College Football Players To Watch - Part I
As the college season creeps closer this three part series will select 25 players to watch in 2019. As the pre-season AP Poll isn’t annouced until Monday we will use the final AP Poll from last season as our framework. Selecting one player from each team working backwards, starting with Iowa and ending with Clemson.
The player could be a true stud, dark horse, comeback kid – There are no criteria. It can be any position and they don’t necessarily have to be draft eligible. They don’t even need to be the best player on their team, simply an intriguing watch. So let’s get started…
25. Iowa - Geno Stone (Safety)
I know what you’re thinking. This is a stacked Iowa Hawkeyes team. Two bookend tackles in Alaric Jackson and Tristen Wirfs, a huge edge rusher in AJ Espenesa and even a dark horse QB in Nate Stanley. Well, hear me out.
The Hawkeyes are getting a reputation in NFL circles as being a production line for secondary players. Desmond King, Josh Jackson and Amani Hooker were all highly thought of through the draft process. It was Hooker, speaking to draft analyst Fran Duffy, who annointed Stone as the next in line.
Set to become the tone setter in the back end of the defense, Stone won’t wow you with his athletic testing. It is his football savvy and determination that make him such a good strong safety.
The defense improved dramatically after his full time introduction and Stone’s ball hawking abilities led to four interceptions. He is unlikely to overtake his high profile teammates on draft day but his contribution will be important to the effectiveness of the Iowa defense in 2019.
24. Cincinnati - Michael Warren II (Running Back)
There’s a slew of running backs aiming to go high in next year’s draft. In the scrum Michael Warren gets somewhat overlooked. His rushing led the Bearcats to a surprise record of 11-2, including a bowl victory against Virginia Tech.
Warren ran for 1,329 yards, 12th in the country and 20 TDs, 4th most in the country during his sophomore season. He even landed in the top 25 for receiving yards, something highly valued in the modern NFL.
His physical running style has earned him the nickname ‘Truck’ but that belies the qualities Warren has outside of his power. He displays excellent vision and gets skinny through the holes his offensive line open up. The real wow move in his arsenal is his ability to cut. Warren’s lateral agility often finds defenders wanting and despite not having high end speed it makes him a potent threat.
23. Boise State - Curtis Weaver (Defensive End)
Eligibility: Redshirt Junior
The Boise State Broncos find themselves at no.23 in the list but they have a job on to still be in the top 25 at the end of the season. Having lost Quarterback Brett Rypien and Running Back Alex Mattison to the NFL, the offense will need remodelling. Thankfully, on defense Curtis Weaver returns for his redshirt junior season.
Weaver led the Broncos in sacks over his first two years in the lineup. Starting the season as tied sixth in school history he will look to at least equal his 2018 tally of 9.5. He has prototypical size measuring 6’3 and 265lbs.
Operating predominantly as a stand-up edge rusher Weaver projects as a 3-4 linebacker. However, his size means he should have no problem in a 4-3 base. Keep an eye out for him bending the edge and using his raw speed to get to the QB.
22. Utah State - Jordan Love (Quarterback)
For this selection, there’s no need to get cute. Jordan Love started the offseason as a dark horse to break up the big 3 QBs in next year’s draft cycle. Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert and Jake Fromm were early favourites to be the top signal callers of the 2020 Draft. However, the offseason buzz has grown for Love.
It is 1970 since the Utah State Aggies had a player go in the first round of the NFL Draft and Love will hope to end that drought. In 2018, his first year as a starter, Love recorded single season school records in; touchdowns, passing yards and seven 300+ yard games. All the time keeping his touchdown to interception ratio at 32 TDs to 6 INTs.
Once in the groove, Love is a difficult man to slow. He throws with great accuracy to all areas of the field. He has enough about him to escape the pocket and still be functional throwing on the move. As with all QBs he needs to kerb his over-confidence and know when to shelve a play that’s heading south. It would be no surprise to see Love quickly become a household name and not just a draft media darling.
21. Northwestern - Paddy Fisher (Linebacker)
Chicago in Winter can be an abrasive environment. Players at Northwestern have to display the grit and determination to perform in harsh conditions. Nobody embodies these traits better than the Wildcats defensive leader, Paddy Fisher. The third year linebacker led the team in tackles as a freshman and is the heart of the defense.
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald hasn’t had a losing season since 2014 and in that time he has three bowl wins and two double-digit win seasons. Without being blessed with handfuls of top tier talent the team depends on those who outperform their recruiting status, like the 3-star Fisher.
Fisher excels coming downhill. A solid open field tackler who can get in the backfield with ease in the running game. At 6’4, 246lb, a big part of 2019 will be Fisher displaying more than just his ability as a thumper. The NFL wants athletic LBs with coverage ability, if Fisher builds on his two career interceptions and speeds up the mental aspect of his game we could be looking at an early day 2 pick.
20. West Virginia - Kennedy McKoy (Running Back)
As always some teams face more of a rebuild than others. That is no more true than in Morgantown, West Virginia. Long-time Head Coach Dana Holgorsen moved on to Houston, making way for Neal Brown. On offense Will Grier, David Sills V and Gary Jennings all departed leaving major holes on that side of the ball.
Looking to shoulder some of that burden will be running back Kennedy McKoy. McKoy was the lead back in a committee approach last year. He ran for 802 yards and 8 touchdowns while sharing touches with Martell Pettaway.
This year, McKoy might be leaned on more heavily as the Mountaineers bed in a new Quarterback. At 6’0, 204lbs, he is a smooth runner who isn’t afraid to lower his shoulder. He might not have elite speed but is shifty enough to get plenty of production on the ground and in the passing game.
19. Army - Elijah Riley (Cornerback)
Army had a fruitful 2018, that saw them register an 11-2 record. The culmination of their season was a bowl victory over Houston but their highlight was undoubtedly running Oklahoma close in Week 4. Key to this was their triple option offense; seldom seen in modern football it gives Army a huge competitive edge. Teams have to overhaul their planning to deal with Army and it allows them to prosper.
Despite the success and novelty of the offense you can’t ignore Army’s defense. Kyler Murray and co. were a free scoring unit but Oklahoma could only manage 28 points in their meeting. The defense only gave up 20+ points five times out of their 13 games and a large part of that was cornerback Elijah Riley.
The secondary remains a strong suit of the Army defense in 2019. Riley has become a de facto leader and is effectively a shutdown corner. His competitiveness is highlighted in his 39 tackles, 7.5 of which were for a loss and despite his low interception numbers his 10 pass break-ups show his ability to locate the ball. Another good season and Riley could be seeking dispensation from the Department of Defense to pursue a career in the NFL.
18. Fresno State - Mykal Walker (Linebacker)
Jeff Tedford has completely turned around the Fresno State programme. After inheriting a 1-11 team, Tedford’s coaching brought home the Mountain West Conference title, defeating Boise State. The cherry on top was victory in the Las Vegas Bowl.
The problem with success is maintaining it. The Fresno State defense face exactly that problem having lost key linebacker Jeffrey Allison. Allison led the Bulldogs in tackles and having left for the NFL there is a massive void in the heart of the Fresno defense.
Part of filling that will be senior Mykal Walker. Walker was a stand up edge rusher in his junior year, after transferring from Azusa Pacific. He logged 13.5 tackles for a loss and 4 sacks. His tackling ability meant that Tedford decided to shift Walker to middle linebacker in spring practice.
The buzz is already strong for 2019 and he was added to the Butkus Award watch list. It will be interesting to see if Walker can thrive after this swap and become one of the better linebackers in this draft class.
17. Penn State - Micah Parsons (Linebacker)
Micah Parsons was one of the most highly touted recruits of the 2018 class. At 6’3, 241lbs he was a mouth watering defensive end prospect. Having signed for Penn State his impact for the Nittany Lions was immediate.
Being part of a big time college program is never easy, getting game time as a freshman can be an uphill task. Parsons faced no such struggle. Despite officially only starting one game he led Penn State in tackles (83), the first linebacker ever to do so in Happy Valley.
Parsons truly is a physical phenom. Operating mainly as a middle backer, he displayed all the traits you wish to see. Elite vision, power and speed meant he continually wreaked havoc in the backfield. His athleticism gives him sideline to sideline range and terrific closing speed. The most scary thing about Parsons is that he is almost under utilised at this point. Not draft eligible until 2021 he could develop into a true defensive chess piece. Don’t be surprised if he gets edge rush reps as his playing time increases. Parsons is perhaps one of the most special defensive players in college football right now.
formerly writing for the inside zone, rory will be breaking down college tape and keeping you up-to-date with all things CFB for the touchdown. an avid bengals fan, you can also find some of rory’s work at stripehype.c