- Travis Haney, ESPN Staff Writer
With camp just beginning and the countdown to the college football season now safely under one month, I've ranked my top 50 breakout candidates for 2013.
A quarterback primed to do huge things in the Big Ten checks in at No. 1, and others that follow include a potential Heisman contender at running back, the SEC’s best defensive player outside Jadeveon Clowney, a freshman who could make the contentious ACC first-team QB race even more crowded and several potential Biletnikoff candidates littered throughout.
What constitutes a breakout player? There's plenty of feel, but two big factors helped line up the group:
1. I tried to stay away from known names. Really, the only hard-and-fast rule I set was no 1,000-yard rushers or receivers and no 2,000-yard passers. But in every case, these are players with the potential to become stars this season. (And the order in which they appear reflects the level of impact each could have.)
2. There was a lot of input from coaches. This project comes on the heels of a two-week stretch in Bristol during which I met with 50 coaches from every power conference with the exception of the Big 12. I polled a good number of the coaches about players who could become household names this fall, and I drew on conversations I've had with other coaches throughout the offseason.
So, with all that, here you have it -- the top 50 breakout players for the 2013 college football season:
1. Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan Wolverines
When I spent a day in Ann Arbor in the spring, the first time I had really been around Michigan’s program in my 18 months on the job, it became obvious with one hearty slap on my back that head coach Brady Hoke is a gregarious, social animal. There is no mistaking his impact around a building that, all the construction noise aside, is buzzing with positive mojo for 2013 and beyond.
The trickle-down effect, that air of positivity, is obvious in meetings with both players and coaches, and none more so than with his starting quarterback, Gardner. If Hoke is the mayor of Wolverineland, Gardner is his lieutenant. He’s affable, comfortable and back to being a quarterback. Not just that, but the quarterback.
I asked those around him, and they agreed with me that Denard Robinson’s shadow might have been a difficult place in which to reside. In an effort to keep him from the second-fiddle feeling, and in an effort to use his athleticism, the coaching staff moved Gardner to receiver.
After Robinson injured his arm last fall, Gardner was finally given license to do what he felt was his true college calling. He responded by leading Michigan to three wins, throwing 11 touchdowns and completing 75 of his passes in five starts. He posted a 90.6 rating in ESPN's new QBR metric, the highest for any player with 150 or more action plays.
He now seems ready for more in his full-time role.
“I recruited him,” said one of the Big Ten coaches who played against Gardner late last year. “I know how good he can be. I would say I have been looking forward to him getting his chance, because he’s a really good kid, but they’re on the schedule again this year.”
2. Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin Badgers