There’s no shortage of returning talent heading into the 2016 college football season.While much of this individual starpower comes from the SEC, ACC and other major conferences, there are plenty of programs with overlooked rosters and hidden gems. Here’s a look at some of the must-see offensive players from non-Power Five conferences.
Greg Ward Jr. – Houston – Quarterback
Despite its classification as a non-Power Five program, Houston will garner plenty of national attention this year.
The reigning AAC champion Cougars put together a 13-1 record last year, including a win over No. 9 Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. With this success came even higher expectations this year, as Houston was awarded the 13th spot in last week’s USA Today preseason coaches poll, making it one of two non-Power Five programs ranked, along with Notre Dame at No. 9.
At the forefront of this added attention will be Ward Jr., who was one of only two quarterbacks last season to throw for more than 2,000 yards and rush for another 1,000 (the other being 2015 Heisman finalist Deshaun Watson from Clemson).
Ward consistently extends plays in the backfield and burn defenses with his feet while also showing an above-average and accurate arm. Aside from Watson, there may be no other quarterback in the nation that matches Ward’s dual threat ability.
It should be a fun matchup when Ward and Houston take on fellow Heisman candidate quarterback Baker Mayfield and No. 3 Oklahoma on opening Saturday night.
2015 stats: 14 games, 2,828 passing yards, 1,108 rushing yards, 38 total touchdowns
Corey Davis – Western Michigan – Wide receiver
Davis has quietly been one of the nation’s most reliable receivers over the past three seasons for Western Michigan out of the MAC.
He burst onto the scene his freshman year in 2013, earning MAC Freshman of the Year and Second Team All-MAC honors, and has been named First Team each of the past two seasons.
Paired with Daniel Braverman, the two made a formidable receiving duo, as each finished in the top 10 for most receiving yards and receiving yards per game in 2015. Both ranked above 2016 NFL Draft first-round selections Corey Coleman, Josh Doctson and Will Fuller.
While Braverman departed for the NFL Draft with one year left in his eligibility, Davis, a senior, returns as the unquestioned go-to guy for the Broncos.
Davis is not particularly fast, but he has a big frame and the capability to break tackles and turn short patterns into huge plays.
2015 stats: 13 games, 90 receptions, 1,436 receiving yards, 12 touchdowns
Brett Rypien – Boise State – Quarterback
Rypien is the youngest player on this list as he is only a sophomore coming off a freshman year where he ceased the starting job midseason and made the most out of the opportunity.
As a true freshman, Rypien sat behind Ryan Finley to start 2015. But after Finley suffered a season-ending ankle injury in week three against Idaho State, Rypien was thrusted into action and started the Broncos’ remaining 10 games.
The result? Rypien earned All-Mountain West First Team honors and led Boise State to a Poinsetta Bowl win as the game’s most outstanding player with a 29-for-39, three-touchdown performance.
It’s interesting to see how Rypien, a traditional pocket passer with good decision making, continues to develop early in his college career.
2015 stats: 11 games, 3,353 passing yards, 20 passing touchdowns
Donnel Pumphrey – SDSU – Running back
Everybody knows LSU’s dynamic Heisman candidate Leonard Fournette. But don’t sleep on some of the other running backs from outside the major conferences.
And if you like pure speed, Pumphrey is the player you want to watch.
It’s not a welcome sight for opposing defenses when Pumphrey, a two-time First Team All-Mountain West selection, gets into the open field. He is a top playmaker with the ability to explode through the smallest of holes and change direction in a glance.
And it’s not just starting in the backfield where he is dangerous. The rising senior also led the Aztecs in receiving last season and is a good route runner on downfield plays.
In Pumphrey’s sights this upcoming season is the chance at a second straight MWC championship and the opportunity to surpass NFL great Marshall Faulk on the Aztecs’ all-time rushing yards list.
2015 stats: 14 games, 1,738 rushing yards, 28 receptions, 416 receiving yards, 20 total touchdowns
Kareem Hunt – Toledo – Running back
Hunt is another running back to keep an eye out for in his senior season.
Hampered by a hamstring injury and early season suspension, Hunt still managed to put up big numbers and average more than 100 yards per game on the ground. Stretching back to 2014, Hunt has reached the 100-yard mark in 15 of his last 16 games played.
Unlike the undersized Pumphries, Hunt has a bigger build and can punish defenders straight on in addition to showing great speed. With coach Dino Babers leaving defending MAC champion Bowling Green for Syracuse this offseason, Hunt and the Rockets may be the team to watch in the conference this year.
2015 stats: nine games, 973 rushing yards, 12 rushing touchdowns