- Travis Haney, ESPN Staff Writer
With the 2012 college football season now just one day away, we know all about the teams expected to be in the BCS championship hunt and the star players who figure to be in the mix for the Heisman Trophy.
But a big part of the excitement of the season's first few weeks are the surprises and breakthrough performances that weren't as easy to see coming. With that in mind, who will emerge as the breakout players of 2012?
The term "breakout player" can be interpreted a lot of different ways by a lot of different people, but our focus in putting together this ranking was to try to identify the players most likely to have the biggest jumps in performance this season.
As a result, this list is a mix of first-year players poised to make an impact, part-timers from 2011 with the potential to be difference-makers for their teams and established veterans ready to become stars.
I limited the ranking to players from the AQ conferences and those positions that allow for the most noticeable on-field impact (sorry, but there aren't offensive linemen or fullbacks on this list). Here is a look at the top 30 breakout player candidates for 2012:
1. Jadeveon Clowney, Sophomore DE, South Carolina Gamecocks
Clowney was good as a freshman. He could soon be great. That's the consensus of coaches, both in Columbia and outside it, when asked this spring and summer about Clowney.
The in-state product had 36 tackles -- eight sacks -- in a relatively limited number of snaps as a rookie. Then-coordinator Ellis Johnson tried to put him in positions in which he could be successful in getting to the passer. And it worked. He had six QB hurries and five forced fumbles, on top of being among the SEC's leaders in sacks.
Opposing coaches have told me they aren't particularly thrilled about the idea that Clowney really still had a lot to learn, schematically. There's a lot of growth potential, in other words.
This season could be when Clowney carves his candidacy for national defensive awards -- maybe even the Heisman -- in 2013. A top-10 selection in the 2014 draft could then follow. But this is the crucial foundational year, make no mistake.
There was some chatter from Steve Spurrier about Clowney playing some middle linebacker, but that could have been a bluff on the Ball Coach's part. Veteran line coach Brad Lawing all but laughed at the notion. He clarified that Clowney will play the same kind of rush-end spot that the school's all-time sacks leader, Eric Norwood, did when he was a Gamecock.
2. Braxton Miller, Sophomore QB, Ohio State Buckeyes
Look, chances are that Miller is gifted enough to land on this list regardless of his coach -- even if, however improbable, Luke Fickell had been kept in charge for another season. But throw in Urban Meyer? That's a recipe for Miller to rise precipitously from a strong start as the Big Ten's top freshman.
His 13-4 TD-to-INT ratio was solid, though it figures to multiply by two with more playmakers implemented into the offense. But Miller's completion percentage has to come up from 54.1.
Meyer will make sure Miller's backs and tight ends are involved in the passing game, likely bringing that figure above 60 percent -- and maybe 65. Miller has the tools to be Meyer's most versatile quarterback since Alex Smith, according to those who have seen him this summer.
3. Eddie Lacy, Junior RB, Alabama Crimson Tide
Lacy averaged a healthy 7.1 yards a carry as Trent Richardson's primary backup last year for the national champs. That number will be difficult to match as the carries increase from 95, but Lacy has earned the first cracks for a team that's loaded with young and able runners -- and an offensive line that is loaded with future NFL draft picks.
The only thing that could hold Lacy back from being an all-conference type is the shared carries with as many as three other backs, including freshman T.J. Yeldon. Well, and injuries could also be something to curb Lacy's ascension to the top of Bama's back pyramid. A toe injury cut short his spring and nagging leg issues have limited him during camp. If healthy, count on Lacy carrying forward the Tide's recent tradition of 1,000-yard rushers. If he's gimpy, Jalston Fowler, Dee Hart and Yeldon could have seasons similar to Lacy's 2011. That worked out all right for Bama.
4. Kain Colter, Junior QB, Northwestern Wildcats
If there's another team that returns its leading rusher, passer and receiver -- and it's the same guy -- we are unaware. That's a rarity (near impossibility?) that exists for Northwestern and Colter, a junior from Denver. Dan Persa was the team's veteran quarterback, but coach Pat Fitzgerald was forced to find ways to get Colter on the field. And so he finished 2011 with 654 rushing yards, 466 receiving yards -- and 674 passing yards. He completed 67.1 percent of his passes and had a 6-1 TD-to-interception ratio, even in limited opportunities to throw. Colter's arm has come a long way from someone who "couldn't throw the ball 15 yards when he first got here." That was Fitzgerald to the Chicago Tribune.
If Colter proves to be the new Denard Robinson, in terms of excitable and versatile production, he could get some grassroots Heisman mentions. The Wildcats would need to win some games, though, for that to be the case.
5. Cobi Hamilton, Senior WR, Arkansas Razorbacks
There's still a Petrino calling plays in Arkansas, and Paul doesn't figure to greatly tweak what had worked well for his deposed brother. That's good news for Hamilton, who is the leading returning receiver from a team that saw veterans Jarius Wright, Joe Adams and Greg Childs move on.
Hamilton's 15.9 yards-per-catch average was second on the team among receivers with 10 or more catches, so his big-play ability has been documented. How much other targets -- such as converted QB Brandon Mitchell -- come along could determine how big of a season Hamilton has. As of right now, opposing defenses will know to zero in on No. 11.
Hamilton is a bit bigger, but he could become this year's version of Baylor's Kendall Wright in terms of rising up draft boards based on production. Tyler Wilson would play the role of RG3 in that scenario, and that's not a stretch in terms of throwing ability.
6. Tony Jefferson, Junior FS, Oklahoma Sooners
Jefferson pouted on Twitter last December when he was not selected to an All-Big 12. Chin up, man. It wasn't because a lack of performance as much as voters' uncertainty of how to classify Jefferson, who played both sam linebacker and safety in 2011. There will be no confusion this fall, with returning coordinator Mike Stoops moving Jefferson to free, where he has voiced that he's more comfortable.
Jefferson has plenty of playmaking skill, as evidenced by three picks on three consecutive possessions in a game last season. He just missed a fourth in four possessions, too. The lapses that shoved OU down to 79th in the country in passing defense should be remedied, thanks in part to Jefferson, and he could emerge as the face of a much-improved unit in 2012.
7. Jordan Hicks, Junior LB, Texas Longhorns
Think all of the Longhorns' talent comes from the state? No, not always. Hicks, an Ohioan who was the No. 4 overall prospect on the 2010 ESPN 150, is primed for a breakout, according to those inside UT's football building.
The sam linebacker started eight games a year ago, recording 65 tackles (three for a loss, four pass breakups). Hicks was among the Longhorns who told me in July that there's additional comfort in Manny Diaz's system now compared to a year ago, Diaz's first as coordinator. "We can tell a difference," he said.
And that's from a defense that was just outside the nation's 10 best in 2011. If Hicks is pushing -- or over -- 100 tackles this season, don't be surprised. Two Horns, Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson, got there a year ago and they're both gone.
8. Terrance Williams, Senior WR, Baylor Bears
Williams is coming in with more established production than most of the guys on this list (even with teammate Kendall Wright over 1,600 yards last season, Williams still recorded 957 of his own), but he still has the chance to take a huge leap forward in production in 2012. At 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, Williams has the kind of ability that caused Mel Kiper to rank him as the top returning senior receiver in the college game.
Speedster Tevin Reese, as well as veteran Lanear Sampson, should also put up big numbers for the Bears. Quarterback Nick Florence, Baylor coaches have said, is not nearly the drop-off from Robert Griffin III that some seem to perceive. Expect huge numbers from this passing game, starting with Williams.
9 and 10. Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, Junior TEs, Stanford Cardinal
Coby Fleener was the Cardinal's second-leading receiver in 2011 -- and he led the team with 10 TD receptions. He was so snug in his role as Andrew Luck's safety blanket that the Colts took Fleener one round after Luck, just to keep the connection going.
Coach David Shaw has said he intends to continue utilizing versatile tight ends, and Ertz (12.8 yards per catch in 2011) and Toilolo (13.6) were just as effective at times as Fleener. They were also as highly recruited. The question: Will junior Josh Nunes be able to nimbly and seamlessly find them the way Luck did? The duo's size -- Ertz is 6-6, 252, and Toilolo is 6-8, 265 -- should make it easier.
11. Justin Hunter, Junior WR, Tennessee Volunteers
Coach Derek Dooley said last week that he wasn't sure if Hunter was yet 100 percent, coming back from knee surgery. The Vols need him to be at least close following the suspension and subsequent transfer of Da'Rick Rogers.
Hunter has shown glimpses that he could be better than Rogers, as evidenced by his 18.5 yards a catch before the knee injury in 2011, but he has to stay on the field to be an all-conference performer. Dooley has said as much about his potential star.
Tyler Bray is certainly gifted enough to get Hunter the ball, and junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson will provide some protection against defenses leaning Hunter's way. If his knee's right, Hunter could become a pro prospect this fall. At 6-4, 200, he's certainly got the look.
12. Andrew Maxwell, Junior QB, Michigan State Spartans
It will not take long until you'll start hearing about how Maxwell is something of a Kirk Cousins clone. And what would be wrong with that? Cousins went 22-5 in his last 27 games as a Spartan, including going out a winner against Georgia in the Capital One Bowl.
Maxwell certainly talks the talk of a leader, saying this summer that he was a sponge for two years learning from Cousins. Game-week preparations were evidently something that made Cousins highly successful, and this week -- against a ranked Boise State team -- is Maxwell's first chance to show off his own homework. A veteran line and running back, Le'Veon Bell, will often make Maxwell look good. Will his receivers? Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett could be important in that vein.
13. Brandon Coleman, Sophomore WR, Rutgers Scarlet Knights
The Big East's tallest projected starting corner is 6-2 and most do not crack 6 feet. Well, boys, have fun with Coleman, who lines up at 6-6 and 220 pounds. Coleman caught just 17 passes as a freshman -- but he averaged 32.5 yards a catch, including a 92-yarder, and finished with 552 yards to complement third-round pick Mohamed Sanu's 1,206 yards. And that was all with shaky quarterback play from Chas Dodd and freshman Gary Nova, who recently won the job in 2012.
With Nova growing and Sanu with the Bengals, this could be Coleman's time to become a known name among the country's elite receivers.
14. Dorial Green-Beckham, Freshman WR, Missouri Tigers
Too soon for this list? Perhaps. Too low on this list? That could be the case by season's end.
There's a range as to what to expect from the ESPN 150's top receiver. The comparisons are already flowing. Locals are likening DGB to former Mizzou standouts Danario Alexander and Jeremy Maclin. Nationally, the names -- Julio Jones, Calvin Johnson, Plaxico Burress -- border blasphemy.
Comparisons are fine, but how quickly will Green-Beckham perform for his home state school as it ventures into the SEC? Mizzou's coaches have been pleased with how quickly Green-Beckham is picking up the playbook, and David Yost's spread should provide Green-Beckham plenty of opportunities for plays. James Franklin has said his shoulder, post-surgery, might be stronger than it was previously, which could provide another boost for DGB in Year 1. Even with a lot of things in his favor -- not to mention being the same size as Coleman, listed above -- his breakout might be a year away after a season of learning on the job.
15. Ka'Deem Carey, Sophomore RB, Arizona Wildcats
Remember the speedy backs Rich Rodriguez had at West Virginia? Steve Slaton? Noel Devine? Carey showed flashes of being that type of a player last year -- before Rodriguez even arrived. He averaged 4.7 yards a carry and had the dash to be the team's primary kick returner, averaging 21.1 yards a return. With a senior quarterback, Matt Scott, and a line that returns all five starters, Carey is primed for a jump with his new coach's spread system.
Running backs coach Calvin Magee told the Arizona Daily Star that Carey, 5-10 and 200, is set to get 20-plus carries a game. "I love him," Magee told the newspaper. "He's solid, head to toe. He's got enough speed to be very good."
16. Justin Brown, Senior WR, Oklahoma Sooners
If Brown caught 36 passes for 517 yards and a pair of scores from Penn State's modestly talented quarterbacks in 2011, why not expect more this fall with an elite QB in Landry Jones getting the ball to him? The Lions threw the ball 376 times a year ago, to OU's 583 throws. That's a lot more chances for Brown in a Sooners offense that was essentially devoid of experience at the position until his transfer. The early reviews out of Norman have been good.
Kenny Stills failed to prove he could be a No. 1 last season without Ryan Broyles, after Broyles' knee injury. With Stills, Brown and freshman Trey Metoyer, OU might approach the same proficiency it had prior to Broyles' injury.
17. LaMarcus Joyner, Junior SS, Florida State Seminoles
Get ready to hear this name a lot this fall, even on a defense loaded with future pros. He's not a hulk in the secondary -- he's listed at 5-8, 195 pounds, a corner's size -- but don't let the size fool you. Joyner is one of the hardest hitters in the country, something that has worked to his detriment, because of the number of personal-foul calls he has incurred during his career.
But coaches, and Joyner himself, see maturity that lends itself to development this season into a star among the stars. "I can calm down now and turn it off when I need to," Joyner told the Miami Herald during camp.
Sophomore tackle Timmy Jernigan, the ACC's defensive rookie of the year in 2011, is another candidate to emerge in Mark Stoops' talented scheme. Eventually, freshmen Mario Edwards and Eddie Goldman could do the same.
18. Johnthan Banks, Senior CB, Mississippi State Bulldogs
Banks had a mini-breakout a year ago, after a 71-tackle, three-interception, five-PBU season for the 7-6 Bulldogs. He also averaged 10.4 yards a punt return, bringing one back 65 yards for a score. Is there more in store for the veteran? He seems to think so. "I'm out to prove I'm the best cornerback in the country," Banks said at SEC media days.
He has the opportunity to get plenty of attention for himself this season, as he should be the top playmaker on a Bulldogs defense with the potential to sneak up on some people.
Scouts are curious about Banks' frame, spindly at 6-2 and 185 pounds. There's no doubting his ability to cover or play the ball, though, they note. We should get the scouts on why the 'A' somehow got dropped from his name; that's a burning question.
19. Ryne Giddins, Junior DE, South Florida Bulls
USC, Florida, FSU, Miami, Auburn, Clemson, North Carolina and Tennessee were among those after Giddins, the Tampa-area native who ultimately decided to stay home and attend USF. Jason Pierre-Paul's success as a Bull, and now in the NFL, was evidence that the program could get Giddins where he wants to go.
He's close. It's a "contract" year. Now it's up to him. Giddins was a second-team All-Big East pick in 2011, after a 5.5-sack season. But those close to him, including coach Skip Holtz, insist there's more in the tank. Holtz said he's been happy with Giddins' desire to improve and his growing role as a leader.
Despite a 5-7 record, the Bulls were a respectable 39th in total defense. If they become a Big East contender in 2012, Giddins could become a poster boy for an up-and-coming D.
20. Marcus Mariota, Freshman QB, Oregon Ducks
Mariota seemed like the clear-cut QB1 after a sensational, eye-opening spring game performance. But sophomore Bryan Bennett cut the gap in camp before Mariota again asserted himself, enough for Chip Kelly to feel comfortable to name the Hawaiian the starter.
Youth and rawness, one Ducks source said this week, are the only things that could prevent Mariota from fully blossoming in his first year as the starter. Most view him as an upgrade over predecessor Darron Thomas in terms of athleticism, but pump the brakes and remember that experience does count for something.
Still, arguably no quarterback has more toys around him and he will grow by the week in Kelly and Mark Helfrich's scheme. His grace, at 6-4 and 211 pounds, is what has observers buzzing about his potential.
21. Uzoma Nwachukwu, Senior WR, Texas A&M Aggies
Nwachukwu held his own a year ago, even with veteran receivers Jeff Fuller and Ryan Swope on the field. Nwachukwu caught 50 passes for 639 yards, creating a reasonable feeling that he could potentially double those numbers this season with Kevin Sumlin now in College Station.
Seem like a stretch? Houston's No. 2 receiver last season, with Sumlin running the show, had 87 receptions for 1,229 yards. Granted, Case Keenum was throwing the ball and a redshirt freshman, Johnny Manziel, is the first-up starter for A&M. But don't underestimate how effective Sumlin's offense can be at moving the ball. Scoring could be another issue altogether for the Aggies in the SEC, but Nwachukwu (6-foot, 195) should rack up yardage, along with the similarly sized Swope.
22. Brett Hundley, Freshman QB, UCLA Bruins
Jim Mora didn't let anyone officially know until mid-August, but it was evident in May that Hundley was his guy. Richard Brehaut had big-time passing numbers in the Bruins' spring game, but it was Hundley who had the entire first quarter on the field and who showed the ability to make plays with his arm and legs.
Those in Brentwood say there's a marked difference in Hundley's physical and emotional presence after a redshirt year to watch and learn. He'll make mistakes as a youngster, sure, but he'll likely make more highlight plays than errors.
Who knows? Maybe the Bruins can stick a billboard south of downtown in a couple of years.
23. Malliciah Goodman, Senior DE, Clemson Tigers
A fellow defensive lineman's eyes widened last week when asked about Goodman's progress from his junior season. "Oh, man," sophomore tackle Josh Watson said. "He's a freak. He's so smooth in everything he does. He's our standard."
The Tigers will miss Andre Branch, the opposite end who had 10.5 sacks a year ago. But his departure has been a torch-passing of sorts to Goodman, who has accepted a leadership role on what is an extremely young defense for first-year coordinator Brent Venables. (Only three or four seniors will play significant snaps for the unit.)
Venables' ability to produce excellent pass-rushers, such as Frank Alexander, Ronnell Lewis and Jeremy Beal, is another reason to believe Goodman could perhaps even triple (or more) his sack total (two) from last season.
24. Michael Holmes, Freshman RB, Virginia Tech Hokies
Before Holmes, both David Wilson and Ryan Williams were question marks in the Hokies' backfield. And they each had 1,000-yard seasons and they're now on NFL rosters. So there's some thought -- or hope -- from position coach Shane Beamer that Holmes, young and relatively unknown as of now, will similarly fill the spot.
Holmes has earned the praise of coach Frank Beamer through the spring and summer. He's got the size (6-foot, 208) and shiftiness required, but how much will Holmes (as well as freshman JC Coleman) have to do on their own? Will an essentially new offensive line be able to pave enough paths for the backs in what has typically been a run-heavy offense?
25. George Farmer, Sophomore WR, USC Trojans
This is operating under the tenuous presumption that Farmer, the No. 12 overall prospect on the 2011 ESPN 150, can stay healthy. He has dealt all year with a hamstring injury, but recently pronounced himself ready to go.
But, in the meantime, he fell behind junior De'Von Flournoy, someone whose praises have been sung since the spring by coach Lane Kiffin. Bottom line: With how much USC will throw, there's room for a third receiver in the fold to complement Marqise Lee and Robert Woods. Don't be surprised if Farmer eventually emerges.
26. Calvin Barnett, Junior DT, Oklahoma State Cowboys
Barnett was once a Signing Day stunner, switching from a longtime commitment to Oklahoma State to Arkansas at the last minute. He didn't get in, due to poor grades, and he ended up at OSU after all following a juco stint. Cowboys coach Mike Gundy seems impressed, and the team could use help considering it was 90th last year in rushing defense.
"He plays more like a veteran player," Gundy told The Oklahoman's Gina Mizell. "He's further along than just about any two-year player that we've brought into our program."
27. Shaq Roland, Freshman WR, South Carolina Gamecocks
Despite arriving in July instead of June, because of academics, Roland's attitude and work ethic have received rave reviews from the coaching staff and those close to the program. That's positive for the Gamecocks, who are searching for someone to fill the void left by the school's all-time leading receiver and three-year starter, Alshon Jeffery (3,042 yards).
Jeffery and his big-play predecessor, Sidney Rice, both had the ability to make difficult, in-traffic catches look simple. Roland has shown flashes of that -- and observers say he has more fluidity in his route-running and just running, in general, than either Jeffery or Rice. He also might not be as much of a diva as those before him, a couple of South Carolina coaches hinted.
28. Ken Malcome, Sophomore RB, Georgia Bulldogs
Mark Richt didn't sound entirely confident about Malcome as his starting back for the opener against Buffalo, let alone the weeks to come, but he'll get the first crack at taking advantage of the opportunity blown by dismissed runner Isaiah Crowell.
Malcome's 4.1 yards-per-carry average in 42 carries last season isn't the best mark, but the third-year player was impressive enough in camp to beat out freshman Keith Marshall. As Marshall -- No. 5 on the 2012 ESPN 150 -- picks up the playbook, he might evolve into a candidate for this list, but to start the season at least Malcome will be in position to put up big numbers.
29. Vad Lee, Freshman QB, Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Admittedly, it might be a little early for Lee's inclusion here, but he's fascinating enough for a mention. Lee is still safely behind senior Tevin Washington, but he has shown in scrimmages enough ability to perhaps get a package -- or a series -- in Paul Johnson's offense. Fans' hearts jump at the sight or mention of Lee because he potentially provides something that has been a unicorn at Tech: the ability to consistently throw.
Lavaedeay (that's his whole name) has been good enough that 2011 backup Synjyn Days has been working some during camp at A-back. Lee's time will come at Georgia Tech, sooner or later. For entertainment's sake, let's hope for sooner.
30. Charone Peake, Sophomore WR, Clemson Tigers
Peake ran a 4.24-second 40 this summer, according to The (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier. If defenses get too locked in on Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins, someone with Peake's speed could present problems down the field. He had just four catches last season, but flashed enough ability for us to expect more explosiveness in 2012.
Chad Morris' spread isn't a throw-it-all-over-the-place scheme like you see at, say, Oklahoma State or West Virginia, but there's enough aerial maneuvering for another receiver to emerge as a top-level target. Without reliable tight end Dwayne Allen, that will likely result in more opportunities for the receivers, Peake included. He'll have even more of a chance to step up in the season-opener against Auburn, with Watkins out the first two games with a suspension.