The 2013 college football regular season featured some truly tremendous bounce-back campaigns from teams who struggled in 2012 such as Auburn, Missouri, Michigan State and Duke.
It was also a season that featured plenty of great individual bounce-back performances from players who were able to put their forgettable showings in 2012 in the rear-view mirror and rise up and become high-impact players this year.
Here’s a look at the one player at every position who made the most drastic improvement in 2013.
Quarterback: Zach Mettenberger, LSU
Zach Mettenger may be a completely different type of quarterback than Cam Newton, but the two did follow a very similar path throughout their collegiate careers. Like Newton, Mettenberger was a former highly touted high school recruit who dealt with the embarrassment of departing a high-profile SEC school under compromising circumstances.
Unfortunately, what Mettenberger was not able to do was have anywhere near the same type of success during his first season as a starter at LSU as Newton had during his Heisman-caliber campaign at Auburn.
While there were a few times in 2012 when the strong-armed signal-caller showed flashes of his immense talent—most notably his 296-yard passing performance against Alabama—overall, his first season leading the Tiger offense left a lot to be desired. Mettenberger completed just 58 percent of his passes, averaged just 7.3 yards per throw, hit just 12 touchdown passes and he finished the year with a 127 passer rating, which ranked 11th in the SEC.
After seeing his highly touted quarterback struggle last season, Les Miles knew he had to make a change to help Mettenberger improve in his senior year. Thus, he brought in former NFL offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to change up LSU’s offensive system.
The partnership proved to be a perfect in 2013, as Mettenberger flourished in Cameron’s offense. The 6’5”, 235-pound senior completed 65 percent of his passes, averaged over 10 yards per throw, threw 22 touchdowns and led the SEC with a 171 passer rating.
Sadly, Mettenberger’s season came to an disappointing end, when he was knocked out of LSU’s final regular season game against Arkansas with a torn ACL. While the injury may hinder the breakout star signal-caller’s draft stock, he still was able to do enough this season to show scouts that he’s got all the skills it takes to be a successful starter at the NFL level.
Running Back: Andre Williams, Boston College
Before the season started, if you had polled prominent college football analysts and asked them which running back had the best chance to rush for over 2,000 yards in 2013, you would have heard notable names like Ka’Deem Carey, Lache Seastrunk, Todd Gurley and TJ Yeldon mentioned.
One name you certainly wouldn’t have heard, though, is Andre Williams.
After rushing for just 584 yards on 130 carries for a 2-10 Eagles team in 2012, Williams entered the season as an afterthought in the ACC. However, he quickly emerged as the premier rushers in not just the conference, but the entire country.
The powerful 6’0”, 227-pound senior showed that he could be a true workhorse back, as he carried the ball 329 yards for 2,102 yards (6.4 yards per carry) and scored 17 touchdowns. His highly productive performance was the main reason why Boston College was able to put together a resurgent seven-win campaign and make it back to the postseason.
Not only is Williams one of the biggest surprise success stories of the 2013 season, he’s also the first running back at the FBS level to rush for over 2,000 yards since 2008.
Wide Receiver: Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State
“Inconsistent” would be a good word to use to sum up Kelvin Benjamin’s 2012 season. There were times last year when the former 4-star recruit would overwhelm defenders with his combination of size, athleticism and leaping ability. However, there were also plenty of times when Benjamin would drop passes, get called for a costly pass interference or simply fail to make a critical catch in a crucial situation.
This season, however, Benjamin has seemingly hit his stride and finally become the type of consistent big-play threat that the Seminoles were hoping he would be. The towering 6’5”, 234-pound redshirt sophomore has created numerous big plays in the passing game in 2013, hauling in 50 catches for 957 yards (19.1 yards per catch) and finding the end zone 14 times.
20 of Benjamin’s receptions have been for over 20 yards, which is tied for the 12th most in the country.
Though QB Jameis Winston may be the superstar of the Seminoles offense this year, Winston wouldn’t have been able to excel this season without the help of his big, explosive wide out.
Tight End: Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
An internal bleeding issue, stemming from a hard hit he received against West Virginia, limited Jace Amaro to just seven games of action in 2012. Amaro finished the season with just 25 total receptions, however, during the time when he was healthy, the highly athletic 6’5”, 260-pound pass-catcher showed the skills it takes to develop into a dynamic receiving weapon.
That’s just what Amaro has done this season, as he’s developed into the shining star of Kliff Kingsbury’s pass-heavy attack.
The tremendously gifted former 4-star recruit from San Antonio has gone from being intriguing in 2012 to being incredible in 2013. Amaro has solidified his status as the top tight end in the country by totaling a whopping 98 total catches for 1,240 yards and seven touchdowns.
He’s one of the sport’s true matchup nightmares. You can bet that NFL scouts have surely taken notice of his rare skill-set, since he perfectly fits the mold of what franchises are looking for from tight ends these days.
It’s downright laughable that Amaro wasn’t even voted as a finalist for the 2013 Mackey Award, considering he’s clearly been the best player in the country at his position this year.
Offensive Lineman: Greg Robinson, Auburn
First-year Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn has helped turn players like QB Nick Marshall and RB Tre Mason into household names this season. However, the team’s improvement in the trenches has been just as big of a part of the offenses’ turnaround as the play of Marshall and Mason has.
After allowing 37 total sacks and blocking for a rushing attack that averaged barely four yards per carry in 2012, the Tigers’ offensive line has really stepped its game up this season. Auburn leads the SEC and ranks fourth nationally with a 6.4 yards per carry average, and they’ve allowed just 16 sacks in 13 games.
The leader and linchpin up front has been left tackle Greg Robinson, who has developed into one of the most dominant and most well-rounded blockers in the country.
Few other players in the country have elevated their NFL draft stock as much as the 6’5”, 350-pound redshirt sophomore has this year. Though Marshall and Mason have received more publicity and made more headlines in 2013, Robinson will ultimately end up being the one with the biggest pro contract.
Defensive Tackle: DaQuan Jones, Penn State
Penn State may be known as “Linebacker U” but in recent years, the Nittany Lions have also gained a reputation for producing standout defensive tackles such as Devon Still, Jared Odrick and most recently Jordan Hill.
After being overshadowed by his former teammate Hill in 2012, DaQuan Jones emerged as the Nittany Lions’ latest dominant defensive tackle this season. After totaling just eight solo tackles and two tackles for loss last year, Jones filled up the stat sheet in 2013, totaling 33 solo tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.
The 6’3”, 318-pound senior displayed the same combination of power, nastiness and quickness that helped Still, Odrick and Hill all become viable NFL prospects. Though we may not get to see the fierce run-stuffer in a bowl game this year, we’ll surely be hearing plenty more from Jones at the next level.
Defensive End: Michael Sam, Missouri
After losing DT Sheldon Richardson—the No. 13 overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft—a year early to the pros, it was clear this offseason that Missouri was going to need a new defensive line leader in 2013. Many thought that player would be DE Kony Ealy, a supremely athletic edge-rusher who looked like he was in store for a breakout season.
Instead, however, it’s been fellow end Michael Sam, who has stepped up and led the way for the Tigers defense. Sam, a former lightly recruited 2-star prospect from Texas, had totaled just 9.5 sacks during his first three seasons in Colombia. This year, though, he’s taken his game to a completely different level, as he’s developed into one of the most dangerous pass-rushers in college football.
The 6’2”, 255-pound senior racked up 10.5 sacks, 18 tackles for loss and he played a key role in helping Missouri make a surprising run all the way to the SEC championship game.
For his efforts, Sam has been rewarded with the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award by the Associated Press. Not only has the former unheralded recruit made a name for himself in college football’s toughest conference, he’s also opened the eyes of NFL scouts with a breakthrough senior campaign.
Linebacker: Jeremiah George, Iowa State
Last year, linebackers A.J. Klein and Jake Knott were basically the only two Iowa State defenders that anyone wanted to talk about, which was understandable, considering how consistently productive they had been throughout their collegiate careers.
With Klein and Knott both gone this year, the focus has now shifted to LB Jeremiah George, who has finally been able to step out of the shadows that his former teammates cast over him in previous years. The undersized 5’11”, 219-pound has been one of college football’s most productive defenders of 2013, leading the Big 12 with 133 total tackles, including 83 solo stops and 12 tackles for loss.
In a recent article in the Des Moines Register, George was quoted as saying, “I knew that this was my time. Before this year, I’m not saying I was passive or anything like that, but if there was a big play to be made, either Jake or A.J. made it.”
This season, George has been the one making all those big plays. He’s shown tremendous growth as an all-around defensive playmaker, and he’s displayed outstanding maturity, handling his role as the team’s new defensive leader with great pride and responsibility.
Cornerback: Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State
Following his MVP performance in the Fiesta Bowl against Stanford to close out a strong sophomore season in 2011, it seemed as if Just Gilbert was one of college football’s young rising star cornerbacks. Unfortunately, Gilbert was not able to build on the momentum, as he turned in a sub-par performance in 2012.
This year, however, the light has come back on for the super speedy 6’0”, 200-pound senior. Gilbert has developed into one of the sport’s true lock-down corners, and he’s emerged as the leader of a Cowboys secondary, which has allowed an average of just 5.9 yards per pass this season.
Gilbert, who leads the Big 12 and is tied for fourth nationally with six interceptions, has caused quite a buzz in the NFL scouting community. Back in October, when NFL.com’s Daniel Jeremiah asked five pro personnel executives to name the most improved player in college football, two said Gilbert. One of them even called the Cowboy corner “a lock to go in the first round.”
After a disappointing 2012 campaign, the extremely athletic cover man has turned things around in a big way. Gilbert now has a great chance to be the first cornerback taken in the 2014 NFL draft.
Safety: Marqueston Huff, Wyoming
After losing the three top tacklers from the 2012 season, Wyoming’s defense desperately needed a new playmaker to rise up and lead the way in 2013. Luckily, the Cowboys found that defensive difference-maker in FS Marqueston Huff.
Huff was a true ball-hawk this season, racking up 127 total tackles, including 74 solo stops—which is tied for the ninth most in the nation.
The former cornerback has looked like a natural at his new position, displaying the type of speed, instincts and nose for the football that sets him apart from the other defensive backs in the Mountain West.
After steadily getting better each and every year of his collegiate career, the 6’0”, 195-pound senior certainly ended his time at Wyoming on a high note with a spectacular senior season.