- Within Arkansas, UTSA and Maryland's middling seasons last year, there were some bright lights that finally got their due on the 2018 NFL draft's opening night.
The longer I’ve covered college football, the easier it gets to notice the swath of NFL fans, writers and commentators who act as if they’ve just discovered this fascinating new sport at the beginning of bowl season. Every year, it seems, there’s a headline or two that reads something to the effect of “Bowl Game X Made Me Fall In Love With College Football,” wherein the exploits of Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield or the Stanford Tree mascot hold their attention in ways the previous three months of Saturdays could not.
And that’s great. College football is fun. Watch it. But bowl games are the culmination of a long season, and though the field of eligible teams has dramatically expanded over the past two decades (hello Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl), it does not comprise the entirety of watchable college football. There are first-round talents among the players whose seasons ended around Thanksgiving, allowing for an extra month of draft prep while the stars of good teams got extra practices in for one or two final games in sunny locales.
Every year, the draft boasts several picks who spent their college careers at small programs with mascots NFL fans haven’t memorized, and while they rarely won big, they developed from under-recruited prospects into promising future pros in relative anonymity. Even more prevalent come draft night are players from middling-to-bad Power 5 programs who may have momentarily gotten the college football world’s attention with a standout performance against a big-time opponent. Meet this year’s crop of college players whose talent transcended their teams’ win-loss record in 2017—with many more to come in the draft’s final six rounds.
UTSA DE Marcus Davenport (No. 14 pick, Saints)
UTSA record in 2017: 6–5
Last time UTSA made a bowl game: 2016
Stat worth noting: Logged 17.5 tackles for a loss in 2017.
Davenport weighed just 198 pounds when he arrived on campus in 2014, which is why even the most dedicated college football fans hadn’t heard of him before 2016. Over his first few collegiate seasons, Davenport grew about an inch (he’s now listed as 6'5") and put on more than 50 pounds, and as a senior, he devoured Conference USA competition.
In the 2017 season opener at Baylor, the Roadrunners pulled off what looked at the time like a massive upset but now makes much more sense. That day, Davenport looked bigger, stronger and faster than everyone on the field in Waco, and although his stat line wasn’t insane (three tackles, one sack and a pass defensed), he was downright dominant. But when you’re putting up your other best games against the likes of Rice and North Texas, as Davenport did, the spotlight is understandably elusive. When UTSA was one of three six-win teams to be shut out of the bowl picture, Davenport’s fate as a draft sleeper was sealed.
Arkansas C Frank Ragnow (No. 20, Lions)
Arkansas record in 2017: 4–8
Last time Arkansas made a bowl game: 2016
Stat worth noting: Splitting time between guard and center as a three-year starter, he allowed zero sacks in 42 career games.
Ragnow played at Arkansas for Bret Bielema, who has launched the professional careers of many a lineman in his time at Wisconsin and in Fayetteville. Although the Razorbacks struggled against their SEC West competition last year, Ragnow stood strong against an Alabama defensive line that chewed up far better teams and largely had its way with the Razorbacks in a 41–9 win. Just days removed from the death of his father, he played every offensive snap in that game, including a few at guard even though he spent most of last season at center.
The principles of spread offenses at the college level have seeped into NFL play, but it remains difficult to project how offensive line play translates, which has put veteran NFL offensive linemen at a premium, but Ragnow operates at a bit of an advantage to some of his fellow draftees thanks to his experience in Beilema’s pro-style attack. His play in the run game in particular looks like it should stand up against the NFL’s talent level.
Maryland WR D.J. Moore (No. 24, Panthers)
Maryland record in 2017: 4–8
Last time Maryland made a bowl game: 2016
Stat worth noting: He averaged 7.0 yards after the catch over his three-year career.
From 2015 to ’17, Moore caught 146 passes for 2,027 yards and 17 touchdowns—from eight different quarterbacks. The Terrapins’ longest-lasting 2017 starting quarterback, Max Bortenschlager, threw for 1,313 yards last year; Moore had 1,033 receiving yards on his own. In fact, Moore was responsible for 53.2% of Maryland’s total passing yards in 2017. The revolving cast of characters under center in a way defined the receiver’s time at Maryland, as his teams went from 3–9 to bowl-eligibility and back to 4-8.
Maryland opened last season with a 51–41 upset win at Texas in Tom Herman’s first game as the Longhorns’ coach. Moore had plenty of people’s attention that day, finishing with seven catches for 133 yards—an average of 19.0 yards per catch—and a touchdown. He left the Texas defense baffled on two long receptions of 40 and 46 yards and has enticed NFL evaluators with his potential if he ever gets the benefit of a stable presence under center.
Florida DT Taven Bryan (No. 29, Jaguars)
Florida record in 2017: 4–7
Last time Florida made a bowl game: 2016
Stat worth noting: He finished with six tackles for loss in 2017.
Bryan was on hand for one of the strangest three-year stretches in recent Florida football history. He played out the Jim McElwain era, when Florida won two straight division crowns during his freshman and sophomore years, lost two straight one-sided conference title games to Alabama and then bottomed out in 2017.
Bryan didn’t have the most statistically productive career for the Gators, finishing with just 62 tackles and 5.5 sacks as part of a traditionally deep D-line. Four of his 5.5 sacks came in 2017, providing a bright spot up front even as his team’s play regressed.