Football is 50 days away. (Forty-nine as of today, but that’s not as clean.) So the football content is probably going to start ramping up in a pretty significant way. We’re starting to look at opponent metrics and think about previews, so it worked out nicely that one Hail Varsity reader posed this question to us this week.
Who are the best five players we will face all year.
— Hussle Ders (@sweetermanders) July 10, 2019
It’s a good question. Going through Sports Illustrated’s top-100 players list — the one that was recently just finished and included a punter but not Adrian Martinez… because whatever —there was Big Ten talent everywhere. Nebraska’s going to face a ton of talented players this season. So narrowing down the five best was something of a challenge and some cuts were super close.
- AJ Epenesa, Iowa defensive lineman — Epenesa or the No. 5 guy on this list was a struggle. The junior only played half of Iowa’s snaps last season and still led the Big Ten in sacks (10.5).
- Tyler Johnson, Minnesota wideout — Four Big Ten receivers hit 1,000 yards receiving last year. One of them is on this list. One of them graduated. One of them was a Husker. Johnson was the other. As a junior, he caught 78 balls for 1,169 yards and 12 scores while averaged 15 yards a catch.
- Anthony McFarland, Maryland running back — This guy had double-digit carries only four times last season. In those four games he averaged 9.1 yards per carry. Against Indiana and then Ohio State in mid-November, McFarland had 50 carries for 508 yards.
- Justin Fields, Ohio State quarterback — Tate Martell was terrified of him for a reason.
- JK Dobbins, Ohio State running back — As a sophomore, Dobbins had a down year. Mike Weber was the more effective runner. And still, Dobbins had 1,053 yards and 10 scores, meaning in his first two years in Columbus, he’s run for 2,456 yards and 17 touchdowns on a 5.8 yards-per-carry clip.
No. 5: Paddy Fisher, Northwestern linebacker
Northwestern got to the Big Ten title game last season thanks in part to Fisher. A 6-foot-4, 241-pound sophomore last year, Fisher formed half of maybe the best linebacker duo in the league. He and teammate Blake Gallagher (also a sophomore) finished No. 1 and 2 in tackles in the Big Ten. Fisher’s 117 came on the heels of 113 as a freshman.
Northwestern had a top-20 run defense by S&P+ while Fisher forced five fumbles, had 12 run stuffs, a sack and a pick. Where exactly does he get better in Year 3? That’s a slightly scary thought.
Nebraska plays Northwestern on Oct. 5.
No. 4: Rondale Moore, Purdue wideout
As a freshman, the Kentucky native accounted for 32 percent of the passing game’s targets. He caught 44 percent of the touchdown throws. He ran the ball 21 times for 213 yards. I don’t need to tell you the yards per carry on that one. It shouldn’t be that big. He only averaged 8 yards a target and was still the most dynamic, most electric, most unguardable athlete on a football field anytime that football field featured the Purdue Boilermakers.
Here’s a first-year player — who wasn’t a 5-star guy, mind you — who had the offense completely built around him and he lived up to the expectations right from the opening kick. His best came in the biggest moments.
Nebraska plays at Purdue on Nov. 2
No. 3: Laviska Shenault Jr., Colorado wideout
Moore was the best wideout in the Big Ten last season.
Shenault was the best wideout in the country last season.
He finished the season fourth in yards per game at 112.3, caught 86 balls for 1,011 yards and six scores despite only playing nine games. Those three missed games came right in the middle of the season thanks to a foot injury, one that he played the final three games through. After the year, he had surgery to repair a toe issue and surgery on his shoulder to repair a torn labrum. Receiver requires excessive amounts of shoulder strain. He led the country in catches per game. Talk about a warrior.
Shenault’s six-game start to the season before injury is what has earned him the “best out there” title. He had 780 yards and six scores over that span, including 211 on 11 catches in the opener and 170 on 10 catches in Week 2 against Nebraska. He had a touchdown in each of his first five games.
He also had five rushing touchdowns on the year. Nebraska will not enjoy having to play him another time.
Nebraska plays at Colorado on Sept. 7.
No. 2: Chase Young, Ohio State defensive lineman
Here’s what the guy did as a sophomore:
- 15.5 run stuffs
- 14.5 tackles for loss (most on the team)
- 9.5 sacks (most on the team, second in the league)
- Five pass break-ups
- A forced fumble
- An 8.8 percent success rate against
The last number is absurd. Nick Bosa was at 24.0 percent. Dre’Mont Jones was at 20.3 percent. An opponent having an 8.8 percent success rate on plays in which you were involved with as large a sample size as Young had last season is quite the accomplishment.
It seems unfair that year after year Ohio State has one of the best defensive linemen in football, but that’s the world we’re living in. He’s 6-foot-5, 265 pounds and he’s as athletic as he is physically overpowering. When the Huskers play Ohio State in late September, much of the focus will be on the offense, but Nebraska’s chances will be heavily tied to how well it handles Young.
You already know when Nebraska plays Ohio State. It’s been circled on the calendar for three months. Don’t play.
No. 1: Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin running back
This is the best running back in football. This was the best running back in football last year. If he somehow stays for his senior season, he’ll be the best running back in football that year, too. As a sophomore, Taylor carried it more times than anyone in the country (307) for more yards than anyone in the country (2,194) and more touchdowns than anyone in the Big Ten (16). His 7.15 yards-per-carry average was fourth in the conference, but behind three guys who had nearly the same number of combined carries as Taylor.
He had more 10-yard carries than anyone else in football, and he had more 20- and 30-yard carries than anyone in the Big Ten.
Maybe the most impressive stat of them all: with 4,171 yards in his first two seasons, Taylor is basically one average rushing season and some change away from owning the NCAA career rushing record in three years.
Put a different way, San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey had 6,405 yards in four years. That’s the current NCAA record for career rushing yardage. After averaging 154.5 yards a game over his first two seasons, Taylor is 15 average games away from breaking that record. If Taylor played another two full seasons and matched the 27 games he played in his first two seasons, he’s on pace to run for 8,000 yards in his career.
(He’s got 470 yards and five scores in his two games against Nebraska. Taylor is basically now the benchmark by which you judge your run defense.)
Nebraska plays Wisconsin on Nov. 16.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.