10 Players Set to Shock the College Football World in 2017
Rashaan Evans is ready for his opportunity with Alabama in 2017.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
One of the great parts about college football is its constant change. Players have to wait three years between graduating high school and declaring for the NFL draft, which creates enough time for stars to develop while also leaving a regular cycle of talent moving in and out of college lineups. Combined with graduation and transfers, college rosters have a significant level of turnover.
This can be good for fans, at least those who are open to new, exciting things. The movement gives new talent an opportunity to emerge on a yearly basis. Some might be expected, but some are more surprising. Here’s a list of 10 players who’ll emerge this fall and show significant improvement, shocking college football with their improved production.
Alabama LB Rashaan Evans
Rashaan Evans could break out as a star senior on Alabama’s defense.Samantha Baker/Associated Press
The toughest part of consistent success at Alabama? It might be cracking the starting lineup. Nick Saban and his staff regularly pull in ultra-stacked recruiting classes, which creates depth but can make it difficult for players who’d star elsewhere to make an impact.
Consider Rashaan Evans. The senior linebacker is athletic and a big hitter, but the presence of other stars like 2016 Butkus Award winner Reuben Foster has made it hard for him to shine regularly. He made his first career start in the 2016 Peach Bowl and stood out vs. Clemson in the national title game, making 11 tackles. He finished the season with 53 tackles, four sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss.
Evans is firmly in line for a full-time starting role in 2017, which means he could approach Foster’s numbers (115 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and five sacks) from last season. Better late than never, right?
Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham
Jarrett Stidham found an excellent landing spot at Auburn.Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press
Two years ago, Jarrett Stidham looked like one of college football’s up-and-coming quarterbacks. Following Seth Russell’s season-ending neck injury, Stidham stepped into Baylor’s starting lineup and excelled before suffering his own season-ending leg injury. He threw for 1,265 yards with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions. But after allegations of sexual assault rocked Baylor’s program, Stidham transferred and didn’t play football in 2016.
He found the perfect landing spot at Auburn, where coach Gus Malzahn needs a steady passer after watching Sean White, Jeremy Johnson and John Franklin III combine for 2,195 yards and 11 touchdowns against five interceptions last fall.
Stidham has a big arm and mobility, and while he’ll battle White for the job this spring, it’d be a big surprise if he didn’t win it and excel in Auburn’s fast-paced hurry-up, no-huddle offense.
Clemson WR Deon Cain
Deon Cain is ready to step forward as Clemson’s top receiver.Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Clemson broke through to win its first national title in 35 years last fall, but repeating brings significant challenges. The Tigers lost do-everything quarterback and two-time Heisman finalist Deshaun Watson, leading rusher Wayne Gallman, top tight end Jordan Leggett and their top two receivers in Mike Williams, who caught 98 passes for 1,361 yards and 11 scores last season, and Artavis Scott (76 catches, 614 yards, five scores) to the NFL draft.
However, plenty of talent remains in Death Valley. Junior receiver Deon Cain will be relied on heavily; he has had moments of inconsistency and discipline issues in his first two seasons, but he still had 38 catches for 724 yards and nine touchdowns as a sophomore.
He’ll be the clear No. 1 receiver as a junior, and with Williams and Scott gone, the door is open for him to pile up over 1,000 yards receiving and double-digit touchdowns, no matter who’s throwing him the ball.
Cain’s size, speed and deep-threat ability make him a strong candidate to emerge as one of the nation’s top wideouts and carry a big load for the Tigers offense.
Michigan DE Rashan Gary
Rashan Gary has huge potential for Michigan’s defense.Paul Sancya/Associated Press
When Rashan Gary arrived on Michigan’s campus last summer, significant hype followed him. Gary thrilled fans by signing with the Wolverines as the nation’s consensus top recruit in the class of 2016, but Michigan’s experienced defense allowed him to get his feet wet as a true freshman last fall.
He played in all 13 games but started none, making 24 tackles, five tackles for loss and a sack.
This next season will be different. Michigan returns only one defensive starter, and Gary is a lock to start at defensive end. He has a ready-made body at 6’5″, 287 pounds and can slide between end and defensive tackle. With full-time snaps and excellent athleticism, Gary’s numbers will take a big leap upward as a sophomore.
Louisville WR Jaylen Smith
Jaylen Smith will be Lamar Jackson’s top target In Louisville’s offense this fall.Andy Lyons/Getty Images
2016 didn’t end the way Louisville or Lamar Jackson had hoped it would. The Cardinals finished the season on a three-game losing streak, going from College Football Playoff contention to a 9-4 final record. However, the dynamic Heisman Trophy winner returns for his junior season, and he’ll need to establish receiving targets following the graduation of James Quick and Jamari Staples.
The clear leading candidate? Junior Jaylen Smith. He had 27 catches for 599 yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore and has game-breaking speed and ability. Now, he has playing time as Jackson’s expected No. 1 receiver and will see his numbers rise significantly as a result.
Nebraska QB Tanner Lee
Tanner Lee is ready to make a big impact as Nebraska’s starting quarterback.Nati Harnik/Associated Press
Tanner Lee’s transfer from Tulane to Nebraska following the 2015 season flew a little under the radar, and that’s understandable. Lee had a very average sophomore season starting for the Green Wave, throwing for 1,639 yards with 11 touchdowns against seven interceptions and completing 51.8 percent of his passes.
But Tommy Armstrong Jr.’s graduation creates opportunity in Nebraska’s pro-style offense, and Lee is poised to take advantage of it. Lee stands 6’4″, 205 pounds and has a very capable arm.
Assuming he beats out Patrick O’Brien for the job, he’ll have several speedy, effective receivers such as Stanley Morgan and De’Mornay Pierson-El as targets and a much better offensive line to protect him.
Lee should have better numbers under center for Nebraska than he did with Tulane as a solid fit in Mike Riley’s system.
Ohio State WR Binjimen Victor
Binjimen Victor is a major breakout candidate in Ohio State’s offense.Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Ohio State had a productive 2016 season, although it certainly didn’t end the way the Buckeyes had hoped. Ohio State made the College Football Playoff despite losing to Penn State and missing the Big Ten title game, but it suffered the most humbling defeat of Urban Meyer‘s tenure in a 31-0 Fiesta Bowl blanking at Clemson’s hands.
The Buckeyes return senior quarterback J.T. Barrett but must replace plenty of wide receiver talent with Curtis Samuel, Noah Brown and Dontre Wilson (who combined for 133 catches, 1,619 yards and 19 touchdowns) all gone.
While backups K.J. Hill and Parris Campbell return, one of the most intriguing prospects is sophomore Binjimen Victor. Victor had just four catches for 64 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown, but he will have the opportunity to shine in his second season in Columbus. He stands 6’4″ and blends speed and an athletic frame, which will give Victor an excellent opportunity to break out as one of Barrett’s favorite targets.
Ole Miss QB Shea Patterson
Shea Patterson showed promise even having his redshirt yanked late in 2016 for Ole Miss.Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
Following Chad Kelly’s season-ending knee injury, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze made a surprising decision in mid-November 2016, pulling a redshirt off true freshman quarterback Shea Patterson with just three games left in the regular season.
Patterson was regarded as one of the top recruits in the class of 2016 but was being groomed to start following Kelly’s graduation. Instead, he went 1-2 as the Rebels starter, throwing for 880 yards with six touchdowns against three interceptions while completing 54.5 percent of his passes.
Ole Miss won’t go to a bowl game as part of its response to an ongoing NCAA investigation, but the Rebels will give SEC defenses trouble with a wide receiver corps that will include Van Jefferson, A.J. Brown and DaMarkus Lodge, all capable of making game-breaking plays. And Patterson should be more comfortable in the starting role and put up big passing numbers surrounded by that talent.
Stanford RB Bryce Love
Bryce Love could emerge as one of the nation’s top backs in 2017.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
Stanford has a major void in its offense this fall following the departure of Christian McCaffrey. The 2015 Heisman Trophy runner-up set the NCAA single-season all-purpose yardage mark as a sophomore, and even after battling through leg injuries and playing in 11 games, he still piled up 1,603 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns as a junior.
The Cardinal have a very capable replacement in junior Bryce Love, though. Love averaged 7.1 yards per carry and rushed for 783 yards and three scores in 2016, finishing the season with consecutive 100-yard rushing games. With consistent first-string carries, he has the potential to double his yardage and touchdown numbers and emerge as one of the Pac-12’s top backs this fall.
West Virginia QB Will Grier
Will Grier is ready to roll and get back to football at West Virginia.L.G. Patterson/Associated Press
It might be hard to believe, but Will Grier was once considered one of the top quarterbacks in the class of 2014. He has traveled a long road from that status to becoming West Virginia’s expected starter this fall. Grier redshirted at Florida in 2014 and emerged as the Gators starter the following fall.
He led Florida to a 6-0 start while throwing for 1,204 yards with 10 touchdowns. Then he was hit with a one-year NCAA suspension following a positive test for performance-enhancing substances and subsequently transferred to West Virginia.
Following a transfer season, he’s expected to be eligible to start in the fall, and he should be a perfect fit in Dana Holgorsen’s fast-paced offense. With a full season to show his skills, Grier will make a big impact in the Big 12 and show major improvement in 2017-18.