Ranking top 10 players outside Power 5

Steve Palazzolo ranks the top 10 returning players outside the Power 5 conferences.

| 1 year ago
(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Ranking top 10 players outside Power 5

After diving into top-10 lists for FBS conferences, it’s time to spread some love to the little guys. The beauty of our PFF college content is that we’ve already given those players that love, grading each and every snap along the way last season.

Uncovering the small-school gems is one of our favorite things to do in our young, college-based system. Here is our ranking of the top 10 returning players outside the Power 5 conferences:

  1. Rashard Higgins, WR, Colorado State

One of the nation’s most explosive playmakers, Higgins looked like he was playing at a different speed than his Mountain West competition. He enters 2015 as the top-ranked wide receiver with a 90.7 PFF rating, as he excelled both in the deep passing game and on screen passes last season. His 17 receptions on passes thrown at least 20 yards in the air ranked second in the nation, while his 633 deep-ball yards ranked third. Higgins was a monster on screen passes, taking 25 receptions for 478 yards (19.1 yards per reception!) and four touchdowns. Those screens were a big factor in Higgins’ 915 yards after the catch. With QB Garrett Grayson off to the NFL, we may see Higgins take a step back in production, especially down the field, but his ability to create after the catch will play no matter who is taking snaps for the Rams.

  1. Tanner Vallejo, LB, Boise State

With spread offenses dominating the landscape of college football, the do-it-all linebacker is as important as ever, and that’s exactly what Vallejo is for Boise State. Though listed at only 6-foot-1, 228 pounds, he’s slippery when taking on blocks and disrupted opposing running games to the tune of an 88.1 grade against the run, good for third in the nation. He also did fine work in coverage (87.2 grade) and as a blitzer (86.2 pass-rush grade, four sacks, four hits, and 13 hurries on 81 rushes). Vallejo didn’t just dominate poor competition, either; he showed up to play against Ole Miss in the opener (six stops) as well as the bowl game against Arizona (two sacks, two hurries, five stops). Look for Vallejo all over the field for Boise State this fall.

  1. Kenneth Farrow, RB, Houston

The best non-FBS running back, Farrow finished strong last season with 467 yards and nine touchdowns over his last four games. His 82.3 run rating ranks fourth in the nation, and at 5-foot-10, 218 pounds, is one of the most difficult running backs to tackle in the country. He’ll assume a workhouse role for the Cougars in 2015.

  1. Darian Thompson, FS, Boise State

Another Boise State defensive player makes the list, this time on the back end. Thompson is one of college football’s best safeties, particularly in coverage, where his 85.5 rating ranks sixth heading into 2015. He tied for second among the nation’s safeties with seven interceptions, including this impressive effort against Ole Miss. He’ll also come up to play the run (78.4 rating), and he’s a sure tackler, missing only one of every 15 tackle attempts – 18th-best in the FBS. Thompson also played 190 of his 900 snaps in the slot for Boise State, so he’ll be a key cog in their defensive backfield.

  1. Alex Hansen, DE, Air Force

One of the most underrated interior defensive players in the FBS, Hansen was a dominant player on a suspect Air Force defensive line last year. Hansen brings an all-around game to the Falcons’ defense, as he’s equally proficient against the run (83.5) and as a pass-rusher (83.8). His 11.7 run-stop percentage ranked third among the nation’s 3-4 defensive ends (behind only Leonard Williams and Henry Anderson), and he picked up five sacks, eight hits, and 27 hurries on 351 pass rushes — good for a pass-rush productivity of 8.9 that ranked 10th. Hansen will compete with Boise State’s duo to be considered the best defensive player in the Mountain West Conference.

  1. Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan

Davis finished with 78 catches for 1,408 yards and 15 touchdowns and he heads into 2015, behind only Higgins as the second-best non-FBS wide receiver at 81.9. He did huge damage after the catch, as his 698 yards after the catch ranked fifth-best among all wide receivers for an impressive 8.9 yards after catch per reception. He also did damage down the field, as his 478 deep yards ranked 16th in the country, and five of his touchdowns came on deep balls. Davis is the top playmaker in the MAC and a wide receiver to watch come draft time.

  1. Tavon Young, CB, Temple

Other than one difficult game against UCF, Young was rarely targeted and rarely beaten for the Owls on his way to an 83.3 coverage grade, good for 12th in the FBS. He gave up only 25 receptions on 52 targets for 379 yards and he had four interceptions to go with nine passes defensed. Young showed well against the run (76.5) and missed only three tackles all season. Temple also has a number of intriguing prospects in their front seven. They’ll be an exciting defense to watch in 2015.

  1. Brandon Doughty, QB, Western Kentucky

The stats are the first thing that jump off the page for Doughty, as he completed 67.7 percent of his passes for 4,835 yards, 49 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. While he didn’t play quite up to the standards that those numbers would suggest, Doughty enters 2015 as the best non-FBS quarterback with an 81.0 overall rating, including 84.5 as a passer. His 48.8 percent accuracy percentage on deep passes ranked sixth in the nation, and he tied for second with 18 of them going for touchdowns. With a number of his playmakers returning, expect another monster season from Doughty.

  1. Jovon Johnson, LB, Ohio

With the eighth-highest overall rating among linebackers (82.5), Jovon Johnson will pair with Quentin Poling to form one of the MAC’s best linebacker units. Johnson was solid against the run (73.7 grade), but it was in coverage where he really excelled. His 86.8 rating ranks fourth among linebackers in coverage and his seven passes defensed tied for second. When you throw in his four sacks, one hit, and three hurries on just 36 rushes, Johnson made a positive impact in all phases of the game.

  1. Montese Overton, OLB, East Carolina

Overton spent more time in coverage than he did rushing the passer last season (271 snaps in coverage versus 175 rushes), but East Carolina should look to use him off the edge even more this season. His pass-rushing productivity ranked second among 3-4 outside linebackers at 15.3 (four sacks, six hits, 22 hurries on those 175 rushes). He was also stout against the run at 79.2, while ranking fourth among 3-4 outside linebackers with a run-stop percentage of 8.6. Overton was particularly impressive in the bowl game against Florida when he was stout at the point of attack and notched a season-high six stops. If he gets unleashed off the edge this fall, he has 10-sack potential and the NFL will be taking notice.

| Senior Analyst

Steve is a senior analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has been featured on ESPN Insider, NBC Sports, and 120 Sports.

  • joof

    Love seeing temple’s d getting their due