Tuesday, August 6, 2013
Top 50 breakout players for 2013
By Travis Haney
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:
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.”
All Gordon did last season as a redshirt freshman was average 10 yards a carry, running for 621 yards and three scores on just 62 attempts. Imagine if he got the ball more. That should happen in 2013.
“I haven’t timed him in the 40, but I don’t need to. I just know he’s fast,” first-year coach Gary Andersen said. “If he puts it together, he can be special.”
Andersen said Gordon immediately caught his attention in the spring. But what really stood out, Andersen said, was how Gordon handled himself when he tweaked his ankle. “He didn’t whine or complain,” Andersen said. “He just pushed through it and showed some real toughness. That shows you he’s got a shot.”
Gordon also worked some in the spring on receiving drills and how he might handle perimeter pitches if Andersen weaves some option looks into the Badgers’ gadgetry.
Senior James White, with 2,500 career yards, will certainly get his touches, but Wisconsin has always found ways to keep multiple backs involved. Andersen did not indicate that would change.
If there is a Johnny Manziel-type, or at least a Marcus Mariota in this year’s bunch, Winston is the guy. It’s a big-time program. There is a lot of infrastructure around him, budding receivers and good experience at back and along the O-line. Then there’s Winston’s prodigious talent.
When I asked head coach Jimbo Fisher about Winston, it was obvious he wanted to pump the brakes on the hype. That’s understandable for a player yet to take a snap, but still ...
“He’s a player who has all the tools,” Fisher said, measuring his words. “He’s intelligent and instinctive. He learned and grew [during his redshirt year], and he’s getting ready and preparing now to play.”
I asked Fisher how Winston compares to E.J. Manuel, who in the end was liked more by NFL scouts than college coaches who told me they were never sure if he was a consistent, proven winner. “Well, E.J. was the 16th pick in the draft,” Fisher said. “I hope [Winston] ends up that way.”
Of the 50 coaches I met with in Bristol, Todd Graham was as positive about his team and the individual players on it as any coach. Was it Kool-Aid, or should we really be aware of ASU football this fall?
I’m cautious, but it sounds as if betting on Grice seems like one of the spots that should guarantee returns. As Graham almost immediately pointed out, Grice, as a newcomer, scored a touchdown every 7.5 carries (19 total touchdowns in 144 touches) last season. So he was essentially De’Anthony Thomas without the Oregon spotlight.
Graham said Grice, the JC transfer who outran incumbent Cameron Marshall, could wind up a dark horse Heisman candidate. Big talk, right?
Except Grice will have enough big-game opportunities, that’s for certain. In addition to the Pac-12 schedule, the Sun Devils host Wisconsin and play Notre Dame at Jerry World. One last thought: Grice nearly went to A&M. Imagine that.
The Bulldogs only got USC transfer Jarvis Jones for two years, but they figure to get three seasons from Jenkins, an outside linebacker in the similar playmaking and pass-rushing mold as the All-American Jones.
This is Year 2. In Year 1, Jenkins was second on the team with five sacks in 14 games played (six starts).
Because of the influx of newcomers -- including Reggie Carter at middle linebacker and Tray Matthews at safety -- Jenkins becomes something of a leader on the defense, even as a sophomore. To some observers, Jenkins showed immediate maturity as a freshman. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham can only hope for the same from his first-year guys in 2013.
“I happened to catch their Missouri game [on TV], and he really stood out to me,” one SEC assistant said, referring to the Week 2 win that included a pivotal Jenkins fumble recovery. “I guess he got even better from there. I know they like him.”
One Pac-12 head coach told me he would have preferred Agholor leaving over Robert Woods, who ended his three-year USC career with a mere 252 catches, 2,930 yards and 32 touchdowns.
And that coach wasn’t even Oregon’s Mark Helfrich, whose team was burned by Agholor for six catches and 162 yards. Agholor caught just 19 passes as a freshman (340 yards, two scores) while occupying a lower rung on a loaded ladder of USC pass-catchers last season, but he’s already demonstrating that he is going to be a tough cover and a likely riser.
That’s a plus for the Trojans, since Agholor is likely to sometimes get lost in defenses’ obsession with slowing down Marqise Lee.
Like Lee, Agholor will also be a key figure in USC’s return game. Lee averaged 28.5 yards a kick return, but Agholor was just behind him at 24.2 per in limited tries. It’ll be interesting to see who wins the QB battle to throw to Lee and Agholor. Max Wittek played down the stretch last season, struggling some and opening the race to Cody Kessler and freshman Max Browne.
Receivers coach Tee Martin told me this summer that he doesn’t think his guys will see a dip post-Matt Barkley, regardless of who wins the job.
Let’s try this again. I had Green-Beckham on my 2012 breakout candidates list, but he never really got going, and various injuries to the Missouri offense -- including one to quarterback James Franklin -- kept Green-Beckham’s impact light as the program took its lumps in SEC: Year 1.
Every team deals with injuries, but in fairness, they were particularly bad at Mizzou. Five of the top 10 offensive linemen went down at some point.
“If we had stayed healthy, it might have been a different year for a lot of guys, including Dorial,” coach Gary Pinkel told me. “For him, it’s going to come through maturity. He’s going to be a lot different player than he was a year ago.”
What hasn’t changed: Green-Beckham is still 6-foot-6, 220 pounds. He still physically compares to a young Calvin Johnson. And, yes, he is still young.
What has changed: Offensive coordinator David Yost wanted a change and left, ultimately landing at Washington State. Pinkel wound up promoting from within to replace him, so the head coach, without giving much away, said the offense will look a bit different, but not drastically. It will still be a spread, and DGB will still have plenty of opportunities.
The secret that is gradually becoming known is the Gators’ staff thinks Roberson might actually be a better cover corner than highly touted (and potential two-way player) Loucheiz Purifoy.
“He can do it all,” head coach Will Muschamp told me, referring to Roberson. “He can play man, he can play zone. He has incredible ball skills. He plays the ball extremely well. And I’m proud of him as a person. He’s an all-academic guy. He’s improved himself [and] his body in the weight room. He’s a complete guy.”
Roberson also figures into the return-game equation, along with Purifoy. With the corners blossoming, the Gators went from eight to 20 (first in the SEC) interceptions a year ago. Some of the front-seven pieces have moved on, but there is enough talent in place that the defensive production -- the Gators were fourth in the country in yards-per-play against -- should not drop off all that much.
His 744 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2012 constituted as high as I wanted to go for this list in terms of production. But the ceiling still seems much higher as his team, and quarterback, continues to rise. It resonated, too, when Cardinals quarterback Teddy Bridgewater told me last week he thinks Parker is “the most underrated receiver in the country.”
“He’s a reliable target for me,” said Bridgewater, who is expected to be a Heisman favorite this fall. “I throw it, he goes and gets it.” Bridgewater also said Parker gave himself the nickname of Spiderman. I responded by saying I thought it was uncouth to nickname yourself.
“It works for him,” Bridgewater said, laughing. “He has those Spidey senses. He makes every kind of catch, diving, running, the highlight catches.”
Given the scholarship matters -- head coach Lane Kiffin told me the Trojans will go with 67 this fall, 18 below the limit -- newcomers will have to play. Kiffin said the team’s seven January enrollees all ran with the first team at some point during the spring. That group includes Cravens, a long and fast safety prospect. Kiffin said Cravens’ background as a high school running back is evident in his mobility and awareness in getting to the ball.
Cravens dealt with a knee injury in the spring, but Kiffin said he is 100 percent following minor surgery. Good thing. The Trojans don’t need that 67 sinking any lower.
It was supposed to be the first-year tandem of Black and Amari Cooper making a difference in the Bama passing game last season. Cooper did his part, coming on strong to land at exactly 1,000 yards as a freshman. Black suffered a shoulder injury during camp and was held out for the Tide’s third title season in four years.
If anyone had forgotten about Black, a slick-moving 5-foot-11, 182-pound target from Jacksonville, Fla., he jogged memories with a 10-catch, 113-yard day in the spring game. Cooper added 108 yards and four TDs.
So that Black and Cooper thing could come to fruition this fall -- an unfortunate reality for the rest of the SEC and country. Their progression could help boost AJ McCarron’s Heisman candidacy -- though if they’re too good, they could begin to take votes and attention away from him. The same goes for sophomore back T.J. Yeldon.
12. Ronald Darby, CB, Florida State Seminoles
I knew of Darby, the ACC’s Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012, but I had heard that opposite corner P.J. Williams could be on the verge of a big year.
So I asked Fisher about his defensive backfield, and he said a few words about Williams, who he does like, but then began gushing about Darby. So while you're looking out for Williams, Fisher indicated that Darby has All-America potential. He showed that as a freshman by tying for the team lead with eight pass breakups.
“He’s the guy that makes our defense go back on that back end,” he said. “He’s big-time. We’ve got a bunch of young, talented guys on defense and he’s certainly one of them.”
Sophomore linemen Mario Edwards and Eddie Goldman are in that club, too.
It’s rare to hear a coach associate actual numbers with expectation, but second-year Heels coach Larry Fedora does not speak only in generalities when it comes to Ebron.
Ebron, already projected as a first-round pick by some analysts, had 40 catches for 625 yards and four touchdowns last season.
Two separate times this year, Fedora has told me he expects Ebron to wind up in the neighborhood of 60-70 catches and 10-12 touchdowns in 2013. That’s a lot to put on a guy. Then again, Fedora knows how much the Heels will be throwing this fall as well as how much they could lean on a 6-foot-4, 245-pound safety net.
With Gio Bernard gone, running back is another position of interest at UNC. Freshman Khris Francis and Ryan Switzer could make early impacts. Teammates were impressed this summer by both newcomers, especially with Switzer’s speed.
Reliable vet Ben Malena will likely start, but the Williamses will be the non-Johnny Football home run threats for the Aggies. Trey Williams averaged 5.8 yards a carry as a freshman, running for five touchdowns in just 65 carries. He also had 171 receiving yards, and could wedge himself into a crowded backfield as a first-year guy.
Brandon Williams might have done the same thing if he were eligible. The Oklahoma transfer was forced to sit out after he averaged 5.5 yards a carry for the Sooners in extremely limited duty. He’s the young player the coaching staff is really excited about, along with sophomore receiver Mike Evans. Evans, a physical specimen at 6-5 and 225 pounds, piled up 1,105 yards as a redshirt-freshman.
So there’s a lot more to A&M’s offense than just the Heisman winner. And if Manziel winds up sidelined, the running backs could certainly become the focus of the team. They could be to some extent even with Manziel, who obviously often becomes a second back himself.
“The Next Percy Harvin” is an ideal that has wafted around Urban Meyer’s programs since, you know, he had Percy Harvin at Florida. But in Wilson, the late Oregon flip, the Buckeyes could have some reasonable facsimile.
Wilson is listed as a running back, but he figures to be lined up all over the place. Sort of like Fisher was with Winston, Urban Meyer has tamped down some of the weight on the freshman, but teammates have been impressed so far with Wilson’s raw talent.
At Big Ten media days, quarterback Braxton Miller acted as if he had a literal running mate. He said Wilson will have an early impact.
The No. 55 prospect on the ESPN 150 also had interest from other high-octane offenses such as Baylor, Clemson, Oklahoma and Texas A&M. The belief for all was he could be a home run guy. He's now Meyer’s to use.
Coaches often tell me that finding big, agile, dependable D-tackles is the most difficult task in recruiting.
“There just aren’t as many of those guys walking the earth,” one told me last summer.
LSU never seems to have trouble finding them. One -- Bennie Logan served as the most recent example -- leaves and there’s another giant in the middle of the defensive front to take his place.
In this case, enter Johnson, a junior who has “slimmed down” from 330 to 305 pounds since enrolling. He runs a 4.7-second 40, by the way.
“He’s going to be a great one,” Les Miles said, with that familiar cadence, “another great one.”
The NFL seems aware. Johnson, listed at 6-foot-3 and 294 pounds, is already No. 22 on Todd McShay’s prospect rankings.
You never know what sort of answer you’re going to get when you ask an offensive head coach about a defensive player, but newly promoted Mark Helfrich’s eyes widened when I brought up Armstead, the 6-8, 280-pound sophomore defensive tackle.
As an offensive coordinator, he often had to scheme for Armstead in practice.
“He’s a guy who doesn’t have any idea how good he can be,” Helfrich said. “He’s so technically sound. The NFL will have guys fighting for him. They’ll want him as an offensive tackle. They’ll want him as a defensive tackle.”
Dion Jordan showed that, in this recent wave of offensive prowess, Oregon can also produce pro-ready defensive talent.
Spence and Washington were the hot-ticket freshman recruits a year ago, waiting their turn behind veteran linemen John Simon and Nathan Williams. Both did get on the field, playing in a combined 21 games. Washington even logged three sacks (of nine tackles).
But with Simon and other leaders gone, it is time for Spence and Washington to grow up and emerge in earnest. Spence was No. 4 on the ESPN 150, Washington was No. 65, so they're not lacking pedigree.
“We believe our front seven will still be something that’s a strength, but it’s going to take work,” Meyer told me in the spring. “It isn’t just going to happen.”
It didn’t work out for Lynch at Notre Dame, leading many to believe he was some sort of malcontent. But getting back closer to home -- Lynch is from Cape Coral, Fla., which is south of Tampa -- has evidently had a calming effect on the once hotly pursued recruit.
One AAC coach said he has heard buzz about a matured version of Lynch, which did not make him happy. He said he was somewhat familiar with Lynch’s freshman year with the Irish (5.5 sacks), and he was generally complimentary of Willie Taggart’s potential for player development.
“He sounds like an all-conference type of guy to me,” the coach said of Lynch, who checks in at No. 28 on McShay’s NFL prospect rankings.
If Mark Dantonio says someone has promise on defense, I am inclined to believe him. He told me he saw something late in Waynes’ redshirt freshman season. He played particularly well in the bowl victory, a defensive struggle, showing that he was ready to play full time on the side opposite All-America candidate Darqueze Dennard.
Dantonio said Dennard’s presence logically means Waynes will have more playmaking chances as well as the skill set to perform.
“I’m not going to say he’s the fastest guy on the team, because I don’t want any of our guys mad at me, but he’s one of them,” Dantonio said. “He will make big plays. When this guy finally gets it, he’s going to be a phenomenal player.”
23. Quinshad Davis, WR, North Carolina Tar Heels
Davis had already enjoyed a nice freshman season until he hit a new gear in the final four games, catching 38 passes for 484 yards and 3 touchdowns in the final month. He had 16 catches for 178 yards in the Virginia win alone. He finished the season with three consecutive 100-yard games.
Fedora said Davis then carried that momentum into the offseason and spring. “He listens to everything you say,” Fedora said. “He’ll tell you he wants to be the best and then he’ll show you he wants to be the best.”
Davis grew up in Gaffney, S.C., which is about 90 minutes from Columbia. Think he would like to begin a breakout year with a breakout win against the top-10 Gamecocks?
Inherently, because of who is on the other end of the line, Sutton is going to have more chances. If he faces a double-team at any point, it could mean Clowney is not on the field.
Sutton has been in the end rotation, but with long, lean veteran Devin Taylor in front of him last season, he had to wait his turn to stand out. Now would be that turn.
That fits the narrative for a number of South Carolina’s first-time starters on defense: They’re not newcomers, they’ve been in the program for two or three years, but they’re now being asked to lead. When I talked to him last month, defensive coordinator Lorenzo "Whammy" Ward said Sutton and the others in that position seem to grasp the concept.
“They’re ready,” he said.
25. Ryan Kelly, C, Alabama Crimson Tide
Someone who knows the program well told me recently that Alabama believes Kelly can become the best center in the school’s history. Sorry, Barrett Jones and others.
In fact, when Jones was banged up throughout the prep for the BCS title game against Notre Dame, Kelly filled in admirably. If Jones’ injury kept him out, the coaches felt good about going with Kelly, the 6-5, 290-pound redshirt sophomore. The team likely would have managed.
It appears the “next-one-up” narrative will continue for the Tide, particularly when it comes to the offensive line. Kelly and the Kouandijos, Cyrus and Arie, are the next generation of future-pro talent blocking for McCarron, Yeldon and others.
Since Nick Saban’s arrival, Alabama has averaged 4.96 yards per carry (11th in FBS).
26. Jaelen Strong, WR, Arizona State Sun Devils
Graham might have been more excited about Strong than he was about Grice, and he was psyched about Grice.
“He will be a dynamic performer for us,” Graham said of Strong, a speedy 6-4, 205-pound junior college transfer. “He has three years of eligibility, but we’ll likely only have him for two. He will be that good.”
Strong was No. 17 on our ESPN Junior College 100. He had offers from Miami, Nebraska and a few others.
Strong could be the best target that junior Taylor Kelly has had, and that’s coming off a season in which Kelly completed 67 percent of his passes and threw 29 TDs.
“He’s the real deal,” Graham said of Kelly. “There’s a lot about our offense that I like.”
As long as I’m employed to do this breakout list, I’ll always include a Stanford tight end. That is, as long as David Shaw -- or another Jim Harbaugh disciple -- is on The Farm, too.
The latest example, in the wake of Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, is the 6-7, 260-pound Kaumatule. The Hawaiian played in nine games as a freshman. He didn’t make a catch, but he did provide some big blocks and learned on the field from a Mackey Award finalist (Ertz).
“He has ability,” Shaw said. “He needs experience.”
I asked Shaw how they keep managing to get these freakishly gifted and well-proportioned tight ends. He grinned. “I guess we’ve got the reputation of developing them. One leads to another.”
Kaumatule was recruited as a defensive end, Shaw said. I told him I went to school with a DE-turned-TE: Jason Witten.
For those who saw Luke Joeckel go high in the draft, an associated thought was, “Man, Johnny Football is going to miss him.” I admittedly thought that at first, too. But A&M’s staff told me that part of Manziel’s adjustment might be overstated.
Likely 2014 first-rounder Jake Matthews slides from right to left tackle and Ogbuehi, a 6-5, 300-pound junior, goes from right guard to right tackle, where most believe he can hold his own.
“He might be better than the other two by the time he leaves,” one Ags coach told me in June.
Across the board, the indication I’ve been given is the offense should actually be better than it was a year ago, in terms of overall personnel. That’s a scary thought. Manziel just has to stay eligible through early January.
Muschamp has spent a large chunk of the year talking about the need for someone -- anyone -- to emerge among the receiver group. Let’s make no mistake about it, either: These were all hotly recruited prospects. They have some ability. It’s just a matter of extracting it.
Dunbar is the target who showed some promise down the stretch in 2012: 21 of his 36 catches came after mid-October. He caught five passes for 77 yards, season highs, in the Sugar Bowl against Louisville.
“Now that’s a guy I’m really excited about,” Muschamp told me. “He’s someone who really bought into the weight room and has shown signs that he wants to mature and help us.”
Purifoy, the corner, could also see time at receiver. But Muschamp wants to see if Dunbar, veterans such as Andre Debose and five incoming freshmen can keep Purifoy on defense.
The Chicago-area native was already likely one of the top game-ready prospects of the Rebels’ lauded 2013 haul, but Treadwell became even more important when junior Vince Sanders broke his collarbone over the weekend. Sanders will be out six weeks, opening the door for others, including Treadwell.
Of course, when dealing with freshmen, an open mind is required.
“You never know how they’re going to adjust to the SEC, to the grind of a season, of the schedule, of the routine,” said head coach Hugh Freeze. “The special ones can do it, but you have to wait until September to know how special they are.”
That line can be applied to the rest of the star-studded class, including end Robert Nkemdiche. Here’s a relative fact: The more blue-chippers you have, the better chance they have to immediately succeed.
One coach recently told me what many presumed over the years: Landry Jones was overrated.
“He wasn’t a bad quarterback, but he’s Oklahoma’s all-time leading passer because he was there forever and ever,” he said.
On the flip side, perhaps Bell is currently being underrated. Part of that is probably because the job technically isn’t even his yet. Coach Bob Stoops insists that Trevor Knight is not out of it.
It would be a surprise, though, if Bell did not emerge. He has thrown just 20 passes and as part of the “Belldozer” package he has rushed for 24 touchdowns, so that automatically makes a lot of observers want to make a Tebow comparison. But OU’s coaches have contended for years that Bell can throw.
They also have said that they will not greatly alter the game plan, which is still tilted toward the pass. So we’ll know in time if Bell can throw. I suspect that he can enough to win games and be a top-five QB in a historically good league for QBs.
I’m not about to guess which will play, since it seems as if very little separates them, but whichever guy wins the job is likely to put up numbers.
Beyond their own talent, which clearly got them to this point, the Wildcats might boast the most unsung supporting cast in football. The entire offensive line returns. Running back John Hubert, who averaged five yards a carry, is back. And the receivers, including returning starters Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson, are mostly upperclassmen.
“Too many people are counting out Kansas State in the Big 12,” one coach outside the league told me.
Why doubt Bill “the Manhattan Magician” Snyder at this point? And yet it still seems to happen. The Wildcats could be contenders with Sams or Waters in the game.
Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson is a talker. I like talkers. So when I met with him in Bristol, he spent a good amount of time -- at my request -- talking about Latimer.
At one point, Wilson rattled off a list of very solid former college receivers -- he asked that I not print the names, for the sake of those individuals -- and he said Latimer, a junior, would be better. Wilson said Latimer, a “big” 6-3 and 215 pounds, was one of those kids who grew up as a hoops player. He is only now realizing his potential in another sport in which he is supremely gifted.
“He still hasn’t flashed moments of being a great college player -- he’s been a good one, but not a great one -- but I don’t put many people in front of him,” Wilson said. “He should be really good. I’ll just say that.”
When I visited Butch Jones and his staff on signing day, he was beaming about North, his first big get. He thought at the time that North choosing the in-transition Volunteers over some of his other brand-name offers, Florida, Clemson, Georgia, Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Oregon among them, could supply some momentum for UT with the 2014 class.
Boy, was he right. As of Sunday evening, Tennessee was second in our current class rankings. Jones has not coached a game in Knoxville, but he is 1-0 when it comes to offseasons.
Jones talked up North’s summer when I recently visited with him. “The kids have really spoken out about Marquez and the type of guy and player that he is,” Jones said.
With Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson now in NFL training camps, North sounds like someone ready to immediately help.
Greg Mattison stabilized a defensive unit that was a mess prior to the staff’s arrival, but developing a steady pass rush is still a hole in the team’s profile. Its 22 sacks a year ago ranked 76th in FBS and eighth in the Big Ten. Mattison told me in the spring that he is hopeful Clark, among others, will rectify that. He said he wants to see players develop to the point that blitzing isn’t the only way to get to a QB. He wants the four-man rush to often be enough.
Clark started four games a year ago and showed moments of what the staff hopes becomes the norm. A sack and fumble recovery against Ohio State stood out.
Behavioral issues have limited Clark’s upward trajectory, but Brady Hoke said he is confident Clark has left those behind with team goals in mind. In addition, a strong season could put Clark in position for the April draft.
36. Tyriq McCord, LB, Miami Hurricanes
The bad news for Miami in 2012 was that coaches were forced to play about a dozen freshmen on defense. It appeared that way at times, considering the Hurricanes gave up more than 6 yards per play. The positive, however, is that 21 of the Canes’ top 22 on defense are back -- and some will have made physical and mental improvements.
The first name Al Golden mentioned was McCord, who put on 20 pounds after his freshman season and is still athletic enough to play a sort of end-linebacker hybrid whenever Miami chooses to go with a 3-4 look.
“We’re going to improve defensively just because of how many young guys we played a year ago,” Golden said.
I omitted Oakman from a top transfer post I did a couple of weeks ago, and Baylor’s SID office let me know about it. Tip of the cap, because Oakman did belong.
I don’t often use exclamation points in life, but he’s 270 pounds and stands a full 6-foot-9! That merits one. Oakman was a Penn State defector, so he has three seasons of eligibility left at Baylor. That means the coaching staff has seen for a year what Oakman can do; others will soon enough.
“The thing I love about Shawn is that he’s very passionate,” Bears defensive coordinator Phil Bennett told the Waco Tribune-Herald. “He’s violent and plays very physical.”
Oakman will rotate in with seniors Terrance Lloyd and Chris McAllister, giving BU a physical presence up front that has been missing even while the offense has been causing headaches in the Big 12.
Dan Mullen indicated that Love is symbolic of the Bulldogs roster this season.
“He certainly has the talent. He just lacks the experience,” Mullen said of the junior. “He’s been around the other guys who have been the guys. Now he’s the guy.
“They’ve played,” he said, referring to those rotational players now moving into starting roles. “Now they’re the ones that have to do it on a consistent basis.”
It’s a young team. Mullen said only six scholarship seniors figure to play regularly. For Love and other first-time starters, it’s a matter of how they’ll respond to stresses that inevitably arrive in SEC play.
“When things go well, great,” Mullen said, “but when there’s adversity, during a game or a drive or whenever, in the adversity of each success or defeat, how will these players respond?”
Hageman was OK in 2012, logging 35 tackles (six of them were sacks) on the way to an honorable mention All-Big Ten nod. But coach Jerry Kill is anticipating a jump from Hageman in his redshirt senior season.
Did I mention Hageman is 6-6, 315 pounds and runs like a deer?
“I coached Brandon Jacobs at Northern Illinois,” Kill said, referring to the built-like-a-house running back who later played for the New York Giants. “He is like Brandon. There are some guys that just come along and you go, 'Humans just aren’t like this.'"
When I talked with him in the spring, Chad Morris seemed very, very sure that Sammy Watkins would rebound this season in a big way. But as evidenced by last season, there is plenty of room in his system for multiple skill players.
Bryant showed in his first two seasons that he could be a viable deep threat, averaging a jaw-dropping 28 yards per catch (19 receptions, 526 yards). It’s safe to say that Bryant, 6-5 and 200 pounds, can be a matchup problem.
Charone Peake is another Tigers receiver gaining experience. I’m told by those close to the program that Bryant is the one to watch, but we weren’t expecting Nuk Hopkins to outproduce Sammy Watkins in 2012, so Peake could also make a jump.
His own improvement plus all those threats make quarterback Tajh Boyd a really nice middle-tier Heisman candidate.
41. Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina Gamecocks
There are a number of viable candidates for the underrated Gamecocks offense. Steve Spurrier told me he thinks part-time QB Dylan Thompson has an NFL arm. Freshman Shaq Roland was a breakout inclusion last year, but he didn’t catch on right away. The staff really likes redshirt freshman center Cody Waldrop’s passion for the game on what very well might be Spurrier’s best O-line at South Carolina.
In the end, I’ll go with Davis -- because Spurrier said as much during his ESPN visit.
“He can play, now,” Spurrier said (read that in his voice).
Marcus Lattimore has been deified as a South Carolina back, and he is hands down among the top people I have ever covered, but let’s look at this statistically. He averaged 4.8 yards a carry. Davis ran only 52 times as a freshman, but he did average 5.3 yards a carry. Lattimore is one of the nicest, most genuine guys in all of sports, but let’s not act as if he cannot be replaced, because he was each of the past two seasons after he was injured.
Davis’ ability to stand out could be negated to some extent by the fact that he’ll split carries with Brandon Wilds and possibly Shon Carson. If a lead back shines, though, the staff will not hesitate to feed him on Lattimore-like levels.
Future NFL talent Shaq Thompson gets a lot of the pub, and he was a part of my 2012 list, but coach Steve Sarkisian holds Feeney in similar regard. Feeney was an honorable mention all-conference performer as a redshirt freshman, but he could jump on the first or second teams in his second full year.
“Those are talented guys,” Sarkisian said of Thompson and Feeney. “They have extremely high football IQs. They’re the real keys to our defense.”
Sark reminded me, too, that both players had moved from safety to linebacker, so they were still learning a year ago. Neither even played linebacker in high school. Look for another jump as they get comfortable.
43. Riley Bullough, RB, Michigan State Spartans
The Bulloughs, if you don’t know, are the first family of MSU football. Grandfather Hank was a Spartan in 1952-54 and dad Shane followed in 1983-86. Max is a heart-and-soul senior linebacker.
And now there’s Riley, who was at linebacker until the coaching staff used him at scout team running back last year -- and liked him there so much that they eventually moved him permanently. Now the redshirt freshman is in the mix for the Spartans as they search for Le’Veon Bell’s replacement.
“I was impressed,” Dantonio said of his first thoughts while watching the youngest Bullough run. “I think our coaches were impressed. He catches well. He blocks well. He can play the position.”
Dantonio said he once saw T.J. Duckett go from linebacker to running back, and that worked. So why not try again?
LSU saw an incredible 11 underclassmen leave early, so it might be a candidate for the most breakout players on one roster.
Miles cycled through a number of just the freshmen in our meeting in Bristol, including end Lewis Neal, safety Rickey Jefferson, corner Tre'Davious White and defensive tackle Christian LaCouture.
And Miles mentioned Pocic, too. He is intriguing because, even before camp, Miles had a sense that he would start on the offensive line as a freshman.
“That’s unheard of,” Miles said. That’s especially the case at LSU, where linemen are typically prevalent and most non-skill-position freshmen are destined to redshirt.
Offensive line stability was something of a recurring issue in 2012 for the Tigers. Even with more experience, someone talented enough to play immediately would be welcome.
What? A Maryland quarterback on this list? Yes, a team that played its fifth QB -- a linebacker by trade -- in 2012 has a QB prospect to watch.
Brown, by no means, is new. He’s a fifth-year junior who hasn’t played since November 2011 because of injuries. Brown, who does have wheels and says he’s 100 percent after the ACL tear, had a nice experience as a counselor at the Manning Passing Academy and coach Randy Edsall liked what he saw in the spring.
“Each day you saw him getting more comfortable, more confident,” Edsall said of Brown, who only did 7-on-7 drills in the spring but is now a full go.
Edsall said he honestly believed the Terps, with Brown, could have won eight games a year ago. Do the math, and that means Edsall thinks his QB could be worth as many as four victories.
What will aid Brown’s candidacy is what is around him. Stefon Diggs, the receiver and return man, is the next Tavon Austin. He’d make me look good at QB. Just throw a quick screen and let him go.
“The sky’s the limit for him,” Edsall said of Diggs, who I would have included if he did not have 848 receiving yards and two special teams scores as a freshman. “He’s not satisfied. He’s just one of those special guys, special talents. There is an explosiveness and an ease with the way he does things.”
I have never really understood when schools drop an injured high school player, if they once believed he was good enough to extend an offer. Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald agreed.
“It’s a win-win, isn’t it?” he said. “Either he bounces back and helps you, or he doesn’t and he gets a medical hardship. He gets an education and we get the scholarship back.”
Jones, a Houston product who tore an ACL his senior year in high school, saw schools such as Baylor and Stanford back off. Northwestern stuck with him, and Fitz is optimistic Jones will be in the bounce-back category.
“He’s a very special young man,” Fitzgerald said, complimenting the 6-3, 225-pound Jones – a “big, big target” at slot receiver for both his route running and willingness to block on the outside.
Jones led a group of four Wildcats with 300-plus yards, and Fitzgerald seemed to think he could maybe even double his 2012 output of 412 yards.
Stevens is 6-4, 190 pounds and can fly, the Auburn staff tells me. But Gus Malzahn, who is generally restrained, is not ready to anoint the freshman as a savior for the offense.
“He is a special talent,” Malzahn told me. “But like a lot of the other young guys, we’ll have to see how quick he can catch on.”
Stevens is far from the Tigers’ biggest concern; it’s who will throw to him. Auburn opened camp with a four-man QB race, and Malzahn indicated that little was separating the foursome that includes returnees Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace and newcomers Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson.
Tigers coaches told me Marshall, a juco transfer, received some rave reviews from the team’s 7-on-7 work, but that he would still have a lot to prove during camp. Marshall isn’t Cam Newton’s 6-6, 250-pound statuesque frame, but he’s no slouch at 6-2, 205 and the juco route certainly sounds familiar.
Coach James Franklin said the 6-4 Azubike, who enrolled at 235 pounds, is up to 270 for his sophomore season. Also this: Franklin said Azubike has 3 percent body fat.
“He’s an impressive guy,” Franklin said. “He’s got muscles I didn’t know existed, certainly none I’ve ever had.”
Even at the lighter weight, the hometown Nashville product was SEC-ready. Azubike set the freshman team record with four sacks and played more than any other first-year player on the roster. The player-development aspect of Vandy’s program could be as important as any other part while Franklin is there. The Commodores can remain competitive if there are weight-room examples such as Azubike, who was already productive in the first place.
49. Tyshon Dye, RB, Clemson Tigers
This is admittedly a reach because Dye is a freshman and Morris has said it will be a committee approach to replace Andre Ellington. But something struck me when Morris said he wanted a bigger back to complement and protect quarterback Tajh Boyd.
Even as a kid who just arrived on campus, Dye’s 6-1, 210-pound frame makes him a larger option among the choices to receive carries. Dye had one of those who’s who offer lists, too: Notre Dame, USC, Georgia, South Carolina, etc.
Maybe I’m wrong and Dye winds up being a 2014 breakout candidate, but there is room for someone in that Tigers backfield. Whether it’s Dye or starter “Hot” Rod McDowell or D.J. Howard, you know there will be plenty of opportunity in Morris’ tempo system.
Vad Lee figures to be the starter, but Paul Johnson might have to find a spot somewhere on the field for Thomas. The redshirt freshman, a state high school 100-meter champ, was once committed to play defensive back at Alabama.
In an option offense, Thomas sounds like a real threat.
“He’s as explosive a player I’ve seen since I’ve been at Tech,” redshirt senior lineman Will Jackson said at ACC media days. “That includes guys [on other teams] like C.J. Spiller.”
Does that mean Thomas will eventually be coming to a fantasy team near you?