Players from blueblood programs, highly ranked teams and power-conference programs steal a majority of the spotlight every year in college football. Don’t forget about stars from the Group of Five schools, though.
“But when can I actually see them?” you might ask. Sure, they aren’t on national broadcasts every week, but many of the stars featured are on teams that will play a familiar program in non-conference action this season. Plus, the schools may have scheduled mid-week games for the very reason of exposure.
Now, instead of overlooking that non-conference game or ignoring a Thursday tilt between two less-popular teams, you can remember to watch specifically for a Group of Five star.
With the exception of Notre Dame, players from Independent teams were also considered for the list.
Appalachian State: Jalin Moore, running back
Near the end of the 2015 season, Appalachian State’s star running back Marcus Cox missed a game. It wasn’t welcomed news at the time, but the absence resulted in Moore’s breakout day. Then a freshman with 32 career carries, he promptly gashed Idaho for 244 yards. His pace has obviously slowed, but his effectiveness has not. Moore shared snaps with Cox in 2016 yet scampered for 1,402 yards and 10 touchdowns. The backfield belongs to Moore in 2017, and he might break a few box scores.
Arkansas State: Ja’Von Rolland-Jones, defensive end
Per Sports-Reference.com, only two players — Derek Barnett and Myles Garrett — recorded more sacks than Rolland-Jones over the last three seasons. And now, Barnett and Garrett are off to chase their NFL dreams. The best times to watch Rolland-Jones, who has 29 sacks and seven forced fumbles in college, are early September matchups with Nebraska and Miami. Rolland-Jones is an under-the-radar name for the 2018 NFL Draft.
Colorado State: Michael Gallup, wide receiver
Gallup quietly strung together a torrid close to the 2016 campaign. After averaging 3.6 catches for 49.6 yards with two total touchdowns in Colorado State’s first five games, Gallup posted 7.3 receptions for an even 128 yards over the final eight outings. He caught at least one touchdown in every game, including back-to-back three-score performances to end the year. Gallup and Nick Stevens have established quite the connection.
Hawaii: Jahlani Tavai, linebacker
Tavai made a formidable impression as a freshman in 2015, collecting 56 tackles and even punting twice for a 54-yard average. Last season, though, he starred. Tavai racked up 129 total stops with 19.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks en route to first-team All-Mountain West honors. Tavai highlights what should be a stingy linebacking corps, since both Malachi Mageo and Russell Williams Jr. will once again flank the man in the middle.
Houston: Ed Oliver, defensive tackle
Surprising losses to Navy and SMU stopped Houston from meeting expectations in 2016, but Oliver met and surpassed what the nation anticipated the five-star freshman would do. He immediately became a first-team AP All-America tackle. Oliver notched two sacks in his college debut against Oklahoma and finished the season with 66 tackles, tallying 22.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage and five sacks. Oliver also showed J.J. Watt-like awareness with nine pass breakups and three forced fumbles. The next two years should be special, considering Oliver is already one of the best impact defenders in college.
Louisiana Tech: Jaylon Ferguson, defensive end
Ferguson isn’t a household name. Following a year in which he set a school record with 14.5 sacks, Ferguson deserves more attention. The redshirt junior already has 20.5 career sacks, which ranks third in Louisiana Tech history. He’s also forced six fumbles over the two seasons. Ferguson, who landed on the Bednarik Award watch list, faces a pair of SEC opponents in September. Mississippi State and South Carolina must be ready to contain one of the nation’s premier sack artists.
Massachusetts: Adam Breneman, tight end
In 2013, Breneman arrived on Penn State’s campus expected to become Christian Hackenberg’s star target. Several injuries later, Breneman missed the 2014 and 2015 campaigns before transferring to UMass. Last year, he reappeared on the radar and led Football Bowl Subdivision tight ends with 70 receptions. Breneman’s 808 yards and eight touchdowns both ranked second in the country at his position.
As long as the Minutemen efficiently settle a quarterback competition set to linger into the season, Breneman will contend for All-American honors before pursuing an NFL future that once seemed lost.
Memphis: Riley Ferguson, quarterback
When a non-traditional football school watches its quarterback get selected in the first round of the NFL Draft and the coach leave for a power-conference program, the next season should be a rough one. Tennessee transfer Riley Ferguson helped Memphis avoid that fate. He completed 63.2 percent of his passes, throwing for 3,698 yards and 32 touchdowns while running for four more scores.
Ferguson’s national spotlight will be Sep. 16 when the Tigers host touted quarterback prospect Josh Rosen and UCLA. Memphis will also play three mid-week games televised on an ESPN network.
Memphis: Anthony Miller, wide receiver
Miller showed promise as a sophomore with 47 receptions for 694 yards, but he exploded in 2016. The wideout more than doubled his production, snaring 95 passes for 1,434 yards and 14 touchdowns. Miller eclipsed the 100-yard mark in eight games and caught at least one score in each of Memphis’ final seven outings.
Rather than capitalize on the prolific year, the former walk-on decided to return for his senior season. He’s squarely on the NFL scouting radar since the pool of receiving prospects may be weaker in comparison to 2017.
Miami (Ohio): Heath Harding, cornerback
Heath Harding has a nose for the football. In his three healthy seasons, the cornerback has snatched nine interceptions and broke up 18 passes. But that’s not all Harding provides, because he’s an efficient blitzer and willing tackler. The rising senior was fourth on the team with 67 total stops last season and third with 6.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. That looks impressive enough, yet he piled up a Miami-high 97 tackles in 2014. Harding is relatively undersized at 5’10”, but his mix of aggression and cover skills are unique in a corner.
Miami (Ohio): Gus Ragland, quarterback
Last season, Miami began the year with six consecutive losses. It’s not a coincidence that the RedHawks rattled off six straight wins immediately after that. Gus Ragland returned from an ACL injury and guided the program to a shared place atop the MAC’s East Division. Only a tiebreaker stopped Miami from appearing in the conference championship game. He ended the shortened season with 1,537 yards and 17 touchdowns compared to a single interception. Ragland and the RedHawks will head to Notre Dame in late September.
Middle Tennessee: Richie James, wide receiver
Only two receivers finished in the top 10 nationally during both 2015 and 2016: Corey Davis, who the Tennessee Titans picked No. 5 overall in the 2017 NFL draft, and Richie James. After a redshirt freshman year where he caught 108 passes for 1,346 yards and eight touchdowns, James amassed 105 receptions, 1,625 yards and 12 scores last season.
He also scampered for 339 yards and four touchdowns while serving as the team’s primary punt returner in 2016. Middle Tennessee force-feeds touches to James, but you shouldn’t fix what’s not broken.
Middle Tennessee: Brent Stockstill, quarterback
Brent Stocksill arrived broke into the lineup at the same time as James. The son of Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill, Brent claimed the starting job in 2015 and made the decision to bench a returning starter look smart. Stockstill topped the 4,000-yard mark that season, and he ended 2016 with 3,233 yards and 31 touchdowns despite missing three games. The left-hander has a chance to earn power-conference respect when the Blue Raiders take on Vanderbilt, Syracuse and Minnesota to begin the campaign.
Old Dominion: Ray Lawry, running back
Conference USA is littered with premier Group of Five talent on offense. Ray Lawry has been a steady contributor for Old Dominion, picking up 3,338 yards and scoring 38 touchdowns in three seasons. He was the conference’s Freshman of the Year in 2014 and has earned a second-team and honorable mention nod since then.
Lawry, as long as a hamstring injury doesn’t hold him back, has a chance to impress against two ACC teams. The Monarchs host North Carolina and travel to Virginia Tech in consecutive mid-September weekends.
San Diego State: Rashaad Penny, running back
Overshadowed by Donnel Pumphrey and his race up the list of college football’s all-time rushing, Rashaad Penny ran for 1,000-plus yards and 11 scores as a reserve last season. Not bad for a backup. He’s also one of the country’s most productive kick returners.
Penny has taken back five kickoffs for touchdowns since 2014, averaging an impressive 30.1 yards on 64 returns along the way. The senior will guide San Diego State’s rushing attack (and maybe special teams) into nonconference showdowns with Arizona State and Stanford.
SMU: Courtland Sutton, wide receiver
Sutton is the figurehead of SMU’s turnaround under Chad Morris. Two seasons ago, the 6-foot-4 wideout caught a touchdown in seven of the team’s first eight games, standing out as a rare bright spot in a 1-7 start. Last year, Sutton became a more consistent threat. He grabbed four or more receptions in 10 outings, totaling 76 catches for 1,246 yards and 10 scores. Sutton, who is considered by some a potential first-round NFL Draft pick, will be a heavily featured player for a bowl-caliber Mustangs squad.
Southern Miss: Ito Smith, running back
Christian McCaffrey became a household name thanks to elite versatility, and Smith is a similar type of player. The Southern Miss star has accumulated 2,587 rushing yards, 92 catches, 974 receiving yards and 32 total touchdowns over the last two seasons. Nevertheless, Smith may absorb an even larger role now that quarterback Nick Mullens is no longer behind center. That increased responsibility will be on display when the Golden Eagles play a pair of SEC foes, Kentucky and Tennessee, in 2017.
Texas State: Bryan London, linebacker
The nation’s leading returning tackler was only a redshirt freshman in 2016. Bryan London quickly showed he was prepared for the challenge of plugging a few areas on a leaky defense, reaching double-digit tackles in 10 of Texas State’s 12 games. And the other two outings? Well, he still managed eight and nine stops. London completed his first season with 141 tackles, including 8.5 for loss. The Bobcats will again struggle collectively, but London will be a reliable force in the middle of the defense.
Toledo: Logan Woodside, quarterback
Woodside ranked near the top of every major passing category in 2016. He led the Football Bowl Subdivision with 45 touchdowns and finished second in QB rating (183.34), third in yards per attempt (9.9), fourth in completion percentage (69.1) and seventh in yards (4,129). Pretty dangerous, no? Woodside completely destroyed school records previously held by Bruce Gradkowski, who spent eight years in the NFL. Woodside is set to encounter his greatest test when Toledo travels to South Florida and opposes an aggressive Miami defense.
Troy: Jordan Chunn, running back
Jordan Chunn isn’t an explosive guy, but the 231-pounder will steamroll defenses into submission. Only seven players logged more carries than Chunn’s 279 last season, and he rumbled for 1,288 yards and 16 touchdowns. The senior’s biggest asset is a powerful running style that is most evident in the red zone. Chunn has scored 35 of his 37 career touchdowns—which is already a program record—from inside the 20-yard line. Chunn and Troy end September with a road trip to LSU.
Tulsa: D’Angelo Brewer, running back
It’s rare to hear about a 1,400-yard rusher who finished second on the team, but say hello to D’Angelo Brewer. He led Tulsa with 837 yards in 2015 before racking up 1,437 yards last season. The “problem” was James Flanders, who ran for 1,629 yards, but he exhausted his eligibility. Brewer is back for one final campaign, and Tulsa returns three all-AAC linemen in Chandler Miller, Evan Plagg and Tyler Bowling plus a two-year starter in Willie Wright. Brewer has both the individual talent and supporting cast necessary to contend for the FBS rushing title.
UCF: Shaquem Griffin, linebacker
Shaquem Griffin doesn’t have a left hand due to amniotic band syndrome. That difference, however, is not stopping the UCF linebacker from excelling at the college level. Griffin earned a starting job in 2016 and proceeded to tally 2o tackles for loss, which tied for the 10th-most nationally. He totaled 92 stops and recorded 11.5 sacks, adding seven pass breakups, two forced fumbles and one interception. The Knights had a senior-heavy defense in 2016, so Griffin will be the leader of a revamped defense this season.
USF: Quinton Flowers, quarterback
The comparison is obvious: Quinton Flowers is the Group of Five’s version of Louisville star and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. Had the USF standout rushed for nine more yards in 2015, he’d boast consecutive seasons with at least 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns through the air with 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. We’re not going to hold it against Flowers, though—crazy, we know. He’s a special player who, considering the Bulls’ schedule in 2017, could lead the program to a featured spot in a New Year’s Six bowl game.
UTEP: Will Hernandez, offensive line
“Dominant” hardly begins to describe Will Hernandez. According to Pro Football Focus, UTEP’s star lineman allowed only one pressure in 380 pass-block snaps and was the highest-graded run-blocker among guards last season. Hernandez, who has started at left guard in each of the Miners’ 37 games since 2014, was named a second-team AP All-American in 2016. The 6’3″, 330-pounder has a wonderful chance to impress scouts during UTEP’s season opener at Oklahoma.
Western Kentucky: Mike White, quarterback
Following in the footsteps of Brandon Doughty was no easy task, but Mike White passed the test. The USF transfer propelled Western Kentucky to a second straight Conference USA championship while overseeing the nation’s No. 1 scoring offense. White posted a 67.3 completion percentage with 4,363 yards and 37 touchdowns to just seven interceptions. The Hilltoppers lost leading targets Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris to graduation, but White’s presence behind center keeps WKU as the team to beat in C-USA entering 2017.
Wyoming: Josh Allen, quarterback
Touted as a potential first-round pick for the 2018 NFL draft, Josh Allen returns to school facing a major challenge. Brian Hill, a two-time 1,600-yard rusher, and Wyoming’s top three receivers from 2016 are gone. Still, Allen has the individual talent to buoy the Pokes. Last season, he threw for 3,203 yards and 28 touchdowns while running for 523 yards and seven more scores. And with an experienced offensive line in place, Allen should be well-protected as Wyoming tries to defend its Mountain Division championship.