Look for new faces to play key roles across the subdivision
They’re toiling right now in the heat of August, unknown to many but full of promise to those who know them well. In a couple of months, they’ll be making a name for themselves in the heat of their conference title race.
A “breakout player” is the one who’s had the talent, but not necessarily the opportunity.
With 124 teams in FCS college football, there will be make new faces emerging into key roles in the 2017 season.
Here are some potential breakout players in the stronger conferences of the FCS:
Big Sky Conference
As always, the Big Sky means quarterbacks. In fact, six signal-callers in the conference have combined to win 20 percent of the Walter Payton awards – the Heisman Trophy of the FCS.
Weber State, a surprise third-place finisher in the Big Sky last season, appears to have all the pieces to make a return trip to the FCS playoffs, but the Wildcats are replacing two-year starter Jadrian Clark. His backup, senior Stefan Cantwell, has waited in the wings, anxious to unveil dual-threat ability.
There are few positions in the FCS that go under the microscope like quarterback at Montana, where the fan base demands a bit more. Senior Reese Phillips will be at ease with the added pressure, a former Kentucky signal-caller who has the right skill set to run the Grizzlies’ fast-paced offense.
Big South Conference
It felt like linebackers Chad Geter and Aaron Cook spent a lifetime at Gardner-Webb, but they’re finally gone from a team that feels it can win the conference title. On this year’s no-name defense, the Runnin’ Bulldogs will rely heavily on physical inside linebacker Corey Horne, who started the final five games as a sophomore and finished with 55 tackles for the season – third on the team behind Geter and Cook.
Kennesaw State’s title bid appears stronger, heaving been installed in the Big South preseason poll as a co-favorite with Charleston Southern. The Owls are full of speed in the skill positions, and while they run a triple-option offense, don’t sleep on redshirt junior wide receiver Xavier Harper, a big-play specialist who averaged 23.5 yards on 16 receptions a year ago. He works in the shadow of all-conference receiver Justin Sumpter.
The leading tackler on 2016 FCS national champion James Madison, Gage Steele, is gone after an outstanding career, but Dimitri Holloway came on strong late last year, including a 16-tackle performance in the FCS semifinal that ended North Dakota State’s five-run year atop the subdivision. Holloway is ready to do that on a weekly basis as a junior.
The CAA boasts potential All-America tight ends with James Madison’s Jonathan Kloosterman and William & Mary’s Andrew Caskin, so Villanova senior Ryan Bell tends to get overlooked. On a ball-control offense that needs his blocking, Bell also is a red-zone weapon, catching seven touchdowns last season. He could be ‘Nova’s top target this season.
Missouri Valley Football Conference
The list of defensive standouts at FCS power North Dakota State seems endless, so cornerback Jalen Allison may not be one of the first five mentioned with this year’s unit. Well, make room for the junior, who is in his first year as a starter was fifth on the team with 66 tackles and tied for third in the conference with three interceptions and 12 pass breakups.
Southern Illinois head coach Nick Hill knows Salukis quarterbacks, having been a good one himself. Last November, Hill installed Sam Straub as the starter, and he took off, including a school-record 450-yard performance in an upset of Western Illinois. As a junior, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Straub should flourish in Hill’s offense.
Ohio Valley Conference
No FCS team has dominated conference play in recent seasons like Jacksonville State, which has won 24 straight OVC games since 2013. Quarterback Eli Jenkins made the offense go in that time. His departure puts a lot of focus on redshirt junior Bryant Horn, a former linebacker and gunner on special teams. That toughness will translate this season, and he has such great surrounding talent to take some of the pressure off.
Austin Peay’s struggling program needs hope for the future. Running back Kentel Williams posted nearly 37 percent of his freshman production with 399 all-purpose yards against Eastern Kentucky. As a sophomore, he’s locked down a starting job and will get many touches on carries, receptions and returns.
Wofford won two FCS playoff games and made a run to the national quarterfinals last season, but starting quarterback Brandon Goodson missed half of the action with an ankle injury. Joe Newman stepped in as a freshman and was a revelation after being fifth on the depth chart earlier in the season. Goodson is back this season, but Newman, who’s a breakaway runner, surely has worked his way into the picture.
Former Furman offensive lineman and assistant coach Clay Hendrix is back with the Paladins after spending the last 10 seasons on the Air Force staff. He’s well-schooled on the program’s longtime commitment to the run game, so he wants to get the Paladins back to that success. Running back Darius Morehead suffered a season-ending concussion two games into his redshirt freshman campaign, but’s he’s back and working behind an all-conference fullback, Antonio Wilcox.
Southeastern Louisiana too often was an overlooked squad last year, improving by four conference wins to finish 7-4 overall and putting itself in the playoff conversation (an at-large bid didn’t materialize, though). Part of the Lions’ late-season run was led by linebacker Jake Jiannoni’s emergence. He missed the first three games because of injury, but worked his way into a more prominent role by season's end, finishing with 26 tackles, including 3.5 for a loss. He could more than double that production as a senior starter.
Speaking of defense, Central Arkansas knows it, finishing second against the run and 22nd in total defense in FCS last season. Any improvement against the pass will include redshirt sophomore cornerback Trai Mosley, a Nebraska transfer who’s coming off a medical redshirt. He was a three-star recruit coming out of high school.
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
Photo courtesy of Southern Illinois University Athletics