From Cam Newton in 2010 to Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston the last two years, we've grown accustomed to surprise Heisman Trophy winners. But while Manziel came from nowhere, Winston was at least on everyone's radar last offseason thanks to his already legendary arm strength before he even took a snap.
With EJ Manuel gone and a loaded roster around him, Winston stepped into a lead role and lived up to the hype as biggest breakout player of the 2013 season. There probably won't be another quarterback who pulls off such a feat this year, but as always there's a long list of potential new stars in college football, especially as record numbers of players leave for the NFL early and create greater opportunities for younger players to see the field.
So with spring practice finished and just two and a half months until the 2014 season kicks off, Sports on Earth has put together its best guesses for college football's All-Breakout Team, trying to identify this season's emerging stars at every position.
"Breakout" can mean many things to different people, of course, so we'll follow a few loose rules for players to qualify: 1) Players cannot have appeared on all-conference teams in their careers; and 2) they cannot already be touted as a likely first-round pick in the 2015 NFL draft (for example, Cedric Ogbuehi and Nelson Agholor). We'll also be even more selective with quarterbacks, digging a little deeper than players who took their team to the national championship game (Nick Marshall), embarrassed Alabama in a high-profile bowl game (Trevor Knight) or are already widely recognized as stars (Christian Hackenberg).
With that said, here are the best breakout candidates for 2014 -- and, yes, the list is SEC-heavy, because the SEC continues to dominate the recruiting trail and was also hit hard by players going to the NFL.
Quarterback: Dak Prescott, Mississippi State
Maybe the bandwagon is already full, but everything sets up well for Prescott to emerge as an SEC star as a junior. While the Bulldogs still face a tough climb through the ranks of the SEC West, their schedule couldn't be easier for a team in the nation's toughest division, thanks to a laughable nonconference slate and cross-division games against the East's two worst teams, Vanderbilt and Kentucky. Prescott dealt with some injury issues last year, but he ended up passing incumbent Tyler Russell for the starting job, and at 6-foot-2, 235 pounds, with excellent mobility, he proved to be the best fit at quarterback Mississippi State has had for Dan Mullen's offense (remember, he was formerly Urban Meyer's offensive coordinator). Prescott started seven games, throwing for 1,940 yards with 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions, while rushing for 829 yards and 13 touchdowns. With a full offseason to build the offense around Prescott for the first time, Mullen may have his best opportunity to establish Mississippi State as a program on the rise.
Next, No. 1: Jacob Coker, Alabama. Coker may already be a more widely known player than Prescott despite not actually seeing the field except in garbage time ... as Jameis Winston's backup at Florida State. Upon transferring, Coker won't have to be the centerpiece of the Alabama offense, but he has drawn a lot of hype as a quarterback who can lead the Crimson Tide to another national title, especially given his supporting cast.
Next, No. 2: Davis Webb, Texas Tech. Quarterbacks played musical chairs in Kliff Kingsbury's first season thanks to injuries, but by the end of 2013 Webb established himself as the starter going forward (Michael Brewer and Baker Mayfield have since transferred). Despite starting only six games, he finished second in the Big 12 in passing with 2,718 yards and 20 touchdowns, capped by a 403-yard, four-touchdown effort in the Holiday Bowl against Arizona State. Give him a full season, and he may lead the nation in passing yards in Kingsbury's version of the Air Raid.
Next, No. 3: Deshaun Watson, Clemson. The question is how much Watson will actually play as a true freshman. He participated in spring practice, but a collarbone injury set him back. Chad Kelly was dismissed from the team, though, and while senior Cole Stoudt is on track to start the opener, Watson is obviously the future for the Tigers, and a perfect fit for Chad Morris' offense as a dual threat who played in a similar offense in high school. The more experienced Stoudt may open the season behind center, but if he runs into trouble in tough early games against Georgia and Florida State, it's not hard to see Watson being given the keys to the offense sooner rather than later.
Running Back: Leonard Fournette, LSU
Yes, I'm buying in. Les Miles is prepared to go young, and he needs to after LSU lost so much to the NFL draft -- including All-SEC running back Jeremy Hill and top backup Alfred Blue. The good news is that the Tigers are always loaded at running back and veteran Terrence Magee does return, but the door is wide open for an impact player to merge. In other words, this is the perfect opportunity for Fournette, the No. 1 overall recruit in the class of 2014, according to 247Sports. At 6-foot-1, 224 pounds, Fournette has drawn inherently unfair comparisons to Adrian Peterson, but with his NFL build and combination of size and speed, he's poised to see the field right away in an LSU offense that likes to play power football, and will especially do so with four offensive line starters back and the loss of its prolific passing triumvirate (QB Zach Mettenberger and WRs Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry). This is a perfect match of offensive style, top prospect and available playing time.
Next: Derrick Henry, Alabama. He could be the best player on this entire list, but he also has to share a backfield with T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake. Still, Nick Saban likes running the football, and he'll especially do it while breaking in a new quarterback. All hte backs will get carries. Anyone who watched the Sugar Bowl knows that the 6-foot-3, 238-pound sophomore Henry appears to be on the verge of stardom thanks to an impossible combination of size, strength and breakaway speed.
Running Back: Kelvin Taylor, Florida
Just because Will Muschamp brought in Kurt Roper -- a longtime protégé of quarterback guru David Cutcliffe -- to run the offense doesn't mean Florida will abandon the run. Taylor, the son of Florida legend Fred Taylor, got off to a slow start as a true freshman, barely seeing the field until mid-October, when he proceeded to carry the ball at least 10 times in six of his last seven games. Results were mixed, with a season average of 4.6 yards per carry, but he wasn't helped by the lack of diversity in an offense that couldn't throw downfield and shuffled quarterbacks because of injuries. If Roper is successful in opening up the offense a bit with quarterback Jeff Driskel and also using Driskel as a running threat, Florida's running backs will benefit. While Mack Brown and Matt Jones (who missed spring practice with a knee injury) return, Taylor has the highest upside and is poised to take hold of the job and hopefully spark a lifeless offense.
Next: Shock Linwood, Baylor. Linwood was supposed to be a third-stringer last year as a freshaman, but he got to play a lot in blowouts and then as an injury replacement. He capitalized on the opportunities by rushing for 881 yards and averaging 6.9 yards per carry, and he's a great speed fit in Art Briles' spread offense. With Lache Seastrunk off to the NFL, it's Linwood's show now.
Receiver/Running Back: Tyreek Hill, Oklahoma State
With a few exceptions, Oklahoma State has regularly churned out highly productive receivers in the Mike Gundy era, despite a revolving door of offensive coordinators. Now, with both Tracy Moore and Josh Stewart gone, the Cowboys desperately need new blood to emerge in an offense that lost almost everyone -- which is exactly what they didn't need in the second year of coordinator Mike Yurcich after an uneven debut. Fortunately, Hill might provide the perfect spark. A 5-foot-10, 185-pound track star, Hill participated in spring practice and turned heads with his speed after transferring from Garden City (Kan.) Community College. Given his size and skill set, he may not be a pure outside receiver for Oklahoma State, but Yurcich could move him around the formation in attempts to get him the ball in space, providing a much-needed new weapon for quarterback J.W. Walsh.
Next: Dontre Wilson, Ohio State. Touted as Urban Meyer's "next Percy Harvin" since he committed to the Buckeyes, Wilson played a complentary role as a true freshman, rushing for 250 yards on just 31 carries and catching 22 passes for 216 yards. His hybrid role will grow significantly with Philly Brown gone.
Wide Receiver: Ricky Seals-Jones, Texas A&M
Expected to make an instant impact as a true freshman last year, Seals-Jones ended up with a medical redshirt, as a knee injury cut his season short after only two games. Now, there's an even greater opportunity to make an impact, as All-America wideout Mike Evans is gone, along with Derel Walker and Travis Labhart, who each had 51 catches. That means Malcome Kennedy is the only experienced Aggies receiver left, so whichever young quarterback wins the job as Johnny Manziel's replacement -- true freshman Kyle Allen or sophomore Kenny Hill -- will be throwing to a bunch of young receivers. That will surely include lightning-quick true freshman Speedy Noil, but on the outside, there's an opportunity for Seals-Jones (at 6-foot-5, 225 pounds) to emerge as a go-to target in a receiver-friendly offense. Obviously, losing Manziel is huge, but both quarterback options were acclaimed recruits, and Allen was able to get up to speed by graduating early and participating in spring practice.
Next: De'Andre Thompkins, Penn State. The Nittany Lions wisely loaded up on receivers in their class of 2014, with very little proven talent returning after the early departure of Allen Robinson. Young players will need to play early, and the explosive Thompkins, who participated in spring practice, may be on track to emerge quickly as a deep threat for budding star quarterback Christian Hackenberg (who could easily headline this list, depending on your definition of "breakout").
Wide Receiver: Marquez North, Tennessee
North had his moments last year, but thanks to a combination of his own inexperience, a messy quarterback situation and a brutal schedule, he showed more signs of breaking out than actually putting together a complete season. He led the Volunteers in receiving, but with only 38 catches for 496 yards and a touchdown. Mostly, he'll be remembered for doing this in the Vols' upset of South Carolina:
Once again, Tennessee's schedule is a nightmare, with road trips to Oklahoma, Georgia, Ole Miss and South Carolina, plus home dates with Florida and Alabama, but hopefully the Tennessee offense will be a bit more settled in Butch Jones' second year, especially if senior Justin Worley establishes himself as at least a solid, stable option at quarterback. Having a player the caliber of North makes that much easier.
Next: Stacy Coley, Miami. The problem is that he needs a quarterback. Stephen Morris is gone, and expected starter Ryan Williams tore his ACL in April, leaving the job to redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen for now. Coley, a sophomore, made the most of his 33 catches last year, going for 591 yards (17.9 per catch) and seven touchdowns. He'll step into the lead role with 1,110-yard receiver Allen Hurns gone, giving the Hurricanes a big-play threat out wide to pair with running back Duke Johnson.
Tight End: O.J. Howard, Alabama
Tight ends have not always been a major factor as go-to playmakers in Alabama's passing offense under Nick Saban, and they were often not enough of a factor under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin at USC. Howard can change that. Part of the new breed of tight end that's much more receiver than blocker, Howard brings too much athleticism and upside to be relegated to a minor role, and in an offense that features a star wideout in Amari Cooper and a deep rotation of running backs, it's likely that Howard will draw plenty of favorable matchups. Defenses can't properly account for everyone, so if the Crimson Tide's quarterback situation clears up behind transfer Jacob Coker, expect Howard -- now a sophomore after catching 14 passes as a true freshman -- to play a critical role as Kiffin spreads the field a little more than Alabama has in the past. At 6-foot-6, 237 pounds, Howard is the type of weapon who can move around the formation and pose matchup problems for everyone.
Next: Pharaoh Brown and Johnny Mundt, Oregon. Brown has had plenty of ups and downs in his two years at Oregon -- injuries cost him the first three games last year and spring practice this year, and, well, dumping a tub of snow on a fellow student cost him the Alamo Bowl -- but when actually on the field, he's shown upside as a potential athletic force. The 2014 season presents a big opportunity for him, as the Ducks have one of the nation's best quarterbacks in Marcus Mariota but need new impact targets with Josh Huff gone and Bralon Addison sidelined by a torn ACL. Of course, that's if he can beat out both Mundt, who had 281 yards as a freshman, and sophomore Evan Baylis. With the uncertainty at wide receiver, Mariota will surely lean on a talented group of tight ends.
Offensive Line: Cam Robinson, Alabama
Alabama has a big hole at left tackle, but this being Alabama, here's Robinson, the No. 1 rated offensive line recruit in the country, a 6-foot-6, 325-pound true freshman who participated in spring practice and was stolen from LSU's home turf in Louisiana. Robinson has been so good already that Saban already named him the starting left tackle, a rarity for an incoming freshman by the end of spring.
Offensive Line: Jack Conklin, Michigan State
Conklin has made a rapid climb toward stardom, as a forgotten recruit who began his career as a preferred walk-on but emerged as a starter as a redshirt freshman for a line that gave up only 17 sacks in 14 games. Now a sophomore, Conklin, at 6-foot-5, 330 pounds, is one of two returning anchors for the Spartans line. He'll start at left tackle with junior Jack Allen at center.
Offensive Line: Shon Coleman, Auburn
One of the most remarkable stories in college football today, Coleman, a five-star recruit in the class of 2010, is set to win Auburn's left tackle job four years after being diagnosed with leukemia. He was declared cancer-free in October 2012 and graduated from Auburn in May, and now, as a redshirt sophomore, he's the favorite to replace top-five draft pick Greg Robinson in protecting Nick Marshall's blind side.
Offensive Line: Damian Prince, Maryland
Maryland got a huge Signing Day coup when Prince, one of the nation's top recruits, opted to stay home and sign with the Terrapins. Three starters on the offensive line are gone, and potential starter Moise Larose has been suspended for the season, meaning Prince has a clear opportunity to start right away at tackle or guard for a promising offense that returns intriguing skill-position talent.
Offensive Line: Germain Ifedi, Texas A&M
Left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi hasn't been an all-conference player yet, but he's already being touted as a top-10 pick in next year's draft. So it goes in the Kevin Sumlin era, apparently. Luke Joeckel played left tackle in Johnny Manziel's Heisman season, then went No. 2 overall. Jake Matthews slid from right tackle to replace him, then went sixth overall. Now, Ogbuehi, a former guard, slides from right tackle to replace Matthews as a senior. Who's next in line? The best bet is Ifedi, a 6-foot-5, 320-pound sophomore who started 13 games at right guard last year. Now, he's poised to slide to right tackle … and so the pattern begins again.
Defensive End: Shawn Oakman, Baylor
At 6-foot-9, 275 pounds, it's hard not to notice the Baylor junior and Penn State transfer. For a much-improved Baylor defense, he played a situational role in 2013, finishing with 12 ½ tackles for loss and two sacks, but his production fell off dramatically during Big 12 play. With only four starters returning to the defense, though, Oakman is going to be counted on to establish himself as a force off the edge for the Bears. With the offense continuing to move the ball at a blistering pace, Baylor doesn't need to evolve into a dominant defense, and it's not going to. But last year featured its best defense in years, and to continue to compete for Big 12 championships, it will need to find a way to reload on defense and develop raw, athletic players like Oakman into consistent playmakers.
Next: Arik Armstead, Oregon. The 6-foot-8, 280-pound junior gave up Ducks basketball in January, deciding to focus all his attention on a promising football career that hasn't taken off yet. Oregon will need him to emerge now with Taylor Hart gone, and there's reason to believe he'll begin realizing his enormous potential that has always had the attention of NFL scouts.
Defensive End: Danielle Hunter, LSU
Massive NFL draft turnover two years in a row doesn't mean Les Miles isn't ready to reload and continue to compete for the SEC West title. The Tigers are in a talent-rich area in Louisiana, but they can also reach into neighboring talent-rich areas -- like Texas, in the case of Hunter. The LSU pass rush was mediocre last season, with no player on the team recording more than four sacks. Hunter had three as a rotational player, and with tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson both gone to the NFL, the Tigers need someone to break out. Hunter, a 6-foot-6, 241-pound junior, was a disruptive force in the LSU spring game, and he may the best bet for stardom in a defensive front that's always loaded with impact players.
Next: Dadi Nicolas, Virginia Tech. The Hokies boasted one of the nation's best pass rushes last year, and that was without one true star standing out above the rest. Sack leader Luther Maddy returns on the inside, but with James Gayle and J.R. Collins gone, they'll need a breakout campaign from Nicolas. At just 218 pounds, he may always be a pass-rush specialist, but his athleticism could allow him to be a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks.
Defensive Tackle: Montravius Adams, Auburn
Aside from pass rusher Dee Ford, Auburn's defensive line was talented but very young last year, so it wasn't all that surprising that the Tigers ranked 10th in the SEC in run defense. However, the ceiling is now very, very high, centering around two breakout candidates in particular: There's Carl Lawson, the sophomore defensive end who had four sacks last year. And there's Adams, a 6-foot-4, 306-pound anchor for the line. A five-star recruit, Adams was a solid part of Auburn's line rotation last year, making 20 tackles, and with Nosa Eguae gone, he should have no problem sliding into the starting lineup next to senior Gabe Wright to help form what may quickly become one of the nation's most disruptive defensive lines.
Next: Chris Jones, Mississippi State. While he started only three games as a freshman, Jones had made his presence felt. He finished the season with three sacks and 32 tackles, and he's poised to become a relentless and disruptive playmaker in the middle of an emerging Bulldogs defensive front.
Defensive Tackle: Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
There were flashes of stardom last year under the weight of near-Clowney-like freshman expectations, but Nkemdiche's performance was a bit uneven, which should be expected. Ole Miss was still trying to find the right role for him, as he shifted around the defensive line, opening the season at end but that moving inside to play a lot of tackle. At 6-foot-4, 277 pounds, Nkemdiche doesn't necessarily need to be locked in at a position. The No. 1 overall recruit in the class of 2013 can be moved around the line, and in particular it makes sense for him to slide inside on passing downs. He had two sacks and eight tackles for loss as a freshman, and it wouldn't be surprising to see big jumps in both categories in 2014.
Next: A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama. Like Nkemdiche, Robinson has positional versatility, and he technically plays end in Alabama's 3-4 defense. But either way, he's 320 pounds, and likely headed for stardom up front as a sophomore. The Tide managed only 22 sacks last year, but Robinson led the team with 5 1/2 despite not actually starting most weeks.
Linebacker: Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State
McMillan faces a big obstacle in the return of senior middle linebacker Curtis Grant, who had 52 tackles last year and obviously brings experience to the table. But Grant, a former five-star recruit like McMillan, has never really established himself as a star in the middle of the Buckeyes defense. If McMillan -- a 6-foot-2, 240-pounder -- doesn't overtake Grant for the middle linebacker job outright, after arriving early and participating in spring practice, it's hard to imagine him not at least garnering significant playing time and forcing his way onto the field more often than not. Whereas the Ohio State defensive front was inexperienced except for the now-departed Ryan Shazier last year, a young McMillan would be playing behind what might be the nation's best defensive line this year. New co-coordinator Chris Ash will find a way to get him on the field.
Next: Vince Biegel, Wisconsin. The Badgers allowed only 3.2 yards per carry last season, but they must rebuild almost the entire front seven and especially must deal with the loss of Chris Borland. Biegel, one of the prizes of Wisconsin's recruiting class of 2012, started two games as a redshirt freshman last year after a foot injury cost him 2012 and has a big opportunity now to step in as one of the new leaders of the defense.
Linebacker: Leonard Floyd, Georgia
Georgia's defense was so susceptible to big plays and so inexperienced last year that it received little credit for individual talent, although both linebackers Ramik Wilson and Jordan Jenkins received All-SEC nods. However, in arguably the nation's best linebacking corps, the player with the highest upside might be Floyd. While much was expected of Jenkins following the loss of Jarvis Jones, it was Floyd, as a freshman, who led the team with 6 ½ sacks and looked like a future All-America performer. It could happen as early as this season for a team that may challenge for a playoff bid.
Next: Kwon Alexander, LSU. The Tigers have lost a star linebacker each of the last two years, with Kevin Minter followed by last year's leading tackler Lamin Barrow. Now it's Alexander's turn to take over after starting nine games and recording 65 tackles and 6 1/2 tackles for loss in 2013.
Linebacker: Reuben Foster, Alabama
As always, you can probably put every new Alabama starter on this list. With only Trey DePriest back in the four-man linebacking corps, though, Foster is an obvious candidate: He's a 244-pound former five-star recruit who played sparingly as a freshman but already looks like an NFL player and is known for his hard-hitting style. With C.J. Mosley gone, DePriest is the steadying force and a star in his own right in the middle, but if Foster emerges as expected, the Crimson Tide could have a dominant pair of linebackers roaming the middle of the field, shoring up their always-stout run defense despite the loss of a Butkus Award-winning first-round pick. If that isn't enough, former top recruit Reggie Ragland is ready to step in too.
Next: Dominique Alexander, Oklahoma. The Big 12's defensive freshman of the year, Alexander was overshadowed by a pair of other standouts in the Sooners' linebacking corps: top pass rusher Eric Striker and leading tackler Frank Shannon. He still may be this year, but if he continues to emerge he can solidify this unit as one of the nation's best.
Cornerback: Mackensie Alexander, Clemson
Clemson has a potentially top-five front seven in place already, led by Vic Beasley, Corey Crawford, Grady Jarrett and Stephone Anthony. Get some help in the secondary, and the remarkable turnaround under coordinator Brent Venables -- brought in after the 70-point Orange Bowl debacle against West Virginia -- will be complete. Alexander was a candidate to start as a true freshman, but injury problems with his groin led to a redshirt season. He's worked his way into the starting lineup, and he'll be needed after top corner Bashaud Breeland left early for the NFL. If he develops as expected, this will be one of the nation's best defenses.
Next: Zack Sanchez, Oklahoma. A surprise starter as a redshirt freshman, Sanchez admirably handled a difficult role as the young cornerback playing opposite star Aaron Colvin -- and thus receiving a lot of attention. Now in the lead role with Colvin gone, Sanchez's sophomore season will see him tasked with slowing down some of the nation's top receivers in the Big 12, like Tyler Lockett and Antwan Goodley.
Cornerback: KeiVarae Russell, Notre Dame
While he's been a full-time starter since he was a freshman, Russell has been overshadowed by Notre Dame's talented defensive front. Now, in his junior season, the focus of the Fighting Irish defense shifts to the back end, where Russell has emerged as potentially the best player on the team. The Irish ranked 16th nationally in yards per attempt allowed in the passing game (6.3) last year, and Russell is the clear top corner here with Bennett Jackson gone. New defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder is expected to emphasize press coverage, presenting a golden opportunity for Russell to emerge as a star.
Next: Jabrill Peppers, Michigan. A consensus top-five overall recruit, Peppers shouldn't have much trouble earning significant playing time from day one. With the versatility to also play running back, Peppers appears ready to lock down a major role in the defensive backfield, at minimum as the nickel back, with the return of starting corners Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor.
Safety: Jalen Ramsey, Florida State
Florida State has quickly entered Alabama territory in its ability to replace star players with immediate new stars. So, yes, losing versatile cornerback/safety Lamarcus Joyner is tough, but here's Ramsey, a versatile defensive back and one of the nation's top overall recruits in 2013, to step right in. Ramsey already played a large role on the defense last year, but now he steps up to fill the shoes of the All-America Joyner as the DB who can play anywhere. The Seminoles' second-leading returning tackler, Ramsey finished with 49 tackles and an interception as a freshman. In a stacked secondary, he'll start at safety next to a pair of potential All-America cornerbacks, P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby.
Next: Vonn Bell, Ohio State. The Buckeyes ranked second to last in the Big Ten in pass defense, and now they face significant issues with Bradley Roby and C.J. Barnett gone. Making things worse, Bell missed almost all of spring ball with an MCL injury, although he's expected to be healthy in time for fall camp. If so, he has a chance to continue to build his resume after impressing when he worked his way into the starting lineup in the Orange Bowl.
Safety: Su'a Cravens, USC
Like Florida State's Ramsey, Cravens already made a strong first impression as a five-star recruit who immediately saw the field in 2013. Now he's poised to take another step and become an All-America candidate. USC has made a habit of churning out big, quality safeties over the last decade -- T.J. McDonald, Taylor Mays, Darnell Bing, Troy Polamalu -- and Cravens, at 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, is th next in line. As a freshman, he started all 13 games, finishing with 53 tackles and four interceptions. This season, he'll be one of three cornerstones of a talented Trojans defense, along with defensive lineman Leonard Williams and linebacker Hayes Pullard.
(Note: LSU's Jalen Mills has been removed from this list after a reported arrest for second degree battery on Wednesday morning.)
Next: Marcus Ball, Arizona State. That's if he can get past injury issues. At 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, Ball gives the Sun Devils an intriguing option in their rebuilt secondary, where they need to replace All-Pac-12 safety Alden Darby. Ball missed last season because of a clavicle injury and was limited in spring practice, but if he returns healthy he has the inside track to a significant role on a defense that experiences a lot of turnover and needs new impact players to emerge.
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