College Football's 8 Surprise Stars of Spring Practice
For coaches and players alike, spring football is nothing like most fans make of it. That's because fans usually only see the spring game, while coaches and players see that event as one of 15 opportunities to make an impact.
However, that doesn't mean spring games or 15 practices can't make someone a star, either. In fact, spring ball can go a long way in taking someone from buried on the depth chart to starter real quick.
Every year people come out of nowhere and become names to remember as we head in to the real games. With spring football officially in the books for 2014, it's time to take a look at some of the biggest stars that emerged around the country.
Here are eight names to keep an eye out for as we move closer to real games being played.
Judah Jones, Kansas State
Bill Snyder isn't afraid to find the hidden gem; in fact, he's made Kansas State a formidable foe by doing just that. The latest name that could fit that mold was exposed this spring in redshirt freshman running back Judah Jones.
The 5'11", 180-pound running back is multi-talented and put his receiving and running skills on full display during the spring game. He caught the biggest play of the day, a 51-yard touchdown reception, but also showed up in the backfield with six carries as well.
Having the ability to burn players in the run and pass game will get someone like Jones on the field quickly. Most importantly though, Jones earned the six carries because of the improvement he showed as spring went along.
Knowing Snyder's mind for finding talent and getting the ball in their hands any way possible, Jones could be in line for a big fall.
Calvin Green, Washington State
Sometimes there's nothing better than a good first impression, and that's exactly what Washington State early enrollee Calvin Green did this spring. One would be hard pressed to find a more impactful first impression this spring than what Green did in converting from running back to wide receiver.
He led all players in the Cougars' spring game with eight receptions for 101 yards. Those are numbers that will make anyone take notice, regardless of spring game competition or in a Pac-12 contest.
Oh, and Green is still swimming upstream in learning how to play wide receiver. Given Mike Leach's air raid offense, having big play threats at wide receiver is always a plus.
If that was just the beginning, imagine what the 5'10", 170-pound player can do with more teaching and experience under his belt. Green could be another star in Leach's system, and it could happen sooner than later given the opportunities he's already seen.
Anthony Zettel, Penn State
Penn State has a new lease on life once again, this time under head coach James Franklin. That means a fresh pair of eyes and ideas about where to put specific players. In the case of defensive tackle Anthony Zettel, it appears the change has helped him in a big way.
Zettel spent most of the past two seasons bouncing around between defensive end and defensive tackle, where he couldn't quite break in to the starting lineup. Last season, Zettel had four sacks but made just two starts at defensive end, showing a lot of potential.
With a new coaching staff in place, it appears that Zettel is much more confident in his abilities on the inside, something he noted in speaking about this spring with Eric Shultz of The Daily Collegian:
But being a starter, I feel a lot more confident in myself. Plus, coaches feel more confident in me...I can go out and just play football. Being a backup, it wasn't a bad thing. I felt like I contributed a decent amount to the team and I wasn't ready to start. But now I feel like I am, so I'm excited.
Spring is about finding that kind of spark in untapped potential. Look for Penn State to have a very interesting starter at defensive tackle come the fall.
Brett Medders, Iowa State
Who? Chances are even the most diehard Cyclone fan out there didn't know the name of Brett Medders entering spring football. However, with a new offensive coordinator in town (Mark Mangino), there's a fresh start for everyone on that side of the ball.
Medders, a redshirt junior, racked up exactly zero receptions in his first two years in a Cyclone uniform, so hearing his name at all in spring is a surprise. Yet, at 6'2" and 204 pounds, Medders is one of the more physically imposing players Iowa State has at wide receiver.
It showed this spring, where he pulled in six receptions for 48 yards in the spring game alone. Head coach Paul Rhoads doled out some praise for the unused receiver this spring, too.
“He’s been showing up consistently,” Rhoads said, via Ian Smith of Cyclone Fanatic. “I’m very pleased with his progress. I’ll go back to my opening statement about responsibility and helping young men become men. It’s been a joy to see Brett turn that page.”
Being consistent at wide receiver will always get you on the field, especially when you've got a heated quarterback battle going on as well.
AJ Derby, Arkansas
It isn't often that losing a battle for a starting position leads you to a surprise "star" of spring ball, but then again, it isn't too often a head coach has known the player since he was a toddler, either. That was the case for one-time quarterback AJ Derby, though.
Derby lost out to Brandon Allen for the starting quarterback spot, and after a bit of convincing from head coach Bret Bielema, he made a switch to tight end. According to Alex Scarborough of ESPN.com, Bielema has seen Derby as a tight end since he was five years old.
That transition earned high praise from Bielema after the spring was over, telling Scarborough the following:
I truly think he’s going to be rewarded, and not just for the next several months. He’s shown and showcased some things. I’ve already inquired to some of my guys in the profession that, ‘Look, you need to talk to this guy about representing him at the next level.’ The scouts as they come in are going to be impressed with what he’s doing.
Given the fact that Bielema has worked with plenty of NFL talent at tight end, it's a good bet Derby will see a lot of reps in the offense this fall.
Johnny Jefferson, Baylor
Baylor reloading, not rebuilding? That is the truth under Art Briles, and there is no position that better represents the change than running back. Gone are star Lache Seastrunk and capable backup Glasco Martin, yet one wouldn't have known anyone was missing by the group that went out this spring in Waco, Texas.
One of the biggest surprises in the loaded backfield was redshirt freshman Johnny Jefferson, who, at 5'11" and 200 pounds, happens to possess the best combination of speed and power for the Bears.
He showed in the spring game, and throughout practices all spring long, a huge home run hitting ability. According to the Waco Tribune, Jefferson was the leading rusher in a scrimmage before the spring game with 30 yards on five carries.
With Shock Linwood and Devin Chafin being more experienced options, it remains to be seen just how impactful Jefferson will be in 2014. He did show that he's got the ability to be a huge star in the near future, though, and a big fall could force the coaching staff to put him on the field in a larger role.
Quinton Alston, Iowa
The Hawkeyes knew life after three 100-tackle linebackers would eventually come, but few expected the overall transition to be as good as it appeared to be this spring. Chalk part of that surprise up to new starting middle linebacker Quinton Alston.
While promising outside linebacker Reggie Spearman may have had the most hype around him entering spring, Alston did enough during the 15 practices to show why he deserves just as much attention.
Coming in to 2014, the senior has racked up all of 24 tackles in 29 appearances as a Hawkeye. Now, with James Morris out of the picture, Alston made his own splash this spring.
Most importantly, it appears Spearman and Alston have developed a really good chemistry. It just wasn't on display in the spring game, especially given the lack of a run game.
Heading into the fall, that chemistry can help overcome some mistakes that will happen given first-time starters at all three positions.
Robert Foster, Alabama
What is a former 5-star and No. 1-ranked (by 247Sports) wide receiver doing as a surprise player in spring football? Playing for Alabama, where 5-star ratings are nothing new, which has a way of putting you on the back burner, as does redshirting your first year on campus.
However, it took just one spring for Foster to showcase his immense talent. During the annual A-Day game, it was Foster leading the way with four receptions for 50 yards.
With Amari Cooper already a bona fide star, seeing another No. 1 receiver on the other side of the field is a scary proposition for opposing SEC defenses.
Foster's talent coming out may not be a surprise to some, but given the depth that Alabama has at receiver, seeing Foster emerge as the go-to guy this quickly is a bit of a surprise.
As long as Alabama can settle its quarterback position quickly in the fall, Foster has the potential to be a big star by the end of the season.
*Andy Coppens is a national college football featured columnist. You can follow him on Twitter: @AndyOnCFB.
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