Whether they're two-way players or movable chess pieces on one side of the ball, versatile players are littered throughout college football every season, and they make life easier for their coaches while providing sleepless nights for opponents.
College coaches are always looking to get their best athletes on the field and versatile players are the valuable pieces that allow that to happen. This year is no different, as a number of players are primed to add value to their respective teams in multiple roles:
1. Jabrill Peppers, Michigan
Call him safety, slot corner, linebacker or running back, Peppers will make an impact when he’s on the field. He’s headed for more of a linebacker role in 2016, but last year saw him play more of a safety/slot hybrid and he graded positively across the board in coverage, against the run, and as a pass rusher. He attacks the run and screen game with aggression, taking on blockers and blowing up plays, even though he can be out of control at times when he gets there (missed seven of 55 tackle attempts a year ago). Peppers showed the ability to play tight man coverage on inside receivers and tight ends, and while he was less effective when lined up on outside receivers, the move to linebacker should allow him to play to his strengths. Offensively, Peppers saw the field for 55 snaps, lining up as a receiver, running back and wildcat quarterback as he finished with 151 yards from scrimmage. Keeping Peppers closer to the line of scrimmage should allow him to make even more plays this season, and keep an eye on the offensive wrinkles designed to get the ball in his hands.
2. Jaylen Samuels, NC State
Listed as a tight end on NC State’s depth chart, putting a posting to Samuels’ name is a disservice to his true value to the offense. While he played 187 snaps as an in-line tight end, he also spent 164 snaps in the backfield and 189 snaps split out wide or in the slot. No matter where he was, he was a playmaker for the Wolfpack, leading the team with 597 receiving yards and adding 368 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground (he scored seven on receptions). NC State does a fine job of utilizing Samuels’ unique skillset as he’s often put into motion, handed the ball on jet sweeps, or isolated on wheel routes where his aforementioned receiving and running skills make it difficult for opposing defenses to match up. Samuels has played only 681 snaps in his career, but expect that number to double this season as NC State’s top offensive weapon will be relied upon heavily.
3. Adoree Jackson, USC
While Jackson is expected to focus mostly on defense in 2016, it’s hard to ignore the impact he’s had on the offense in his two years at USC. He’s been used mostly in the screen game on his 207 offensive snaps, catching 37 passes and forcing 16 missed tackles to go with five touchdowns. As explosive as Jackson is on offense, he’s a cornerback by trade and re-focusing on defense should help him get back to the strong play he showed as a freshman in 2014 before he took a step back last year. His +9.4 coverage grade is a strong mark, and it appears that he’ll be challenged even more in 2016 as he takes on more of a true number one corner role against opposing number one receivers. On top of that, Jackson posted the number two grade among kick and punt returners in the PAC-12 last season after ranking third in 2014.
Jackson’s outstanding athleticism is the source of his versatility as he’s a two-time PAC-12 long jump champion and he was nearly an Olympian, so it’s no surprise to see him excel in multiple roles. While the plan is to keep Jackson’s focus on the defense, his big-play ability will be tempting for USC on the offensive side of the ball.
4. Derwin James, Florida State
Part safety, part edge rusher is not a common combination at any level of football, but that’s just what James was as a true freshman. Blitzing is one thing, but James lined up and defeated offensive tackles one-on-one as he finished with the second-best pass rushing grade among the nation’s safeties with his five sacks, two QB hits, and 15 hurries on only 61 rushes. Beyond those flashy plays, James was a strong run defender (13th in nation) and he was sound in coverage (19th in nation), whether lined up as a deep safety, box safety, or slot defender. James’ ability to make plays in a variety of roles gives Florida State’s defense a number of options going forward. Last year’s top-graded true freshman has a bright future in whichever role the Seminoles’ coaching staff chooses.
5. Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
When former USC running back Reggie Bush was a first round pick back in 2006, he had such good receiving skills that he would likely have been a top prospect as just a receiver. McCaffrey has similar skills, as he would be a dynamic playmaker if used as strictly a slot receiver. Luckily for Stanford, McCaffrey can also read blocks and make things happen as a running back as his +33.3 rushing grade ranked second in the nation while his +15.5 receiving mark dwarfed the competition among running backs. He’s capable of lining up all over the formation in order to create mismatches, and his crisp route running out of the backfield is nearly impossible for opposing linebackers and safeties. With a new starter at quarterback and three-fifths of Stanford’s offensive line moving on, Stanford may look to get more creative with McCaffrey, perhaps expanding his role as a wildcat quarterback (41 snaps last season) or lining him up as a receiver more often (62 snaps last season). If used exclusively in the slot, McCaffrey has the skills to be one of the most productive receivers in the nation and Stanford has a chance to tap into his ability to create offensive mismatches from multiple roles.