After revealing my most intriguing storylines heading into the 2018 college football season, I wanted to release my top five positional rankings, like I did a year ago as well. To make the criteria clear – this list is about the actual college players, as a combination of what they showed me last season and what I expect them to be in 2018. So this is not a look forward to these young men as draft prospects in 2019. Therefore, you might find some names that won’t be discussed a lot from next February to April. With that being said, I want to start with the offensive side of the ball and I will get back to defense next week.
1. Khalil Tate, Arizona
I already mentioned Tate as one of my favorites to win the Heisman Trophy this season. He is such an exciting dual-threat signal-caller. The Wildcats QB can run over defenders as well as away from them. However, he is often mistaken as a pure scrambler. Yet, he can throw with touch, trajectory and good ball-placement, plus he has the arm to really stretch the field. With that being said, last year it was the threat of him as a rusher, that opened up opportunities to throw the ball down the field and when he couldn’t connect early on, it took him a while to get going in some games. So I’m interested to see how he will evolve as a full-time starter and if he can win consistently within the pocket.
2. Trace McSorley, Penn State
When I did my top five lists last year, I already had McSorley as an honorable mention among the quarterbacks thanks to the amazing three-game tear he went on to end the year, when he completed 68 percent of his passes and displayed ice-water in his veins when going neck-to-neck with USC’s Sam Darnold in the 2017 Rose Bowl. The Nittany Lion is such a dynamic running-threat that the coaches let Saquon Barkley take the snaps and have McSorley as the outside threat on stretch read plays occasionally, as well as being able to escape the rush. As a passer he ate on those curl- and hook-routes plus quick dumpoffs to his backs in some games and he needs to see his man get open at this point, but he displays tremendous accuracy on the short and intermediate level.
3. McKenzie Milton, UCF
I can’t remember the last time I saw a quarterback look so different in a second half compared to what he did in the first one as Milton did in the Peach Bowl versus Auburn. In the first half he didn’t have his feet set properly and rushed his throwing motion, leading to lackluster accuracy. However, Milton kept the Knights in the game with his legs and as he got more comfortable, he started carving up the Tiger defense in period number two. As a sophomore he put up some crazy numbers, completing 67 percent of his passes for 37 touchdowns compared to just nine INTs, plus he added over 600 yards and eight more scores on the ground. I know it’s not the SEC or Big 10, but Milton faced second serious competition in the AAC, which included two other Top-25 teams.
4. Will Grier, West Virginia
This offseason Grier has emerged as one of the Heisman front-runners among college football fans and while I have a couple of guys ahead of him, I can see why. The Mountaineers’ signal-caller loves to spread defenses out and throw the ball all over the yard. Grier arrived at WVU last season and created a strong bond with wide receiver David Sills V, which will be something to watch in 2018. He shows the precision to fit the ball into tight windows as well as the arc to put the ball over the top and let his receivers run under it. While he forces too many questionable passes down the field when there really is nothing there, Grier has the ability to buy that little bit of extra time and deliver passes off platform.
5. Drew Lock, Missouri
Lock was a candidate to enter the 2018 NFL Draft, but decided to go back to school for one more year with a strong QB class. Leading the country in passing touchdowns and having set the new SEC single-season record with 44, Lock is often labelled as a product of Missouri’s up-tempo offensive system that relies heavily on hitches, slants, go routes and smoke/screens, but he has some excellent qualities. He shows the ability to process information, throws a beautiful ball and is praised for his accuracy. However, he gets himself into trouble at times when hesitating for that split-second and being late on the throw, with a floating ball coming out of his hands, which really costs him.
Honorable mentions: Justin Herbert (Oregon), Jarrett Stidham (Auburn), Ryan Finley (N.C. State)
1. Bryce Love, Stanford
It was a big task for Love to replace Christian McCaffrey, but like former star for the Cardinal who is now suiting up for the Panthers, Love finished last season as the runner-up for the Heisman trophy, as well as earning the Doak Walker trophy and Consensus All-American honors, after a season in which he amassed 2218 yards and 19 TDs on the ground. Running behind a massive offensive line, Love is very patient only needs a crease to explode through and then has the sprinter speed to go the distance on any given play. While he was the workhorse for a run-centric Stanford offense, Love had to work through a banged up ankle late in the season. However, he displayed a ton of toughness, fighting through that.
2. Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin
This Badger running back broke out in a similar way last season. Taylor came in at 18 years old and put up a new freshman record with 1977 rushing yards and reached the end-zone 13 times on 299 carries. He runs with a lot of power behind his pads and consistently falls forward at the end of the play. Taylor lets his big O-line go to work and then has a tremendous burst through the line. He might have to bang his way through defenses for large portions of the game, but at some point he always breaks a long run and decides the game for Wisconsin. He didn’t get a lot of snaps on passing downs as a freshman and fumbled six times, but he should be better in both areas with a year under his belt.
3. J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State
If it wasn’t for Taylor and Boston College’s A.J. Dillon both finishing in the top ten for rushing yards as freshmen last season, everybody would be talking about J.K. Dobbins. Ohio State had their mind set on featuring Mike Weber heavily, but the youngster just was too impressive to take a backseat. On less than 200 carries he came up with over 1400 yards on the ground and reached 170 yards on three different occasions, including the Big 10 Championship game against Wisconsin, who had the number one ranked rushing defense in the country. His combination of explosiveness and power is special. When I talked about my biggest storylines for the 2018 college football season, I already mentioned that he reminds me of Zeke a few years back.
4. Rodney Anderson, Oklahoma
I don’t think anybody in college football had a better final seven weeks in 2017 than Anderson. The 6’2”, 220 pound back totaled 1343 yards from scrimmage during that stretch, once he surpassed ten touches in a game. With his violent running style he looked so much like a young Beastmode. Anderson has a strong, thick lower body that enables him to run through arm tackles without breaking a sweat and he packs a mean stiff-arm to keep defenders away from his body and push himself off. We have yet to see if he can keep up the production without Baker Mayfield next to him in the backfield, but he is able to punish opposing defenses and showed some involvement in the passing game as well.
5. David Montgomery, Iowa State
He might be not be a household name quite yet, but this Cyclone running back is an outstanding all-around player. His head coach called him a culture changer because of how hard he runs with the ball in his hands. Yet, Montgomery is much more than just a bruiser. While I love the forward lean he runs with, he has to have ankles of steel with the cuts he performs and the stuff he does in the open field is unheard of for a 220-pounder. That led him to force the most tackles for anybody in college football over the last four years. Montgomery had some incredible individual effort plays and despite almost 300 touches his lone fumble came in their bowl game, where I thought he should have gotten a touchdown instead.
Honorable mentions: Justice Hill (Oklahoma State), Myles Gaskin (Washington), D’Andre Swift (Georgia)
1. A.J. Brown, Ole Miss
This guy is a dynamic target in the passing game at 6’2” with tremendous talent. Brown came out of the gates on fire as a sophomore, putting up a 233-yard performance through the air in the season-opener and he recorded a total of five games with 150+ yards. He is not only someone, who will punk people in contested-catch situations, but he also is second among returning receivers with 674 yards after the catch, as he forced 23 missed tackles and averaged 16.7 yards per reception. My only problem is that he was held to just one catch against Alabama and two versus LSU, which are the top secondaries he faced all year. However, I love the attitude he plays with and how violent he runs with the ball in his hands.
2. N’Keal Harry, Arizona State
Harry already contributed heavily as a freshman with 728 yards and seven touchdowns, but he improved on those numbers in his second year with 1207 yards and eight scores. Standing at 6’4” with a strong frame, the Sundevil receiver is a nightmare for cornerbacks in the Pac-12 on those back-shoulder passes and any type of 50-50 balls. He also made some circus one-handed catches last season and has put together a ridiculous highlight reel. Harry might only have average speed and he relies too heavily on his physical advantages rather than technique, but he can grab his defender and swipe by him to create some separation and he invites contact once he secures the catch and rumbles downfield.
3. Deebo Samuels, South Carolina
This is my guy. I’ve been on the Deebo bandwagon since I first saw what he is capable off in the final game of the 2015 season versus Clemson and I just want him to finally dominate for a full season. He had a monster start to last year, when he was used every way possible for 280 yards from scrimmage and took two kicks to the house in the first three games. Unfortunately injuries changed his plans once again, as the Gamecock playmaker missed the rest of the season. When he is on the field however, I don’t think there’s a more electric skill-player in the country. He catches quick throws or screens and takes it the distance, beats defenses over the top, threatens contain on sweeps and don’t you try kicking it to him.
4. Marquise Brown, Oklahoma
When Dede Westbrook went pro a year ago, Baker Mayfield needed another go-to target at Oklahoma and it didn’t take him very long to find one – Marquise “Hollywood” Brown. That nickname isn’t just about his hometown, but also his style of play. The former juco transfer just makes one big play after another. At 170 pounds soaking wet he doesn’t really let defenders touch him and usually creates instant separation out of his breaks, with the speed to take the top of the coverage. Once he has the ball in his hands he can switch to another gear and shake just about anybody in the open field. Obviously there are some size limitations and he will have to prove what he can do without Mayfield throwing him the ball and former Sooner tight-end Mark Andrew drawing attention across the middle.
5. David Sills V, West Virginia
Recruited by the Mountaineers as a quarterback originally, Sills played receiver sparingly as a freshman, but in the end wanted to line up under center. With the competition ahead of him, he decided to transfer to El Camino community college. However, he decided to return to WVU as a full-time receiver and built a strong connection with QB Will Grier right away. That led to 60 catches for 980 yards and a nation-best 18 receiving touchdowns. Sills lines up the majority of his snaps in the slot and is that big-bodied pass-catcher over the middle and in the red-zone, who can shield defenders from the ball and make those tough catches in traffic. What concerns me a little is the fact he didn’t reach 80 yards in any of the final five games.
Honorable mentions: Anthony Johnson (Buffalo), Kelvin Harmon (N.C. State)
1. Caleb Wilson, UCLA
As far as receiving tight-ends go, I don’t think there’s a more dynamic guy in the country than Wilson. The Bruin pass-catcher has quicks out of his breaks, exceptional hands and the speed to gain yards after the catch. He has the shake at the top of his routes to expose defenders in man-coverage as well as the understanding of how to find openings in-between the zones. Texas A&M got to know that in the season-opener, when Wilson was a crucial piece to UCLA’s 27-point comeback in the fourth quarter. Wilson started by eating up the Aggies zone-coverage before leaving their best defender Amani Watts standing routinely on those stick-nod routes towards the post, leading to a ridiculous 15 catches for over 200 yards. Unfortunately, he only played in five games, but he was the nation’s top tight-end according to Pro Football Focus, before going down with an injury.
2. Noah Fant, Iowa
If you are looking for a premiere combination of size, speed and hands, Fant is your guy. The Hawkeye tight-end gets after it in the run game and creates major movement at the point of attack. Opposing defenses have to leave someone over the top of Fant or he will burn the next-closest defender, who trails him down the seams, and he tracks the ball over his head like a wide receiver. He is deadly on crossing routes underneath and over the top of linebackers is a potent YAC target coming across the formation towards the flats off bootlegs. On an offense that ran the ball ten times more than they threw it on average per game, Fant only caught 30 balls for just under 500 yards, but 11 of those went for touchdowns.
3. Albert Okwuegbunam, Missouri
Only a freshman last year, Okwuegbunam already raised some eyebrows, catching 29 passes for 415 yards and 11 touchdowns. The Mizzou tight-end is a speedy threat down the seams, who routinely gets a step on linebackers and splits safeties downfield. He plays above the rim and has strong hands to hold onto the catch through contact. At 6’5”, 250 pounds he can shield defenders from the ball pretty well already. Okwuegbunam was used as a lead-blocker off skip pulls and doesn’t shy away from staying in protection and going up against opposing edge rushers. However, at this point the big TE leads way too much with his helmet as a blocker and fails to sustain at times, plus he wasn’t asked to run a very diverse route-tree on the Tigers’ up-tempo offense.
4. Kaden Smith, Stanford
This guy is another big-bodied pass-catcher at 6’5”, 250 pounds. Smith wasn’t the number one tight-end for the Cardinal in 2017, as Dalton Schultz was more of an all-around contributor to the offense, being heavily relied on as a blocker. Smith on the other hand served the role of that receiving TE, lining up detached from the line primarily and even split out wide on some snaps. With limited snaps he was held to 23 catches for 414 yards and two touchdowns. So it will be interesting to see how the coaches will use him this upcoming year. Smith has shown the willingness and potential as a run-blocker on some occasions. As a route-runner he has a good burst off the snap and creates separation out of his breaks. Smith has the ability to go over the top of a defender and pluck the ball off his head for those tough catches, plus defenders know they have to cut him down by his feet.
5. Hunter Bryant, Washington
Similar to Smith’s situation at Stanford, Bryant had more of a blocking tight-end in Will Dissly ahead of him on the depth chart. However, the Huskies used the four-star recruit in a multitude of ways as a freshman. Bryant ran flat-routes from the fullback spot, went underneath the formation off bootlegs, ran slants out of the slot and even caught a slip screen off play-action as well as being the target on a wide receiver pass. When the ball is in his hands, the young Washington TE is a load to bring down. I don’t have any exact numbers on it, but from watching his 2017 tape, it felt like he broke at least one tackle on every target he received. Last season he was simply a big receiver, with 22 catches for 331 yards in nine appearances, and I want to see if he can be more of a team-player.
Honorable mentions: Tom Sweeney (Boston College), Matt Bushman (BYU), C.J. Conrad (Kentucky)
1. Jonah Williams, Alabama (OT)
This young man came right in as a freshman to start at right tackle and pretty much outperformed Cam Robinson, who was an All-American on the opposite end. Williams switched to the left side in 2017 and was very dependable. He might not be the greatest athlete, but he plays under control and with excellent technique. Williams brings a good thump at initial contact in the run-game and plays with excellent leg-drive. The best thing Williams does is squaring up his target in protection and being patient with his hands as well as making those edge guys widen the arc and driving them deeper into the backfield. Occasionally he ducks his head too much into contact and can be slipped by, which Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell did that to him a couple of times in the Sugar Bowl, but he holds down his end.
2. Beau Benzschawel, Wisconsin (OG)
Benzschawel has started 36 consecutive games, almost all of them at right guard and was named first-team All-American by Sports Illustrated last season. He can get under the pads of defensive linemen and torque their body. Once he initates contact in the run-game, that defender usually doesn’t get away and some land on their butt. As part of what probably is the best O-line in the country, Benzschawel works very well off combo-blocks and brings the necessary movement as that secondary blocker on an angle. With his aggressive forward lean, the Badgers guard can lose balance at times and get off his feet, However, he shows impressive anchor strength, can perform various blocking schemes and he brings that little bit of nasty to him that you want to see.
3. Dalton Risner, Kansas State (OT)
After starting every game at center in his first year at campus where he received Freshman All-American honor, Risner moved to right tackle as a sophomore and has started all 25 games at that spot since then. He put up a Pro Football Focus grade above 90 in back-to-back seasons and was named to the First Team All-Big XII in each of those, including allowing just three total pressures in 2017. Risner has that wide frame that forces defenders to go through him and that’s a hard thing to do. He combines that with well-coordinated footwork and the grip strength to torque the pads of defensive linemen and open up a running lane. While he doesn’t show a lot of speed as a puller and overall there are some limitations with his athleticism, Risner has been extremely consistent for K-State and you rarely see him get out of position or just whiff on a block.
4. Max Scharping, Northern Illinois (OT)
This dude has been a model of consistency for the NIU program, being named a Freshman All-American as the only player from the MAC to do so and making the All-conference team each season. Risner has prototype size at 6’6’’, 320 pounds and allowed a minimal 11 QB pressures over his last two seasons. Scharping gobbles up defensive linemen as a run-blocker, as he keeps their chest close to him and repositions his feet as the play progresses. And he is so damn solid in protection. Scharping opens up his hips rather early, but always stays head-up with his rusher and is extremely patient with his arms. Compared to the other guys on this list Scharping doesn’t have to deal with quite the same competition, but he hasn’t surrendered a sack since their bowl game versus Boise State in 2015.
5. Hjalte Froholdt, Arkansas (OG)
This Denmark native arrived in the US as an exchange student and got an early offer by the Arkansas program as a defensive tackle, but he transitioned to the offensive line as a sophomore and started in all games at left guard since then. Froholdt has a ton of natural power and gets after people in the run-game until the echo of the whistle. He didn’t allow a single sack on 366 pass-blocking snaps and was flagged just once in all of 2017. Let me tell you, this guy loves hitting targets on the move. Froholdt fails to bring his helmet in front of the defender on angle blocks at times and has those guys running past him, but he held his own versus Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne when those two were matched up against each other last season.
Honorable mentions: David Andrews (OT, Wisconsin), Greg Little (OT, Ole Miss), Ross Pierschbacher (OG, Alabama)