During the weeks without Mountain West football, the extra time lent itself to attempting new and creative ideas for posts. Today’s column is one of those ideas.
This idea isn’t new, and maybe it isn’t creative, but it is worth discussing. It is
stolen borrowed from the old regime at South Side Sox (now at Sox Machine outside of the SBNation umbrella) as they would compile the most AL Central player on each team in the AL Central division. The intent can work for the Mountain West as well. The idea to identify the players who are good but not transcendent stars. These are players who are talented but not household names to college football fans outside of the MWC. Solid players whose talents and production is appreciated more by watching a season’s worth of conference games rather than catching highlights on ESPN or getting national attention from sports media. It may be the best players on the team, and for other teams, it may be one of the better players. The main rule is that their in-conference reputation has to be far greater than their out of conference reputation.
Here are the most Mountain West players on each team for the 2020 season:
Air Force: Jordan Jackson
(Provided by NittanyFalcon)
For Air Force, I would nominate Jordan Jackson as the most MW player. He is a solid defensive end who can be overlooked by commentators and watchers outside the conference. Over the last two years, he has accumulated 17 sacks and 5 QB hurries. At 6’5”, he also has broken up four passes at the line of scrimmage. He plays in the middle of the line on kicks and has blocked one kick, creating problems for the blockers on special teams. He had a down year last year but took the attention of offenses away from Mosese Fifita and helped in his breakout season.
Boise State: Kekaula Kaniho
(Provided by Zach_Ballard)
This is easy, Kekaula Kaniho. Kaniho was an underrated recruit that surprised fans by getting immediate playing time as a true freshman. Kaniho is small, but he plays big. He is known for his timely plays and big hits. Kaniho has become a staple at the nickel position and has a knack for making big plays. Kaniho will eventually finish his career as a four (or five) year starter and could have an outside chance at defensive player of the year after being an all-conference selection in 2019. For his career, he has: 131 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 5 interceptions, 14 pass breakups, 3 forced fumbles, 3 fumble recoveries, 2 touchdowns. All of this while flying under the radar a bit.
Colorado State: Dante Wright
Wide receiver Dante Wright makes this list, likely for the only time, after a stellar freshman campaign. Overshadowed by fellow wideout Warren Jackson and standout tight end Trey McBride, Wright put up monster numbers that those outside of the conference likely known nothing about. In twelve games, Dante racked up 805 yards on 52 receptions and then added 214 yards on the ground in 17 attempts. In total, he tallied 6 touchdowns, all as the third option in the offense. Wright figures to be a primary target for the Rams from now on and should graduate from this list in years to come. For now, he’s a very Mountain West player.
Fresno State: Ronnie Rivers
(Provided by godogs13)
For the Bulldogs, it has to be Ronnie Rivers, right? The son of a Fresno State legend, he has carved out his own legacy already for the Dogs as the leading rusher for three seasons, as well as an MVP performance in the 2018 Las Vegas Bowl. He doesn’t have nationwide attention because of his size, he stands at only 5’8 with 192lbs behind him, but he has a great combination of speed and power to churn up yards. He has been an integral part of the offense for three years, especially when the passing game was out of rhythm. He has also emerged as a receiving threat with Marcus McMaryion, and we’ll have to wait and see if he can get back to that under Kalen DeBoer’s new QB. Unless he puts in a truly dominant season in 2020, I’m not sure I can see him drafted, but he’ll definitely carry on in the memory of Fresno State fans like his father did before him, and I can see a team taking a flyer on him as a UDFA guy.
Hawaii: Ilm Manning
(Provided by Jeremy Rodrigues)
This is a tough call because Hawaii fans might see this differently. To Rainbow Warrior fans, Manning isn’t some little engine that could story. He’s the team’s best player, and it might not be close. Manning will play in the NFL. To other Mountain West fans and the national scene, the reaction to Ilm Manning might be, “Who’s Ilm Manning?” That’s okay; that’s not an unusual response to Manning. Manning was overlooked entirely coming out of high school, garnering a measly 76 rating from recruiting site 247 Sports. Forget 5-star or 4-star blue-chip status; Manning wasn’t even rated 3-stars. A 2-star recruit, Manning went from unknown offensive tackle from Glendale, Arizona to starter by opening day of his true freshman season, a total shocker. That just doesn’t happen at the FBS level, high school senior, summer, fall camp of freshman season, bang! Starter on the offensive line. That’s almost unheard of. Again, to Hawaii fans, Manning is a household name. To others, he should be. Manning is the quintessential rags to riches story the Mountain West is known for producing. Manning is a preseason first-team all-conference selection for the 2020 season.
Nevada: Elijah Cooks
(Provided by MattHanifan_)
For Nevada, the most” Mountain West Player,” in terms of a dominant player that is underrated among the national scope, is Elijah Cooks. One could argue that Cooks is even underestimated among particular conference coaches and media — considering he did not make an All-Mountain West team after placing among the Top-8 among conference wideouts in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns last season. He’s a dominant threat on the outside. Cooks showcases good speed with an incredible catch radius. The 6-foot-4 target — a part of Nevada’s 2017-18 Sweet-16 men’s basketball team — locates and high-points the football similarly to snatching a rebound off the rim. I scroll through WR rankings for the 2021 NFL Draft and wonder, “How is Cooks not there?” The conference has had just five receivers drafted since 2014 — most notably Fresno State’s Davante Adams. Recency bias dictates that it has been challenging for MWC wideouts to garner national attention, although we can’t necessarily use that as a predictive measure. If Cooks can replicate and build off his 2019 production, he could gain national attention. But as of now, he fits the description as the most “Mountain West” player on the Wolf Pack.
New Mexico: Marcus Williams
(provided by Adam_Evarts)
For New Mexico, it has to be Marcus Williams at the tight end spot. He’s big and physical, with great hands. Which means he can catch the ball anywhere, go up against any defender in the passing game. This also means he can block like an offensive lineman when the Lobos run the football.
Those things are the epitome of Lobo football under Danny Gonzales. Be able to catch, block, and be physical. Williams caught 26 passes for 428 yards (a 16.5 average yards per catch) and added a touchdown for good measure. The year prior, he had three touchdowns on just thirteen receptions.
San Diego State: Dwayne Johnson Jr
Tariq Thompson gets all the hype and attention nationally on the San Diego State defense. However, it is Dwayne Johnson Jr. who takes the title of most MWC player for the Aztecs. He has a breakout year last year as a junior, but no one outside the conference knew about it. In his junior season, the safety totaled 92 tackles in 13 games. He then added 1.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, five passes deflected, and an interception. Those stats make Johnson the backbone of the stout San Diego State secondary, and he will continue to be as a senior next time he steps on the field.
San Jose State: Isaiah Hamilton
If anyone pays attention to San Jose State, they likely know Tre Walker and no one else. In the receiver room, the Spartans actually have several players putting up big numbers. One of them is Isaiah Hamilton. He had a sensational freshman season, to the tune of 718 yards on 43 receptions, good for 16.7 yards per catch on average. For good measure, Hamilton also scored four touchdowns. Not bad for a first college season. With Walker being the primary weapon and even 5th year senior Bailey Gaither as the second option, Hamilton flies under the radar as one of the younger wide receivers but figures to become a star for the Spartans at some point during his career.
UNLV: Charles Williams
(Provided by Alex_A_Wright)
While UNLV Football has not had much on-field success in recent time, they have had its fair share of talented players on the field. One player that has stood out in recent years is running back Charles Williams. Last season, Williams was second in rushing yards in the conference at 1,257, with 11 touchdowns on 5.9 yards per rush. He was a member of the Preseason First-Team All-MW by the media in 2020, and he was on numerous watch lists, including the Doak Walker and Maxwell Awards watch list. Williams burst onto the scene in 2016, where he led the team in rushing and broke UNLV’s rushing record by a freshman. He suffered a season-ending injury in the first game of 2017, he missed the entire season and lost his starting job to Lexington Thomas in 2018. However, in 2019, Williams came back and showed that he can still be a dynamic player. If the season gets underway, Williams has a chance to showcase to NFL scouts that he is worthy of potentially being drafted and making an NFL roster.
Utah State: Jaylen Warren
(provided by Graham_Gibson)
For Utah State, the most MW player, someone who is known far greater inside Mountain West than outside the conference, would be Jaylen Warren. He was the backup running back to Gerold Bright, but on 112 attempts, Warren rushed for 569 yards and 5 touchdowns, which isn’t bad for a running back who was not starting. He may not be the biggest name in the Mountain West compared to a name such as George Holani; however, I would say that he is still known within the Mountain West. If this season had played out normally, I think this would have been a player on the Aggies football team to build a strong reputation in the conference even if he might still be relatively unknown outside the conference. As a senior, Bright might try to make the most of his chances whenever the Mountain West makes a decision on playing football.
Wyoming: Garrett Crall
(provided by FatDuckUW)
Garrett Crall is a Senior this year for the Cowboys. Crall is a defensive end who has played many snaps for the Cowboys the past three seasons, appearing in 38 games. Over that time, Crall has contributed 126 tackles (18 tackles for loss) with 11 and a half sacks. Crall came to Wyoming as a walk-on from Hicksville, OH. Hicksville is a small town in the northwest part of the state. Also, how appropriate is it that a Wyoming Cowboy comes from Hicksville? In high school, Crall was a quarterback and came to WY a lanky 6’5” & 200 lbs.
After a redshirt year to bulk up, Wyoming moved Crall to the defensive line and played him as a 6’5” & 235 lbs defensive end. After contributing as a redshirt freshman in 2017, Crall was put on scholarship in 2018. Crall is a good player that opposing fans might notice briefly when he tackles their running back at the line of scrimmage to disrupt a run play. Also, Crall is just the epitome of Wyoming football as a developmental program under Craig Bohl. One that produces some pretty good players that were not heavily recruited, with Josh Allen, Marcus Epps & Logan Wilson being some other examples in recent years.
Your turn: Who would you nominate as a team’s most Mountain West player?