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Second-half breakout players

10/17/2012

We're pleased to say we had more hits than misses among our preseason selections for breakout candidates in 2012.

Jadeveon Clowney, who ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. said this week would be the No. 1 pick if he were eligible in 2013, was a home run. We had Braxton Miller, a legitimate midseason Heisman candidate, second. Arkansas receiver Cobi Hamilton and Oklahoma safety Tony Jefferson also have had solid first halves. So have Arizona running back Ka'Deem Carey and Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks.

As for the misses? Jordan Hicks' hip injury derailed the first part of his season -- and Texas has come unglued defensively in his absence. Andrew Maxwell at Michigan State? Our bad on that one. That whole offense has been a letdown.

We overestimated Dorial Green-Beckham's arrival at Missouri. We had the wrong Georgia runner, going with initial starter Ken Malcome over the "Gurshall" combo of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. "Georgia will run enough to likely make a star out of someone," we wrote in August. "Who will it be?" At least we were on the right track.

Let's give the second half a shot, selecting a list of all-new players to watch from now until December. As we wrote in August in making our preseason list, picking "breakout" players is an inexact science -- I'll define it by saying that these are players likely to have big jumps in performance in the second half of the season. This includes lesser-known players stepping into larger roles and established guys ready to go on a tear.

1. De'Anthony Thomas, RB/WR, Oregon Ducks

We're waiting. We obviously know what DAT is capable of, as a runner, receiver and returner.

"He's the fastest player I can ever remember seeing up close," one Pac-12 coach told me last month. "Almost indefensible sometimes ... when he gets going."

But when will Thomas see enough touches to truly put his stamp on Oregon's season -- and potentially fuel a late Heisman push? As it is, DAT is still averaging 9.5 yards a touch. With nine touchdowns in 61 combined catches and carries, he's averaging a score every 6.8 touches.

Thomas is getting the ball 10 times a game. What if that doubled? There's this general sense that there's more in the tank for Oregon's most dynamic weapon. The Ducks are 6-0 and haven't been tested. So it's not as if they're squandering him, misusing him. You had better believe that opponents spend a lot of time the week of the Oregon game preparing for Thomas' potential impact, even if he's not touching the ball enough to completely swing the outcome.

The day is coming when the Ducks will need a big play, a special play, and Thomas is the top candidate on an offense full of playmakers to make it. Their schedule is about to get tougher, beginning Thursday night in Tempe, Ariz.

2. Jeremy Hill, RB, LSU Tigers

LSU might be hurting for healthy and available offensive linemen -- it's started nine already this season -- but that isn't the case for the team's running backs. So much that, prior to the South Carolina game last week, Hill was listed fourth on the depth chart.

The freshman then rushed for 124 yards and two scores on 17 carries. He had run just 13 times previously and three times in the previous two games.

Hill might not be fourth any longer.

The Tigers still have Spencer Ware. And Michael Ford. And Kenny Hilliard. But Hill, 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, seems to embody a bit of all their styles in how he runs. He's taller than all of the other backs, possesses Ware's speed and maneuverability and Hilliard's bruising frame.

He'll still be in a carry-share, but don't expect the South Carolina game to be the last time Hill gets the bulk of the carries down the stretch. In fact, as the offensive line personnel continues to shape and shift, someone who can both make defenders miss -- and just flat-out run over them -- is probably best suited for the majority of backfield touches.

3. Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson Tigers

As hard as it is to believe, Watkins has just 16 receptions for 118 yards and no touchdowns so far this season. The suspension and a stomach bug have really held him back.

In fact, junior DeAndre Hopkins -- the nickname is Nuk, not Nuke -- has been the brighter star in the Clemson offense. He had three 100-yard performances in the games when Watkins was out. But he had 173 yards two weeks ago against Georgia Tech with Watkins on the field.

So we're left wondering when Watkins, who had 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns last season as a freshman, gets going. This week against Virginia Tech? He's too good not to eventually emerge.

"I think you are going to see Sammy Watkins peak at the right time," Tigers offensive coordinator Chad Morris told The (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier this week. "It's not that we are not calling plays for him; it's just that it is not there right now. It's got to come natural. You can't force it."

This is the ACC, not the NFL. Surely Watkins will get open and break out.

4. Seth Doege, QB, Texas Tech Red Raiders

It was Doege, and not West Virginia's Geno Smith, who was the best quarterback on the field last week in Lubbock. All right, so the Mountaineers defense had a big part in that. But outshining a Heisman contender? That's worth an extended look.

Doege is fourth among Big 12 quarterbacks when it comes to passing efficiency -- but that's good enough for seventh nationally. (Yes, the interception-less Smith is still No. 1.) Doege has thrown seven interceptions, but his 21 TDs ranks second only to Smith in the FBS.

Notice how we keep putting him in Geno's company? That's indicative of a strong and surprising start.

But it can get even better for an offense that's averaging 6.8 yards per play, 10th in the FBS.
The Red Raiders have road games at TCU and Kansas State the next two weeks. Those will be tough. But then here are the final four: Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma State and Baylor.

Judging by what Doege did to West Virginia -- 499 yards and 6 TDs -- he might actually end up with numbers in the same video-game realm as Smith. And the Red Raiders could hang around near the top of the Big 12 standings as a result.

5. Damien Williams, RB, Oklahoma Sooners

Credit Bob Stoops for saying he was going to get the ball more to Williams, the talented junior college newcomer, and then doing so.

Williams went from 30 total carries in the first three games to 36 in the past two, and he responded last week against Texas with 167 yards -- including a 95-yarder -- on 22 carries. He's now OU's primary back, safe to say.

With Dominique Whaley and Roy Finch a year ago, the Sooners weren't completely bereft of take-it-to-the-house talent. But Williams showed even in the opener against UTEP, with a late 65-yard score to ice the game, that he had more of a knack for the home run.

If the Oklahoma O gets going on the ground, that would seem to open things for veteran Landry Jones and a receiving corps that he called the deepest since he's been on campus. That includes new addition Jalen Saunders, the Fresno transfer who last week was deemed eligible.

Saunders, an All-WAC selection, had 1,065 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. How quickly can he play in-game catchup will determine whether he's a suitable 5A on this list to Williams, who is well on his way to second-half stardom.

6. Allen Chapman and Nigel Malone, CBs, Kansas State Wildcats

If Kansas State is really going to compete for the Big 12 title, and we'll know of its legitimacy by Sunday morning, then it will have to play some defense to get there. (All the cool kids, Oklahoma and Texas Tech, are doing it.) To play that defense, and particularly against the pass, the Wildcats' cornerbacks will have to play big.

Malone was the corner with the preseason hype, but Chapman has experience, too. So there's really no favoring one side of the field over the other. They've combined for three interceptions and 10 pass deflections so far, but Malone had seven picks and 16 defended passes himself a year ago, so he's primed for a big second half as K-State faces teams like this week's opponent, West Virginia, that will throw more.

7. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama Crimson Tide

AJ McCarron's knee is OK, we learned Tuesday. Good thing, because the Tide might soon have to lean more on him and the passing game to outscore opponents with better offenses.

That's where Cooper, a freshman, comes in. He's averaging 3.5 catches a game (10.3 yards a catch), but those numbers could be on the rise as Alabama finally gets to the teeth of its schedule.

We'd heard all preseason that Nick Saban was prepared to throw more. You can imagine a scenario, whether it's this week at Tennessee or down the line against Mississippi State, LSU or Texas A&M in which the Tide actually have to make plays down the field to win a game. It's a good team -- maybe a great team -- but it's not unbeatable. It could soon find itself in a fourth-quarter game.

We tabbed Cooper back in the spring as a potential breakout Bama player. The second half is when that prophecy likely will come true.

8. Devin Gardner, WR, Michigan Wolverines

Denard Robinson's former understudy has now become one of his primary targets, and he could see more chances as the Wolverines' season progresses -- and as the team seemingly develops some semblance of an offensive ID.

As coordinator Al Borges put it this week to WolverineNation's Mike Rothstein, he's looking for a "real dude" at receiver. By that, we think he means a go-to receiver.

Why not Gardner, the 6-foot-4, 203-pound junior from Detroit? He leads the team with four touchdowns, but he's had only one in the past three games. He actually had only one catch last week against Illinois, granted it was a 45-0 drubbing of the Illini.
There's still room for growth potential for Gardner, or perhaps tight end Devin Funchess. He likewise had one catch last week.

"If you have a weapon and he's only catching one pass," Borges told Rothstein, "you have to re-evaluate."

Look for Gardner to get more involved as Michigan looks to stay atop the Legends Division.

9. Devin Taylor, DE, South Carolina Gamecocks

Taylor is a quiet guy having a quiet senior season. The owner of 7.5 sacks in 2010 and six more last year, he has just 1.5 so far in 2012.

That would seem to indicate the potential for a second-half pickup, along with the fact that opponents will devote more and more of their attention to Clowney's side of the line.

In fairness, there is more than one way for an end to disrupt a play. Taylor has four pass breakups, putting him up there with the team's defensive backs. His lean 6-foot-8 build makes him well constructed to get into passing lanes.

Sure, there are the winter workouts, but this is also something of a "contract" half of the year for Taylor. NFL scouts haven't been exactly sure what to make of him in his college career: He's undoubtedly physically gifted, but is he tough enough -- and consistent enough -- to excel in the pros?

It's possible that Taylor could use Clowney's success as something of a springboard -- and at least he will not have to compete with him for draft status.

10. Trevone Boykin, QB, TCU Horned Frogs

How about one more Big 12 quarterback to complete the list? Unlike Doege, Boykin has a shot to break out because he has a shot at all after Casey Pachall's departure from the team.

If week-to-week improvement is any indication, Boykin has a chance to settle in and rescue what appeared to be a season getting away from the Frogs.

Boykin rebounded from three interceptions in the loss to Iowa State, his first start, to five total touchdowns in the 49-21 win against Baylor. Interestingly, all four of Boykin's passing scores came on third-down snaps.

"He's just a really good fit with what they're doing with their offensive scheme," Baylor coach Art Briles said afterward.

Like Doege, yards will be there for Boykin in the coming weeks with Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Texas on the schedule. And if he fares well against the likes of Texas Tech, Kansas State and Oklahoma, he'll really start to make his mark on the league.

The story is the same for the Frogs, regardless of the QB: Hold on to the ball. Their 14 giveaways ranks 94th nationally.