Most college football fans know by now which teams are the favorites, which teams could have surprise seasons and which players are the best in the country. But before immersing yourself into dozens of hours spent watching the games this weekend, get to know some of the players who you might have never heard of but certainly garner national attention.
Here are 15 under-the-radar players who could be household names by the end of the season and even make some All-American lists.
Colin Schooler – LB, Arizona
Playing on the West Coast, sometimes it’s difficult for players — let alone freshmen — to have a national profile. Schooler definitely fits that mold after quietly having one of the best seasons on defense for a freshman in 2017. He led all FBS freshmen with 13 tackles for loss and was named a freshman All-American last season and Pac-12 defensive freshman of the year.
N’Keal Harry – WR, Arizona St.
A first-team conference performer last year as a sophomore, Sun Devils receiver N’Keal Harry will be a huge part of the Arizona State offense in coach Herm Edwards’ first season. Harry ranked second in the Pac-12 in receiving yards and receptions in 2017. He is a preseason AP second-team All-American and could become the first player from Arizona State to win the Biletnikoff Award, which is given to the nation’s best wideout each season.
Curtis Weaver – DL, Boise State
After redshirting his freshman year in 2016, Curtis Weaver became one of the best defensive players in the Mountain West Conference and could be pushing for All-American honors this season. He led all FBS freshmen with nine sacks last year and was a freshman All-American and was first-team all-conference. He’ll look to fill the leadership void on the Broncos’ defense left by last year’s Mountain West defensive player of the year Leighton Vander Esch, who is now with the Dallas Cowboys.
Anthony Johnson – WR, Buffalo
Anthony Johnson is receiving the hype he deserves after last season, even if he plays in the Mid-American Conference. Johnson, named an AP preseason All-American, recorded 76 receptions for 1,356 yards and 14 touchdowns for the Bulls in 2017. With the departure of Logan Woodside from Toledo, Johnson is a potential MAC player of the year candidate, despite the position he plays. Expect him to be in the running for the Biletnikoff Award and have his name high on NFL draft boards.
Azeez Al-Shaair – LB, Florida Atlantic
Florida Atlantic running back Devin Singletary is one of the top backs in the nation. But if you’re looking for defensive playmakers for the Owls, Azeez Al-Shaair is the guy. Al-Shaair is the preseason Conference-USA defensive player of the year and is coming off a season in which he recorded 146 tackles, including 10 tackles for loss. Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, who draws the Owls in Week 1, compared Al-Shaair to former Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith, who was the eighth pick in this year’s NFL draft.
Joe Dineen, Jr. – LB, Kansas
Players from Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas and TCU are often the ones that jump off the page in the Big 12. But make no mistake about it, Jayhawks linebacker Joe Dineen, Jr. is as solid as they come. Dineen was named a first-team All-American by Sports Illustrated last season, the first such All-American for Kansas since Aqib Talib in 2007, after recording 137 tackles and setting a program single-season record with 25 tackles for loss.
Benny Snell – RB, Kentucky
He’s well-known in the Southeastern Conference, but somehow hasn’t received the national recognition yet. All Benny Snell has done in his first two seasons at Kentucky is rush for 32 touchdowns and more than 2,400 yards. Snell, a true junior earned first-team All-SEC honors last season and should compete with the likes of Stanford’s Bryce Love and Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor for the Doak Walker Award, which is given to the nation’s top running back.
Marcus Green – KR/WR, Louisiana-Monroe
He might only be 5-8, but Marcus Green more than makes up for it with his explosiveness. Green, a preseason All-American by some publications, ranked fourth among all FBS players last year in all-purpose yards. In addition to his five receiving touchdowns, Green also had four touchdowns on kickoff returns in 2017.
Jaylon Ferguson – DE, Louisiana Tech
Without an injury that slowed him down last year, Jaylon Ferguson might be in the pros right now instead of preparing for his redshirt senior season. Regardless, Ferguson is a two-time C-USA first-team honoree and set the school record for sacks (14.5) two years ago. He’s accumulated 25 tackles for loss the past two seasons.
Tony Pollard – KR/RB, Memphis
Sticking with the theme of dynamic returners, Tony Pollard’s name may soon be enshrined in the history books. As a redshirt freshman in 2016, he had two kickoff returns for touchdowns. Last season he had four. One more would tie the FBS record and another would break it. Pollard, a preseason All-American across the board, can be used all over the field and must provide a spark for the Tigers with Anthony Miller now in the NFL if they hope to contend for the American Athletic Conference title with UCF.
Darrell Henderson – RB, Memphis
Pollard isn’t the only reason Memphis has high hopes this season. Darrell Henderson is the type of runner that can play for the best programs in the country. As a sophomore in 2017, he was Memphis’ first 1,000-yard rusher in six years and has reportedly added to his size this year. Along with UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton, Henderson should be a conference player of the year candidate. He was named a Sporting News preseason All-American and is on the Doak Walker Award watch list.
Albert Okwuegbunam – TE, Missouri
If one of the top quarterback prospects is going to live up to the hype, he better have someone to throw to. Albert Okwuegbunam is probably a safe bet for being one of Drew Lock’s favorite targets. Entering his redshirt sophomore season, the first-team All-SEC honoree is looking to build off his FBS-leading 11 touchdowns among tight ends. Another strong year could land Okwuegbunam among the top tight ends in the NFL draft.
Sutton Smith – DE, Northern Illinois
For those who don’t know Sutton Smith yet, you’re missing out on one of the best defensive player in college football. His name has been mentioned with the likes of Clemson’s starting defensive linemen, Houston’s Ed Oliver and Ohio State’s Nick Bosa. Smith was the MAC defensive player of the year and a consensus All-American last year following a school record 14 sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss. The MAC hasn’t had a player this dominant on defense since Khalil Mack.
Chase Young – DE, Ohio State
It’s nearly impossible to fly under the radar at programs like Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State, but somehow Chase Young has done that. Young didn’t see the field much last year behind Bosa and three NFL draft picks, but he still registered 6.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. He’ll be opposite Bosa this year and expect the true sophomore to be in consideration for postseason All-American honors while also showing why some in Columbus believe Young might be the top pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Andrew Wingard – S, Wyoming
Surprisingly enough, Wyoming had other players than Josh Allen last year and safety Andrew Wingard was the best of them. Wingard, an AP preseason All-American, has 367 tackles through three season, which is exactly 100 tackles away from tying the school record. He also had five interceptions and two fumble recoveries last year on his way to first-team All-Mountain West honors.