The Mountain West Conference could prove one of the most fruitful sources of fantasy production this season as it is home to some of the nation's top players at each position, like QB Cody Fajardo, RB Jay Ajayi, WR Devante Davis, TE Kivon Cartwright and even K Jared Roberts. It's also loaded with plenty of up-and-coming talent like QB Quinn Kaehler and WR Shane Williams-Rhodes, who could easily be fantasy stars by season's end.
TOP-5 FANTASY STARS
1. Cody Fajardo, QB, Nevada
Fajardo missed two September games last year because of a knee injury and spent the rest of the season limited by a bulky brace that prevented him from getting around the edge on running plays and scrambling away from pressure behind a leaky offensive line. He threw for 2,688 yards and 13 touchdowns and rushed for 621 yards and eight touchdowns, totaling 11 fewer touchdowns than in 2012. Fajardo is healthy now and should have plenty of experienced weapons in this year's Pistol offense with Kendall Brock and Don Jackson returning at running back and Richy Turner and Hasaan Henderson returning at wide receiver. The only returning FBS quarterback with 7,000 passing yards and 2,000 rushing yards, Fajardo should bounce back from last year's disappointing season and be the conference's top fantasy player.
2. Jay Ajayi, RB, Boise State
Ajayi has generated more buzz this summer than any Bronco since Kellen Moore and Ian Johnson. Ajayi, after all, rushed for 1,425 yards and scored 19 touchdowns last year, topping 100 yards six times and gaining at least 90 yards in three additional games. He's the third-leading returning rusher in the nation this year. New coach Bryan Harsin brings a more pass-oriented offense than Boise State had last year when Ajayi averaged 19.1 touches per game, but Harsin said he plans to get Ajayi 15-30 carries a game. Even if Ajayi's carries are on the low end of that estimate, his touches should be at least what they were last year.
3. Devante Davis, WR, UNLV
Davis tore through opposing defenses last year for 87 receptions, 1,290 yards and 14 touchdowns. That came after he posted 854 receiving yards as a sophomore, making him the first player in UNLV history with 2,000 yards receiving in a two-year span. He returned for his senior season to improve his NFL Draft stock but won't have the benefit of quarterback Caleb Herring this season. That should matter little, though, as Davis is one of the nation's elite at 6-foot-3, 215. Junior-college transfer Blake Decker, a NJCAA Second Team All-American, won the starting QB job in camp and will waste no time making Davis is favorite target.
4. Kivon Cartwright, TE, Colorado State
Utah State's Wyatt Houston and San Jose State's Billy Freeman both represent the Mountain West on the 2014 Mackey Award watch list, yet Cartwright might prove the conference's best tight end. At 6-4, 245, Cartwright finished 2013 with 27 catches for 462 yards and six touchdowns. That came while sharing the tight-end targets with Crockett Gillmore (47-577-2). Gillmore, though, is gone to the NFL, leaving Cartwright with a big potential increase in production. With standout senior quarterback Garrett Grayson returning, Cartwright should have no trouble seeing steady targets.
5. Matt Miller, WR, Boise State
Miller is one of the nation's top receivers, posting 88 receptions for 1,140 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. His production was inconsistent with 41 receptions, 636 yards and 10 scores coming in the final five games. But new coach Bryan Harsin's more pass friendly offense might take care of that. And at 6-3, 220, Miller is a strong red-zone threat.
Quinn Kaehler, QB, San Diego State
Kaehler made his first start in Week 2 last year and went on to throw for 3,007 yards, 19 touchdowns and nine interceptions while completing 59.6 percent of his passes. Kaehler's 250.6 yards per game ranked fifth in the conference behind the likes of Fresno State's Derek Carr, San Jose State's David Fales, Colorado State's Garrett Grayson and Wyoming's Brett Smith. He also led San Diego State to six game-winning drives, most in the nation. In his first full season as the starter, Kaehler should take another step in his development and could put up surprising numbers, particularly given weapons he has, such as wide receiver Ezell Ruffin (68-1,136-3).
Dee Hart, RB, Colorado State
Colorado State must replace the 1,741 rushing yards and 31 total touchdowns that Kapri Bibbs produced last year. Hart could be the man to do it. A transfer from Alabama, Hart was awarded immediate eligibility for 2014. He could have the inside edge for the starting job as new coach Jim McElwain was an assistant for the Crimson Tide when Hart arrived at Alabama. At 5-9, 190, Hart has some competition for carries, though none -- converted defensive back Jason Oden, redshirt freshmen Bryce Peters and junior college transfer Treyous Jarrells -- are particularly intimidating. It is hard to imagine that the former Parade All-American, MVP of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl and runner up for Mr. Football in Florida will have to wait long before making his mark for the Rams.
Joe Hill, RB, Utah State
Hill appeared poised for a breakout season in 2013, finally getting the starting nod after playing behind Kerwynn Williams and Robert Turbin -- both now in the NFL -- in 2011 and 2012. A season-ending knee injury in late September dashed those hopes, though. In 16 games the last two seasons, Hill averaged 5.2 yards per rush and totaled 11 touchdowns. Now healthy, he should pick up where he left off last season.
Shane Williams-Rhodes, WR, Boise State
Williams-Rhodes was utilized as a short-range, possession receiver in 2013, finished with 77 receptions for 702 yards and six touchdowns in 11 games after missing the last two games with an ankle injury. Those numbers could improve this season, as new coach Bryan Harsin plans to shift Williams-Rhodes from the slot to the outside to use him as a deep threat. Matt Miller likely will be the No. 1 target, but that should benefit the speedy Williams-Rhodes with single coverage.
Brandon Connette, QB, Fresno State
A transfer from Duke, Connette has immediate eligibility (he already earned an economics degree) and likely will take over for the departed Derek Carr. Connette was used mostly as a change-of-pace weapon on the ground for the Blue Devils last year, but he also passed for a couple 300-yard games and totaled 27 touchdowns. The fifth-year senior is expected to win the job over junior Brian Burrell, but the fact that coach Dave Schramm has yet to name a starter is perhaps an indication that Connette's skills might not mesh with Fresno State's no-huddle spread attack. So even if Connette starts coming opening day, the transition to the pass-heavy scheme might take a while.
Jarrod Lawson, RB, San Jose State
Lawson put together a solid freshman campaign in 2013 with a team-leading 788 yards and four touchdowns on 164 carries. He will be hard pressed to improve those numbers this year, though. The Spartans intend to split carries between Lawson and fellow sophomore Thomas Tucker, who had 338 yards and three touchdowns last season. Questions at quarterback and offensive line also figure to limit Lawson's value. Any hope of a breakout season seems dashed.
JoJo Natson/Ronald Butler, WR, Utah State
Natson, who led the Aggies with 59 receptions last season, and Butler, who averaged 14.4 yards per catch, were expected to replace the 1,493 yards and seven touchdowns the now-departed Travis Reynolds and Travis Van Leeuwen totaled last season, but off-field problems cloud the futures of both. Natson was arrested for diverting school funds intended for a teammate to himself, and Butler was charged with two misdemeanors, including driving under the influence. Coach Matt Wells said both will play in Utah State's season-opener at Tennessee on Aug. 30, but how much playing time each will get remains to be seen. And another slip-up for either could result in a suspension, too. Natson and Butler have an opportunity for production, but both bring a lot of risk.
TEAM-BY-TEAM FANTASY STARS
Overall position ranking in parenthesis.
Air Force Falcons
Boise State Broncos
QB Grant Hedrick (31), RB Jay Ajayi (8), WR Matt Miller (10), K Dan Goodale (16)
Colorado State Rams
TE Kivon Cartwright (2), K Jared Roberts (6)
Fresno State Bulldogs
QB Brandon Connette (34), Josh Harper (16), Team Defense (17)
RB Joey Iosefa (32)
Nevada Wolf Pack
QB Cody Fajardo (6)
New Mexico Lobos
San Diego State Aztecs
RB Donnel Pumphrey (17), WR Ezell Ruffin (19)
San Jose State Spartans
WR Tyler Winston (18), TE Billy Freeman (20), K Austin Lopez (17)
RB Shaquille Murray-Lawrence (31), WR Devante Davis (7)
Utah State Aggies
QB Chuckie Keeton (15), Team Defense (16)