25 College Football Players Set to Explode in 2014

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistMarch 19, 2014

25 College Football Players Set to Explode in 2014

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

    There is a difference, albeit a subtle one, between what we'll define as "breaking out" and what we'll define as "exploding."

    A breakout player is one who goes from relative obscurity to relative renown. They post stats few people expected given how they performed the season (or seasons) before.

    A player we'll deem "set to explode" is one who ended last season on the verge of something. Even if they're already well known—which many players on this list are—the stars (and depth charts) might be aligning for them to reach new heights in 2014.

    In this regard, a breakout player is a subcategory of an exploding player. It's the same relationship as that of a square to a rectangle. If a player breaks out, he has exploded; but if a player explodes, he hasn't necessarily broken out. The breakout may have previously happened.

    This list includes many types of set-to-explode players. There are breakout candidates who are set to start full-time duty for the first time. There are former All-Conference players who might make the leap to All-America. There are different types of players in between.

    But each is in store for a potentially huge season.

WR Bralon Addison, Oregon

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    Associated Press

    Rising junior Bralon Addison becomes the easy No. 1 receiver in Eugene next season, inheriting that role following the departure of senior Josh Huff, who seemed like he was on the Ducks for a decade.

    With the return of quarterback Marcus Mariota and running backs Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner, defenses will be forced to remain occupied on the offensive backfield.

    There's no telling which way Oregon can attack with those three guys, and with safeties biting on play-fakes and rollouts, Addison will have a chance to make consistent plays over the top.

    A speedster who fits the scheme like a glove, Addison finished last season with 61 catches—a high total in this half-life version of Chip Kelly's offense—for 890 yards and seven touchdowns. With no other experienced receivers on the roster, all of those numbers should see a hefty bump in 2014.

RB Javorius Allen, USC

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    Associated Press

    Javorious Allen ascended the Trojans' backfield depth chart last season and, despite a questionable group of blockers in front of him, began to post rushing totals suggestive of USC's glory days.

    Things got ugly in a 16-carry, 26-yard rushing performance against Stanford, but Allen was otherwise dominant in the final five games of the season, averaging 18 carries and 122 rushing yards per game and scoring 11 touchdowns.

    Despite those late-season numbers, there are reasons to expect even better success in 2014. Tim Drevno was brought in from the San Francisco 49ers to mend the porous offensive line, and running backs coach Johnny Nansen, who coached up Bishop Sankey at Washington, came over with new head coach Steve Sarkisian.

    An improved Cody Kessler (or a version of Max Browne good enough to supplant him at quarterback) and receiver Nelson Agholor will keep teams from stacking the box against Allen, freeing him to make plays at the first and second levels.

    Allen will leave them regretting that decision.

DE Jimmy Bean, Oklahoma State

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    Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    OSU defensive end Jimmy Bean, whose name sounds like the kids-brand version of a cheap adult beverage, did not play like a child down the stretch last season. Far from it.

    Bean had 6.5 tackles for loss in the 'Pokes final four games, including 1.5 against Texas, an eight-yard sack against Baylor and three more TFL in the Cotton Bowl loss to Missouri.

    More importantly, he emerged as a potential leadership successor to Justin Gilbert, Calvin Barnett, Daytawion Lowe, Tyler Johnson and Caleb Lavey. That group of seniors, among other departed players, helped lead the best defense Mike Gundy has ever coached—a unit that finished sixth in the country in Football Outsiders' F/+ ratings.

    The Cowboys will take a step back next season, sure. But thanks to the improvement of Bean, it shouldn't be back toward the depths.

DL Joey Bosa, Ohio State

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    Before last season, Joey Bosa was a top-40 incoming freshman with the chance to help Ohio State's defensive line immediately. By the midway point, it was clear he was one of the best pass-rushers on the team. By the last few games of the season, it was clear he was one of the better defensive players in the conference.

    And come the first few games of 2014, Bosa will make it clear he's one of the best all-around players in the country.

    Seem like high praise? It is. But it's far from unachievable.

    Bosa was a wrecking ball in the Buckeyes' final six games, logging at least one tackle for loss in each contest. He finished that stretch with nine TFL for 53 yards and 5.5 sacks, and the game tape did not belie the numbers. He looked every bit that unblockable.

    He's my pick for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.

WR Tyler Boyd, Pittsburgh

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    Tyler Boyd is not the breakout type of explosion candidate.

    After his 85 catches, 1,174 yards and seven touchdowns as a true freshman last season—all of which were tops in the country for first-year players—it seems fair to say he's already "broken out."

    What's crazy, though, is that those numbers do not represent Boyd's ceiling. Not even close. With senior Devin Street (854 receiving yards) lost to graduation, an even greater share of passes will come whizzing Boyd's direction in 2014. 

    The loss of strong-armed quarterback Tom Savage is a bit unnerving, but presumed starter Chad Voytik entered the bowl win over Bowling Green and performed admirably. The highlight of that performance? A 61-yard bomb that hit an open Boyd in stride down the field.

    Forget All-Conference and, perhaps, even just All-American. On talent and talent alone, Boyd is a Marqise Lee-type sophomore receiver. And Lee walked away with the Biletnikoff Award that season.

    Just saying...

DE Trey Flowers, Arkansas

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    Trey Flowers is a name known well by college football diehards, known somewhat by college football moderates and squinted at in confusion by the drunk guy at the bar who pretends to be an expert.

    After 2014, he should be familiar to all three types.

    Flowers emerged from the shadow of Chris Smith to become one of the best behind-the-line run-stuffers in the SEC last season, finishing with 13.5 tackles for loss—more than any returning player in the conference—despite registering only five sacks.

    This upcoming season, Arkansas' offense should be at least slightly improved, which would give Flowers more chances to rush the passer. That, his projected improvement and the ostensible embrace of his new-found leadership role should pilot Flowers to All-SEC production.

    (If not better.)

WR Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri

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    No James Franklin? No problem. Rising sophomore Maty Mauk and Dorial Green-Beckham worked well together in 2013, highlighted by a seven-catch, 100-yard, four-touchdown performance at Kentucky.

    No L'Damian Washington? Potential problem. Coverages will roll toward DGB more in 2014 than they did last season. But there should also be quite a few more balls thrown his direction.

    Add in the 6'6'' frame, the bounding, gazelle-like strides and the form Green-Beckham showed down the stretch in 2013—when he finally looked like the one-time No. 1 overall recruit in the country—and you have the recipe for a sleeper All-America candidate.

    Not to mention a top-15 NFL draft pick.

RB Todd Gurley, Georgia

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    Todd Gurley missed three games in the middle of last season and, even upon returning, never wholly looked the same after injuring his ankle against LSU in September.

    That ankle will keep him limited—for precautionary reasons—this spring, even though Gurley still finished last year top-10 in the SEC in most major rushing categories and atop the conference in every major receiving category by a running back.

    If he's at full health come the fall, Gurley is the best running back in college football. Plain and simple. He might be the best overall player.

    And now, with Aaron Murray gone, first-year starter Hutson Mason at quarterback and backup Keith Marshall rehabbing a torn ACL, Gurley will be counted on to carry the Bulldogs like never before.

    A big enough workload could equal Heisman-type numbers in 2014.

QB Christian Hackenberg, Penn State

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    Find me five better QB performances from 2013 than Christian Hackenberg's 21-of-30 passing, 339-yard, four-touchdown, zero-interception effort in a Week 14 upset of Wisconsin at Camp Randall.

    Seriously, go find them. 

    I'll wait.

    According to 247Sports, Hackenberg was the top-ranked passer and No. 7 overall prospect in the 2013 class. He is 6'4'', has a huge arm and good accuracy and looked toward the end of last year like a potential future No. 1 overall draft pick. And it didn't seem like a fluke.

    Losing receiver Allen Robinson and head coach Bill O'Brien hurts. But Penn State brought in some capable receivers this offseason, and new head coach James Franklin made less talented passers look capable against better competition at Vanderbilt.

    None of those losses, however, should lead to a sophomore leap.

RB Derrick Henry, Alabama

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    When I wrote about Derrick Henry last Thursday, I was surprised, in reading the comment section, to find a less-than-presiding conviction about his breakout potential for 2014.

    Yes, T.J. Yeldon is still there. The two will split time in some capacity. Kenyan Drake might also crack the rotation after a solid year in 2013. The battle for carries will be real. This is, after all, still Alabama.

    However, what Henry did against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl did not feel like a last-game-of-the-season fluke. It felt important; like a bona fide shifting of power. He was making the second-best defense in the Big-12 look like a member of the Sun Belt—and he was doing so in a close game, a game the Tide would eventually lose.

    It's unclear exactly how the running back carries will be split in Tuscaloosa, but with a new quarterback replacing AJ McCarron, there will be enough touches to go around. Henry, the leading rusher in high school football history, will have the ball in his hands often.

    From there, I trust that he will take care of the rest.

QB Brett Hundley, UCLA

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    Brett Hundley was being discussed as a possible top-10 NFL draft pick had he opted to forgo his redshirt junior year and declare.

    That might make it seem like he's appreciated properly, but he's not. Did you know, for example, that Taylor Kelly of Arizona State made the All-Pac-12 second team over Hundley last season? Despite finishing 18 spots lower in total QBR.

    Another year under head coach Jim Mora Jr. should smooth out Hundley's rough edges and make him more consistent from week to week. With four offensive linemen and five of his six leading receivers coming back, his numbers, which were already quite good, should improve across the board.

    Couple that with UCLA's talented young defense, and the Bruins look like a legitimate sleeper to crash the College Football Playoff. What's more, their quarterback looks like a legitimate sleeper to challenge Marcus Mariota of Oregon for Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year.

    (And, dare I say, the Heisman.)

DE Danielle Hunter, LSU

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    Defensive Lineman U must reload once again this offseason.

    Three years ago, it lost Michael Brockers; two years ago, it lost Bennie Logan, Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo; and this year it loses Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson up front.

    Danielle Hunter appears to be the next name in that impressive series. He was second on the team with eight tackles for loss as a sophomore last season, finishing strong with nearly half of that total (3.5) coming in the final three games.

    John Chavis' defense cannot survive without a consistent four-man pass rush. Coaching up the likes of Hunter this offseason will be of utmost concern to Chavis and head coach Les Miles.

    And when great talent meets great teaching, great production tends to occur. 

RB Duke Johnson, Miami

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Similar to Todd Gurley at Georgia, Miami's Duke Johnson was a standout freshman in 2012 and looked good before an ankle cut him short as a sophomore in 2013.

    This year, he returns to Coral Gables for what might be the final time and will have an even bigger load to bear. Three-year starting quarterback Stephen Morris is out of the fold, and steady backup tailback Dallas Crawford has been switched over to defense.

    Johnson has rushed for 1,867 yards on just 284 carries in his career, good for an average of 6.57 yards per attempt. Extrapolate that over a full-season workload, and the numbers are impressive.

    It's no coincidence that Miami started losing once he came out of the lineup last season, and provided he stays healthy in 2014, Johnson should see enough touches to compete with Jameis Winston for ACC Offensive Player of the Year.

DE Carl Lawson, Auburn

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    Auburn doesn't have to look far to find its replacement for Dee Ford.

    A 5-star member of the 2013 recruiting class, Carl Lawson immediately lived up to his pedigree with four sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss as a true freshman. Highlighted by a two-sack, 3.5-TFL game against Ole Miss in October, his season was rewarded with a spot on the Sporting News Freshman All-American team.

    And yet Lawson can still play with a chip on his shoulder, having been snubbed from the SEC's All-Freshman team despite his other accolade.

    Auburn's defense should be improved at linebacker and, depending on how the newcomers look, in the secondary. That and the projected improvement of Nick Marshall—which will keep opponents having to pass all game—should give Lawson ample opportunity to rush the QB.

RB Venric Mark, Northwestern

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    Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

    It looked for a long, unfortunate second like the career of Venric Mark would be over after injuries derailed his fifth year in 2013.

    But then, for the first time in what felt like forever, Northwestern caught a break. The NCAA granted Mark a medical redshirt and deemed him eligible to play as a sixth-year senior next season.

    This is monumental news—the type of thing that might alter the landscape of the Big Ten in 2014. By necessity, the Wildcats played a lot of young players last season; between that and the return of their best offensive weapon, this team, which won 10 games in 2012, has a chance to be the Michigan State of next season.

    Mark rushed for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns and averaged 6.04 yards per carry as a junior in 2012, and he'll be running behind an offensive line that returns all five starters, according to Phil Steele.

    Don't think for a second that he'll waste this opportunity.

QB Dak Prescott, Mississippi State

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    Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

    Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee wrote at length about Dak Prescott on Monday, calling him the most underrated quarterback in the SEC. But me? I think I'll take it one further.

    He's the best quarterback in the SEC.

    Part of that has to do with attrition—there is no more Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray, AJ McCarron, Zach Mettenberger or Connor Shaw to compete with—but most of it has to do with how Prescott finished last season, leading Mississippi State to a three-game winning streak and unlikely bowl berth (and victory).

    A bruising physical presence who passed for 1,940 yards and rushed for 829 more last season, Prescott now enters his first full offseason as the starter and returns his four leading receivers—chief among them Jameon Lewis, the top returning receiver in the conference.

    There's a reason Prescott is listed as a Heisman candidate.

DB Jalen Ramsey, Florida State

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    One of the two "other" 5-star cornerbacks on the Freshman All-America team, Jalen Ramsey did not get the national airtime of Florida's Vernon Hargreaves III and actually spent most of his time at safety after injuries forced Florida State to reshuffle its secondary.

    This year, with so many capable moving pieces on the roster, it's unclear whether Jimbo Fisher will move Ramsey back to corner or leave him out in center field.

    Either way, though, he's a name you will hear all season.

    He was, after all, the first FSU freshman to start at cornerback in Week 1 since Deion Sanders, and though that is a lofty precedent to follow, there is nothing in Ramsey's game suggesting he can't, at some point, become a Seminoles legend in his own right.

    The national championship in year one was a pretty good start.

LB Jake Ryan, Michigan

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    Jake Ryan led Michigan with 88 tackles as a sophomore playing the strong side in 2012, but he tore his ACL in spring practice and, even after returning for the last eight games last season, never looked like quite the same player.

    There were flashes, though, and with another offseason of rehab and rest ahead of him, it is fair to assume—or at least hope—that Ryan might return to his old, dominant form in 2014.

    Helping his cause is a move to inside linebacker, which was done to keep Ryan, now a senior, more involved in the action. "This will give him an opportunity to be more prolific for us," said head coach Brady Hoke, according to Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com.

    That is a scary thought.

LB Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame

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    Depending on your opinion, Jaylon Smith is either a star in the making or a star that's already been made. Either way, it is difficult to describe him without the use of that word.

    The No. 2 overall player in the 247Spots composite rankings, Smith finished third on the team in tackles and second in tackles for loss as a true freshman in 2013. As a true sophomore in 2014, he will be the Irish's leading returner in both of those categories.

    This is scary because Smith is only scratching the surface of his potential. Listed last year at 6'2.5'' and 230 pounds, some added bulk to go with his already first-rate speed will make him an All-America candidate at outside linebacker.

    That holds doubly true if Smith rushes the passer more next season, which Justin Kenny of the News-Sentinel suggests will be the case.

    This could be a Jadeveon Clowney-type sophomore year.

LB Eric Striker, Oklahoma

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    Here's a rule that holds true, almost absolutely, in modern college football: Dominate against Alabama—especially in a victory—and people will start to pay attention.

    So explains the current state of Eric Striker, who ended his sophomore season on a sterling note with three sacks and a forced fumble in the Sugar Bowl upset of the Tide.

    Striker led the Sooners in sacks and tackles for loss in 2013, and with so many young pieces returning around him, he will not be game-planned around as much as he ought to this coming season.

    Talent + Opportunity - Attention = Success

WR Jaelen Strong, Arizona State

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    They couldn't look more different in pads—one standing 6'4'', the other barely 5'10''—but Jaelen Strong has a chance to put up Brandin Cooks-type numbers next season.

    Think of the perfect storm both players enjoyed. Like Cooks, Strong is able to beat man coverage consistently, returns with a competent (at worst) quarterback and plays for a team that loses a lot of talent on defense and could have to throw for 60 minutes to hang around in games.

    That Strong put up a line of 75 catches for 1,122 yards with Marion Grice in the backfield and Will Sutton and Carl Bradford on the other side of the ball bodes well for what he can do in 2014.

    He has the talent to go All-American.

WR Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss

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    This list is heavy on blue-chip true sophomores, and there's a reason for that. Those who enjoyed even modest success as freshmen are expected to hit the next level in 2014.

    Laquon Treadwell sticks out even further, inheriting the likely role of No. 1 receiver after Donte Moncrief declared for the NFL draft.

    Quarterback Bo Wallace, on the other hand, forewent the NFL draft and returned for his senior season, which brewed the perfect storm of production for Treadwell as a sophomore.

    With Vince Sanders and Evan Engram returning, secondaries won't be able to focus on Treadwell wholeheartedly. And with the defense in potential disarray (see: the legal kerfuffle of the Nkemdiche brothers), Ole Miss might need to score a lot of points to stay in games.

    Like I said earlier: perfect storm.

QB Jake Waters, Kansas State

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    Like Christian Hackenberg at Penn State—albeit a few years older—Jake Waters started his FBS football career with much hype in 2013, had an up-and-down (but mostly positive) campaign and finished the year with his best overall performance.

    For all of the same reasons, he has been included on this list.

    According to the 247Sports composite rankings, Waters was the best JUCO quarterback in the 2013 class. He beat out sophomore Daniel Sams in fall camp but, after some mild struggles, ended up sharing reps with him during a stretch in the middle of the season.

    Once he got the reins back for good, though, Waters started to deliver on his potential consistently, capped off by that 198.8 QB rating on 27 passes in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl win over Michigan. With Tyler Lockett, the most underrated receiver in the country, returning in 2014, Waters might be primed for a full season of similar production.

CB Trae Waynes, Michigan State

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    Let's flash back a year, shall we?

    Michigan State was faced with the prospect of life without cornerback Johnny Adams—a three-year starter who made the All-Big Ten second team in 2010 and first team in 2011 and 2012. Would its secondary cornerback, Darqueze Dennard, be up to the task of replacing him?

    Sufficient to say he was.

    Dennard won the Jim Thorpe Award as America's top defensive back and now leaves a similar void in the Spartans secondary as he departs to a likely first-round pick in the NFL draft.

    Will Trae Waynes be quite as good as Dennard in 2014? Probably not. But he should be closer than most people expect.

    An underrated part of the Spartans' 2013 pass defense—a unit that held opponents to an FBS-best QB rating of 92.28—Waynes was better as a sophomore than Dennard was in 2011, so it's not blasphemy to suggest he might one day reach that level.

    Especially with Pat Narduzzi still at the helm, Waynes and Michigan State should again field one of the best defenses in America. Without Dennard around to take the spotlight, that could result in some sleeper All-America consideration.

QB Marquise Williams, North Carolina

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    Marqise Williams threw one pass and rushed just three times in the first four games of the season, and he took the minority of reps behind Bryn Renner in three others.

    Despite this—i.e., despite being the primary quarterback in only six games—he finished with more than 2,200 total yards, 21 touchdowns and the No. 21 total QBR in America. By that metric, Williams is the 10th-best returning passer in college football and second best in the ACC, trailing only Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston.

    Imagine what he can do over a whole year?

    Williams loses projected first-round pick Eric Ebron at tight end, but the Nos. 2-5 receivers on last year's team were all underclassmen. T.J. Logan returns at running back, where he will be joined by (light) blue-chip freshman Elijah Hood, and three starters are back along the offensive line.

    The talent is there for Williams to reproduce and improve on last year's numbers, especially after an offseason spent working with the first team in Larry Fedora's system. Don't be surprised when he does.