Top 10 returning Group of Five players
Analyst Zoltán Buday looks at the top returning players from outside the power conferences.
Top 10 returning Group of Five players
Players from the Group of Five are usually flying under the radar until draft season rolls around. However, these players are just as good during the seasonas when they are featured in mock drafts during the spring. So why not get a head start on knowing who will be the best players outside the Power-5 conferences in 2017? We are capping off our series of highlighting the best returning players by conference with the Group of Five today.
1. Ed Oliver, DI, Houston
Oliver burst onto the college football scene like no other true freshman from the Group of Five in recent memory. He started his college career with a strong game against an Oklahoma team that came off a College Football Playoff appearance the previous year. Houston’s freshman recorded two sacks and five defensive stops in his first college game, which was a sign of things to come. Oliver, a five-star recruit, did not slow down in the following weeks and kept terrorizing opposing offensive lines. He saved his best for the last month of the season, when he wreaked havoc against Louisville’s offense, recording two sacks, one hurry and a forced fumble in the process. Oliver is not only one of the best returning Group of Five players, but also one of the best players overall in college football and it must be terrifying for opponents to realize he is only going to get better in 2017.
2. Will Hernandez, G, UTEP
The lack of complete guards in the NFL and at the college level allowed UTEP’s Hernandez to stand out over the past two seasons, as it is difficult to find a weakness in his game. He finished 2016 with the highest run-blocking grade among all guards as he kept moving defenders for yards on the left side of UTEP’s offensive line. In addition, Hernandez has been an excellent pass protector, as he did not allow a single sack or quarterback hit in 2016, and only one quarterback hurry all season. As a matter of fact, Hernandez has not allowed a single sack in the last 22 games he played.
3. Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming
Wyoming’s Allen came on strong in the second half of the 2016 season and was mocked in the top five of the 2017 NFL Draft by some analysts prior to announcing his return for his junior season. Allen has flashed ability as a redshirt sophomore and kept making plays on the run under pressure that very few college quarterbacks are capable of. As a result, he might have the highest ceiling among all returning quarterbacks as he has all the physical tools and has proved time and time again that he can make even the toughest throws. However, evaluators will watch closely whether Allen can avoid making some of the costly mistakes this upcoming year that were part of his game in 2016.
4. Richie James, WR, Middle Tennessee
James might be the most underrated wide receiver in college football despite the numbers he has put up so far in his college career. Middle Tennessee’s slot weapon scored 20 receiving touchdowns and had nearly 3,000 receiving yards over the past two seasons. In fact, he scored 12 receiving touchdowns and recorded 1,625 receiving yards in 2016 alone, while he had to play wildcat quarterback for an entire game due to quarterback Brent Stockstill’s injury. However, James ran for 207 yards and three touchdowns and even passed for 76 yards in that game. Overall, he had 339 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns in 2016 and was the team’s primary punt returner too. While James could certainly do without throwing the football in 2017, he is looking to emerge as the best slot receiver in college football in his junior season.
5. Quinton Flowers, QB, USF
While USF loses its star running back in Marlon Mack, there is a good case to be made that their best runner will return in 2017. In fact, quarterback Flowers led the team in rushing yards, rushing yards per game and rushing touchdowns in 2016 as opposing teams usually failed to slow him down. Flowers has become the most elusive quarterback in the nation as he averages 7.7 yards per carry and keeps making big plays with his legs. In addition, these big runs are not a result of defenders turning their backs to him as Flowers averages more rushing yards on designed runs than on quarterback scrambles. The key aspect of Flowers’ senior season will be to see if he can take a step forward when it comes to throwing the football.
6. Evan Brown, C, SMU
Center being an often-overlooked position, SMU’s Brown has not received a lot of recognition in 2016 despite some really strong play. In fact, Brown was the seventh-highest-graded center in all of college football in 2016. In addition, he achieved this with balance rather than excelling in one aspect of the game and playing poorly in another. He was able to overcome a lackluster 2015 season and was among the best run-blocking centers last year. At the same time, Brown took a step forward in pass protection as well, as he allowed only two sacks, one hit and six hurries in 2016.
7. Tony Guerad, DI, UCF
Playing for UCF, Guerad has been flying under the radar as he had a breakout sophomore season. While his best games came late in the season against Tulsa and USF, Guerad showed he can play against elite opponents too as he stood his ground and played one of his better games against Michigan in Week 2. The Tampa native was able to represent a bigger pass-rushing threat on the inside in 2016 as he recorded 4 sacks, 7 hits and 13 hurries to go with his two batted passes. However, he was even better against the run as he became one of the best interior run defenders in 2016. As a result, he finished the season tied with Alabama’s Jonathan Allen for the highest run-stop percentage among 3-4 defensive ends at 11.5 percent.
8. Brent Stockstill, QB, Middle Tennessee
The third quarterback on this list, Stockstill put up huge numbers, yet was not mentioned often during the season. Middle Tennessee’s quarterback averaged 323.3 passing yards per game, the fifth-most in the nation and the most among freshman and sophomore signal callers. The redshirt sophomore excelled late in the down when plays broke down. Stockstill was sacked on only 9.1 percent of the plays when he was pressured, which was the fourth-lowest ratio among quarterbacks in college football. In addition, he had an NFL passer rating of 110.7 when he held on to the football for more than 2.5 seconds, the seventh-highest in the nation. With Stockstill and receiver Richie James both back, the Middle Tennessee offense should have another big year.
9. Michael Egwuagu, CB/S, UTSA
While it’s difficult to find a position for UTSA’s Egwuagu, he has certainly been among the best defenders from the Group of Five. One of Egwuagu’s strengths is actually his versatility, as he has played slot cornerback, free safety, strong safety and even linebacker for the Roadrunners. Due to the way he plays and how close he lines up to the line of scrimmage, it is natural that Egwuagu is among the best run-defending cornerbacks in college football as he recorded 20 run stops in 2016, the sixth-most among cornerbacks. However, what sets him apart is that he is equally good in coverage too. Although Egwuagu only had one interception in 2016, he had seven pass breakups to the two touchdowns he allowed. In addition, he allowed a reception only once every 12.6 cover snaps in the slot, the 12th-best mark in the nation.
10. Rashaad Penny, RB, San Diego State
Unlike the other players on this list, Penny gets the nod based on projection rather than past performance. Although he did not get a lot of opportunity behind one of the nation’s best running backs in Donnel Pumphrey, Penny made the most out of the touches he received. In fact, he had a higher elusive rating than the primary back, as he broke 31 tackles on 134 attempts compared to Pumphrey’s 73 forced missed tackles on 349 carries. In addition, he averaged 4.78 yards after contact compared to Pumphrey’s 3.41 yards. Penny also turned heads on special teams as he scored two kickoff return touchdowns on just 19 attempts, the fewest among any players with multiple kickoff return touchdowns. Penny has a very good shot to replace Pumphrey’s production and to have a breakout year in San Diego State’s offense in 2017.