In each edition of the College Football America Yearbook, Publisher Kendall Webb selects a team of the nation’s top incoming freshmen designated by their signing year — e.g., the Class of 2017.
The team is the equivalent of a Freshman All-America team for the upcoming season, but we also continue to track their progress throughout their collegiate careers as the goal is to find players that can make an impact early while also competing for college football’s top awards and All-America status as their careers progress. We call it The Program.
On National Signing Day in 2013, we selected the incoming freshmen that comprised our Class of 2013. It included a number of players that played immediately, and this past fall, eight of those players comprised our first senior class along with one player we “signed” as a junior college transfer in our Class of 2015.
Those nine players have officially exhausted their collegiate eligibility, and a fair number of them will be selected in this spring’s NFL Draft. Tonight, we salute the first senior class in The Program’s history and look ahead to their professional careers.
Certainly, you could argue that Adams never quite lived up to the potential he displayed in high school. He can be dominant at times displaying the talent that made him a 5-star prospect coming out of Dooly County (Vienna, GA), but he can occasionally disappear for stretches, too. A dominant Senior Bowl performance, however, might have put him back in the spotlight, and if he performs well in pre-draft camps, he could be a surprise pick as high as the second round. Most projections, though, have him anywhere from the third to the fifth. Either way, Adams will get a chance at the next level, and he’s one of those talents that’s still a bit of a mystery after all these years.
Ole Miss safety
Conner’s heart and leadership have never been in question, but an injury-plagued career at Ole Miss has severely damaged his dreams of playing in the NFL. Since suffering a season-ending knee injury in the 2015 game against Alabama, Conner hasn’t been the same player that dominated prior to that including a sophomore season where he earned Second-Team All-SEC honors. Being selected in the NFL Draft at this point is a long shot, and Conner’s professional career will likely depend on whether or not he can make a team after signing as a free agent. That’s a tough road, but Conner’s a tough player who’s hard to count out.
In a draft heavy on talented corners, Elder will likely have to wait until the second day to hear his name called. Projections have him as probably a fourth- or fifth-round pick although his potential to double as a return specialist could push his prospects higher depending on a team’s needs. He’s not a guy who’s necessarily going to blow you away with his statistics, but when given opportunities with the ball in his hands, he’s made a lasting mark. I mean, who could ever forget Elder taking the ball to the house on the Hurricanes’ eight-lateral kickoff return to beat Duke? Yeah, it was Elder who ultimately took it the distance to give Miami the win on the game’s final play, and it’s that kind of talent that has the ability to turn heads and open eyes.
For the second straight year, a linebacker in The Program took home the Butkus Award as Foster collected the prestigious trophy at the end of last season. Of course, Jaylon Smith suffered a devastating knee injury in Notre Dame’s bowl game at the end of the 2015 season, and he slipped from a likely Top 5 pick to the end of the second round. Barring an injury between now and draft day, Foster is a first-rounder, too, and you can be certain he’s aware of Smith’s plight. Foster looks like a pretty sure bet for a successful professional career, and after three straight College Football Playoff appearances, he’ll bring a championship pedigree to any team that calls his name on draft day.
Alabama tight end
Howard was the most valuable player of the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship Game, and he’s projected on most boards as a first-round pick. At Alabama, Howard made his share of plays, but the general feel here is that he will be even better as a professional where offensive coordinators might be a little more inclined to get the tight end involved in the offense. That championship game also showed that Howard has some wheels when he gets in open space, and virtually any coordinator would like to add a talent like that to the mix.
Johnson was quietly one of the better offensive linemen in college football over the past four years. He’s probably a second- to third-rounder on draft day, and the feeling here is that, like Howard, he might have more accolades come his way as a professional than he did as a collegian.
South Carolina defensive end
We added Lewis as our defensive juco transfer player of the year in 2015, and he was a solid contributor over his final two seasons at South Carolina. He didn’t do enough, however, to attract the attention of draft scouts, and it’s likely that he’ll have to go the free agent route if he’s interested in a professional career.
Louisville wide receiver
Quick was a hometown product coming out of Louisville’s Trinity High School, and when he chose to stay in town and play for Louisville, the story line was in place for the local hero to lead the Cardinals to greater heights. He certainly had his moments in last season’s big season that featured quarterback Lamar Jackson’s Heisman Trophy run. Quick was Jackson’s second favorite target in terms of receptions with 45, and his 769 receiving yards led the team. But he never was quite the star he was projected to be, and in four years, he never was able to join college football’s elite receivers. That’s likely to leave him a little bit on the outside looking in when draft day rolls around, and it appears likely that he will go undrafted. He has the skill set, however, to possibly crack a roster as a free agent if he finds the right opportunity. He could also provide help on special teams possibly as a return specialist so he his value could increase if he has a big pre-draft camp.
If there was a player that seemed a bit overlooked heading into last season, it was the quarterback of Tennessee’s defense. Reeves-Maybin was one of the bigger playmakers in the SEC during his first three seasons, and he and the Volunteers both felt primed for breakout seasons when the 2016 season kicked off. And, for a little while, it actually seemed Reeves-Maybin and his Vols might exceed those expectations weaving their way undefeated through a dramatic first five games. That stretch included an overtime win in the season-opener against Appalachian State followed by come-from-behind wins against Virginia Tech and Florida. As if that wasn’t enough, they beat Georgia with a Hail Mary on the game’s final play to get to 5-0. Then it all came crashing down with a three-game losing streak mid-season that ultimately cost them the SEC East title. The first really big loss of the season for the Volunteers, however, came in the third game of the season when Reeves-Maybin was injured against Ohio. He tried to play the following week against Florida, but lasted less than a quarter before being ruled out of the Georgia game. By the time the three-game losing streak ruined the Vols’ season, Reeves-Maybin had been ruled out for the rest of the year. That hasn’t done anything to help his draft stock, although many projections still have him going in the sixth- or seventh-round. If he’s recovered in time to participate in some pre-draft camps, he could raise his stock a little, but at this point, he’ll likely have to settle for just being a late-round pick by a team willing to take a chance.
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