The Wave of the Future: Breakout Players in the Independents

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With college football’s ever changing rosters, the need to replace star players is a very real and regular occurrence. For some teams, it’s just a matter of inserting the next highly-touted player. For others, it’s almost a crapshoot, hoping that one of the players waiting in the wings can step in and come close to replacing his predecessor’s success. But the bottom line is, every team wants that one (or 22) player(s) who will make the difference to their season and help the program reach their intended goals. It doesn’t matter if the player is a super recruit or an unranked guy who slipped in under the radar, as long as the results are the same.

The Independents are a mixed batch of a BCS contender; a BCS hopeful; Army and Navy; and two teams who for a time could have been considered unwanted by any other conference. Every one of these teams needs a star or two to emerge and either replace a recent legend or improve a troubled position. Or both. I’ll make to sure to acknowledge which is which as we address each team. As always, leave your opinions, objections and abuse in the comments section, or find me on Twitter.

Oct 13, 2012; West Point, NY, USA; Army Black Knights quarterback A.J. Schurr (11) runs by Kent State Golden Flashes defensive end Nate Vance during the second half at Michie Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

Army

The Black Knights don’t have a lot to replace, at least numerically, with only seven starters gone. But, when you’re 2-10, very few jobs are safe. Here are the players who will, or at least need to, break out:

AJ Schurr, QB

Want a tough job? Try replacing a fan favorite like Trent “Man of Steel” Steelman, who was coming off a career rushing season. Schurr is no guarantee, as the QB battle hasn’t been decided, although word on the street (see here) is that Santiago has the edge. Santiago is more of a runner like Steelman, with the speed to go the distance, but he’s a spotty passer on a good day. Schurr can actually throw the ball well enough, and is a solid runner. I can see him taking the job at some stage this season, if not from day 1. Why? Well, when your team averages 66 yards per game passing in a two-win season, change can be good.

Patrick Joseph, OL

The Army line did a good job last season, but they need to replace both starters on the left side. they have some good players ready to step up, but they lack the size of freshman Joseph, who weighs in at 285, gargantuan by Army standards. On almost any other non-academy team, he’d probably need to sit and add some weight. With Army, he could potentially lose some. A rare three-star recruit (ESPN) here, Joseph is versatile enough to play guard or tackle, and more importantly, he’s already an excellent run blocker. The only thing holding him back is learning the system.

Colby Miller, LB

With last season’s MLB Geoffrey Bacon moving to FS, Miller is the next man up, but he has big shoes to fill. Bacon led the team in tackles with 136, good for 5th in the country. Miller’s a senior who has yet to play in a game, but he knows the system well and has the athleticism and toughness to be a major factor this season. An outstanding spring has done nothing to hurt his chances – watch for him at the top of the tackle charts at the end of the season.

Dec 20, 2012; San Diego, CA, USA; Brigham Young Cougars running back Jamaal Williams (21) scores on a touchdown run in the fourth quarter against the San Diego State Aztecs in the 2012 Poinsettia Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium. BYU defeated San Diego State 23-6. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports

Brigham Young

The Cougars need to replace 10 starters, but seven come from that vaunted defense that was ranked 3rd in the country last season. BYU were 13 points away from a 12-1 record, despite a struggling offense. Now they need to rebuild the defense, while adding some firepower to the offense.

Taysom Hill, QB

For a guy who started just two games before having his season derailed with a major knee injury, Hill sure has the BYU faithful salivating at the prospect of having him back on the field in August. Despite just a couple of starts and playing in four other games, Hill managed to come second on the team in rushing (55-336-4) and threw for 425 yards and 4 TDs (2 interceptions). He’s a great runner with nice passing skills, and the coaching staff are tailoring the offense to suit him. Most importantly, he’s got a great supporting cast around him, including…

Jamaal Williams, RB

As Hill stakes his claim to a starting spot against Hawaii, so too did Williams, another sophomore who should be a key part of the Cougar offense for the next few years. After just 18 carries over the first four games, Williams tore off 155 yards against Hawaii, and finished the season with 775 yards and 12 TDs. He’s not a thumper, but he’s a flashy runner with the speed to erase tackling angles. He adds value in the passing attack, where his open field running can make a particular threat on checkdowns. The line needs to get a lot better, and Williams will need someone to ride shotgun with him, but he should be a lock for 1200 yards if he stays healthy.

Bronson Kaufusi, DE

The third sophomore on the list, Kaufusi looks like a star pass rusher in the making after notching 4.5 sacks and 23 tackles last season as a reserve. Kaufusi is a smart, good-sized player, with excellent agility (he played basketball for BYU too), and his impressive height (6’7) and wingspan will make life difficult for QBs who dare throw over him. Expect to him to play on kick-blocking units on special teams too. Kaufusi‘s father Steve (a former Cougar and current DL coach) played a couple of years with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Nov. 24, 2012; Logan, UT, USA; Utah State Aggies quarterback Chuckie Keeton (16) is taken down by Idaho Vandals defensive end Maxx Forde (40) and linebacker Sua Tuala (35) during the fourth quarter at Romney Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Douglas C. Pizac-USA TODAY Sports

Idaho

After having a life jacket thrown to them by the Sun Belt after drifting aimlessly for a couple of months, the Vandals can get back to focusing on playing football. There is a slight problem – they haven’t got a very good team, winning just three games in the last two years. That doesn’t mean they are devoid of talent, just the level of talent needed to be remotely competitive.

Chad Chalich, QB

The local boy took a redshirt last season, and learned some solid lessons in how NOT to play quarterback. This spring, he showed his stuff by dominating in the spring game, impressing new head coach Paul Petrino enough to all but name him the starting quarterback. Chalich is an excellent passer, with the mobility to be a threat on the ground both on scrambles and on option runs. He also played in a similar system in high school. Idaho may have been poor on offense last season, but they have an okay group of talent returning, and may be a quarterback away from a big improvement. Chalich will be that guy.

Maxx Forde, DE

The Vandals defense was bad last season, but Forde was one of the few bright spots, making 37 tackles, 4 hurries and 3 sacks. This season, the defensive line looks like one of the stronger units on the team, and a very focused Forde has been working hard towards trying to (at least) double his production. He has the ability to be a better pass rusher, but he needs to rest of the unit to step up and help him out. If that happens, he could be more of a force this season. Forde needs to work on his play against the run though.

Bradley Njoku, FS

After spending his freshman year as a reserve, Njoku is ready to step up and take over at the free safety spot, and should be poised for a huge year. He has the size, speed and range that will get him a long look from NFL scouts, and he should see plenty of action as the defense gels. Last season he had 43 tackles, 15 of which came in the only game he started (North Carolina), and 1 interception. Watch him blow those numbers out of the water this season.

Nov 17, 2012; Annapolis, MD, USA; Navy Midshipmen running back Chris Swain (37) jumps over Texas State Bobcats linebacker Joplo Bartu (31) during the second half at Navy Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Paul Frederiksen-USA TODAY Sports

Navy

You have to have a lot of respect for Navy (unless you go to West Point); you know what’s coming and more often than not, you can’t stop it. Even more impressively, no matter how many losses they suffer on the depth chart, they just plug new guys in and keep on rolling. With nine starters gone, that success will be put to the test again. Let’s see how the Midshipmen answer it.

Keenan Reynolds, QB

Is he the next big thing, or is he already there? Last season he stepped in for Trey Miller in week 6 and never looked back, leading the Middies to a 6-2 finish, while rushing for 649 yards and 10 scores, and passing (yeah, passing!) for 898 yards and 9 TDs against just 2 interceptions. His ability to run the ball was never in doubt, but his ability to throw well has led the coaching staff to tinker with the shotgun, to take advantage of his arm. With a solid bunch of receivers (by Navy’s standards) to throw to, opening up the Navy offense even more will just be a headache for defenses.

Chris Swain, FB

I’m going out on a bit of a limb here, as Navy already has a good fullback in Noah Copeland, who started all 13 games. Swain saw some action late as a freshman, rushing for 154 yards and a TD on 15 carries, including 93 yards on just 4 carries against Arizona State in the bowl loss. The big concern with Copeland is his health, as he was banged up a lot last season. Swain has to show he can handle that kind of workload, but he’s 20 pounds heavier than Copeland, and has excellent speed. He’s been one of the stars of fall camp so far, and he can expect to see plenty of the ball whether he starts or not.

Wave Ryder, SS

Ryder doesn’t just have an awesome name (and he’s from Hawaii), he has the ability to be an awesome player too. The senior saw plenty of time last season, racking up 53 tackles and an interception, and even got to start six games at free safety, where he performed admirably. This season he will step in for graduated Tra’ves Bush at Rover (strong safety), and has the size and tackling ability to earn himself a reputation with unfortunate ball carriers, and should step in seamlessly for his predecessor.

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Tags: Army Black Knights Brigham Young Cougars BYU Cougars Featured Idaho Vandals Navy Midshipmen New Mexico State Aggies Notre Dame Fighting Irish Sheldon Day