Jamari Staples, Louisville (6-3, 190): Staples caught 40 passes in two seasons at Alabama-Birmingham before the program was shut down. At Louisville, he caught 37 passes for 638 yards (17.2) average and three touchdowns as a junior and 36 catches for 615 yards (17.1) and two touchdowns as a senior. That gave him a three-year total of 113 receptions, 1,901 yards (16.8) and 10 touchdowns.
Tall, fast and smart, Staples somehow received offers from only two schools coming out of high school: UAB and Western Kentucky. “I think he’s one of the most under-recruited players in college football history,” said Garrick McGee, the man who inked Staples at UAB. “Jamari could start for any college in the country.” Said star Louisville QB Lamar Jackson: “People can’t really guard him,” Jackson said. “He’s a big target — fast, physical and explosive. It was a big lift off my shoulders.”
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Staples finds inspiration in two people. His mother, Ametrice, and best friend, Greg Maclin. Ametrice was killed in a car accident when he was 7. Maclin was a former UAB teammate who died in a car accident in 2015. Under his pads, he wears a shirt honoring both. “It’s just something sentimental to me to remind me why I work so hard and remind me why I do what I do. Just to make them proud.”
ArDarius Stewart, Alabama (6-0, 204): Junior. In three seasons, Stewart caught 129 passes. Most of that production came in his final two seasons: 63 catches for 700 yards (11.1 average) and four touchdowns as a sophomore and 54 catches for 864 yards (16.0) and eight touchdowns as a junior. He’s a “dog” — in the best of ways. He’s so physical he was called a running back by one of his teammates. Why leave early? One, Stewart is the father of two children. And second, it was time — the loss to Clemson in the national title game notwithstanding. "It got me thinking about coming back and getting back into it. But at the same time there is a lot of wear and tear going on in these seasons and you never know what could happen so I am going to go ahead when I'm healthy."
Stewart was extremely hyper as a kindergartner. Did he need medication? No. He needed football. “My brother and my dad were like ‘Let’s get him in football versus everybody recommending things for him to take to calm down,'” said Stewart’s mother, Lashona Smith. “He got involved in football around 6 years old, and never let the ball go after that.”
Ryan Switzer, North Carolina (5-8, 179): Switzer piled up huge stats, with 244 catches, 2,907 yards (11.9 average) and 19 touchdowns in four seasons. After posting 61 and 55 receptions as a sophomore and junior, respectively, Switzer piled up 96 catches for 1,112 yards (11.6) and six scores as a senior. He was a first-team All-American punt returner as a freshman, when he tied a national record with five touchdowns, and a first-team All-American as an all-purpose player as a junior, when he caught 55 passes and added a 13.7-yard average and two touchdowns on punt returns. That gave him a career total of seven punt-return touchdowns.
Switzer’s success even surprised Switzer, who had the bad habit of filling his head with negative thoughts stemming from two costly fumble as a high school freshman. “I have a lot of fears. I think a lot of them are hidden by my confidence. He’s afraid ... that everything I’ve done to this point is not going to be enough.” The miscues “scarred me ... and propelled me.”
At George Washington High School in Charleston, W.Va., Switzer scored 101 touchdowns and piled up 8,100 all-purpose yards as a star running back, was the point guard of the state-champion basketball team and finished in the top six in the state track meet in the 100 meters and long jump. Said UNC coach Larry Fedora said, "Ryan was extremely talented coming out of high school as a running back. We targeted him as a wide receiver and he has everything you need — great quickness, runs good routes, unbelievable speed, great vision, works very hard. He certainly has the skills to play at the next level."
Taywan Taylor, Western Kentucky (5-11, 198): Taylor turned 253 receptions into 4,234 yards (16.7 average) and 41 touchdowns. That includes 17-touchdown seasons as a junior (86 catches, 1467 yards, 17.1 average) and senior (98 catches, 1,730 yards, 17.7 average). The 2015 numbers were the best in school history; the 2016 numbers smashed the 2015 tallies. Taylor considered entering the NFL after the 2015 season, after he’d already set the school records for career receptions and yards, but returned to challenge himself. He wound up being a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award, which goes to the nation’s top receiver.
The offense is in good hands with Taylor, because he’s got really big hands. “Even when I was little, people were always talking about my hands being big. It's rare, and my coaches always tell me, 'You shouldn't drop it.’” None other than Nick Saban said Taylor would be perhaps the best receiver his team would face all season — quite a comment considering Alabama faced USC’s JuJu Smith-Schuster and the SEC gauntlet. "Really, really outstanding player. He's got great production. He's a tough competitor. Good route runner. Good hands. The thing I respect of him most is his production and his competitive spirit in the way he goes about playing the game. He does a really, really good job, and I think he's as good as any receiver that we'll play against this year.”
Trent Taylor, Louisiana Tech (5-8, 177): Taylor hauled in 136 passes for 1,803 yards (13.3 average) and 12 touchdowns. Not for his career. As a senior as he was one of three finalists for the Biletnikoff Award, which goes to the nation’s top receiver, The yardage total led the nation and his 9.7 receptions per game ranked second as he paired with fellow draft prospect Carlos Henderson to set an NCAA record with a combined 3,338 receiving yards. Taylor finished his career with a school-record 327 receptions (for 4,179 yards and 32 touchdowns).
"I'm ready for that guy to get out of our league," UTEP coach Sean Kugler said during the preseason Conference USA media days. How do you stop him? “Hope he misses class and (Tech coach) Skip (Holtz) suspends him for a game,” Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill said. Taylor, obviously is, shall we say, height-impaired. That was Holtz’s thinking upon meeting Taylor for the first time. “ I had some doubts. I was like, he’s how tall? Then I met him and I was like, ‘Golly, he's a little shorter than I thought he was.’ There's a lot of people who may say he's too short, he's too slow to play the game but fortunately he doesn't listen to them and he believes in himself and he chases his dream and he goes out and pursues it every day. He's living proof if you put your mind to something, it doesn't always go to the biggest or the fastest or the strongest.”
The secret to his success is route running. “You’ve got to make every route look like the same thing, up to a certain point. That’s something that you’ve got to think about — try and make every route that you run down the field look like the same route, and then be able to cut out of it as quick as possible.”
Noel Thomas, Connecticut (6-0, 200): Thomas’ production grew exponentially in his four seasons, from three catches as a freshman 26 as a sophomore, 54 as a junior and 100 as a senior. During his final season, he turned those school-record 100 grabs into 1,179 yards (11.8 average) and three touchdowns. That gave him a four-year total of 183 catches, 2,235 yards (12.2) and 10 touchdowns.
At St. Luke’s High School in New Canaan, Conn., he was coached by his father, Noel Thomas Sr. One of Dad’s favorite phrases is “No Excuses.” And Thomas has it tattooed on his right arm.
Greg Ward Jr., Houston (5-10, 174): Ward threw for 8,704 yards and 52 touchdowns and rushed for 2,381 yards and 39 more touchdowns. That adds up to more than 11,000 yards and 91 touchdowns. As a junior, he threw for 2,827 yards and rushed for 1,114 to pile up 38 total touchdowns. As a senior, he threw for a career-high 3,557 yards and rushed for 518 more while accounting for 32 touchdowns. “He showed the heart of a champion,” receiver Chance Allen said.
One day in the spring of 2015, he arrived late for a workout. That would be the day he won over his coach, Tom Herman. His toughness, athleticism and, umm, hunger paid off. He went 28-6 as Houston’s starter the past two seasons. Now, it’s off to play receiver, where he spent the first month of the 2014 season before moving permanently to quarterback. It’s the position the Big 12 schools wanted him to play.
Ward is the son of a pastor. His high school coaches nicknamed him Lester, after a ventriloquist's dummy. "Get the job done," Greg Sr. told his kids. "You don't have to be noticed."
Dede Westbrook, Oklahoma (5-11, 175): Westbrook won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver and finished fourth in Heisman Trophy voting following a senior season in which he caught 80 passes for 1,524 yards (19.1 average) and 17 touchdowns. Not bad, considering he was slowed by an injured hamstring for the first three games and was averaging about 9 yards per catch with zero touchdowns. Once healthy, he dominated. He piled up 1,370 receiving yards during the final 10 games. Westbrook recorded at least 100 receiving yards in eight of OU's nine Big 12 games and tallied 88 yards in the other. He led all Power 5 conference players in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns per game (1.31). How explosive is Westbrook? His 12 offensive touchdowns of at least 40 yards were the most in one season by an FBS player since at least 1996, and he led the nation in receptions of 20-plus yards (26), 50-plus yards (seven), 60-plus yards (six) and 70-plus yards (three).
Westbrook spent his first two seasons at Blinn Community College. At Oklahoma in 2015, he caught 46 passes for 743 yards and four scores. As a high school senior, Westbrook was playing safety and went up to defend a pass. His stomach landed on the receiver’s knee. He ruptured his small intestines. After surgery, Westbrook was told he might never play football again. “I wasn't going to let an injury like that determine my fate. I didn't play any more sports until the end of basketball season and then I ran track. Whenever I played basketball, my stomach would still bleed because it wasn't all the way healed up.” He wound up at Blinn. Then, missing his two infant sons, he quit football for a year. He returned to Blinn for the following season, earned All-American honors and picked Oklahoma.
He was arrested twice for domestic violation for incidents involving the mother of his two children.
Kermit Whitfield, Florida State (5-8, 183): Whitfield caught 107 passes for 1,427 yards (13.3 average) and seven touchdowns in four seasons. His best season came as a junior, when he grabbed 57 passes for 798 yards (14.0) and six scores. He also averaged 25.4 yards per kickoff return with two touchdowns for his career. “Anybody can be a kick returner if he’s fast and has good blocking. But as far as evolving myself to a receiver, over the summer I just practiced better on my routes and playing fast without the ball in my hands.”
Both kickoff-return touchdowns came as a freshman, when he averaged 36.4 per return — the seventh-best in major-college history. One of the touchdowns was a 100-yarder in the national championship game victory over Auburn. That made him the pride of Parramore, a rough-and-tumble neighborhood in Orlando, Fla. He needed that village his father was slain when he was 12. “We had a close relationship. But that's the thing … [getting shot] ain't nothing weird. That's normal where I'm from.” He’s fast, which was evident at the Florida state track meet when he was in high school.
Mike Williams, Clemson (6-3, 225): Junior. Williams had a breakout season in 2014, catching 57 passes for 1,030 yards (18.1 average) and six touchdowns. Big things were expected in 2015 but he suffered a broken neck in the opening game when he ran into a goalpost while making a touchdown catch. “Initially, I felt a little bit of pain,” recalled Williams. “I tried to get up but everybody was telling me to stay down. The trainers came over and I told them I was fine and I wanted to walk off the field. They asked me what I was feeling and I told them I felt a little numb, then they said they were going to get a stretcher.”
Wearing the neck brace was bad enough. Watching the Tigers advance to the National Championship Game without him just compounded the frustration. “That was the main (reason) why it was hard — you see your brothers out there having fun, laughing, clowning around, enjoying the game, and you just want to be a part of it. Then getting to the national championship and losing, you start thinking: ‘What if I was out there?’”
Williams wanted to be the “best receiver in the country” in 2016, and he returned in dominating fashion, hauling in 98 passes for 1,361 yards (13.9 average) and 11 touchdowns to be a second-team All-American. That gave him a three-plus-year total of 177 receptions, 2,727 yards and 21 touchdowns.
He put the year away from the playing field to good use. He got his degree in sociology in December. “I want to be the first person in my family to graduate from college and get my degree,” he said in June. “I believe my degree will help me at the next level.”
Bobo Wilson, Florida State (5-10, 186): Wilson caught 133 passes for 1,562 yards (11.7 average) and eight touchdowns. Coming off a career-best season of 58 receptions, 622 yards and three touchdowns in 2015, even bigger things were expected. But after a preseason foot injury, Wilson missed half of his senior season with a foot injury. In seven games, he caught 30 passes for 390 yards (13.0) and one score, and added an 89-yard touchdown on a punt return. In that phase, Wilson boasted a career average of 8.3 yards per runback.
In 2014, he was arrested and charged with the theft of a motor scooter.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.