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Twelve Players Who Can Transform Their Teams From Contenders to Champions

Get to know these names now—their performance could determine whether the contenders they play for make a big leap in 2017.

For a team to move from a preseason group of contenders to a division or conference title, it usually needs someone who either wasn’t on the team or didn’t make a huge contribution the previous season to emerge as a playmaker. Last year, Penn State needed quarterback Trace McSorley to fit perfectly into new coordinator Joe Moorhead’s offense. A Big Ten title followed. Two seasons ago, Baker Mayfield won the starting quarterback job at Oklahoma and got the Sooners over the hump in the Big 12 and into the College Football Playoff.

Obviously, a dynamic quarterback can turn a contender into a champion most easily. He touches the ball on every play and can make the biggest impact on the game. But that doesn’t mean only quarterbacks can raise their teams to the next level. Here are 12 players who might be able to help their teams hoist some sort of trophy this season. They may not all have transformative seasons, but the ones who do can help transform their entire teams.

Drake Davis, WR, LSU

For LSU to have any chance to unseat Alabama in the SEC West, offensive coordinator Matt Canada has to make sure opposing defenses can’t key on Derrius Guice the way they did on Leonard Fournette when Les Miles was coaching the Tigers. Canada found ways to get plenty of touches for players not named James Conner at Pittsburgh last season, and it made life easier on Conner and miserable for opposing defenses.

The 6' 4", 219-pound Davis is the son of former LSU basketball player Lester Earl. Davis started his athletic career as a soccer player and came to football later, and his size and speed are very intriguing. Canada wrecked defenses last year using Pitt’s Quadree Henderson as a jet sweep specialist (60 carries, 631 rushing yards). Davis is much bigger than the 5' 9", 190-pound Henderson, but could he play a similar role? Canada uses jet motion on nearly every play. If one of the Tigers’ receivers emerges as a reliable gainer on the play, it will force defenses to spread out and not load the box in anticipation of Guice carries.

A.J. Epenesa, DE, Iowa

Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz is typically measured in his praise of anyone, but he’s especially measured when it comes to true freshmen. Still, the buzz out of Iowa’s preseason camp is that former five-star recruit Epenesa is special and could make an already good defensive line just plain scary. Epenesa may not even start, but he’ll play plenty. If he’s as good as advertised, it could give the Hawkeyes a better chance to win the Big Ten West.

Go to the 5:15 mark of this video to get a closer look at the 6' 5", 270-pounder, who can play end or potentially move inside in certain packages.

Rashan Gary, DE, Michigan

Gary wasn’t a slouch as a freshman last season (27 tackles, one sack as a backup), but the Wolverines were so stacked on defense that he didn’t have to make a huge contribution. With ends Taco Charlton and Chris Wormley gone, Gary will be expected to terrorize opposing quarterbacks and set the edge so backs can’t bounce runs outside for extra yardage.

Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown, who has coached his share of great players, wasn’t shy about praising Gary earlier this summer. “Best I’ve ever seen,” Brown told The Detroit News. “Best I’ve ever seen combining speed, strength, change of direction, and the mental curve. He’s unbelievable. The sky is the limit.”

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Will Grier, QB, West Virginia

He went 5–0 as the starter at Florida in 2015 before he was suspended for a year after testing positive in an NCAA-administered drug test. After sitting out the back half of that season and all of last season, Grier is ready to put that undefeated record as a starter to the test. He’s got weapons in tailback Justin Crawford and receivers Gary Jennings and David Sills. The Mountaineers still have to replace eight starters on defense, but if Grier can build on the promise he showed as a redshirt freshman, West Virginia’s offense should hum, giving the Mountaineers a shot in the Big 12. 

Joe Jackson, DE, Miami

Jackson’s position in coordinator Manny Diaz’s defense is called Viper, and Jackson struck quickly as a freshman in 2016. He led the Hurricanes with 8.5 sacks, and if he can improve on that, he could be the best player on a defense that could make Miami a contender in the ACC Coastal. “Your freshman year you get to show you can flash and make a play, but are you a guy who’s always where you’re supposed to be in the framework of a defense?” Diaz told Matt Porter of the Palm Beach Post during spring practice. “That’s why it’s always hard to measure the effectiveness of defensive linemen, because if you sack the quarterback once a game, you’ll be All-American, you’ll have double-digit sacks, but you might give up 150 yards of offense by not being where you’re supposed to be in the run game. That’s where you’re trying to find that level of consistency.”

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Josh Jackson, QB, Virginia Tech

Had Jerod Evans returned to Blacksburg instead of inexplicably declaring for a draft in which his name wasn’t called, we’d probably have the Hokies slotted as the favorite in the Coastal. But now Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente has to develop a new starter. Fortunately, he has some experience helping quarterbacks reach their potential. (Andy Dalton and Paxton Lynch say hello.) Next in line is redshirt freshman Jackson, who was named the Hokies’ starter last week.

Jackson, the son of former Michigan assistant Fred Jackson, beat out touted true freshman Hendon Hooker. He’s adept at the read option, and his arm will allow the Hokies to do as much or more than they did with Evans last season. If Jackson turns out to be an upgrade, Virginia Tech could vastly exceed expectations.

Byron Pringle, WR, Kansas State

The Wildcats are set at quarterback with Jesse Ertz, but they need an explosive playmaker to help stretch the field. That player should be Pringle, who led the Wildcats with 631 receiving yards on 39 catches. If the 6' 2" Pringle, who also is the Big 12’s best kick returner, can catch more passes this season, it could stretch defenses thin and make everything else Kansas State does on offense easier. If that happens, the Wildcats could challenge Oklahoma or Oklahoma State (or West Virginia) for a spot in the Big 12 title game.

Jaylen Smith, WR, Louisville

Returning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson doesn’t only need help from his offensive line if the Cardinals hope to have any chance at winning a loaded ACC Atlantic. He also needs more help from his receivers.

This is where Smith comes in. The 6' 4" speedster caught 27 passes last season, and 26 went for at least 15 yards. He’ll need to up his volume as the Cardinals try to replace James Quick, Jamari Staples and Cole Hikutini in the passing game.

Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn

Stidham is the most hyped new starter on any team this season, and with good reason. If he lives up to his advance billing, the Tigers could become contenders in the SEC West. Still, there are questions. Stidham did look great as a true freshman starter at Baylor after replacing an injured Seth Russell, but Stidham only started three games before he was lost for the season due to multiple injuries. Can the Tigers keep him healthy?

The bigger question is whether Gus Malzahn’s offense can succeed at Auburn without a quarterback who contributes heavily in the run game. It has happened before. Chris Todd set a school single-season touchdown pass record running Malzahn’s offense in 2009, but that was far overshadowed by what Cam Newton and Nick Marshall did as dual-threat QBs. What also remains to be seen is how much new coordinator Chip Lindsey changes that offense. Malzahn has said Lindsey will be the primary playcaller and handle the day-to-day operation of the offense, so how Stidham fares will be linked to how Lindsey handles his duties.

Andrew Thomas, OT, Georgia

Georgia’s offensive line is the position group that needs to improve the most from last season. The guy with the best chance to help it improve dramatically is the one who wasn’t there last season. Thomas, a 6' 5", 320-pound true freshman from Lithonia, Ga., has worked with the first team at right tackle and left guard during preseason camp, and he appears to be the leader to win the right tackle job. The last true freshman to start a season opener on Georgia’s offensive line was Jon Theus in 2012.

Will Georgia's Next Step on Offense Be Enough to Reach the Top of the SEC East?

Azeem Victor, LB, Washington

Victor isn’t like the other players on this list, and Washington isn’t like the other teams on this list. Everyone else is looking to make a leap of some kind, while Victor is an established star and Washington is coming off a College Football Playoff berth. So why is he here?

Because a healthy Victor can transform Washington’s defense from excellent to dominant. The Huskies weren’t quite the same on that side of the ball after Victor—the team’s leading tackler at the time—went down with a broken right leg against USC on Nov. 12. If Victor can stay healthy all season, the Huskies may challenge the prevailing notion that the Trojans are going to run away with the Pac-12.

Tyler Huntley, QB, Utah

Senior Troy Williams, the 2016 starter, was named a captain this season, but Utes coach Kyle Whittingham left open the possibility of a Trevor Knight situation—remember, Knight was named a captain at Oklahoma in ’15, but Mayfield won the starting job. On Monday, Utah named Huntley the starter, and the sophomore will play behind a rebuilt line in the offense that first-year coordinator Troy Taylor brought from Eastern Washington. For the Utes to finally get over the hump in the Pac-12 South, they’ll need a dynamic offense and dynamic quarterback play. Taylor’s scheme seems to fit the bill; now the Utes just need Huntley to run it.

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Rashan Gary is one of the most talented players Michigan defensive coordinator Dom Brown has ever seen. He will be key to the Wolverines maintaining a championship-caliber defense.

Rashan Gary is one of the most talented players Michigan defensive coordinator Dom Brown has ever seen. He will be key to the Wolverines maintaining a championship-caliber defense.

A Random Ranking

In honor of Monday’s total solar eclipse, it’s time to rank the top 10 natural phenomena.

1. Rainbows
2. Geysers
3. The Aurora Borealis
4. Eclipses
5. Bioluminescent waves
6. Sundogs
7. Blood falls
8. Waterspouts
9. Monarch butterfly migration
10. Sailing stones

Three and Out

1. True story: Nick Saban’s favorite channel is The Weather Channel. Watch him prove it here as he beats back an all-too-serious question about Monday’s eclipse. For a guy who doesn’t care about the eclipse, Saban sure knows an awful lot about it thanks his favorite corner of the basic cable universe.

2. Why is Mark Richt one of the most respected coaches in the game? Because of stuff like this…

Richt has every reason to be bitter that Georgia fired him after 15 mostly excellent seasons. But that doesn’t matter, because he wants the players he recruited to succeed.

3. If you read this column often, you know how I feel about walk-ons getting scholarships. Kansas coach David Beaty raised the bar with this reveal, which took place while the Jayhawks took in a Kansas City Royals game.Congratulations to punter Cole Moos, defensive end Mazin Aql, offensive lineman Beau Lawrence and running back Reese Randall.

What’s Eating Andy?

It’s going to be seven years until the next total solar eclipse that will be viewable in the United States. So I’m going to have to find some other excuses to eat more Aporkalypse biscuits.

What’s Andy Eating?

Evan LeRoy understands much better now when he goes to a concert and the band wants to play songs from the new album rather than plowing through the hits. The pitmaster at Austin’s recently-opened LeRoy and Lewis perfected his brisket craft at nearby Freedmen’s but left last August promising to open a new kind of barbecue joint. LeRoy wouldn’t smoke the Holy Trinity (brisket, pork ribs, sausage) every day. Instead, he’d shake up the menu frequently. One day he’d feature beef cheek confit. Another day? Double cut pork chops. For dinner one night? Smoked burgers.

This might not appeal to those who have one day in Austin and want the classic Texas barbecue experience, but for diners who have tried dozens of variations on the butcher paper-brisket-ribs-sausage-pickles-onions-jalapenos combo, it’s a welcome change. LeRoy has found a market inefficiency, and he’s exploiting it in the most delicious of ways. Within a five-mile radius, there is a glut of places that serve the Holy Trinity with startling competence. This includes Franklin Barbecue—where people wait four hours to buy brisket—as well as la Barbecue, Micklethwait Craft Meats and Freedmen’s. Had LeRoy opened another place like that, the meat would have been delicious, but it would have been more of the same.

Instead, he’s trying to broaden Austin’s barbecue horizons. When I visited Saturday with Texas Monthly barbecue guru Daniel Vaughn, LeRoy already had sold out of the double cut pork chops. But he still had smoked wings coated in a spicy paste. He served these Nashville hot chicken style on white bread with pickles. Smoked wings are wonderful, but most places cheat by flash-frying the wings to get the skin crispy LeRoy does not cheat, but his wings still came out perfect. By placing them closer to the mouth of the fire—in a spot where the temperature reaches about 300°—he can get the skin crispy while keeping the meat juicy. These wings rivaled those at Saw’s Soul Kitchen in Birmingham and Smokin’ Thighs in Nashville, and that’s high praise indeed.

Smoked wings from LeRoy and Lewis in Austin.

Smoked wings from LeRoy and Lewis in Austin.

The wings paired perfectly with the cheesy squash side, which mixed several varieties of sliced summer squash with gooey cheddar cheese. Those from the Deep South would recognize this as a cousin of the broccoli casserole you ate at every family gathering, but the squash holds up much better to the heat of the cheese than the broccoli. Instead of letting it turn into a soggy, soupy mess, the squash remains crisp on the inside. This only makes the cheese taste better.

At first glance, I didn’t see any reason to try the burger. Some barbecue places serve them to satisfy those who don’t crave smoked meat. But after hearing LeRoy’s explanation of how he cooks the ground brisket patties, I wanted a taste. The burgers are smoked in the pit and then finished on a cast iron flat top. The result doesn’t taste like anything available at any restaurant. It tastes like the best burger ever served in someone’s backyard. This isn’t a knock. Even the best restaurant burgers have a homogenous quality. The patties always taste and feel similar. Good backyard burgers have a smoky crust on the outside and then crumble into juicy bits with each bite. That’s what LeRoy’s burger did—only it also had the seasoning only a 500-gallon barbecue pit can provide.

The ground brisket burger from LeRoy and Lewis.

The ground brisket burger from LeRoy and Lewis.

Since I went on Saturday, LeRoy also had brisket. He doesn’t want to completely abandon his roots in his quest to diversify the traditional barbecue menu. The other stuff probably wouldn’t work so well if LeRoy didn’t get the stalwart right, and his brisket proved he can play the hits as well as any longtime chart-topper. The meat had a deep red smoke ring and a defined crust. Because LeRoy nudges the brisket into a slightly hotter zone near the end of the cook, the fat between the meat and the crust caramelizes into something with the consistency and taste of candy. This sweetness marries with the salt, the pepper and the savory beef below to create a beautiful brisket experience.

Brisket from LeRoy and Lewis.

Brisket from LeRoy and Lewis.

Still, it’s O.K. if LeRoy doesn’t want to cook that brisket every day. There are plenty of places nearby who cook it quite well. There is no one else doing what he does the rest of the week.