College football's top 50 underrated players for 2016
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. With the 2016 season approaching, Athlon Sports wanted to take a look at some players deserving of more preseason accolades or discussion. In an effort to get to 50 names, we tried to stick to players that had yet to earn all-conference honors in their career. However, a few exceptions were made.
After taking a look at the most underrated players in each conference, Athlon Sports has rounded up the top 50 names for the 2016 season. Here are some of the players we think deserve more attention as kickoff for 2016 quickly approaches:
Isaac Asiata, OL, Utah
The unquestioned strength of Utah's offense is its line. All five starters are back for coach Kyle Whittingham, and there's good depth in place with the addition of junior college recruit Garett Bolles. Tackle J.J. Dielman is generating plenty of attention as an All-America candidate for 2016, but Asiata also shouldn't be overlooked up front. The Utah native played in six games (and four starts) as a freshman in 2013 and has accumulated 26 starts over the last two years. After earning honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors in 2015, Asiata is poised to earn a spot as one of the league's top linemen.
Chidobe Awuzie, S, Colorado
Awuzie was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection last season, but the San Jose native deserves more attention for a standout career with the Buffaloes. In 13 games last year, Awuzie was all over the field for coordinator Jim Leavitt. He accumulated 90 stops (second on the team), four sacks, one forced fumble and 10 pass breakups. During his first two years on campus (2013-14), Awuzie recorded 123 tackles and 12 pass breakups. If Awuzie continues to build off his first three seasons in Boulder, he could develop into an All-American at safety this fall.
Jacob Bennett, LT, Bowling Green
Keeping Bowling Green's offense at the top of the MAC is one of the top priorities for new coach Mike Jinks. The first-year coach isn't hurting for talent on that side of the ball, as the Falcons return four starters from one of the MAC's top offensive lines. Bennett is the leader for this group, as the Ohio native enters 2016 with 42 consecutive starts. Bennett has started every game in his collegiate career.
Eric Boggs, LB, Appalachian State
All four of Appalachian State's starting linebackers from last year's standout defense are back in 2016. The Mountaineers led the Sun Belt in scoring defense in 2015, limiting opponents to just 19.1 points a game. Boggs played a key role in the performance of this defense last fall, collecting 104 tackles (7.5 for a loss), four sacks, three interceptions and one pass breakup. After earning second-team All-Sun Belt honors in 2015, Boggs is poised to rank among the Sun Belt's top defenders this season.
Devonte Boyd, WR, UNLV
Fans around the Mountain West know of Boyd's big-play potential, but it's time the rest of the nation takes notice. After sitting out his first year on campus (2013), Boyd has emerged as one of the Group of 5's top receivers. He caught 65 passes for 980 yards and four scores as a freshman in 2014 and followed up that season with a strong sophomore campaign. Boyd played in all 12 games for the Rebels and caught 54 passes for 904 yards and seven scores. Boyd's 16.7 per-catch average ranked first among Mountain West receivers last fall.
Caleb Brantley, DT, Florida
Florida has three potential all-conference candidates in the trenches this season with the return of Brantley, Cece Jefferson and Bryan Cox. Brantley won't post huge numbers as an interior player, but the 6-foot-2 tackle anchors a rush defense that gave up only 128.1 yards per game in 2015. In 13 appearances last season, Brantley recorded 29 tackles (6.5 for a loss) and three sacks. Even though the SEC is loaded with talent up front, Brantley should make a strong push for all-conference honors this year.
DeAngelo Brown, DT, Louisville
Sheldon Rankins leaves big shoes to fill in the trenches for coordinator Todd Grantham's defense. While Rankins will be missed, the Cardinals aren't completely rebuilding up front. Brown has been a key part for the defensive line over the last two years, finishing 2015 with 40 tackles (6.5 for a loss) and two sacks. The Georgia native should push for all-conference honors this fall.
Richie Brown, LB, Mississippi State
The SEC has its share of standout linebackers returning for 2016, but Brown shouldn't be overlooked when it comes to discussing the league's top performers at that position. The Mississippi native has been a key cog in the Bulldogs' defense over the last three years and racked up 109 stops (13 for a loss) in 2015. And with the departure of defensive tackle Chris Jones and linebacker Beniquez Brown, the senior should take on an even bigger role in leadership for new coordinator Peter Sirmon and anchor the middle of Mississippi State's 3-4 scheme.
Oren Burks, LB/DB, Vanderbilt
Burks is slated to play a key role for coach Derek Mason's defense this fall by shifting from to a hybrid "star" defensive back/linebacker position. Moving Burks to this role will allow Vanderbilt's defense to match up better against some of spread attacks this unit will face in 2016. Burks is coming off his best season for the Commodores after accumulating 59 tackles (two for a loss), one forced fumble and three interceptions in 2015. The Virginia native's versatility is a huge asset for a defense that allowed only 21 points a game last fall.
Darren Carrington, WR, Oregon
Carrington gets the nod here as Oregon's most underrated player, but a strong case could be made running back Royce Freeman still doesn't get enough credit for his 2015 season. Despite not playing in the Ducks' first six games, Carrington ranked second on the team with 32 catches for 609 yards and six scores. Additionally, had he qualified in the conference statistics, Carrington would have ranked second among receivers by averaging 19.03 yards per reception. With Bralon Addison off to the NFL, Carrington should see even more passes in his direction this fall.
Simmie Cobbs, WR, Indiana
Only three receivers – Cobbs, Aaron Burbridge and Chris Godwin – eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for receivers in the Big Ten last fall. While Burbridge and Godwin both earned a spot on the All-Big Ten team, Cobbs' 2015 season was largely overlooked. In 13 games, he grabbed 60 passes for 1,035 yards and four scores. Additionally, Cobbs recorded four 100-yard efforts over Indiana's final seven contests.
Dakota Cox, LB, New Mexico
The Lobos showed marked improvement on defense last season, limiting opponents to 28.4 points a game after giving up 35.9 per contest in 2014. Cox was one of the driving forces behind the defensive improvement, as the Utah native led New Mexico in tackles for the third straight season. Over the last three years, Cox has recorded 312 stops (14 for a loss), five sacks, two interceptions and one fumble recovery.
P.J. Davis, LB, Georgia Tech
At 5-foot-11 and 231 pounds, Davis doesn't possess the prototypical size for a linebacker, but the Georgia native is a standout playmaker for coach Paul Johnson's defense. Davis has accumulated 237 tackles (20 for a loss) and four forced fumbles in his three seasons with the Yellow Jackets. His best overall year took place in 2014, recording 119 stops and three forced fumbles in 14 appearances.
Winston Dimel, FB, Kansas State
A fullback is often a fossil in a league known for its high-scoring offenses and spread attacks. However, Dimel is a key cog in Kansas State's offense and was a first-team selection on the 2015 All-Big 12 team. Dimel's opportunities to touch the ball are limited. However, he certainly maximizes his opportunities. In 13 games, Dimel recorded 86 rushing yards and six touchdowns on just 28 attempts and caught eight passes for 261 yards (32.6 ypc) and two scores.
Michael Dunn, OT, Maryland
From walk-on to potential All-Big Ten player – that's the quick way to describe Dunn's career in College Park. The Maryland native has emerged as a key cog in Maryland's offensive line after a redshirt season in 2012. Over the last three years, Dunn has started 37 games and earned honorable mention all-conference honors in 2015.
Dane Evans, QB, Tulsa
Tulsa showed marked improvement under first-year coach Philip Montgomery last season. After a 2-10 record in 2014, the Golden Hurricane finished 6-7 last year and made the program's first bowl trip since 2012. In addition to Montgomery's arrival, a big reason for the improvement in the win column is due to Evans' development. The Texas native threw for 4,332 yards and 25 scores last season and ranked seventh nationally by averaging 333.2 passing yards per game.
Gerald Everett, TE, South Alabama
San Jose State's Billy Freeman and FIU's Jonnu Smith get most of the preseason attention as the top Group of 5 tight end. However, Everett shouldn't be overlooked in that conversation, as the UAB transfer was a big-time playmaker for coach Joey Jones in 2015. In 12 games, Everett grabbed 41 receptions for 575 yards and eight scores (14.02 ypc). Additionally, Everett eclipsed the 100-yard mark (108) against a stout San Diego State defense and caught two scores against Troy.
Tanner Gentry, WR, Wyoming
Injuries and a youth movement hit Wyoming's offense hard last season. The program's top two quarterbacks – Cameron Coffman and Josh Allen – missed chunks of time due to injury, while Gentry's season ended after the seventh game due to a shoulder ailment. But prior to his injury, Gentry grabbed 37 receptions for 678 yards and four scores. Had Gentry played enough games to qualify for the Mountain West statistical leaders, his 18.3 per-catch average would rank No. 1 in the league among receivers.
Ryan Glasgow, DT, Michigan
Just how valuable was Glasgow to Michigan's run defense in 2015? Here's a stat to consider: Through the first nine games, the Wolverines did not allow an opponent to rush for more than 145 yards in a single game. However, with Glasgow sidelined due to injury, Michigan surrendered over 300 rushing yards in games against Indiana and Ohio State. Glasgow finished the season with 25 tackles (five for a loss) and one sack, but his impact goes beyond the box score as a key cog on the interior for coordinator Don Brown.
Max Halpin, C, WKU
With all five starters returning, WKU's front five has a strong case as the best offensive line from the Group of 5 ranks in 2016. Left tackle Forrest Lamp is a candidate for All-America honors, but center Max Halpin shouldn't be overlooked this preseason. The Kentucky native started seven games as a redshirt freshman in 2013 but suffered a season-ending back injury after three starts in 2014. However, Halpin rebounded in a big way last year, starting all 14 games for the Hilltoppers and helping to anchor a line that gave up only 16 sacks in 2015.
Zay Jones, WR, East Carolina
Jones' play-making ability and overall talent is no mystery to opposing American Athletic Conference coaches. However, Jones doesn't get enough credit on the national level after a standout 2015 season. In 12 games, Jones grabbed 98 receptions for 1,099 yards and five scores. And for his career, Jones has 241 receptions and ranks third in school history with 2,533 receiving yards. After earning second-team American Athletic all-conference honors last season, Jones should receive a spot on the league's first team for 2016.
Alvin Kamara, RB, Tennessee
Tennessee's backfield tandem of Jalen Hurd and Kamara is among the nation's best, and it's no secret Hurd gets most of the preseason attention as an All-America candidate. But let's give Kamara some credit, as the former Alabama running back quietly had a standout debut in his first season on Rocky Top. Kamara rushed for 698 yards and seven scores and caught 34 passes for 291 yards and three touchdowns last season.
Des Lawrence/M.J. Stewart, CB, North Carolina
Both Lawrence and Stewart earned a mention on the ACC's all-conference team last season, but it's probably fair to say these two players deserve more credit on the national level. Lawrence played in 14 games in 2015 and finished the year with 59 tackles, two interceptions and 14 pass breakups. Stewart was just as effective, recording 62 tackles (2.5 for a loss), four interceptions and 14 pass breakups. The play of Lawrence and Stewart was a big reason why North Carolina ranked 12th nationally in pass efficiency defense.
Mike McGlinchey/Quenton Nelson, OL, Notre Dame
Replacing left tackle Ronnie Stanley, center Nick Martin and guard Steve Elmer won't be easy. However, the cupboard is far from bare up front for coach Brian Kelly. McGlinchey and Nelson are the new headliners in the trenches, and both players should push for All-America honors in 2016. McGlinchey has 14 career starts under his belt, while Nelson is expected to start at left guard after earning 11 starts last fall. There's no question Stanley will be missed, but McGlinchey and Nelson are capable of keeping this group performing at a high level.
Travon McMillian, RB, Virginia Tech
McMillian emerged as Virginia Tech's go-to back in the second half of last season and finished 2015 with 1,042 yards and seven scores on just 200 carries. After recording only 32 carries through the first five games last year, McMillian posted double-digit attempts in each of the final eight contests, including 33 against Boston College. He also recorded three 100-yard efforts and scored twice in Virginia Tech's bowl win over Tulsa. McMillian is poised to take on an even bigger role in 2016 under new coach Justin Fuente.
Matt Milano, LB, Boston College
Boston College's defense was one of the nation's best in 2015, and despite a few personnel losses, the Eagles should rank near the top of the ACC in 2016. New coordinator Jim Reid won't have standout linebacker Steven Daniels at his disposal, but this unit is still anchored by Milano and fellow standout Connor Strachan. Milano recorded 60 tackles (including a team-high 17.5 for a loss last season), 6.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. Milano should be one of the ACC's top linebackers in 2016.
Related: ACC 2016 All-Conference Team
Demetrius Monday, CB, Kent State
We could list any of Kent State's returning starters in the secondary here, as all three players are deserving of more national recognition. Monday gets the nod as our pick as the underrated player from this group. The Georgia native played in all 12 games for the Golden Flashes in 2015 and recorded 35 stops, six pass breakups and six interceptions. Monday has 13 pass breakups over the last two seasons and is on the radar for NFL scouts as a prospect to watch for the 2018 draft.
Noble Nwachukwu, DL, West Virginia
Coordinator Tony Gibson has a major rebuilding effort on his hands this offseason. The Mountaineers return only three starters on defense and most of the back seven has to be replaced. The clear area of strength for Gibson's defense will be the line, which could feature three senior starters. Nwachuwku is one of the proven returners for Gibson, as the Texas native enters 2016 with 26 consecutive starts. Over the last three years, Nwachukwu has recorded 86 overall stops and led the team with 13 tackles for a loss in 2015.
Da'Ron Payne, DT, Alabama
As we mentioned earlier in this article with other linemen, it's not easy to judge the effectiveness of a defensive tackle just by glancing at the stat sheet. And in Alabama's 3-4 scheme, it's essential to have a couple of space-eaters in the middle to clog the line of scrimmage and allow the linebackers to make plays. That's exactly the role Payne contributed in last fall, as he worked as a rotational player on Alabama's standout defensive front. Payne received snaps in all 15 games and recorded 13 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble. He is expected to anchor the interior of Alabama's defensive line this fall, with Jonathan Allen and D'Shawn Hand working off the edges.
Steven Parker, S, Oklahoma
Anchored by cornerback Jordan Thomas and two standout safeties, Oklahoma's secondary should be among the best in the nation this year – even after cornerback Zack Sanchez left for the NFL. Parker was thrown into the fire as a true freshman in 2014, recording 31 tackles in 13 games. The Tulsa native earned a starting spot in all 13 contests for the Sooners last fall and delivered a standout season, recording 60 tackles (four for a loss), 1.5 sacks and four pass breakups. The 6-foot-1 junior is just scratching the surface of his potential and it's time to consider him among the top defensive backs in the Big 12.
Aarion Penton, CB, Missouri
Most of the attention on Missouri's standout defense surrounds its standout line, but the back seven has its share of All-SEC candidates, including Penton at cornerback, Michael Scherer at linebacker and Anthony Sherrils at safety. Penton was quietly effective in 2015, recording 59 tackles, one interception and eight pass breakups. Additionally, his play at cornerback was a big reason why the Tigers allowed only 10 passing scores last season.
Kalif Phillips, RB, Charlotte
The 49ers took their share of lumps in 2015, which was the program's first at the FBS level. While the long-term future at Charlotte is bright, 2016 could be another transition year for this program. Phillips is an underrated star for the 49ers, as he nearly eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark (961) in 11 appearances. In his career, Phillips has rushed for 3,113 yards and 37 scores.
Billy Price, OL, Ohio State
Considering Ohio State returns only six starters and has several new faces stepping into the starting lineup, it's not easy to pinpoint a player that is underrated in 2016. However, Price is a good candidate for this award, as the Ohio native has started all 28 games in his career for the Buckeyes. Price earned third-team All-Big Ten honors in 2015, but he could be among the nation's best at his position this fall.
Jake Replogle, DT, Purdue
Lost in Purdue's struggles in the win column recently has been the development of Replogle into one of the Big Ten's top defensive linemen. After appearing in seven games as a backup in 2013, Replogle started all 12 games for the Boilermakers in 2014 and finished the year with 10.5 tackles for a loss and three sacks. He took those totals even higher in 2016, as Replogle recorded 60 tackles (14 for a loss), two sacks and two pass breakups.
Demario Richard, RB, Arizona State
Richard was one of six Pac-12 running backs to hit the 1,000-yard mark in 2015. In 12 appearances, Richard rushed for 1,104 yards and seven scores. Additionally, he was also a valuable pass-catcher out of the backfield, nabbing 31 receptions for 303 yards and three touchdowns. After rushing for over 1,000 yards in his first full season as Arizona State's go-to running back, the arrow on Richard's career in Tempe is clearly pointing up for 2016 and beyond.
Jalen Robinette, WR, Air Force
Opportunities in the passing game are limited for Air Force's receivers, but Robinette certainly knows how to make the most of his targets. The Ohio native has caught 85 passes for 1,738 yards and 12 scores during his three years with the Falcons. Additionally, Robinette has averaged at least 18 yards per catch in each season, culminating in a 20.4 career mark.
Nico Siragusa, OL, San Diego State
Anchored by All-America candidate Donnel Pumphrey at running back and a standout offensive line, the Aztecs have one of the nation's top ground attacks. Siragusa is the leader for coach Rocky Long's offensive line and has quietly emerged as one of the nation's top guards. The California native enters 2016 with 28 career starts and is a first-team All-Mountain West pick by Athlon Sports.
Dawuane Smoot, DL, Illinois
Smoot's 2015 season might have been one of the most underrated performances by a defender in the Big Ten. In 12 games, Smoot recorded 40 tackles (15 for a loss), eight sacks and three forced fumbles. Despite the standout campaign, Smoot did not earn all-conference honors. However, with new coach Lovie Smith and coordinator Hardy Nickerson calling the shots on defense, it's a safe bet Smoot takes the next step in his development this fall.
Riley Sorenson, OL, Washington State
There's big shoes to fill in Pullman, as Joe Dahl and Gunnar Eklund depart the left side of Washington State's offensive line. But the cupboard is far from bare for coach Mike Leach. Three starters are back for 2016, including center Riley Sorenson and promising right tackle Cole Madison. Sorenson has quietly anchored the interior for Leach over the last two seasons, starting 11 games in 2015 and 10 in 2014. The senior should be the Pac-12's top center in 2016.
Jon Toth, C, Kentucky
Toth has been a fixture on Kentucky's offensive line over the last three seasons. The Indiana native has started 35 consecutive games and was named to the Rimington Trophy watch list for the 2016 campaign. Toth should clear plenty of running lanes for dynamic running back Boom Williams this season, and the senior should rank as one of the SEC's top linemen.
KaVontae Turpin, RB/Return Specialist, TCU
Three. That's how many spots Turpin appears on for Athlon's projected All-Big 12 team in 2016. The Louisiana native was a standout performer in his freshman campaign last season, leading TCU with 1,675 all-purpose yards and scoring eight times on offense. Turpin also averaged 10.6 yards on punt returns (with one score) and 27 yards per kickoff return last year. Turpin is one of the nation's top all-purpose players and is due for an even bigger role this fall.
Fred Warner, LB, BYU
New coach Kalani Sitake plans to shift BYU's defense to a 4-3 approach in 2016, but the change in scheme won't slow Warner from performing as one of the unit's top players. After playing in 10 games as a freshman in 2014, Warner emerged as a standout defender for the Cougars last fall, recording 67 stops (11.5 for a loss), four sacks, two interceptions and four fumble recoveries.
Ben Weaver, LB, Boise State
The Broncos are reloading in the trenches, but the front seven isn't in bad shape thanks to the return of two standout linebackers. Tanner Vallejo earned honorable mention All-Mountain West honors last season, but Weaver's contributions were overlooked. The Texas native has been a consistent force for Boise State's defense over the last three years, recording 219 tackles (11 for a loss), three sacks and one forced fumble in that span.
Marquez White, CB, Florida State
Jalen Ramsey was the unquestioned leader and top player in Florida State's secondary last season, but White quietly turned in a standout 2015 campaign and is poised to emerge as an All-America candidate this fall. White's statistics last fall – 25 tackles, one interception and three pass breakups – were low due to teams avoiding his side of the field. White did not earn All-ACC honors last season but should be one of the league's top defenders in 2016.
Jarveon Williams, RB, UTSA
New coach Frank Wilson has worked with plenty of talented running backs during his 11 years as an assistant at the collegiate level. And the first-year coach inherits one of Conference USA's top backs to utilize in 2016, as Williams returns after posting 1,042 rushing yards and eight scores on just 173 attempts in 2015. In league games, Williams ranked fourth among C-USA rushers with an average of 96 yards per contest.
Brandon Wilson, CB, Houston
The departure of safeties Trevon Stewart and Adrian McDonald and cornerback William Jackson III leave big shoes to fill in Houston's secondary for 2016. However, coordinator Todd Orlando can start the rebuilding effort around Wilson. The Louisiana native was a valuable two-way player for the Cougars at the end of last season and finished the year with 58 tackles, two forced fumbles, one interception and averaged 26.6 yards on kickoff returns. With injuries limiting running backs Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson, Wilson stepped into the backfield and contributed 111 yards in the 52-31 win over Navy and 70 yards against Temple in the American Athletic Conference Championship.
Deatrich Wise, DE, Arkansas
In SEC-only matchups last fall, Wise ranked third in the league with eight sacks generated. In a conference that features Derek Barnett (Tennessee), Myles Garrett (Texas A&M) and Jonathan Allen (Alabama), it's easy to overlook Wise's production for the Razorbacks. However, Wise was one of the SEC's top defenders in November last season, recording seven of his eight sacks over Arkansas' last four games. He also finished the year with 10.5 tackles for a loss and forced two fumbles. Wise is a darkhorse candidate to lead the SEC in sacks this fall.
Taylor Young, LB, Baylor
Baylor's defensive line was one of the league's best units over the last two seasons and often overshadowed Young's performance. As a redshirt freshman in 2014, Young recorded 92 tackles (8.5 for a loss), four sacks and two forced fumbles. He followed up that performance with a solid sophomore campaign, amassing 80 tackles (13.5 for a loss) and one fumble recovery. Young is quietly one of the Big 12's top linebackers and should earn a spot on the all-conference team by the end of 2016.