Fear is good. It’s healthy. And in a lot of cases it can help prevent something bad from becoming even worse.
Some of college football’s top players bring out the scared little kid in all of us, striking fear in our hearts when contemplating the idea of having to tackle, block or get away from them and knowing there’s really no chance. Now just imagine what it’s like for their opponents.
It isn’t necessarily a matter of physical appearance, though that certainly helps. Rather, certain players elicit feelings of terror because of the way they dominate their position and render their foes—no matter how formidable—rather pedestrian.
These are the 10 most terrifying such players in college football right now. Follow along, but remember that you’ve been warned.
Labeled the “hardest hitter in college football” by Bleacher Report NFL Draft expert Matt Miller, Jamal Adams lays the wood whenever possible and thus is someone opponents work hard to stay away from.
The 6’1”, 213-pound junior is adept at defending the run and the pass, with 56 tackles, including 3.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery, as well as an interception and three pass breakups. His play on LSU’s back line is why the Tigers rank 25th nationally in pass defense and have allowed an FBS-low four touchdowns through the air.
Adams has also drawn the praise of Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin (h/t Ross Dellenger of the Advocate), who told CBS Sports analyst Gary Danielson that his play reminded him of former USC and NFL star Troy Polamalu.
People the size of Jonathan Allen should not be able to move as swiftly and with such agility as the 6’3″, 291-pound senior. Just ask some of the players he’s zipped around to swallow a ball-handler or those who have fruitlessly tried to chase him down after he gets his hands on the ball and starts rumbling toward the end zone.
Allen’s decision to return for his senior year after a breakthrough junior campaign is turning out to be a wise one. He’s regularly on highlight reels for his punishing hits—his dive over a Texas A&M blocker to sack Trevor Knight won’t soon be forgotten—not to mention a pair of fumble-return touchdowns that have gone for 75 and 30 yards.
Overall, Allen has seven sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss along with 11 quarterback hurries while lining up in nearly every spot on the Alabama defensive line.
Sure, Tennessee has gone from contender to pretender over the past month. But regardless of the result, the fear that Derek Barnett causes in opposing players hasn’t waned. If anything it’s just gotten worse because now he can play without any sort of restraint.
Not that the 6’3″, 265-pound junior defensive end was being held back in any way earlier. He’s tied for third in the country with nine sacks and has 14.5 tackles for loss, good for a tie for fourth nationally. On Tennessee those numbers account for 45 percent of the team’s sacks and 20.7 percent of the TFLs as he’s picked up the slack for an injury-riddled Volunteers defense.
And for anyone who might think Barnett is padding his numbers against non-SEC competition, all nine of his sacks and 11.5 of his TFLs have come in the Vols’ five league games. That’s why Pro Football Focus had him graded as the top edge-rusher in college football as of last week.
When playing against Texas A&M, the first thing many opposing players have done this season is check the injury report. That’s followed by scanning the Aggies sideline to see if Myles Garrett has suited up, and if so the praying begins.
Injuries have caused the 6’5″, 270-pound junior to miss two games this season and play sparingly in others, yet even at half-strength, Garrett is worth fearing. He’s managed just four sacks—none since Oct. 8 against Tennessee—and 9.5 tackles for loss, but also seven quarterback hurries and a forced fumble despite his physical limitations.
Garrett’s stats don’t tell his full story, though, since even in a reduced state, opponents routinely double- and sometimes triple-team him to protect themselves.
South Florida has won 14 of its last 18 games, a streak that began right around the time Quinton Flowers started tapping into his full ability as a mobile quarterback with a rocket for an arm. Since then he’s been one of the most unstoppable forces in the game, and if not for Lamar Jackson, might be considered the top dual-threat passer in FBS.
The 6’0″, 210-pound junior is in the midst of a monster 2016 that’s seen him throw for 17 touchdowns with just five interceptions on 229 attempts, while adding 921 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. He’s 15th in the country in total offense at 318 yards per game, and only Jackson has run for more yards among QBs.
Flowers’ overall numbers would be bigger if South Florida weren’t blowing teams out, thus causing him to sit out several fourth quarters, and because of the presence of school career rushing leader Marlon Mack.
The timing of this list isn’t perfect for Leonard Fournette, seeing as it comes only a few days removed from his annual humbling by Alabama. But don’t think those Crimson Tide defenders weren’t at least a little scared of what hits from the bruising 6’1″, 235-pound rusher were going to feel like.
After all, they’d all seen what Fournette was capable of on film and no doubt watched his demolition of a would-be Ole Miss tackler after catching a short pass and turning upfield.
And that was after the junior had missed the previous two games with an ankle injury that’s still not fully healed. That’s right, his career-best 7.1 yards per carry this season are coming on a gimpy ankle.
From a physical standpoint, Lamar Jackson doesn’t get many people to quake in their boots. He’s listed at 6’3″, 205 pounds, with the latter possibly embellished a bit, and his lanky frame gives the impression that he’s a decent hit from getting knocked to the ground.
Wrong. First off, being able to make such a hit has proven very difficult this season since Jackson has shown a knack for slipping away from tacklers. And hurdling them.
Though he’s been sacked 19 times in nine games as a sophomore, consider the 143 other times he’s run the ball, resulting in a net of 1,181 yards and 19 touchdowns. And don’t forget his 26 TD passes and 9.6 yards per pass, with his 45 total TDs putting him on pace to break Colt Brennan’s FBS mark of 63.
“It’s a pick-your-poison situation with Jackson,” NFL.com’s Chad Reuter wrote. “Keep the linebackers spying on him, and he’ll throw darts over the middle to open receivers. Play coverage, and he’ll take off for long runs.”
Lost in a bad 3-6 season for UCLA has been the rise of Takkarist McKinley, a 6’2″, 265-pound senior who has already surpassed his sack and tackle for loss numbers from the previous two seasons combined. In doing so, he’s become the central focus of opposing offensive coordinators tasked with trying to game-plan against his skills.
“He knows how to win with his hands and play with power but also has enough agility to dip and sprint in space to beat offensive tackles from a stand-up position,” Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller wrote.
It’s hard to determine which is scarier: trying to avoid or contain Jabrill Peppers, or having to frantically search for where he is on the field. Since the junior seems to play a different position on almost every snap, it’s not like you can limit that scan to just one area.
The 6’1″, 205-pound redshirt sophomore is officially listed on his online bio as a linebacker/defensive back, but that’s only the start. He’s handled every LB spot and each position in the secondary, has lined up on the edge to rush the passer and has also worked at quarterback, running back and receiver on offense. And there’s also his special teams work as a return specialist.
All that moving around has resulted in an all-around impressive list of numbers: three rushing touchdowns and 8.8 yards per carry, a 17.1 punt-return average with a TD, 26 yards per kick return, 53 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 13 tackles for loss and six quarterback hurries with a forced fumble.
Preparing for Peppers is liable to leave a coaching staff cowering in the corner wondering if Peppers will be coming for them in a completely different way that week.
Anyone who’s watched the FX show The Strain will understand how someone as tiny as Donnel Pumphrey can be considered terrifying. Among the creatures in that vampire-themed series are children who scamper about with unbelievable speed and agility, making them impossible to slow down.
Now you understand what opponents have had to deal with during Pumphrey’s prolific rushing career. The 5’9″, 180-pound senior, who leads FBS with 1,581 yards, has run for 5,853 yards over the last four seasons. That’s sixth-most when factoring in bowl yardage, though officially he’s only 544 yards behind all-time leader Ron Dayne.
Elusiveness and quickness are a big part of Pumphrey’s game, but he doesn’t go down easily either. He keeps his legs moving and can power through tackles, though most of the time he’s just too slippery to get a firm grasp on and then he’s off to the races.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.