A handful of college football players used their bowl games as a breakout opportunity, and a chance to get a jumpstart on the 2017 season.
Bowl games serve all kinds of purposes for programs. Extra reps and practice time for the young building blocks of the future. A final game for the seniors, especially for those without pro futures. And then there’s a handful of players each December and January use their season finale as a catapult to next fall.
The 2017 campaign may be a long way off, but the following players will begin it with a tailwind, thanks to their stellar bowl performances.
15. LB Mook Reynolds, Virginia Tech
To successfully play WHIP linebacker for Bud Foster, a defender must be versatile. Reynolds showcased the versatility of his skill set in the Hokies’ comeback win over Arkansas in the Belk Bowl. The athletic sophomore was one of the defensive stalwarts who helped shutout the Hogs in the second half, chipping in five tackles, three stops for loss, a pair of key sacks and a pass breakup.
14. LB Kavika Luafatasaga, Utah
The game has begun to slow down for Luafatasaga, the high-profile Arizona Western College transfer who’ll be one of the defensive cornerstones in 2017. A hot finish, including back-to-back 10-tackle efforts in the Pac-12 Championship Game and the Foster Farms Bowl, replaced a rough start to his Ute career. Luafatasaga was one of the defensive heroes versus Indiana, making a game-high 12 stops, two tackles for loss and a pass breakup on the final play to seal the win.
13. LB Blake Cashman, Minnesota
New Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck will delight in inheriting a player like Cashman. He’s a walk-on who didn’t quite fit the mold of a Big Ten player. But Cashman forced his way into the rotation with a disruptive November, and then capped a building block sophomore year by making 12 tackles, two stops and a sack as Minnesota shut down high-scoring Washington State in the Holiday Bowl.
12. RB Dedrick Mills, Georgia Tech
Paul Johnson and his Yellow Jackets couldn’t have been much happier with the way 2016 ended, winning six of the final seven games to go 9-4. The capper was the TaxSlayer Bowl victory over Kentucky, in which Mills earned the MVP for rushing for a season-best 169 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries. He’s the kind of young B-back Johnson plans to build around over the next three seasons.
11. LB Tegray Scales, Indiana
Scales added an exclamation point to his breakout junior year with another impactful performance in the Foster Farms Bowl. The Hoosiers fell in Santa Clara, but No. 8 still earned Defensive MVP honors with 10 tackles, three stops for loss and a couple of sacks. New head coach Tom Allen is holding his breath that Scales will remain in Bloomington and headline a much-improved defense for one final year.
10. DE Duke Ejiofor, Wake Forest
The 2017 Deacon D will once again be spearheaded by Ejiofor, who has elected to remain in school for his senior year. One of the nation’s most underrated pass rushers is a high-energy force off the edge in Winston-Salem. Ejiofor was the defensive catalyst in Wake’s Military Bowl upset of Temple, pitching in with six stops, two tackles for loss, a half-sack, a pick and a bunch of pressures.
9. DE Clelin Ferrell, Clemson
Carlos Watkins, Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence field most of the D-line hype. But Ferrell also played a key role in the Tigers’ Fiesta Bowl shutout of Ohio State. In the biggest game of his brief career, the redshirt freshman erupted for a sack and a season-best three tackles behind the line. At 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds, Ferrell has the length and speed to become the latest end to use Clemson as a stepping-stone to the NFL.
8. QB Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State
Rudolph could be prepping for the NFL Combine today. Instead, he’s readying for his final offseason in Stillwater. Mike Gundy and the Cowboys couldn’t be more pleased. Rudolph capped an outstanding junior season by throwing for 314 yards and three scores in the Pokes’ Alamo Bowl rout of Colorado. And he handed the Buff secondary one of its worst outings of the 2016 season.
Players Who Used Bowl Games As A Springboard (cont.)
7. LB Matthew Thomas, Florida State
Thomas dominated Michigan in the Orange Bowl, and then announced he’d be returning to Tallahassee for his senior season. Win-win for the Noles. The former can’t-miss blue-chipper bounced back in 2016 after shoulder issues severely limited him in his first few seasons. Thomas’ potential and range were on full display against the Wolverines, racking up a game-high 15 tackles, 3.5 for minus yards.
6. QB Quinton Flowers, South Florida
Flowers ran circles around an SEC defense, South Carolina, in the Birmingham Bowl, another high visibility game to gain more national attention entering his senior year. The dual-threat rushed for 105 yards and three touchdowns, threw for 261 yards and two more scores and generally served notice that he’s about to become one of the faces of the 2017 season as USF attempts to become next year’s Western Michigan.
5. DT Trenton Thompson, Georgia
Thompson’s Liberty Bowl message was clear—he plans to be one of the nation’s premier interior linemen next season. The second-year Bulldog was unblockable by the TCU front wall, collecting eight tackles and three sacks to earn MVP honors. Thompson has the quickness, strength and motor to whip opposing blockers, busting through the seams to be a headliner for Kirby Smart’s second defense in Athens.
4. RB Justin Jackson, Northwestern
Jackson wants his Northwestern degree. In other words, his career-best 224 yards and three touchdowns to help upset Pitt in the Pinstripe Bowl was not his farewell to Wildcat fans. Instead, it was a four-quarter showcase of his ability to be the focal point of an offense that will also welcome back up-and-coming QB Clayton Thorson in 2017.
3. RB Bo Scarbrough, Alabama
It was a strange year for Scarbrough. Popular offseason choice to succeed Derrick Henry and make a charge toward Heisman contention. Third-stringer for much of the regular season. Star of the Peach Bowl, gashing a very good Washington D for 180 yards and a pair of scores on 19 carries. Ups-and-downs aside, Scarbrough showed in Atlanta that he possesses the rare combination of size, speed and balance to be Nick Saban’s feature back next year.
2. RB Saquon Barkley, Penn State
If Barkley stays healthy from start to finish, he’s going to make a run at Heisman contention as a junior. He’s a dynamite all-around playmaker, putting a bow on his sophomore year by accounting for 249 total yards and three touchdowns in the Rose Bowl against a terrific USC defense. Barkley’s agility and balance help make him one of the top open-field runners in the country.
1. QB Sam Darnold, USC
Darnold was more than just the Rose Bowl’s Offensive Player of the Game, sparking Troy’s thrilling win over Penn State. He achieved crossover appeal for his performance in Pasadena, going from anonymity to a household name in the span of an afternoon. Darnold closed his redshirt freshman season by surgically carving up the Lion defense for 453 yards and five touchdowns, including a game-winning dart to sophomore Deontay Burnett, another of the team’s budding stars.