We’ve reached Week 1, college football fans.
And while this conference faces a nebulous future amid the uncertainty of conference realignment, the Mountain West Conference helped kick off the 2023 slate on Saturday, with three of its members (San Diego State, San Jose State and Hawaii) helping start the year off.
Top Five Underrated Mountain West Conference Players Entering 2023
CFN has raved about Tory Horton being a potential All-American candidate from Colorado State. Taylen Green of Boise State is another garnering intrigue especially on NFL Draft boards. Returning MWC champ Cameron Lockridge of Fresno State is heading into 2023 as one of the favorites for the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year nod.
There are, however, guys flying under the radar in what could be the conference’s final season as a 12-team member. Who are the five the nation should know more about, plus are capable of taking their game to another level?
1) Easton Gibbs, Linebacker, Wyoming
With all the focus on the aforementioned returners, Easton Gibbs has surprisingly been someone not mentioned heavily in CFB circles.
But, he’s the leader of what’s expected to be one of the stronger front sevens in the MWC. And, he’s proven to be a consistent tackling machine…with his tackles increasing from 90 in 2021 to 121 in 2022.
If he surpasses his ’22 mark, you could be looking at the next highly touted ‘backer at the place that molded Logan Wilson before he signed his $37.25 million deal with the Cincinnati Bengals. Gibbs plays with a near-identical motor and a relentless streak.
Even with a stacked defensive line in front of him, Gibbs will enter this season as one on the shortlist for the MWC DPOY. He’s already on the Chuck Bednarik Watch List.
2) Kairee Robinson, Running Back, San Jose State
Look past the fact that he’s 5’7″ and weighs less than 200 pounds. The native of blue-collar Northern California town Antioch brings a Bay Area scrapper side to his runs.
Kairee Robinson, who starred at renowned high school powerhouse De La Salle, has improved each season he’s been with SJSU. And last season witnessed 10 rushing touchdowns and an astonishing 13.1 yards per carry. He even flashed during the season debut against USC in both facets.
The Spartans do an excellent job creating space for Robinson to eat up the yards. But it’s his patience in allowing the blocks to get set up, followed by a wicked burst, that puts him in this conversation of underrated MWC talents.
As pass-happy as the Spartans have been under head coach Brent Brennan, Robinson brings a wealth of experience and could be the main focal point of this offense this fall.
3) Jack Howell, Safety, Colorado State
Quite possibly, the most complete safety in the MWC for 2023. And one who deserves more attention.
Jack Howell has this claim from last season: He was the nation’s leader in total tackles for a defensive back with 108. He’s an instinctual box safety who’s unafraid to detonate on a play. He also snatched three picks in a span of three straight weeks while forcing one fumble.
While at 5’10” and 200 pounds, Howell plays safety like an undersized linebacker, reliant on instincts and leading with his shoulder. And in four games, he delivered between 12 to 17 total tackles against three bowl teams in Middle Tennessee State, Utah State and MWC runner-up Boise State, plus tallied 17 tackles against a Sacramento State team that ranked in the top 10 of the Football Championship Subdivision.
4) Levelle Bailey, Linebacker, Fresno State
If there’s anyone else on the Bulldogs’ roster capable of making a run at the MWC DPOY award, or crack the first team by season’s end, it’s the returning senior Levelle Bailey.
He was an honorable mention by the MWC last season. But, he delivered four games of hitting 6-7 solo tackles — and they were all against bowl representatives, including two Pac-12 foes in Oregon State and USC.
And one look at his tape versus the Beavers and fans will begin to understand how instrumental Bailey is to this Fresno State defense.
Additionally, in the era of the transfer portal, Bailey has become a model of loyalty for the Bulldogs. He’s been with the program since the 2019 season. He even stuck around when FS had a brief coaching change with Kalen DeBoer momentarily in charge of the program.
Bailey is among a stout group of MWC ‘backers that features Gibbs, San Diego State’s Cody Moon, and another MWC veteran in Boise State’s DJ Schramm. But the 6’2″, 225-pounder is deserving of being in the conversation among top MWC defenders.
5) Terrell Vaughn, Wide Receiver/Kick Returner, Utah State
After Horton, it becomes a wide-open race in the conference for who becomes the second best.
Despite his size being under 5’8″, Terrell Vaughn is one of the more dynamic returners in the mountain time zone.
Vaughn has already earned the label of one of the biggest sleeper wideouts by CFN. He’s simply one of the top sleepers in this conference as someone who can thrash solo coverage on him and reach his top speed on designed screen passes to him.
If there’s a search for proof of how explosive the junior college transfer out of Ventura College is, the film from the 2022 Boise State game is the best example.