14.8 yards per punt return and 26 yards per kickoff return. Against the Michigan State Spartans on October 29th, 2016, Peppers picked up a fumble on a Michigan State botched two-point conversion and returned it for two points for the Wolverines. That play secured the Wolverines’ victory against the rival Spartans.
31. Coming Through When it Counts: Dede Westbrook
Other wide receivers in college football put up more notable numbers, but Oklahoma Sooners wide receiver Dede Westbrook made plays when they mattered most. Of his 74 catches, 57 of them, as well as all 16 of his touchdowns, came against other Big 12 teams.
One of Westbrook’s most exciting catches came late in the season on November 19, 2016, against the West Virginia Mountaineers. With snow on the ground, Westbrook caught a pass behind the line of scrimmage and took it 75 yards for a thunderous touchdown.
32. The Defensive Catalyst: Jonathan Allen
Out of all of the stars on the Alabama Crimson Tide’s defense, perhaps none shine brighter than their defensive tackle Jonathan Allen. In 2016, Allen accumulated 8.5 sacks, 15 quarterback hurries, 13 tackles for a loss, and even blocked one kick.
What the stats can’t show is how Allen’s capability to clog running holes and disrupt the other team’s passing game helped Alabama hold opposing teams to just 11.8 points per a game.
33. Taking Off in Oklahoma: Baker Mayfield
In 2014, when Baker Mayfield transferred from Texas Tech to the Oklahoma Sooners, the quarterback wasn’t even a scholarship player. Now, in 2016, he is star. With a quarterback rating of 196,4, Mayfield surpassed the rating record set by Wisconsin quarterback (and current Seattle Seahawks star) Russell Wilson in 2011.
Mayfield threw at least three touchdown passes in seven games. In 66-59 win against Texas Tech on October 22, 2016, Mayfield set the school record for most touchdowns tossed in a game with seven. With Mayfield at the helm, the Sooners became the first team to not lose a game in Big 12 play since the Texas Longhorns went undefeated in 2009.
34. The Main Attraction: Lamar Jackson
The Heisman Trophy winner and Louisville Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson had one of the most captivating seasons in college football history. Amassing over 5,000 total yards and 51 touchdowns, Jackson put up numbers that entire teams couldn’t match (85 teams in college football scored less than 51 touchdowns collectively).
Only a sophomore, Jackson is just getting started. He’ll return to Louisville next year, hoping to put together yet another blockbuster season.
35. The Champion: Deshaun Watson
In 2015, Clemson Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson became the first player in college football history to throw for over 4,000 passing yards and rush for over 1,000 yards. His dynamic season brought the Tigers to the championship game, which they lost to the Alabama Crimson Tide.
In 2016, Watson’s numbers weren’t as impressive, but he managed to make the plays his team needed to lead them back to the championship game and into a rematch with the Crimson Tide. Passing for over 400 yards and three touchdowns in the championship game, Watson, and his Tigers, were victorious.
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