Every College Football Playoff Contender's Secret Weapon in 2014

Greg Wallace@gc_wallaceFeatured ColumnistAugust 15, 2014

Every College Football Playoff Contender's Secret Weapon in 2014

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    Thomas Tyner is a special part of Oregon's deep, talented offense.
    Thomas Tyner is a special part of Oregon's deep, talented offense.Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Every national championship contender needs stars to thrive, but each also needs a secret weapon.

    The teams need a player who can seemingly come out of nowhere to rip off a 100-yard rushing game, make an 80-yard catch-and-run touchdown or carry a game-changing kick return 99 yards for a touchdown.

    If you’re a hardcore college football fan, you know about the nation's best players. You know the stars: Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Braxton Miller, Bryce Petty, Todd Gurley and more.

    They’re the Heisman Trophy candidates, the players who grab the headlines, shine in the spotlight and are the first names off any color commentator’s lips on a crisp fall Saturday afternoon.

    But they can't carry a team alone. They need help. 

    Every great team has a guy waiting in the wings, in a secondary role that gets outshined by his team's biggest stars. Someone who might not be well-known right now but could become a household name by late November.

    Here’s a look at every College Football Playoff contender’s secret weapon for 2014. For this list, we took the Top 10 teams in the Amway Coaches Poll and identified a player who might emerge as a secret weapon this fall. These are players who are entering their first seasons starting this fall or fighting their way up the depth chart, clawing for playing time. 

    In this look, teams are listed alphabetically, not by their position in the preseason poll.

Alabama TB Kenyan Drake

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    Alabama tailback Kenyan Drake is a big-play factor for the Crimson Tide.
    Alabama tailback Kenyan Drake is a big-play factor for the Crimson Tide.Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Class: Junior

    2013 Stats: 694 rushing yards, eight touchdowns; 12 receptions, 135 receiving yards

    What Makes Him Special

    Kenyan Drake is an excellent, versatile athlete, the kind of player who would lead depth charts at plenty of BCS programs. Alabama is not one of those programs.

    The Crimson Tide boast one of the nation’s top backfield duos in junior T.J. Yeldon and sophomore Derrick Henry, leaving Drake as the third-team tailback. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t made his presence known over two seasons in Tuscaloosa. Last fall, Drake rushed for nearly 700 yards while averaging 7.5 yards per carry.

    He had 15 “explosive” rushes of 12 yards or more and four “explosive” receptions of 15 yards or more. He had a 50-yard touchdown run against Ole Miss and rushed for 100-plus yards against Arkansas and Kentucky while averaging 71.8 yards rushing in SEC play.

    He was also a strong special teams contributor, blocking a punt against Colorado State that was returned for a touchdown. Drake has breakaway speed and can make a difference as a rusher or receiver. He’ll be a strong weapon for the Crimson Tide this fall, regardless of how Yeldon and Henry perform. 

    Drake has been “suspended from activity” by Alabama coach Nick Saban after an arrest on charges of obstructing governmental operations by attempting to cross a police barricade to retrieve his car, which was parked near the scene of a shooting in Tuscaloosa, per AL.com's Andrew Gribble. However, assuming Drake returns to Saban’s good graces, he has the talent to make a huge difference on the field.

Auburn TB Corey Grant

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    Expect Corey Grant to play a major role in Auburn's offense this fall.
    Expect Corey Grant to play a major role in Auburn's offense this fall.John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Class: Senior

    2013 Stats: 647 rushing yards, six touchdowns

    What Makes Him Special

    Auburn is trying to replace Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason this fall, but that doesn’t seem to be a major issue in the Loveliest Village on the Plains. That’s partially thanks to the presence of Corey Grant in the Tigers backfield.

    Grant lost a season of eligibility after redshirting at Alabama and then transferring cross-state to Auburn. He had only nine carries for 29 yards as a sophomore, but he flashed skills last fall, rushing for 647 yards on 66 carries (averaging 9.8 yards per carry). He had 146 yards rushing against Washington State, his first career 100-yard rushing game, and a 90-yard kickoff return score against Tennessee.

    At 5’11”, 205 pounds, he has excellent speed and size, and is capable of breaking off long scoring runs.

    He told AL.com's Joel Erickson that he wants coaches to think of him as an every-down, every-situation back.

    One of my main goals coming into spring was proving that I can be a back that can run between the tackles. Throughout the season, I mainly ran on the outside, but with Tre leaving, I wanted to prove I could be one of the main backs.

    This fall, Grant is battling for backfield time with fellow senior Cameron Artis-Payne, so it is entirely possible that he won’t receive the carries of a true No. 1 tailback. But Auburn coach Gus Malzahn and the Tigers offense know they have something special in Grant.

Baylor TB Devin Chafin

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    Devin Chafin should have a bigger role in Baylor's potent offense this fall.
    Devin Chafin should have a bigger role in Baylor's potent offense this fall.Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Class: Sophomore

    2013 Stats: 295 rushing yards, four touchdowns

    What Makes Him Special

    Entering this fall, quarterback Bryce Petty, a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate, is garnering his share of headlines, and sophomore tailback Shock Linwood, a returning Freshman All-American and the Big 12’s leading returning rusher, is atop the Bears’ tailback depth chart.

    But don’t forget about sophomore tailback Devin Chafin. Chafin played behind Lache Seastrunk and Linwood last fall, averaging 5.8 yards per carry.

    Chafin had a 100-yard rushing game against Texas Tech, breaking off a career-best 47-yard touchdown run.

    Seastrunk’s departure created opportunity in the Bears backfield, and while Linwood will capitalize, expect Chafin to get his share as well. Linwood told Baylor's official website that he expects whoever has a hot hand to capitalize this fall.

    For us, (it will be about) who is hot that game. That is who should get the most carries. I may be on that game, Devin Chafin might be on, or Johnny Jefferson may be on. Whoever is doing the best should get the reps, and I know the coaches will see that.

Florida State TB Karlos Williams

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    Florida State will lean heavily on Karlos Williams in its backfield this fall.
    Florida State will lean heavily on Karlos Williams in its backfield this fall.Phil Sears/Associated Press

    Class: Senior

    2013 Stats:  730 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns

    What Makes Him Special

    Florida State lost a pair of 1,000-yard rushers from the BCS National Championship team in Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr., but there doesn’t appear to be a lot of anguish or gnashing of teeth among Jimbo Fisher’s group.

    And with good reason: The Seminoles watched Karlos Williams last fall. Even though Williams served as FSU’s third-team tailback last season, he was a revelation in his first stint on the offensive side of the ball. Williams averaged 8.0 yards per carry, piling up 730 yards and 11 touchdowns.

    His yards-per-carry average ranked No. 2 in the ACC and No. 6 nationally. He also averaged 26.2 yards as a kick returner in 2012 and could contribute in that role if needed this fall.

    He stands 6’1”, 219 pounds and has a defensive mentality after spending his first two collegiate seasons as a safety. That has to be a concern for opposing linebackers, but not for the Seminoles offense.

    Natalie Pierre of the Tallahassee Democrat wrote earlier this month:

    Even though Williams has only played 13 games in the Seminoles' offensive backfield, he is the most experienced player that the reigning national champions return at running back.

    He is also the biggest, and one of the fastest, at the position where FSU has some of the fastest players on its roster.

    Florida State will be trying to figure out some offensive pieces early on after losing standout wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin to an early NFL draft departure. There is little question that Williams will be part of the mix early and often.

Michigan State WR R.J. Shelton

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    R.J. Shelton will be a versatile performer for Michigan State this fall.
    R.J. Shelton will be a versatile performer for Michigan State this fall.Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    Class: Sophomore

    2013 Stats: 21 rushes, 153 yards, two touchdowns; four receptions, six yards

    What Makes Him Special

    R.J. Shelton is one of the more versatile players on Michigan State’s roster. He was actually recruited as a tailback but switched to receiver during 2013’s preseason practice. Still, the Spartans coaches chose to use him more as a rusher last fall, with 153 yards on 21 carries. He had a 34-yard touchdown against Indiana and broke off a 35-yard run against Michigan (a day that saw him pick up 96 all-purpose yards).

    Shelton also had nine kick returns for 199 yards, averaging 22.2 yards per return, another area where he will make a key contribution this fall.

    With senior tailback Jeremy Langford (1,422 yards rushing in 2013) and senior wideout Tony Lippett (613 receiving yards last fall) back in 2014, Shelton doesn’t have to be a bell cow for Michigan State’s offense.

    But his overall versatility will be vitally important as a change of pace for quarterback Connor Cook and the Spartans’ system. He could line up all over the field, which is bad news for opposing defenses.

Ohio State ATH Curtis Samuel

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    Curtis Samuel should make a significant early impact for Ohio State this fall.
    Curtis Samuel should make a significant early impact for Ohio State this fall.Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    Class: Freshman

    2013 Stats: 1,461 yards, 17 touchdowns (high school)

    What Makes Him Special

    Following the departure of bruising tailback Carlos Hyde and leading receiver Philly Brown, the Ohio State offense is rebuilding a bit around do-everything quarterback Braxton Miller.

    Curtis Samuel appears to be a huge part of that equation. Samuel played wide receiver in high school and has excellent versatility. Tailback Ezekiel Elliott’s broken wrist opened up an opportunity for carries in the Buckeyes backfield. Although Samuel could fit in as a tailback or receiver, at the moment he appears ticketed for backfield carries behind Dontre Wilson, among others.

    He stands 5’11”, 190 pounds and has excellent speed: Samuel averaged 15.8 yards per carry as a high school senior.

    OSU coach Urban Meyer is very impressed with what he has seen from the freshman. Meyer isn't one to praise freshmen, but he didn't hold back about Samuel.

    "Every time, I've got to be careful, because I do this, but I love that kid and man, oh man, does he go hard," Meyer told Cleveland.com's Doug Lesmerises. "He's talented and he will play this year."

    Samuel could make an impact in a number of places across the field, it's just a question of where it'll be felt for Ohio State in 2014.

Oklahoma TB Alex Ross

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    Class: Sophomore

    2013 Stats: Three carries, 19 yards

    What Makes Him Special

    Following the departures of its top three rushers from a year ago, Oklahoma entered this fall with questions at tailback. Many thought heralded recruit Joe Mixon would answer those queries, but Mixon has yet to take the field for the Sooners after being suspended following his involvement in a reported assault.

    The benefactor could be sophomore Alex Ross. Ross was highly thought of as an in-state product attending OU, but he has had trouble getting on the field. Last fall, he played in 10 games but had only three carries, with most of his impact confined to special teams.

    However, Ross has speed and skills that can translate to the football field. As a high school junior, he won the Class 6A Oklahoma 200-yard dash with a time of 21.97 seconds and finished third in the state in the 100-yard dash.

    He stands 6’1”, 221 pounds and has the size and speed to make life difficult for opposing linebackers. With opportunity knocking at his door, Ross could turn that potential into serious production this fall for Oklahoma’s offense.

Oregon TB Thomas Tyner

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    Tailback Thomas Tyner should be an explosive part of Oregon's offense this fall.
    Tailback Thomas Tyner should be an explosive part of Oregon's offense this fall.Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Class: Sophomore

    2013 Stats: 711 rushing yards, nine touchdowns; 14 receptions, 134 yards

    What Makes Him Special

    With Heisman Trophy candidate Marcus Mariota and junior tailback Byron Marshall (the Pac-12’s leading returning rusher with 1,038 yards), Oregon has two prominent offensive weapons. But don’t forget about Thomas Tyner, a track star who set Oregon’s 100-meter dash state record with a time of 10.43 seconds.

    Last fall, Tyner found his way in a loaded Oregon offense, finishing third on the team in rushing. He had 140 yards and a touchdown in the regular-season finale against Oregon State and had 99 rushing yards against Washington State, including a 66-yard touchdown (the Ducks’ longest run from scrimmage in 2013).

    Tyner is solidly built at 5’11”, 215 pounds but has excellent speed and the capability to break a big play at any moment on the ground or through the air. His role in Oregon’s offense will only expand this fall.

South Carolina WR Pharoh Cooper

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    Wideout Pharoh Cooper will play an expanded role in South Carolina's offense this fall.
    Wideout Pharoh Cooper will play an expanded role in South Carolina's offense this fall.Stephen Morton/Associated Press

    Class: Sophomore

    2013 Stats: 202 yards rushing, 54 yards receiving, three total touchdowns

    What Makes Him Special

    Pharoh Cooper came to South Carolina as a cornerback but was moved to wide receiver a week into 2013 preseason practice when coaches bought into his versatile potential.

    He did not disappoint, earning Freshman All-SEC honors as an all-purpose back and return specialist. Cooper scored touchdowns by passing, receiving and rushing the ball last fall, serving as a valuable change of pace in the Gamecocks offense.

    He worked as a quarterback in the Wildcat formation, throwing a 26-yard touchdown pass against Clemson. This fall, he will be a starting wideout opposite Shaq Roland in South Carolina’s offense but also figures to see time in the Wildcat and all over the field.

    He told Chris Dearing of The Post and Courier that he is focused on overall improvement this fall.

    I've been working hard every day, 100 percent, giving my all, so I feel I earned a spot. But earning it and keeping it are two different things. We have a lot of great receivers, so I'm going to keep working hard to keep my starting spot. (My goal in 2014) is just to get better as a receiver and an all-around player.

    Expect opposing defenses to worry plenty about Cooper’s presence this fall. That is, if they can track him on the field.

UCLA LB Zach Whitley

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    Class: Freshman

    2013 Stats: 144 tackles, seven sacks (high school)

    What Makes Him Special

    UCLA doesn’t have many weaknesses, but the Bruins do need fresh, talented bodies at linebacker. Anthony Barr left early and was a first-round pick of the NFL's Minnesota Vikings, and Jordan Zumwalt (who had 91 tackles as a senior) was a sixth-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Barr's loss stings. He had 23 sacks over the past two seasons and racked up 66 tackles (20 for loss) in 2013.

    The Bruins do bring back sophomore Myles Jack, who was the Pac-12's Defensive and Offensive Freshman of the Year (he is expected to concentrate on defense this fall), but opportunity exists.

    That's where Zach Whitley comes in. Whitley was impressive as an early enrollee this spring and is battling for playing time. He was a sideline-to-sideline force in high school and could see time at an inside linebacker spot. He is battling sophomore Isaako Savaiinaea for snaps, but Whitley could emerge as the Bruins' next great linebacker.