QUARTERBACK – Greg Ward, Jr., Houston
Honorable Mention: Nathan Peterman, Pittsburgh
The former wideout led the Cougars to one of the best seasons in recent memory, as they were ranked as high as No. 6. Ward had shown that he could run with the best of them, but his senior season proved he could also sling it around as he threw for 3,557 yards while posting career-highs in completion percentage (68%) and passing TDs (22).
RUNNING BACKS – Teriyon Gipson, New Mexico; I’Tavius Mathers, Middle Tennessee
Honorable Mention: Joe Williams, Utah
After posting respectable back-to-back campaigns of 800-plus yards rushing, Gipson exploded in 2016 with 1,269 yards on the ground and 13 scores (14 total TDs) — this even while missing two games. His finest effort came in the last game of the regular season against Wyoming, when he racked up 217 yards on just 13 carries.
Mathers showed Middle Tennessee exactly what it had in its senior tailback after he missed the entire 2015 season. After posting just 290 yards in 2014 at Ole Miss, Mathers erupted for 1,561 yards and 17 touchdowns this year, and at one point had a streak of six straight games of over 100 rushing yards. The senior put up multiple three-touchdown games, with the last one coming in a high-scoring affair against Florida Atlantic — he had 213 yards on the ground as the Blue Raiders won, 77-56.
WIDE RECEIVERS – Tanner Gentry, Wyoming; Nicholas Norris, Western Kentucky
Honorable Mention: Noel Thomas, Jr., Connecticut
Gentry was the leading receiver for Wyoming, but what a difference a year made for him and the Cowboys. Last year, 678 yards were enough to lead the team; but in 2016, Gentry put up over 1,326, almost doubling both his receptions (72) and yardage, while maintaining his average per catch (18.4). He also put up a whopping 14 touchdowns, and had one of the best performances of the year when he had five catches for 184 yards and three touchdowns in a triple-overtime loss to UNLV.
Norris finished just under 1,000 yards last year, but he easily hit that mark this season, notching 1,318 yards on 76 receptions. Twice this season, he had games of double-digits catches, and his 14 touchdowns proved that, even with his 5-foot9 frame, he was tough to stop from getting into the end zone. If that wasn’t enough, the Hilltoppers also used his speed to create mismatches, and when he carried the ball, he delivered to the tune of 222 yards rushing and an 85-yard touchdown.
TIGHT END – Cole Hikutini, Louisville
Honorable Mention: Darrell Daniels, Washington
A quarterback’s best friend is his tight end, and that’s true even of Heisman winners. Hikutani fit that bill for the Cardinals, as he was always open at the right time in the right moment in so many of their games. His understanding of the offense was parlayed into 50 catches for 668 yards and an impressive eight touchdowns. He had five games of 80 or more yards, including two 100-yard outputs against NC State and Kentucky, and was also a factor in the run game with his ability to stay on his blocks.
OFFENSIVE TACKLES – Julie’n Davenport, Bucknell; Kelly Parfitt, Florida Atlantic
Honorable Mention: Javarius Leamon, South Carolina State
For those in the know, Davenport has been on the radar for a while. But this year truly solidified his status among the country’s elites. He’s been dominating competition in the FCS for Bucknell, and was properly recognized with multiple first team All-America nods from various outlets.
Parfitt transferred from Central Florida after his freshman season and since then, he’s done a very good job on a line that suffered multiple injuries. Though he had to fill multiple positions across the line, once he settled in, Parfitt was a mainstay and a rock for Florida Atlantic.
GUARDS – Isaac Asiata, Utah; Alex Kozan, Auburn
Honorable Mention: Dorian Johnson, Pittsburgh
Asiata was a solid lineman for the Utes and a big reason why Utah running back Joe Williams was able to have a resurgence in the latter half of the season. His presence in the run game paved open holes for his tailbacks.
Kozan missed the 2014 season, but his last two years for the Tiger were nothing but quality. He not only impresses in run blocking but also in pass protection, which is especially important for an offense like Auburn that likes to mix and match based on its uptempo style.
CENTER – Pat Elflein, Ohio State
Honorable Mention: Jay Guillermo, Clemson
It’s not easy to change positions, but Elflein made the transition from guard to center as seamlessly as possible. He did a flawless job of calling out the defensive fronts for the rest of his offense, and was solid in the run game and in getting to the second level.
DEFENSIVE ENDS – Romond Deloatch, Temple; Chris Odom, Arkansas State
Honorable Mention: Taco Charlton, Michigan
Deloatch was a solid tight end this year… which makes it all the more impressive that he was able to make such an impact at defensive end. His two sacks against UCF were absolutely pivotal, and he had two more tackles for a loss against East Carolina while still playing on offense.
Odom had just one sack in 2014, and he missed the entire 2015 season. He clearly wanted to make up for lost time in 2016, because he absolutely shattered any expectations people had of him. He had 12.5 quarterback takedowns on the season, including two games when he had a hat trick of sacks against South Alabama and Texas State. He also finished with 17.5 total tackles for a loss, four forced fumbles, and a blocked kick for good measure.
DEFENSIVE TACKLE – Pat O’Connor, Eastern Michigan
Honorable Mention: Jarron Jones, Notre Dame
O’Connor showed no lingering effects of his shoulder injury from a year ago that cost him his 2015 campaign. In 2016, he led the team in sacks with 8.5 and also had 14.5 tackles for a loss with his ability to knife between interior linemen to cause havoc in the backfield. His relentless motor allowed him to also notch 42 tackles and force five fumbles.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS – Keion Adams, Western Michigan; Isaiah Irving, San Jose State
Honorable Mention: Avery Williams, Temple
Adams was a force to be reckoned with during Western Michigan’s magical run to the Cotton Bowl. He posted 7.5 sacks on the year, but he also showed he’s not just one to rush the passer. Adams has an uncanny ability to know when he should jump the snap, and that timing led to his 18.0 tackles for a loss–almost double his total from a year prior.
With more playing time, Irving produced much more on the gridiron. While his tackle totals stayed mostly the same (38 to 45), his biggest improvement came in his ability to make stops behind the line of scrimmage. He went from one sack to seven sacks on the year, and added in 11 tackles for loss. His finest game came in his final contest, as he put up back-to-back sacks on a fourth quarter drive to force a punt, which led directly to the game-winning field goal for San Jose State.
INSIDE LINEBACKERS – Jordan Burton, Oklahoma State; Hardy Nickerson, Illinios
Honorable Mention: Riley Bullough, Michigan State
Though his tackles went down, Burton was just as much of a threat around the ball in his final season of college football, and in fact, showed vast improvement in his pass coverage. He had two picks on the year to go with his 4.5 tackles for a loss and 61 total tackles for the Cowboys.
Nickerson was solid at California, but he made another jump after transferring to Illinois. He developed a more well-rounded game from the middle linebacker position, as he still had over 100 tackles but also had two interceptions, 5.5 tackles for a loss and two sacks on the year.
CORNERBACKS – Cordrea Tankersley, Clemson; Brian Allen, Utah
Honorable Mention: Ryan Lewis, Pittsburgh
Tankersley has been a vital piece to Clemson’s run to consecutive national championship games, and part of that is how well he is able to track down the ball. But this season, with quarterbacks avoiding him, Tankersley made up for it with an increase in tackles for loss and passes defensed.
Allen played wide receiver early on for Utah and then suffered a season-ending injury… but when he got back on the field this year, he was a solid member of the Utes secondary. He stepped up his game by snagging four picks on the year (after recording one in 2015) and was not afraid to get his hands dirty, logging 35 tackles, 4.5 tackles for a loss and a sack.
SAFETIES – Leo Musso, Wisconsin; Dallas Lloyd, Stanford
Honorable Mention: Nathan Gerry, Nebraska
With his 74 tackles and five interceptions this season, Musso blew away his 2015 totals of eight tackles and one pick, respectively. He also managed to get into the end zone with a 66-yard fumble return for a touchdown as he locked down the back half of the Cotton Bowl-winning Wisconsin defense.
Lloyd was a star for the Stanford Cardinals, with five interceptions (including one return for a TD) and 61 total tackles as he roamed the defensive backfield. He had six games with six tackles or more, including his final one in a win against North Carolina in the Sun Bowl, where he had two interceptions, six tackles, and a forced fumble.