Josh Reynolds, Texas A&M (6-3, 197): Reynolds put up outstanding production in three years at A&M, with 52 catches for 842 yards (16.2 average) and a career-high 13 touchdowns in 2014, 51 catches for 907 yards (17.8) and five touchdowns in 2015 and career highs of 61 catches and 1,039 yards (17.0) along with 12 touchdowns in 2016. That gave him a three-year total of 164 receptions, 2,788 yards and 30 touchdowns.
Reynolds was barely recruited, which is why he spent 2013 at Tyler (Texas) Junior College. Under the radar then and under the radar now: Despite his big production as a sophomore and junior, Reynolds wasn’t even on the 2016 preseason all-SEC team. "You think I brought that up?" Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said before the season. "We might have talked about that during fall camp. ... They were three deep. That meant there were at least six guys better than him. I had that discussion with him."
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Jalen Robinette, Air Force (6-3, 220): Robinette provided the big-play element to the Air Force attack. In four seasons, he caught 120 passes for 2,697 yards (22.5 average) and 18 touchdowns. As a senior, he caught 35 passes for 959 yards (a nation-best 27.4 average) and six touchdowns. He’s been compared to Calvin Johnson and Demaryius Thomas, two towering receivers who played in option offenses in college before finding stardom in the NFL.
Robinette beat the odds, having been born to a teen mom and to interracial parents. "I just let him know that he came into this world with the odds against him," his mom, Trine Rowell, said. "By statistics and society, he wasn't supposed to make it this far. So, growing up it was explained to him when he misbehaved in school or he didn't get a good grade, I'd just kind of say, 'Hey, remember you came into this world in the hole and you've got to work your way out.' Is it fair? No, but that's just the way it is."
A change in Department of Defense policy allows athletes to pursue a career in pro sports and forego their 24-month active-duty stint. "It's exciting to have more doors open," Robinette said. "It couldn't be more perfect timing."
Darreus Rogers, USC (6-1, 215): Rogers caught 127 passes for 1,487 yards (11.7 average) and 11 touchdowns in his career. His best season came as a senior, when he caught 56 passes for 696 yards — doubling his previous career-high totals — and four touchdowns. He used his “suction cups” hands to make a huge play against Colorado.
Rogers took the high road while growing up in the mean streets of Compton, Calif. “Not so much of the nice neighborhoods, a lot of gangs going on. It was up to me to choose my path. And I chose to go to school, go to class and get good grades so that I could come to a four-year college, get a degree and hopefully get my family out of here and go somewhere where everything is more happy and things are better.”
Fred Ross, Mississippi State (6-1, 203): After catching 39 passes in his first two seasons, Ross caught 88 passes for 1,007 yards (11.4 average) and five touchdowns as a junior and 72 passes for 917 yards (12.7) and 12 scores as a senior in earning first-team all-SEC both years. That gave him a four-year total of 199 catches for 2,528 yards (12.7) and 22 touchdowns. Plus, he averaged 8.3 yards per punt return with one touchdown.
“I was really lanky and weak. I looked like a baby calf out there,” Ross said after finding some freshman year highlights on YouTube. He developed into “The Boss” who set school records for catches and yards. As a junior, he played through a groin injury that required surgery. "Mississippi State taught me how to be a man," Ross said. "I had to grow up fast since my freshman year. I was taught how to be a man. This whole program, going through camp and going through all the stuff I went through here, it didn't do anything but make me stronger."
John Ross, Washington (5-11, 190): Junior. Ross caught 16 passes as a freshman in 2013, 17 as a sophomore in 2014 and sat out 2015 with a torn ACL. By that measure, he came out of nowhere in 2016, with 81 receptions for 1,150 yards (14.2 average) and 17 touchdowns. Ross was first-team all-conference and one of 10 semifinalist for the Biletnikoff, which goes to the nation’s top receiver. He averaged 24.1 yards per kickoff return with four touchdowns in his three seasons. That kick-returning skill was key as he learned how to play receiver. “It made me a playmaker,” Ross says. “I had so many opportunities to return kicks my sophomore year of high school I realized, hey, I can do pretty good with the ball in my hands — and I can probably do this in college, too.”
Speaking of returns, Ross dreamed that he’d return the opening kickoff for a touchdown upon returning from his knee injury. That dream pretty much came true. “It was kind of unreal. … Just to take one back was amazing to me. I felt good and I was really happy that it happened.”
Growing up, he split time with his grandparents. One week, Grandma Milly would make two batches of cornbread — one for Ross and one for everyone else. The next week, Grandma Carol made two sweet-potato pies — one for Ross and one for everybody else. His family upbringing helped him stay out of trouble in Compton, Calif. “I would drive around with my mom and see guys in front of their house drinking and smoking and it would make me laugh, because you don’t have to be that way. We don’t have to present ourselves this way. I would sit there and tell her, ‘Mom, you don’t ever have to worry about me being that way,’ because I don’t want to be that way and I don’t want my brothers to feel like that.”
Travis Rudolph, Florida State (6-1, 189): Junior. Rudolph caught 153 passes for 2,311 yards (15.1 average) and 18 touchdowns during his three seasons. In 2015, he caught 59 passes for 916 yards and seven touchdowns; in 2016, he posted similar numbers with 56 receptions, 840 yards and seven touchdowns.
In late August, Rudolph and some members of the FSU football team visited Montford Middle School in Tallahassee. During lunch, Rudolph decided to dine across from a boy named Bo Paske, who was sitting alone at a table. Rudolph didn’t know it, but Paske has autism. "Who did you eat lunch with today? Sometimes the answer is a classmate, but most days it's nobody," Leah Paske, Bo's mom, said in a post on Facebook. "Those are the days I feel sad for him, but he doesn't seem to mind." A few days later, Paske got another special surprise. “I feel like one person can make a difference, and maybe, I’m that difference," Rudolph said.
Curtis Samuel, Ohio State (5-11, 197): Junior. Samuel ran the ball more than he caught the ball during three seasons at Ohio State but is being listed as a wide receiver. Regardless, he was a playmaker. In 2016, he caught 74 passes for 865 yards (11.7) average and seven touchdowns and carried the ball 97 times for 771 yards (7.9) and eight touchdowns to earn first-team All-American honors. How do you stop him? You can try to grab him in the you-know-where, as a Clemson player did in the playoff game. His career totals were 107 receptions for 1,249 yards (11.7) and nine scores and 172 rushes for 1,286 yards (7.5) and 15 scores.
Samuel has always been quick — including quick to walk, doing so at 7 months. Football was a real love connection. Samuel started playing when he was 9 and was dominant. And Samuel’s coach connected with Samuel’s single mom. Now, they’re engaged. For Samuel, Urban Meyer-coached Ohio State was a perfect fit. He grew up watching Percy Harvin, a part-time receiver, part-time running back during Meyer’s days at Florida.
Before OSU, Samuel went to the Erasmus Hall charter school. It’s the ulma mater for such luminaries as Barbara Streisand and Neil Diamond, mystery writer Mickey Spillane, and “Boys of Summer’ author Roger Kahn, chess champion Bobby Fischer and football legends Al Davis and Sid Luckman. “Coming out of Brooklyn is tough because there’s all kinds of distractions,” Samuel said. “I want to be that person young kids look up to. That’s what keeps me going. I want to show them that anything is possible.”
Ricky Seals-Jones, Texas A&M (6-5, 240): Junior. Seals-Jones caught 123 passes for 1,442 yards (11.7 average) and 10 touchdowns in four seasons, including in 2013, when the prized recruit was lost early in the season with a knee injury. Seals-Jones caught 49 passes for 465 yards and four scores in 2014 and 45 catches for 560 yards and four scores in 2015 but caught only 26 for 333 yards and one touchdown in nine games in 2016.
His cousin is Eric Dickerson: "I'm not just saying this. When you see Ricky, he's such a good looking athlete," Dickerson said on Dallas radio station 105.3. “[Former NFL wideout] Keenan McCardell worked with him this offseason with his footwork and I said, ‘Keenan, when you see him you're going to be surprised with how big he is. And I'm not talking about big. I'm talking about cut.’ He called me after he worked out and he said, 'Erik, this guy is a big receiver.' I said, 'Yes, he is.' He said, 'He's a good looking athlete.' So, that's why I keep up with my cousin for sure.”
Seals-Jones was headed to Texas before flipping to A&M. The decision made amends, of sorts, considering Dickerson had committed to A&M before flipping to SMU. His recruitment was detailed in a book.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, USC (6-2, 220): Junior. Smith-Schuster had three big seasons for the Trojans, with 54 receptions for 724 yards (13.4 average) and five touchdowns as freshman, 89 catches for 1,454 yards (16.3) and 10 touchdowns as a sophomore and 70 catches for 914 yards (13.1) and 10 touchdowns as a junior. That gave him 213 catches, 3,092 yards (14.5) and 25 touchdowns.
What’s it like to be a five-star recruit? It means a lot of mail. From the mailbag to the playing field for Schuster, who was a 17-year-old true freshman. But he’s also a guy who likes to have fun and relishes the drudgery of practice. Speaking of fun, it’s too bad you can’t check out his backpack. Given a hard time about his Elmo backpack, he went to the store and bought a Minions backpack. “Dude, it lights up,” Smith-Schuster says. “It speaks. I had to step my game up. My Elmo backpack, it was just Elmo with nothing.” But when it comes to football, “he’s all football.”
In Summer 2015, he changed his last name from Smith to Smith-Schuster to honor his stepfather. That’s because Smith-Schuster is devoted to his family. During his first weekend at USC, he decided to return home to nearby Long Beach just so he could goof around with his siblings.
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.