Last season, the Mountain West featured some of the most exciting players in the college landscape with Jay Ajayi, Rashard Higgins, Donnel Pumphrey, Garrett Grayson and Cody Fajardo, and this season should be no different. No one will mistake some of the MWC defensive fronts for a Big Ten or SEC front seven, so there should be no shortage of big individual performances here in 2015. There has been some turnover among that list of star players as Ajayi, Grayson and Fajardo are playing on Sundays now, but the Mountain West may be getting its best overall quarterback back in Chuckie Keeton, who is looking to have a big final season after a few injury-marred campaigns. Also, with the departure of those big names, there will be some relative unknowns who are primed for breakout performances this year.
The Mountain West may be lacking in traditional powerhouse programs, but you'd better get familiar with some of these hidden gems because there's plenty of fantasy gold out there waiting to be discovered.
TOP-5 FANTASY STARS
Rashard Higgins, WR, Colorado State - If Higgins isn't already a household name after leading the nation in receiving yards last season, he will be soon. He beat out the likes of Amari Cooper, Tyler Lockett and Kevin White to take the receiving crown by posting 1,750 yards on 96 receptions -- no other receiver in the top 5 had less than 100 grabs. Higgins accomplished that by being a legit home-run threat who is also a nightmare for opposing defenses once he gets the ball in his hands. The loss of quarterback Garrett Grayson certainly hurts, but new head coach Mike Bobo's system should help cut down on starter Nick Stevens' learning curve. Higgins is simply a superior athlete to most of the competition he faces and can put up monster numbers regardless of who's throwing it his way. While replicating last season's other-worldly production will be a tough task, Higgins should still put up elite level production this year.
Donnel Pumphrey, RB, San Diego State - Pumphrey took advantage of being San Diego State's workhorse last season to the tune of 1,867 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground while averaging an outstanding 6.8 yards per carry. This year, the diminutive Pumphrey (5-foot-9, 180) should be one of college football's most dangerous backs once again as he'll be running behind an experienced Aztec o-line against questionable Mountain West defenses. Pumphrey struggles against better competition, so games against the likes of Penn State may be tougher sledding, but he'll face enough soft defenses to buoy his value with his potential for monster, 200-plus yard efforts.
Marteze Waller, RB, Fresno State - Waller put forth a stellar effort in 2014, rushing for 1,368 yards and 11 touchdowns in his first season as Fresno State's undoubted No. 1 back. This year, he'll have even less competition for carries thanks to the departure of Josh Quezada, who got 134 carries in 2014. Waller demonstrated some tremendous per-carry production last season with five games in which he topped 100 yards in less than 20 attempts. He'll have the added benefit of facing weak Mountain West defensive fronts, so look for Waller to easily match or surpass his yardage total from a year ago thanks to an increased workload.
Devonte Boyd, WR, UNLV - Boyd led the Rebels in receptions (65) and receiving yards (980) last season as a true freshman and is primed for another big year, especially considering that UNLV's second and third leading receivers from 2014 are no longer on the team. He already has an excellent rapport with quarterback Blake Decker, who will be back under center for his senior season. Boyd only reached paydirt four times last season, but some of that can be blamed on UNLV's ineffective redzone offense that had just 26 touchdowns out of 46 red-zone opportunities, an efficiency rate of 56.52, which was good enough for 82nd in the nation. Look for that number to improve this season and with that, Boyd's touchdowns should push double-digits to go along with another season in the 1,000 yard range.
Chuckie Keeton, QB, Utah State - Keeton is coming off his second season-ending injury in as many years after suffering a serious knee injury against Wake Forest on Sept. 13. When healthy, Keeton is one of the most prolific players in the game, throwing for 3,373 yards and 27 touchdowns to go with 619 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground. It's all a matter of health with Keeton as there are legitimate injury concerns with him and some may question whether the cumulative effect of two major knee injuries may slow him down this year. Those injury concerns may cause him to drop in your draft, but if Keeton comes back at full strength (which seems to be the case), this elder statesman may recapture his
Jeremy McNichols, RB, Boise State - McNichols impressed coaches last season to the point where the coaching staff burned his redshirt, allowing him to play nine games as a true freshman. He had just 32 total offensive touches (17 rushes, 159 yards, TD; 15 rec., 155 yards, TD), showing how explosive he can be with the ball in his hands. He was Boise State's first-team running back in the Broncos' Aug. 22 scrimmage and that should be the case once the season gets under way. Kelsey Young, who rushed for 331 yards at Stanford last season before transferring to Boise State, will also be getting some work out of the backfield this season, but McNichols has already been billed as "the future" of Boise State's backfield, so it shouldn't wind up being a situation where McNichols isn't getting enough touches. Jay Ajayi left big shoes to fill for future Boise State backs after he had a FBS-high 347 carries for a Bronco record 1,823 yards in 2014, and while McNichols has high expectations for this season, that workload alone simply isn't realistic for the upcoming campaign. Still, McNichols should be the driving force in Boise State's offense this season given that they'll have a talented but inexperienced Ryan Finley at quarterback. It's also worth noting that McNichols was recruited as a receiver at Utah before committing to Boise State as a running back, so he does have an ability to put up numbers as a pass catcher out of the backfield as well.
Treyous Jarrells, Jasen Oden, RB, Colorado State - Jarrells recently underwent arthroscopic knee surgery, but new coach Mike Bobo said that his senior running back could be back for the season opener. Even if he misses the season opener against Savannah State, Jarrells should have a big role in Colorado State's run game now that Dee Hart (1,275 yds in 2014) has moved on from the program. Jarrells is on the smaller side (5-7, 185) but showed an ability to run between the tackles last season. He also won't have to worry much about opposing defenses stacking the box against him as they'll be tasked with trying to slow down Rashard Higgins on the outside. As for Oden, he figures to be the Rams' second back and could be asked to carry the load should Jarrells have to miss some time. Oden had just 46 carries last season as the team's third running back, but ran at a 6.0 YPC clip to end up with 276 yards and two touchdowns. As a secondary back, Oden could push for 100-plus carries and his size (5-11, 218) could help him get some looks in short-yardage situations. Bobo's system at UGA usually featured some great running backs, especially in recent years, but he'll adjust to CSU's personnel to accommodate for a healthy mix of run and pass. He'll have a more up-tempo style to this offense, which should equate to huge point totals against Mountain West defenses. Neither Jarrells nor Oden will be your prototypical workhorse back, but they'll be in a great offensive system that figures to give them plenty of chances to reach paydirt.
Nick Stevens, QB, Colorado State - Stevens was named Colorado State's starter on Aug. 17 after an impressive showing in the team's first scrimmage of fall camp, and coach Mike Bobo praised his new quarterback for his consistency throughout spring and fall practices. He won't step in and make Rams fans forget about Garrett Grayson, but being named the starter so early in camp should translate into Stevens having a solid comfort level with the offense and his supporting cast as opposed to being bogged down in a quarterback competition that would have him taking reps with the second team. Stevens has one of the best receivers in the game at his disposal in Rashard Higgins, as well as two serviceable backs and a pair of Mackey Award watch list tight ends in Kivon Cartwright and Steven Walker. With all of those weapons, and with Bobo's ability to develop quarterbacks, Stevens has a chance to put up fantasy-relevant numbers in his first year under center.
Brandon Swindall, WR, Utah State - A torn Achilles' tendon ended Swindall's 2014 season before it could ever really get off the ground, but he's back this year and fully recovered from his injury. Swindall's lone fully healthy season came as a sophomore in 2013 when he reeled in 29 passes for 285 yards and six touchdowns. The yards-per-reception rate that year was underwhelming, but his 6-4, 205-pound frame allowed him to be Chuckie Keeton and Darell Garretson's primary red-zone threat as all six of his touchdowns came in that area of the field. Swindall and Keeton reportedly worked on routes a lot this offseason to improve their rapport. That rapport will be tested early in the season with Hunter Sharp suspended for the first two games of the season and Devonte Robinson working his way back from a knee injury. If Swindall and Keeton are able to click right away, they could combine to be a dangerous tandem in the Mountain West this season. Swindall's size and past red-zone production should earn him plenty of looks from Keeton near their opponent's goal line, which should translate to plenty of touchdowns for the big senior wideout.
LaJuan Hunt, Devante Mays, RB, Utah State - Hunt led the Aggies in rushing as a true freshman last season, racking up 545 yards on 111 carries. Head coach Matt Wells recently said that Hunt might be his workhorse this season. Wells may have chosen his words wisely, however, because junior-college transfer Devante Mays has been impressive throughout camp. Mays brings a bruising 5-11, 220-pound frame to Utah State after racking up 557 yards on just 57 carries (9.8 ypc) at Blinn Junior College last season. Hunt appears to be the favorite to get most of the carries, at least early in the season, but Utah State will certainly want to see what it has in its JUCO transfer as well. Utah State also boasts a solid offensive line that returns four starters from a year ago. With Mays, it'll be important to monitor the progress redshirt freshman running back Justen Hervey, who is also in the mix for carries behind Hunt.
Don Jackson, RB, Nevada - Jackson had decent production in his first year as Nevada's featured running back in 2014, rushing for 957 yards and seven scores on 216 carries. With dual-threat Cody Fajardo now fighting for a roster spot with the Raiders, it should open up some more carries for Jackson this season. The question is whether he'll be able to produce as Nevada's most established offensive weapon. Fajardo commanded the attention of opposing defenses, which meant those fronts weren't keying in on stopping Jackson first. Nevada will be breaking in junior Tyler Stewart as its quarterback this season after going through the entire 2014 campaign without attempting a pass. Stewart doesn't have Fajardo's athleticism, so Jackson will be tasked with picking up most of Nevada's yards on the ground. Jackson has a favorable situation going into this season thanks to a big projected workload, but he hasn't shown an ability to carry an offense in the past and has a history of disappearing in games against tougher competition (five games over 100 yards, eight games under 70 yards with no in-between in 2014).
Steven Lakalaka, RB, Hawaii - Lakalaka's production and workload fell off a cliff in the second half last season. Aside from back-to-back 100-yard games in Weeks 3 and 4, Lakalaka reached paydirt just once down the stretch and didn't run for more than 76 yards in any of his last six games. He won't have to compete for carries with Joey Iosefa anymore, but Diocemy Saint Juste had much better per-carry production last season and may end up overtaking Lakalaka before too long. His lack of explosion is worrisome as well; his longest carry last season was 30 yards. There are plenty of running backs worth targeting out of the Mountain West, but Lakalaka simply isn't one of them.
Tyler Ervin, RB, San Jose State - Ervin had a strong season in 2014 with 888 yards on 158 carries, but only reached the endzone four times on the year. He's got good explosion and is a home run threat in the Spartans' offense, but this may be a case of not having a large enough workload to justify rostering him. Not only is SJSU going to be throwing it over 30 times per game with Joe Gray under center, but Ervin is going to see some carries go to Jarrod Lawson and Thomas Tucker as well. There has been some talk of using Ervin as a sort of hybrid wideout/running back, but that sort of role usually winds up being better in theory than it is in practice. Ervin has the big-play potential to put up some great numbers some weeks, but he may be too extreme of a feast-or-famine type player to be worth holding onto in year-long leagues.
Jake Roh, TE, Boise State - Roh put together a strong season in 2014 as a redshirt freshman, hauling in 35 receptions for 408 yards and two touchdowns to earn an All-Mountain West Honorable Mention. Now, he'll be catching passes from first-year-starter Ryan Finley. Another limiting factor could be a healthy Holden Huff at the other tight end spot; Huff, a senior, has had a pair of quiet seasons but he's healthy now and provides a bigger target at 6-6 for Finley. Roh may end up having a fine season and matching his production from 2014, but an inexperienced quarterback and run-heavy offensive gameplan doesn't bode well for him taking the next step as a big time fantasy commodity at tight end.
Tyler Stewart, QB, Nevada - Stewart was recently named Nevada's starting quarterback after beating out freshman Hunter Fralick for the gig. Coach Brian Polian's explanation for giving Stewart the nod doesn't inspire much confidence, saying,” When you have an evenly matched deal, it comes down to the fact that Tyler has played in games and that experience really becomes the deciding factor.” Experience, not skill or great showings in practice, earned him the job. It's a logical decision to go with the more seasoned player, but Stewart is still pretty raw; he has attempted all of 37 passes in his collegiate career, completing 21 of them for 251 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions--all of those passes came in 2013. Stewart has good size at 6-4, 220, and he may develop into a decent passer, but he's not the dual-threat fantasy stud like former Nevada quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick or Cody Fajardo. He'll also be playing behind an inexperienced line and doesn't have any standout weapons on the outside. Like I said before, Stewart may turn out to be a productive passer, but there are many better options at quarterback with better offenses if you're looking to roster a signal caller from the Mountain West.