A Group of Five wide receiver has led the nation in receiving yards in each of the last three years. Which playmaking target is most likely to run that streak to four in 2017?
The Group of Five has a long history of developing top-tier wide receivers who consistently pile up monster numbers. They often begin their college careers as unheralded recruits, sometimes after playing a different position in high school. But at least a few will perennially finish those careers with NFL aspirations and a bunch of records. Look no further than East Carolina’s Zay Jones who ended 2016 with more receptions than any player in FBS history. The top Group of Five receivers of 2017 won’t dethrone Jones, but they’re nonetheless an exciting collection of former walk-ons, JUCO transfers, quarterbacks and talents generally missed by the big boys.
Top Returning Group Of Five, Independent WRs
10. Linell Bonner, Houston
9. Scott Miller, Bowling Green
8. Corey Willis, Central Michigan
7. Cody Thompson, Toledo
6. Equanimeous St. Brown, Notre Dame
5. Cedrick Wilson, Boise State
Wilson caught on quickly in his first year after transferring from Coffeyville (Kans.) Community College, efficiently turning 56 catches into 1,129 yards and 11 touchdowns. And now that Brett Rypien’s favorite target, Thomas Sperbeck, is gone, the Broncos figure to use Wilson even more in 2017. The 6-foot-3, 184-pound Wilson has terrific length, field-stretching speed and a father by the same name who spent seven seasons in the NFL. He’ll spend his senior year schooling Mountain West DBs and improving his 2018 draft grade.
4. Courtland Sutton, SMU
Sutton is a Big 12-caliber pass-catcher who’s had his way with American Athletic Conference defensive backs the past two seasons. At 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, he has an NFL body to go along with the big, strong hands to pluck the ball out of the air. Think Mike Williams, who current Mustang coach Chad Morris also coached at Clemson. Sutton tracks the ball well, making it that much more difficult to defend him on end zone jump balls. Despite tepid support at quarterback, his numbers ballooned to 76 receptions for 1,246 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2016.
3. Anthony Miller, Memphis
Miller’s output over the past two seasons, especially this latest one, screams a lot of things. Former walk-on is not one of them. Miller may have arrived without a scholarship, but he’s going to leave Memphis in a year as one of the all-time leading receivers. In 2016, he was virtually unstoppable, catching 95 balls for 1,434 yards and 14 touchdowns in what was the best season for a receiver in school history. While not very big, Miller is a dynamite playmaker in the open field, and his ball skills can turn bad throws into connections.
2. Michael Gallup, Colorado State
Replacing Rashard Higgins in Fort Collins seemed like an impossible task until Gallup was signed out of Butler County (Kans.) Community College. After shaking off a slow start to his Ram debut, Gallup went haywire down the stretch. He caught at least one touchdown pass in each of the final eight games, while hauling in 58 balls for 1,024 yards over that two-month stretch. Gallup’s ability to find the soft spots in defenses makes life easier on QB Nick Stevens, who used 2016 to develop chemistry with his new star wide receiver.
1. Richie James, Middle Tennessee
James was a diminutive quarterback at Riverview (Fla.) High School. After redshirting in 2014, he transformed into one of college football’s unlikely game-breakers. James has been an unstoppable offensive force for the Blue Raiders the past two seasons, catching 213 passes for 2,971 yards and 20 touchdowns. And when Middle Tennessee ran out of quarterbacks last Nov. 26, he promptly rushed for 207 yards and three scores out of wildcat looks. James’ impressive mix of speed, balance and sharp cuts is normally featured in a Power Five league, not Conference USA.