News & Analysis

Greg Ward Jr. leads PFF's preseason All-Group of 5 team

Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. scrambles during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Vanderbilt Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015, in Houston. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

After last week’s PFF All-American team, we have been rolling out our PFF All-Conference teams and with college football finally getting underway tonight, we are concluding our series with the Group of 5. While most of these players are practically unknown by college football fans at this point, they are expected to turn some heads come September.

Quarterback: Greg Ward Jr., Houston

While Ward may not be an elite NFL prospect, he is still considered the best dual-threat quarterback in college football. The Houston signal caller is a true dual-threat QB since he is not only dangerous on the ground, but also through the air, which is supported by the fact that he had the 11th-best adjusted completion percentage in 2015 with 76.6. All eyes will be on Ward to see if he can lead Houston to another New Year’s Six bowl appearance in 2016. In addition, he should be in the race for individual awards as well since he is even considered as a dark-horse Heisman trophy candidate.

Second-team: Nick Mullens, Southern Miss

Running back: Jeremy McNichols, Boise State

Similarly to the entire college football scenery, the Group of 5 is also full of excellent runners. McNichols earns the nod over Butler because of his contributions in the passing game and for being a more complete running back. While the Boise State back did struggle occasionally in pass protection, he earned the highest grade among Group of 5 running backs as a pass catcher in 2015. In addition, his 20 rushing touchdowns ranked first among Group of 5 running backs and his six touchdowns through the air trailed only current-Baltimore Raven Kenneth Dixon’s seven.

Second-team: James Butler, Nevada

Fullback: Shane Smith, San Jose State

Fullbacks are becoming very rare, but if you are searching for the best fullbacks in college football you need to look outside the Power-5 conferences. Smith and Van Maanen combined for only one carry for three yards in 2015; however, they led all returning fullbacks in overall grades with +16.9 and +15.5.

Second-team: Drew Van Maanen, Wyoming

Wide receivers: Corey Davis, Western Michigan and Taywan Taylor, Western Kentucky

It should not come as a surprise that Davis earns a spot on this team after making our PFF All-American team next to USC’s JuJu Smith-Schuster. The Western Michigan wide receiver was tied for the sixth most targets in the nation with 137 and had the 11th-most receiving touchdowns with 12 in 2015. However, these figures could even increase this year as he is expected to play a bigger role in the offense with the departure of slot receiver Daniel Braverman.

While Taylor had the second most touchdown receptions in the nation behind only Baylor’s Corey Coleman with 17, his production is expected to take a hit with quarterback Brandon Doughty’s departure to the NFL. However, Taylor’s sure hands – he dropped only three of his 89 catchable targets – will surely make him one of the most dangerous playmakers in the Group of 5 once again.

Second-team: Thomas Sperbeck, Boise State and Kenny Golladay, Northern Illinois

Slot receiver: Richie James, Middle Tennessee

James played only 45 of his 695 snaps as a wideout, making him a true slot receiver and an excellent one at that. The Middle Tennessee wide receiver finished 2015 with 123 targets from the slot, which ranked sixth among all receivers in college football. In addition, his 3.31 yards per route run from the slot ranked first among all pass catchers ahead of Daniel Braverman and Oklahoma’s Sterling Shepard.

Second-team: Zay Jones, East Carolina

Tight end: Gerald Everett, South Alabama

Everett is not one of the big names at the tight end position, however, he is the only returning tight end in the entire nation who graded above +1.0 in pass catching, pass protection and run blocking as well. Although he rarely lines up in the slot, Everett’s athletic ability is evident and proven by the fact that he forced the most missed tackles among all tight ends in 2015 with 22, which is more than one for every second reception of his.

Second-team: Jacob Hollister, Wyoming

Offensive tackle: Forrest Lamp, Western Kentucky and Evan Plagg, Tulsa

Both tackles on this team are durable left tackles who are among the 22 offensive tackles that played more than 1,000 snaps in 2015 and graded in the top six tackles in the nation last year. Lamp and Plagg are both complete offensive linemen who are just as good in run blocking as in pass protection. While the fact that Plagg gave up seven sacks and 21 total pressures suggests that he struggles in pass protection, knowing he had to pass block on 561 snaps adds perspective to the stat. In addition, the Tulsa player was called for just one holding on his 1,156 snaps.

With all that said about Plagg, Lamp actually graded better than the Tulsa lineman in both pass protection and run blocking. If the Western Kentucky player can duplicate his 2015 season then he should be well-positioned to become a high draft pick next spring.

Second-team: Max Scharping, Northern Illinois and Colby Gossett, Appalachian State

Guard: Chase Roullier, Wyoming and Taylor Moton, Western Michigan

Roullier was already the best guard in college football in 2015 and he will return this year to dominate defensive linemen in the Mountain West Conference once again. The Wyoming lineman is one of the truly complete guards in the nation as he ranked fifth in run blocking grade last year and allowed only six total pressures (one sack, one hit and four hurries) on 371 pass blocking snaps.

Moton makes the team in place of Appalachian State’s Colby Gossett who moves to full-time tackle duties this year. While the Broncos player is not as impressive in pass protection as Roullier and gave up 10 total pressures on 449 pass blocking snaps he more than makes up for it with his run blocking. In fact, last year he had the fifth-highest run blocking grade among all returning guards in the nation.

Second-team: and Colin Sandor, Air Force and Will Hernandez, UTEP

Center: Anthony McMeans, New Mexico State

This was an extremely close competition between McMeans and Kwon as Kwon had a higher overall grade, but McMeans graded out better both in pass protection and run blocking, just had more downgrades for penalties, which impacted his overall grade. McMeans had five false start penalties, which is an awfully large number for a center, however, the fact that he had the highest run blocking grade among all returning centers compensates his penalties. In addition, his pass protection skills are not weaknesses either as he allowed only nine total pressures on 540 pass blocking snaps.

Second-team: Andy Kwon, Georgia Southern

Edge defender: Jamal Marcus, Akron and JT Jones, Miami (OH)

Based on the second half of his 2015 season, Marcus, a former Ohio State Buckeye, can reach the level of the nation’s top edge rushers in 2016. He recorded 27 total pressures in his last five games last season and graded out at +30.6 in these games. Furthermore, he dominated Miami’s (OH) offensive line in their Week 11 contest when he recorded one sack, three quarterback hits and seven quarterback hurries in 41 pass rushing snaps.

Similarly to Marcus, Jones also peaked towards the end of the season as he racked up 22 total pressures in his last three games and graded above +7.0 in two of the three. However, the Miami (OH) player has been more impressive against the run than Marcus. As a matter of fact, Jones in 2015 ranked fifth in run defense grade among all returning edge rushers in college football, ahead of the likes of Louisville’s Devonte Fields and Tennessee’s Derek Barnett.

Second-team: Trey Hendrickson, Florida Atlantic and Terence Waugh, Kent State

Defensive interior: Larry Ogunjobi, Charlotte and Alex Barrett, San Diego State

Ogunjobi was splitting time between 0-tech and 3-tech in 2015 and while his game is not extremely spectacular because of his limited contribution by rushing the passer, he is one of the best interior defenders in the nation against the run. Furthermore, he earned the highest run defense grade in 2015 among interior defenders, which is impressive even if we consider the inferior competition he faces in the Conference USA.

San Diego State’s Barrett on the other hand has played a lot more at 5-tech and even 7-tech, which plays a big part in his success in rushing the passer compared to other interior defenders. Still, Barrett’s pass rushing productivity ranks only 31st among interior defenders as he recorded 28 total pressures on 326 pass rushing snaps. However, what really sets apart Barrett from the others, similarly to Ogunjobi, is his work against the run. The Aztecs defender finished with the second highest run defense grade among returning interior defenders in the Group of 5 and recorded the most defensive stops among these players.

Second-team: Tanzel Smart, Tulane and Folorunso Fatukasi, UConn

Linebacker: Calvin Munson, San Diego State; Steven Taylor, Houston; Quentin Poling, Ohio

Munson was asked to do various things at San Diego State last year and did all well. In fact, the Aztecs linebacker is the only one among returning linebackers in the nation who graded above +5.0 in pass rushing, run defense and coverage as well. Furthermore, Munson led all linebackers with 13 sacks and racked up 39 total pressures on 192 pass rushing snaps.

Similarly to Munson, Houston’s Taylor is also an exceptionally versatile ‘backer who will have to play an even bigger role in the Cougars defense this year with the departure of Elandon Roberts to the NFL. Taylor showed off his versatility by playing significant amount of snaps at basically every linebacker position and also lining up in the slot at various times. He did not only line up at numerous positions on the defense, but was also effective as he recorded 52 total pressures, one batted pass, two interceptions and one pass defense.

Bobcats inside linebacker Poling also flashed versatility in 2015; however, unlike Munson and Taylor, he spent significantly more snaps dropping into coverage than rushing the passer. Furthermore, he was one of the best coverage linebackers in the nation last season. Poling was targeted 44 times, but allowed zero touchdowns while recording four interceptions and two pass defenses. In addition, he allowed opposing quarterbacks an (NFL) passer rating of 41.2, which ranks third among all returning linebackers.

Second-team: Kalen Jackson, South Alabama; Deshawntee Gallon, Georgia Southern; D.J. Dunn Jr., Air Force

Cornerback: DeAndre Scott, Akron and Jamar Summers, UConn

Last year Scott and Summers were among the best cover cornerbacks in entire college football, not only among players from the Group of 5. Scott, playing nearly all of his snaps on the right side of the defense, was consistent all year long and did not have any significantly bad games. It is telling that the Zips defender’s worst coverage grade came in a game when he allowed 4 receptions for 73 yards and no touchdowns while also adding a pass defense.

Summers on the other hand had a slow start to his season as he was not on the field for the Huskies defense’s all snaps and graded out at -1.3 in the first four games. However, he had an exceptionally good second half to his 2015 campaign and allowed a completion percentage of 30.7 percent, 68 yards and no touchdowns in his last five games while he also recorded five interceptions and two pass defenses.

Scott and Summers allowed opposing quarterbacks an (NFL) passer rating of 38.2 and 37.5 respectively, which is lower than if the QB threw every pass attempt into the dust.

Second-team: Shawun Lurry, Northern Illinois and Damontae Kazee, San Diego State

Slot cornerback: Michael Egwuagu, UTSA

While Egwuagu is usually listed as a safety, he only played 25 of his 858 snaps at that position in 2015 and played most of his snaps at slot cornerback, but even lined up at linebacker a significant amount of time. Egwuagu was targeted a total of 24 times in the slot last year and allowed no touchdowns while he also recorded two interceptions. In addition, the UTSA defender was one of the best run defenders among cornerbacks in the 2015 season.

Second-team: Andre Chachere, San Jose State

Safety: DeJuan Rogers, Toledo and Nate Holley, Kent State

Toledo’s Rogers is a true free safety and had the highest coverage grade among returning safeties in 2015 with +15.9. He was targeted 37 times and allowed 223 yards and no touchdowns in coverage while also breaking up seven passes and recording one interception. Furthermore, while Rogers only recorded 10 defensive stops, he flashed ability in run defense too, especially with his sure tackling since he missed only two tackles in the entire season.

While free safety was Holley’s primary position too, he lined up at linebacker and strong safety a lot more frequently than Rogers did. The difference in style of play shows in the grades as well since last year Holley had the highest run defense grade among all returning safeties. Furthermore, he made a defensive stop on 10.8 percent of run plays when he lined up within eight yards of the line of scrimmage, which is third among all returning safeties in this category.

Second-team: Weston Steelhammer, Air Force and Tiquan Lang, Marshall

Kicker: Jake Elliott, Memphis

There is no kicker from the Group of 5 who does a better job on kickoffs than Elliott who kicked a touchback on 74 of his 99 attempts and allowed a return on only 22.2 percent of his kickoffs, the lowest rate among Group of 5 kickers. Also, the Memphis kicker successfully converted 82.1 percent of his field goal attempts, including both from beyond 50 yards.

Second-team: Jonathan Barnes, Louisiana Tech

Punter: Hayden Hunt, Colorado State

This one is not even close as Hunt is the only returning punter in the entire nation who graded positively last season. He averaged 42.2 net yards on his punts and allowed only 15 of his 51 punts to be returned.

Second-team: Michael Carrizosa, San Jose State

Kick returner: Rashaad Penny, San Diego State

Penny averaged 30.8 yards on his returns and returned 3 of the 20 kickoffs he fielded for touchdowns.

Second-team: Braeden West, SMU

Punt returner: Blaise Taylor, Arkansas State

Arkansas State’s Taylor averaged 14.2 yards on his 23 returns and also scored a touchdown.

Second-team: Corey Jones, Toledo

Special teams: D.J. Sanders, Middle Tennessee

Sanders made 16 tackles on special teams last year without missing a single one of his tackle attempts.

Second-team: Jack Linch, Toledo

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