Every Top 25 College Football Team's Most Under-the-Radar Player
The 25 teams projected to appear in the preseason polls this summer are expected to do so, more than any other reason, because they have superstars and established players and big-name recruits all over their depth charts.
But even—nay, especially—the best teams must get contributions from their lesser-known players each season. If the supposedly weaker parts of the roster are rescued by a dark-horse contributor or two, the bigger-name players should look all the better because of it.
The whole team should look better because of it!
In reading this list, it's important to remember that "under the radar" is relative. A well-known player to you and the fans of your team might be anonymous to everyone else. Each player included on this list is expected to contribute next season, so obviously the local media are talking about them. The national media, however, might not be.
The basis for the rankings on this list was the projected Associated Press preseason top 25 that Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee put together in May. Obviously, everyone has a different opinion on which teams will be ranked—and that opinion, in most cases, dogmatically includes their own school—but this seemed like the fairest template.
Kindly direct all complaints to @NobodyCares, or, if you prefer, sound off in the comments for some reasonable discourse. Enjoy!
Under-the-Radar Player: DE Caleb Bluiett
Shiro Davis got the first crack at replacing Jackson Jeffcoat, and he still sits atop the projected post-spring depth chart that Taylor Gaspar put together for Bleacher Report. But Caleb Bluiett is closing the gap.
Bluiett started last season as a tight end but moved to the defensive line during the middle of the year. He played well enough as a reserve to earn a start against Oregon in the Alamo Bowl, and he parlayed that momentum into an impressive spring.
With two sacks in the Longhorns' spring game, Bluiett stated loudly his case to start opposite Cedric Reed. Even if Davis keeps the job, though, Bluiett did enough to earn regular paying time. Charlie Strong loves high-energy players, and Alex Dunlap of Orangebloods.com said Bluiett's motor during the spring exhibition popped off the tape.
The two former Louisville defenders who were taken in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft—Marcus Smith and Calvin Pryor—had a history of playing offense when Strong and Vance Bedford first got their hands on them. There's a precedent for this staff in molding versatile, raw and athletic specimens into quality defenders and future pros.
Might Bluiett be the next in line? It's much too early to ask.
But it's certainly not inconceivable.
24. Kansas State
Under-the-Radar Player: RB/FB Glenn Gronkowski
Yes...he is that Gronkowski.
The youngest of the five Brothers Gronk is a fullback at Kansas State who is perhaps best known for inviting Rob—his NFL All-Pro sibling—to Manhattan, Kansas for a booze-filled afternoon last April.
But Glenn has quietly been great when utilized by the Wildcats offense, and there's a chance he takes on an even bigger role this season. The sample size was small—so small, regrettably, that it has to be considered an outlier—but according to Football Study Hall, he averaged an insane 24.3 yards per target as a receiver in 2013.
Gronkowski might even factor into the running back battle this season, as Kansas State searches (among some less-than-inspiring options) for a replacement to John Hubert. He did, after all, score a 14-yard touchdown on the ground in the Wildcats' spring game.
"It was kind of funny because I don’t think (quarterback) Jake [Waters] knew I was the running back," Gronkowski said after the game, per Ken Corbitt of the Topeka Courier-Journal. "I think he called that play for (running back) Charles [Jones]. The line created a huge hole and I think anyone would have scored on that."
Always hand a Gronkowski brother the microphone.
Under-the-Radar Player: DB Nathan Gerry
Nathan Gerry saw the field as a true freshman linebacker last season, but he never found his bearings at the position and welcomed a move to safety this offseason. He feels like it's a more natural fit.
"My head was kind of rattling playing linebacker last year," Gerry admitted, per Grant Muessel of HailVarsity.com. "I feel that I'm more comfortable playing safety, so it allows me to be more confident..."
Even if Gerry fits better in the secondary, last year proved something important about him. It takes a certain disposition to hold one's own at linebacker in the Big Ten at 6'2", 210 pounds. One must be a little, how you say, out of one's mind. And from the sound of Muessel's testimony, that is precisely how Gerry looked in spring camp:
Gerry has a nose for the ball and plays like a wild animal.
Seriously, ask anyone who had the chance to watch spring practice. He runs around like a feral human when his defensive teammates make a play and hits like a truck. His eyes tracked that Tommy Armstrong pass that he intercepted like the NSA tracks your Facebook profile.
“I’ve seen him do it before a couple times,” defensive tackle Vincent Valentine said. “It’s a natural thing for him.”
Out of one's mind—in this context—is used as a term of endearment.
Corey Cooper and LeRoy Alexander stand between Gerry and a starting job, but no matter who lines up on the first play of the game, head coach Bo Pelini and defensive coordinator John Papuchis will be counting on the sophomore to play meaningful reps and to provide a Danny Bateman-type spark. GET ME THE BALL!
22. North Carolina
Under-the-Radar Player: DT Greg Webb
North Carolina's defensive line was great at pressuring the quarterback last season, finishing No. 20 in the country in adjusted sack rate, per Football Study Hall. However, it struggled to defend the run, finishing No. 71 in adjusted line yards (per the same source) and last in the ACC with 182.4 rushing yards allowed per game.
Enter Greg Webb.
At 6'2", 315 pounds, Webb has the size to step into the Tar Heels lineup at defensive tackle and make an immediate impact in run defense. He also has the pedigree, having ranked as the No. 140 overall recruit in the country in 2013—the highest in UNC's class.
Despite a brutal schedule, this team has been mentioned as a College Football Playoff dark horse by myself and Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer. Those predictions have to do, in large part, with Larry Fedora and Seth Littrell's offense, but they also imply an improvement on the other side of the ball. You can't win if you can't stop the run.
And this defense can't stop the run without Webb.
Under-the-Radar Player: DE Sheldon Rankins
Sheldon Rankins has been a serviceable rotation player for the Cardinals these past two seasons, flashing at times on the big stage—see: his 11-yard sack of Jeff Driskel in the 2013 Sugar Bowl—but mostly blending into the background behind the bigger stars of the defense.
But now Rankins is a bigger star of the defense, and with the introduction of Todd Grantham's more aggressive 3-4 scheme, he should be able to mitigate the losses along the defensive line.
"Rankins is a guy that has done a great job," Grantham said in March, per Mike Hughes of 247Sports (subscription required). "I've been very impressed with him. He can really control the line of scrimmage."
Controlling the line of scrimmage is the primary duty of a 5-technique defensive end; ultimately, Rankins' season will be defined by his ability to occupy blockers and free up rush linebackers such as Lorenzo Mauldin. However, as Rankins proved with 2.5 tackles for loss in the spring game (albeit against backups), he is also capable of freeing himself up and forcing his own negative plays in the backfield.
At 6'2", 300 pounds, he has the ideal frame for this position.
Under-the-Radar Player: WR J'Mon Moore
Missouri's top three receivers—L'Damian Washington, Dorial Green-Beckham and Marcus Lucas—combined to put up 2,468 yards and 25 touchdowns last season. That was good for 70 and 81 percent of the Tigers' receiving total on the year, respectively.
Which means Maty Mauk will need to find some new targets. Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt each had more than 250 receiving yards last season and are expected to be the stalwarts of the group, but J'Mon Moore is the player with the most superstar potential.
At 6'3", 190 pounds, Moore has the speed and athleticism to do some (but not all) of the things Green-Beckham did last season. He can stretch defenses vertically or go up and high-point lofted throws.
Hunt named Moore as a player to watch next season, per Nate Latsch of FoxSports.com, saying "he's been showing some really big plays."
Missouri will need some of those in a wide-open SEC East race.
Under-the-Radar Player: DL Delvon Simmons
It's rare for a team to add a transfer player with 13 games of starting experience at a power-conference program—especially if he started those games as an underclassman.
But such is the position that USC finds itself in with Delvon Simmons, who left Texas Tech in the midst of a coaching change in 2012 and sat out last season at the behest of NCAA transfer policy.
Simmons had 27 tackles and six tackles for loss with the Red Raiders in 2012, and at 6'6", 300 pounds, he has the size to play both end and tackle in Justin Wilcox's 3-4 scheme. Especially now that Kenny Bigelow is out for the season, he will be counted on to make a big impact.
"You can tell that he's played in college already," said defensive line coach Chris Wilson of Simmons, per Greg Katz of ESPN.com. "There are moments when you see him flash and do some really neat things."
18. Texas A&M
Under-the-Radar Player: TE Cameron Clear
Cameron Clear is a thicker, slightly less athletic version of former Aggies tight end Martellus Bennett—and that's a compliment.
At 6'6", 274 pounds, he tantalized A&M fans with his measurables but was more or less ignored by play-caller Clarence McKinney in the passing game. Still, grabbing two passes for 38 yards against Duke in the former Chick-fil-A Bowl was a welcome way to end 2013.
Bigger things are expected of Clear now that Jake Spavital has taken over the play-calling duties. Clear is only in his second season with the program, but he's a senior (by route of Tennessee and JUCO) with the size and speed to cause matchup problems all over the field.
Per Bruce Feldman of FoxSports.com (then with CBS Sports), Spavital even picked the brain of Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris for ideas on how to utilize Clear in a variety of different formations.
That's a pretty good place to start.
Under-the-Radar Player: RB Lavon Coleman
Lavon Coleman's game resembles that of the best Chris Petersen-era running backs at Boise State: Ian Johnson, Doug Martin and Jay Ajayi.
He is big (6'0", 215 lbs) but relatively light on his feet and runs with good balance. He also turned a potential disaster into a cross-field 47-yard touchdown on the final play of the spring game. In total, he finished the scrimmage with a game-high 99 yards on 18 carries.
The Washington backfield is a little bit muddled right now. Even if we ignore the Shaq Thompson experiment, Dwayne Washington, Jesse Callier and Deontae Cooper are all viable candidates to play ahead of Coleman. But no one in that trio stands out as unsurpassable, and Petersen has no previous depth chart to adhere to.
On merit alone, Coleman might be the best option.
Under-the-Radar Player: TE Jordan Leggett
Chad Morris has made stars out of his wide receivers at Clemson; Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins were both first-round NFL draft picks, and Martavis Bryant went in the fourth round.
But the success of those players—along with injury problems in 2013—has made it easy to forget how much Morris relies on his tight ends. Dwayne Allen was an All-American (and third-round NFL draft pick) in 2011, and Brandon Ford caught eight touchdowns the following year.
Jordan Leggett looked on track to become the next great Clemson tight end before his freshman season in 2013, but an MCL injury in fall camp set him back and hampered him all year—especially early on.
Still, he got better in the later part of the schedule and showed well with a 43-yard reception against Ohio State in the Orange Bowl. After flashing a nice rapport with Cole Stoudt during spring practice, Leggett could become Morris' go-to option as soon as 2014.
Under-the-Radar Player: DE Chikwe Obasih
Chikwe Obasih didn't make an impact on Saturdays last season, but he still found a way to leave a lasting impression on his coaches.
"He was the toughest guy last year on the scout team, day in and day out, as far as just coming out and getting knocked around," said head coach Gary Andersen, per Tom Mulhern of the Wisconsin State Journal. "As light as he was, he kept on fighting and battling."
If weight was all that kept Obasih off the active roster in 2013, he should be in store for a nice redshirt freshman season. According to Mulhern, he has already bulked up from 235 pounds last summer and the low 250s last fall to about 260 pounds this spring. He hopes to be at 265-270 pounds by the time LSU comes a-callin' August 30.
He's a good bet to start along the line in that game.
14. Notre Dame
Under-the-Radar Player: WR Will Fuller
He didn't flash often in 2013, but when he did, then-freshman receiver Will Fuller made it count. Not many players were beating Trae Waynes and the Michigan State secondary down the sideline for big gains.
If he can add some consistency to his explosiveness during his second season, Fuller might become a household name. Keith Arnold called him the Irish's secret weapon for Bleacher Report, and he got even bolder with his predictions over at NBCSports.com:
I’ve gone on the record saying that Fuller will go for 1,000 yards in 2014 and there’s no reason to back away from it now. While Fuller needs to prove he has the consistency — and durability — to play dominant football week in and week out, the Irish offense has too many weapons to cover. Single-coverage over the top against Fuller could end up with the sophomore putting up big numbers in a hurry.…
Fuller has great hands and the ability to do more than run vertically. We should see that and expect him to sneak up on opponents, a sophomore surge that should put Fuller on the map.
Whether it's Everett Golson or Malik Zaire throwing the passes, Fuller's mere presence should keep defenses honest and open up receivers across the field. If he proves capable early in the season, he'll be able to make an impact without even catching passes.
Under-the-Radar Player: TE DeSean Smith
DeSean Smith does not fit the archetype of an LSU tight end. He's a fluid, dynamic athlete instead of a burly, blue-collar trench soldier.
But the LSU offense is in a transitional phase right now, and there's a chance it could rely on its tight end in the passing game much more than in previous years. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron loves guys who can produce in the seam, and Smith is precisely that.
Last year, Jarvis Landry was Cameron's go-to target on third downs—when he needed a reliable option. The result was the best third-down offense in college football. That figure is sure to dip this season, but according to David Ching of ESPN.com, Smith caught two third-down passes for 36 yards and a touchdown during the spring game.
A sign of things to come? Maybe.
Young quarterbacks tend to love a good tight end.
12. South Carolina
Under-the-Radar Player: OL Mike Matulis
Mike Matulis didn't used to fly under the radar; after starting five games at right tackle in 2011, he was named to the Sporting News Freshman All-America team alongside current NFLers such as Teddy Bridgewater, Giovani Bernard and De'Anthony Thomas.
Since then, however, shoulder injuries have forced Matulis out of the public consciousness. After missing all of last season, it was unclear when—or if—he would ever get back to his previous form.
But Matulis made big strides this offseason and re-invented himself as a guard during spring camp. Per Josh Kendall of The State, he said his shoulder feels healthy for the first time since his freshman year.
"You can see the sparkle is back in his eye," said offensive line coach Shawn Elliott, per Kendall. "He looks like a healthy monster."
And thus, a new nickname was born.
Under-the-Radar Player: DL Aziz Shittu
Aziz Shittu hasn't played much his first two seasons in Palo Alto, but he's been able to ply his trade behind two of the best mentors that a young, talented defensive lineman could ask for—namely, Henry Anderson (who returns in 2014) and Ben Gardner.
He has also learned some defensive tackle skills from Josh Mauro, and the versatility Shittu can provide as he oscillates between the outside and inside should prove important for the Cardinal this season.
Even if he doesn't crack the starting lineup, the former top-100 recruit will be a frequent contributor in Stanford's defensive line rotation—a unit that's become synonymous with physical, blue-collar play.
Head coach David Shaw called Shittu "probably the player of the spring for us," per Kyle Bonagura of ESPN.com, which makes it sound like he's ready to embrace the task at hand.
Under-the-Radar Player: RB Johnny Jefferson
Don't weep for the Baylor offense.
Even after losing Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin from last year's backfield, the Bears return as much running back talent as any team in the Big 12—and arguably almost any team in America.
Shock Linwood and Devin Chafin got their feet wet as freshmen last season, but it's spring star Johnny Jefferson, who redshirted in 2013, whom Baylor coaches get red-in-the-face giddy when talking about.
Art Briles' staff thinks Jefferson "can be their next great home-run threat out of the backfield," per Max Olson of ESPN.com. He could play a scaled-down version of Seastrunk's former role in 2014.
Under-the-Radar Player: DB Reggie Wilkerson
Someone has to pick up the slack in Georgia's depleted secondary, and Reggie Wilkerson seems as good of a bet as anybody.
He came on strong in the spring as an early enrollee last year and was expected to see playing time as a true freshman, but a torn ACL ended his season before it began, casting Wilkerson aside as a somewhat forgotten man (outside of Athens, Georgia, that is).
Jeremy Pruitt moved Wilkerson from cornerback to safety this offseason, per Seth Emerson of The Telegraph, and in theory that should give him a chance to start in place of dismissed former starters Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews.
Corey Moore and Quincy Mauger have more experience, but provided his knee is healthy, Wilkerson has a much brighter future.
Under-the-Radar Player: DE Owamagbe Odighizuwa
Owamagbe Odighizuwa is the forgotten man along UCLA's defensive line—and someone you should definitely be rooting for this season.
A fifth-year senior, Odighizuwa had to take a redshirt last year after injuring his hip flexor and requiring two surgeries. Before that, he had appeared in 38 games with eight starts over three seasons, finishing tied for ninth on the team with 44 tackles in 2012.
There are younger, sexier, higher-upside prospects surrounding Odighizuwa on UCLA's defensive line. If they all pan out to potential (which is a pretty big "if"), Ellis McCarthy, Eddie Vanderdoes and Kenny Clark could form one of the best 3-4 fronts in the country.
If they don't, though, Odighizuwa provides an experienced fallback option. Even if they do, he will play a meaningful role in the rotation.
It's nice to have a proven commodity in the lineup.
Under-the-Radar Player: DB Ahmad Thomas
Ahmad Thomas made an impact on special teams as a true freshman last season, but he might be ready for a role on the defense proper.
Or at least that's the case if the spring was any indication. Brandon Chatmon of ESPN.com named Thomas the star of Sooners camp, saying "it would be a surprise if [he] is not a key contributor" in 2014.
That is a pretty big statement, especially considering the talent in OU's secondary. Thomas was only a 3-star recruit and placed outside the national top 500 (at No. 513) in the 2013 class.
The Stoops Bros. know how to develop talent.
6. Michigan State
Under-the-Radar Player: DB RJ Williamson
RJ Williamson is the forgotten member of last year's "No Fly Zone."
Darqueze Dennard, Isaiah Lewis and Kurtis Drummond were all named to the All-Big Ten first team by conference coaches, and Trae Waynes is being mentioned as a potential first-round NFL draft pick. Williamson is the Pete Best to their John, Paul, George and Ringo.
Except he's not.
Williamson was every bit a member of the band last season—he even has the ESPN graphic to prove it—and is poised to take on an even bigger role as he transitions from nickelback to starting strong safety, where he'll replace Lewis. He's appeared in 25 games the past two seasons, and he's done so in a fairly important capacity.
"I feel like I already am a starter, (and) coach considered me a starter last year even though technically I wasn't a starter,'' said Williamson, per Mike Griffith of MLive.com. "...I know the defense in and out, and I'll be prepared to do what the team needs me to do this year.''
Under-the-Radar Player: RB Peyton Barber
There's something kind of funny about this year's Auburn team.
The Tigers are expected (and good enough) to compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff, and they're expected to do so on the strength of an upperclassman backfield—a group led by quarterback Nick Marshall and tailbacks Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne.
However, if you listen closely enough to the whispers coming from Auburn camp and on Auburn message boards, it seems like the underclassmen—quarterback Jeremy Johnson and tailback Peyton Barber—are the most talented players at those respective positions.
Barring an injury to Marshall, Johnson will not play meaningful snaps in 2014, but Barber has a chance to crack (and even emerge from) the running back rotation. He showed glimpses of future stardom on the scout team last season, leading Tre Mason to tell Barrett Sallee of Bleacher Report that Barber "was the best running back on the team not named Tre Mason," per the video above.
A high-ankle sprain knocked Barber out of the A-Day game, but it will not knock him out of Gus Malzahn and Rhett Lashlee's 2014 plans.
If he's healthy, he is ready to contribute.
Under-the-Radar Player: DB Tyree Robinson
Former basketball star Tyree Robinson is fully committed to football. And even though his twin brother Tyrell just transferred away from the program, he is also fully committed to the Ducks.
Which is big. Athletically, Robinson is one of the most gifted players on Oregon's roster—a roster that's renowned for its athletic-giftedness. He is 6'4", 200 pounds, super physical and basketball-player bouncy.
The question is whether he can maximize those raw tools and become a reliable football player. He certainly looked the part during Oregon's spring game, finishing with multiple pass breakups, four tackles and a highlight-reel interception, per Matt Prehm of 247Sports.
Few players in the Pac-12 have a higher ceiling than Robinson.
3. Ohio State
Under-the-Radar Player: DB Cam Burrows
The Buckeyes defense is getting a schematic overhaul from new co-coordinator Chris Ash, and defensive back Cam Burrows should be one of the main beneficiaries—even if it's technically as a backup.
"The critical aspect (of the new Cover 4 defense) is the safeties," wrote Ross Fulton of Eleven Warriors in a thorough breakdown of the scheme. "They put their heels at 10 yards and read the number 2 (inside) receiver to their side."
Burrows has oscillated between cornerback and safety since arriving on campus last winter, and the new tactics make his versatility even more useful than it might have been before.
"It's more of a corner-type safety," Burrows said of his new position, per Doug Lesmerises of Cleveland.com. His coverage skills in that type of role should make him a valuable part of the pass defense.
Under-the-Radar Player: C Ryan Kelly
Ryan Kelly suffered from "Not-Barrett-Jones Syndrome" in 2013; anything he did would have been a downgrade from the former All-American and future College Football Hall of Fame candidate.
But it isn't like Kelly played poorly, and now, with a year of starting experience under his belt, he should become one of the leaders on an offense that just lost its three-year starting quarterback, AJ McCarron.
Whoever starts under center for the Tide this year will be new to that role, and it's hard to overstate the effect that a confident center can have on a young QB. Kelly is the quarterback of the offensive line, responsible for making all the pre-snap reads against the pass rush.
Especially if true freshman Cam Robinson starts at left tackle, Kelly's ability to manage the line will prove pivotal to 'Bama's offense.
1. Florida State
Under-the-Radar Player: RB Ryan Green
Converted safety Karlos Williams is being mentioned as a Heisman sleeper, and incoming freshman Dalvin Cook is the backup that folks seem most excited about. But lest we ignore Ryan Green.
Green is entrenched pretty firmly as the No. 2 option behind Williams—ahead of Cook and Mario Pender—after rushing for 163 yards on 33 carries in spot duty last season. He was the No. 50 overall prospect in the 2013 class, and he's done nothing to disprove that ranking.
Even if Williams does run like a Heisman candidate next season, there are touches to be had in the Florida State backfield. According to David Hale of ESPN.com, the lead tailback has accounted for just 27.5 percent of the Seminoles' rushing attempts since Jimbo Fisher became the head coach four seasons ago. No FSU tailback has seen 40 percent of the carries since Antone Smith in 2007.
Green will get a healthy share of touches, and if defenses think they can take it easy because Williams is on the sideline, the sophomore has the speed to make them pay. In a reddit AMA this offseason, walk-on fullback Ebo Entsuah said he thinks Green "could give Kermit [Whitfield] a run for his money" in a footrace.
NFL.com named Whitfield the third-fastest player in America.
From there, I'll let the transitive property take hold.
Note: All recruiting info refers to the 247Sports composite rankings.
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT