College football is back! The 2017 season kicked off last Saturday with Colorado State’s rout of Oregon State, and it continued on Thursday with Ohio State’s beatdown of Indiana. In advance of this weekend’s full slate of Week 1 games (including the most-anticipated opening week matchup ever), we’re celebrating the sport’s return by presenting our favorite players and coaches. These are our preseason Ringer Lettermen.
Head Coach: P.J. Fleck, Minnesota
Megan Schuster: This summer, P.J. Fleck lost a bet. The details of that bet aren’t public—besides that he lost it to his wife—but the result became widely known when Minnesota’s new head football coach rolled into Big Ten media days without hair on his head.
Decked out in Minnesota colors, P.J. Fleck says the shaved head is result of losing a bet with his wife pic.twitter.com/d6IklREBSD— Matt Charboneau (@mattcharboneau) July 25, 2017
In interviews, he didn’t seem too broken up about being hairless; he was probably more upset that he lost something in the first place. But Fleck used that L to practice recruiting: He talked his two sons into shaving their heads along with him. He is nothing if not a successful marketer—for his teams and for himself (see: his brand-creation experience, the TV show with his name in the title, and the gym photos published in an old issue of Sports Illustrated)—but he’s also the guy who coached a MAC football team to 13 wins (the most in Western Michigan history), the 15th spot in the final AP Poll, and a Cotton Bowl bid.
Fleck is entering his first season at Minnesota, and his first as head coach of a Power Five conference team. The Golden Gophers have not been a sexy pick in the Big Ten for a long time (not since the Laurence Maroney–Marion Barber III days). Pre-Fleck, their most inspiring presence on the sideline since the Lou Holtz era was Dilly Bar Dan. Though some find Fleck’s enthusiasm manufactured and his millennial-speak grating, he knows how to make his program and his players go viral. Minnesota football has lacked that kind of buy-in for a long time, and Fleck is bringing it back in an ELITE way.
Quarterback: Lamar Jackson, Louisville
It seems that just as quickly as then-sophomore Lamar Jackson gained hype last season (by being, well, quick), the dual-threat quarterback has now lost allure. His 2016 campaign ended with two straight regular-season losses, Louisville’s first-ever Heisman Trophy, and a defeat to LSU in the Citrus Bowl—in that order. The losses were uniquely disappointing; against Houston, Jackson’s offensive line exposed him to such a degree that even the Sidestepper of the Realm couldn’t manage any production. Against Kentucky, he surrendered a fumble in the final two minutes, sealing the Wildcats’ first football win over Louisville since 2010. By the time the Cards arrived in Orlando for their bowl, Jackson’s shortcomings seemed to completely overshadow his shine.
SO ARE WE JUST GOING TO FORGET ABOUT THIS?
Jackson was snubbed from Sports Illustrated’s first- and second-team preseason All-America lists, left off AP’s first-team preseason squad (he was named AP’s National Player of the Year last season), and rests outside the top three Vegas favorites to win Heisman. We’re talking about the same player who just last year threw for 3,543 yards with 30 touchdowns and rushed for 1,571 yards with 21 touchdowns, right? The guy who scored eight touchdowns in the first half of Louisville’s 2016 opener? The one who head coach Bobby Petrino says has improved in every area?
This season, Jackson will play under center behind a revamped offensive line (with a new line coach, Mike Summers). While his protection could remain problematic, he’s also still Lamar Jackson. You know, this guy:
Running Back: Saquon Barkley, Penn State
Rodger Sherman: Last season, college football defenders across the country made the curious decision to tackle the air near Saquon Barkley. Sometimes, it was the air under Barkley. Sometimes, it was the air to the side of Barkley. Sometimes, it was the air behind Barkley.
Barkley is fast—duh—and has power: His weightlifting videos have achieved viral fame, and an ESPN feature segment swooned over his calves. The junior has the rare ability to suddenly jolt his speeding body in the opposite direction of where defenders think he is going. His signature highlight came in January’s Rose Bowl matchup against USC: He headed right and jumped out of the way of a defender behind the line of scrimmage, sped past another to gain positive yardage, sliced upfield to avoid another, juked left to avoid a convoy of defenders, and scored a touchdown 79 yards from the line of scrimmage and on the complete other side of the field from where his run started.
Barkley should be the best running back in college football this season; the air next to him will probably get tackled more often than he will.
Wide Receiver: Calvin Ridley, Alabama
Zach Kram: There’s an argument to be made that Ridley isn’t the best receiver in the country, particularly after his sophomore-season swoon. I think that argument is wrong, but it’s out there, as the AP placed Alabama’s top receiver on its preseason All-American second team. Over his final 10 games last fall, Ridley averaged just 4.1 receptions and 37.1 yards per contest, with only four touchdowns and a halfback-esque 9.0 yards per catch. Over the whole season, he lost 17 catches and 276 yards from his freshman year total and wasn’t as involved in the offense, with freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts playing a mostly conservative style.
But even those who believe Oklahoma State’s James Washington or Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk deserve the “best” receiver designation can't deny that Ridley is the smoothest pass catcher in college football. He lopes past corners for deep balls and jukes past safeties on quick crossing routes, and he gains so much separation from defenders that he usually doesn’t need to unleash a highlight-reel-worthy move. Even the clips he does produce fall more into the smooth camp than the jaw-dropping one.
This is one hell of an adjustment by Calvin Ridley. Body control on point. pic.twitter.com/PHyBr0uxMT— Ty Wurth (@WurthDraft) July 22, 2017
His statistical output should bounce back this year, too. ArDarius Stewart and O.J. Howard are both now in the NFL, leaving plenty of opportunities for Alabama’s returning receivers. Hurts has a full offseason of experience throwing to his top target. And Ridley may be just following the pattern of his predecessors in crimson: As sophomores, Amari Cooper lost 14 catches and 264 yards and Julio Jones lost 15 catches and 328 yards from their respective freshman seasons. Then, in their junior campaigns, they put forth the two most productive seasons for Bama receivers this century before each becoming a top-six pick in the NFL draft.
Tight End: Jaylen Samuels, NC State
Ryan O’Hanlon: Want to see the future of football? Forget Sam Darnold; he’s a basketball player anyway. And don’t waste your time with Jabrill Peppers or Christian McCaffrey; looking for original innovation in the NFL is like trying to read the zodiac calendar by mowing your lawn. No, if you really want to see where the sport is headed, first you need to access the 2015 football roster page on North Carolina State Wolfpack’s athletics website. Then click on the name “Jaylen Samuels.” You won’t see it at first because there’s nothing to see.
The answer is in the blank space next to the word “position”—stare at it long enough without blinking and you’ll now know: The future of football is one without positions. We often talk about how traditional designations are losing importance by the year, but Samuels is the first one to actually accept it. He’s in the top 16 in NC State history in both rushing and receiving touchdowns. Last year, he was the Wolfpack’s leading receiver and third-leading rusher. He compiled a streak of 28 consecutive games with a catch; he averaged more yards per rush than anyone on the team; and he even threw a touchdown pass. To watch Samuels is to understand how misguided, ineffective, and unexciting the traditional geometry and velocity of football really is.
In order to fit him on the ACC’s preseason first-team, the conference added an “all-purpose” position to the made-up roster. That’s a step in the right direction, but they should’ve just left it empty.
Offensive Lineman: Orlando Brown, Oklahoma
Danny Heifetz: Zeus fathered many sons: Ares, the god of war; Apollo, the god of the sun; and Orlando Brown Jr., the god of pass protection. Brown Jr. is a tractor trailer that the NCAA ruled eligible to play football, a 6-foot-8, 345-pound redshirt junior who is quick enough to be deployed as a pulling blocker, which is unfathomable for someone as big as he is. Then again, Brown comes from a proud lineage. His father is Orlando Brown Sr., the towering offensive tackle and nine-year NFL veteran who was known as Zeus during his time with the Browns and Ravens. Brown Sr. died at just 40 years old in 2011, and his death had a profound impact on his son.
“The thing he always preached was, ‘Be better than me,’” Brown Jr. told Sports Illustrated last year. “Be better than I was. In all aspects of life.”
The younger Brown eats meticulously and takes care of his body, motivated by the diabetic complications that contributed to his father’s death. He also is his dad’s brand of physical, a mauling presence who doesn’t want to block opposing defenders so much as perform a Mortal Kombat–like finishing move on every snap. You can see his mean streak when he sends cornerbacks flying into orbit on those pull blocks.
In 2015, Brown was the 10th freshman in Oklahoma program history to start at tackle. Last season, he was named second-team All-American and Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year. He enters this fall as a preseason All-American, an Outland Trophy contender, and a candidate to be the top lineman selected in the 2018 NFL draft. Most importantly, he’s on track to graduate—the thing his father wanted most of all.
Defensive Lineman: Ed Oliver, Houston
Michael Baumann: Despite fielding offers from virtually every top program in the South, five-star defensive tackle Ed Oliver chose to stay home and go to the University of Houston, where he ultimately changed his position from defensive tackle to whatever spot lines up in Lamar Jackson’s lap. Oliver was the headliner in the demolition of then-no. 5 Louisville last November, accounting for two of Houston’s 11 sacks as the Cougars ran up a 31-0 halftime lead on the Heisman winner and his stunned teammates. Last season, 22.5 of Oliver’s 66 tackles went for a loss, tied for third-most in the nation. He led all defensive linemen in pass breakups with nine, and forced three fumbles. And the 6-foot-3, 290-pounder did it all as a true freshman, playing most of the season at age 18.
Those are just the stats. Oliver is a cross between La’roi Glover and an extremely happy bear who can read minds. He just leans through opposing offensive linemen, and when he’s one-on-one with whichever poor soul has the ball at a given moment, he can act like a cat that has spotted a lizard it knows it can kill whenever; why not have a little fun first? I love this fortress of a man so much and I want him to shake me to death because he doesn’t know his own strength.
Linebacker: Arden Key, LSU
Ben Glicksman: Last August, Arden Key told reporters that he wanted to have a “pretty good” year. Here is how the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Atlanta native defined that: “20 sacks, at least two pick-sixes, like five batted balls.”
Not to be hyperbolically outdone, here is how Chuck Smith, a nine-year NFL veteran with 58.5 career sacks, described Key in a June interview with Gridiron Now: “Myles Garrett is not on this guy’s level when it comes to pass rush. This guy is the best pass rusher in the SEC over the last 15 years. … He’s got bend like Von Miller and a spin like Dwight Freeney. ... He can head fake you like Osi Umenyiora. That’s what makes him special.”
Here are my feelings on Key, who had to settle for just 12 sacks last season, merely setting a new LSU record: I AM BUYING ALL OF THE HYPE.
Key can come bolting off the edge and blow up a play in an instant. He’s a master of the stunt rush and terrorizes quarterbacks once he gets to them. He’s been known to make tackles look silly—just ask Ole Miss’s Greg Little.
Although the junior will miss Saturday’s season opener against BYU as he continues his recovery from shoulder surgery, he’s likely to put up huge numbers in coordinator Dave Aranda’s defense and solidify his status a first-round NFL draft lock. Or as he’d put it: have a pretty good year.
Cornerback: Iman Marshall, USC
Paolo Uggetti: We have enough Game of Thrones–sports crossover analogies as is, but it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that Iman Marshall is the cornerback version of Arya Stark. This offseason, the junior made a list of the wide receivers he expects to face throughout the fall, studied their strengths and weaknesses, and watched them on film.
The Trojans will enter this season without Adoree’ Jackson, the do-it-all playmaker who’s now in the NFL. While the team will miss Jackson’s electric combination of secondary skills, speed and athleticism in the return game, and occasional offensive prowess, Marshall should satisfy USC fans’ palate for consistently excellent defensive back play.
The former five-star recruit is listed at 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds—on the bigger side for a corner with his type of speed and technique. Pro Football Focus grades him as the third-best returning player at his position in the Pac-12, and he ranked first in allowed passer rating when he was targeted last season. Marshall is impeccable at timing his hand placement near a receiver’s sightline when the ball is headed his way. That ability will be more crucial than ever this year on a team with championship hopes.
Safety: Derwin James, Florida State
Shaker Samman: I can count the number of times I’ve heard the word “Heisman” floated in reference to a defensive player on one hand. Last season, it was used in connection with Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers, who rode the hype to a fifth-place finish. Before him, it was Nebraska’s Ndamukong Suh, who could have (and probably should have) won the award in 2009. I’m not here to tell you that Derwin James—Florida State’s superstar safety—is going to become the first primarily defensive player to win the trophy since Charles Woodson in 1997. I’ll just say that there’s a chance.
Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook puts James at 50-1 odds of taking home college football’s most prestigious individual honor, the best chances of any defensive player and ahead of stars at conventional positions like Texas quarterback Shane Buechele and Ohio State running back Mike Weber. That’s because there might not be a better defensive back in the country. Following his freshman season in 2015, Pro Football Focus called James the best defensive player in the nation. And after he went down with a season-ending knee injury last September, the Seminoles dropped two of their next three games, allowing a combined 135 points.
Florida State opens its season this Saturday against no. 1 Alabama. If the Seminoles beat Saban’s machine, James will be a major reason why. He’s fast, he’s strong, and he just might be the hardest-hitting safety in the country. Give him a Ringer Lettermen nod. And maybe a trophy, too.
Kicker/Punter: Eddy Piñeiro, Florida
Danny Chau: Eddy Piñeiro’s first in-game field goal ever was kicked over a year ago: a booming 52-yarder from the left hash mark that casually tied a Florida spring game record for distance set 10 years prior. Later, he would shatter the record he had just tied with a 56-yard stunner. There, by the end of the exhibition in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, wearing the same no. 15 that was once donned by the greatest Gator of all time, the reformed soccer player who had a half-season of high school placekicking experience to his name basked in the wonder of an entire stadium chanting “Eddy! Eddy!”
Piñeiro’s legend may have materialized in Gainesville, but it was born online. Footage of his gigaton leg made the rounds two years ago, and it’s hard to imagine him catching the eye of Saban without those brief but undeniable snippets of pure driving power. Before he even committed to Florida in 2015, there was evidence of a 77-yard screamer. And earlier this year, Piñeiro set a new standard: 81 yards—squarely in Justin Tucker range.
At the college level, kicking specialists are more likely to be a hinderance than even a neutral force. But then there are talents like Piñeiro, whose ungodly range weaponizes what otherwise would be a hopeless situation. In his first regular-season game alone, Piñeiro kicked for more field goals in the 40- to 49-yard range than 127 kickers in the country did in all of last season. He’s accurate from deep, too. Among returning kickers, Piñeiro was the most consistent from long range in 2016, nailing 11 of his 13 attempts from at least 40 yards (including a perfect 3-for-3 from 50-plus yards out).
Now, he’s about to enter his second full season as an actual football player. The good ol’ pigskin is absolutely getting booted into the sun before Piñeiro’s college career is over.