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10 College Football Players Who Will Make a Name for Themselves in 2014

Greg WallaceFeatured ColumnistAugust 22, 2014

10 College Football Players Who Will Make a Name for Themselves in 2014

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    LSU freshman tailback Leonard Fournette will make a name for himself this fall.
    LSU freshman tailback Leonard Fournette will make a name for himself this fall.Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    The beauty of college football is its ever-changing nature.

    Each fall, even the most stable collegiate rosters experience some turnover.

    Star players graduate. They transfer. They leave early for the NFL. Regardless of how it happens, even the most prepared programs enter each season with question marks, ready to be filled by the next frontline player or superstar.

    Here, then, are 10 players who will have the opportunity to make names for themselves this fall. Players were chosen based on their talent, the opportunity that lies before them and the belief that they’ll have a special season in 2014.

    While many may know these names already, their recognition is rooted in potential more than production or reality, thanks to talk from media or fellow players. In the next few months, these players will get the chance to finally make a name for themselves on the national scene and show what the hype is all about.

     

Mackensie Alexander, Clemson

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    Following a redshirt year, Mackensie Alexander is ready to make an impact at Clemson.
    Following a redshirt year, Mackensie Alexander is ready to make an impact at Clemson.Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

    Position: Cornerback

    2013 Stats:  Redshirted (51 tackles, four interceptions as high school senior)

    Why He’ll Thrive This Fall

    When Mackensie Alexander committed to Clemson on national signing day 2013, it sent the Tigers coaches and fans into spasms of joy.  Alexander was considered a 5-star cornerback recruit by 247Sports, and the Tigers coaches couldn’t wait to get him on the field last fall.

    It never happened. Alexander suffered a groin injury on the first day of preseason practice, which eventually led to season-ending surgery and a medical redshirt. One year later, Alexander is healthy and has an excellent opportunity in Clemson’s secondary.

    Both of the Tigers’ 2013 starters are gone: Darius Robinson graduated while Bashaud Breeland left early for the NFL draft, where he was selected by the Washington Redskins. Alexander appears to have locked down a starting corner spot alongside Cordrea Tankersley, and Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables is comfortable with the pair, he told Kerry Capps of the Anderson Independent-Mail.

    Mackensie and Cordrea have both done well. With those two guys, I think we'll be fine there. The hard part about the game of football is the constancy and consistency every day, meeting the grind and that challenge and getting guys to stay on edge and be precise every day. The nature of that position is that you don't get a lot of action all the time, and yet you can take the top off the defense in a hurry if you're not doing what you need to be doing. They've had some really good days the last two weeks, and I expect both those guys to just keep getting better and better.

    Alexander is an athletic, speedy, talented cover corner. He has the potential to become a freshman All-American this fall while playing on a loaded Clemson defense.

Jake Coker, Alabama

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    Jake Coker should find a great home as Alabama's quarterback.
    Jake Coker should find a great home as Alabama's quarterback.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Position: Quarterback

    2013 Stats: 250 yards passing, one interception (at Florida State).

    Why He’ll Thrive This Fall

    As Alabama enters final preparations for its Aug. 30 Georgia Dome opener against West Virginia, Jake Coker finds himself in a familiar position. For the second consecutive season, he’s battling for the starting quarterback role at a high-profile program.

    Coker hopes the second time is the charm. Last fall, the 6’5”, 230-pound passer faced off at Florida State with freshman Jameis Winston. Winston won the job and the hearts of Seminoles fans. He led the team to a BCS National Championship and won the Heisman Trophy as a redshirt freshman.

    Winston is entrenched as FSU’s starter, which led Coker to look elsewhere. He graduated early and used the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule, which allows players to receive immediate eligibility at their new program, provided that they’ve graduated and the new stop provides a compatible graduate program.

    He arrived at Alabama in May and immediately began working to learn the Crimson Tide’s offense under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. Coker fits the mold of quarterbacks who’ve had success in Kiffin’s offenses in the past. He’s tall, athletic and mobile and can work in a pro-style offense.

    This month, Coker is battling with senior Blake Sims, who backed up standout AJ McCarron for the past three seasons. It is unclear who’ll start against the Mountaineers, but ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit likes what he sees, per AL.com's Michael Casagrande.

    He's 6'5", 230 and throws the ball as effortlessly as any quarterback you're going to see. He has a huge arm. My questions are probably the same Lane Kiffin and Nick Saban have. This guy has not played competitively, when the game's been on the line for the past three years. You're going into the SEC and play quarterback at Alabama.

    We know it's not just about having a big strong arm that impresses people up in the stands, it's about being able to make good decisions and avoiding bad decisions and checking down if the receiver is not there — being able to just do the little things.

    If Coker can prove himself to Saban and Kiffin, he should be able to find his way quickly in Alabama’s offense and the SEC.

Jeff Driskel, Florida

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    Jeff Driskel should find Florida's offense a better fit this fall.
    Jeff Driskel should find Florida's offense a better fit this fall.John Raoux/Associated Press

    Position: Quarterback

    2013 Stats: 477 yards passing, two touchdowns, three interceptions in three games

    Why He’ll Thrive This Fall

    Entering his redshirt junior year, Jeff Driskel has thrown for 2,271 yards with 14 touchdowns against 10 interceptions, but still hasn’t really distinguished himself as Florida’s quarterback for a variety of reasons.

    Last fall, Driskel looked poised for a breakout year. Instead, he suffered a break that ended his year. In the Gators’ third game against Tennessee, he suffered a broken ankle that ended his season and led to a medical redshirt.

    Without him and star tailback Matt Jones (who was sidelined by a season-ending knee injury) Florida’s offense floundered. It finished No. 113 nationally in total offense (316.7 YPG), No. 112 nationally in scoring offense (18.8 PPG) and No.107 in passing offense (170.9 YPG).

    New Florida offensive coordinator Kurt Roper (hired after head coach Will Muschamp fired Brent Pease) should have a better handle on how to use Driskel, a multidimensional passer who ran for a Florida quarterback-record 177 yards in 2012 against Vanderbilt, breaking Tim Tebow’s old program mark.

    Roper operates a fast-paced spread system that operates out of the shotgun, and Muschamp is confident the move will pay off, per ASAP Sports at SEC Media Days.

    “I think this offense fits him better as opposed to what we may have been doing before,” he said of Driskel. “To utilize his athleticism and space, some of the things he's able to do athletically is going to benefit him and us.”

    With talented targets like senior Quinton Dunbar and sophomores Demarcus Robinson and Ahmad Fulwood to throw to, Driskel could be the difference between 4-8 and 8-4 for Florida this fall.

Leonard Floyd, Georgia

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    Leonard Floyd has the tools to make life very tough for opposing quarterbacks.
    Leonard Floyd has the tools to make life very tough for opposing quarterbacks.David Goldman/Associated Press

    Position: Outside linebacker

    2013 Stats: 55 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss

    Why He’ll Thrive This Fall

    Last fall, Leonard Floyd certainly had his moments. The Georgia freshman linebacker led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks but struggled at times with inconsistency, especially in pass coverage.

    He is expected to focus on his strengths under new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. That means focusing himself as an edge rusher and putting intense pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Last fall, Floyd made eight starts and was named as a first-team Freshman All-American by Phil Steele. However, he needs to become a better every-down player to take the next step and become a truly special defender.

    Georgia is counting on defensive improvement under Pruitt’s watch, and Floyd should play a huge role in those plans. If he can harass opposing offenses and consistently make life miserable for SEC offensive lines, the Bulldogs will take a step forward defensively and overall this fall.

Leonard Fournette, LSU

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    LSU fans expect big things from Leonard Fournette this fall.
    LSU fans expect big things from Leonard Fournette this fall.Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Position: Tailback

    2013 Stats: 2,547 yards and 24 touchdowns (high school stats)

    Why He’ll Thrive This Fall

    LSU has an opening in the backfield after junior Jeremy Hill (who rushed for 1,401 yards last fall) declared for the NFL draft, where he was a second-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals. Tiger fans don’t seem too concerned about replacing him, however, thanks to the presence of Leonard Fournette. Fournette is a 5-star recruit, rated by 247Sports as the top overall recruit in the Class of 2014.

    He stands 6’1”, 230 pounds and has excellent speed for his size. He has been clocked as fast as 10.68 seconds in the 100-yard dash and figures to be the bell cow for the Tigers backfield, as coach Les Miles isn’t afraid to lean heavily on a tailback.

    At SEC Media Days, Miles said, per ASAP Sports, that the talented freshman is adjusting well to college life and will be leaned upon this fall.

    Leonard Fournette is doing exactly what he should be doing. He's getting in the weight room, running, getting in great shape. Pursuing the classroom, got great grades. He's quiet. He's not assuming. He's humble in his approach. 

    I think it's exactly where he needs to be. He expects himself to be something very special. I think if you look at Michael Jordan, he could not have been coached to be Michael Jordan. Michael Jordan accepted the role of expecting him to be better than any. I think he has a quiet confidence there that will benefit him, and I think we will always have an opportunity to play at that spot, the running backs that are fresh.

    Expect Fournette to emerge as one of college football’s next great tailbacks. Tiger fans should enjoy him, at least while he’s still in Baton Rouge.

DaVonte' Neal, Arizona

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    DaVonte' Neal figures to play a number of roles for Arizona this fall.
    DaVonte' Neal figures to play a number of roles for Arizona this fall.Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    Position: Wide Receiver

    2013 Stats: Redshirted (had one catch in 2012 at Notre Dame)

    Why He’ll Thrive This Fall

    Following a transfer from Notre Dame to be closer to his girlfriend and infant daughter, DaVonte’ Neal was a secret weapon-in-waiting last fall for Arizona. The 5’10”, 173-pound wideout was used only sparingly during Notre Dame’s 2012 run to the BCS National Championship Game, but figures to be a potent target used all over the field in the Wildcats’ fast-paced offense.

    Last fall, Neal was a scout-team standout for Rich Rodriguez’s group, and now that he is eligible, he figures to take out that pent-up energy on opposing defenses. He said as much to Fox Sports Arizona's Steve Rivera recently.

    “It's exciting," he said. "I remember being at home (recently) and jumping up and down just knowing I was going to be able to get a chance to play and display my athleticism. I can't wait to get the season started."

    Rodriguez will use Neal all over the field, receiving, running the ball and returning punts and kicks. He has excellent speed and versatility and should make a tremendous impact in the Pac-12 and the nation this fall.

Jabrill Peppers, Michigan

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    Jabrill Peppers will play a prominent role for Michigan's defense this fall.
    Jabrill Peppers will play a prominent role for Michigan's defense this fall.Tony Ding/Associated Press

    Position: Cornerback

    2013 Stats: 77 tackles, four interceptions (high school)

    Why He’ll Thrive This Fall

    Michigan is one of college football’s most storied programs, so it says something when a recruit is one of the most anticipated in school history. That is the position that freshman cornerback Jabrill Peppers finds himself in this fall. And he’s living up to the hype.

    Peppers was a 5-star recruit per 247Sports, capable of playing either cornerback or safety. As the Wolverines prepare for the 2014 season opener, Peppers is settling in as a starting cornerback.

    Earlier this summer, Michigan coach Brady Hoke was loath to make any advance judgments on his freshman star. But now that the Wolverines have started practice, Peppers is living up to the hype.

    Following last week’s open scrimmage, Hoke didn’t deny that Peppers had solidified a role as a starter.

    “The evidence for making decisions is on the film," Hoke told MLive.com's Nick Baumgardner. "It's evidence-based. Based on film. Based on production. He's playing very well."

    Peppers stands 6’1”, 202 pounds and has excellent cover skills and speed. He and sophomore Jourdan Lewis are holding off returning first-team All-Big Ten corner Blake Countess and returning starter Ray Taylor, an impressive feat in itself.

    The Big Ten schedule will tell the true tale, but Peppers is well on his way to fulfilling the hype that surrounded him when he signed with the Wolverines.

     

Ricky Seals-Jones, Texas A&M

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    Ricky Seals-Jones should emerge as one of the SEC's top wideouts this fall.
    Ricky Seals-Jones should emerge as one of the SEC's top wideouts this fall.Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Position: Wide Receiver

    2013 Stats: Three receptions, 84 yards, one touchdown

    Why He’ll Thrive This Fall

    Last fall, Texas A&M fans really wanted to see highly touted wideout Ricky Seals-Jones in action, and he didn’t disappoint in the season opener against Rice. He caught three passes for 84 yards, including a 71-yard touchdown. But he hurt his knee while being hit from behind on the touchdown and didn’t play again the rest of the season.

    Seals-Jones was considered a 5-star recruit by 247Sports when he signed with the Aggies. He stands 6’5”, 230 pounds, has impressive speed and physicality and can stretch a defense vertically. With quarterback Johnny Manziel and wideout Mike Evans gone to the NFL, he will play a huge role in the Aggies’ retooled offense.

    Sophomore Kenny Hill has won the quarterback role, and he’ll have talented targets in Seals-Jones, senior Malcome Kennedy and freshman Speedy Noil. This fall, Seals-Jones should show A&M fans and the rest of the SEC that last fall’s taste of his talents was just that—an impressive taste of what is to come. 

Davis Webb, Texas Tech

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    Sophomore Davis Webb will pile up big numbers in Texas Tech's offense this fall.
    Sophomore Davis Webb will pile up big numbers in Texas Tech's offense this fall.Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

    Position: Quarterback

    2013 Stats: 2,718 passing yards, 20 touchdowns, nine interceptions

    Why He’ll Thrive This Fall

    As a freshman, Davis Webb was part of a three-man quarterback derby at Texas Tech. He threw for more than 2,700 yards while playing in 10 games, starting only six. When Webb got the chance to play for extended snaps, he was impressive in coach Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid offense. He averaged 271.8 yards passing per game, 20th among NCAA quarterbacks.

    He threw for 462 yards and two touchdowns against West Virginia, 415 yards with three touchdowns and an interception against Iowa State and 425 yards with two touchdowns against two interceptions against Oklahoma State. He cemented the starting role in Tech’s Holiday Bowl win over Arizona State, earning game offensive MVP honors with 403 yards passing and four touchdowns against no interceptions.

    The other two quarterbacks Webb competed with are gone: Michael Brewer transferred to Virginia Tech and Baker Mayfield to Oklahoma. The job is Webb’s now, and he should pile up huge stats in the Red Raiders offense, especially throwing to talented wideouts such as Bradley Marquez and Reginald Davis.

D'Haquille Williams, Auburn

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    New Auburn wideout D'Haquille Williams should make a huge impact in the Tigers' offense this fall.
    New Auburn wideout D'Haquille Williams should make a huge impact in the Tigers' offense this fall.USA TODAY Sports

    Position: Wide Receiver

    2013 Stats: 51 receptions, 733 yards, nine touchdowns (Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College)

    Why He’ll Thrive This Fall

    Despite making the BCS National Championship Game last fall, Auburn has opportunity at wide receiver, and D’Haquille Williams is ready to embrace it. Williams was considered the nation’s top junior college receiver by 247Sports. He stands 6’2”, 216 pounds and enrolled at Auburn in time for spring practice, acclimating himself to the Tigers’ fast-paced offense.

    Williams figures to start alongside Sammie Coates and boasts excellent size and leaping ability, giving quarterback Nick Marshall an excellent target.

    He should open up the Tigers’ already potent system even more, as coach Gus Malzahn told James Crepea of the Montgomery Advertiser.

    "He's got a special talent. He's got that ability to go attack the ball," Malzahn said of Williams. "He can get open. You don't have to tell him how to run a route, he just knows how to."

    If he lives up to the hype, this might be Willliams’ only season on the Plains. NFL scouts will certainly be paying attention to him this fall. It’s just a matter of how quickly he adjusts to the SEC lifestyle.

     

     

     

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