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In a whirlwind 2020 where there was so much uncertainty, getting to see nearly every FBS program take the field was a relief. Some teams in conferences such as the ACC and SEC were fortunate to get double digit games played. In the Mountain West it was a different story, as only a handful of teams played seven or more contests due to the late October start.
Moving with a full head of steam towards the 2021, let’s take a look at some lesser known talents who will impact their teams’ performance in what is hopefully a full season:
Air Force Falcons: QB Haaziq Daniels
In a primarily triple option style offense, the quarterback has to be spot on and attentive to details with his reads. Daniels does an incredible job of making the right decision to either hand the ball off or pull it in these situations. In the run game he is shifty and can freeze defenders with ball fakes and jukes to get upfield in a flash.
For a service academy quarterback, he’s one of the better looking prospects in terms of mechanics. He has a quick release and has a ton of pocket presence to step up and deliver strikes at intermediate ranges. The week two matchup with Navy could be a thriller and coming out party for Daniels as he begins his quest towards the double 1,000 yard club (passing and rushing).
Boise State Broncos: WR Khalil Shakir
Two words come to mind when watching this incredible wideout play, which are electric and slippery. Even though he only comes in at 6’0” tall, he plays so much bigger as he can make acrobatic plays downfield. When getting the ball underneath or on jet sweeps Shakir will rarely go down on the first tackle attempt.
It’s almost like watching someone try to squeeze a wet bar of soap when defenders try to get him to the ground. He’ll shuffle his feet then side step, hop and then duck to slip three or four tackles and make his way upfield. If Shakir can continue on a similar streak as last season, averaging over 100 yards per game receiving, he could be not just All-MWC, but in the Biletnikoff conversation. He’s that good.
Colorado State Rams: TE Trey McBride
There’s no doubt about it that McBride will be playing on Sundays in the near future. If he was at a larger school then he would be regarded as possibly the top prospect at the position. Last year alone the Rams had only four TD passes in four games played…McBride caught all four of them.
He’s very comparable to Zach Ertz when he came out of Stanford in the way he’s able to catch and run with the ball. McBride can also attack downfield on deep corners and seam routes, high pointing the football. If you want to see what it takes to be an NFL tight end, watch a game or two of the Rams this season.
Fresno State Bulldogs: QB Jake Haener and WR Jalen Cropper
Every so often there seems to be a solid tandem that comes through Fresno that is an impossible duo to stop (Derek Carr and Davante Adams). With Haener and Cropper that is exactly what we have. The Bulldogs ranked 17th in total yards per game last season averaging 479.3, but more importantly they were the fifth best passing offense with 356.3 yards per game through the air.
Cropper was Haener’s favorite target, hauling in 37 passes and five TDs in only six games played. Haener boasted a 153.4 QB rating to go with his 2,021 yards and 14 TDs. If he can find the remedy for his sack issues, conceding 24 in those six games, then this offense may be able to lead them to a Mountain West Title Game.
Hawaii Rainbow Warriors: H-Back Calvin Turner
By far one of the most versatile playmakers in not only the conference, but the whole country. Turner caught nearly half of Hawaii’s 14 TD passes with six scores. He also carried the ball 60 times for a 5.5 yard average and another four trips to the end zone.
In the open field he’s deadly with the juke moves and somehow squeezes through the grasp of would be tacklers. Whether he gets the ball quick out of the backfield or deep downfield, he’ll hurt any defense. Look for Turner to have close to 100 carries and 60 catches in 2021.
Nevada Wolf Pack: TE Cole Turner
The purpose of this piece is to bring lesser known talents to light, and that is why quarterback Carson Strong isn’t the choice here. He’s slated as a day one or two draft pick on some boards, but that wouldn’t be possible without a legitimate supporting cast. Turner is a tight end who should be flying up draft boards because of what he brings to the table.
First of all he’s gutsy and not the slightest bit afraid to make the trek over the middle, as he got upended on many occasions last season. Also Turner has the ability to line up out wide or flexed into the slot and can lose defenders with solid route running. He will be an ideal red zone threat at the next level and we could see a symbiotic relationship as him and Strong both elevate each other’s draft stock.
San Diego State Aztecs: RB Greg Bell
It sounds like a broken record when we talk about productive running backs coming out of San Diego State in the last decade. Ronnie Hillman, Rashaad Penny and Donnel Pumphrey all have made their way to the NFL, and Bell is looking to put his name on the list. Brady Hoke’s offensive approach revolves completely around having an effective run game, and Bell can make that happen again for him in 2021.
Last season he ran for 5.6 yards per attempt and six TDs. There is a will to not go down when he runs the football, and he’s got quick feet to dance around defenders in the open field. His patience may be his best trait as Bell doesn’t possess top speed, so he uses vision and burst to make his impact in the running game. If all goes according to plan for the Aztecs, he will be a 1,000 yard rusher on the season.
San José State Spartans: QB Nick Starkel
The Spartans last year were the 22nd best offense in the yards per play category. A lot of this had to do with an impressive passing attack which garnered around 69.2% of their total yards. The two leading wideouts on last year’s squad, Bailey Gaither and Tre Walker, have departed for the pros.
This means Starkel will have to find new favorite targets to deliver the ball to. Fortunately for the Spartans he’s such a leader and well traveled, having been a starting quarterback for Texas A&M and Arkansas in the past. The 2020 campaign showed his capabilities against Group of Five competition, reaching career highs with TDs (17) and completion percentage (64.2%). Regardless of who is on the perimeter, Starkel should easily top 3,000 yards, and may even come close to 4,000.
UNLV Rebels: QB Justin Rogers
The fall from the upper echelon of expectations has been nothing but painful for Rogers. Originally the #3 dual threat quarterback out of the class of 2018, he was supposed to be the next man up at TCU. However, a gruesome injury in his senior year at Parkway High School derailed what was a promising future.
In an effort to find a new home, it was UNLV that caught Rogers’ attention. Now that he has fully recovered from the injury and post-operation complications, he’ll be looking to get back to that near five-star form. At 240 lbs. he can run through tackles in the open field, and if fully healthy, will make people miss. In the passing game it looks all too easy as he can flick his wrist and spin it 50 yards, almost like a Vince Young reincarnation.
Rogers was a massive influence to Terrace Marshall Jr.’s rise to prominence as they were teammates at Parkway High School in Bossier City, Louisiana. If Marshall Jr. didn’t have someone as talented throwing him the football, becoming that five star wideout may have been a little more difficult. Rogers is a stud when healthy and can lift the play of others around him, especially when he improvises.
Utah State Aggies: RB Devonta’e Henry-Cole
This is a player who has been on a real trip for the last year or so. Henry-Cole was actually at Utah for three years and was a solid spell back for now Buffalo Bill, Zach Moss. He averaged over five yards per attempt in two seasons for the Utes before he opted for a transfer to rival BYU.
Even though he was officially a Cougar, Henry-Cole never actually took the field for BYU as he moved to Utah State prior to the 2020 season. Thanks to the COVID eligibility rule he was able to retain another year of eligibility for the Aggies. For being sub 200 lbs., he runs mean and has good shiftiness in the open field.
Even though he did see limited action last year for Utah State, it was with hardly any preseason activity. He’s now the primary man in the backfield and will look to produce on the ground, especially with the design of his new offense. With a run capable quarterback in Andrew Peasley and some RPO (run-pass-option) looks, it should leave Henry-Cole some running lanes.
Wyoming Cowboys: RB Xazavian Valladay
Valladay is the cornerstone in this offense and will continue to produce in 2021, much like the past few seasons. In a full 2019 season, he ran for 1,265 yards, averaging 5.1 YPC and scoring five times. In the shortened six game season in 2020, Valladay still carried the ball 99 times for an average of 5.6. Also, he upped his production in the receiving game to more than two receptions per game.
In 2021 it’s possible he rushes over 200 times again and even has nearly 40 receptions. Production is hard to gauge though because if Wyoming goes down early in a lot of games then the rushing attempts will certainly drop. The easiest solution is to give Valladay tons of carries to control the ball and reduce the risk of turning it over.