Nick Bosa, Ed Oliver and Bryce Love are among the superstars attracting the most attention, but several elite college football players deserve a moment in the spotlight.
Oftentimes, these talents are overlooked because they don’t play a glamorous position. For example, offensive linemen are great and necessary, but their statistics aren’t easily accessible — or some fans aren’t interested. And that’s OK! Not everyone needs to think about blocking efficiency.
Still, that doesn’t change this: Entering the 2018 season, these players have been elite performers. Hopefully, another strong year will lead to them all being drafted.
Lukas Denis, safety, Boston College
Lukas Denis is deservingly labeled a ballhawk after grabbing seven interceptions last season. However, he’s not simply a safety who caught a couple of fortunate bounces or overthrown passes. Denis is truly an asset in man coverage and can even slide down to nickelback when necessary. Plus, he’s adept at creating havoc on ball-carriers with crushing hits and a crafty punch to force fumbles. For good measure, Denis ranked third on Boston College with 83 tackles in 2017. He’s not a household name, but Denis is a premier college safety and quality NFL prospect.
T.J. Edwards, linebacker, Wisconsin
If EA Sports still made NCAA Football, it would be a travesty if T.J. Edwards’ awareness was anything less than 99. With three 80-tackle seasons to his credit, the rising senior has been a fixture of Wisconsin’s defense since 2015. Edwards has defended the pass quite well throughout his college career, but he was dominant in 2017. Pro Football Focus notes the linebacker ceded a mere 38.4 passer rating when targeted. Edwards, who tallied 11 tackles for loss and four interceptions, is the versatile centerpiece of what should be another outstanding Badgers defense.
Paddy Fisher, linebacker, Northwestern
The loss of Anthony Walker figured to leave a sizable hole in Northwestern’s defense, but Paddy Fisher stepped in as a freshman and excelled. He accumulated a team-high 113 tackles, the fourth-most in the Big Ten. Fisher collected nine tackles for loss, forced four fumbles and snatched an interception, too. According to Football Study Hall, he notched 18 stuffs — a tackle ending a play with zero or negative yards. Since he took a redshirt in 2016, Fisher is a draft-eligible prospect this season. He’ll be closely monitored by NFL scouts.
Joe Giles-Harris, linebacker, Duke
No matter his assignment, Joe Giles-Harris will make an impact. His 125 total tackles ranked 16th in the nation, and his 16 stops in the backfield ended a terrific 26th. Additionally, despite only occasional snaps as a pass-rusher, Giles-Harris gathered 4.5 sacks and six hurries. Most impressively, that performance followed a freshman campaign with 107 tackles, 9.5 for loss and four sacks. Offensive coaches must be tired of seeing Giles-Harris on the other side, yet the returning first-team All-ACC linebacker is only a junior.
N’Keal Harry, wide receiver, Arizona State
Arizona State’s red-zone offense includes a simple guideline: Throw it up, and let N’Keal Harry get it. As a sophomore, he pulled in seven red-zone touchdowns; only seven players in the country grabbed more. However, the 6-foot-4, 216-pounder is more than a big body near the goal line. Harry amassed 82 catches for 1,142 yards, both of which ranked in the top 15 nationally. That level of production should continue with the return of quarterback Manny Wilkins. After the season, the coveted receiver will decide if he wants to forgo his senior year and pursue the NFL.
Jaquan Johnson, safety, Miami
Jaquan Johnson rarely makes mistakes. That’s a key reason Miami surrendered the sixth-fewest gains of 30-plus yards in the country last season. Besides, it’s what the last line of defense is supposed to prevent. After managing 38 tackles as a sophomore, he posted a team-best 96 tackles in 2017. But the rising senior is also a playmaker. Johnson helped break out the Turnover Chain more than a handful of times, intercepting four passes and forcing three fumbles. Johnson passed up the NFL and returns as one of the nation’s most respected safeties.
David Montgomery, running back, Iowa State
Bringing down David Montgomery is a nightmare. Against Iowa in 2017, for example, Montgomery side-stepped one defender, literally threw one to the ground and shook off a diving tackler to gain seven extra yards. In that one play alone, he showed off an elite combination of agility, strength and balance. No wonder he earned first-team All Big 12, right? Montgomery finished 2017 with 1,146 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground and 36 catches for 296 yards. If his junior campaign is similar, Montgomery might be the top running back prospect in the 2019 draft.
Dalton Risner, right tackle, Kansas State
As a freshman in 2015, Dalton Risner started all 13 games at center. Since shifting to right tackle the following year, he’s become an absolute force. Risner was a terrific run-blocker in 2016, helping Kansas State the sixth-most rushing touchdowns in the nation. Then last year, per Pro Football Focus, he surrendered only six total pressures in pass-block reps. That’s the fewest allowed among returning Big 12 tackles. During both 2016 and 2017, he earned first-team All-Big 12 recognition. Risner’s NFL future could be at guard or center, but he’s a valued prospect nonetheless.
Jeffery Simmons, defensive tackle, Mississippi State
Houston’s Ed Oliver and Clemson’s Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence are probably the most recognizable defensive tackles. But Jeffery Simmons might actually be nation’s the second-best player at his position, only behind Oliver. Last year, Simmons posted 60 total stops with 12 tackles for loss and five sacks. According to CFB Film Room, the backfield-wrecking lineman added 16 quarterback hurries and hits combined. Simmons, who also blocked three kicks and forced two fumbles, is a game-altering piece for a hugely talented Mississippi State front.
Chase Winovich, defensive end, Michigan
When analysts talk about the Wolverines defensive line, Rashan Gary is typically the first player mentioned. However, in terms of college production, Chase Winovich may deserve the initial nod. While a star teammate certainly aids his performance, Winovich has been a menace against both the run and pass for two seasons. He’s not simply a “get after the quarterback” rusher. Winovich has amassed 27.5 tackles for loss with 13.5 sacks and three forced fumbles since the beginning of 2016. As a senior, he should receive serious All-American consideration.