It’s easy to see why college football stars like Heisman winner Baker Mayfield, Saquon Barkley and Bradley Chubb get all the media attention. They’re veritable rock stars on the gridiron, and we don’t begrudge them their status.
That said, there are plenty of other players who put together tremendous campaigns this past college football season. And they deserve to be recognized more than they have been.
The following 16 players captured our attention this season. They are appreciated by their teams and by the local media. Yet nationally they’ve been neglected, some more than others.
Drew Lock, quarterback, Missouri
Junior gunslinger Drew Lock has been one of the most exciting quarterbacks to watch this past season. Only, most folks haven’t seen much of him, because Missouri hasn’t been in many nationally televised games. Other quarterbacks in the SEC have gotten a lot more fanfare, such as Alabama’s Jalen Hurts and Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham.
Yet it was Lock who garnered All-SEC First Team nods from both the Associated Press and the SEC itself. And it’s not hard to see why. Lock passed for 3,695 yards (11th in nation) with 43 touchdowns (beating Baker Mayfield by two for the No. 1 spot) and just 12 interceptions. Lock threw at least four touchdowns six times this season. He helped the Tigers rattle off six straight wins to finish the season 7-5 and qualify for the Texas Bowl Game, where they’ll take on the Longhorns.
Oh, and along the way, he broke the SEC record for most touchdown passes in a single season.
Jalen Davis, cornerback, Utah State
Speaking of guys most people haven’t seen play, Utah State cornerback Jalen Davis is probably the best player to grace such a list. The senior has been recognized by those who vote for major awards (named to the Walter Camp Football All-America first team), but he has gotten very little press due to his exploits.
Davis intercepted five passes this year (No. 8 in the nation), broke up 13 passes (11th in nation) and returned three of his interceptions for touchdowns to lead the nation. That’s quite an impressive resume. Given his instincts for the ball, we’d be surprised if Davis didn’t end up playing at the next level, and playing well.
Lamar Jackson, quarterback, Louisville
It seems crazy to include last year’s Heisman Trophy winner on a list such as this. But the truth of the matter is that Jackson, who was also invited to New York this year, has been largely underappreciated by the masses, and in the media for that matter, for what he’s done in 2017.
Consider this: Baker Mayfield, this year’s runaway Heisman winner, gained 4,650 yards and scored 46 total touchdowns this year. Jackson gained 4,932 yards and scored 42 total touchdowns. There’s not much separating the two players in terms of what they did on the field, yet Jackson had far less to work with than Mayfield on both sides of the ball.
Even more frustrating is this perception that Jackson isn’t an elite passer. Because he has rushed for over 1,000 yards the past two years in a row, most who don’t watch him regularly assume he’s not an NFL-caliber quarterback. Nothing could be further from the truth.
To say that Mayfield is unequivocally the best player in college football this year would be wrong. He deserves the Heisman, to be sure, but one could argue Jackson is at least on par with him in terms of individual performance.
Sutton Smith, defensive end, Northern Illinois
What Sutton Smith did this year as a redshirt sophomore was nothing short of remarkable. A diminutive defensive lineman at 6-foot, 225 pounds, he tore up opposing offensive linemen to the tune of 56 tackles, 29 tackles for a loss and 14 sacks (both tops in the nation).
For his efforts, the Northern Illinois product became just the third player from the small school to ever make a Walter Camp All-American list (first team this year).
What’s even crazier is that Smith was almost completely unknown heading into the 2017 season. Last year as a redshirt freshman he barely registered as a blip on the radar with 15 tackles and one sack. We can’t wait to see what he does for an encore in 2018.
Rashaad Penny, running back, San Diego State
That Rashaad Penny didn’t get an invitation to New York for the Heisman Trophy Award presentation is something I’ll never understand. Not only that, but he didn’t even come in as a top-three finalist for the Doak Walker Award, given to the nation’s top running back.
Sacrilege! All this young man did was eclipse 2,000 yards rushing (watch here) with 19 touchdowns while going over 200 yards five times, including the final four games of the season. Sure, he did it against lesser competition than some of the other top running backs in the nation. But his numbers were top of the class, and he deserves more respect for his remarkable 2017 campaign than what he’s been given.
Darious Williams, cornerback, UAB
Lockdown cornerback. It’s a term thrown around loosely at times, yet there really aren’t that many of them. Even by the most stringent definition, however, Darious Williams fits the bill. The 5-foot-10, 185-pound cornerback from UAB was a veritable pass-gobbling monster to opposing quarterbacks.
He finished the season with 49 total tackles, 15 pass breakups (No. 6 in the nation, five interceptions (No. 8), a fumble recovery and four tackles for a loss.
Even more stunning is the fact that, per Pro Football Focus, he let just 33.3 percent of passes thrown his way to be completed (No. 1 among qualified corners) while allowing a passer rating of only 37.3.
Devin Singletary, running back, FAU
Lane Kiffin got all the press this year as the head coach of the Florida Atlantic Owls. Yet his offense, which averaged the sixth-most rushing yards in the nation, would have gone nowhere fast without the stellar play of running back Devin Singletary.
This lighting-in-a-bottle sophomore finished the season with the fourth-most rushing yards in the nation (1,796), a total of 1,981 yards and 30(!) touchdowns. Not surprisingly Singletary was named MVP of Conference USA, which certainly appreciates what he accomplished. But nationally, Singletary’s name has amounted to barely a whisper.
Anthony Winbush, defensive end, Ball State
When it comes to making impact plays on the defensive line, none were better this year than Ball State’s Anthony Winbush. The redshirt senior was a wrecking ball off the edge, utilizing his rock-solid 6-foot-1, 240-pound body to blow up plays behind the line of scrimmage.
Following up his very solid 2016 season, Winbush tallied 51 tackles, including 16.5 for a loss, 12 sacks (No. 4 nationally) and five forced fumbles, to lead the nation in that category. His sack totals weren’t as impressive during the latter stage of the season as they were at the beginning. But Winbush was still one of the most impressive defensive linemen in the nation this past year, even if he hasn’t been recognized as such.
Trey Quinn, wide receiver, SMU
SMU receiver Trey Quinn has a bright future in the NFL as a slot specialist. The Mustangs featured one of the nation’s top passing and scoring offenses this past season, and Quinn’s contributions had a lot to do with both totals.
Per PFF, Quinn was the nation’s most productive receiver in the slot, averaging 4.47 yards per route from that spot. He also dropped just two balls all year on 108 passes, showing hands of glue while hauling in 106 passes for 1,191 yards and 12 touchdowns — top-10 numbers all.
So, while guys like James Washington, Michael Gallup and David Sills V got all the national attention, Quinn was quietly going about his business with acumen that will get him drafted at the next level, whenever he decides to come out.
Joshua Jackson, cornerback, Iowa
Okay, so you’ve almost certainly heard about Joshua Jackson if you watched many prime-time games this year. Mainly because he’s had some monster games against the likes of Ohio State and Wisconsin. So, he’s not exactly a guy who’s gone under the radar.
Still, aside from the draftniks and folks like this scribe who’ve been watching him all year long, it’s hard to imagine you know how incredible Jackson really is. Not only did he lead the nation in interceptions (seven), he was second in defended passes (18) and allowed opposing quarterbacks a 40.2 passer rating when throwing his way. Those are just staggering numbers, and he also added two defensive touchdowns against Wisconsin as a cherry on top.
NFL scouts cannot wait to dig into this kid a bit more. If he officially declares for the 2018 NFL Draft, he’s a lock as a first-round pick.
Anthony Johnson, wide receiver, Buffalo
Another small-school prospect, Anthony Johnson could follow in Khalil Mack’s footsteps as a Buffalo star to make it big at the next level. He’s almost at the same level as Oklahoma State’s James Washington in terms of pure explosiveness on deep plays, averaging 17.8 yards per catch this year.
Johnson hauled in 76 passes for 1,356 yards and 14 touchdowns this past season (yardage and touchdowns both top-three marks) for the Bulls after sitting out a year on a redshirt. Per PFF, the 529 yards gained on passes 20 yards or longer also ranked third in the nation.
He transferred to Buffalo from Iowa Western Community College and quickly became the top offensive weapon for Buffalo, hauling in 10 more touchdown passes than any other player on the roster. So, not only did he put up huge numbers, but opposing defenses were keyed in on him every single week, and he still thrived.
Joe Ostman, defensive tackle, Central Michigan
Unless you’re a big fan of the Chippewas, you probably have no idea who Joe Ostman is. Likely, that’s going to change if you watch the pro game, because he’s headed to the next level and could be highly successful in the NFL, just like he’s been at Central Michigan.
The past two years, this redshirt senior has racked up 123 tackles and 20 sacks, 12 of which he made this year. And the most stunning part is he only played in nine games yet still finished third in the nation taking down quarterbacks. As such, he leads the nation with 1.20 sacks per game, is seventh with 18.5 tackles-for-loss and ranks fourth nationally with 1.9 tackles-for-loss per game.
Yeah, he’s good. And at 6-foot-3, 255 pounds, he’ll have NFL scouts very interested to put him through their paces next spring ahead of the April draft.
Marcus Green, wide receiver, Louisiana Monroe
Explosive plays on special teams are rare. Yet Marcus Green developed a knack for making the most of his opportunities this year as a kickoff return man. In terms of pure explosiveness, we could have easily gone with Memphis running back Tony Pollard, who averaged more yards per return and matched Green’s four touchdowns.
Yet in the end Green was our choice, because not only did he score four touchdowns on kickoff returns, he totaled 977 return yards on the season, punt and kickoffs combined. Green also caught 56 passes for 829 yards and five touchdowns, showing he’s capable of making big plays all over the field. It was a frustrating 4-8 season for the Warhawks, but Green was definitely a bright spot.
Lukas Denis, safety, Boston College
Ahead of the 2017 season, Lukas Denis converted from his cornerback spot to become Boston College’s free safety. It’s safe to say that was a savvy move. The junior defensive back matched Joshua Jackson with seven interceptions to lead the nation, adding 80 tackles, one forced fumble and nine other passes defended.
And once Denis got his hands on the ball, he knew what to do with it. Though he didn’t score a defensive touchdown, the free safety returned those picks for 185 yards, leading the nation. For his efforts, Denis was a Walter Camp Football Foundation Second Team All American, earned All-ACC honors in addition to being awarded All-ECAC accolades for the first time.
Dante Pettis, wide receiver, Washington
As a pure receiver, Dante Pettis took a big step back this year compared to his dynamic junior campaign that included 15 touchdowns. Though, the same can be said for the Washington passing offense in general, which was nowhere near as explosive without speedster John Ross.
Still, Pettis did haul in more catches this year than he did in 2016 (62) while catching seven touchdowns to lead the Huskies by a long shot. Even more impressively, he returned four punts for scores on only 22 attempts while averaging 19.6 yards per return. In the process, he became the all-time FBS leader in career punt returns for touchdowns. It got to the point later in the season that opposing teams just wouldn’t give him the chance to burn them with his extraordinary vision and speed.
Will Geary, defensive tackle, Kansas State
Being a run-stuffing defensive tackle isn’t as sexy as being a dominant running back or receiving dynamo. Yet teams that feature such players are lucky, indeed. Kansas State has been quite fortunate to have Will Geary tearing things up inside the past few years, and his final campaign for the Wildcats was stellar.
A former walk-on, Geary was recognized as a first-team All-Big 12 performer by the Associated Press for the third season in a row. His counting numbers don’t do Geary justice — 43 tackles, nine for a loss and 4.5 sacks. He was constantly blowing up plays in both the run and passing game, earning top-six numbers from PFF as a rusher and run-stuffing defensive tackle.
No doubt, Geary has a future in the NFL.