The 17 most irreplaceable players in college football for the 2017 season
These are the players who college football coaches simply can't live without
There are some players a team just can't afford to lose. Without them, the season just wouldn't go the same way. By whatever measure, it would likely get worse -- maybe unimaginably so.
While every team likes to believe it's bigger than one player, there are still some who have considerable value. That's why we've ranked the 17 most irreplaceable players who will take the field for the 2017 season.
Before going further, there are some guidelines:
Players need to have played at least one season in college. True freshmen and redshirt freshmen are excluded. Next, lists are always incomplete. There are excellent football players who aren't mentioned here. It happens. Apologies in advance for any angst this may cause. But "excellent" doesn't equal "irreplaceable." So what does? "Irreplaceable" is tough to define because it's so subjective. Is it production? Leadership? Skill set? The answer is somewhere in the "all of the above" option. The blueprint was to highlight players who have unique talents and value that can't be duplicated by another individual or committee. Put another way, what these players bring to their respective teams is something only they can bring.
Finally, all choices you disagreed with, especially if vehemently, were courtesy of Tom Fornelli.
Let's get to it.
17. Marcus Baugh, TE, Ohio State: Future breakout stars occasionally cross over into irreplaceable-land. Such is the case with Baugh, a tight end who moves like a wideout. He's shown impressive flashes of athleticism for someone listed at 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds. The fact that he can run and move in a way that many tight ends can't is critical for a Buckeyes' passing attack that, to put it lightly, features an unproven receiving corps. Baugh has been historically underutilized, but he should benefit from playing under new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson -- a real Xs and Os genius -- who also happens to be his position coach.
16. Sam Darnold, QB, USC: Darnold is an exceptional talent and coach Clay Helton's decision not to start him at the beginning of last year is baffling in hindsight. Darnold doesn't just bring mobility, he brings confidence and poise while he's scrambling. You don't get that every day, especially from a younger player who is still in their relative infancy of playing the position. But I also tend to think we remember his final touchdown in the Rose Bowl first and foremost while neglecting the realization that he's nowhere near as good as he can be. Would there be a drop-off without him? Probably, but that's true for many teams with their starting quarterback.
15. Harold Landry, DE, Boston College: He led the nation in sacks last season on a team that finished last in the ACC Atlantic and needed to win its final two regular-season games to make a bowl. That's pretty much all you need to know.
14. Derrius Guice, RB, LSU: Leonard Fournette earned irreplaceable status last year, but as we saw, Guice was more than capable of picking up the slack with Fournette tending to injuries. So ... second time's the charm? LSU was blessed with Fournette and Guice as the top two rushing options. In that sense, maybe Fournette was more replaceable than previously thought. The difference here is there might not be another Guice-caliber option behind Guice. Either way, Guice is a large bulk of LSU's offense with question marks at quarterback.
13. Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming: Allen, once a no one, is ascending to the top of the 2018 draft boards. He's single-handedly putting a spotlight on Wyoming that hasn't been there in a long, long time. Maybe ever. And yeah, he's darn good, too. If anyone stayed up late to watch some after-midnight Mountain West coverage, you probably saw Allen make some highlight-worthy plays. He's big, has a rocket arm and can move. He is the mold of the ideal college quarterback today. Craig Bohl is a phenomenal coach, but Allen has a huge hand in elevating the program. You're going to hear a lot about him over the next year in a Carson Wentz-type comparison.
12. James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State: The Big 12 was loaded at pass-catcher last season and no one was going to outshine Oklahoma's Dede Westbrook. While that meant fewer kudos for Washington, he still returns as the Big 12's top wideout. And goodness, can take the top off a defense. The combination of a strong-armed quarterback (Mason Rudolph) and running game defenses have to respect is important for Washington's role. Still, he's the guy who creates explosive plays, and explosive plays are key to winning. His 19.44 yards-per-reception mark was one of the best in the nation last year among receivers with at least 50 catches.
11. Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU: Pound for pound, Sutton could be the top wideout in next year's NFL Draft. He's all of 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, so he's a mismatch for almost any defender (especially those in the AAC) unlucky enough to be lined up across from him. SMU has plenty of receivers to catch the ball, but none of them command a defense's attention like Sutton, who caught 76 balls for 1,246 yards last season. He is a pure matchup nightmare that you don't see often in college football.
10. Cameron Smith, LB, USC: Darnold, listed above, is going to get all the attention between now and Week 1 of the season as the Heisman Trophy contender. He's earned that type of offseason love. However, Smith is the quarterback of the defense -- and he's a more advanced player than Darnold at this stage in terms of what he's asked to do (and can do). Smith was the team's leading tackler last season after finishing second in the same category as a freshman in 2015. There's plenty of talent on USC's defense, but if Smith goes out of the game, that unit loses its glue.
9. Malik Jefferson, LB, Texas: No, this isn't a ranking in name only. Jefferson remains the lifeblood at Texas despite the overall lackluster performances by the Longhorns. He's supremely gifted physically even though he's still finding his niche and growing into his body. His move to the weak side cater to his strengths at rushing the passer. There's still an element of potential to Jefferson's game, but if he continues to grow, he can be one of the most disruptive linebackers in college football. Plus, there's no ambassador for the program on the recruiting trail quite like Jefferson. He is the face of the Texas football team.
8. Da'Ron Payne, DT, Alabama: Another year, another loaded Alabama defense. Just when you think the Crimson Tide have lost too many key players to the NFL Draft, another handful emerge as top-flight talents for the following season. There are a few key components returning for Alabama's defense, but Payne is an absolute stud in the interior of the D-line (not to mention he's appropriately named). According to AL.com, Payne's recent workouts included a 635-pound squat, 545-pound bench press and a 365-pound power clean. He also ran the 40-yard dash in five seconds at 310 pounds. He's a freak and the anchor for one of the best run defenses in all of college football.
7. Mike McGlinchey, OL, Notre Dame: He can play both tackle positions, he's a fifth-year senior on a team that desperately needs leadership, and he's protecting a new starting quarterback. Oh, and he's a heck of an athlete at 6-foot-8 and 312 pounds. Without McGlinchey, Notre Dame's offense is probably an unmitigated mess in 2017.
6. Ed Oliver, DT, Houston: Here were the numbers for Oliver in 2016: 66 tackles (third on the team) 22.5 tackles for loss (first on the team) and five sacks (third on the team). Additionally, he had nine pass break-ups and seven quarterback hurries. That was as a defensive tackle -- and as a true freshman. The production is off the charts and he absolutely made good on his hype as a blue-chip prospect. Additionally, he also forces opposing offenses to play around him. If you run at him, he'll stop you. If you double-team him, someone else finds a gap in the line (and that's if the double-team even works). He's so fast sideline to sideline that even sweeping something to the edges isn't guaranteed to be successful. He's a rare talent.
5. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma: Mayfield is a quarterback of the backyard football gunslinger mold. He'll make a play that simply wasn't there a moment before. Not many quarterbacks can do that to the level Mayfield does. And, yeah, he'll make a bad throw now and then. He'll force a throw. He'll take a sack when he should have thrown the ball away. But he's a numbers machine in the Sooners' offense, routinely tallying more than 4,000 yards. More importantly -- and this cannot be overstated -- he's the heartbeat of the team. Kyler Murray might be able to put up nice numbers if he's asked to take over, but you don't just replace Mayfield's leadership and bravado.
4. Christian Wilkins, DL, Clemson: Like Payne, Wilkins is a mind-boggling freak of an athlete along the D-line. There are plenty of studs for the Tigers in the trenches, but Wilkins can play inside and out, attacking the backfield from a variety of spots. And at 311 pounds? They just don't make 'em like that very often. Even at a place like Clemson that's developing a reputation as "D-line U," players of Wilkins' caliber are hard to come by.
3. Derwin James, DB, Florida State: James missed almost all of last season with a knee injury, but I don't think this ranking is an overinflation. He is a unique defender because he thrives at all three levels. He's built like a linebacker, has exceptional closing speed in pass coverage, lays the wood in tackling and can effectively rush the backfield. That's not the same thing as being a tweener; James is a pure defensive back who just so happens to do everything, and well. Put it this way: If there was one player I was drafting to build a defense around, it would be Derwin James.
2. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State: It's not just that he's the centerpiece of Penn State's offense as the team's leading rusher. That's important, but it only tells part of the story. Barkley is as complete a runner as you're going to find. He has size, power, vision, footwork, agility, burst, straight-line speed ... all of it. He's like if somebody started up "NCAA Football," went to Create A Player, selected running back and gave him all 99s. Barkley has the build and qualities of a power back, but he can turn defenders around in a phone booth and find creases like a smaller back. He is the truth.
1. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville: There'd have to be a hell of a good reason to leave the reigning Heisman Trophy winner off this list and at least a good explanation if he's somewhere lower than third. Jackson, by himself, was worth a lot of wins. That's irreplaceable, but it goes beyond that. Last season, Jackson played on level so comically above everyone else that the Heisman race was legitimately over by November. It was briefly 2010 Cam Newton-esque. As it so happens, November was Jackson's worst month, but Jackson's good was so good that no one could offer legitimate competition without totally kidding themselves.
Jake Browning, QB, Washington: Littering a list with quarterbacks is an easy habit to fall into, but here's why Browning missed the cut: The best thing he does is throw the deep ball. It worked beautifully last season because John Ross was streaking down the field at 4.22 speed to catch it. Does Washington have another player who can fill Ross' shoes as that type of deep threat? Maybe it's Dante Pettis. Maybe it's someone else. But, if it's no one, I wonder if the best part of Browning's game will be utilized as much.
J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State: Barrett gets a nod because he's been around long enough to earn one ... but he's not irreplaceable. Ohio State won the 2014-15 national championship without him and several games the following year with Cardale Jones as the primary quarterback. Whether that was the correct call to begin with is another story, I just know Ohio State has proven it can win without him.
Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M: He's been A&M's leading receiver in catches over the past two seasons and he's an electrifying return man. College football has produced some exciting utility players over the past few years and Kirk is the next one.
Justin Jackson, RB, Northwestern: Jackson is an underrated star. He, not Saquon Barkley, was the Big Ten's leading rusher last season with 1,524 yards. He was also one of the best running backs in the country last season in getting yards after contact. In fact, about 70 percent of his total yardage came after first contact. That says something about the offensive line he's played behind. It says even more about his ability to make plays when they don't appear to be there.
Jalen Hurts, QB, Alabama: This was the toughest cut. The Crimson Tide finally arrived in the 21st century by starting a true dual-threat quarterback last year -- a true freshman, at that -- and it paid off in a big way. Hurts, with Lane Kiffin's help at offensive coordinator, transformed Alabama's offense into a fast, new machine that had been held in R&D for too long. Hurts regressed at the end of last season, so his development remains an ongoing factor. There's also the hype surrounding Hurts' backup, early-enrollee phenom Tua Tagovailoa. There's no quarterback controversy yet, and there shouldn't be until Hurts gives Alabama a reason to have one, but it's a storyline for the back pocket.
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