New College Football Starters Poised for Breakout Seasons in 2014
In college football, change is the only constant.
Each fall, stars emerge to thrill us with game-breaking performances, massive hits, big throws and unbelievable catches.
Each January, like clockwork, many of them declare for the NFL draft and leave college early after two or three seasons, depending on whether they were redshirted in their first season on campus. The rarest of all stars stay for four years, gracing us with their presence and talents for the maximum time allowed.
This is why recruiting is so important: Coaches are always looking for the next superstar, the next big thing.
Each year, new stars emerge, and each winter, many of them leave. As college football prepares for the 2014 regular season, we’re on the front end of that cycle.
Which players will take advantage of increased playing time and take the next step forward? We took a look at college football rosters and picked a handful of players who were not starters in 2013 but will start this fall and make a significant impact on their team's roster.
Here are a few new college football starters who we think are poised for breakout seasons in 2014.
Jacob Coker, QB, Alabama
Sure, Jacob Coker has not officially been named as Alabama’s starting quarterback, and he is still learning the Crimson Tide offense.
But he is the odds-on favorite to step into the big shoes left behind by AJ McCarron, who is now a member of the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals after going 36-4 as Alabama’s starter, grabbing a pair of BCS national titles along the way. A year ago, McCarron completed 67.3 percent of his passes for 3,063 yards with 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions for the Crimson Tide (11-2).
Alabama had a five-way quarterback battle in spring practice, with senior Blake Sims, McCarron’s former backup, ending spring as the most impressive.
But Coker, who stands 6'3", 230 pounds, will have something in Tuscaloosa that he never really had in Tallahassee, Florida: opportunity.
Coker lost a quarterback battle with a then-unknown redshirt freshman named Jameis Winston, and Winston cemented himself as a college football superstar, leading the Seminoles to their first national championship since 2000 while winning the Heisman Trophy. Coker completed 18 of 36 passes for 250 yards, no touchdowns and an interception in mop-up duty.
Coker knew his best chance to play was elsewhere, so he took advantage of the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule by finishing his FSU degree early and transferring to Alabama in May.
With a talented receiving corps that includes junior Amari Cooper and senior Christion Jones, Coker should have plenty of opportunities to excel this fall. Alabama coach Nick Saban told Andrew Gribble of AL.com back in May:
I think the big thing is that our plan is that he can just stay focused on what he needs to do to be a good player. He needs to be himself and play quarterback the way he can play it. If he can do a good job of executing his offense, I think we've got good enough players around him that we can help him be successful and he can help us be successful.
D.J. Foster, RB, Arizona State
For D.J. Foster, the question has never been one of talent. It has been where he’ll use said talent.
Foster is perhaps the most versatile, electric player on Arizona State’s roster, shuffling between receiver and tailback.
For his career, he has 1,186 receiving yards and 994 rushing yards. He showed promise as a tailback at the end of the 2013 season, subbing for an injured Marion Grice and picking up 300 yards and four touchdowns in three games, including an 80-yard burst against Stanford in the Pac-12 title game.
With Grice now in the NFL, the Sun Devils’ starting tailback job is Foster’s, and he must prove he can carry the load as an every-down back.
"I always want to go for that Heisman," Foster said back in March, via Dave Dulberg of ArizonaSports.com. "That's always been a goal of mine and a dream of mine, so why stop now?"
Sun Devils fans would be just fine with Foster fueling a potent offense that averaged 39.7 points per game a year ago.
Hutson Mason, QB, Georgia
Hutson Mason had no shortage of accolades when he signed with the Bulldogs. Mason set Georgia single-season records for passing yards and touchdowns as a senior at Lassiter High School, throwing for 4,560 yards and 54 touchdowns. However, he just happened to be on campus at the same time as fellow quarterback Aaron Murray.
Murray? He turned into the SEC’s most prolific quarterback ever, setting career records for completions (921), passing yards (13,166), touchdown passes (121) and total offense (13,562), becoming the first quarterback in league history to throw for 3,000 yards in four consecutive seasons.
Mason took a redshirt year in 2012 to separate himself from Murray’s career timeline, and Georgia fans got a preview of his talents when Murray suffered a torn ACL in the Bulldogs’ next-to-last regular-season game against Kentucky.
In his first career start, Mason led a rally from a 20-point deficit against Georgia Tech, leading UGA to a 41-34 overtime win. He also threw for 320 yards in a Gator Bowl loss to Nebraska.
Georgia only returns two of five starting offensive linemen but has plenty of skill-player talent, including tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall and wideouts Chris Conley, Malcolm Mitchell and Michael Bennett. The stage is set for Mason to have a special year in his only season as a collegiate starter. Seth Emerson of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, for one, says Mason is UGA's most important player this season.
Ricky Seals-Jones, WR, Texas A&M
This summer, much of the focus in College Station has been on how Texas A&M will replace Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, but concern also exists in regard to the Aggies receiving corps. Mike Evans, one of college football’s top receivers, left for the NFL as a top-10 draft selection after making 69 receptions for 1,394 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Seniors Derel Walker (51 receptions, 818 yards, five touchdowns) and Travis Labhart (51 receptions, 626 yards, eight touchdowns) also graduated, but senior Malcome Kennedy (60 receptions, 858 yards, seven scores) will be returning.
Who’ll be the biggest benefactor? Redshirt freshman Ricky Seals-Jones.
The former 5-star signee made a splash in the 2013 season opener against Rice, catching a 71-yard touchdown pass. But he suffered a knee injury on the play, leading to his redshirt. Seals-Jones is rangy, fast and athletic—the kind of player who’ll be a huge asset for whomever emerges as A&M’s new signal-caller.
Karlos Williams, RB, Florida State
Florida State must replace its top two tailbacks from 2013’s BCS national title team, but there’s no reason for concern in Tallahassee.
The Seminoles know Karlos Williams is returning. Williams stood out as a third-teamer last fall, amassing 730 yards and 11 touchdowns. He averaged an eye-popping 8.0 yards per carry in his first season as a tailback, which ranked second in the ACC and sixth best nationally. He is also a talented kick returner, averaging 26.2 yards per return as a sophomore.
He spent his first two seasons as a safety, moving across the ball last fall, showing his overall versatility. At 6'1", 219 pounds, Williams is a bruising backfield presence who isn’t afraid to lower his shoulder and deliver a hit. He’ll be a big star in FSU’s backfield this fall, without a doubt.
Mike Williams, WR, Clemson
Last fall, Clemson had one of the nation’s most exciting receiver corps. Sammy Watkins cemented his status as a top-five NFL draft pick with the best season ever by a Clemson receiver, catching 101 passes for 1,464 yards and 12 touchdowns. Fellow junior Martavis Bryant had a breakout year, too, catching 42 balls for 828 yards and seven touchdowns while averaging 19.7 yards per reception.
Now, both wideouts are in the NFL, leaving a hole in the Tigers’ pass-catching corps that can only partially be filled by steady senior Adam Humphries and junior Charone Peake, who's recovering from a torn ACL that ended his 2013 season after two games.
Who’ll become Clemson’s next great receiver? Look no further than Mike Williams. The 6'3", 205-pound sophomore flashed impressive skills in a reserve role last fall. His reach and leaping abilities drew comparisons to 2013 NFL first-round pick DeAndre Hopkins, and Williams had 20 receptions for 316 yards and three touchdowns.
He’s the leader of a group that also includes three talented incoming freshmen, but Williams is the odds-on favorite to gain most from the departures of Watkins and Bryant with a breakout 2014 season.