Pick 6: Top players toiling for teams likely to struggle
When The Associated Press preseason All-America team was released Tuesday, a bunch of schools placed multiple players on the two all-star squads. Among them were Ohio State, Alabama, Florida State, Clemson, Washington, Penn State, USC and Virginia.
Wait, Virginia? Yes, Virginia.
The Cavaliers are coming of a 3-9 season, and odds of a major turnaround in Year Two under Bronco Mendenhall are not promising. Still, Virginia will field two of the best defensive players in the country in safety Quin Blanding and linebacker Micah Kiser.
The Cavaliers ranked second-to-last in the Atlantic Coast Conference in yards allowed per play last season. Blanding and Kiser were not the issue. Kiser made 134 tackles and 6.5 sacks. Blanding, a versatile safety who can line up in various spots, had 120 tackles and two interceptions. Both could have jumped to the NFL early but decided to return for their senior seasons, hoping to turn around a program that has not reached a bowl game since 2011.
Good players can get lost on bad teams, but here are a few more that will be worth seeking out in 2017. Just don’t wait until bowl season, because it will probably be too late.
Dorance Armstrong Jr., DE, Kansas
The Jayhawks won a Big 12 game last season – as Texas fans might recall – and that’s progress in Lawrence. Another point of pride for Kansas fans is Armstrong. He had a breakout season in 2016 with 10 sacks and was named Big 12 preseason defensive player of the year coming into 2017. While you’re checking out Armstrong, also take notice of fellow disruptive defensive lineman Daniel Wise.
Adam Breneman, TE, Massachusetts
Breneman was a huge recruit who went to Penn State at the time the Nittany Lions were getting leveled by NCAA sanctions. Injuries held him back in Happy Valley and he decided to give up football completely after the 2015 season – and then changed his mind. He joined the Minutemen last August, admittedly not in the best of shape, and ended up with 70 catches for 808 yards and eight touchdowns. Breneman at his best could be the top tight end in the country.
Damarea Crockett, RB, Missouri
Getting attention as a running back in the loaded SEC is tough. Quietly, Crockett was one of the conference’s best as a freshman. A late-season surge got him to 1,062 yards rushing, and he averaged 6.9 yards per carry. With four offensive line starters, three leading receivers and quarterback Drew Lock all back for the Tigers, the offense should be productive again. The emergence of the 220-pound Crockett should allow Mizzou to slow the pace and still be productive, while protecting a porous defense.
Eric Dungey, QB, Syracuse
Dungey ranked third in the ACC last season in total yards per game (330) behind Heisman winner Lamar Jackson and Heisman runner-up Deshaun Watson. The junior is a playmaker with his arm and legs. However, he missed three games last season after taking a hard shot to the head and neck. He also dealt with concussions as a freshman. A full season with Dungey running coach Dino Baber’s up-tempo offense might be enough to squeeze the Orange into a bowl game, but the schedule is really tough.
Janarion Grant, WR, Rutgers
The Scarlet Knights were probably the worst Power Five team in college football last season. The offense was especially dreadful, and losing Grant in the fourth game of the season on a spectacular play against Iowa made it even worse. He was averaging 163.75 all-purpose yards per game when he went down. He was second in the Big Ten with 1,583 all-purpose yards the year before. The Scarlet Knights will get him the ball as many ways as they can this season and hope to take a step toward respectability.
Demetris Robertson, WR, California
Robertson picked Cal over Notre Dame and Georgia in 2016. He started slowly as a freshman last season with the Bears, but the last two months he was one of the better big-play receivers in the Pac-12. He finished with 50 catches for 767 yards and seven touchdowns. The Bears are in transition with coach Justin Wilcox taking over for Sonny Dykes, but offensive coordinator and former Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin likes to spread it out and throw it around. Robertson could be the focal point.
Six more players who should stand out even if their teams do not:
David Blough, QB, Purdue
N’Keal Harry, WR, Arizona State
Will Hernandez, G, UTEP
Nick Holley, QB, Kent State
Daniel Jones, QB, Duke
Allen Lazard, WR, Iowa State
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP
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