Ten non-BCS conference players who could make or break their team’s chances in 2008. Click the links to view highlight clips. RB Harvey Unga, BYU- Big, physical, and athletic, Unga was the lead horse in a very good stable of running backs at BYU last year, and already looks primed for an even bigger 2008. Earning both Mountain West Conference Freshmen of the year and Freshmen All-American honors, Unga powered his way to 1,227 yards on the ground (5.0 avg) and an incredible 655 yards through the air in 2007 en route to BYU’s second consecutive Mountain West Title. Joined by All-MWC performers Max Hall at quarterback and Austin Collie at wide receiver, Unga has a very real shot of leading BYU to a BCS bowl game in 2008.
RB James Starks, Buffalo- Starks is an intriguing case because he might be the most talented skill player at the University at Buffalo since Drew Haddad in the late 90s. At 6’2, 210 he’s big enough to be an effective inside runner, but he has uncanny straight line speed for a guy his size in the open field. He’s a duel threat guy out of the backfield and has great ball skills, catching 41 passes in 2007 while not fumbling once in 251 carries. One of the key role players in Buffalo’s recent turnaround, Starks looks ready to lead the Bulls to a bowl eligible season in 2008.
QB/SB/PR Jarod Bryant, Navy- It’s not often that the buzz around a given team’s spring practice revolves around the backup quarterback, but in the case of the Naval Academy that’s exactly what happened this April. A multi-faceted athlete from the famed Hoover High program, backup quarterback Jarod Bryant spent last year in spot relief duty of Kaipo-Noa Keheaku-Enhada before new Head Coach Ken Niumatalolo added slotback and punt returner to his list of duties this offseason. With Vick-like quickness and feet in the open field, Bryant has the natural ability to just flat out make people miss whenever he has the ball in his hands, and will likely play a key role in Navy’s quest to make it to a sixth consecutive Bowl game.
WR Casey Fitzgerald, North Texas- A bigtime playmaker in every sense of the word, Fitzgerald thrived in his first year under Head Coach Todd Dodge, leading a resurgent Mean Green offense in reception (111), receiving yards (1322) and receiving touchdowns (12.) His 11.9 yard average doesn’t jump out on paper, but catch and runs of 99 and 69 yards sure do on tape. While he has the physical skills of speed and body control that make him an NFL prospect, it’s his recognition ability and route running which make him the dominant receiver in the Sun Belt conference. I’m expecting Dodge and North Texas to be at the top of the Sun Belt in 2008, and this guy is a big reason why.
QB Chase Clement, Rice- Clement may very well be the best duel threat quarterback in the country you’ve never heard of, and he’s got the numbers to prove it. Hitting 60% of his passes in 2007, Clement threw for 3377 yards and 29 touchdowns, while rushing for 535 yards and eight touchdowns. He doesn’t have the strongest arm in the world but at the same time he doesn’t have to, as he’s incredibly accurate and has the ability to make mid range throws with consistency. With some stability finally coming to the Rice coaching staff Clement has the ability to take the Owles back to the postseason this season.
RB Luke Lippincott, Nevada- Another physical runner, Lippincott literally ran through WAC defenses last year en route to a 1420 yard (5.3 avg) year on the ground in 2007. Well trained in Coach Chris Ault’s pistol offense, Lippincott is the perfect compliment for speedy quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who himself gave Nevada’s offense a much needed spark last year. With a wide open WAC this year I look for Nevada to use Lippincot aggressively and return to the postseason.
WR Kevin Jurovich, San Jose State- If this is your first time hearing about Jurovich then don’t worry, you’re not alone. Maybe the lone bright spot on San Jose State’s anemic offense last season, Jurovich has a chance to be one of the most prolific skill position players in the WAC next season. A very smooth route runner with good quickness and decent long speed, Jurovich went from being a backup safety in 2006 to the team’s leading receiver in 2007. With a new quarterback coming into SJSU this year it’s going to be critical for SJSU to get the ball into Jurovich’s hands as much as possible, especially if the Spartans wish to return to their 2006 season form.
TE Bear Pascoe, Fresno State- You don’t often think about possession tight ends when you talk about the one most important player on an offense, but in the case of Fresno State’s offense you might have to. The rising senior has ideal size (6’5, 265) and tremendous body control, which makes the fact that he was an option quarterback in high school all the more insane. He almost single-handedly obliterated Texas A&M’s secondary last season (7 catches, 3 TDs) and figures to be an iatrical part of Fresno State’s loaded offense in 2008.
RB Eugene Jarvis, Kent State- The leading returning rusher in the country, Jarvis ran for 1669 yards (6.0 avg) and ten touchdowns in 2007 to very little national acclaim. A scat back with tremendous vision and change of direction ability in the open field, watching Jarvis is like watching former MAC great Garrett Wolfe out of a zone running based offense. The challenge for Jarvis will be whether or not he can help get Kent State over the hump in a MAC title race in which one team’s chances seem to be as good as the next’s. If he can, then don’t be surprised to see him replicate Wolfe’s minor Heisman Run from a few years ago in 2008.
RB Ian Johnson, Boise State- After eclipsing 1700 yards rushing and 25 touchdowns in 2006 it seemed like Johnson was a viable contender for the Heisman in 2007, but a retooled Boise State offense transferred much of the load to fellow running backs Jeremy Avery and DJ Harper last season. Still, Johnson is one of the elite start-stop runners in all of college football, and surpassed the 1000 yard rushing mark last season. After a quiet year in 2007 expect Johnson and Boise State to make another run in the WAC, where the departure of Colt Brennan and June Jones at Hawaii has suddenly left the conference wide open.