Top 50 breakout players for 2014
Who could make a Jameis Winston-type jump this season?
From what I had been told for the better part of last offseason, Florida State's Jameis Winston had a chance to be a breakout player in 2013. I wrote numerous times that he had the earmarks to be to college football what Johnny Manziel had been in 2012.
Still, I couldn't pull the trigger and put Winston atop my inaugural top 50 breakout performers. Instead, I listed him No. 3 -- and immediately regretted my decision once I saw him pick apart Pitt on Labor Day.
Ironically, the primary reason I bumped Winston from the top spot is because his coach Jimbo Fisher downplayed the redshirt freshman to me as he talked up Jake Coker. Fisher made the position battle, one that didn't officially end until mid-August of last year, seem very real.
We know how things turned out. But now Coker has the mystique to be as significant as Winston was on the national landscape.
"He was in a battle with another great player, and we had to pick one," Fisher told me last week.
I won't be fooled again, which is why Alabama's grad transfer leads this year's breakout crop, which includes transfers, true freshmen, redshirt freshmen, late bloomers and players who are simply on the rise.
But wait. What actually constitutes a breakout player? This type of ranking exercise is always going to be subjective, but two main factors helped define my group:
1. There are no former 1,000-yard rushers or receivers and no 2,000-yard passers. These are players with the potential to become stars, and the order in which they appear reflects the level of impact each could have.
2. Like last year, my choices were based on a ton of input from coaches. The project comes on the heels of a two-week stretch at ESPN headquarters in which I met with 60 coaches from each of the Power Five conferences. Some agreed with picks I'd already made, while others provided their own suggestions.
So without further explanation, here are my top 50 breakout players for 2014:
1. Jake Coker, QB, Alabama Crimson Tide
Like Fisher did last summer with Winston, Alabama coach Nick Saban has made a point to publicly downplay Coker's arrival -- or even his chances of starting the opener against West Virginia. This will be the attention-deflecting refrain throughout some, if not all, of preseason camp. I'm not falling for it this time.
Saban has been telling people privately that he thinks Coker, who attempted just 36 passes last year at Florida State, has the physical and mental makeup to be the best quarterback he's had at Alabama. Fisher, Saban's former offensive coordinator at LSU, is evidently one of those confidants.
"He can be the best," Fisher said last week when he visited ESPN. "He's talented. He's driven. He has all the tools. ... I don't say all that to put pressure on him. That's how much I think of him."
Coker is leaving one stunningly talented offense for another, but while FSU has a clear edge at offensive line, no team in the country is deeper than the Tide at running back and Amari Cooper is better than any of Winston's targets.
Greg McElroy, an SEC Network analyst and former Bama QB under Saban, said he expects Coker to fit in well because the coaching staff will ease him into the playbook, understanding that there is plenty of experience and talent at the other positions.
"I say no problem," McElroy told me this week. "You might see more conservative game plans early on, but it isn't like it used to be, maybe, when the quarterback was expected to do more. I think he'll be fine."
At 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, and with what's around him, it would be surprising if Coker were to stay longer than a year with the Tide. The NFL will become interested in him quickly, especially if he leads Bama to the first-ever playoff.
2. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU Tigers
There's a certain risk with assigning a true freshman this high of a spot, but spend a few minutes with LSU's players and coaches and you get the sense that Fournette isn't your average 19-year-old.
Then again, with the program's high volume of early departures for the NFL, coach Les Miles expects that of every first-year player who walks in the door at Baton Rouge. He actually encourages early participation.
"We don't say, 'You're just a freshman,'" Miles told me a couple of weeks ago. "Our culture is that you should start. We don't care what class you are. Then we say just starting isn't good enough. We want growth through teaching."
Miles has said Fournette, RecruitingNation's No. 1 overall prospect in 2014, has a Michael Jordan-like desire to be special. Teammates compare his frame -- 6-1, 230 pounds -- to what Adrian Peterson must have looked like as a freshman at Oklahoma.
That is an insane name to link to a kid who doesn't yet have a college carry. So what's a reasonable reality? Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee are seniors who combined for 154 carries a year ago. It's safe to assume that, to start the season, second-year offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will lean on experience while working in Fournette. But with Jeremy Hill (203 carries) gone, the chance for Fournette to be a regular option -- and maybe even the No. 1 back -- certainly exists.
Miles isn't tamping down expectations for LSU, or Fournette.
"We recruit really good players," he said. "If we can get them on the same page and operating well, I don't ever see why we can't play well in a season that leads to a championship."
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