Selecting college football's most underrated players
The start of the 2018 college football season is officially 50 days away. With the start of the upcoming season approaching and to mark 50 days until kickoff, Athlon Sports decided to pick 50 players we felt were underrated going into the upcoming season. Every college football team has players most would consider underrated. However, defining underrated players is no easy assignment, as that term varies in meaning between fans and experts. In addition to shining a spotlight on some players that are underrated, we wanted to raise the profile of a few Group of 5 standouts to fans on a national level. While some of these names aren't underrated to some fanbases, this list approaches from a national perspective and to point out 50 players that deserve more overall attention going into 2018.
College Football's Top 50 Underrated Players for 2018
Paul Adams, OL, Missouri
Adams has been a key piece of Missouri’s offensive line in each of the last two seasons and enters 2018 as one of the top linemen in the SEC. He’s started 25 consecutive games and helped to anchor a line that allowed only eight sacks in league contests last fall.
Blessaun Austin, CB, Rutgers
Austin was poised to earn a spot among the Big Ten’s top defensive backs in 2017, but a knee injury limited him to four games. In his three years with the Scarlet Knights, Austin has recorded 86 tackles, defended 22 passes and picked off three throws.
Dameon Baber, S, Nevada
Baber has been a key cog in Nevada’s secondary since stepping onto campus in 2015. As a three-year starter, Baber has recorded 233 tackles, two forced fumbles, defended 16 passes and picked off nine passes. He also scored three times (two interceptions and a blocked punt) in Nevada’s win over San Jose State in 2017.
Markus Bailey, LB, Purdue
Purdue’s defense is losing a handful of key players from last season, but coordinator Nick Holt can build his 2018 defense around Bailey. As a sophomore last fall, he recorded 89 tackles (11 for a loss), seven sacks and one forced fumble.
Ryan Bee, DL, Marshall
Bee is an imposing 6-foot-7 interior defender for coach Doc Holliday. He finished 2017 with 7.5 tackles for a loss and led the defense with 5.5 sacks. Bee has recorded 22.5 tackles for a loss over the last three years.
Trevon Brown, WR, East Carolina
With Anthony Miller, Trey Quinn and Courtland Sutton grabbing most of the attention at receiver in the AAC, Brown was largely overlooked last year. However, he caught 60 passes for 1,069 yards and seven scores. Brown’s 17.8 average on receptions ranked fifth among receivers in the AAC in 2017.
Julian Blackmon, CB, Utah
Blackmon emerged as one of the Pac-12’s top cornerbacks in 2017 and anchors one of league’s top defensive backfields in 2018. After playing limited snaps as a freshman, Blackmon recorded 48 tackles, six pass breakups and four interceptions last fall.
Malik Carney, DE, North Carolina
Considering the ACC’s deep collection of talent in the trenches, Carney’s play was largely overlooked last season. However, the Virginia native quietly recorded 12 tackles for a loss, two forced fumbles and 5.5 sacks last fall. He should push for All-ACC honors in 2018.
Demarcus Christmas, DT, Florida State
Christmas passed on the NFL for another season in Tallahassee, and his return to the interior of the line is huge for Florida State’s defense after the departure of Derrick Nnadi. Christmas has improved over the last three seasons, posting his best year in a Seminole uniform in 2017 by recording 4.5 tackles for a loss and 36 overall stops.
Maxx Crosby, DE, Eastern Michigan
Crosby wreaked havoc all year off the edge for Eastern Michigan in 2017. He recorded 11 sacks, 16.5 tackles for a loss and generated four forced fumbles.
Jamel Dean, CB, Auburn
Carlton Davis will be missed, but Dean is capable of sliding into the No. 1 cornerback role. According to Pro Football Focus, Dean graded out at 87.1 last season, which places him among the top returning Power 5 cornerbacks in college football for 2018. Over 14 appearances last fall, Dean recorded 43 stops and eight pass breakups.
Greg Dortch, WR, Wake Forest
Due to an injury that limited him to eight games, Dortch didn’t qualify for a spot among the ACC’s statistical leaders. If he did qualify, Dortch would have led all ACC players by averaging 161.3 all-purpose yards a game in 2017.
David Dowell, S, Michigan State
Dowell emerged as one of Michigan State’s top defenders last season. After spending most of his freshman year on special teams, Dowell recorded 52 tackles and five interceptions in 2017. Of note: Dowell’s five interceptions all came against Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan.
Clifton Duck, CB, Appalachian State
Appalachian State fans know all about Duck, but he’s deserving of more attention on the national level. The North Carolina native has started all 26 games in his career, recording 11 interceptions, 107 tackles and 25 passes defended.
Bryan Edwards, WR, South Carolina
Deebo Samuel is back from injury and ranked among the top receivers for 2018. However, Edwards – a former four-star recruit – is also one of SEC’s most talented options on the outside. He caught 64 passes for 793 yards and five scores last fall.
Terren Encalade, WR, Tulane
Encalade made the most of his opportunities in 2017. As the top target for quarterback Jonathan Banks, Encalade averaged 18.7 yards a catch for 730 yards and four touchdowns.
Bobby Evans, OL, Oklahoma
Orlando Brown led the way for Oklahoma’s offensive line last season, but Evans was also a standout performer in the trenches for coach Lincoln Riley. Look for the senior to push for All-America honors after starting 26 games over the last two years.
Joe Gaziano, DL, Northwestern
The Big Ten is loaded with talent on the defensive line, but Gaziano deserves more attention after a terrific 2017 season. He finished second on the team with 12.5 tackles for a loss and led all Northwestern defenders with nine sacks. He also forced four fumbles and recorded 36 tackles.
Youhanna Ghaifan, DL, Wyoming
Wyoming’s defense held opponents to just 17.5 points a game last season, and with eight starters back, this unit could be even better in 2018. Ghaifan was a big reason for that success, recording 15.5 tackles for a loss, seven sacks and two forced fumbles last fall.
Bryce Hall, CB, Virginia
Standout safety Quin Blanding is gone, but Virginia’s secondary is still in good shape for 2018. Hall is the new leader in the defensive backfield for coach Bronco Mendenhall after finishing 2017 with 47 tackles, one forced fumble, an interception and nine pass breakups. He’s poised to rank among the ACC’s top cornerbacks in 2018.
Related: ACC Football 2018 Predictions
De’Jon Harris, LB, Arkansas
Harris is one of the building blocks for Arkansas’ defense under new coordinator John Chavis. He led the Razorbacks with 115 tackles (8.5 for a loss) and recorded two pass breakups and 3.5 sacks.
Oluwaseun Idowu, LB, Pitt
With seven starters back, Pitt’s defense should be much improved in 2018. Idowu is the top performer on this unit for coach Pat Narduzzi, returning to the Steel City after recording 94 tackles (11.5 for a loss), five sacks and a forced fumble last fall.
KeeSean Johnson, WR, Fresno State
Johnson has led Fresno State’s offense in receiving for back-to-back seasons and posted his first 1,000-yard campaign last fall. In 14 appearances in 2017, Johnson grabbed 77 receptions for 1,013 yards and eight touchdowns.
Ty Johnson, RB, Maryland
New coordinator Matt Canada should build his first offense in College Park around a deep stable of running backs. Johnson is one of those players, as he returns for his senior year after leading the team in rushing yards in back-to-back seasons and has a career average of 7.5 yards per carry. The senior has rushed for 2,129 yards in his three-year stint at Maryland, including a 1,004-yard campaign in 2016.
Jim Jones, LB, Kent State
Jones was a first-team All-MAC selection last season, but he deserves a little attention on the national level. The Florida native racked up 98 tackles (eight for a loss), six sacks and a forced fumble in 2017.
Xavier Jones, RB, SMU
SMU’s passing attack with Courtland Sutton and Trey Quinn garnered most of the attention for the Mustangs last fall, but Jones quietly rushed for 1,075 yards and nine scores. He eclipsed the 100-yard mark in games against Memphis, Navy and Arkansas State.
Corbin Kaufusi, DL, BYU
Kaufusi is an imposing 6-foot-9 force in the trenches for BYU. The Utah native is also just starting to realize his potential on the gridiron after spending three seasons on the basketball court. Over the last two years, Kaufusi has recorded 98 tackles (10 for a loss), 8.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.
Drew Kyser/Trevon Tate, OL, Memphis
Even though Memphis loses quarterback Riley Ferguson and receiver Anthony Miller, the offense isn’t likely to regress too far on the stat sheet thanks to Kyser and Tate. These two linemen are among the best in the Group of 5 level, with Kyser owning 38 career starts, and Tate entering the fall with 34.
David Long, LB, West Virginia
Long missed the first four games of 2017 due to a knee injury but finished the year as the team’s best defender. Long recorded 75 tackles (15.5 for a loss), six pass breakups and 3.5 sacks.
Sam Mustipher, C, Notre Dame
With Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey among the nation’s top offensive linemen in recent years, Mustipher’s play was largely overshadowed. However, he did not allow a sack in 2017 and was regarded by Pro Football Focus as one of the top run-blocking centers in the nation.
James O’Hagan, C, Buffalo
O’Hagan has started every game in his three seasons with the Bulls and earned third-team All-MAC honors last fall. According to Pro Football Focus, O’Hagan has not allowed a sack since the 2015 season.
Bobby Okereke, LB, Stanford
Okereke recorded his best all-around season in a Stanford uniform last fall. He played in all 14 contests, registering 96 stops (7.5 for a loss), four sacks and a forced fumble.
Brian Peavy, CB, Iowa State
Peavy or teammate Ray Lima deserves a mention in this article. Despite ranking among the Big 12’s top defensive backs, Peavy didn’t get much national attention in 2017. He recorded 88 stops (six for a loss), broke up nine passes and intercepted two. Peavy was a big reason why Iowa State allowed only 11 touchdown passes in Big 12 action last fall.
Adarius Pickett, S, UCLA
UCLA’s secondary should be among the best in the Pac-12 this season. Darnay Holmes and Nate Meadors are back at cornerback, and Pickett passed on the NFL for another year in Los Angeles. As a junior in 2017, Pickett recorded 85 tackles (four for a loss), three pass breakups and one interception.
Terrone Prescod, OL, NC State
Tony Adams and Will Richardson leave big shoes to fill in the trenches in Raleigh, but coach Dave Doeren’s team should still have one of the ACC’s top lines. Prescod is a big reason why, as the Georgia native did not allow a sack and recorded 48 knockdown blocks in 2017.
J.R. Reed, S, Georgia
Reed’s emergence was one of the underrated storylines from Georgia’s 2017 season. After spending a year at Tulsa, he transferred to Athens and sat out 2016 due to NCAA rules. However, Reed became a key cog in the secondary for coach Kirby Smart, finishing 2017 with 79 tackles (five for a loss), 1.5 sacks, two interceptions and five pass breakups.
David Reese, LB, Florida
The defense is the unquestioned strength of Dan Mullen’s first team in Gainesville. Reese emerged as an All-SEC-caliber linebacker last season, recording 102 tackles (10 for a loss) and 1.5 sacks.
Mook Reynolds, LB, Virginia Tech
Reynolds started his career in Blacksburg as a cornerback but has shifted to a hybrid linebacker/safety role over the last two years. With Tremaine Edmunds moving onto the NFL, Reynolds’ presence and versatility is going to be even more crucial for the Hokies in 2018. Reynolds has recorded 134 tackles (18.5 for a loss), 3.5 sacks and two interceptions over the last two years.
Isaiah Rodgers, CB, UMass
After starting eight games and recording two picks as a freshman in 2016, Rodgers elevated his performance to another level in ’17. He recorded three picks and 14 pass breakups and is the top graded cornerback outside of the Power 5 level for 2018 by Pro Football Focus.
Olive Sagapolu, DL, Wisconsin
Sagapolu won’t post huge statistical totals as Wisconsin’s nose tackle, but his impact goes beyond the box score. The 346-pound tackle has 38 career tackles and was a key cog in helping the Badgers hold teams under 100 rushing yards a game (98.4 ypg) last fall.
Kyle Shurmur, QB, Vanderbilt
The SEC is deep at quarterback this season, but Shurmur ranked second among passers in the league last fall by tossing 26 touchdowns.
Steven Sims, WR, Kansas
Sims is one of the bright spots for Kansas and should push for All-Big 12 honors this fall. He’s led the offense in receptions for back-to-back years, catching 72 passes in 2016 and 59 in ’17.
Chris Slayton, DL, Syracuse
The ACC is loaded with talent on the defensive line. Slayton finished second on the team with 8.5 tackles for a loss last season and should close out his career with a huge senior year.
Jerome Smith, CB, Georgia State
Smith has been a stalwart for Georgia State’s defense over the last three years. He’s recorded 16 pass breakups in that span and is one of the top defenders in the Sun Belt going into 2018.
Nate Stanley, QB, Iowa
In his first year (2017) as the starter, Stanley threw for 2,437 yards and 26 scores. He came up big in an upset win over Ohio State (226 yards and 5 TDs) and also tossed five scores in a victory over rival Iowa State.
Jalen Thompson, S, Washington State
Washington State is known for its offense under coach Mike Leach, but the defense quietly held opponents to just 5.3 yards a play in Pac-12 games last year. Thompson was one of the conference’s top defensive backs in 2017, recording 73 stops (5.5 for a loss) and four interceptions.
Noah Togiai, TE, Oregon State
Oregon State lost starting quarterback Jake Luton early in the year due to injury, but Togiai remained a consistent threat for the offense. He ended the year by leading the team in catches (34), yards (461) and also caught two scores.
Nigel Warrior, S, Tennessee
New Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt is a defensive back coach by trade and should help Warrior elevate his play into a spot among the SEC’s top players in the secondary. Warrior recorded 83 stops, three pass breakups, three forced fumbles and one interception last year.
Aeris Williams, RB, Mississippi State
Williams eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career last fall. Over 13 games, he rushed for 1,107 yards and six touchdowns. Williams nearly posted 100 yards against Alabama (97) and rushed for 146 versus LSU.
Kyle Williams, WR, Arizona State
N’Keal Harry is one of college football’s top returning receivers for 2018, but Arizona State also has a good No. 2 receiver in Williams. He caught 66 passes for 763 yards and seven touchdowns last fall.
Antoine Winfield, S, Minnesota
Winfield’s 2017 season was cut short due to injury, but the Texas native was a rising star for Minnesota’s defense in 2016. As a freshman that year, Winfield recorded 52 stops, broke up three passes and recorded one pick. Winfield should push for All-Big Ten honors this fall.