10 elite players on non-contending teams
These guys may not compete for any titles in 2016, but make no mistake -- they're still among the best players in the country.
10 elite players on non-contending teams
Much of the college football offseason is spent focused on teams like Oklahoma and Alabama — teams with elite talent and expected to compete for national titles on an annual basis. However, the modern landscape of the sport is such that while the same five-to-ten schools matter most come January, individual talent is spread throughout the country — even to teams that don’t traditionally play beyond November.
The following is a list of 10 standout performers on Power-5 teams not expected to compete for conference and divisional titles, let alone the College Football Playoff. While many of these players will likely be mostly forgotten by the television broadcasts (at least until draft season) due to poor team performances, make no mistake about it – they’re among the elite players taking the field in 2016:
1. Arizona QB Anu Solomon
Arizona moved its overall record last year to 7-6 with a bowl win against New Mexico, but in Pac-12 play was just 3-6 and finished fifth in the South division. Considering the Wildcats have made a wholesale change to the defensive coaching staff and no positively-graded defensive linemen return for 2016, there is little to suggest they’re capable of surpassing last year’s totals.
Although he appears to be in a pre-season battle for the starting position, QB Anu Solomon was clearly Arizona’s best player last year, and has the ninth-highest returning passing grade in FBS this season (No. 1 in the Pac-12). He was at his best on intermediate passes in 2015, as he was 36-of-57 for nine touchdowns and just one interception on throws between 11 and 20 yards downfield. He also produced extremely well against the blitz, throwing seven touchdowns to just one interception.
If sophomore Brandon Dawkins is able to beat out Solomon as day one starter, it will likely be due to his upside as an athlete in coach Rich Rodriguez’s run-friendly scheme (Solomon averaged 5.3 yards per carry last year compared to Dawkins’ 10.3 last year), as Solomon is clearly one of the better passers in the country and there are very few teams on which he would not start.
2. Colorado CB Chidobe Awuzie
The Buffaloes managed just one conference win in 2015, in large part due to an offense that averaged less than 20 points per conference game. The defense finished seventh in the conference in points allowed, and among the returnees for this season is Chidobe Awuzie, who is our fourth-highest graded CB.
Awuzie was a balanced performer in all three phases last year, earning our second-highest pass rush grade among returning CBs (four sacks, six hits and 13 hurries), the fifth-best mark in run stop percentage and an average of just 7.7 yards per catch given up. He had a streak of ten games last season without yielding a touchdown (he gave up two for the year), and a strong NFL QB rating on targets against of just 73.1.
The 6-foot, 190-pounder posted two interceptions and five passes defended in 2015, and should be able to exceed those numbers this year and remain one of the top CBs in all of college football.
3. Missouri DE Charles Harris
Missouri’s 2015 offensive struggles made Colorado look like a scoring juggernaut, as the Tigers managed just nine offensive scores, and posted the second-worst offensive team grade in FBS. The fact, the defense gave up the third-lowest point total in the SEC last year, which is a testament to the talent level on that side of the ball, led by DE Charles Harris.
Harris is carrying on the tradition of outstanding defensive linemen at Missouri, as he is one of the top players in all of college football. His overall grade last year is the fourth-highest among returning 4-3 DEs, as does his 54 total pressures.
Last year he scored higher in pass rush productivity than former teammates and 2015 top-75 draft picks Markus Golden and Shane Ray did in 2014, and his run-stop percentage also ranked him in the top 20 in the country. Harris has all the physical tools to be one of college football’s most dominant players in 2016, regardless of whether or not Missouri is able to improve upon last year’s one conference win.
4. Vanderbilt ILB Zach Cunningham
Another season, another poor showing for Vanderbilt. Although it finished in a tie for fourth in the weak SEC East in 2015, they did so with a conference record of 2-6. The Commodore offense managed just 73 points in conference play, and there’s little to suggest the 2016 version will be much improved.
The defense was good enough to keep Vanderbilt in games, and while it returns strong players at all three levels, the undisputed top returnee is ILB Zach Cunningham. Largely ignored coming out of high school due to his size, Cunningham is now 6-4 and 230 lbs., and has the speed and physicality to dominate the SEC. Cunningham boasts the third-best run stop percentage among returning ILBs in FBS, and the second-highest overall grade (only San Diego State’s Calvin Munson graded higher last season). He also contributed five sacks on pass rushes, and a positive coverage grade that saw him yield just three passes of greater than 20 yards all season.
Cunningham is certainly going to draw interest from NFL scouts this year (whether the red-shirt junior stays in school for the 2017 season of course remains to be seen), as he has the size, toughness, range and instincts to be a complete player not just at Vanderbilt, but at the next level as well.
5. Boston College OLB Matt Milano
Winless in the ACC last season, Boston College also tallied just 73 points in conference play (47 less than the next-worst offense), highlighted with a grand total of just seven through its first three conference games (against Florida State, Duke and Wake Forest).
The Eagles were significantly stronger on the defensive side of the ball, however, and despite the losses of star ILB Steven Daniels (drafted by Washington in the seventh round) and defensive coordinator Don Brown (to Michigan), the return of strong-side linebacker Matt Milano offers some optimism for the 2016 campaign. He is our highest-graded returning 4-3 OLB from 2015, as he posted strong positive grades in all three major categories (pass rush, coverage and run defense).
Among returnees at his position, he finished ninth in pass rush productivity and seventh in tackling efficiency. QBs throwing at him had an NFL rating of just 78.8, as he yielded more than 30 yards through the air just once last season.
Milano doesn’t possess outstanding size or athleticism, but his ability to consistently maintain assignments and defeat blockers while maintaining proper leverage allows him to make plays at every level.
6. Wake Forest DE Duke Ejiofor
The Demon Deacons were just one game better than Boston College in ACC play last season, as they won the barn-burner of a head-to-head matchup 3-0. This equaled Wake Forest’s 2014 conference win total, as the school has been firmly stuck at the bottom of the ACC in recent years.
One of the few bright spots from last year’s squad is DE Duke Ejiofor, who ranked 26th last year among returnees at the position on pass rushes, despite only 207 reps. He missed the first five games of the season with a concussion, but made an immediate impact in the aforementioned week six game against Boston College by posting a sack and three hurries. He finished the season with a flurry of production in the last three games, accumulating 12 total pressures against the likes of Notre Dame, Clemson and Duke.
The quickness of his first step allows him to keep blockers off balance, as he is capable of winning with a variety moves, both inside and out. With Wake Forest likely to be playing from behind in most conference games once again, Ejiofor should easily better his pressure totals from last season, provided he stays healthy.
7. Kansas State C Dalton Risner
Kansas State finished last season with three straight conference wins after starting 0-6, and two of those wins came against ninth-place Iowa State and winless Kansas, possibly the worst team in all of FBS. While the Wildcats were third-worst in the Big-12 in scoring offense, the offensive line play was a bright spot. Unfortunately only one starter from that unit –center Dalton Risner — returns this year.
Risner comes into 2016 as our third-highest graded returning center from last season. He also ranks eighth in pass blocking efficiency with no sacks and just eight total pressures allowed in 2015, and fourth in overall run blocking.
What makes his 2015 campaign even more impressive is that it was his first year as a full-time starter. He will need to take on more of a leadership role for the unit this year with so much attrition, but Risner looks to be one of the best centers in college football.
8. Iowa State CB Brian Peavy
Iowa State finished 2-7 in the Big-12 last season and in second-to-last place, thanks in large part to no road wins and a defense that yielded 36 points per contest. The Cyclones return much of last year’s defense, and while most will need to make significant strides in order for them to improve upon last year’s record, they should be able to rely upon more top-end production out of CB Brian Peavy.
Opposing QBs completed just 43 of 80 throws sent his way for a NFL rating of 73.4. He notched two interceptions and eight pass break ups. His coverage grade in 2015 ranks him 11th in the country among corners back for 2016, first in the Big-12 conference.
At 5-9 and 178 lbs., Peavy missed 10 tackles last season and lacks the bulk and strength to be consistent against the run, but considering how well he played as a red-shirt freshman in 2015, expectations should be high for him this year.
9. Purdue DT Jake Replogle
Purdue finished 2015 in the Big Ten West cellar, notching just one conference win and two overall. Only four full-time starters with positive grades from last year return for the upcoming season, but one of them happens to be our highest-graded DT in FBS.
Jake Replogle was a model of consistency for the Boilermakers last season, posting positive pass rush grades (46 total pressures) in every game and only twice dipping below average against the run. He also leads all returning DTs in defensive stops and run-stop percentage from last season, and second in pass rush productivity.
Replogle isn’t an explosive player off the snap, but dominates at the point of attack with his physicality against blockers and willingness to chase down plays away from him. With this being his senior season, he is going to be a popular name come next April.
10. Illinois DE Dawuane Smoot
There wasn’t much fight in the Illini last season, as they finished just ahead of Purdue in the Big Ten West standings thanks to a 2-6 conference record and only 135 points scored. The offense still doesn’t appear to have much to be excited about this year, but the defense is solid on both the line and secondary, anchored by possible 2017 top-ten pick, DE Dawuane Smoot.
Smoot had eight games with at least four pressures, highlighted by his ten total pressures performances against both Wisconsin and Ohio State. His 60 total pressures in 2015 is second only to Tennessee’s Derek Barnett (62) among returning DEs, a significant feat considering the incredible talent at the position.
Not surprisingly, Smoot finished second in pass rush productivity last year (Michigan’s Taco Charlton was first), and with his combination of power and speed off the ball, there’s no reason to expect him not to continue to develop.
Josh Liskiewitz | Analyst
Josh joined PFF as an analyst in 2015. During the season, his primary focus is college football (mainly the Big Ten). He is also heavily involved in PFF's NFL draft coverage. Prior to joining the team, he worked for six years with GM Jr. Scouting, an independent draft scouting service.