The Most Important Player for Each College Football Team Heading into 2014

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistMarch 18, 2014

The Most Important Player for Each College Football Team Heading into 2014

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    Spring practices are in full swing for college football teams, who are using this time to take a look at backups and early enrollees who may fill holes or contribute in other ways this fall.

    For the star players and other returning starters, spring ball has a different emphasis, one based more on tweaking and fine-tuning.

    Each team has at least one player that, for one reason or another, could be the make-or-break piece of the 2014 season's puzzle. These are the most important players in the country, and the ones whose impact matters the most for their respective squads.

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

Air Force Falcons

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    Broam Hart, Sr., RB

    Hart's production from the fullback position was enhanced by Air Force's use of many rushers in its offense, but he's a good one. He had six touchdowns and averaged more than four yards per carry, and could be the leading rusher this season.

Akron Zips

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    Jatavis Brown, Jr., LB

    Brown turned it on late last season, recording a dozen or more tackled in each of Akron's final four games as the Zips finished hot. He will anchor the middle of that defense this fall as the program tries to reach .500 for the first time since 2005.

Alabama Crimson Tide

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    T.J. Yeldon, Jr., RB

    With the Crimson Tide's quarterback situation taking up so much offseason attention, it's almost as if Yeldon's return isn't getting noticed. Actually, it's because he's been so effective and efficient in both his seasons that it's almost a foregone conclusion he'll have another great year in 2014. 

Appalachian State Mountaineers

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    Marcus Cox, So., RB

    As a true freshman, Cox rushed for more than 1,200 yards and scored 15 touchdowns, giving the Mountaineers great hope for this upcoming first season of FCS play. He ran for 215 yards in the 2013 finale, and he'll likely be a huge focus for 2014 opener Michigan. 

Arizona Wildcats

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    Scooby Wright, So., LB

    Wright started all 13 games as a true freshman last year, and with Arizona losing its other linebackers he will be required to take on more responsibility this season. Wright was active all over the field, and was involved in the tipped interception on the first play of the Wildcats' upset of Oregon last year.

Arizona State Sun Devils

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    Taylor Kelly, Sr., QB

    Kelly threw for more than 3,600 yards and 28 touchdowns last season, but it was his emergence as a capable runner last in the year that propelled ASU to the Pac-12 title game. He rushed for more than 600 yards and scored nine TDs, providing the Sun Devils with a diverse attack. 

Arkansas Razorbacks

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    Alex Collins, So., RB

    The start of Collins' college career had all the makings of a great one, with the best three-game start of any SEC rusher. But then, like the rest of the Razorbacks, he hit a wall and lost productivity. For Arkansas to rebound this year, Collins will need to be consistent throughout the year.

Arkansas State Red Wolves

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    Qushaun Lee, Sr., LB

    Lee will be the go-to defender for the Red Wolves as they break in yet another new coach in 2014. He made the Sun Belt's all-conference team last year thanks to a healthy 134 tackles, finding himself involved in most plays. 

Army Black Knights

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    Terry Baggett, Sr., RB

    Baggett set the school rushing record with a 304-yard performance in a win over Eastern Michigan last year. It provided nearly 25 percent of his yardage for the season, but it also showed that he's got the talent to have a big game. 

Auburn Tigers

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    Nick Marshall, Sr., QB

    Marshall's emergence as the conductor of Auburn's incredible offense in 2013 was a key piece of the championship game run. And with his entire line returning, Marshall has the chance to put up an even bigger year, one that could get him into the Heisman discussion.

Ball State Cardinals

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    Jahwan Edwards, Sr., RB

    Three key weapons led Ball State to a 10-win season in 2013, but only Edwards returns. His production will likely need to be far higher than last season's 1,100-plus yards and 14 touchdowns while the Cardinals break in a new quarterback and a new starting receiver. 

Baylor Bears

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    Bryce Petty, Sr., QB

    Petty performed far better than anyone outside of Waco could have imagined last season, throwing for 4,200 yards and 32 touchdowns with just three interceptions while also running for 13 scores. The Bears should be just as good in 2014, so he'll be asked to do just as much again.

Boise State Broncos

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    Jay Ajayi, Jr., RB

    As a sophomore, Ajayi rushed for more than 1,400 yards and 18 touchdowns, providing Boise with a consistent presence in the backfield as injuries affected the team's quarterback play. Ajayi is a hard runner who had six 100-yard games last year, and his numbers will likely increase this year.

Boston College Eagles

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    Steven Daniels, Jr., LB

    The Eagles lost so many pieces from their solid 2013 team that it's going to be hard for them to repeat that performance this fall. But at least the return of Daniels, a solid tackler and great pursuer, will be something to build around on defense.

Bowling Green Falcons

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    Matt Johnson, Jr., QB

    The Mid-American has a tradition of producing under-the-radar quarterbacks that could end up being NFL players, and Johnson might be the next one.

    He threw for more than 3,400 yards and 25 touchdowns in leading the Falcons to the MAC title, and he'll be the main weapon that new coach Dino Babers will look to for as much leadership and production as possible.touchdowns and the 11th-best efficiency rating in the country at 161.7.

Buffalo Bulls

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    Joe Licata, Jr., QB

    Licata will have to carry the load on offense after talented running back Branden Oliver graduated, and his production will need to be far better than his 2,800 yards and 24 touchdowns from 2013 to help make up for the loss of rising draft prospect Khalil Mack from the defense.

    Licata threw for 214 yards and a TD against Baylor last year, and he'll get a chance to do it again when the Bulls host the bears in mid-September. 

BYU Cougars

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    Taysom Hill, Jr., QB

    BYU's independent schedule has been both a help and a hindrance to Hill's notoriety, but it's hard not to say he didn't have a breakout year in 2013 with more than 4,200 yards of total offense. The Cougars will give him some high-profile chances to shine this fall in games against Central Florida, Connecticut, Houston and Texas.

California Golden Bears

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    Jared Goff, So., QB

    Goff had a solid first year, despite California's 1-11 record. He threw for 3,508 yards and 18 touchdowns but received very little protection from his line, which contributed to a shoulder injury in the season finale that required surgery but shouldn't keep him out of the fall.

Central Florida Knights

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    William Stanback, So., RB

    Stanback was a solid No. 2 rusher for the Knights last season, getting more than 100 carries and scoring six touchdowns in backing up Storm Johnson. Johnson left early for the NFL, so Stanback will be the go-to guy this fall, and his improvement will help ease in whoever UCF starts at quarterback.

Central Michigan Chippewas

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    Titus Davis, Sr., WR

    Entering his fourth year as a key contributor to Central Michigan's offense, Davis is set for a breakout senior year as the Chippewas look to build on last year's 6-6 campaign. Games against Kansas, Purdue and Syracuse could be big ones. 

Cincinnati Bearcats

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    Ralph Abernathy, Sr., RB/WR

    Abernathy figures to be a hybrid offensive weapon in 2014, lining up as a slot receiver and taking carries out of the backfield. He had 24 receptions (though no touchdowns) to go with his 518 rushing yards and five scores last year, and will provide a nice option to keep the ball moving.

Clemson Tigers

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    Vic Beasley, Sr., DE

    One of the best speed rushers in the nation last year, Beasley's return for one more season will give the Tigers' defense a leg up heading into the fall. The overhaul on offense could cause for slow development, but Beasley will continue to chase down quarterbacks with regularity.

Colorado Buffaloes

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    Addison Gillam, So., LB

    As a true freshman Gillam made an instant impact in the middle of Colorado's defense, providing balance and stability to a unit that for the most part struggled. He had 119 tackles and could end up with more this season.

Colorado State Rams

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    Garrett Grayson, Jr., QB

    Grayson has a shot at becoming the school's career passing leader this upcoming season, especially if he has another year like 2013 when he threw for close to 3,700 yards. He'll likely have to put up at least that much as the Rams search for someone to replace potent running back Kapri Bibbs. 

Connecticut Huskies

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    Casey Cochran, So., QB

    The late emergence of Cochran last season helped turn a winless year into one with three victories, all with him running the offense. His last two starts saw him throw for 772 yards and six touchdowns, a great springboard toward what could be a stellar sophomore campaign. 

Duke Blue Devils

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    Anthony Boone, Sr., QB

    Boone came on strong late in the season, helping push Duke to its best record ever and a trip to the ACC title game. Though he'll have a new coordinator, Boone will still be expected to be a leader in his final year in Durham.

East Carolina Pirates

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    Shane Carden, Sr., QB

    Carden is the engine that drives East Carolina, and why the Pirates were one of the most efficient offenses in 2013. He threw for 4,139 yards and 33 touchdowns in leading his team to a 10-win season and a bowl victory over Ohio, and with ECU looking young in the backfield he'll be asked to take on even more leadership.

Eastern Michigan Eagles

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    Bronson Hill, Sr., RB

    After rushing for more than 1,100 yards last season, Hill comes back for one more shot to bring Eastern Michigan back to respectability under new coach Chris Creighton. 

Florida Gators

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    Kelvin Taylor, So., RB

    The son of former Gator great Fred Taylor got his shot to make a name for himself during the second half of Florida's lost season. Though he didn't do much, there were signs of a promising future that Florida will need to arrive sooner rather than later.

Florida Atlantic Owls

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    Jacquez Johnson, Jr., QB

    Johnson had four 200-yard games and two with more than 300 in 2013, and his development as the season went on coincided with Florida Atlantic ending the season on a 4-game win streak. Continued progress could lead to the Owls contending for a Conference USA division title.

Florida International Golden Panthers

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    Jonnu Smith, So., TE

    The offensive standouts were few and far between for Florida International in 2013, but Smith looks to be a good player to build around. His first season of college ball saw signs of future promise, with 39 catches, 388 yards and two touchdowns.

Florida State Seminoles

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    Jameis Winston, So., QB

    The reigning Heisman winner is as irreplaceable as anyone in college football, and he'll be expected to somehow improve off an amazing first year. Though Florida State can contend for another title without better numbers, the Seminoles won't be in the mix if Winston suffers a letdown season.

Fresno State Bulldogs

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    Derron Smith, Sr., S

    Fresno will be breaking in a new offensive set of skill players in 2013, so the defense will need to take on a bigger role in order for the Bulldogs to remain competitive. Smith was among the few bright spots on that side of the ball last year, intercepting seven passes. 

Georgia Bulldogs

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    Todd Gurley, Jr., RB

    If not for injuries, Gurley would have put up numbers to challenge the top rushers in the country last year. Still, he showed he's among the best, and at full strength in 2014 will be the Bulldogs' most effective weapon.

Georgia Southern Eagles

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    Kevin Ellison, So., QB

    Ellison ran for 886 yards and eight touchdowns last season once taking over the Eagles' starting job. He was a key part of the option attack, rushing for 118 yards and two TDs in the upset win at Florida. He'll now get to do that against a full slate of FBS opponents. 

Georgia State Panthers

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    Joseph Peterson, Jr., LB

    The single-season record-holder in tackles, set during last season's transition into FBS, Peterson is a veteran part of the Panthers' defense. Georgia State still hasn't won a game, but when it happens he'll likely be a part of it. 

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

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    Shaq Mason, Sr., OL

    No option rushing team can survive without big, strong blockers up front, and Mason is among the best. He's been reliable man on the Yellow Jackets' line since the end of his freshman year, and he'll be the one that Tech's ball carriers run behind.

Hawaii Rainbow Warriors

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    Joey Iosefa, Sr., RB

    An ankle injury sidelined Iosefa for most of 2013, but once he returned he was explosive and provided Hawaii with a new dynamic on offense. He had 150-plus yards in three of the Rainbow Warriors' last four games, scoring five touchdowns.

Houston Cougars

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    John O'Korn, So., QB

    O'Korn threw for more than 3,100 yards with 28 touchdowns last season, a solid first year of college ball that greatly contributed to Houston's 5-0 start and advancement to a bowl game. He needs to work on accuracy, but he's got the skills to be a good one.

Idaho Vandals

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    Dezmon Epps, Sr., WR

    Idaho's move from independent play to the Sun Belt Conference should provide some stability, and could also provide Epps with a larger audience to show off his talents. Even in last season's trying 1-11 campaign, he managed to put up solid numbers (79 catches, 980 yards, four touchdowns).

Illinois Fighting Illini

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    Josh Ferguson, Jr., RB

    Ferguson had more than 1,300 yards and 11 total touchdowns in 2013, both as a solid rusher and a key option out of the backfield. With Illinois changing quarterbacks, look for Ferguson and his 5.5 yards-per-carry average to get more involved this fall.

Indiana Hoosiers

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    Nate Sudfeld, Jr., QB

    A strong offensive unit in 2013 was paced by Sudfeld's play, as the first-time starer threw for 2,523 yards and 21 touchdowns. The Hoosiers are looking to improve their defense this season, but at least they know Sudfeld can be relied upon. 

Iowa Hawkeyes

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    Mark Weisman, Sr., FB

    With 975 yards and eight touchdowns, Weisman had his second straight season of solid production as one of the nation's most bruising runners. At 6'1" and 235 pounds, he's got the size and stamina to break through the first wave of tacklers for extra yards.

Iowa State Cyclones

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    Quenton Bundrage, Jr., WR

    Though he only had 676 receiving yards last season, Bundrage did score nine touchdowns and was one of the few weapons Iowa State could rely on. With Mark Mangino calling the plays this year, look for Bundrage to play a big role in keeping that unit moving forward.

Kansas Jayhawks

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    Michael Reynolds, Sr., LB

    On a team that didn't have much to be proud about in 2013, Reynolds was a source of some hope for 2014. He had 6.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss and two interceptions, and will be expected to do just as much (if not more) this season. 

Kansas State Wildcats

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    Ryan Mueller, Sr., DE

    Kansas State's offense got better as the season went along last year, and plenty of standouts return from that side. But without Mueller's presence and pressure on the defensive line it won't be a great year for K-State. He had 18.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks last year.

Kent State Golden Flashes

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    Colin Reardon, So., QB

    Kent State's Dri Archer turned some heads with his speed at the NFL combine, but last season at Kent the most impressive performances came from rising passer Reardon. Though the Golden Flashes struggled, he became more important to their offense down the stretch and finished with just under 2,000 passing yards and 12 touchdowns. 

Kentucky Wildcats

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    Javess Blue, Sr., WR

    Kentucky's first year under Mark Stoops didn't show much progress, but Blue did put together a solid campaign with 586 yards and four touchdowns. That production will need to be much better, though, for the Wildcats to make that turnaround. 

Louisville Cardinals

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    DeVante Parker, Sr., WR

    The best player returning from Louisville's 12-1 team is also going to be one of its most effective skill guys under new coach Bobby Petrino. Parker caught 12 touchdown passes in 2013, and he's likely to at least match that this fall.

Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns

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    Terrance Broadway, Sr., QB

    Broadway's hand injury cost Louisiana-Lafayette its first 10-win season, as it lost twice while he healed up before returning for the New Orleans Bowl. He showed his impact there, and now returning for his senior year the former Houston Cougar could lead the Ragin' Cajuns to their best campaign ever. 

Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks

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    Rashon Ceaser, Jr., WR

    ULM has to break in a new quarterback, but whoever gets that job will be happy to know Ceaser will be there as a reliable target. He caught 65 passes for 964 yards and seven touchdowns last season. 

Louisiana Tech Bulldogs

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    Kenneth Dixon, Jr., RB

    Dixon has shown the potential to be an impact player, scoring 27 rushing touchdowns in 2012. That number fell to just four TDs last season, despite rushing for nearly the same amount of yards, the result of Louisiana Tech's offense being far less explosive in 2013. 

LSU Tigers

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    La'El Collins, Sr., OT

    A two-year starter on the Tigers' line, his return for one more season provides great stability for a team breaking in a new quarterback and inexperienced skill players all over the offense. If he can make the blocks, like he has before, LSU will be fine no matter who else is on the field.

Marshall Thundering Herd

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    Rakeem Cato, Sr., QB

    Possibly the nation's most underrated quarterback, Cato enters his fourth year starting at Marshall with more than 10,000 yards and a growing reputation as a winner. Last year he led the Thundering Herd to 10 wins, a bowl victory and for more than 3,900 yards with 39 touchdowns. 

Maryland Terrapins

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    Andre Monroe, Sr., DE

    Maryland will need to find itself an identity in its first season of Big Ten play, and on defense seems to be the best bet. Most of that unit returns in 2014, led by Monroe, who had 17 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks last year.

Massachusetts Minutemen

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    Tajae Sharp, Jr., WR

    Massachusetts has won just twice in two years of FBS play, but there's hope for this season because of players like Sharp. Even in an offensively challenged season, Sharp had 61 receptions for 680 yards and four touchdowns in 2013. 

Memphis Tigers

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    Martin Ifedi, Sr., DL

    One of the best defensive players no one has heard about is Ifedi, who was part of a pretty decent unit that kept Memphis from doing worse than its 3-9 record in 2013. He had 11.5 sacks last year and figures to at least match that total this fall.

Miami (Fla.) Hurricanes

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    Duke Johnson, Jr., RB

    Johnson's loss to a leg injury midway through the season turned Miami's unbeaten run into a disappointing finish that ended with a four losses in the final six games. If he's able to come back with the same kind of moves and explosiveness that saw him rush for 920 yards in eight games, the Hurricanes will have a great year. 

Miami (Ohio) RedHawks

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    Kent Kern, Jr., LB

    Despite a winless season that was full of negatives, Kern was a major positive in the middle of an otherwise beaten up defense. He had 98 tackles in 2013, and will be someone that new coach Chuck Martin looks to for balance and consistency. 

Michigan Wolverines

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    Devin Gardner, Sr., QB

    Though it's still unclear whether he'll be the same player he was before suffering a toe injury in the Ohio State game, if he's anything close to it then Michigan will have a great talent to build around on offense. In 2013 Gardner threw for 2,960 yards and accounted for 32 total touchdowns.

Michigan State Spartans

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    Connor Cook, Jr., QB

    Cook came on strong toward the end of last season, helping to put the Spartans over the top en route to a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl victory. While MSU also has a great running back in Jeremy Langford, it's Cook's continued development that's most important to 2014 success.

Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders

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    T.T. Barber, Jr., LB

    Barber anchored Middle Tennessee's defense last season, and he's likely to do the same this year as the Blue Raiders look to make a bowl game in back-to-back years. He had 118 tackles, three sacks and four interceptions in 2013, finding a way to get involved in every play. 

Minnesota Golden Gophers

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    David Cobb, Sr., RB

    Cobb had a breakout year in 2013 with more than 1,200 rushing yards, providing Minnesota's inconsistent offense with one very reliable option. His senior year should be more of the same, especially if the Golden Gophers struggle at quarterback again. 

Mississippi Rebels

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    Bo Wallace, Sr., QB

    With more than 3,300 passing yards and 24 total touchdowns, Wallace helped pace Ole Miss' solid 2013. He's got some new weapons to work with this year, and will be asked to lead the way again this year.

Mississippi State Bulldogs

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    Dak Prescott, Jr., QB

    The dual-threat Prescott was more impressive with his rushing than through the air, but he showed last year he could do both effectively. With more than 2,700 total yards and 23 total touchdowns on his resume, he's the guy the Bulldogs will rally behind. 

Missouri Tigers

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    Maty Mauk, So., QB

    Mauk got an early audition in 2013, and it went fairly well. Now the time has come for Mauk to run the Tigers full-time, and while he's got a great target in Dorial Green-Beckham to work with it's going to come down to the young passer's decision-making.

Navy Midshipmen

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    Keenan Reynolds, Jr., RB

    Navy's option game is one that can breed success when done right, but it still needs a great player running things. That's Reynolds, who was absolutely fantastic in 2013 as he scored 31 rushing touchdowns. He had seven in one game, and makes the Midshipmen a dangerous opponent that gets shots at Notre Dame and Ohio State this fall. 

Nebraska Cornhuskers

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    Ameer Abdullah, Sr., RB

    Abdullah is the nation's top returning rusher in terms of yards gained with 1,690, and he provided great consistency as Nebraska used numerous quarterbacks. While the Cornhuskers sort out that position for 2014, at least they know Abdullah is there to churn out the yards.

Nevada Wolf Pack

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    Brock Hekking, Sr., DE

    One of the more colorful players at the mid-major level, Hekking is a force to be reckoned with. He had nine sacks as a junior in 2013, and his Brian Bosworth style of play can be both entertaining for fans and infuriating for opponents. 

New Mexico Lobos

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    Cole Gautsche, Jr., QB

    Gautsche was limited by injuries down the stretch in 2013, which really hurt the Lobos' offense because of his ability to run the ball. He had 770 yards and eight touchdowns in just nine games, and if he can learn to pass with more accuracy he could be very tough to stop.

New Mexico State Aggies

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    Brandon Betancourt, Sr., RB

    Most of New Mexico State's limited crop of offensive standouts from 2013 are gone, but Betancourt showed flashes of effectiveness as a backup last season. He averaged more than four yards per carry out of the backfield, had a decent number of receptions and should become a more integral part of the offense this fall.

North Carolina Tar Heels

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    Ryan Switzer, So., PR

    Switzer might not get many touches, but he'll make the most of them. He tied an FBS record with five punt return touchdowns as a true freshman, and unless he never gets a ball kicked his way he'll challenge that mark again in 2014.

North Carolina State Wolfpack

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    Shadrach Thornton, Jr., RB

    He only rushed for 768 yards and four touchdowns, but those were good numbers on a Wolfpack team that struggled offensively in 2013. This year's club should be much improved, and part of that will be because Thornton has grown as a runner.

North Texas Mean Green

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    Carlos Harris, Jr., WR

    With North Texas graduating its quarterback, leading rusher and top two receivers, the 2014 season could be a rough one. But Harris was productive as the third receiving option last year, and with so many new faces he'll likely do far better than his 47 receptions, 553 yards and two touchdowns. 

Northern Illinois Huskies

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    Tommylee Lewis, Sr., WR

    Northern Illinois no longer has Jordan Lynch around to do everything, so some other players are going to need to pick up the slack. Lewis is a prime candidate for that role, as he was the Huskies' top receiving option in 2013 with 86 receptions. 

Northwestern Wildcats

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    Chi Chi Ariguzo, Sr., LB

    The anchor of Northwestern's defense last year with 108 tackles, two sacks and four interceptions. He will be the main cog in this year's unit as well, as the Wildcats look to rebound from last year's disappointing finishing.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    Everett Golson, Sr., QB

    Golson's absence in 2013 had an impact on Notre Dame's offense, as Tommy Rees didn't have nearly the effectiveness or drive that Golson showed in leading the Fighting Irish to the national title game the season before. Now back on the team after an academic suspension, Golson could get Notre Dame back into the championship hunt.

Ohio Bobcats

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    Devin Bass, Jr., DB/KR

    Ohio is going through a major overhaul this season, particularly on offense. But Bass will provide some stability in both the secondary and in the return game, both places where he excelled in 2013. 

Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Braxton Miller, Sr., QB

    The injuries that stunted Miller's junior year were a hidden blessing of sorts for OSU, as it helped influence his decision to come back for one more season. But Miller will need to keep to improving on his throwing to compliment great running skills for the return to pay off for both him and the Buckeyes.

Oklahoma Sooners

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    Trevor Knight, So., QB

    Knight emerged from Oklahoma's murky quarterback situation with a breakout game in the Sugar Bowl, and now will go into 2014 as the leader of an improving offense that could be among the Sooners' best by the end of the year. He had 348 yards and four touchdowns in that win over Alabama. 

Oklahoma State Cowboys

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    Desmond Roland, Sr., RB

    Roland didn't get his chance to be a featured back until midway through last season, and he ran with it. He had 664 of his 817 yards and 11 of his 13 touchdowns in the last seven games, and with the Cowboys uncertain about their quarterback situation he'll likely get a lot of touches early in 2014. 

Old Dominion Monarchs

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    Taylor Heinicke, Sr., QB

    With more than 4,000 passing yards and 33 touchdowns last season, Heinicke made a splash in his debut on the FBS stage. But now that Old Dominion will be playing a full FBS slate instead of mostly FCS opponents, he'll need to ramp it up even more. Look for him to put up huge numbers. 

Oregon Ducks

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    Marcus Mariota, Jr., QB

    Mariota's knee issues slowed down the running aspect of his game last year, but he was as solid a passer as ever with more than 3,600 yards and 31 touchdowns against just three interceptions. If the rushing game returns, Mariota could once again be in the Heisman race.

Oregon State Beavers

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    Sean Mannion, Sr., QB

    In a league full of great quarterbacks returning this year, Mannion could be the best if he can cut down on his interceptions. In 2013 he threw for 4,662 yards and 37 touchdowns but was also picked off 15 times, including 11 in a four-game stretch during OSU's late-season 5-game losing streak.

Penn State Nittany Lions

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    Christian Hackenberg, So., QB

    Hackenberg had a great year in 2013 as a true freshman, and aside from issues with avoiding sacks his numbers were great for a first-year player. His continued development under new coach James Franklin is one of the more exciting storylines of the coming season.

Pittsburgh Panthers

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    Tyler Boyd, So., WR

    There are great freshman years, and there's what Tyler Boyd did in 2013. His 85 receptions and 1,174 yards put him in the territory of previous Pitt receiving greats Larry Fitzgerald and Antonio Bryant, and he added to his reputation with great return numbers as well. 

Purdue Boilermakers

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    Danny Etling, So., QB

    Etling's emergence at the end of 2013 gave hope that this coming season wouldn't be nearly as bad for Purdue. He finished with 1,690 yards and 10 touchdowns, including 485 yards and four TDs in the finale against Illinois.

Rice Owls

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    Jordan Taylor, Sr., WR

    Taylor was Rice's second-leading receiver in 2013 with 848 yards and eight touchdowns, but he'll be the go-to guy for a 2014 attack that's breaking in a new quarterback and new featured running back. Taylor was a big factor in Rice's Conference USA title game win over Marshall.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights

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    Paul James, Sr., RB

    James was a big part of Rutgers' offense early last season, but injuries kept him off the field and contributed to the Scarlet Knights' second-half tailspin. A fully healthy James will be asked to contribute heavily in Rutgers' first year in the Big Ten.

San Diego State Aztecs

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    Quinn Kaehler, Sr., QB

    The turnaround for San Diego State in 2013 began when Kaehler took over as quarterback in the second half of the season's second game. The Aztecs didn't win that one, or the next, but his improved play throughout the year enabled them to win seven of eight to get into another bowl game.

San Jose State Spartans

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    Jarrod Lawson, So., RB

    With big-armed quarterback David Fales no longer around, San Jose State may become a more balanced offensive team. That will mean Lawson will need to improve off his solid freshman year, when he rushed for 788 yards and four touchdowns.

SMU Mustangs

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    Neal Burcham, So., QB

    Burcham took over as SMU's starter at the end of last season because of injuries, and while his numbers weren't impressive, he's most likely the guy the Mustangs will rally behind this fall. Burcham will be asked to throw a lot, a staple of June Jones teams, so he'll have to work on arm strength and accuracy.

South Alabama Jaguars

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    Wes Saxton, Sr., TE

    Tight ends are a premium at the lower levels of FBS, but South Alabama has a good one in Saxton. He only had 50 catches for 635 yards last year, but he should play a bigger role in the Jaguars' offense in 2014. 

South Carolina Gamecocks

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    Mike Davis, Jr., RB

    If healthy, Davis could be the best running back in the country this fall. He showed flashes of it in 2013, though injuries limited him to 1,183 yards and 11 touchdowns. Look for him to be one of the more heavily used rushers in Steve Spurrier's coaching career.

South Florida Bulls

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    Andre Davis, Sr., WR

    Davis has been through the ups and downs of the South Florida program in his four years, seeing the Bulls go from five to three to two wins. He was one of the few bright spots offensively last year, with 735 yards, and he'll need to be a reliable target for whoever emerges as USF's quarterback.

Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles

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    Tyre'oune Holmes, So., WR

    Southern Mississippi's offense finally showed signs of life at the end of last year's horrible season, and Holmes was a big part of that. He finished the year with 53 catches, and caught touchdowns in the last two games, including the blowout victory over UAB that ended a 23-game losing streak.

    While Southern Mississippi had one of the worst offensive seasons in school history, Holmes still managed to establish himself as a solid receiving option in his first year of college play.

    He had 53 catches for 410 yards and two touchdowns for the Golden Eagles, catching his TDs in each of the final two games in 2013.

Stanford Cardinal

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    Kevin Hogan, Sr., QB

    Hogan has been on the other side of the replacement story, stepping in to replace Andrew Luck two years ago. Now, with Stanford losing workhorse running back Tyler Gaffney and several key defenders, Hogan will be expected to serve as a veteran leader.

Syracuse Orange

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    Terrel Hunt, Jr., QB

    When Hunt began to become more comfortable in Syracuse's offense, so too did the Orange attack become more consistent and effective. He had a breakout game in the bowl win over Minnesota, and will enter 2014 with high expectations.

TCU Horned Frogs

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    Sam Carter, Sr., CB

    With TCU losing a stellar corner in Jason Verrett to the NFL, Carter will go become the leader of one of the nation's best secondaries. He held his own well last season, intercepting five passes and returning one for a touchdown.

Temple Owls

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    Tyler Matakevich, Jr., LB

    Temple found itself a hidden gem in Matakevich, one of the most active and aggressive tacklers in FBS. He had 137 tackles last season, but also was involved in forcing and recovering fumbles as well as picking off passes.

Tennessee Volunteers

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    A.J. Johnson, Sr., LB

    Johnson was a ball hawk for the Volunteers last season, registering more than 100 tacklers and getting involved in nearly every pursuit. Tennessee's offense is trying to find its footing, but the defense has solid returners like Johnson to build around.

Texas Longhorns

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    Malcolm Brown, Sr., RB

    Brown stepped in for the injured Johnathan Gray in a big way last year, averaging nearly 24 carries with 841 yards and eight touchdowns in the final eight games. He'll be a big part of Charlie Strong's first team and should put up big numbers.

Texas A&M Aggies

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    Trey Williams, Jr., RB

    With the Aggies breaking in a new quarterback and key contributors throughout the offense, one of the few returning pieces is the little-used Williams. He only got 58 carries in 2013, but averaged seven yards per carry and scored six touchdowns, giving a glimpse of what he could do with increased use.

Texas State Bobcats

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    Robert Lowe, Jr., RB

    Texas State's mission to get into a bowl this season will be piloted by Lowe, who as a first-year starter in 2013 finished with 945 yards and nine touchdowns. His role should be increased in 2014, giving the Bobcats a good chance to achieve their goal. 

Texas Tech Red Raiders

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    Davis Webb, So., QB

    Webb had a breakout bowl game to end his freshman season, and looked to be in a great position to be the Red Raiders' quarterback to start 2014. But with mass departures at that position, he's now the man and will be expected to produce big numbers on a weekly basis.

Toledo Rockets

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    Kareem Hunt, So., RB

    Hunt got an early start on taking over the starting running back spot last season when David Fluellen missed time because of injury. He responded well, finishing with 866 yards and eight touchdowns, and in 2014 his production will likely go up exponentially.

Troy Trojans

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    Jordan Chunn, So., RB

    With 4-year starter Corey Robinson no longer slinging passes all over the place for Troy, the Trojans might be moving into more of a run-oriented attack in 2014. If so, Chunn will be a big part of that after rushing for 14 touchdowns as the second rushing option last year.

Tulane Green Wave

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    Lorenzo Doss, Jr., CB

    Doss kept opposing quarterbacks honest last season, and made them pay when they went his way. He has seven interceptions and defended 16 additional passes, making him one of the top corners in the country.

Tulsa Golden Hurricane

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    Michael Mudoh, Jr., DB

    One of the more active defensive backs in terms of tackling, Mudoh collected 133 takedowns in 2013 as part of a Tulsa offense that found itself doing a lot of chasing in the secondary. He should be more involved in pass defense this season. 

UAB Blazers

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    Jamarcus Nelson, Sr., WR/KR

    UAB's woeful 2-10 season last year kept this hidden gem from getting more attention, but under new coach Bill Clark Nelson could shine. He was among the best in the nation in 2013 in all-purpose yards, averaging more than 150 per game as a kick/punt returner and receiver to go along with 10 total touchdowns. 

UCLA Bruins

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    Brett Hundley, Jr., QB

    Hundley's decision to come back despite being eligible for the NFL was a great boost to UCLA's 2014 hopes, especially the way Hundley played down the stretch last year. He had more than 3,800 yards of total offense, accounted for 35 total touchdowns and obliterated Virginia Tech's solid defense to the tune of 387 yards and four scores in the Sun Bowl.

UNLV Runnin' Rebels

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    Devante Davis, Sr., WR

    Davis caught 87 balls for 1,290 yards and 14 touchdowns last year, but that was as part of a balanced offense that also featured a solid running back. Davis is pretty much on his own this time around, so he'll be asked to fight through double coverage to produce even more.

USC Trojans

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    Nelson Agholor, Jr., WR

    Agholor emerged as USC's best receiving threat last year, helping overcome a season of injuries and coaching turmoil to become a breakout star. He averaged 18.8 yards per reception and scored six touchdowns, but also was stellar as a punt returner with multiple scores.

Utah Utes

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    Dres Anderson, Sr., WR

    Anderson was the most consistent part of Utah's up-and-down offense in 2013, gaining more than 1,000 yards and scoring seven touchdowns. Changes in coaching staff and personnel around him for this season could make him even more important because of his experience. 

Utah State Aggies

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    Chuckie Keeton, Sr., QB

    When Keeton went down with torn knee ligaments last October, Utah State looked dead in the water. But the Aggies somehow persevered and reaching the Mountain West title game.

    With their quarterback expected to be at full strength for the fall, USU has a chance for its best season ever.

UTEP Miners

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    Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sp

    Autrey Golden, Jr., RB/KR

    With an average of 27.9 yards per return on kickoffs, Golden made his presence felt on nearly every touch in 2013. He returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, and also contributed as a backup running back who could get more touches in the backfield. 

UTSA Roadrunners

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    David Glasco II, Sr., RB

    Glasco's numbers might not show a lot, but his production can be better seen in his involvement as a key part of the Roadrunners' growth from a startup FCS program to one that will contend for a bowl game in Conference USA. He rushed for just under 500 yards and five touchdowns last season, but should see more involvement this year. 

Vanderbilt Commodores

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    Patton Robinette, So., QB

    Vanderbilt used two quarterbacks last year, depending on the situation, with Robinette making key contributions with his running ability. Now as the Commodores' sole passer, he'll be asked to be a more complete passer.

Virginia Cavaliers

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    Anthony Harris, Sr., DB

    With eight interceptions, Harris was one of the few defensive players that was more a commodity than a liability in 2013. And with the Cavaliers bringing in some great recruits on defense, Harris will be look to as a leader and mentor. 

Virginia Tech Hokies

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    Kendall Fuller, So., DB

    Fuller was one of the best first-year players in the country, but his impact wasn't as well-known because it came on defense. But the quarterbacks he grabbed six interceptions will say otherwise, as he was a tough one to throw on.

Wake Forest Demon Deacons

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    Ryan Janvion, So., LB

    Janvion will be one of the main defensive players that new coach Dave Clawson turns to in his first year. Janvion made a great impact as a freshman in 2013, recording 95 tackles with an interception.

Washington Huskies

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    Shaq Thompson, Jr., LB

    Thompson was a dominant force in the middle of Washington's defense last season, and with so many star players from last season gone he'll be one of the veterans new coach Chris Peterson relies on. The former Boise State coach saw up close what Thompson could do last year when he registered nine tackles in the Huskies' 38-6 win.

Washington State Cougars

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    Connor Halliday, Sr., QB

    Assuming his arm doesn't fall off, Halliday should have another prolific year throwing in Mike Leach's offense. He threw for 4,597 yards and 34 touchdowns in 2013, setting an FBS record with 89 passing attempts in a loss at Oregon.

West Virginia Mountaineers

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    Brandon Golson, Sr., LB

    West Virginia's defense didn't have a lot of superlatives last season, but Golson was a standout with seven tackles for loss, four sacks and five forced fumbles. He's one of the few returners worth mentioning on the Mountaineers, and he'll be asked to do a lot this fall.

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

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    Brandon Doughty, Sr., QB

    Doughty threw for more than 2,800 yards and 14 touchdowns in his first season as a starter last year, numbers that would have been much higher if Western Kentucky didn't have a 1,700-yard rusher in Antonio Wallace. Wallace is gone, though, and with the Hilltoppers moving to Conference USA, look for Doughty's numbers to jump. 

Western Michigan Broncos

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    Corey Davis, So., WR

    If Davis had been at a major college, his freshman season of 67 catches, 941 yards and six touchdowns would have gotten far more attention. But the Broncos were 1-11 last year, so he was mostly unnoticed, yet should end up putting up even better numbers this year. 

Wisconsin Badgers

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    Melvin Gordon, Jr., RB

    Gordon put up more than 1,600 rushing yards in 2013 despite having to split carries with James White. He'll be on his own this coming fall, which actually might be a good thing for the Badgers based on Gordon's average of 7.8 yards per carry.

Wyoming Cowboys

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    Jordan Stanton, Sr., LB

    Wyoming will be adjusting from a spread attack to a pro-style offense under new coach Craig Bohl in 2014, but the defense will look more like last year's Cowboys team. That unit wasn't strong as a whole, but Stanton was very effective with 139 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions and a pickoff return for a TD.