A variety of publications offer their preseason All-American teams this time of year. Each has its own leanings, evident in their individual selections, but it seems that, universally, the Group of Five is neglected.
Consider Colorado State’s Rashard Higgins. He led the nation in almost every receiving category a season ago, yet fails to scratch many of the preseason All-America 1st Team lineup. For the overlooked stars, I’m proud to unveil my preseason Group of Five All-American team.
CFBHuddle.com will track the Group of Five extensively throughout 2015 and present a postseason Group of Five All-American squad, as well as Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year. In the meantime, the following is how I project the best the Group of Five has to offer shaking out.
GROUP OF FIVE ALL-AMERICAN OFFENSE
Keenan Reynolds, Navy
The Group of Five features a number of talented quarterbacks heading into 2015, including former 5-star recruit Gunner Kiel (Cincinnati) and last year’s FBS passing leader, Brandon Doughty (Western Kentucky). However, Navy’s Keenan Reynolds has rewritten records in two-and-a-half seasons captaining the Mids’ option attack, and his senior campaign could be his best yet.
Reynolds gained national notoriety in 2013 when he scored seven of his 31 rushing touchdowns in a nationally televised, prime-time win at San Jose State. Though his output dipped somewhat in 2014, Reynolds still managed 23 rushing scores, fifth-best among all FBS ball-carriers. He can also unleash the occasional strike with the pass, which makes Reynolds especially dangerous in the option.
There are few players in college football as exciting entering a running lane as Reynolds, and his ability to hit those gaps in 2015 could very well carry Navy to an American Athletic Conference championship in its debut season.
Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech
Kenneth Dixon endured a slump in 2013, dropping from a nation-leading 27 touchdowns his freshman season to just four as a sophomore, but he came back with a vengeance in 2014. Dixon rushed for 22 touchdowns, sixth-most in the nation, and finished with 1,299 yards on the ground.
Dixon was also among the nation’s most effective pass-catching backs, hauling in 30 passes and six scores to help pace Louisiana Tech’s resurgent offense. He should jockey with Western Kentucky’s Doughty and Marshall running back Devon Johnson for C-USA Offensive Player of the Year. Expect Dixon to also contend for the CFBHuddle.com Group of Five Offensive Player of the Year.
Kareem Hunt, Toledo
Ask Arkansas State what Kareem Hunt brings to the table. He finished his sophomore season with a flourish, rushing for a new high 271 yards and five touchdowns to pace the Rockets’ 63-44 win. It was Hunt’s second time in three games surpassing the 250-yard mark.
Though Hunt saved his best for last, he was certainly consistent all year. His output never dipped below 100 yards. At that rate, had Hunt played in the three early-season games he missed, he very well could have surpassed 2,000 on the season.
Corey Davis, Western Michigan
A potent and balanced offense fueled Western Michigan’s surprising turnaround in its second year under head coach P.J. Fleck. The Broncos passing attack operated primarily through Corey Davis, a good-sized target who can use every bit of his 6-foot-3 to go up and get balls over cornerbacks.
Davis will challenge the record-setting statistics Jordan White produced at Western Michigan in 2011, when he surpassed 1,900 yards receiving and scored 17 touchdowns.
Rashard Higgins, Colorado State
Amari Cooper was a Heisman Trophy finalist and actually topped some ballots for college football’s most prestigious, individual honor. But he was actually looking up at Rashard Higgins in several statistical categories. The Colorado State star caught a nation-leading 145.8 yards per game, about 22 more than Cooper. Higgins also had one more touchdown catch — 17 to again lead the nation — in two fewer games.
Despite considerable NFL draft buzz and the departure of both Colorado State’s quarterback and head coach, Higgins opted to return for his senior season. New Rams head coach Mike Bobo, whose offenses the last few years at Georgia rewrote Bulldog record books, has to be thrilled. Higgins is reminiscent of former Bobo pupil and current NFL superstar A.J. Green.
Jonnu Smith, FIU
Jonnu Smith emerged as the consummate red-zone threat last season, catching eight touchdown passes for the Panthers in something of a bounce-back campaign. But Smith’s work is not limited to the shadow of the goal line. He was FIU’s most trusty pass-catcher by a large margin, catching 61 throws. The next-most active Panther caught 23.
Donnell Pumphrey, San Diego State
Donnell Pumphrey is a running back first and foremost, and an excellent on at that. Following in San Diego State’s recent line of standout ball-carriers, Ronnie Hillman and Adam Muema, Pumphrey scored 20 touchdowns on the ground and averaged 6.8 yards for 1,873 rushing yards. As the cornerstone of the Aztec offense, Pumphrey could have the best season seen on Montezuma Mesa since Marshall Faulk contended for the Heisman Trophy in the early 1990s.
As electric as Pumphrey is as a runner, he’s also been a reliable receiver out of the backfield for San Diego State. He caught 22 and 23 passes his first two years in the program, and his activity in the passing game last season put Pumphrey over the 2,000-yard mark from scrimmage.
Parker Ehinger, Cincinnati
Parker Ehinger is a returning, American Athletic All-Conference honoree and the cornerstone of a solid Bearcats line. Ehinger’s size and ability to maintain contact on blocks are crucial to give talented Bearcat quarterback Gunner Kiel ample operating time in the pocket.
Kiel got plenty of that in 2014. Last season, Cincinnati allowed just 18 sacks.
Marcus Henry, Boise State
Few programs have consistently featured as many offensive line stars as Boise State during the Broncos’ ongoing run of greatness. Though second-year head coach Bryan Harsin is breaking in a new starting quarterback and primary ball-carrier, the strength of Boise State’s line ensures that the transition will be smooth.
Marcus Henry is the anchor of the Broncos 2015 line, which should be among the best of all Group of Five teams. The value of a veteran line became evident as 2014 progressed. Though Boise State allowed 88 tackles for loss and 28 sacks, the Broncos’ protection improved in both facets in the second-half of the season.
Forrest Lamp, Western Kentucky
A high-tempo, pass-happy spread such as Western Kentucky’s thrives with blockers up front who can get to the line quickly and keep the defense back on its heels. Forrest Lamp is the cornerstone to the Hilltoppers’ approach up front.
With Lamp protecting his blind side, Doughty was sacked all of 19 times in 2014; given the Hilltoppers ran 986 plays, that’s a scant number.
Rees Odhiambo, Boise State
After clinching the first Group of Five New Year’s Six automatic berth — and then making good on it by winning the Fiesta Bowl — Boise State has a team built to run the table in 2015. The strength of the offensive line is central to that effort, and Rees Odhiambo joins Marcus Henry as a foundation piece in the Broncos front five.
Clint Van Horn, Marshall
Marshall’s explosive and balanced offense functioned effectively behind a stout offensive line last season. The Herd are breaking some new starters into the unit, but the foundation is rock-solid. Key to the success of the Herd’s front five, Clint Van Horn, is back to block for a new quarterback, now that Rakeem Cato is tearing it up North of the Border.
Grant Traylor of the Herald-Dispatch writes what makes Van Horn’s return so significant to the Marshall offense:
“Whether he’s taking a load of reps or, in his case right now, he’s doing indy (individual drills) and that’s about it, it doesn’t matter,” Marshall offensive coordinator Bill Legg said. “He needs to help those young guys so that they mature and develop and become better players. When you’re a veteran player, that needs to be part of your role because it’s always about team and it’s always going to be about team. The good teams – the teams that have a chance to be the most successful – are the teams who have older guys who step in and coach.”