Think back to last May. Barely anyone had heard of Johnny Manziel a year ago, let alone expected him to become the story of the season. An outlier? Yes. But so it goes in college football, where the yearly turnover creates an opportunity for star turns by young players who won't be on anyone's preseason All-America lists but could be on postseason ones.
Manziel was a rarity, of course. Placed in the perfect situation, he put together one of the best seasons in college football history by anyone, let alone a freshman. He became the biggest star in the sport. He broke down the freshman Heisman barrier. This will not become the norm.
With that in mind, less than 100 days from kickoff of the 2013 season, let's take a look at the inexperienced players who could become household names by the end of the season … while also remembering that Manziel wouldn't have been on many of these lists a year ago. The 2013 season is shaping up to be one built around a wealth of experienced talent at the quarterback position, meaning there might not be much room for breakout stars at the most important position in sports. But there's still plenty of young talent ready to emerge, and based on the information at hand, these are the names you need learn by the end of August:
1. Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State. With the hype he's getting already, maybe Winston isn't an unknown anymore, even though the redshirt freshman has never taken a snap for the Seminoles. But if anyone can be projected as anything close to the "next Manziel" before the season, it would have to be Winston, who's already become a sort of legend in Tallahassee.
Let's see … First, there was the time he launched a football over a mountain … er, fraternity house.
Then, there was the time he played lights-out in Florida State's spring game in April, doing so much to unofficially win the starting job that the more experienced Clint Trickett (son of offensive line coach Rick Trickett) transferred to West Virginia.
And, finally, there was the time he spent playing baseball for the Seminoles this spring in between winning the starting quarterback job, posting a 2.88 ERA in 16 appearances as a pitcher … and doing things like this in the outfield:
Many, many words will be spilled over Winston before the season begins. The Charlie Ward comparisons are out there already. E.J. Manuel may have been a first-round pick, but he was believed to have never reached his potential at Florida State. Now, it's Winston's turn to transcend the spotlight with his mobility and already legendary arm strength. There's a good chance we're getting carried away. But you'll want to tune in Labor Day night when Winston makes his college debut for Florida State at Pittsburgh. In the unlikely event that a redshirt freshman quarterback becomes the star of the season, Winston's easily the best bet.
2. Bryce Petty, QB, Baylor. Nick Florence did not really become a star last season, but he threw for more yards than any other player in the country, and he threw for more yards than the Heisman winner he replaced as Baylor's quarterback, Robert Griffin III. By no means was Florence better than RGIII, but he racked up 4,309 yards and 33 touchdowns through the air and 568 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. It's quite possible that Art Briles and Baylor in the 2010s will become what Mike Leach and Texas Tech were in the 2000s, churning out ridiculously productive passers every season, only the Bears put up numbers in the ground game too. Last season, for one year only, it was Florence. Now the job falls to Petty, a mobile 230-pound junior, to pick up where the nation's No. 2 ranked total offense left off. It's easy to be confident in May, but by all accounts Petty is prepared to put up similarly gaudy numbers. This is simply what Briles' offenses do.
While the numbers may occasionally look Leach-like in the passing game, it's pretty clear this is an Art Briles team, based on the fact that the Bears have a running back who could be a Heisman finalist. Lache Seastrunk would have made this list, but after he ran for 637 yards on 70 carries (9.1 yards per carry) in Baylor's final four games against Kansas State, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and UCLA, it's pretty clear he's already arrived on the national stage. We know Seastrunk (plus talented No. 2 tailback Glasco Martin) will put up gaudy numbers. But in a talented but wide-open Big 12, Baylor can compete for a Big 12 title and its first BCS bowl bid if Petty steps up as the star many believe he could be.
3. Matt Jones, RB, Florida. Jones is sort of the opposite of Michigan's Derrick Green: He's the holdover trying to fend off the emergence of a star true freshman, in this case Kelvin Taylor, the son of Florida legend Fred Taylor. But if last year's breakout running back Mike Gillislee is the model for the Will Muschamp/Brent Pease offense, then the 6-foot-2, 226-pound Jones is a perfect fit for Florida and the current SEC. The Gators have a veteran QB in Jeff Driskel, but he's been too inconsistent, and his receivers are young and unproven. Lacking playmakers out wide, the onus is on the running game to carry the load again. Taylor will play, but Jones has emerged as the clear-cut starter and should become an instant star capable of besting Gillislee's 2012 season (1,152 yards, 10 touchdowns) as a sophomore.
4. Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington, DEs, Ohio State. Six of Ohio State's starters in the defensive front seven are gone. All that remains is likely All-American Ryan Shazier at linebacker. If there's an issue for this Ohio State team, it's obvious. But as always in Columbus, and as always for an Urban Meyer-coached team, there's plenty of talent ready to step up, and it's clear the players with the most potential are Spence and Washington, who have the talent to form what will be one of the best pass rushes in the country by November. Both five-star recruits in 2012, the 247-pound Spence and the 292-pound Washington combined for seven sacks in Ohio State's spring game. A dangerous pass rush can solve a lot of problems for a defense, and that means the pressure is on Spence and Washington to provide it after playing limited roles in a rotation last year. By all accounts, they're ready. Ohio State's defense will be just fine.
5. Su'a Cravens, S, USC. It's so easy to make fun of USC. When Lane Kiffin is your coach, and when you go from preseason No. 1 to seven wins with a Sun Bowl loss, you've opened the door to relentless ridicule. So let's go for some USC optimism for once. The Cal defense may have gotten statistically worse in each of Clancy Pendergast's three seasons, but that was tied to the state of the program as a whole. At USC, he'll have much, much more talent to work with, and it's hard to go anywhere but up after Monte Kiffin sleepwalked through his tenure as defensive coordinator coaching under his son. While cornerback is an issue, USC's new 5-2 defense has talent everywhere else, from the pass rush, to linebacker Hayes Pullard to what could become the most intimidating pair of safeties in college football: former starting linebacker Dion Bailey, and Cravens, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound five-star recruit who instantly turned heads in spring ball. Not all is great: While essentially taking a starting job in the spring, Cravens also tore his meniscus. But if he recovers quickly, he's the type of versatile athlete who could help transform a maligned Trojans secondary, and he'll be the next in line of great safeties at USC following Troy Polamalu and Taylor Mays.
6. Derrick Green, RB, Michigan. Michigan got encouraging news in April when coach Brady Hoke announced that starting running back Fitz Toussaint would likely be ready to return for the 2013 season after a bad leg injury last fall. But whether he actually holds the starting job is another question. Toussaint was basically Michigan's entire non-Denard Robinson running game last season, but new QB Devin Gardner fortunately shouldn't have to carry as much of the rushing load thanks to the signing of Green, a true freshman who will compete for the starting tailback job in fall camp.
Ohio State is the clear favorite in the Big Ten, but the Buckeyes are by no means a lock to repeat last year's undefeated season and cruise to the championship. If Michigan can challenge for the league title, it will need a player like Green to emerge, making Al Borges' offense more multi-dimensional alongside Gardner's passing, which is superior to Robinson's. As always, the contributions of a true freshman running back could depend on whether he's trusted as a blocker. If the 215-pound Green proves adequate there, he could emerge as a star runner between the tackles for a program trying to shed the last remnants of the failed Rich Rodriguez era.
7. Brendan Bigelow, RB, California. Maybe this is wishful thinking. Bigelow struggled to earn a bigger role in Jeff Tedford's offense, and injuries plagued him through two seasons (as well as this offseason). But you'd have to think offensive gurus Sonny Dykes and Tony Franklin can figure out how to use the explosive but underutilized junior tailback to maximize his ability. At his best, he's the closest thing the rest of the Pac-12 has to De'Anthony Thomas. Dykes and Franklin are known for their wide-open passing attack, as they directed the nation's No. 3 passing game (No. 1 total and scoring offense) at Louisiana Tech last year. But their offensive spacing is ideal for a back like Bigelow, and under their guidance, Louisiana Tech running back Kenneth Dixon ran for 1,194 yards and a national-best 27 touchdowns as a freshman. Dixon and Bigelow are very different as runners, but creative coaches like Dykes and Franklin will find a way to properly utilize the most talented athlete on an offense sorely lacking playmakers.
8. Jordan Jenkins, LB, Georgia. Well, obviously a linebacker isn't the next Johnny Manziel, but Jenkins does have the pressure of becoming the next Jarvis Jones. The Bulldogs are loaded on offense, but thanks to the departure of Jones (and his nation-leading 14.5 sacks) and several others, there's a lot to be done to get the defense in shape for a team that came within a few yards of playing for a national championship instead of Alabama. A four-star recruit in the class of 2012, Jenkins may be next man up as a sophomore. It's not like he's a total unknown; in fact, he finished second on the team with five sacks last season. But the shadow of the All-American Jones is rather large, and this young defense desperately needs an impact pass rusher to step up in a league full of great linemen. Jenkins may be ready to break out, and it appears he'll be reporters' best friend too.
9. Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State. Let's start with some caveats: In the next three years, Penn State probably won't win more than eight games in a season. Penn State won't win a Heisman Trophy, and we know it won't play in a bowl game. Any player-specific hype will be diluted by the context of the program that will spend the next three seasons in NCAA jail.
With that said, let's recognize what Bill O'Brien did with Matt McGloin. Plenty of credit goes to McGloin, of course, as the undersized former walk-on who went from obscurity to a nightmare QB rotation with Rob Bolden through a horrifying scandal to the Big Ten's leading passer in one year under O'Brien. Hackenberg is the opposite of McGloin. Instead of a walk-on, he's arguably the No. 1 quarterback recruit in the class of 2013, sticking with Penn State even after the crippling sanctions. He did not participate in spring practice, but he'll get a crack at the starting job against juco transfer Tyler Ferguson after the only QB on the roster with any experience, Steven Bench, transferred to South Florida. If he wins it, he'll have O'Brien's offense, the Big Ten's best receiver in Allen Robinson, and quite possibly the best group of tight ends in America, led by sophomores Kyle Carter and Jesse James. All expectations at Penn State have been reigned in, and the same has to go for Hackenberg. But it's hard not to be intrigued by the combination of his raw talent and the transformation the offense has already undergone under O'Brien.
10. Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina. Steve Spurrier probably doesn't get enough credit for just how big of a turnaround he's orchestrated at South Carolina. No, he hasn't won any sort of championship, and he hasn't guided the Gamecocks to a BCS bowl either. But, playing in the toughest conference in America, he's coached program that had only won 10 games once to two straight 11-win seasons and the first two top-10 finishes in school history. What else? He's done this while ditching his trademark Fun 'n' Gun. Last season, despite the 11 wins, the Gamecocks' offense as a whole faltered, thanks to injuries to quarterback Connor Shaw and stud running back Marcus Lattimore. They should regroup this year, with Shaw and Dylan Thompson both capable at QB, four starters returning to the offensive line and the potential for a breakout season from sophomore running back Mike Davis, a 215-pounder who won the starting job in the spring. Spurrier's South Carolina teams are winning with defense, and, in a post-Stephen Garcia world, trying to protect the football. That job falls to the running of Davis.
Oregon RB Byron Marshall or Thomas Tyner; Kansas State QB Daniel Sams or Jake Waters; Texas RB Johnathan Gray; USC WR Nelson Agholor; Texas A&M RB Brandon Williams; Ole Miss DE Robert Nkemdiche; Washington LB Shaq Thompson; LSU CB Jalen Mills; Georgia S Tray Matthews; Florida DE Dante Fowler; Missouri WR Dorial Green-Beckham; Florida State DE Mario Edwards.
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