The Top 10 receiving corps in college football

We’re in the homestretch of our positional rankings for 2016. Today we’re focusing on the nation’s top receiving corps (tight ends included).

As terrific as the Tigers’ offense was in 2015, imagine how dynamic it would’ve been if they had their best WR Mike Williams, who missed almost all of the season following him injuring his neck in the opener. The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder caught 57 passes for 1,030 yards in 2014 and six TDs, averaging 18 yards per catch. How talented is Williams? Clemson coaches say he’s like a bigger version of DeAndre Hopkins, meaning he has fantastic ball skills. Artavis Scott has averaged 85 catches the past two seasons. The 5-11, 190-pound junior is versatile, reliable and explosive. That’s a pretty rare triple among college wideouts. Those two are as good as any tandem in the college game this year.

Behind them are some strong options as well. Deon Cain can be a dynamic playmaker as he often displayed in his rookie season last year (he caught 34 passes for 582 yards and five touchdowns in 2015), but he was sidelined for the title game after failing a drug test. It’ll be interesting to see how Cain responds to that challenge since Dabo Swinney didn’t have to sit him out of the title game, but the coach wanted to send a message. We’ll see if Cain got it.

With Cain out, another freshman WR, former walk-on Hunter Renfrow, shined against Bama. Renfrow is small at 5-10, 175, but he’s slick with excellent change of direction and hands. Another waterbug type, Ray-Ray McCloud, a dangerous return man, will be another problem for rival defenses to keep an eye on. Sophomore Trevian Thompson, at 6-2, 200 pounds, is another promising young receiver in the mix. And, if all that isn’t impressive enough, the Tigers also have one of the best tight ends in the nation in 6-5, 255-pound Jordan Leggett, who is coming off a season where he had 40 receptions and eight TD grabs, including a huge 100-yard game against FSU.

Calvin Ridley did an impressive job of picking up where fellow South Florida stud Amari Cooper left off in Tuscaloosa, grabbing 89 passes as a true freshman for 1,045 yards, breaking Cooper’s school record. He’s very fast — although Robert Foster is considered the Tide’s fastest receiver — but Ridley has a terrific burst and the ability to separate, making him such a hard cover. He’s the kind of weapon OC Lane Kiffin loves to exploit. ArDarius Stewart, the team’s No. 2 wideout, is a physical presence at 6-1, 205 and had 31 of his 63 catches go for first downs or TDs last year. The 6-2, 190-pound Foster had 10 catches in three games before suffering a season-ending injury, but he’s back as is 6-5, 210-pound junior Cam Sims, who is back after tearing up his knee. Both are intriguing talents for WR coach Billy Napier to develop.

This group also got a major boost when Bowling Green star Gehrig Dieter, an agile 6-2, 213-pounder grad transfer from the MAC showed up. He caught 94 passes for 1,033 yards and 10 TDs last year. Dieter is strong, has sure hands and plays with a chip on his shoulder. He should be a great addition for whoever is the new Tide QB. The Tide also is loaded at tight end. Just ask Clemson how dangerous 6-6 O.J. Howard is. He was the star of the national title game for Bama. Behind him Hale Hentges is a terrific blocker at the line and keep an eye on young Miller Forristall, a 6-5, 235-pound former QB who runs 4.7 and has lots of promise.

Calvin Ridley

The Wolverines’ starting wideout tandem and tight end Jake Butt all had breakout seasons in Jim Harbaugh’s return to Ann Arbor. In a year Michigan’s passing offense went from No. 110 up to No. 45. It’s a big, athletic, experienced trio. Butt, a 6-6, 250-pound senior, is an elite tight end with fantastic hands. He caught 51 passes for 654 yards and three TDs. “He runs amazing routes and he’s deceptively fast,” said Michigan’s All-American DB Jourdan Lewis.

The outside guys are fifth-year seniors Amara Darboh (58 catches for 727 yards and five TDs) and Jehu Chesson (50 receptions for 764 yards and nine touchdowns), and they made huge leaps in a year under passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch, a guy who’d helped develop a ton of NFL talent. Darboh is a bit bigger at 6-2, 215, more physical and around a 4.5 40 guy with good hands. Chesson is 6-3, 205, and teammates say he’s the fastest guy on the team, a low 4.3 guy. He’s a potential first-rounder and may have been the most improved player in the country last year. He seemed much more focused in 2015, displaying improved hands and route running. Chesson did injure his leg in the Citrus Bowl romp over Florida and missed spring ball but Harbaugh said the standout WR will be ready for camp next week.

Behind them is 6-1, 193-pound sophomore Grant Perry, who had five catches and a TD against UF and displayed a lot of promise; 6-4 former prep basketball star Drake Harris, a potential big-play man; and Mo Ways, another tall target with nice hands. One other name to remember is Dylan Crawford, a 6-2 freshman from California who’s probably the second-fastest wideout and word is he’s already impressed many of his teammates.

The Ducks have a ton of good options here. Let’s begin with Darren Carrington, a 6-2, 195-pound senior who led the team with 19 yards per catch last year on 32 receptions and six TDs in half a season. He has terrific ball skills and also is very good at breaking tackles. Another likely starter is rangy Dwayne Stanford, a 6-5 target who had 30 catches for 463 yards and five TDs. The third projected starting wideout figures to be Charles Nelson, who is back at receiver after playing DB last year. The coaches loves this speedster from Florida, saying he’s like a more physical version of D’Anthony Thomas. That’s some lofty praise.

Freshman Dillon Mitchell will push for PT after arriving early and producing a very impressive spring, where he displayed explosiveness and toughness and made a bunch of big plays. Another freshmen to remember is Tristen Wallace, a 6-4, 230-pound slot who virtually no one could tackle in high school. He’s drawn raves from his new teammates and displayed some really nice hands. As if that isn’t enough speed, Devon Allen, the guy who was their most consistent wideout the year they made it to the national title game, is back from a torn ACL that hampered him in 2015. If fact, Allen’s so far back from it that he made the U.S. Olympic team as a hurdler and will miss the first game of the season.

Pharaoh Brown, a 6-7, 245-pound senior, missed last season after sustaining a horrific leg injury and was missed. But he looked good in the spring. The really underrated part of Brown’s game is how good he is at the point of attack. His back-up, Evan Baylis, is a decent receiving tight end (16 catches) but better known for his blocking.

Christian Hackenberg’s gone and his replacement is going to inherit an excellent crop of receivers. WR coach Josh Gattis, who helped develop Vandy great Jordan Matthews, has some very good talent in State College. Start with Chris Godwin, a 6-1, 205-pound junior who thrives catching passes in traffic and has enough speed (mid 4.4s) to beat people over the top. Senior DaeSean Hamilton, at 6-1, 210, has piled up 127 receptions the past two seasons combined, is very smart, has good change of direction and will play in the slot this season with PSU’s shift to more of a spread attack under Joe Moorhead.

Darren Carrington

Saeed Blacknall is even bigger than both of them at 6-3, 211 and he’s faster than both, too. He averaged 31 yards a catch in limited action last fall but had a dominant spring where he was the team’s most improved player. Watch out for him this year. DeAndre Thompkins also had a strong spring and will be a factor in the slot along with shifty Brandon Polk. Irvin Charles and Juwan Johnson, a pair of 6-4, 217 pound redshirt freshmen, are both promising and should be part of a strong seven-man rotation. The Nittany Lions also have a Freak at tight end in Mike Gesicki, a 6-6, 250-pounder who runs mid 4.5s and vertical jumps 37 inches. If he can become more consistent and focused, he’ll be a big headache for rival defenses.

Trevor Knight inherits a very talented group that starts with fantastic sophomore Christian Kirk, who caught 80 passes for over 1,000 yards as a true freshman. Kirk is strong, quick and very mature. Coaches rave about his character and have said he approaches the game like a pro and has from the moment he first showed up. Lanky Josh Reynolds, a fast 6-4 former JC transfer, had 907 receiving yards last season on 51 catches while 6-5, 240-pound Ricky Seals-Jones is another big target. Seals-Jones doesn’t have great separation, but he’s very solid.

Speedy Noil, another former blue-chipper, may be the most talented of the group in terms of his explosiveness and ball skills, but he’s struggled with maturity issues. Damion Ratley, a 6-1 JC transfer, has plenty of ability but needs to be much more consistent. Skinny Ed Pope and Jeremy Tabuyo are a pair of experienced reserves who have had their moments and seem like they’ve been around in College Station since the R.C. Slocum era.

The Trojans’ run of go-to wide receivers in the past dozen years has been fantastic with big Juju Smith-Schuster being the latest. He had 89 catches for 1,454 yards and 10 TDs, which were close to triple what the next most productive USC receiver had. Smith-Schuster is a beast physically in terms of his strength and excels at making adjustments to the ball. After Smith-Schuster, the Trojans have a bunch of dudes who certainly pass the eye test but haven’t done a whole lot in games yet. Darreus Rogers is another physical WR and has really good hands. Word is he’s shed about 10 pounds this offseason down to 210 and is a step faster, which probably should help.

Steven Mitchell (37 catches) has flashed potential in his career at USC but has battled a variety of injuries that have slowed down his development. De’Quan Hamilton is another one with great size at 6-4, 225, but the JC transfer only had 15 catches last season. Deontay Burnett (10 catches) is one of the team’s smaller WRs but is very quick and should help out as can Ajene Harris, who is really versatile and also sees some action on defense. Both Burnett and Harris can provide a much-needed jolt to the offense since Adoree’ Jackson is expected to focus most of his energy on defense and not be as involved in the O this fall.

Mike Leach’s system has produced some terrific receivers. Back at Texas Tech, he had Wes Welker, Danny Amendola and Michael Crabtree, among others. His best one at WAZZU has been a guy from his initial recruiting class, Gabe Marks. The 6-0, 188-pound senior is fiercely competitive and is a slick route runner who makes one clutch catch after another for the Cougars. Eleven of his 15 TD catches last season came in road games. Don’t be surprised if he wraps up his college career with 350 receptions, 4,000 yards and 40 TDs. River Cracraft is a rugged inside receiver who caught 53 passes last fall despite missing about a month of action. Little Robert Lewis is much tougher and more physical than his 5-9, 162-pound frame would indicate. He’s proven to be a surprisingly reliable go-to on tight third down situations, and he also had five fourth-down receptions that all went for first downs. The junior has a lot of speed, too, but has yet to really burn defenses with his wheels.

Sophomore Tavares Martin (16 catches last season) is probably the fastest WR recruit Leach has brought to Pullman, and there’s a lot of excitement about him especially now that he’s bulked up 15 pounds from last year (to about 182). Kyle Sweet, probably the team’s best route runner, and John Thompson are reliable reserves who figure to combine for about 60 grabs this season. C.J. Dimry, an athletic 6-5 former JC transfer, could be a difference-maker in the Red Zone if he could find a way to stay healthy. Considering how much action Air-Raid receivers get, depth isn’t that great at this point so WSU could really use either Dezmon Patmon or Isaiah Johnson, a pair of 6-4 freshmen, to become a factor at outside receiver if Dimry can’t step up.

Christian Kirk

The Cowboys have produced some great wideouts in the past decade, starting with Dez Bryant and Justin Blackmon. This group is impressive, too. Junior James Washington blossomed into a star last season, torching Texas Tech and TCU in consecutive weeks for nine catches, 384 yards and five TDs. On the year, he led the nation with four 70-plus yard receptions and ranked 10th nationally with 20.5 yards per catch. Washington, a small town Texas kid, is built like a RB at 5-11, 213 pounds, but possesses sub 4.4 speed and terrific burst and leaping ability.

Marcell Ateman, a 6-4, 225-pounder, is a good jump-ball guy who has really improved in the middle of the field. He averaged 17 yards a catch last season but he is coming off a broken foot that may sideline him for the first month of the season. Speedy Jalen McCleskey has wheels like Washington, although he’s probably 25 pounds lighter. Jhajuan Seales, is a strong 6-0, 205-pound senior with good speed and plenty of experience (75 career catches for 1,180 yards and eight TDs) to help offset the loss of Ateman.

The Rebels lost elite WR Laquon Treadwell and productive receiver Cody Core to the NFL, but they still have four proven targets who each caught over 30 passes last season for Chad Kelly to count on in 2016. Evan Engram is a stretch-the-field tight end who’s made a bunch of big plays in big games. Quincy Adeboyejo (38 catches for 604 yards and seven TDs) has terrific speed to go with good size but needs more consistency for this team to be Top 5 caliber. Damore’ea Stringfellow can excel at making catches in traffic (a la Treadwell) but also needs to step up and prove it.

Van Jefferson is a redshirt freshman the Rebels are very excited about. He gets in and out of breaks better than anybody Ole Miss has had in awhile, and at 6-2, 190, he’s fast and long and can be difference-maker. DaMarkus Lodge, a 6-2 former blue-chip recruit, should provide a lot of big plays during his career in Oxford. Markell Pack (24 catches) is an effective slot receiver who also figures to get more focus. One other guy to keep an eye on: A.J. Brown, a 6-1, 220-pound top recruit plucked out of MSU’s backyard in Starkville. Coaches say he has ball skills and is physical like Treadwell and is probably a bit faster.

Gabe Marks

Evan Engram