College football is finally back! Though the season kicked off Thursday night (and last Friday, if you count Cal-Hawaii), it begins in earnest Saturday with a slate of high-profile games. To mark the occasion, we’re counting down our favorite players, coaches, and personalities (literally) in the sport. These are our preseason Ringer Lettermen.
Megan Schuster: “Everything I say has a purpose. Everything I do has a purpose. I very seldom do a thing that isn’t calculated.”
One of the rarest qualities among college football coaches is candor. Something even rarer is a college football coach who is candid about his lack of candor. The quote above comes from Episode 1 of Being Bret Bielema, a behind-the-scenes reality TV show about, you guessed it: Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema. In it, he’s portrayed as doting with his family, hard-nosed with his players, and dopey in front of the media. But the quality that’s emphasized over all the others is Bielema’s relentlessness. Each move he makes — be it a strategic recruiting call before a high-profile game or a press conference blunder — is calculated to keep his program in front of TV cameras and potential recruits across the country. The coach who once described a win over Texas as “borderline erotic” will be the first to tell you: “That wasn’t really a slip.”
Bielema is known for revitalizing mid-level Power 5 programs. Wisconsin was a good job when he took over for Barry Alvarez in 2006, but after his teams won three straight conference titles, it became one of the most respected programs in the Big Ten. It was shocking when he left Wisconsin for Arkansas — what many saw as a lateral career move — but his work with the Badgers was done. His current project presents an even greater challenge: bringing the Razorbacks to a position of strength in an SEC West division that houses Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss, and Auburn (to name a few). His teams have progressed with each season, and they still have a long way to go, but we can count on Bielema to keep his face in the press and his cell phone provider in business while the Razorbacks aim for that elusive SEC title.
Riley McAtee: For one month in 2014, Kenny “Kenny Trill” Hill was the greatest thing in college football. He threw for 511 yards against ninth-ranked South Carolina in his first start. He connected on 17 touchdowns in five games. He risked pitching the football while being sacked to gain 1 yard. He was a madman. He was the perfect on-field replacement for Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M.
Unfortunately, he also seemingly took after Manziel off the field. Manziel was the living embodiment of “DGAF” at Texas A&M, getting himself arrested after a fight in 2012 and suspended by the school over the subsequent summer. Hill also was arrested — for public intoxication — and was suspended twice by the school before transferring. Now, after a year in college football transfer purgatory he’s finally able to become the starter at TCU.
At TCU, Hill has been “humble” and keeping “his head down” and saying things like “I don’t really need a nickname.” Which, good for him — maybe now he can be the long-term source of controlled, brilliant chaos we saw over those first five games in 2014. Maybe Kenny “It’s Just Kenny Hill Now” Hill can even lead the Horned Frogs to the playoff. I just hope he retains some of that recklessness on the field, because I need more Trill in my life.
Jack McCluskey: Consider the plight of Lanard Fournette.
We’re here to talk about Leonard Fournette, the record-obliterating, “freight train” LSU back who’s the odds-on Heisman favorite, but for a second let’s stop to think about his younger brother. Lanard is also a running back. He also plays for the Tigers.
But when Leonard Freaking Fournette is your older brother — a human wrecking ball capable of both running through and away from defenders (at least once bulling into a defender so hard as to throw him into another defender like a domino) — what can you do other than aim for second best? How can you make your parents proud?
Then again, the Fournettes were probably already filled with pride watching big brother’s exploits. Now that both Fournette freres are fitting to tote the rock for the Tigers, their parents must be near bursting. And if Leonard has another superb, record-setting season on his way to the NFL, it may just be Lanard who puts mom and pop over the top.
Michael Baumann: The only thing more fun to watch than a player talking trash and backing it up is a player talking trash and getting absolutely demolished, which is what happened to Utah cornerback Dominique Hatfield last fall. Hatfield decided to get his Reggie Miller on against USC, and Trojan receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster responded not with words, but by stiff-arming Hatfield into lands heretofore unexplored by man. This casual exertion of life-destroying physicality reminded me of Liam Hemsworth’s story about getting kicked in the chest by Jean-Claude Van Damme while filming The Expendables 2. Where Reggie Bush’s juke was like Bach, Smith-Schuster’s stiff-arm was like the Game. It was a Road House–ass stiff-arm.
That power is what makes Smith-Schuster so exciting. While I enjoy the DeSean Jackson type of receivers who dodge tacklers, my favorites just appear in space as the ball appears in his hands, as if he’s drawn to the void and the ball to him by gravity. Smith-Schuster is fast, but he’s not a hummingbird — he’s an airliner.
Even when he’s not open, the way he uses his body to shield the ball from defenders, the stickiness with which he catches passes, and the felicity with which he finds the right angle to make his escape remind me of how The Ringer’s Ryan O’Hanlon described Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba. It’s not that he can’t pull out the razzle-dazzle, it’s that he doesn’t have to. He’s too good for bullshit. Just ask Dominique Hatfield.
Haley O’Shaughnessy: As if Jake Butt’s legacy wasn’t already beautifully cemented in college football history as the greatest surname to ever don the back of a jersey, the guy has stacks of awards to prove he’s more than just a meme. The senior tight end received 2015 All-Big Ten first-team honors and was voted into multiple all-american first teams. Last season, Butt had 51 receptions for 654 yards and three touchdowns for Jim Harbaugh’s offense, including a monstrous 102 yards on just four receptions in a victory against Rutgers. Butt’s on-field production is as valuable to the Wolverines as his name is to Football Twitter’s entertainment.
Sam Fortier: A four-star center recruit goes to college, redshirts, doesn’t play much freshman year and the next season, unable to separate himself from a lineman rotation, breaks his foot. In February 2015, facing rehab and the overdrawn bank account of expectation, he loses his love for football. Depressed, he takes a leave of absence from the team.
Six months later, that same player beats out his old platoon mate for the starting center job and uses his Dabo Swinney impressions to became the Gorilla Glue of glue guys, helping Clemson become the first ACC school ever to rack up 4,000 passing yards and 3,000 rushing yards in the same year. All en route to the national championship game.
The time in between, Guillermo spent with an ax, whittling away trees, self-doubt, and the 50 pounds he gained from drinking. Now a guy teammates describe as being “like Larry the Cable Guy” is the anchor of an offensive line for the nation’s no. 2 preseason team and on the short list for best center in the country. He’s made one big deposit into that account of expectation, and now he has a chance to make another.
Ben Glicksman: Garrett finished the 2015 campaign with 19.5 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks, totals that ranked tied for eighth and tied for fifth in the nation, respectively. But that isn’t why he’s on this team. He’s here because he looks like a cross between young Julius Peppers and Iron Man, and can do borderline impossible things like this:
That highlight comes from the fine folks at Good Bull Hunting, who were able to put together a list of Garrett’s top 10 plays from last season after only five games. In the clip above, Mississippi State attempts to run a speed option in which then-quarterback Dak Prescott sprints toward Garrett, conceivably eliminating him from the play, before pitching the ball to running back Aeris Williams, who then has space to roam free. Only that’s not what happens. Garrett — who allegedly runs a 4.45 40 — stops for a beat, takes off to his right, and pries the ball out Williams’s hand. That’s more than amazing; it’s damn near preposterous.
Garrett is 6-foot-5, 262 pounds and the closest thing our planet has to a real-life centaur. Oh, and he loves dinosaurs. Shouts to dinosaurs.
Carl Brooks Jr.: Raekwon McMillan started last season as an 18-year-old sophomore and ended as Ohio State’s leading tackler and a second-team Walter Camp All American. It’s hard to believe that he’s still a few months short of his 20th birthday and is a co-captain of the Buckeyes and a favorite to win the Butkus Award. This year the instinctive run stopper can gain some buzz leading up to the 2017 NFL draft, where he projects as an inside linebacker.
Ryan O’Hanlon: Jabrill Peppers supposedly intends to play 10 different positions over the course of this season, and we’re already giving him the Heisman. That’s cool. But Kordell Stewart punted the ball six times in 11 years, and Tim Tebow once nearly caught a pass with the air holes on the top of his helmet — and I’m pretty sure neither guy is getting his face measured by Blair Buswell any time soon. Wake me up when someone scores receiving, punt-return, kick-return, and interception-return touchdowns, wins back-to-back Pac-12 long-jump titles, almost qualifies for the Olympics, and does it all despite a near-crippling obsession with McDonald’s.
Just kidding. I’m already awake because I’ve been watching Adoree’ Jackson highlights for the past 72 hours. This dude could run through a cornfield without getting touched.
The best thing about college football is how volatile every play feels. In the NFL, even when someone busts a big run, it always looks like something we’ve seen before; every play happens within a morass of similarly talented players running similarly shaped schemes. The outlines almost never change. In college, the players aren’t as good and the formations aren’t as tight, so nothing — outside of the Alabama run game — feels predestined. Whenever the 20-year-old Jackson’s on the field, the uncertainty meter starts to spin: In two years at USC, he’s caught 37 passes for 552 yards and five touchdowns, averaged more than 5 yards per carry, posted more than 1,500 return yards and five return touchdowns, and made more than 80 tackles.
He also might be the best cornerback in the country, but that’s just a side note.
Zach Kram: If there’s a theme for this team — besides players with fun nicknames — it’s that it’s stocked with players who can contribute on both sides of the ball. But with Myles Jack tending his knees in the pros and Shaq Thompson making Super Bowls in Carolina, we need a new two-way hero. We need Budda Baker.
Baker is the standout player on an excellent defensive unit, and he’s receiving preseason All-American accolades, accordingly. He also excels in big games — nearly half of his tackles last year were concentrated in a three-game stretch against USC, Oregon, and Stanford.
But that’s not why he’s a Ringer Letterman. When extolling Baker’s virtues for a similar project last year, Mallory Rubin noted that Baker might be “primed to see time at running back, slot receiver, and punt returner.” That didn’t actually happen — he didn’t play an offensive snap and returned just one kickoff last season — but the rumors are abounding once again.
“Budda was quite a playmaker with the ball in his hands in high school,” Huskies coach Chris Petersen said earlier this week. “We’ll see if he can translate that.”
Baker was All-State at multiple positions in high school and won a combined 13 state titles between football and track. Those abilities can probably translate to the college game. So give Budda the ball, I say. Bring “Baker the Touchdown Maker” rhymes to the Pacific Northwest.
Tate Frazier: It is alarming to see “Jabrill Peppers” not assigned to every single position listed in this piece. Yes — that includes kicker. Peppers is above specificity, and in a word: special. So much so, he has two of the best backing him in Derek Jeter and Michael Jordan (or the brand, at least). And he is constantly fighting comparisons to his childhood icon, Charles Woodson, the last defensive player to claim the elusive Heisman Trophy in 1997.
Versatility is an understatement when evaluating Peppers’s positional aptitude. In 2015, he played snaps at cornerback, safety, nickelback, punt returner, kick returner, slot receiver, wide receiver, running back, and wildcat quarterback. Peppers even shouted to Harbaugh in the offseason: “Your SAM linebacker’s the fastest guy on the team” after he won a sprint. Michigan linebackers coach Chris Partridge claims that Peppers can get to the quarterback in less than a second even if he’s lined up at linebacker. Even his peers acknowledge he’s just a different type of player; just straight-up cold on the field. He is a “world-class athlete” according to his All-American teammate Jourdan Lewis, and he has the best hands any human being has ever seen on Instagram. Plus, we need a new Peppers in the fold. Sorry, Julius …
Danny Chau: JK Scott looks like the kid in Boyhood if that kid grew up obsessed with Remember the Titans, but wasn’t good at anything on the football field except for the literal footing of balls. So, it’s a good thing he is exceptional at that. As a willowy freshman in 2014, Scott averaged exactly 48 yards per punt, tops in the nation and a figure that would have led the NFL in each of the past two seasons. He was so good, someone made a two-and-a-half minute highlight reel on YouTube dedicated to his abilities. He has the same amount of YouTube montages as Pat McAfee, who has been punting for the Colts since Scott was a teenager. JK Scott is amazing in an incredibly specific way.
But he is also the folly of exponential growth, or at least the human expectation of it. (He might also be proof of it — Scott was 6-foot-4 when he landed in Tuscaloosa; now, as a junior, he’s 6-foot-6, and might not be done growing.) The sophomore slump hit him hard; a horrid start to the 2015 season had him averaging only 39.4 yards per punt through the first five games, a rate that would have made him the 94th-best punter in the nation by average yardage at the end of the season. He rebounded well, yielding 46.7 yards per punt in the nine subsequent games in which he actually kicked. So he’s fine. Or maybe he’s not. Scott himself has acknowledged in interviews that growing a few inches can screw with your body’s sense of itself; for a unitasker playing on college sports’ foremost monolith, the calibration between the mind and the leg is the most important in the world.
He claims to feel great heading into the season, and it’s not like we’d be able to tell the difference. Even in his untouchable freshman season, his elongated appendages give the illusion of a lack of control and precision, like he might’ve missed the target. But then the ball would wobble in the air for a preposterous amount of time and bounce around the 20-yard line, and it would be perfect. Can we expect Scott to return to his near-robotic averages? Can we expect them to get even better? These are questions we’re wondering about a fucking punter. That’s why he’s on the All-Ringer team.
Mallory Rubin: Are you currently weighing whether to spend Labor Day weekend watching college football or relaxing in a body of water? Do you wish you could find a way to do both? May I recommend that you take a chlorine tablet out of UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen’s holster and install a hot tub in your dorm room so that you can mix football with your aquatic exploits?
Still just a sophomore, Chosen Rosen is already one of the best quarterbacks in the country. He was a top recruit, he projects as a top draft pick once eligible, and he has a chance to lead UCLA to a Pac-12 South title this season. But he’s not just an arm. He’s a mouth that spouts glorious quotes; fingers that post stupendous Instagrams and tweets; and a shayna punim that Jewish grandmas everywhere want to pinch.
Rosen has thoughts and feelings, and he’d like us all to know that. It’s not just that he golfs; it’s that he wears a “Fuck Trump” hat while on the greens. It’s not just that he’s unafraid of intimidating road environments; it’s that he actively trolls hostile fan bases. It’s not just that he’s willing to express his opinions about amateurism; it’s that he drops in the #NCAA hashtag when he does so.
It’s rare and refreshing to get such an unfiltered glimpse into a college athlete’s headspace, and all we can hope is that Rosen is less swayed by coach Jim Mora’s absurd “You’re heading toward Johnny Manziel” bullying than by the matzo-ball fueled rush that comes from giving an interview about “how Jewish Hollywood is.”