There are some elite college football playmakers defensive coordinators lose sleep over. No matter how much they prepare, scheme and stay up all night to try to thwart the offensive stars, they can’t be stopped from going off on game day.
Read on for a look at the 25 most unstoppable playmakers ahead of the 2018 college football season. Most of the studs on this list consist of dynamic running backs and impact wide receivers.
Spoiler alert, though: a few dual-threat quarterbacks are tossed in at the end, and somewhere in the middle is a diamond-in-the-rough tight end who could emerge as the next NFL-caliber matchup nightmare.
Note: Stats and measurements courtesy of Sports Reference.
Bryce Love, running back, Stanford
The Cardinal couldn’t have asked much more from Love last season after he ran for 2,118 yards and 19 touchdowns. Instead of heading to the NFL, though, the rising senior opted to stay at Stanford for his final year of college eligibility.
Especially with the short shelf life modern running backs tend to have, it’s rather surprising to see Love not capitalize on his immense talents and earn a life-changing pro payday. But the NFL’s temporary loss is the Cardinal’s gain in 2018.
Love averaged 8.1 yards per carry, which shows he didn’t wear down in the least and didn’t even need as many carries as most backs would to post his gaudy numbers. Even if he regresses slightly from that 2,000-plus benchmark, Love would still be among the game’s best skill players.
AJ Dillon, running back, Boston College
A freshman phenom for the Eagles, Dillon’s sensational first year was highlighted by a 272-yard rushing performance with four touchdowns in a 45-42 victory over Lamar Jackson-led Louisville.
Considering he didn’t have a single reception in 2017, there’s plenty of room for Dillon to contribute more in the passing game. However, his massive 240-pound frame gives him upside as a pass protector, which will ensure a continued workhorse role.
Anthony Brown is only entering his second year as BC’s quarterback, and had his first season cut short due to a lower-leg injury. If Brown can come back strong and improve as a passer even marginally, that’ll only help Dillon’s bid to be among the country’s best backs.
Emanuel Hall, wide receiver, Missouri
Tigers quarterback Drew Lock is a lock as a top-tier NFL prospect, barring something unforeseen. Lock has an absolute cannon for an arm and when he did connect with Hall last season, it was something truly special.
Hall averaged a whopping 24.8 yards per catch and scored eight touchdowns on just 33 receptions. It’s up to him to become more than just a downfield threat, though it can’t be discounted how well Hall uses his 6-foot-3 frame to shield off defenders and how well he tracks the deep ball.
If he can refine his technique and route-running even a little leading up to the season, look for Hall to absolutely go off in 2018.
J.K. Dobbins, running back, Ohio State
To top Maurice Clarett’s freshman Buckeyes rushing record is no small feat. Neither is proving oneself as a worthy successor to Ezekiel Elliott as OSU’s next great back. For good measure, Dobbins overtook the feature role from Mike Weber, who’d ran for over 1,000 yards as a freshman in his own right the previous year.
Dobbins’ arrow is really pointing up considering he’s accomplished all that in such a short time. Not quite as bulky as Clarett or Elliott, Dobbins nevertheless runs with the same blend of power, deceptive speed and uncanny field vision.
With a new quarterback in Dwayne Haskins taking over the Buckeyes’ dynamic, explosive offense, it’s likely coach Urban Meyer will want to lean on the running game even more to take pressure off the first-year starting signal-caller. That means a heavy workload for Dobbins and improvements on his 2017 numbers of rushing yards (1,403) and rushing touchdowns (seven).
Myles Gaskin, running back, Washington
A three-year starter who opted to return for his senior year, Gaskin has piled up 4,055 yards and scored 21 of his 45 rushing touchdowns last season. He also had three receiving touchdowns among 19 catches for 232 yards.
The 5-foot-10, 205-pound bruiser has a low center of gravity and great burst when he hits the hole. What helps Gaskin is that he’s a smart, decisive runner who shows patience but presses the line of scrimmage well and commits once he sees the crease. He also flashes the breakaway speed needed to rip off chunk plays — Gaskin had a 69-yard touchdown scamper in the fourth quarter of his last game, a Fiesta Bowl loss to Penn State.
There’s no reason to think Gaskin will slow down given his experience, proven durability and a seasoned quarterback in Jake Browning to complement him and give Washington’s offense adequate balance.
David Sills V, wide receiver, West Virginia
With last year’s No. 3 receiver Ka’Raun White now gone, there are even more opportunities for Sills to make big plays in the Mountaineers’ passing game.
Although Gary Jennings is still around, he’s more of the possessions target, whereas the 6-foot-4 Sills, who had 18 touchdown grabs in 2017, is West Virginia’s top red-zone threat. Quarterback Will Grier has a real chance to build his case as a first-round draft pick, so he’ll be looking to Sills for explosive plays.
In addition to possessing great size and a resultant tremendous catch radius, Sills can make things happen in the open field, evident by his healthy 16.3 yards per reception last year. The scary thing is he’s a converted quarterback, so it stands to reason Sills has only scratched the surface of his potential.
Marquise Brown, wide receiver, Oklahoma
After committing to Oklahoma as a junior-college transfer, Brown said he can run a 4.33-second 40-yard dash. While that may have been true at the time in December 2016, by the looks of his tape from last season, he may be even faster in terms of game speed.
Any lack of size Brown has is offset by his elite sprinting ability, which translated to 1,095 yards on only 57 receptions (19.2-yard average) and seven touchdown catches in his first season with the Sooners.
Oklahoma will deploy Kyler Murray to lead the offense in 2018. There seems to be room for Brown to expand his role as a ball-carrier. The electric, speedy Murray can hurt defenses with his legs, and the two can feed off each other with Brown as an occasional read-option back, pop-pass recipient or jet sweep extraordinaire in addition to what he does in the traditional passing game.
Jonathan Taylor, running back, Wisconsin
Badgers backs Montee Ball, James White and Melvin Gordon have all been drafted by the NFL in recent years, and Taylor looks like he’ll eventually be next in line.
The reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year exploded onto the college football landscape with 1,847 rushing yards and 13 scores. Wisconsin purposely builds big, physical offensive lines, and when a special playmaker like Taylor is in the backfield, special things tend to happen.
Taylor just has to make sure his pro future isn’t put in jeopardy by too heavy of a workload in college. But for now, he’s among the elite players at his position.
D’Andre Swift, running back, Georgia
Fear not: The Bulldogs’ backfield is still in great hands even with Sony Michel and Nick Chubb being selected in the 30s of this year’s NFL draft.
Swift was a 5-star prospect coming out of high school and has lethal speed. Even with Michel and Chubb in front of him last year, the then-freshman managed 618 yards rushing and three scores—and caught more balls (17) than the two backs ahead of him on the depth chart, combined.
Jake Fromm guided Georgia to the national championship game, so he’s a proven leader under center. That should only help Swift show the college football world the talent the Bulldogs had to keep on the sidelines last season due to an embarrassment of running back riches.
A.J. Brown, wide receiver, Ole Miss
Brown stepped up as a sophomore, to say the least. He racked up 1,252 yards on 75 catches and 11 touchdowns despite playing with two different starting quarterbacks, albeit good ones.
It didn’t take long for Brown to get on the same page with Shea Patterson’s replacement, Jordan Ta’amu. The pair connected on six passes for 166 yards and a score in a 31-28 win over Mississippi State to close the 2017 campaign.
The big bummer about the Rebels right now is that they’re banned from postseason play due to NCAA sanctions. So while Brown’s junior year might be anticlimactic in that regard, he ought to be one of the SEC’s most electrifying playmakers despite the rather dire state of the Ole Miss program.
Darrell Henderson, running back, Memphis
The rising junior made the most of his scant opportunities to carry the ball last season, racking up 1,154 yards and nine scores on just 130 attempts for an 8.9-yard average. Henderson has also had 44 catches over the past two years, showing serious value in passing situations too.
Patrick Taylor Jr. actually had 27 more carries than Henderson last season, but there’s no question the latter back made more of his opportunities — and he’s the superior pass-catcher.
Memphis’ offense lost a lot of firepower from last season between second-round NFL draft pick Anthony Miller at receiver and two-year starting quarterback Riley Ferguson. It’s hard to envision a future in which Henderson isn’t the foundation of the Tigers’ 2018 offense.
Diontae Johnson, wide receiver, Toledo
Undersized at 5-foot-11 and 181 pounds and likely underestimated due to where he attends school, make no mistake: Johnson is a sensational skill player.
In addition to catching 74 balls for 1,278 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, Johnson also had a kickoff and punt return for a touchdown. When he’s in the open field, he looks more like a running back than a wideout, with excellent vision as a ball-carrier.
When Johnson is running, it doesn’t look like it takes much effort, yet he has deceptive speed and can quickly pull away from defenders and separate at the catch point as well as create space underneath. His impact on special teams will only be limited by how much the Rockets deploy him on offense; Johnson should enjoy even bigger numbers as a receiver in 2018.
Adrian Killins Jr., running back, UCF
The Knights are coming off an undefeated season, and opponents will likely prioritize shutting down star quarterback McKenzie Milton over UCF’s rushing attack.
Enter Killins to “kill it” this season. Given his killer speed — okay, I’ll stop, but seriously check this out — and exceptional production in his limited touches, it’ll be hard for the Knights to keep the rising junior off the field since he is such a home-run threat who averaged 6.4 yards per carry and scored 10 rushing touchdowns at a rate of one every 12.3 carries.
With five runs of over 60 yards in his young career, including touchdown runs of 87 and 96 yards, there’s no denying Killins’ upside, which has only been teased through his sophomore season.
Justice Hill, running back, Oklahoma State
The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Cowboys leading receiver James Washington and three-year starting quarterback Mason Rudolph in the second and third rounds of the 2018 NFL draft respectively. That means there’s plenty of opportunity for Hill to take center stage as the focal point of Oklahoma State’s offense.
Hill still made a splash in his sophomore campaign with the presence of that dynamic duo in the passing game, accruing 1,467 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground, along with 31 catches. One can only imagine what Hill will do when even more responsibility is placed on his shoulders.
What stands out about Hill is how savvy of a runner he is between the tackles. He can make sudden jump cuts and explode up the field, getting north-and-south quickly even when he nears the sidelines. That bodes well for further success in Stillwater.
Anthony Johnson, wide receiver, Buffalo
The most promising NFL prospect the Bulls have had since Khalil Mack, the bulky 6-foot-2, 207-pound Johnson has the makings of a future pro. Coming off a monster season in which he had 76 catches, 1,356 yards and 14 scores, there’s no telling where Johnson will go from there.
Johnson was a junior-college transfer who redshirted the previous year, so he exploded onto the scene out of basically nowhere in 2017. It will be fascinating to see how he deals with the hype and exposure, but judging from his highlight reel, there’s no reason to think Johnson will disappoint.
Whether it be back-shoulder throws, hauling it in underneath in traffic, high-pointing 50-50 balls or showing a knack for separation, Johnson is a do-it-all type of outside receiver who should only continue to improve.
N’Keal Harry, wide receiver, Arizona State
At 6-foot-4 and 216 pounds, Harry’s frame stands out upon an immediate eye test, but then you take into account his freakish athleticism and realize how special he can be as a junior.
The Sun Devils lost the Sun Bowl 52-31 to N.C. State but saw Harry shine on the postseason stage with 142 yards and a touchdown on nine receptions. He can go get the ball even when opponents shade coverage toward his side, which is a huge advantage for senior signal-caller Manny Wilkins.
New coach Herm Edwards is a former NFL defensive back, so hopefully he can bring some help to that side of the ball. Harry can take care of making plays in the passing game to keep Arizona State within striking distance on the scoreboard.
Stanley Morgan Jr., wide receiver, Nebraska
The Cornhuskers are far more known for their high-octane rushing attacks than launching aerial assaults on opponents, which explains why Morgan’s 986 yards receiving in 2017 was a school record. It’s looking like Morgan could well become the first wideout in Nebraska history to cross the 1,000-yard season threshold.
New head coach Scott Frost was a two-year starter for the Cornhuskers as a quarterback and won the 1997 national title, so he’ll have unique insight into how to get the ball into the strong-handed, physical wideout’s hands with maximum efficacy.
Frost was also the head coach at UCF the previous two seasons and led the Knights to an undefeated season on the strength of the nation’s top scoring offense. His arrival will not only lead Morgan to heights unprecedented for a receiver in the program, but also bolster Morgan’s NFL draft stock.
Noah Fant, tight end, Iowa
We’d be remiss not to mention a dynamic tight end on the list. In terms of being unstoppable, when Fant got his opportunities, he made them count, amassing 11 touchdowns on 30 receptions and 16.5 yards per catch last year.
Fant is a surefire 2019 NFL draft prospect and could well go in the first round due to his pass-catching prowess. With an offseason to work on his craft and at least another year to showcase himself in the Big Ten, the rising junior is bound to be on pro scouts’ radars all season.
No one emerged for Iowa last season as an explosive No. 1 option in the receiving corps, but if the Hawkeyes can get open underneath, it should allow Fant to exploit mismatches up the seam. He’ll also use his big 6-foot-5 frame to ward off defenders as a lethal red-zone threat.
Devin Singletary, running back, Florida Atlantic
Anyone who gives maligned coach Lane Kiffin grief can’t really argue with what he got out of Singletary for the Owls in 2017. The punishing ball-carrier barreled his way into the end zone for 32 touchdowns. Yes, that was just in last season alone.
In addition to running for just under 3,000 yards in two years with Florida Atlantic, Singletary also has 45 receptions, further justifying his every-down role.
The trick will be to keep Singletary fresh, but that doesn’t seem like a big issue considering he was the driving force behind the team’s 10 consecutive wins to end the year.
Rodney Anderson, running back, Oklahoma
There’s no shortage of talent in the Sooners backfield, but Anderson figures to lead the team in carries just as he did last season. He had a monster game in the College Football Playoff against Georgia, with 201 yards rushing and two touchdowns.
When given the chance, Anderson proved adept at pass-catching as well, hauling in five touchdown receptions on only 17 catches for a healthy 283 yards in 2017.
Given his all-around skill set and the need to compensate for the loss of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield, there’s no question Anderson will be more heavily relied on this year. That means he’ll garner more attention for his unique playmaking ability.
Aaron Cephus, wide receiver, Rice
It’s easy to overlook the Owls after they won only one game last year, but they had a bright spot to say the least in Cephus. As a freshman he had a team-high 25 catches for 622 yards and five touchdowns.
Yes, you read that correctly. That’s 24.9 yards per reception. He’s also 6-foot-4, 205 pounds, and in his limited opportunities to shine, he certainly has shown a penchant for big plays.
There aren’t likely to be many threats for Rice’s opponents to prepare for in 2018 outside of Cephus. However, his combination of size and explosiveness should render that reality irrelevant as he puts up even bigger numbers having had a year of experience under his belt.
Benny Snell Jr., running back, Kentucky
The Wildcats won’t soon be mistaken as a football powerhouse. That hasn’t stopped Snell from producing in the toughest conference in the country, as he’s racked up over 1,000 yards rushing in each of his first two seasons, including 1,333 and 19 touchdowns last year.
At least Kentucky has two bowl bids since Snell arrived on campus. After being ejected from the Music City Bowl for making contact with an official, you can bet Snell is eager to get back at it this season.
Dual-threat sophomore quarterback Terry Wilson is the favorite to start in 2018, per SECCountry.com’s Joe Mussatto. Wilson ought to help open running lanes for Snell as he aims for another 1,000-yard campaign.
Tua Tagovailoa, quarterback, Alabama
How about a few quarterbacks to end the list, with a focus on dual-threat ability, beginning with Tagovailo. Although he showed flashes of good play throughout last season, no one outside his own locker room could have anticipated the true freshman coming in for the second half of the national title game and leading a comeback, overtime win.
Tagovailoa is the first legitimate dual-threat playmaker coach Nick Saban has had in his wildly successful tenure in Tuscaloosa. Despite the small sample size, it’s clear Tagovailoa is the Heisman Trophy front-runner at the moment, and he’s our top quarterback heading into 2018.
Alabama’s offense has leaned heavily on the run in recent years. That ought to change with Tagovailoa pulling the trigger, yet the Tide need to do their best to keep him upright and protected well enough for another College Football Playoff run.
Nick Fitzgerald, quarterback, Mississippi State
Never the most proficient passer in his two-year tenure as Bulldogs starter, Fitzgerald can really make it happen as a ball-carrier, evident in his 30 rushing touchdowns over the past two years.
Fitzgerald’s level of competition in the SEC makes his feat all the more impressive. He’ll need to be careful, though, not to take too much of a beating running the ball if he’s meant to take the next step into the upper-echelon of college quarterbacks.
Provided he stays healthy and gets a little more help from a receiving corps hoping for someone to emerge as the true No. 1 target, Fitzgerald ought to enjoy a fine season.
Khalil Tate, quarterback, Arizona
Tate is perhaps even more dangerous running the ball than he is throwing it. He does have room to improve as a decision-maker since he threw nine interceptions against 14 touchdowns in 2017. However, his running ability (1,411 yards rushing, 12 touchdowns) ought to help open up big throwing lanes.
After completing only 40 percent of his 45 pass attempts as a freshman, Tate got into a better groove as a thrower and showed markedly improved accuracy, completing passes at a 62 percent clip this past year and averaging 8.9 yards per attempt, so it wasn’t all of the dink-and-dunk variety.
Add in the fact that this will be the first time Tate enters the season as the unquestioned starter, and he’s bound to give Tagovailoa a run for his money in the Heisman conversation.