NCAA Football

Most impressive players in college football so far

David Kenyon
Written by David Kenyon

Two weeks into the 2017 college football season, standout players have emerged from all around the country. Several were expected to perform this way, but a handful of under-the-radar talents have caught our attention.

Given the small sample size — two or three games, depending on the team — a list of this nature can change rapidly. Acknowledging that, though, should not minimize what these athletes have accomplished. Their performances have been among the best nationally, and they’ve earned praise for it.

Dante Pettis, wide receiver/returner, Washington

The big numbers haven’t happened for Dante Pettis on offense yet, but he’s still a nightmare to tackle on special teams. Washington’s versatile star has returned a punt for a touchdown in both games. Pettis raced 61 yards to the house in a 30-14 victory at Rutgers and sprinted 67 yards during a 63-7 walloping of Montana. The latter score gave Pettis seven career punt-return touchdowns, which broke DeSean Jackson’s Pac-12 record. Next up is the NCAA mark of eight currently shared by Antonio Perkins and Wes Welker.

Anthony Winbush, defensive end, Ball State

Ball State’s opponents surely aren’t looking forward to blocking Anthony Winbush. Illinois and UAB definitely aren’t pleased with their respective performances. The defensive end collected seven tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, two quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles during the first two weeks. Winbush swarmed the Illini for three sacks prior to ripping the Blazers for 1.5. The senior leads the country in sacks and tackles for loss, and he’s tied for the lead in forced fumbles.

James Washington, wide receiver, Oklahoma State

Oklahoma State receiver James Washington

Of the 35 players who have 200-plus receiving yards, just four needed fewer than 10 catches to reach the mark. James Washington only required eight grabs to accumulate 243 yards, the 14th-most nationally. He tallied 145 yards in a 59-24 beatdown of Tulsa before providing 98 yards during a 44-7 triumph at South Alabama. All three of Washington’s touchdowns have covered at least 40 yards, which is one of the least surprisings developments of 2017. The premier deep threat will remain among the leaders of explosive receptions.

Jonathan Taylor, running back, Wisconsin

Bradrick Shaw or Chris James? That seemed to be the burning question for Wisconsin during the offseason, though it was a certainty both would contribute. It turns out Jonathan Taylor needs a role, too. The true freshman made a terrific impression with a team-high 87 yards and scored once in a 59-10 shredding of Utah State. And with Shaw resting due to injury against Florida Atlantic, Taylor took full advantage of his opportunity. He scampered for 223 yards and three touchdowns, leading the Badgers to a 31-14 victory. One month ago, Taylor was an afterthought. Entering Week 3, he’s the No. 7 runner in the country.

Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, edge, Oklahoma

The program’s featured player is on the other side of the ball, and rest assured we’ll get to him. But the Sooners also have a star on defense. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, who piled up 71 tackles and nine sacks in 2016, has been a menace from his edge-rushing spot. The senior notched a pair of stops for loss — including one sack — during Oklahoma’s 56-7 blowout of UTEP. That simply set the stage for a better performance in a 31-16 triumph at Ohio State. Okoronkwo registered six tackles with 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks despite spending some of the night in coverage. The efficiency is what makes Okoronkwo special.

Khaleke Hudson, viper, Michigan

Jabrill Peppers starred in the hybrid linebacker/safety role for the Wolverines. Khaleke Hudson is picking up where the 2017 first-round pick left off. A 6’0″, 205-pounder, Hudson has done a little bit of everything. In a defensive domination of Florida where the unit only allowed one scoring drive, he had four tackles with 1.5 for loss and one sack. Hudson added two quarterback hurries, one pass breakup and a forced fumble. Against Cincinnati, he tallied six total stops and two sacks in the 36-14 victory. The sophomore is a key reason Michigan ranks eighth nationally, allowing 3.19 yards per play.

Rashaad Penny, running back/returner, San Diego State

San Diego State hasn’t been concerned with getting the ball to anyone other than Rashaad Penny. And it’s working quite well. The senior sliced through UC Davis for 197 yards and two touchdowns, guiding the Aztecs to a 38-17 win. It was a paltry debut compared to what Penny did next. He gashed Arizona State for 216 yards and one score on the ground, catching four passes for 38 yards and another touchdown. Penny accounted for 72.2 percent of SDSU’s total offense during the 30-20 victory, and the speedster also returned a kickoff 99 yards to the house. The Aztecs won’t stop feeding the beast anytime soon.

Will Grier, quarterback, West Virginia

Even in a loss, Will Grier showed his talent. Playing in his first game since October 2015, the Florida transfer threw for 371 yards and three touchdowns. By no means was he perfect, but Grier nearly propelled an inexperienced Mountaineers squad past Virginia Tech. Soon after, East Carolina simply had no chance against him. Grier completed 19-of-25 passes for 352 yards and five scores during a 56-20 rout. Heading into Week 3, he’s ranked 10th in the country with 723 passing yards, and only two quarterbacks have tossed more touchdowns than Grier.

Royce Freeman, running back, Oregon

The combination of Willie Taggart’s arrival and returning experience at Oregon offered hope for a bounce-back season for the offense. Long story short, it’s happening. And Royce Freeman, who mustered just 945 yards in 2016 after recording consecutive 1,300-yard years, is leading the charge. The powerful runner has carried the ball 52 times for 303 yards — the eighth-highest total in the country — and an FBS-best six touchdowns. He reached the 150-yard mark in victories over Southern Utah and Nebraska. Freeman also has five receptions and 59 yards for the Ducks.

Shea Patterson, quarterback, Ole Miss

Ole Miss is fortunate to have someone like Shea Patterson. Despite the program-related problems that affected the coaching staff and bowl eligibility, the once-5-star prospect decided to stay in Oxford. And the offense is thriving because of him. Sure, the competition level hasn’t been extraordinary, but if putting up these numbers was so easy, more quarterbacks would do it. Patterson amassed 429 yards and four touchdowns in a 47-27 win over South Alabama, then he set a school record with 489 yards during the Rebels’ 45-23 victory against UT-Martin. Patterson, who tossed five scores in that triumph, leads the nation in touchdowns as well as yards per game.

Bryce Love, running back, Stanford

Bryce Love

Christian McCaffrey handled the majority of snaps when he was at Stanford — and for good reason. But in scattered moments, Bryce Love showed a ton of promise. That potential has been on full display in 2017. After posting 180 yards and one touchdown to help the Cardinal roll Rice 62-7, Love ripped off a 75-yard score in the showdown with USC. Stanford eventually fell 42-24, but the junior still recorded 160 yards. The Cardinal will continue to feature Love, who currently ranks fifth in the nation with 340 rushing yards.

Darius Phillips, cornerback/returner, Western Michigan

Playmaker, thy name is Darius Phillips. The reigning MAC Special Teams Player of the Year is fulfilling that title with a kickoff return for a touchdown against each of USC and Michigan State. But he’s backing up the billing as a two-time All-MAC cornerback, too. Phillips grabbed an interception in both contests, also forcing and returning a fumble for a touchdown at Michigan State. He broke up three passes during the loss to the Spartans, as well. For someone who doesn’t even play offense, it’s impressive how often he finds the end zone.

Deebo Samuel, wide receiver/returner, South Carolina

South Carolina sprung an upset on North Carolina State and dispatched Missouri to begin the campaign, and Deebo Samuel deserves a healthy chunk of the credit. The versatile wideout snagged five catches for 83 yards and two touchdowns in the opener against NC State, also returning a kickoff for a score. On the road at Missouri, Samuel had five receptions for 45 yards, ran in a 25-yard touchdown and took another kickoff to the house. The Gamecocks are a fringe contender in the SEC East when at their best — and their best includes Samuel turning his limited touches into serious production.

Ronald Jones II, running back, USC

Expectations are absurdly high for Sam Darnold, but USC’s star quarterback hasn’t been great through two games. Ronald Jones II, on the other hand, meets that definition in every sense. The junior running back shredded Western Michigan for 159 yards and three touchdowns, helping the Trojans pull away in the fourth quarter to avoid a stunning upset. Jones also played a pivotal role in USC dispatching Stanford with 116 yards and two scores, as well as six third-down conversions on the ground. Through two weeks, he ranks 12th in the nation with 275 yards.

A.J. Brown, receiver, Ole Miss

No pass-catcher has been more explosive than A.J. Brown. In two games, he stands atop the nation with five receptions of 30-plus yards, four of 40-plus yards and two of 70-plus yards. Brown shares the lead in the 50- and 60-yard categories. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering he’s racked up an FBS-best 389 yards and four touchdowns. Brown torched South Alabama for 233 yards and two scores, then collected 156 yards and two scores against UT-Martin. He caught eight passes in both games.

Saquon Barkley, running back, Penn State

A preseason Heisman Trophy candidate, Saquon Barkley has wasted no time impressing in 2017. He hammered Akron for 226 combined rushing and receiving yards with two touchdowns during Penn State’s season-opening 52-point win. But the greater compliment is how Barkley still shined when the offense struggled. The junior picked up 133 yards of total offense and made two trips to the end zone in a 33-14 triumph over rival Pitt. Barkley, who has chipped in 70 yards on three kick returns, is currently third nationally with 214.5 all-purpose yards per game.

Josh Rosen, quarterback, UCLA

Josh Rosen

After one half against Texas A&M, the sky appeared to be falling on Josh Rosen and UCLA. All he did was lead a magnificent 34-point comeback during the final 18 minutes of the contest. A fortunate bounce provided a little help, but Rosen tallied 491 yards and four touchdowns — highlighted by the game-winning score in the final minute of the 45-44 triumph. Hawaii caught the wake of Rosen’s excellence, helplessly defending as he completed 22-of-25 attempts for 329 yards and five scores in a 56-23 blowout. Rosen is tied with Patterson atop the touchdown leaderboard and only trails the Ole Miss star in yards per game.

Mason Rudolph, quarterback, Oklahoma State

Oklahoma grabbed the nation’s attention with a smackdown at Ohio State. Meanwhile, Mason Rudolph and Oklahoma State have ripped through a pair of overmatched opponents. Rudolph tossed three touchdowns and ran for another in both victories over Tulsa and South Alabama. The senior posted 303 and 335 yards through the air, respectively, while completing 72.6 percent of his passes. Considering that Rudolph hasn’t yet thrown a ball during the fourth quarter, his numbers aren’t even as impressive as they could be.

Lamar Jackson, quarterback, Louisville

“Purdue almost beat Louisville.” Yeah, it was a shame Lamar Jackson couldn’t play all 22 positions, because he was outstanding. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner carried the Cardinals to a 35-28 triumph, throwing for 378 yards and two touchdowns while running for 107 more yards. He followed that up with a classic performance at North Carolina. Jackson posted 393 yards and three scores through the air, scampering for 132 yards and three touchdowns during the 47-35 victory. The electrifying junior ranks seventh in the FBS with 771 passing yards and 19th at 239 rushing yards.

Baker Mayfield, quarterback, Oklahoma

Oklahoma only needed one productive half from Baker Mayfield before resting him in the opener. He completed 19-of-20 passes for 329 yards and three touchdowns against UTEP. On the road opposite Ohio State, the senior guided Oklahoma to a dismantling of the nation’s second-ranked team. Were it not for turnovers from teammates, the final score could’ve better matched the eye test. Mayfield found his target on 27 of his 35 attempts, accumulating 386 yards and three touchdowns. His 83.6 completion percentage current ranks second in the country — and now, so do the Sooners.

About the author

David Kenyon

David Kenyon

Writer for Sportsnaut and Bleacher Report, mostly covering college football as well as the NFL, NBA and college basketball.