Last year guys like Justin Crawford and David Long burst onto the scene and became some of our most important players. Here’s a few that I think could make the leap this year.
So before we get into this, I’m excluding Will Grier from the conversation. He’s just too obvious a pick, and technically he already broke out, so while I think he’s going to be great, this space is reserved for guys who are a little more low-profile. While we’re on the Grier subject tho..
WR David Sills
Somewhat lost in the excitement of how well Grier played in the Spring Game was just how good his favorite target looked. Sills flashed big-play potential two years ago in his first stint in the Old Gold and Blue and didn’t look like he’d lost a step during his quarterback sabbatical, catching 6 passes for 96 yards. The athleticism was still there, but he actually looked more polished running routes and showed a Daikielian ability to find soft spots in the coverage.
Even more encouraging was the understanding he already seems to have developed with Will. It was quickly apparent that Grier trusts Sills, and more often that not he found him when he was looking for him. Daikiel’s graduation means there’s going to be a void to fill with regards to those “gotta have it” types of completions, so if they can build on that budding relationship and Sills continues to improve on those positional nuances, I think he’s poised for a big year.
RB Martell Pettaway
Crawford is Crawford and McKoy is his ideological successor if something were to happen to him, but it’s hard to forget how impressive Martell Pettaway was when both were hurt towards the end of last season. In fact, he was so good in those first 2 starts (46 carries, 244 yards, 1 TD) that you could almost argue he has no place here, but I think this is the year where we see him really start to emerge as a star. The KISS method he applies to running the ball (I wrote last year that watching him run felt kind of like we were watching Karl Joseph play offense) just gives us something a little different than either of those other 2, and I think that more traditional running back skill set is something we’re going to lean on as the season rolls on.
LB Brendan Ferns
Ferns probably would’ve been part of this group last year had his season not been cut short by injury. Word out of practice was that he was already pushing Al Benton for time at the Mike, and considering the turnover at the other two spots his gameday participation always seemed more like a matter of when than if.
Fast forward a year and we’re right back where we started. Ferns is recovered and again looking sharp, and again seems to be leading that group of 2016 backers that are pushing the incumbents for playing time. If he stays healthy I expect him to see a lot of the field this year, especially now with that uncertainty around David Long’s injury.
DL Adam Shuler
This is at least partly a necessity pick: we’re breaking in three new starters along the defensive front; if at least one of them doesn’t step up then we’re going to have issues. That’s not to say that Shuler isn’t a likely candidate who doesn’t deserve to be here on his own merits though. He actually looked quite competent last year, especially towards the end of the season when Nwachukwu was banged up, finishing 11th on the team with 34 tackles, a sack, and a couple TFLs in a rotational role. This year he’ll be one of the guys we look to to lead the group, and if he can build on the way he finished 2016 then I think he’ll be up to the task.
S Marvin Gross Jr
Much like Justin Arndt last year, Marvin Gross is a 5th-year guy who’s paid his dues to the program and has earned the chance for more regular playing time. He’s played in every game for us over the past two seasons, but up until the Iowa State and Baylor games last year his opportunities had come mainly on special teams, where he led the team in tackles a year ago. With Kyzir White out injured though, Gross was given a chance and really ran with it. He had a career-high 6 tackles against the Cyclones before blowing up Baylor with 6 more tackles, 2 sacks, a forced fumble and an interception, which was actually enough to earn him Big XII DPOW honors.
This is his last chance to shine, so you just know he’s going to leave it all out there. He should be competing with Toyous Avery for the starting safety spot opposite the aforementioned White, and if he can consistently perform anything like the way he did down the stretch last year it’s going to be tough to keep him off the field.