Get the Athlon Sports Newsletter
We scoured the standings to find diamonds in the rough
When the 2012 season started, no one would have picked Eric Fisher as any kind of star. He played offensive tackle, and he did it for a team that went 3-9 the previous season.
But the Central Michigan lineman clearly was special as he ended up the top pick in the NFL draft after a 7-6 season with the Chippewas.
With 125 teams in college football, elite players are bound to fall through the cracks. They end up in mid-December bowl games, if they land in the postseason at all.
Here’s our list of the top players who won’t spend time in the top 25 or even the also receiving votes category. While not all these teams mentioned are truly awful, many of them may limp their way into a bowl if they make it that far. And even if none end up the No. 1 pick in the Draft, these players will be worth watching on Saturdays.
OTs Tiny Richardson and Ja’Wuan James and LB A.J. Johnson, Tennessee
Tennessee only won one SEC game last season despite these three frontline players, plus departed quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter. That says something about the situation Butch Jones inherits (and the Volunteers’ defense). The key number on Richardson, an Athlon first-team All-American, and James: Tennessee allowed the fewest sacks per game in the SEC last season, despite the most pass attempts per game. Johnson led the league with 138 tackles. These three could start for any contender in the conference.
C Travis Swanson and DE Chris Smith, Arkansas
Swanson will be a Rimington contender, but he plays on an untested offensive line. He’ll give Bret Bielema a rock for the power run game he’ll want to run at least. Meanwhile, Arkansas quietly has the makings of a solid defensive line with three starters returning, led by Smith. The senior had 9.5 sacks and 13 tackles for a loss last season, including six sacks in the final five games last year.
WR Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri
The former No. 1 prospect is familiar to Missouri fans and recruitniks, but Green-Beckham didn’t look the part in 2012, especially early in the season. That said, he caught 14 passes for 242 yards with four touchdowns in November. His athleticism and 6-6, 220-pound frame still screams elite receiver. He should grow into that role this season, especially with more stability at quarterback and on the offensive line.
WR Paul Richardson, Colorado
On many other teams, this 6-1, 170-pound junior from Los Angeles would be a realistic Biletnikoff contender. But injuries and the mess of Colorado’s roster as overshadowed his career. Richardson returns after a knee injury kept him out of the 2012 season. He’s had few opportunities to match an 11-catch, 284-yard performance against Cal early in the 2011 season.
RB James Sims, Kansas
Sims was one the few — perhaps the only — positive developments for Kansas last season. As KU gave up on the passing game, Sims kept racking up yards. The senior tailback rushed for 1,013 yards in nine games, including six consecutive games over the 100-yard mark.
DLs Bud Dupree and Donte Rumph, Kentucky
The defensive line isn’t a bad place to build a team that can win SEC games. Trouble is, Kentucky may have little else. Dupree had 12.5 sacks shuffling from linebacker to end, but now moves to the line full time. Rumph is a big body at tackle at 6-5, 323. Together, they combined for 10.5 sacks. No other UK lineman had more than three.
LB James Morris, Iowa
Iowa has three standout linebackers — all seniors, all returning starters. Morris is the best of the bunch. Morris finished with 113 tackles last season, putting him on a long list of productive Hawkeyes linebackers.
WR Stefon Diggs, Maryland
Imagine what Diggs would do if he played for a good quarterback — or even one mediocre quarterback through the course of an entire season. Despite Maryland’s constant injury problems at quarterback, Diggs still caught 54 passes for 848 yards. And when he wasn’t the only threat in Maryland’s passing game, he returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, averaged 10.1 yards on punt returns and threw a touchdown pass.
CB Ricardo Allen, Purdue
Allen dealt with injuries last season, but when healthy, he’s one of the Big Ten’s best cover corners. Allen had six interceptions and three touchdowns in his first two seasons in 2010-11.
DT Nikita Whitlock, Wake Forest
Whitlock was hampered by an ankle injury last season, but don’t forget how good he was as a freshman and a sophomore. Whitlock had 14 tackles for a loss in 2011 and 10.5 tackles for a loss in 2010.
RB Brendan Bigelow and WR Bryce Treggs, Cal
For whatever reason, Bigelow carried the ball only 44 times last season, despite averaging 9.8 yards per carry. The two seniors ahead of him are gone, and Sonny Dykes may be more apt to get one of his most explosive players the ball in creative ways. Treggs caught only 21 passes as a freshman, but he had better reasons to be buried in the game plan (Keenan Allen and subpar quarterback play).
DE Aaron Lynch, USF
Lynch was a rising star as a freshman at Notre Dame in 2011 when he led the Irish with 5.5 sacks and 14 quarterback hurries. He’ll restart his career with the Bulls, where he’ll be an All-AAC-caliber player on a solid front seven.
QB Brett Smith, Wyoming
Hopes are high Smith can help Wyoming turnaround a 4-8 record. He missed two games last season — losses to Cal Poly and Air Force, games decided by a combined three points. Smith had his ups and downs last season, but he still finished with 27 touchdowns to six interceptions. His 8.6 yards per pass attempt led the Mountain West.
QB Corey Robinson, Troy
Troy has fallen way behind other Sun Belt programs after winning at least a share of five consecutive league titles. Robinson still has a career completion rate of 63.8 percent as a three-year starter, topping the 3,000-yard mark each year.
K Cairo Santos, Tulane
How does a kicker on a 2-10 Tulane team win the Lou Groza Award? He makes 20 of 20 field goals, including two from 50-plus yards and 10 more from 40 or more yards.