College Football Players Who Will Benefit the Most from New Head Coaches
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College football had its share of coaching changes following a 2017 season that saw a lot of former blue bloods fall on some forgettable times.
There were also some Power Five coaches who accepted jobs at other programs in the Power Five, something that hasn’t happened all that often in the past few years.
Any time there are new faces, philosophies and life blood pumped into a program, recruiting changes occur, and that manifested itself in a big way, with several programs with new coaches making moves in those rankings.
With national signing day behind us, it’s time for those coaches to turn their focus toward their current teams, and it’s always fun to witness players who blossom under different regimes and schemes.
Offensive-minded coaches may unlock potential from dormant athletes who were buried on the depth chart. Defensive scheme changes or a simplification of some basic concepts could allow defenders to play looser too. Often, the infusion of new ideas is what makes all the difference.
This year won’t be any different. For some players who were on the cusp of stardom, new coaches may allow them to take a major step forward. For others who weren’t ideal fits for old staffs, it’s clean-slate time.
Let’s take a look at a handful of players who’ll benefit from a change at the top in 2018.
Cam Akers, RB, Florida State
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2017 statistics: 194 rushes, 1,024 yards, 5.3 average; 16 catches, 116 yards; 8 total touchdowns
There may not be a player on the list who should benefit more from a coaching change than Florida State rising sophomore running back Cam Akers. Yes, he was going to be a superstar no matter who was coaching the Seminoles, but new head coach Willie Taggart—who’s taking over for new Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher—is a known developer of runners.
Just last year, Oregon running back Royce Freeman decided to return to Eugene for the opportunity to learn under Taggart, and he enjoyed another phenomenal season.
As SI.com’s Andy Staples wrote: “If [former South Florida running back Marlon] Mack and Freeman can flourish in this offense, Akers—a former 5-star recruit with a better natural skill set than both—should blossom.”
In this system, Akers will be showcased, and with quarterback Deondre Francois returning from his injury, he should thrive in a balanced attack.
Virtually everybody in the nation wanted Akers in last year’s recruiting cycle, and FSU won the sweepstakes to get the former Mississippi all-state athlete who played quarterback at Clinton High School. He also showed flashes of being a gifted receiver as a freshman, and that’s a developing part of his game.
Taggart has featured quality runners since his days as Jim Harbaugh’s running backs coach at Stanford, and getting the most out of players at that offensive skill position is his forte. Look for Akers to take a massive step forward in 2018 and become one of the nation’s best all-around playmakers.
Soso Jamabo, RB, UCLA
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2017 statistics: 90 rushes, 446 yards, 5.0 average; 17 catches, 204 yards; 6 total touchdowns
The 6’2″, 210-pound running back is a 5-star running back in the class of 2015 from Plano, Texas, who has not reached his potential so far in Westwood.
Each season, he’s progressed—his yards from scrimmage have grown from 462 to 518 to 650 a season ago—but that pales in comparison to what the Bruins need out of a player with the skill set to make game-breaking plays and catch the ball out of the backfield too. He’s someone who would thrive with a move to receiver.
But look for new head coach Chip Kelly to utilize Jamabo in a variety of ways. Even with leading rusher Bolu Olorunfunmi returning, Jamabo looks like a great fit for this wide-open scheme. And Kelly has a rich history of getting the most out of his talented offensive players.
Yes, injuries have played a major role in Jamabo’s pedestrian stats, but former coach Jim Mora failed to get him in space where he can make big plays. Anybody who remembers Kelly’s days at Oregon knows that likely won’t happen again.
Jamabo’s size and ability to make players miss are why he is an intriguing weapon in Kelly’s offense. He can run between the tackles or bounce things outside and make some big plays on the perimeter. In the future, Kelly will have a lot more players like that, but Jamabo’s skill set isn’t bountiful now at UCLA.
His final season in the Pac-12 should be his best one with a change of scenery at the top.
Adarius Lemons, RB, Florida
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2017 statistics: 19 rushes, 136 yards, 7.2 average; 1 catch, 7 yards; no total touchdowns
There are more than just running backs on this list, but several players at that position stand to grow exponentially in the new offenses at their respective programs.
Adarius Lemons fits that mold for the Florida Gators.
Lemons was one of Jim McElwain’s biggest commitments in the class of 2017, but he was underused last year, which is absurd considering how few playmakers the Gators had on offense. Once Florida fired McElwain at the end of October, interim coach Randy Shannon got Lemons the ball more and more.
He responded with an 11-carry, 89-yard performance against Alabama-Birmingham that could be a glimmer of things to come in Gainesville under Dan Mullen, who left Mississippi State to coach the Gators. While Mullen is known for producing quality quarterbacks, he also has a history of getting the ball in the hands of those who can make plays in the open field.
The 6’0″, 201-pound Lemons may have essentially wasted a season of eligibility a year ago, but the reps could help him be more of a centerpiece in 2018. It’ll be interesting to see how Mullen balances running backs, especially with Jordan Scarlett returning. But Lemons will almost certainly have a spot.
He’s too dynamic to keep on the sideline, and Lemons now has a coach who has proved he can build quality offenses in the SEC. If true freshman Emory Jones wins the QB battle, the Gators will lean on their running backs. Lemons looks ready, and he’ll have to be, especially if Malik Davis isn’t yet healthy.
Tyjon Lindsey, WR, Nebraska
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2017 statistics: 12 catches, 76 yards, 6.3 average and no touchdowns
If getting the ball in the hands of playmakers is a developing trend, well, it’s because it should be. That didn’t happen all that much at Nebraska under Mike Riley, where the offense struggled and the defense was even worse.
That’s why they limped to a 4-8 record a season ago.
With Stanley Morgan Jr. returning and looking to build on his 900-plus receiving yards from a season ago, he’ll need a sidekick, especially with quarterback Tanner Lee making the puzzling decision to forego his final season and test the NFL waters.
The 5’9″, 175-pound Lindsey has elite speed in space, and the jitterbug can be a difference-maker on offense, especially in a Scott Frost offense. Everybody in Lincoln is excited about seeing just what the former Ohio State commit can do under a coach who has produced big-time numbers everywhere he’s been.
Rivals recruiting analyst Woody Wommack knows what kind of player Lindsey can be in the right system, which is why the Frost era is perfect for him:
“Is there any one player that stands to benefit more from the new offensive scheme than Lindsay? The shifty receiver could play the X-factor role that has been so dangerous in Frost-run offenses in recent years. Whether it was De’Anthony Thomas at Oregon or Adrian Killins this past season at UCF, Frost has shown an ability to find creative ways to get the ball in the hands of his most dangerous offensive weapons, and Lindsey surely fits that bill in Lincoln.”
Whoever winds up being the signal-caller for the Cornhuskers will need Lindsey to take some of the pressure off Morgan. He can be a mismatch in space for Big Ten defenses.
George Moore, OT, Oregon
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2017 statistics: 251 rushing yards per game (12th nationally); 189.9 passing yards (94th)
The 6’6″, 328-pound offensive tackle redshirted in 2017 after being one of the top JUCO players at his position nationally. Now, he looks like the perfect replacement for Tyrell Crosby, who helped anchor the Ducks offensive line a season ago.
It’s never a guarantee that a kid who’s never played major college football before can cut it, especially at a position as difficult (and important) as left tackle. While Justin Herbert has the ability to put up big-time numbers at Oregon, he was injured a season ago and missed multiple games.
The Ducks need to make sure that doesn’t happen again in 2018, especially considering they can no longer lean on Royce Freeman at running back.
Moore marinated a season ago under offensive coordinator and vaunted offensive line coach Mario Cristobal. He learned the power blocking scheme, even though he never saw any game action. Once Willie Taggart left for Florida State and the Ducks promoted Cristobal, that was big news for the line.
With Shane Lemieux, Jake Hanson, Jacob Capra and Calvin Throckmorton the favorites at the other O-line spots and all having starting experience, it’s important that Moore comes along quickly. Star recruit Penei Sewell will provide depth as well and may be too talented to keep off the field.
But Moore being able to keep the same concepts he learned a season ago under Cristobal and translate it into the same system now that he’ll get playing time this year is vital to Oregon’s offensive success.
Nick Starkel, QB, Texas A&M
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2017 statistics: 117-of-192 passing, 60.9 percent, 1,731 yards, 14 touchdowns and six interceptions
In the final season under Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M had mixed results on the field, but the Aggies saw bright spots from young quarterbacks Nick Starkel and Kellen Mond. Though either player could find himself in the mix under a new coaching staff, Starkel looks like the ideal fit for Jimbo Fisher’s system.
Not only that, but he also showed the most promise in 2017, showcasing pro-style abilities, and he’s not a statue in the pocket, either.
With running back Trayveon Williams looking like a prime candidate to break out, A&M needs a steady signal-caller. Starkel is the safest bet. The 6’3″, 215-pound quarterback was one of the few high-profile Sumlin quarterback commits who actually stayed around in College Station.
A season ago, Starkel showed the world his strong arm, and with the Aggies wanting to showcase a more vertical game, he is an ideal fit. His progression would have been even greater had he not broken his ankle against UCLA in the season opener.
“He was able to throw people open when necessary, was mobile enough to avoid pressure and made people around him more productive,” 247Sports’ Jeff Tarpley wrote. “Starkel’s delivery is the product of an improved release, steady feet and good rotation of his hips.”
Fisher helped mold Jameis Winston into one of the nation’s best players, and Deondre Francois was on his way to being a college star, as well. Starkel is an apt pupil with the skill set and early stats that look like they will translate well to help the Aggies usher in the Fisher era.
Look for him to lead the offense in ’18 and take a big step forward.
Khalil Tate, QB, Arizona
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2017 statistics: 111-of-179, 62 percent, 1,591 yards; 153 rushes for 1,411 yards, 9.2 average; 26 total touchdowns, nine interceptions
Khalil Tate, one of the next-level offensive talents in the nation, blossomed in Tucson, Arizona, a season ago. He turned an awful Wildcats team into a bowl team with his dual-threat abilities once he took over full time for Brandon Dawkins.
Though Tate even generated some early Heisman Trophy whispers, he fizzled out later in the season and never was able to elevate his team’s play enough without many playmakers around him. That should change under Sumlin.
It’s hard to say Kevin Sumlin “developed” Johnny Manziel, because the player was one of the greatest freelancers in college football history, but he has a similar game to Tate’s. Also, Sumlin has produced signal-callers with big stat sheets before. While Tate isn’t known as a surefire NFL star right now, Sumlin will help.
Why? Because it’s a different system than Rich Rodriguez‘s, which has never been mistaken for having the NFL foremost on his mind schematically. Sumlin’s does, so while there is enough room within the framework of that system for Tate to freelance, there also will be more structure.
Tate has a big arm and fast wheels. Sumlin has to be eager to get his hands on this unfinished work and try to polish him a little. The best thing for Wildcats fans is that Tate has two more seasons if he chooses to finish his college career.
Look for Tate’s passing numbers to improve considerably in ’18 and for more offensive weapons to emerge under Sumlin. The quarterback will still be able to post quality rushing numbers, but he’ll be a more pro-ready player after this season.
Nigel Warrior, S, Tennessee
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2017 statistics: 83 tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss, one sack, one interception
Most of the marquee coaching hires after the ’17 season come from an offensive pedigree, but Tennessee was determined to go in a defensive direction. That may not be such a bad idea considering how awful the Vols have been on that side of the ball for much of the past decade.
Before the fans revolted, former athletic director John Currie was going to hire Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano. Once Phillip Fulmer replaced Currie, he hired Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who has experience at the top defensive positions for the Crimson Tide, Georgia and Florida State.
Pruitt is known for his development of defensive backs, and the time he spent under Nick Saban won’t hurt. As awful as UT’s defense was last year under Bob Shoop, sophomore safety Nigel Warrior showed flashes of stardom.
He doesn’t always know where he is, but the 6’0″, 194-pound safety arrives in a hurry and packs a punch. He has the physicality to be a force in the run game, and he also has excellent ball skills. Pruitt is known for simplifying his scheme to allow players to play fast, and Warrior will thrive in that situation.
Tennessee has a lot of uncertainty at all levels of its defense, especially if it transitions from a 4-3 base package to a 3-4, but Warrior can help clean up a lot of mistakes with his athleticism. The son of former UT great and NFL All-Pro Dale Carter was coveted by the nation’s top teams, and he’s showing why.
This is the season and the scheme for Warrior to bust out and be one of the top defensive playmakers in the SEC. If he is, the Vols could offer from surprises in 2018.
Aeris Williams, RB, Mississippi State
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2017 statistics: 236 rushes, 1,107 yards, 4.7 average; 16 catches for 142 yards; six total touchdowns
The headline thief in Starkville in 2017 was quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who was an early-season Heisman Trophy candidate before struggling at times during the meat of the SEC schedule. Former coach Dan Mullen helped Fitzgerald reach new heights.
But his season overshadowed another quality step forward for another Bulldogs offensive player. Running back Aeris Williams didn’t have the kind of average you want from your bell-cow running back, but he was still a 1,000-yard rusher against SEC competition.
Now he gets to be taught by Joe Moorhead, who spent the past two years helping Saquon Barkley to one of the most dynamic careers of any running back in Penn State history. The Heisman Trophy candidate was the best all-around running back in the country.
Not only was Barkley a threat between the tackles, but he could also get to the perimeter and make things happen in space. Barkley also was an exceptional pass-catcher.
Williams isn’t that talented, but he has some of the same abilities. Moorhead will get the most out of him.
“In order for that offense to work, he needs to have a do-it-all tailback,” Saturday Down South’s Connor O’Gara wrote. “Moorhead is not one who typically shuffles in three guys like Georgia does. He doesn’t lean on a bevy of backs to each handle one specific responsibility apiece.”
Williams is going to get a ton of touches, and that should lead to a lot of production.