Football is the ultimate team sport, the one that requires even the most talented individual to submit to the requirements of the role he plays rather than the other way around. Here is your position. Here is the assignment for your position. Execute your assignment, and you’ve done your part. If everyone else does his part, too, the team will be a success.
Today, though, we’re flipping the script: Amid the endless labyrinth of cogs toiling in service of the machine, which college football players boast value so readily apparent that they’re more likely to define their own roles in 2015 than vice versa? “Value,” as anyone who’s ever argued over the relative merits of MVP candidates can attest, can be an arbitrary term, but for the purposes of this exercise we’ll define it loosely as how difficult it would be for a team to replace an individual player’s production or role if he weren’t around. The 10 players below aren’t necessarily the nation’s best players — though many of them would belong on the short list for that distinction — but they do occupy very specific, almost personalized roles. Without them in the lineup, the offense/defense wouldn’t merely be less effective, it would likely have to change in some fundamental way, because replacement-level players couldn’t be asked to do what these guys do within the scheme. They’re indispensable because they don’t fit readily into the machine; they’ve forced the machine to adapt to fit them.
LB/DB Su’a Cravens, USC
USC officially lists Cravens as an outside linebacker, which is a fair label given his size (6-foot-1, 225 pounds) and his tendency to live in opposing backfields: His 17 tackles for loss, which led the team in 2014,1 is hardly the kind of number we expect to see from a safety.2 But that’s only because the sport hasn’t quite come to a consensus on what to call the position that players like Cravens and Ohio State’s Darron Lee actually play: a roving, Polamaluvian combination of outside linebacker, box safety, and nickel cornerback that might best be described as “space-backer.” However you choose to label him, Cravens is a perfectly adapted response to the proliferation of spread offenses in the Pac-12, a five-star athlete who’s as comfortable in coverage (seven career interceptions and 10 passes broken up) as he is blitzing off the edge (five sacks in 2014), and who will probably be a first-round draft pick before his 21st birthday. Certainly no other college player who racked up double-digit tackles for loss last year can also do this:
Defensive end Leonard Williams, whom pro scouts generally regarded as the best defensive player in the college game, had 9.5.
Cravens tied for 18th nationally in TFLs, a category in which just two players listed by their schools as defensive backs ranked among the top 100.
I almost feel sorry for Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion3 on that play, because it seems like such a safe throw. Cravens looks like he’s going to follow the slot receiver on a crossing route, leaving the flat vacant for the H-back, and Mannion’s initial read would have been fine against the vast majority of defenders he’s ever faced. I mean, generally speaking, this guy is open:
A third-round draft pick, by the way.
USC has a lot of great athletes on defense, some of whom can get after the passer, some of whom can track down ball carriers in space, and some of whom might even be able to bait otherwise competent senior quarterbacks into disastrous mistakes. But it has only one guy who can realistically be asked to do any of the above on any given play.
RB/WR D.J. Foster, Arizona State
Foster is a running back by trade, and a pretty damn good one, having racked up 17 touchdowns and more than 2,000 yards on the ground over the past three seasons. Those are solid numbers, but they reveal only a fraction of his real value to the ASU offense. He’s on this list because of his versatility: On top of his duties as a ball carrier, Foster has also generated a solid career’s worth of production as a receiver (163 catches for 1,874 yards and 11 touchdowns), quietly making him the active FBS leader in both yards from scrimmage and (although he hasn’t handled kickoff or punt returns) all-purpose yards entering his senior season.
This year, the Sun Devils have changed Foster’s designation to slot receiver, in part to give him a head start on his projected transition to the slot in the NFL. But considering that his role has already involved splitting time between the slot and the backfield, and considering that Arizona State’s system already employs a lot of pre-snap machinations that convert receivers into running backs and vice versa, the distinction figures to be largely semantic. What matters is that the Devils are still committed to getting the ball into Foster’s hands 20 times per game4 by any means necessary. Given the absence of proven playmakers anywhere else on the offense, that shouldn’t be a problem.
DE Myles Garrett, Texas A&M
He averaged 19.7 touches in 2014.
At this stage in his career, Garrett is still more potential than production, but he wasted no time as a true freshman giving the Aggies a glimpse of what’s in store for the next two years. Specifically, a lot of this:
And presumably plenty of this, only with the flag from here on out:
Although he was largely restricted to a pass-rushing role in 2014, Garrett made it count, breaking Jadeveon Clowney’s SEC freshman sack record with 11.5 (Clowney had eight). And although most of those takedowns came at the expense of Lamar (2.0), Rice (2.5), and Louisiana-Monroe (3.5), as you can see above, Garrett could also command the full attention of full-grown, third- and fourth-year SEC linemen. His flashes of dominance were arguably the lone bright spot on the league’s most generous defense, which desperately needs an every-down difference-maker to complement the rising stars on A&M’s offense. The Aggies hope they have one on the sideline in new defensive coordinator John Chavis, a winter arrival from LSU. If the sophomore version of Garrett is as good as advertised, they can count on having one in the pass rush as well.
CB Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida
Attention, quarterbacks: For future reference, if you’re within striking distance of a tying touchdown and time is running out in the fourth quarter, don’t throw at Vernon Hargreaves.
In fact, as a general rule, it’s probably best to avoid Hargreaves altogether, as many quarterbacks did last year. Despite Hargreaves effectively rendering his side of the hash marks off-limits as a sophomore, he still wound up with 13 passes broken up, tied for the SEC lead, to go with three interceptions. Like recruiting sites before them, NFL scouts have tabbed Hargreaves as a can’t-miss prospect largely on the strength of his unrivaled man-to-man cover skills,5 which stands to make him the first cornerback to be drafted in the top five since Patrick Peterson in 2011. The Gators have a lot to worry about in their first year under coach Jim McElwain, including the pass rush, but how they’re going to handle opponents’ favorite targets isn’t on the list.
RB/WR Byron Marshall, Oregon
Matched up against Alabama’s Amari Cooper last October, Hargreaves held the best receiver in college football to five catches for 51 yards on a day when Cooper repeatedly torched the rest of Florida’s secondary.
In 2013, Marshall was the Ducks’ leading rusher, topping 100 yards in six of their first eight games before an ankle injury curbed his production down the stretch. In 2014, forced out of his natural position by the emergence of true freshman workhorse Royce Freeman, Marshall was the Ducks’ leading receiver, becoming the first player in FBS history to log 1,000-yard campaigns by ground in one season and air in another. Like Foster, Marshall can’t really be pigeonholed in the standard RB-or-WR box, because he does so much of both in a hybrid role that Oregon sometimes refers to him as the “Taser.” So while he was more prominently involved in the passing game last year,6 he’s still a threat to line up in the backfield, or to take a jet sweep off of motion.
You might remember Marshall from the near disaster at the end of his wide-open, 70-yard touchdown catch in the national championship game.
Of course, Marshall was one of many, many weapons at Marcus Mariota’s disposal the past three years, and many of those other playmakers return in 2015. After three years of adapting the offense to accommodate a dazzlingly efficient quarterback, though, Mariota’s absence could result in a return to a more run-heavy attack in which Marshall would likely play a substantial role. Beyond that, the Ducks are unsettled on the receiving end, with returning targets Devon Allen (ACL) and tight end Pharaoh Brown (knee) in line for possible redshirts and Darren Carrington facing a likely NCAA suspension for a failed drug test. Personnel questions aside, Oregon’s offense remains a sure thing year in and year out, and in this particular year Marshall is the surest thing about it.
RB Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
This time last year, the most intriguing name in Stanford’s backfield belonged to the son of a former NFL star, and it still does. It’s just that in 2015, the hopes for a breakthrough rest on the shoulders of a different son of a different star: While Barry J. Sanders continued to struggle in his third year on campus to live up to the hype that accompanied his famous name,7 Cardinal fans flipped for McCaffrey, son of former Giants and Broncos receiver Ed McCaffrey. As a true freshman, the younger McCaffrey often seemed to provide the only spark in one of the more disappointingly lo-fi attacks in the nation, touching the ball just 59 times (42 carries, 17 receptions) but making good things happen when he did. Occasionally, they were amazing things:
Sanders turned in a respectable effort off the bench, gaining 315 yards on 5.3 per carry, but didn’t score a touchdown and didn’t give much indication that he’s on the verge of fulfilling the potential that made him one of the most highly touted backs in the 2012 recruiting class.
In fact, in light of Stanford’s larger failure to establish the kind of punishing, consistent ground game that fueled back-to-back conference championship runs in 2012-13, it’s not hard to see why the locals were anxious for coaches to set McCaffrey free. On his limited opportunities, he averaged 9.3 yards and delivered 11 plays of 20 yards or longer; he also accounted for 25 first downs, more than starting tailback Remound Wright managed to earn (22) in a substantially larger role. (Where McCaffrey averaged 2.6 touches per first down, Wright averaged 6.5.) I’d probably hold off on mentioning McCaffrey in the same breath with the Heisman Trophy, but assuming he’ll be sitting at 1 or 1a on this year’s depth chart, the Cardinal are already looking considerably more explosive.
RB Elijah McGuire, Louisiana-Lafayette
The Sun Belt is the Fun Belt, and no SBC player is more fun than McGuire, who claimed a first-team all-conference nod in each of his first two years on campus — all the more impressive when you consider that, technically, he was the Ragin’ Cajuns’ backup tailback in both seasons while splitting time with the nominal starter, Alonzo Harris. But what McGuire has lacked in quantity, he has more than made up for in quality, having already accounted for 40 career plays of 20 yards or more and 27 total touchdowns. On the ground, he has averaged a whopping 7.9 yards per carry, best in the nation for any back with at least 100 carries in both seasons; as a receiver, he has added 852 yards on 67 catches, many of them courtesy of actual downfield routes — as opposed to piddling screens and dump-offs — that end with the baffled secondary giving chase.
(South Alabama wasn’t the first victim of a McGuire wheel route, and it wasn’t the last. Shout-out to the UL-Monroe safety in the second link who stands over McGuire and beats his chest after giving up a 39-yard gain.)
It’s easy to dismiss the fourth-rate competition in the SBC, but given the chance last year, McGuire also accounted for 84 yards from scrimmage against Ole Miss8 and 164 yards against Boise State. Who knows? It’s not hard to imagine him emerging from the third day of the draft in five years as a legit NFL talent, at which point the small-school scrubs who spent years flailing after him will be absolved. In the meantime, just try to enjoy any chance you get to watch him in man-among-boys mode — ULL will play at least three games this fall on ESPN platforms — while you still can.
Most of them on a 40-yard run.
DB Jalen Ramsey, Florida State
Is Jalen Ramsey the best player in college football? Yes, according to Jalen Ramsey, who assured reporters at the ACC’s annual media day in July that, as an incumbent All-American at safety and an aspiring Olympian in the long jump, anything less than maximum confidence in his talent would be an insult and a lie.
“Every elite player who has the confidence is going to say that, I feel like I truly am,” Ramsey said. “I feel like I have the résumé for it. I feel like no one has the résumé I have since I’ve been in college. I feel like no one can literally compare to what I’ve done in college; on the football field, track. Just all around, I’m the best athlete in college football.”
That sounds about right, actually: As an all-around defender, Ramsey rivals Cravens for all-purpose adaptability, finishing fourth last year on FSU’s blue-chip defense in total tackles (79), second in tackles for loss (9.5), first in passes defended (12, including two interceptions), and tied for first in forced fumbles (two). As a freshman in 2013, he opened the season as a starting cornerback before shifting to free safety; last year, in the “star” position — another hybrid linebacker/nickel role designed to exploit the versatility of the team’s best athlete — he proved equally adept at playing center field and rushing the passer.
This year, Ramsey is reportedly moving back to cornerback proper, where coach Jimbo Fisher projects him to play in the NFL, and ceding that “star” safety position to senior Tyler Hunter or incoming freshman Derwin James, who is preceded by the same kind of hype that accompanied Ramsey’s arrival two years ago. When push comes to shove, though, I’m guessing that leaving a guy with Ramsey’s capacity for wreaking havoc on an easily avoidable island isn’t going to make sense for very long.
OT Cameron Robinson, Alabama
Yes, Robinson is a left tackle, and no, there’s nothing particularly unique about that. But in a broader sense, Robinson is the left tackle: A 6-foot-6, 323-pound behemoth who might as well have been specifically engineered in a laboratory to play the position in 2015, and who found himself entrenched as the Crimson Tide’s starter on the blind side from the moment he set foot on campus. Robinson started every game last year as a true freshman, looked the part of the next great Bama lineman, and could be making millions right now if the rules allowed.
Alabama boasts numerous blue-chip prototypes with near-certain pro futures, but none of the other names on that list are ideally suited for left tackle, and if there’s a more reliable cornerstone elsewhere on the offense, it has yet to emerge. The quarterback, whoever he turns out to be, will be new; the receivers are new; the running backs, although more familiar than the other skill players, will likely be interchangeable and will only go as far as the (largely revamped) O-line takes them. Behind Robinson, though, the new signal-caller shouldn’t have to worry about watching his back, and the ground game should have all the room it needs to keep the chains moving and the QB out of trouble.
QB Justin Thomas, Georgia Tech
It’s probably cheating to put a quarterback on this list, because no team (other than Ohio State) enters the season under the illusion that it can afford to lose its starting QB. And it’s not like Georgia Tech would scrap the triple-option if it ever had to go with Plan B under center. In Paul Johnson’s offense, the triple-option is the only plan, and always will be.
But Johnson has never had anyone quite as adept at running the point as Thomas, for whom the position seems to have been specifically designed. And in a way, it was: As a recruit, Thomas was the rare blue-chip talent willing to spurn the likes of Alabama and Florida State, where he would have been a cornerback, for the chance to keep playing quarterback in a system that didn’t consider his marginal arm a liability. And his first season as the full-time starter was a revelation. The Yellow Jackets led the ACC in total and scoring offense, setting school records in both categories, and also led the league in yards per play; nationally, they ranked fourth in Offensive S&P+ and first in third-down conversions, by a wide margin. A campaign that began with rumors that Johnson had worn out his welcome in Atlanta ended with an ACC Coastal championship and Thomas running circles around Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl.
Tech dispatched the Bulldogs with ease, 49-34, its third win over a ranked opponent in its last four games. (And the loss was a 37-35 down-to-the-wire showdown with playoff-bound Florida State in the ACC title game.) The really scary part? Thomas was only a redshirt sophomore, suggesting that the offensive bonanza that unfolded down the stretch will become the norm, and that the Jackets may have the potential to sustain a dark-horse playoff bid as long as he’s still there.