With the July Fourth holiday in the rear-view, the road to college football season is clear. The first round of media day events kick off next week, marking the first major milestone on the way to opening weekend.
The Open Man’s 2017 College Football Preview revs into high-gear as the fall fast approaches. Setting us on our course for the coming weeks is the first in The Open Man’s daily Listapalooza, spotlighting seven offensive skill-position players primed for star turns in the coming campaign.
Alex Barnes, Kansas State RB
Just as certain as his donning a purple windbreaker, Bill Snyder-led teams are assured to spread rushing responsibilities among a committee. K-State ball-carriers have eclipsed 1,000 yards just twice in the last half-decade; only once was this milestone-reaching Wildcat a running back (John Hubert with 1,048 yards in 2014). The other 1,000-yard K-State rusher since 2012 is quarterback Jesse Ertz, who did so last year and returns to the Little Apple in 2017.
All this is to say that sophomore running back Alex Barnes probably won’t contend for a national or even Big 12 rushing crown. Still, Barnes should play a central role for a dark-horse contender in its conference.
Barnes averaged 7.89 yards on his 56 carries in 2016. His six touchdown rushes doubled the next-most output among K-State’s rotation of running backs. Barnes’ effectiveness was not lost on Snyder, who told Kevin Haskin of the Topeka Capital-Journal this spring Barnes “tended to move himself” clearly ahead of the other options on the Wildcat depth chart.
Justin Herbert, Oregon QB
A pleasant surprise from Oregon’s otherwise dismal 2016 was the emergence of freshman quarterback Justin Herbert. Herbert steadily gained traction over the course of offseason workouts, and eventually supplanted Montana State transfer Dakota Prukop.
Herbert finished the season with one of the more impressive touchdown-to-interception ratios in all of college football, throwing 19 scores to just four picks. Not bad for a freshman — and neither was his 63.5 percent completion percentage.
A change in coaching staff forced Herbert into a new quarterback competition during the spring, but first-year Ducks head coach Willie Taggart said in May that Herbert concluded offseason practices with the most impressive showing of the bunch. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Herbert will be Oregon’s Week 1 starter. Surrounded by a talented running back corps with Royce Freeman and Tony Brooks-James, and operating behind a tremendous offensive line, Herbert should again flourish.
Ben Hicks, SMU QB
SMU scored a considerable coaching coup when it lured Chad Morris — college football’s first million-dollar coordinator — away from Clemson. Morris had to see tremendous potential in order to take on the cumbersome rebuilding project at SMU. That potential manifested in the form of a high 3-star quarterback prospect from Waco named Ben Hicks.
Hicks signed in Morris’ first recruiting class, spurning American Athletic Conference rival (and burgeoning Group of Five power) Houston. He first saw the field last year as a redshirt freshman and capitalized on the opportunity presented when Matt Davis sustained a season-ending injury Week 1 vs. North Texas. Hicks passed for 2,930 yards and 19 touchdowns in Morris’ wide-open offense.
With a year of experience, and the return of All-America caliber wide receiver Courtland Sutton, Hicks has the potential to put up some of college football’s most impressive passing numbers in the coming year. The American Athletic already got a taste when Hicks touched up Houston, then ranked No. 11, with three touchdown passes last October.
Chico McClatcher, Washington WR
Speed-demons John Ross and Dante Pettis powered Washington’s potent (41.8 points per game) offense a season ago. Ross wowed a new audience of fans and media with his wheels at the NFL Draft Combine, demonstrating the speed with which Pac-12 followers were already well aware.
Replicating Ross’ record-setting speed might not be in the cards for Washington head coach Chris Petersen, but Chico McClatcher could come awfully close.
In 2015, with Ross sidelined by injury, McClatcher held the same returner role. He averaged better than 23 yards per attempt. Last season, McClatcher plugged into a variety of roles, primarily as Washington’s No. 3 pass-catcher, but also getting some touches as a ball-carrier. His versatility makes him a tremendous asset, and the perfect complement to join the returning Pettis as the counter-punch in the Huskies’ offense.
Rashaad Penny, San Diego State RB
Donnel Pumphrey left San Diego State the NCAA’s all-time leading career rusher, and the most prominent in SDSU’s impressive string of running backs over the last half-decade. It’s a lineage that includes Ronnie Hillman, Adam Muema, and now, Rashaad Penny.
Penny played an integral role in the Aztecs’ landmark 2016, which culminated in 11 wins; a second consecutive Mountain West championship; and a final Top 25 ranking. He kept defenses honest against Pumphrey, coming on as the No. 2 option to roll off an impressive 7.49 yards per carry and 11 touchdowns. Penny’s transition from change-of-pace back to featured likely means a dip in YPC, but a significant jump in total output. He doubles as a pass-catching threat out of the backfield, which should help prevent defenses from loading the box against him.
Bo Scarbrough, Alabama RB
I doubt I was alone in my befuddlement, watching Bo Scarbrough carve up Washington and Clemson in successive College Football Playoff games. How did this prototype of the Nick Saban Running Back Factory manage just 90 carries in 11 appearances prior to the Peach Bowl?
Well, Lane Kiffin’s gone, and so is fellow Alabama-by-way-of-USC coordinator Steve Sarkisian. Expect an uptick in Bo Scarbrough’s touches in 2017, without sacrificing the 6.5-yard per carry output of 2016. Scarbrough has the potential to be the Tide’s next All-American and Heisman Trophy contender, should he see a heavier workload. And he will.
While Alabama’s loaded with options, including dual-threat quarterback Jalen Hurts and equally under-utilized returnee Damien Harris, Scarbrough’s the one with the body type and running style most reminiscent of past Saban-era stars.
Jester Weah, Pitt WR
Jester Weah didn’t need many catches to make a profound impact in 2016. Weah hauled in a not-insignificant 36 passes for a very significant 24.17 yard-per-catch average. That led all Power Five players, and ranked No. 2 overall in college football. Equally as impressive, more than a quarter of his receptions went for touchdowns.
Among ACC WRs with at least 30 targeted passes their way – no WR saw a better passer rating when targeted than Pitt's Jester Weah. pic.twitter.com/V2pGDjLgMZ
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) June 24, 2017
Expect NFL draft buzz to build around Weah in 2017. At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, he has the kind of frame the pros love. In that regard, Weah’s very much reminiscent of another Pitt Panther who did quite well for himself on Sundays.
Before he shredded the NFL as an Arizona Cardinal, Larry Fitzgerald was a touchdown-scoring machine at Pitt. He hauled in 12 in 2002, one year before
he was inexplicably robbed of nearly won the Heisman. In 2003, he scored 22 touchdowns and totaled 1,672 yards.
Jester Weah may not approach those staggering numbers, but he could progress into one of the best wide-outs in college football this season.