The top 10 football players you need to know for the 2016 season.
1. LB Quentin Poling, Jr.
A pure tackler, the 6-0, 239-pound junior is built for the middle and to anchor a linebacking corps, but with enough quickness and anticipation to get into the backfield on a regular basis. He took over a key role early on leading the team two years ago as a redshirt freshman making 89 tackles with five sacks, and last year he led the way again with 69 stops with four sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss despite missing two games banged up. Just good enough in pass coverage to get around, he made three interceptions in 2014 and last year picked off four passes taking two for touchdowns including one in the bowl loss to Appalachian State and one in the win over Miami University.
2. WR Sebastian Smith, Sr.
The team’s leading receiver more than doubled his production with 64 catches for 770 yards and seven scores, turning into a big play target at times along with being steady enough make about four grabs a game. He topped out with ten catches for 84 yards against Bowling Green, and didn’t hit the 100-yard mark, but he showed off decent speed to go along with his 6-3, 206-pound size and physical style. He’s not afraid to get nasty and come up with the big hit or do what’s needed to fight for the ball.
3. DE Tarell Basham, Sr.
It was a bit of a rebound season after a great first two seasons rolling up 7.5 sacks as a freshman and doing a nice job as a sophomore but came up with just four sacks. Last year he came up with 43 stops with 5.5 sacks and ten tackles for loss, turning into the team’s best all-around defensive lineman as a steady run stopper while also being relied on as a key playmaker into the backfield. Bulked up to 262 pounds on his 6-4 frame, he has the size now to do even more.
4. RB A.J. Ouellette, Jr.
The quick, tough runner was a key part of the puzzle as a true freshman running for 785 yards and seven scores, but he dipped a wee bit as a sophomore with 687 yards and six touchdowns. Used sparingly at times over the first two-thirds of the season, he kicked it all late as a workhorse with 52 carries over a two-game span against Ball State and Northern Illinois. With 100-yard games in both, and carrying the team to wins, he’ll be the workhorse throughout with the 5-10, 202-pound size to handle the load. Also a decent receiver, he can be a three-down player.
5. DE Kurt Laseak, Sr.
While he’s not quite the pass rusher as Tarell Basham on the other side, the 6-4, 244-pound Laseak showed great promise over his first two seasons, and came up big in all phases as a junior finishing second on the team with 67 tackles with 3.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss last season. With his size and frame he’s tough to get around, and he’s got the burst to get into the backfield just enough to make offenses have to gameplan around him.
6. LB Blair Brown, Sr.
The team’s third-leading tackler two years ago, he came up with 55 tackles as a good-hitter and key run stopper. On the outside, he needs to start making more impact plays, but with his 6-0, 240-pound size and good pop, the California native can work inside or out. Last year he was third on the team with 65 tackles with 4.5 tackles for loss despite missing two games hurt, but he didn’t generate any sacks and did most of his work holding up against the run with 11 tackles against both SE Louisiana and Western Michigan.
7. WR Jordan Reid, Sr.
The team’s second-leading receiver, the senior out of Georgia caught 45 passes for 625 yards and five touchdowns highlighted by a four-catch, 112-yard, two-score day against Ball State, and with a 109-yard game against Western Michigan after making 24 catches for the 2014 season. At 6-3 and 209 pounds, he has the size and he can get deep. With his experience and big play ability, he should get past the 50-catch mark.
8. S Toran Davis, Sr.
A very nice all-around veteran safety, Davis is built a bit for the part with 6-0 and 212-pound size and terrific quickness and hitting ability. The Georgia native made 42 tackles as a sophomore and upped his game last year with 59 tackles with two broken up passes. Now he has to start picking off a few passes and attack the ball a bit better as an experienced free safety. With 14 tackles in the bowl against Appalachian State, he closed strong, and now he should be in the hunt for all-star honors.
9. QB J.D. Sprague, Sr.
While he has the experience and he has the ability, he’s going to have to fight to grab the starting job after a good year, but was banged up a bit and had to try to find time in a muddled quarterback situation. He completed 55% of his passes for 912 yards and seven touchdowns with three picks, and ran for 225 yards in his seven games of work, highlighted by a 275-yard, three score day against Ball State. At 6-1 and 196 pounds he’s not all that big, but he’s a baller with a decent enough arm to push the ball down the field a bit more.
10. RB Maleek Irons, Soph.
Irons will combine with Dorian Brown to be in the rotation with A.J. Ouellette, scoring four touchdowns last season in his limited role with just 194 yards in his seven games, coming up with a long dash against Bowling Green and with 11 carries for 49 yards and a touchdown against Miami University. The Canadian has 6-0, 224-pound bulk and tremendous quickness with a physical style to potentially be a workhorse.