College Football Players to Watch in 2019 - Part III
Monday finally saw the official pre-season AP Poll announced for the 2019 College Football Season. In Part I and Part II of this series we have used last year’s final rankings to choose our Players to Watch. We will continue to do so in our final installment. All 8 colleges featured remain in the top 10 for this year, showing the impact these young men will have in finding the next National Champion.
8. Georgia - Nolan Smith (Edge Rusher)
As we hit the top 8 teams from last year, we begin to see how continued success is achieved. Georgia is a prime example of a team that manage to lose a host of contributors to the NFL year in year out while remaining a top-10 program. The SEC is brutally competitive and for Georgia to remain within striking distance of Alabama is credit to their ability to recruit.
We haven’t had a true freshman in our list so far but Nolan Smith should have an immediate impact for the Bulldogs. The defensive end out of Florida was the number 1 recruit nationally and is penciled in to start as the Jack linebacker. The speed rusher role has been a revolving door in Athens. Lorenzo Carter, D’Andre Walker and Jordan Jenkins are just a few to have rolled off the production line.
One of the biggest problems for freshmen entering college football is adjusting to life going head-to-head with grown men. Having enrolled early to Georgia, Smith has earned plenty of plaudits and turned heads with the way he has bulked up. The Bulldogs defense will want to continue to produce at a high level and an early contribution from Smith will be welcomed.
7. Florida - Jabari Zuniga (Edge Rusher)
Eligibility: Redshirt Senior
New Head Coach Dan Mullen sparked quite the turnaround in his first year at Florida. After enduring a 4-7 record in 2017, the Gators bounced back with a 10 win season. That included a bowl victory over Michigan. A large part of the success was a tough nosed defense, that ranked top 20 in the nation.
Contributing 6.5 sacks was junior Jabari Zuniga. Alongside him was the explosive Jachai Polite, who saw himself drafted in April by the New York Jets. His new running mate is Louisville transfer Jonathan Greenard making Zuniga the senior partner who will shoulder the burden of getting to the opposition QB.
When it clicks Zuniga is a force. At the moment he remains an unmolded bundle of clay. Zuniga has prototypical size and strength meaning he can disrupt the line of scrimmage with ease. His eleven tackles for loss highlight the frequency in which he can make an impact in the backfield. However, the problem is getting the motor hot. Zuniga can drift in and out of games, his sack numbers are evidence of that. If Zuniga is to be a threat at the next level he must join things up in 2019.
6. LSU - K’Lavon Chaisson (Defensive End)
LSU Head Coach Ed Orgeron hasn’t had an easy route to leading one of the nation’s top college programs. Personal problems threatened to derail the talented coach’s career but LSU have benefitted from him getting things straightened out. In his first two full seasons in charge he has led the Tigers to a 9-4 and 10-3 record. A large part of this has been his robust defenses.
Orgeron’s charisma has made him a fantastic recruiter and defensive end K’Lavon Chaisson was a big scalp for his first class. A four star recruit out of North Shore, Texas, he had all the potential to develop into an elite college player.
As a defensive line guru Orgeron is best placed to help Chaisson develop those traits. After a promising start in his freshman season things didn’t go to plan in 2018. His sole appearance was against Miami. He recorded five tackles and a sack before an ACL tear robbed him of the rest of the year.
Chaisson will attack 2019 with renewed vigour and could be the biggest surprise in the SEC. His long frame will make him difficult to stop as a stand-up edge rusher. Chaisson also retains the athleticism to drop off the defensive line. If he can comeback strong from injury he could become the darling of NFL scouts.
5. Notre Dame - Ian Book (Quarterback)
As an independent college Notre Dame don’t have difficult conference play to overcome in their pursuit for a National Championship. Their strength of schedule is dictated by opponents they choose to face. The struggle is you can schedule teams two or three years down the line and things can change rapidly. Wins over Florida State, USC, Stanford and Virginia Tech didn’t have the clout they usually would and it took an unbeaten record to secure a 2019 playoff spot. Even then their inclusion was heavily debated.
Ian Book was the Notre Dame QB who led the Fighting Irish to a showdown with Clemson in the playoffs. The 30-3 defeat gave many the justification that they shouldn’t have made the cut. Book’s 17/34, 0 TD’s and 1 INT showed the difficulty he had in finding holes in an elite level Clemson defense.
Book took the job from Brandon Wimbush after only three games of the season. He steadied the ship, providing accurate passing and solid game management. Going into 2019 more is expected from Book. As a Senior, he has the opportunity to prove he can carve out a career at the next level. Mobile and consistent, if Book can build on his first starting season there is hope he has the makings of an NFL QB.
4. Oklahoma - Kennedy Brooks (Running Back)
Eligibility: Redshirt Sophomore
Lincoln Riley is on quite a run when it comes to producing no.1 picks in the NFL Draft. After Baker Mayfield went to the Browns in 2018, Riley protege Kyler Murray made it two out of two in 2019. Departing for the Arizona Cardinals with the first pick. This year things may be a little more tricky. Jalen Hurts, Alabama transfer, takes over as signal caller and despite his athletic talents his throwing ability doesn’t currently match up to his predecessors.
As in previous iterations of the Sooners’ offense, the running game will be key. The running game brings the balance needed for Hurts to be a rushing threat as well as opening up the passing game giving the QB easy reads.
It wasn’t Kennedy Brooks who led Oklahoma in rush attempts in 2018 but he did finish first in yardage. At an impressive 8.9 yards per carry average and 12 TDs it was a fantastic breakout season for the freshman. After a worrying story about Brooks’ conduct while in a relationship with a fellow Oklahoma student emerged over summer, he will have more than on-field questions to answer. An investigation cleared and reinstated him to the program and on a purely football level he should be an explosive watch.
3.Ohio State - Jeffrey Okudah (Cornerback)
The 2019 season is one of transition for Ohio State. However, they have sought to mitigate the damage caused by changing Head Coach by promoting from within. Offensive coordinator Ryan Day takes the helm and still has enough surrounding talent for the Buckeyes to be Big 10 favourites and a threat for National Champions. If Day can find his answer at QB then their title chances will be legitimate.
One area they don’t have to worry about will be the secondary. It is an impressive who’s who of defensive backs when you look back at the Ohio State alumni. Marshon Lattimore, Vonn Bell and Denzel Ward are just a few of the names lighting up the NFL. It’s difficult to argue with Buckeyes who believe they are the true DBU (Defensive Backs University). This year should be no different and the group is headlined by Jeffrey Okudah.
A five star recruit, Okudah fits the mould of the next star off the production line. His 6’1, 200lb frame means he is athletic enough to be a true shutdown corner while physical enough to mix it at the next level. He chimed in with 8 pass deflections in 2018 and as the premier talent he may never be considered a ball-hawk because teams will seek to avoid him at all costs. One thing you do see from Okudah’s tape is the hallmarks of a player destined to be a first round selection.
2. Alabama - Terrell Lewis (Edge Rusher)
Eligibility: Redshirt Junior
The Alabama defense doesn’t seem to miss a beat. The names change but the production and ferocity never dips. The Crimson Tide were even more potent in 2018 considering they had an elite QB. Tua Tagovailoa and receiver Jerry Jeudy will likely continue to grab the headlines this season but ask Head Coach Nick Saban and he will tell you it is the defense that sets the tone.
Part of that was missing last season. True Junior Terrell Lewis was billed as the main threat off the edge but was absent for the majority of the year with a knee injury. It was somewhat de ja vu for Lewis who missed 10 games of his sophomore season to an arm injury. As a Senior, 2019 represents a chance to get healthy and be the dominant edge rusher Alabama missed in their National Championship loss to Clemson.
Lewis is everything you want in the modern day outside linebacker. Tough, physical and quick off the snap. Aided by a strong supporting cast, this year is set to be a potential breakthrough one for Lewis. Trevon Diggs and Xavier McKinney will provide strong coverage while Raekwon Davis and Anfernee Jennings will ensure Lewis is not the sole thrust of a sack hungry defense. If Alabama continue to dominate then you can expect Lewis to be at the forefront of what makes them tick.
1. Clemson - Justyn Ross (Wide Receiver)
Dabo Swinney seems to have unlocked the secret to taking down Nick Saban and Alabama. So many teams have failed in their pursuit of the Crimson Tide but Swinney proved he could compete and prosper with a dominating 44-16 victory in the National Championship. In Quarterback Trevor Lawrence the Tigers have the nearest thing to a surefire no.1 overall player since Andrew Luck at Stanford.
Part of Lawrence’s success was being surrounded by bags of talent. Travis Etienne made the offense a two-headed monster, while one of the most terrifying defensive lines in CFB history made sure Lawrence got the ball back with regularity. The receiving corps also played their part. Tee Higgins will likely be a Day 1 or early Day 2 selection while his running mate Justyn Ross should build a partnership with Lawrence that opposition defenses fear for at least two more years.
Despite 1000 yards receiving, 9 TDs and a 21.7 yards per catch average, Ross had to wait until the National Championship game to truly announce himself. His 6 receptions for 153 yards and 1 TD laid bare what a potent pair he and Lawrence made. The fact that both were freshman was unnerving for the rest of college football’s elite. Expect more from the two in 2019 as they develop together. With oodles of speed as well as big catch ability, Ross could plant his flag as the top wide receiver in the country if he continues to impress.
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.com