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College football fans (and NFL scouts), our long wait is nearly over.
Though top programs like defending national champion Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State and USC won't play until the Labor Day weekend, the kickoff to the 2017 season is officially here with five games scheduled for Saturday, August 26.
A nationally televised matchup between BYU and Portland State (ESPN, 3 p.m. ET) Saturday could serve as a coming out party for Cougars' senior Fred Ward, an athletic, physical and thus far, underrated linebacker among my five favorites to enjoy breakout 2017 seasons and shoot up 2018 NFL draft boards.
(Players are listed alphabetically)
RB Lavon Coleman, 5-11, 228, 4.59, Washington, rSr.
Shattering a school's all-time single season record for yards per carry would earn most running backs a starring role and perhaps all-conference or even All-American recognition. Hitched behind lead dawg Myles Gaskin at Washington, however, Coleman enters his final season with little buzz nationally, despite averaging an eye-popping 7.5 yards per carry last season, more than a full yard better than the previous record (Rich Alexis, 6.4 in 2000). While the 5-9, 190-pound Gaskin is a perfect fit as the scat-back in Chris Petersen's spread offense, the physically-imposing Coleman is the hammer between the tackles who projects very nicely to the next level, checking in sixth among senior running backs on NFLDraftScout.com's board. Coleman is quicker than he looks, eluding would-be tacklers with sharp cuts and underrated burst, and he runs hard with a low pad level. He also shows breakaway ability, with three of his seven touchdowns last season covering at least 40 yards. Gaskin, a legitimate NFL talent in his own right, is expected to remain the starter, perhaps capping Coleman's upside. With Washington looking for someone to replace the 18 touchdowns scored by top 10 pick John Ross (Cincinnati Bengals), however, Coleman could be asked to play a much more prominent role in 2017.
QB Nick Fitzgerald, 6-4, 227, 4.68, Mississippi State, rJr.
If the pressure of a replacing a legend like Dak Prescott bothered Fitzgerald last year, he sure did a terrific job of hiding it, turning in one of the more statistically impressive debut campaigns of any quarterback in SEC history by accounting for 4,160 yards of total offense and 43 touchdowns (24 passing, 19 running). Given his eye-popping production (as well as the fact that the only two programs who offered him scholarships out of high school were MSU and Middle Tennessee State), one could argue that Fitzgerald already enjoyed his "breakout" season. There is plenty of room for growth for Fitzgerald as a passer, however, as he completed over 50 percent of his passes in just six of 12 games last season. For good reason, the talk on this year's top quarterbacks has centered on USC's Sam Darnold, UCLA's Josh Rosen, Wyoming's Josh Allen and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson of Louisville. Fitzgerald possesses the skill-set to challenge the "Fabulous Four." The redshirt junior enters the 2017 season as the SEC's top quarterback prospect with a preseason Top 100 grade overall. Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M) is the only quarterback from the SEC to be selected by an NFL with a top 100 pick since 2012.
DL Rasheem Green, 6-4, 280, 4.93, Southern California, Jr.
With preseason top-rated prospect and Heisman hopeful Darnold drawing virtually all the attention, Green has slid a bit under the radar -- at least as much as can be expected for a physically imposing defensive lineman coming off a sophomore campaign in which he led the Trojans with six sacks and the Pac-12 with two blocked kicks. Like a lot of players at USC, Green signed as a highly regarded prep prospect and earned immediate playing time, recording 19 tackles while playing in all 14 games as a true freshman. He started all but the opener against Alabama last season, ultimately recording 55 tackles, including 6.5 for loss. Green is appropriately named as he remains raw with his technique, too often getting stymied at the point of attack despite his agility, length and natural power, which makes him effective as a bull rusher. For a young player, Green shows good awareness, adding four tipped passes along with his two blocked kicks (and two forced fumbles) a year ago. Voted to the Honorable Mention team by Pac-12 coaches in 2016, Green is a candidate for much higher honors in 2017 and could be mentioned in the same breath as Washington's Vita Vea and Utah's Lowell Lotulei as one of the elite defensive line prospects in the conference by the end of the year.
CB Denzel Ward, 5-10, 191, 4.43, Ohio State, Jr.
With three Ohio State defensive backs among the first 24 overall selections of the 2017 NFL draft, it goes without saying that there will be some new faces in the Buckeyes' secondary this season. Whereas most teams would have to rebuild a position group that talented, Ohio State simply reloads with Ward expected to emerge as a star almost immediately. Though he has not started a single game in his career, Ward was on the field for 468 plays last season, tying with Marshon Lattimore (New Orleans Saints, No. 11 overall) for the team-lead with nine pass breakups. Ward is shorter than ideal but he possesses superb overall athleticism, shadowing receivers all over the field. He plays with a scrappy mentality, showing the willingness to lower his shoulder into ball-carriers. This fact, combined with his fluid hips, quick feet and easy acceleration makes him an ideal nickel corner prospect for the next level. Given that teams operate out of the nickel the majority of the time in today's pass-happy NFL, it may not be long before Ward joins his former teammates as a very early draft pick.
OLB Fred Warner, 6-3, 228, 4.68, BYU, Sr.
Last alphabetically, but worth the wait, Warner might be the least recognizable on this list -- but not by BYU opponents. Warner led the Cougars with 86 tackles last season and finished second in both tackles for loss (10.5) and interceptions (three) so he is hardly an unknown. With matchups against LSU, Utah, Wisconsin and Mississippi State over the first half of the 2017 season, Warner and the Cougars have quite the opportunity to earn much more national recognition. Warner, entering his third season as a starter, is a physical striker who wraps his arms for the secure tackle and possesses the agility and length to harass the quarterback in coverage or on the rush. He could be the latest BYU star to earn an invitation to the Senior Bowl, where former Cougars Jamaal Williams, Kyle Van Noy and Ziggy Ansah have furthered boosted their NFL stock in recent years.
Rob Rang is a senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, a collaboration between The Sports Xchange and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Since 2001, his work has been featured at CBS, USA Today, FOX and Scout.com, among others.