College Football's 10 Most Valuable Backups for 2014
Being a backup means being ready to play at a moment's notice. Serving as an understudy for college football's biggest stars can have even larger implications.
If Jameis Winston goes down with an injury, Florida State needs to replace him, ideally, with little to no dropoff. That is not always easy or possible, but it is what coaches strive for in recruiting.
The "next man up" philosophy may be viewed as "coachspeak", but it is nevertheless a goal.
Which backups are the most valuable in college football this season? Our answers are in the following slides.
Alabama Cornerback Tony Brown
First, it should be noted that Alabama cornerback Tony Brown could slide into a starting role by Week 1 against West Virginia. For now, though, he is an early enrollee learning the ins and outs of playing college ball.
Cornerback was a problem area for the Tide last year and it was especially evident in the Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma.
Brown could earn some playing time as a freshman. As B/R colleague Michael Felder previously noted, Brown is one of two new Crimson Tide corners, along with Marlon Humphrey, who could be the future faces of the position:
Saban addressed the issue in recruiting, pulling in the nation's top two cornerback prospects in Tony Brown, an early enrollee, and Humphrey. Brown's a tremendous athlete who should blossom into another great Alabama defensive back, but Humphrey is the pill that should remedy the issue immediately because he is ready to play.
Humphrey is the nation's No. 1 cornerback, according to 247sports.com, and at 6'1" has the length to be a problem both at the line of scrimmage and in coverage. The long arms will help him press at the point, to reroute receivers and disrupt timing, and in the back-end the length will aid him in raking arms, knocking down passes and closing down quarterback windows.
Humphrey could make his impact in preseason camp, but Brown is already pushing for time. That competition will be an improvement for the cornerback position.
Baylor Quarterback Seth Russell
Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty returns as the likely preseason Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year. There is just no other quarterback in the conference right now who has been as prolific or consistent.
As such, Petty's backup is an important part in the Bears' continued success.
That responsibility belongs to Seth Russell. He filled in nicely during garbage time last season, with 427 passing yards, three touchdowns and three picks.
Should Petty ever go down with an injury, it will be Russell's job to make sure Baylor's high-powered offense does not miss a beat. And with so many new starters on offense, the plug-and-play philosophy has never been more important to head coach Art Briles.
But Russell looked like he was more than capable of coming in at any point.
Clemson Defensive End Tavaris Barnes
Clemson defensive end Tavaris Barnes is actually listed as an "or" option at defensive end, along with Corey Crawford, according to the Tigers' post-spring depth chart (h/t Andrea Adelson, ESPN.com).
However the depth chart shakes out, Barnes will have an opportunity to play in the season opener against Georgia since Crawford is serving a one-game suspension for violating team rules.
Barnes was a primary backup in 2013, and although he is pushing for playing time this year, could still ultimately take a back seat to Crawford.
Defensive line is the strength of the Tigers' defense. A big part of that is the depth along that line. Having another solid defensive end across from Vic Beasley will be invaluable. Barnes can contribute to that.
Florida State Quarterback Sean Maguire
Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston only missed one practice this spring because of baseball obligations. Still, that was one chance for his backup, Sean Maguire, to practice with the first-team offense.
Reps like those are invaluable for Maguire should there ever be a situation where he is thrust into duty.
Last season, Winston started every game. That was huge for the Seminoles' national championship run. It is also not always possible. Injuries are part of the game, so Maguire needs to be ready if/when Winston goes down.
Maguire performed well in limited playing time, completing 62 percent of his passes for a pair of touchdowns and interceptions. With Jacob Coker gone, Maguire is officially the No. 2 guy behind Winston.
Georgia Running Back Keith Marshall
This deserves a bit of clarification. Georgia running back Keith Marshall is not a true backup. Rather, he is more of a "1B" option to Todd Gurley.
Marshall missed most of last season after sustaining an ACL tear in early October. He has been limited this spring, but head coach Mark Richt said (via Seth Emerson of the Macon Telegraph) that there are no plans to redshirt Marshall.
Gurley, who had his own injury problems last season, should finally be healthy and primed for a breakout season. That leaves Marshall as the primary relief option. If Gurley can't stay healthy, it will be Marshall's responsibility to pick up the slack.
Marshall needs to be able to stay healthy too, for that matter.
Michigan Linebacker Joe Bolden
Joe Bolden will be part of a deep linebacker unit at Michigan.
The junior played in all 13 games last season and had four starts. With some shuffling along the linebacker group this spring, Bolden could see plenty of playing time this year.
Jake Ryan is moving from one of the outside linebacker spots to the Mike position this year. As such, Desmond Morgan will move over to the weak-side linebacker spot and split time with Bolden and Ben Gedeon, though expect Morgan to get a majority of the reps.
However, if/when Ryan comes off the field, Morgan could slip back into the middle of the field. His versatility makes him one of the most valuable players on defense. Bolden could then emerge as a No. 1 weak-side linebacker in that case.
Nebraska Running Back Imani Cross
Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah was the nation's leading returning rusher, with nearly 1,700 yards, last season. That should give you an idea of how important he is to Nebraska's offense.
And why the Huskers need Imani Cross to continue being a reliable backup to Abdullah.
Cross actually had more touchdowns (10) than Abdullah (nine) last year, but rushed for about one-third of Abdullah's total yards. With Tommy Armstrong Jr. as the likely starter at quarterback, Nebraska's backfield will feature plenty of potent rushing options.
When Abdullah needs a breather, or if he goes down with an injury, Cross, a bruising back, is a perfect replacement.
Oregon Quarterback Jeff Lockie
The backup quarterback spot is admittedly saturated on this list, but how do you leave off Marcus Mariota's understudy?
Now that Jake Rodrigues has left the program, Jeff Lockie thoroughly cements himself in the No. 2 spot behind Mariota. Should the preseason Heisman candidate go down at any point, it will be up to Lockie to keep the Ducks offense moving at a quick and seamless pace.
Adding to the pressure is Lockie's relative inexperience. He appeared in nine games last season and attempted just 13 passes for 57 yards and an interception.
Ideally, his role will be similar in 2014. In a worst-case scenario, however, he needs to be ready for much, much more.
Stanford Receiver Francis Owusu
Stanford's receiving unit is deep—really deep.
The Cardinal's top three receivers from a year ago—Ty Montgomery, Devon Cajuste and Michael Rector—are all back. But there is another pass-catcher that fans and coaches are excited about: Francis Owusu.
Owusu caught just two passes last season—but one went for a score, and he averaged 28 yards a catch. Obviously, the yards-per-catch stat is gaudy and not sustainable, but it gives you an idea of what Owusu is capable of doing for the Cardinal offense.
Furthermore, Owusu should catch more than two passes this season—far more. More than anything, he is a name to watch in a group that already has some big names.
Texas Tech Quarterback Patrick Mahomes
The depth chart behind Texas Tech quarterback Davis Webb is, to put it one way, a little light. With the departures of Baker Mayfield and Michael Brewer, Webb is the guy at quarterback.
That will change once incoming freshman Patrick Mahomes arrives on campus. Mahomes, a two-sport athlete in football and baseball, was drafted in the 37th round of the MLB draft this past weekend by the Detroit Tigers. However, Mahomes told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal last week that no team would be able to offer him a signing bonus that would keep him from playing college football in 2014.
Basically, Mahomes slides right into the No. 2 spot behind Webb once he starts practice.
Head coach Kliff Kingsbury won with Mayfield and Webb last year, two true freshman, so it is not crazy to think he could win with Mahomes if Webb was hurt or ineffective.
But, for sheer depth purposes, Mahomes is important to the Red Raiders.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report.
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