The popularity and obsession of the big boys in college football - the Power 5 - has continued to rise. But there still are some very elite football players at the second tier of the FBS rankings - the Group of 5. The Group of 5 term refers to players from teams in the Mountain West, Conference USA, MAC, Sun Belt and American Athletic Conference. While the coverage and exposure for teams in these leagues has improved in recent years, plenty of the stars from the Group of 5 conferences fly under the radar each preseason. Who are the names to watch in 2016 as players on the rise in the Group of 5 rankings? Here are five names to know now that spring ball has finished across the nation:
Five Mountain West Football Players to Know for 2016
Brett Rypien, QB, Boise State
The freshman phenom dazzled last year by winning the Mountain West Freshman of the Year, Poinsettia Bowl Offensive MVP and earning first team all-conference honors. Rypien posted impressive numbers for being a first-year starter, totaling 3,353 passing yards and a 20-8 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Those statistics should only increase with five out of the seven top receiving targets returning for 2016.
Donnel Pumphrey, RB, San Diego State
The Las Vegas native considered an early departure to the NFL but decided to lead the Aztecs for one more season. Pumphrey, the reigning Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year, can do it all by leading the team in rushing and receiving - not to mention throwing a touchdown in San Diego State’s 42-7 bowl victory over Cincinnati. The all-purpose superstar looks to carry that momentum into 2016 and help the Aztecs push for another school-record 11-win season.
Billy Freeman, TE, San Jose State
Not too many tight ends lead their team in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns. But the four-year starter from Mesa, Ariz. has done just that. Freeman was a John Mackey Award Semifinalist last season due to outstanding play on the field. He’s racked up 93 catches and nine touchdowns for his career, and chances are he’ll lead the Spartans in those categories again this upcoming fall.
Kennedy Tulimasealii, DE, Hawaii
The reigning Mountain West tackles for a loss leader last year (18.5), Tulimasealii is back for more in 2016. He posted 63 total tackles (42 solo, 21 assisted) in 2015, which was third in the conference among defenders in the trenches. Expect the 285-pound lineman to anchor Hawaii’s defense which only returns two of their top six tacklers from last season. Tulimasealii is currently suspended from the team after an off-field incident this spring.
Weston Steelhammer, S, Air Force
Steelhammer is a well-rounded safety who can cover and bring the wood. He led the team in tackles (80) and interceptions (five) in 2015 and will only get better with another year under his belt. The Louisiana native was a two-sport athlete for the Falcons, but decided to give up baseball after his freshman year. Things have gone well for him since that change, as Steelhammer earned a spot on two watch lists (Jim Thorpe Award and Lott IMPACT Trophy) last season.