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The most underrated player on each Top 25 team

Jun 26, 2018

    Each season, new stars emerge on the gridiron. It’s often the players who have been with the program for a while, waiting for a chance, who sneak into starring roles while no one is looking. Don’t sleep on these potential breakout players for each of the Top 25 teams.

    1. Alabama: RB Damien Harris

    All Damien Harris has done is rushed for 900 yards or more in each of the past two seasons, and yet he keeps getting overlooked. There’s the Jalen HurtsTua Tagovailoa debate, of course, but it’s also Harris’ understudy, Najee Harris, who has captured Bama fans’ attention. All Damien keeps doing is racking up yards. — Alex Scarborough

    2. Clemson: LB Kendall Joseph

    Largely overshadowed by Clemson’s defensive line and even fellow linebackers like Dorian O’Daniel last year, Joseph has been a steady presence for the Tigers. It might surprise some to know Joseph has collected 222 career tackles, including 18.5 for loss with 30 quarterback hurries. A third-team All-ACC selection in 2017, Joseph is set up for a strong finish to his college career. — Adam Rittenberg

    3. Ohio State: S Jordan Fuller

    Fuller will be the veteran leader of the Buckeyes’ secondary in 2018 after learning from talent-loaded defensive backfields the past two seasons. The New Jersey native will be a key piece to Ohio State’s defense even if most of the attention remains focused on the star-studded defensive line. — Dan Murphy

    4. Georgia: DB J.R. Reed

    Of course we all understand that Roquan Smith and Lorenzo Carter are gone. We get it, Georgia’s defense will look different this season. But don’t forget a standout performer from last season: J.R. Reed. All the sophomore defensive back did was post 79 tackles, two interceptions and six QB hurries. — Scarborough

    5. Oklahoma: OL/LT Bobby Evans

    Left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. garnered all the attention and honors anchoring Oklahoma’s offensive line last season. Bookend mate Bobby Evans, however, was quietly just as dominant on the other side. With Brown now in the NFL, Evans has flipped to the left side — and stands to take over as the headliner of Oklahoma’s imposing line. — Jake Trotter

    6. Washington: OL Ryan Bowman

    Former walk-on Ryan Bowman was a huge surprise for Washington last year and is now in line for a starting spot as an outside linebacker for the Huskies this season. In limited work as a redshirt freshman, Bowman led the Huskies with 5.5 sacks and was second with 9.5 TFLs. — Edward Aschoff

    7. Wisconsin: WR Danny Davis III

    Wisconsin hasn’t been known for explosive wide receivers, but things should change this season thanks to Davis and others. Davis averaged more than 16 yards per reception as a freshman and tied for second on the team with five touchdowns, including three against Miami in the Orange Bowl. Along with Quintez Cephus, A.J. Taylor and others, Davis brings the dynamic speed element that Wisconsin has lacked. — Rittenberg

    8. Miami: DE Demetrius Jackson

    Before a knee injury shut him down midway through the season, Jackson recorded 7.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks playing opposite Joe Jackson on Miami’s defensive line. Miami needs depth and production on a line that lost two tackles to the NFL. Demetrius Jackson’s return, along with those of Joe Jackson and Jonathan Garvin, could be significant. — Rittenberg

    9. Michigan State: DT Mike Panasiuk

    Most of the Spartans’ line deserves a bit more credit than it receives. Panasiuk started 16 straight games. Last year he and fellow tackle Raequan Williams were the anchor of a revitalized run-stopping defense. — Murphy

    10. Michigan: RB Karan Higdon

    The Wolverines’ defense will (rightfully) draw a lot of attention again this year. Higdon, though, is a smart, decisive runner with breakaway speed. He could be one of the Big Ten’s breakout stars if the line in front of him takes a step forward in 2018. — Murphy

    11. West Virginia: WR Gary Jennings

    Though David Sills V was a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award last season, Gary Jennings actually led the Big 12 with 97 receptions. As a reliable possession option, Jennings is a big reason why the Mountaineers’ passing attack figures to be among the best in the country. — Trotter

    12. Notre Dame: C Sam Mustipher

    The guy who lined up next to two top-10 NFL draft picks for the past couple of years has a chance to step out of their considerable shadow this season. Mustipher hasn’t missed a start in the middle of Notre Dame’s daunting offensive line for the past two years. He’ll be the key to making sure that group remains solid while replacing Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson. — Murphy

    13. Penn State: LB Koa Farmer

    Don’t forget the Nittany Lions finished among the top 10 in the nation in points allowed last year to go with that flashy Saquon Barkley-centric offense. Farmer’s transformation from a high school running back to a 235-pound linebacker is complete, and as one of the unit’s top returning players, he’s primed for a breakout year. — Murphy

    14. Stanford: P Jake Bailey

    Special-teamers rarely get the love they deserve, but in a year in which Stanford’s defense enters as an unknown (again), punter Jake Bailey might be the Cardinal’s sneaky secret weapon. Last year, Bailey ranked seventh nationally with an average punt of 45.4 yards, planted 24 of his 57 kicks inside the 20 and bombed 20 punts of 50-plus yards. — Aschoff

    15. Virginia Tech: OLB/D Mook Reynolds

    He played alongside two future first-round picks in Tremaine Edmunds and Terrell Edmunds, so his accomplishments could easily be overlooked. But Reynolds has 134 tackles, including 18 for loss, in the past two seasons and has started 26 games over the past three seasons. He’ll be a more recognizable player this season, as Virginia Tech really needs him to step up. — Rittenberg

    16. Mississippi State: RB Aeris Williams

    Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald gets all the attention, and rightfully so. What’s more, there was a two-year stretch where State just couldn’t seem to run the ball outside of its quarterbacks. But that doesn’t mean Aeris Williams should be completely overlooked, not when he has quietly racked up 1,829 yards and 23 touchdowns the past two seasons. — Scarborough

    17. USC: C Toa Lobendahn

    There’s no question that USC’s offensive line was a major weak spot in 2017. Now, Toa Lobendahn returns as arguably the most important player up front. He’s the most experienced member of the line and has played guard, tackle and center, where he’ll return this fall after playing left tackle last year. Injuries have plagued him, and the Trojans absolutely need him to be healthy this fall. — Aschoff

    18. UCF: WR Dredrick Snelson

    Milton received most of the attention along with wideout Tre’Quan Smith and others, but Snelson had a solid sophomore season, recording 46 receptions for 695 yards and eight touchdowns. After averaging 15.1 yards per catch, he steps into a featured role as he enters his second season as a starter. — Rittenberg

    19. Auburn: DL Dontavius Russell

    You’d think a 6-foot-3, 320-pound lineman with the quickness of Dontavius Russell would get more attention, but to be fair Auburn’s defensive line is loaded. Still, the senior nose guard deserves credit not just for anchoring one of the best lines in the country, but also doing his fair share of getting after it with 6.5 tackles for loss and three sacks last season. — Scarborough

    20. TCU: S Niko Small

    Niko Small has been overshadowed the past two years playing alongside All-Big 12 safety Nick Orr. But over 23 starts, Small has been a reliable player for Gary Patterson’s defensive backfield. With Orr no longer around, Small is set to take over as the linchpin of the TCU secondary. — Trotter

    21. Boise State: RB Alexander Mattison

    Running back Alexander Mattison has proved to be the perfect complement to quarterback Brett Rypien, with the ability to bury opposing defenses on his own. Mattison rushed for 242 yards against Colorado State last year, the third-highest total in Boise State history. In Mattison and Rypien, the Broncos boast a dynamic backfield. — Trotter

    22. Texas: DE Breckyn Hager

    Though he’s been yanked around to different positions along the Texas defensive front, Breckyn Hager has been a consistent pass-rushing threat over his 34 career games. Now locked in as a starter at defensive end, Hager is positioned to potentially cap his career with a standout senior season. — Trotter

    23. Texas A&M: LB Tyrel Dodson

    The Aggies’ defense gets a bad rap. And, frankly, the overall numbers don’t say otherwise. But dig down and you’ll find at least one player who has done his part: linebacker Tyrel Dodson. Last season he not only ranked seventh in the SEC with 96 tackles, he also had six sacks, six passes defended and three interceptions. — Scarborough

    24. Oregon: RB Tony Brooks-James

    Filling Royce Freeman‘s historic shoes at running back won’t be easy, but don’t sleep on senior Tony Brooks-James. He was Oregon’s offensive MVP in 2016 and he has legit track team speed. Health has always been an issue with him, but the 185-pound Brooks-James rushed for nearly 500 yards last year and will be the head of the Ducks’ running back committee this fall. — Aschoff

    25. South Carolina: WR Bryan Edwards

    A lot of people are going to be excited about the return of Deebo Samuel to the Gamecocks’ receiver corps, and they should be. But don’t sleep on Bryan Edwards. He’s caught 103 passes and eight touchdowns the past two seasons, after all. — Scarborough

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