20 College Football Underclassmen to Watch out for in 2014

Sebastian Lena@SP7988Analyst IJanuary 8, 2014

20 College Football Underclassmen to Watch out for in 2014

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    Whitfield's (7) speed and explosiveness make him a player to watch in 2014.
    Whitfield's (7) speed and explosiveness make him a player to watch in 2014.Harry How/Getty Images

    With the 2013 college football season in the books, it’s time to look ahead to what’s in store for 2014.

    More specifically, which underclassmen will make the biggest impact for their respective teams?

    Some on this list have enjoyed tremendous success during their freshman season. Meanwhile, some are prepping to begin their first collegiate season.

    All in all, these players will look to have an immediate impact and make opposing defenses pay.

    Join B/R as we take a closer look at 20 such players.

QB Gunner Kiel (Cincinnati)

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    Kiel will try to win the QB job at Cincinnati in 2014.
    Kiel will try to win the QB job at Cincinnati in 2014.Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

    Although quarterback Brendon Kay will be graduating, the Bearcats have a lot to be optimistic about in 2014.

    That’s because quarterback Gunner Kiel could make a play to begin the season as the starter.

    A 5-star prospect in the Class of 2012, Kiel was ranked the No. 27 overall prospect and the top-ranked pro-style quarterback. He originally committed to Notre Dame.

    However, Kiel later transferred to Cincinnati.

    Over three seasons as the starting quarterback for Columbus East High, Kiel dominated. He threw for a total of 7,362 yards, 89 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions. Kiel also added another 1,065 rushing yards and 24 scores. 

    Furthermore, his ability to move the chains with his feet will make him a difficult quarterback to game-plan against.

RB Joe Mixon (Oklahoma)

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    Mixon is ready to make an impact in Norman.
    Mixon is ready to make an impact in Norman.Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

    If beating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl wasn’t enough, the Sooners also captured the commitment of highly touted running back Joe Mixon only a couple days later.

    According to the 247Sports’ composite rankings, Mixon is a 5-star prospect, the No. 18 overall talent and the top-ranked all-purpose back in the country.

    With Oklahoma losing starter Brennan Clay to graduation, there will be plenty of opportunities for Mixon to step in and contribute immediately. Alongside Keith Ford and Alex Ross, Mixon is sure to make a dent on opposing defenses.

    At 6’2” and 195 pounds, Mixon has the frame to be a very powerful and versatile running back. But it’s his receiving ability that will make him stand out.

    Watch out for Mixon in 2014.

QB Malik Zaire (Notre Dame)

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    Could Zaire be the Irish starting quarterback in 2014?
    Could Zaire be the Irish starting quarterback in 2014?Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

    With quarterback Everett Golson returning in 2014, many expected that he would regain his status as the Irish’s starting quarterback.

    However, head coach Brian Kelly has stated that redshirt freshman Malik Zaire is very well in the mix.

    When asked how he would handle playing Zaire if Golson got injured, Kelly had some interesting comments, via WNDU.com’s Angelo Di Carlo:

    "I'm not be cute but that's assuming that Everett is the starter right?" Kelly asked. "We think there is going to be some very good competition for that position with him. Certainly those two young man and we have to sit down with Andrew and where we go from thereand have that conversation with Andrew and find out where we move from there."

    There’s certainly a lot of hype surrounding Zaire. According to 247Sports, the Dayton, Ohio native was the No. 4-ranked dual quarterback in the Class of 2013.

    With a mix of mobility and the ability to throw the ball successfully, it would make sense for Kelly to get Zaire involved. Especially since he has four years of eligibility remaining compared to Golson’s one.

    All in all, it will be interesting to see how the quarterback situation pans out at Notre Dame.

CB Jabrill Peppers (Michigan)

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    Peppers is a player to keep an eye on in 2014.
    Peppers is a player to keep an eye on in 2014.Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Although the 2013 season ended on a sour note, the Wolverines still have a lot to be happy about.

    That’s because the team hit the jackpot by landing 5-star prospect Jabrill Peppers.

    According to 247Sports’ composite rankings, Peppers is the No. 2 overall prospect and the top-ranked athlete in the class of 2014. In high school, aside from on defense, the Paramus, N.J. native made a dent in the rushing attack and in the passing game. 

    That kind of versatility was showed off during the 2014 Under Armour All-America game. Peppers blocked a kick—although it was called back for an “illegal blitz”—returned kick returns for 40 and 24 yards and played quarterback in the Wildcat on offense.

    For a program that had a disappointing 2013 campaign, Michigan certainly has a lot to look forward too with Peppers in tow.

RB Leonard Fournette (LSU)

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    Fournette (center) is ready to make an impact in Baton Rouge next season.
    Fournette (center) is ready to make an impact in Baton Rouge next season.Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Running back Leonard Fournette was the prize of the 2014 recruiting class. He was the 247Sports composite No. 1 overall prospect in the nation.

    As you can expect, the news that the New Orleans, La. native chose to commit to the Tigers was huge news for head coach Les Miles. Especially with the announcement that running back Jeremy Hill would be returning in 2014, via The Shreveport Times’ Glenn Guilbeau.

    But even in a crowded backfield, Fournette should thrive.

    Already the youngster is drawing comparisons to Adrian Peterson.

    Fournette showcased his talents during last week’s 2014 Under Armour All-America Game, rushing for 43 yards on nine carries. He also caught two passes for 46 yards, including a 36-yard touchdown reception.

    Either way you spin it, Fournette is bound to make some noise next season.

WR Ricky Seals-Jones (Texas A&M)

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    Seals-Jones (left) will be vital to the Aggies' success in 2014.
    Seals-Jones (left) will be vital to the Aggies' success in 2014.USA TODAY Sports

    The Aggies have made a huge splash on the recruiting trail this offseason. The team has a group 20 commitments—three 5-star—that is led by wide receiver Speedy Noil.

    However, it’s wide receiver Ricky Seals-Jones who is expected to make the biggest splash for Texas A&M.

    Seals-Jones only appeared in one game last season before being given the medical redshirt. In that game, the freshman showed off his potential, grabbing three passes for 84 yards, including a 71-yard bomb.

    With leading receiver Mike Evans leaving for the NFL, the Aggies will need someone else to step in and take over.

    A former 5-star prospect, Seals-Jones has all the skills and talent to succeed.

RB Alex Collins (Arkansas)

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    There's a lot of optimism surrounding Collins' second year.
    There's a lot of optimism surrounding Collins' second year.Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    The Razorbacks might not have had the season they had hoped for in 2013. However, one good thing emerged from underneath all the rubble.

    That was running back Alex Collins.

    In 12 games, the freshman rushed for 1,026 yards and four touchdowns on 190 carries. That includes topping the century mark in four of Arkansas’ first five games.

    Furthermore, Collins dominated when he saw more of the ball, averaging 109.4 rushing yards over seven games with at least 14 carries.

    With another year under his belt, expect the Fort Lauderdale, Fla. native to come back with a hunger. One that could help push the Razorbacks to the level they need to be in order to succeed.

    It wouldn’t be surprising to see Collins make a push to become a dark-horse contender for 2014’s Heisman Trophy.

LB Jaylon Smith (Notre Dame)

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    Smith (9) has made big plays for the Irish all season.
    Smith (9) has made big plays for the Irish all season.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    The Irish defense may have taken a step back in 2013. But there is reason for some optimism of a resurgence in 2014.

    A large part of that is due to another year of linebacker Jaylon Smith.

    In 13 games, the freshman recorded 67 tackles (6.5 for loss), broke up three passes, forced a fumble and intercepted a pass. He finished third on the team in tackles but was easily one of the biggest bright spots of the defense.

    Smith displayed versatility and the ability to disrupt plays in the backfield or at the second level.

    With another offseason to work on his flaws, we expect a more polished product out on the field for Notre Dame next season. That’s bad news for opponents.

QB Jared Goff (Cal)

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    Goff has the ability to break out in 2014.
    Goff has the ability to break out in 2014.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    The Golden Bears had a season to forget.

    However, the play of quarterback Jared Goff should be remembered.

    In 12 games, the freshman threw for 3,508 yards, 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions on 60.3 percent passing. That includes throwing for over 260 yards seven times.

    In fact, Goff has topped the 400-yard more three times, including throwing for 504 yards against Washington State.

    The only knock on Goff is some of his decision-making. The Kenfield, Cali. native tossed an interception in seven games in 2013.

    If he can limit his mistakes, Goff can grow to become a very good quarterback. 

CB Vernon Hargreaves (Florida)

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    Hargreaves had QBs thinking twice before throwing in his direction.
    Hargreaves had QBs thinking twice before throwing in his direction.Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    The Gators might be remembered for finishing the season on a seven-game losing streak. However, they should also be recognized for having one of the best secondaries in the nation.

    In 12 games, the unit ranked No. 7 against the pass (171.8 YPG). Florida only conceded nine passing touchdowns while limiting opposing quarterbacks to just 49.8 percent passing.

    A large part of that play was due to the presence of cornerback Vernon Hargreaves.

    The freshman finished with 38 tackles, 11 passes broken up and led the team with three interceptions. He also returned a total of four kicks for 47 yards.

    Although his numbers might not be so flashy, it was obvious that teams chose to throw away from the youngster.

    Time and time again, Hargreaves would hold opponents’ top receiving threats to almost nothing.

    With another year under his belt, and hopefully more overall talent on the team, look for Hargreaves to really make a statement in 2014.

RB Shock Linwood (Baylor)

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    Watch out for Linwood in 2014.
    Watch out for Linwood in 2014.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    The Bears may have lost running back Lache Seastrunk to the NFL, via CBS Sports’ Derek Harper, but the team won’t be lacking in the rushing department next season.

    That’s because Baylor will count on running back Shock Linwood.

    In 12 games of limited action, the freshman still managed to rush for 881 yards and eight touchdowns on 128 carries. That includes four rushing efforts of over 100 yards and two that topped 180. 

    Furthermore, in the two games that Seastrunk was held out with an injury, Linwood rushed for 369 yards and a touchdown on 52 carries.

    He has displayed the explosiveness and power that the Bears would love in their rushing attack.

    Don’t be surprised if Baylor comes back out in 2014 without missing a step in the ground game. Linwood has potential to be even better than Seastrunk was.

DE Robert Nkemdiche (Ole Miss)

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    Nkemdiche (right) surprised defenses when he carried the ball on offense.
    Nkemdiche (right) surprised defenses when he carried the ball on offense.Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    The Rebels had a pretty up-and-down season in 2013.

    One of those ups was the play of defensive end Robert Nkemdiche.

    In 11 games, the freshman recorded 34 tackles (8.0 for loss), 2.0 sacks and broke up two passes. He even made an impact on offense, rushing for 32 yards on five carries. 

    After a difficult first half of the season, Nkemdiche really turned it on in the second half. He tallied both of his sacks and 4.0 of his tackles for loss during Ole Miss’ final five games.

    With another offseason to work, expect Nkemdiche to come out and play to the level he was expected to after being the Rebels’ top prospect of their Class of 2013.

WR Tyler Boyd (Pittsburgh)

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    Boyd (center) was tremendous for the Panthers in 2013.
    Boyd (center) was tremendous for the Panthers in 2013.Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    The Panthers will have some rebuilding to do in 2014.

    But that job should become a lot easier with leading receiver Tyler Boyd returning.

    In 13 games, the freshman caught 85 passes for 1,174 yards and seven touchdowns. He also rushed for another 108 yards and a score on 11 carries while returning a total of 22 kicks for 494 yards and a touchdown.

    Given the departures of quarterback Tom Savage and second-leading receiver Devin Street, the offense will rely heavily on the hands of Boyd next season.

    With a full offseason to prepare, expect Boyd to be ready to step up and help ease the transition for the next quarterback.

QB Trevor Knight (Oklahoma)

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    Knight (left) had a storybook ending to his freshman season.
    Knight (left) had a storybook ending to his freshman season.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Until a week ago, there was no chance that quarterback Trevor Knight would be making this list.

    But when you dominate the Alabama defense as well as Knight did during last Thursday’s Sugar Bowl, you have all the reason to be optimistic.

    In eight appearances, the redshirt freshman threw for 819 yards, nine touchdowns and five interceptions on 59.0 percent passing. He also rushed for 445 yards and two touchdowns on 67 carries.

    But Knight was especially huge against the Tide, throwing for 348 yards, four touchdowns and just an interception on 32-of-44 passing. He was instrumental to the Sooners' improbable 45-31 victory.

    Although Knight certainly had his ups and downs, he has a whole offseason to work on improving them.

    We saw what Knight could do with a month of preparation. Let’s see what he can do with a little over seven months.

S Su'a Cravens (USC)

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    Cravens will make a big impact in 2014.
    Cravens will make a big impact in 2014.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Through three head coaches, countless drama and several distractions, the Trojans still were able to secure a 10-win season.

    The defense is largely responsible for that. More specifically, safety Su’a Cravens made a big impact.

    In 13 games, the freshman recorded 53 tackles (2.5 for loss), broke up a pass, forced two fumbles and intercepted four passes. One of those interceptions came during USC’s impressive upset of then-No. 4 Stanford.

    Cravens has shown the versatility to be one of the best ball-hawking safeties in the Pac-12, let alone the country. 

    Under Steve Sarkisian, expect the Trojans defense to continue to grow. And by extension, expect Cravens’ responsibilities to increase.

QB Christian Hackenberg (Penn State)

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    Hackenberg will be a force to be reckoned with in 2014.
    Hackenberg will be a force to be reckoned with in 2014.Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

    The Nittany Lions had a better season than most people expected. Of the team’s seven victories, two came against Michigan and Wisconsin.

    Both were wins that wouldn’t have been possible without quarterback Christian Hackenberg.

    In 12 games last season, the freshman threw for 2,955 yards, 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He also managed to find the end zone four times on the ground. 

    Furthermore, Hackenberg topped the 300-yard mark four times in 2013. Two came against the Wolverines and Badgers, as he combined for 644 yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions on 44-of-74 passing.

    Throughout the season, Hackenberg had some difficulties with his accuracy. But with a full offseason to work on it, expect him to come back better than ever.

DL Joey Bosa (Ohio State)

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    Bosa will look to improve on his stellar freshman campaign.
    Bosa will look to improve on his stellar freshman campaign.Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    After losing their final two games of the season, the Buckeyes will want to turn the page on 2013.

    However, before doing so, it would be wise to take a closer look at the play of defensive lineman Joey Bosa.

    In 14 games, the freshman recorded 44 tackles (13.5 for loss), 7.5 sacks and six quarterback hurries. He even fell on the ball in the end zone for the game-sealing touchdown against Northwestern earlier in the season.

    Thanks to Bosa’s contributions in disrupting the backfield, Ohio State ranked No. 3 in the nation in sacks with 42.0. 

    With another year under his belt, Bosa should return as one of the most feared pass-rushers in the Big Ten, let alone the country.

WR Levonte Whitfield (Florida State)

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    Whitfield changed the landscape of the BCS title game with one return.
    Whitfield changed the landscape of the BCS title game with one return.Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    There’s a good chance the Seminoles wouldn’t be celebrating a BCS title had it not been for the electric 100-yard kick return touchdown by Levonte Whitfield during the fourth quarter.

    In fact, the freshman wide receiver was a source of big plays throughout the season.

    Over limited playing time, Whitfield caught five passes for 89 yards while rushing for another 110 yards and two touchdowns on three attempts. But his biggest impact comes from the return game, where he returned 17 kickoffs for 619 yards and two touchdowns.

    Furthermore, his 36.4 yards per return ranks tops in all of college football.

    Look for Florida State to find more and more ways to get Whitfield touches in 2014.

LB Myles Jack (UCLA)

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    Jack (center) is ready for his close-up.
    Jack (center) is ready for his close-up.Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sport

    The highlight of the Bruins' 2013 season was easily the emergence of linebacker Myles Jack as a two-way player.

    In 13 games, the freshman was stellar on defense. He recorded 76 tackles (7.0 for loss), 1.0 sack, broke up 11 passes, forced a fumble, blocked a kick and intercepted two passes, taking one back for a touchdown.

    However, Jack was also impressive on the offensive end as well.

    The Bellevue, Wash. native rushed for 267 yards and seven touchdowns on 38 carries. That includes finding the end zone in four of UCLA’s final five games.

    Jack may not be used as much in the backfield in 2014, but the fact that he has that ability will keep opposing defenses on their heels.

    Don’t be surprised to see Jack make an improbable run toward the 2014 Heisman Trophy.

QB Jameis Winston (Florida State)

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    Believe it or not, Winston will only get better in 2014.
    Believe it or not, Winston will only get better in 2014.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Can it get any better for quarterback Jameis Winston?

    In his first collegiate year of playing time, the redshirt freshman led the Seminoles to a 14-0 record and the BCS title. Not to mention, he also added the 2013 Heisman Trophy and several other accolades to his trophy case along the way.

    But believe it or not, Winston will only get better in 2014.

    In 14 games, the Bessemer, Ala. native threw for 4,057 yards, 40 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He also rushed for another 219 yards and four scores on 88 carries.

    Although he struggled for the most part against Auburn in the BCS title game, Winston pulled it together when it mattered, tossing his two touchdown passes in the final 11 minutes of the fourth quarter.

    Look for Winston to work hard in the offseason and come back better than before.