Predicting College Football’s Breakout Stars of 2014

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It’s a question that inevitably gets asked before the start of every college football season: Who are the potential breakout stars to watch out for this year?

Which players are ready to elevate their game from pretty good to great?

Who are the players who are ready to transform from being solid to spectacular?

Last year, we saw an abundance of players who deserved the term “breakout star.” Jameis Winston, Greg Robinson, Blake Bortles, Andre Williams, Michael Sam, Brandin Cooks, Vic Beasley, Tre Mason, Mike Evans and Justin Gilbert are just a few of the many notable names who put together eye-opening performances and became household names in 2013.

Those players deserved all of the celebratory accolades they received for their stellar seasons. However, it’s now time to look toward the future and try to pinpoint which fast-rising talents are ready to step into the national spotlight and emerge as the breakout stars of the 2014 season.

For this list, I chose players who have yet to earn either first- or second-team All-Conference honors but who have shown signs of taking steps toward stardom with their prior performances.

Here are the players who are destined to be a part of college football’s next wave of breakout stars.

Karlos Williams, RB, Florida State

Heisman-winner Jameis Winston is the Florida State player who will surely get all the attention and publicity this offseason. But the real player to watch out for in the Seminoles backfield this fall will actually be RB Karlos Williams.

Since he had to defer carries to fellow backs Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. last year, Williams didn’t get a ton of opportunities to show off his skills in 2013, finishing the year with just 91 total rushes. However, when he did get the ball in his hands, the explosive former safety certainly made the most of the opportunity. In his first season on offense, he averaged over eight yards per carry, totaled 25 runs of 10 yards or more and scored 11 touchdowns.

The 6’1”, 219-pound former 5-star recruit is undoubtedly one of the most explosive athletes in all of college football. Now, with Freeman and Wilder both gone, Williams will will have plenty more chances to tear opposing defenses apart in 2014.

 

Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn

Instability at the quarterback position was the main reason why Auburn’s offense was an utter disaster in 2012, ranking 13th in the SEC in scoring offense and dead last in the conference in total offense. Luckily, the Tigers found the playmaker they needed at the position this past season, when Nick Marshall stepped in as the starter and helped turn the offense into one of the most productive units in the country.

In his first year as a full-time starter, Marshall proved to be a perfect fit for Gus Malzahn’s unique spread offensive scheme. The dynamic dual-threat signal-caller threw for over 1,900 yards, rushed for over 1,000 yards and accounted for 26 total touchdowns, as he helped guide the Tigers to a surprising 12-2 record, an SEC championship and a berth in the BCS title game.

Though he’ll miss highly productive RB Tre Mason and monstrous left tackle Greg Robinson, who have both moved on to the NFL, Marshall should be ready to put the offense on his back and become a true leader in 2014. Now that he has a year’s worth of experience in Malzahn’s system, the 6’1”, 210-pound senior will be able to think less and instead let his natural playmaking instincts take over.

 

Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia

After losing linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree following the 2012 season, Georgia needed a new defensive difference-maker to step up in 2013. Going into the season, many Bulldog fans assumed that player would be LB Jordan Jenkins.

Jenkins did show flashes that he was capable of being a defensive leader this past season. However, the real storyline surrounding Georgia’s defense was the development of fellow outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, who totaled 6.5 sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss and 22 quarterback pressures in his debut campaign.

While Jenkins may be the one who receives more attention and accolades this summer, it’s Floyd who has the chance to become one of the SEC’s premier pass-rushers in 2014. The long, athletic 6’4”, 220-pound sophomore has the talent to become just as coveted of an NFL prospect as Jones and Ogletree were.

 

Shawn Oakman, DE, Baylor

“Passes the eyeball test” is an apt way to describe Baylor’s towering, physically imposing defensive end Shawn Oakman. At 6’9”, 275-pounds, Oakman has not only been blessed with the type of size to intimidate opposing offensive linemen, he also packs plenty of athleticism and power into his enormous frame.

Like former Bears DT Phil Taylor, Oakman landed in Waco after a short stint at Penn State. After sitting out a year following the transfer, the former 4-star recruit from Pennsylvania made his debut in 2013. Though he only totaled two sacks during his first year in a Bear uniform, the junior end did show plenty of encouraging signs of his potential.

The unique physical specimen should be ready to make the most of his unique size-skills combination in 2014. While Baylor’s high-powered offensive attack may be the team’s must-see attraction, Oakman will likely turn plenty of heads  as well this fall.

Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana

If Indiana is ever going to make a substantial move up the Big Ten ladder, 2014 would be the season to do it. After ranking second in the conference in both scoring offense and total offense last season, the Hoosiers bring back plenty of talent on offense, including QB Nate Sudfeld and WR Shane Wynn. But the real centerpiece of the attack will once again be explosive RB Tevin Coleman.

Since he played for a forgettable five-win team in 2013, Coleman received nearly no national attention last year. But you can bet the defenses that had to try to contain him certainly took notice of his playmaking ability. The 6’1”, 205-pound junior ran for 958 yards on just 131 carries (7.3 yards per carry average) and scored 12 touchdowns.

Coleman is one of the most dangerous big-play threats in the country. He, Sudfeld and Wynn will form one of the most talented QB-RB-WR trios in college football in 2014.

Landon Collins, S, Alabama

During Nick Saban’s tenure at Alabama, the Tide have had 10 defensive backs selected in the NFL draft. Safeties Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri are the latest two Tide products to make the move up to the pros, which means Saban will now be looking to bolster the back end of his defense this offseason.

Luckily, the coach has another gifted ballhawk—Landon Collins, who he can mold into the team’s next star defensive back.

A season-ending injury to Sunseri gave Collins the opportunity to prove himself at strong safety in 2013. The 6’0”, 215-pound junior thrived in the role, totaling 69 tackles, including 54 solo stops, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and six pass breakups.

Much to the dismay of his mother, the former 5-star recruit has looked right at home in Tuscaloosa. Collins now appears destined to become Saban’s next great defensive prodigy.

Dante Fowler Jr., DE, Florida

In the last two NFL drafts, Florida has had eight defensive players selected, including three players who were first-round picks: Sharrif Floyd and Matt Elam in 2013, and Dominique Easley this year. The next Gator defender that scouts will be keeping an eye on is edge-rusher Dante Fowler Jr.

Fowler was seemingly born to play the hybrid Buck linebacker position in Will Muschamp’s defense. The highly athletic 6’3”, 266-pound junior is still developing physically and getting stronger, but he’s been blessed with tremendous first-step quickness and the speed off the edge to overwhelm opposing offensive tackles.

The former 5-star recruit has only totaled six sacks in his first two seasons, but he now seems primed and ready to put together a double-digit sack campaign in 2014.  If he plays up to his potential this fall, Fowler Jr. has a great chance to follow in the footsteps of Floyd, Elam and Easley and become the next Gator defender to hear his name called in the first round of the NFL draft.

Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State

16-24 — That’s Dan Mullen’s record against SEC schools during his five years as head coach at Mississippi State. Though Mullen has been criticized for his lack of success against conference competition, there’s no denying that he has helped stabilize a program that had long been one of the weakest in the league.

Unfortunately, up until now, Tim Tebow’s former mentor simply hasn’t had the dynamic playmaker at the quarterback position that’s capable of taking the Bulldogs to the next level. However, that very well could be about to change.

Mullen’s latest pupil: Dak Prescott, had the chance to show off his dual-threat skills in 2013, and he certainly made the most of his opportunity to impress onlookers. In 11 games of action, the 6’2”, 230-pound junior totaled over 2,800 yards of offense, accounted for 25 touchdowns, and gave the offense a much-needed spark while giving the Mississippi State faithful a reason to get excited about 2014.

While it would be quite a stretch to expect Mullen to turn Prescott into the same type of mythical figure that he created Tebow into at Florida, the two do form one of the most intriguing play-caller-playmaker partnerships in college football.

Tony Conner, S, Ole Miss

DE Robert Nkemdiche, OT Laremy Tunsil and WR Laquon Treadwell were the three big blue-chip prospects from Ole Miss’ heralded and highly rated 2013 recruiting class that everyone was buzzing about last offseason. As it turned out, though, it was actually Tony Conner who ended up making a bigger initial impact than any of them in 2013.

In his debut season, Conner was a key member of the Rebels’ defense, starting 12 games at the Huskie nickel back position, ranking third on the team with 66 total tackles, including 39 solo stops. Not only did he earn numerous Freshman All-American honors for his performance, he also earned the respect of those who had previously overlooked him in favor of his more talked-about incoming freshman teammates.

The 6’0”, 217-pound safety has already proven that he can compete at a high level in college football’s toughest conference. Now, as he enters his second season, Conner will be looking to show that he has what it takes to become one of the SEC’s next standout star defensive backs.

Shaq Thompson, LB, Washington

New Washington head coach Chris Petersen will have some work to do retooling the team’s offense this offseason. Fortunately for Petersen, the Huskies defense brings back plenty of key starters from a unit that ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in scoring defense and allowed less than five yards per play in 2013.

It isn’t hard to figure out which player is best suited to be the team’s defensive leader in 2014. LB Shaq Thompson is an experienced two-year starter who has the type of natural physical ability and playmaking instincts to grow into a game-changing defender.

The former heralded 5-star recruit from Sacramento has earned All-Pac-12 honorable mention honors in each of his first two seasons, as he’s totaled 152 tackles, including 94 solo stops and 12.5 tackles for loss.

Blessed with tremendous athletic gifts, the 6’2”, 231-pound junior is a special talent who has the potential to develop into one of the top impact defenders in all of college football in 2014.

Trevor Knight, QB, Oklahoma

After ranking in the top three in the Big 12 in passing offense for five straight seasons, Oklahoma’s passing attack was uncharacteristically feeble in 2013. Last year, the Sooners ranked second to last in the conference with an average of just 199 passing yards per game. That low number can mainly be attributed to the fact that starting quarterback Trevor Knight played in just eight games.

Though Knight’s debut season was slowed by injuries, the young signal-caller still managed to finish off his first campaign in incredibly strong fashion. Knight saved his signature performance of the year for the final game of the season, when he led the Sooners to a shocking 45-31 upset victory over heavily-favored Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. The strong-armed sophomore carved up the Tide’s supposedly stout defense, completing 32 of 44 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns.

Following that statement showing, Knight isn’t going to have to worry about another quarterback competition this offseason, as he’s now firmly entrenched as the team’s starter.

With young budding receivers like Sterling Shepard, Durron Neal and Derrick Woods all returning, the second-year starter has the surrounding pieces he needs to revive the Sooners’ struggling passing attack and lead Oklahoma into contention for a Big 12 title in 2014.

Darius Hamilton, DT, Rutgers

Though New Jersey is never mentioned in the conversation with the likes of California, Texas and Florida as a fertile recruiting hotbed, the Garden State does annually produce plenty of heralded prospects. The problem for Rutgers — the state’s only FBS program — is that the Scarlet Knights’ have often had trouble fending off national powerhouse programs and keeping Jersey’s top blue-chip recruits at home.

Luckily, coach Kyle Flood was able to convince the state’s top prospect of the 2012 class: Darius Hamilton, a product of perennial powerhouse Don Bosco Prep, to sign with Rutgers, even though he had scholarship offers from basically every big-name school you could think of.

This past season, the former 5-star recruit finally started to live up to his high school hype, as he totaled 48 tackles, including 11.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.

Hamilton—the son of former New York Giant DT Keith Hamilton—has only shown flashes of greatness up to this point, but his immense potential is clearly evident. With Rutgers now making the move to the Big Ten, the 6’4”, 260-pound junior will have a chance to show off his skills to an even broader audience in 2014.

Josh Shaw, CB, USC

This past season, the USC defense faced a whopping 516 total pass attempts. However, the Trojans allowed an average of just 214 passing yards per game (5.8 yards per attempt), making them one of just 10 teams in college football to allow an average of less than six yards per pass.

Though safety Dion Bailey—the veteran leader of the team’s staunch secondary—has moved on to the NFL, the Trojans defensive backfield does bring back a dynamic and versatile playmaker: Josh Shaw, to lead the way in 2014.

Shaw is coming off an impressive junior campaign, in which he lined up at both corner and safety. The former transfer from Florida totaled 67 tackles, picked off four passes and broke up another seven throws.

The 6’1”, 195-pound senior is a big, long and physical corner who has the speed and athleticism to go toe-to-toe with any receiver that he squares off with. Shaw has all the measurables to be great. This fall, he’ll have his chance to show the college football world that he was what it takes to be an elite lock-down corner.

Markus Golden, DE, Missouri

Every year, it seems like Missouri somehow finds a way to produce a new breakout star defensive lineman. First it was Ziggy Hood, then Aldon Smith, then Sheldon Richardson, and then of course most recently it was Michael Sam, who rose from relative obscurity to earn SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2013.

Since Sam and fellow DE Kony Ealy have both moved on to the NFL, the Tigers will now be looking for their next terrorizing defensive lineman to unleash onto opposing offenses. DE Markus Golden, who’s cut from the same “physical freak” mold as his predecessors Smith and Richardson, looks like he’s ready to step up and become “the next one” in 2014.

Not only does Golden share many of the same rare physical traits as Bruce Irvin, he also shares a similar backstory. Like Irvin, Golden is a former JUCO linebacker who made the switch to defensive end once he reached the FBS level. In his first season at end, Golden looked like a natural at the position, racking up 6.5 sacks and 55 total tackles, including 13 tackles for loss and 36 solo stops.

The explosive 6’3”, 260-pound edge-rusher is the type of player who could make a huge surge up draft boards if he puts together the type of showcase senior season he’s capable of.

 

Kevin Johnson, CB, Wake Forest

Since Wake Forest suffered through a disappointing four-win season in 2013, most fans probably didn’t notice that the Demon Deacons defense just so happened to feature one of the best corner combinations in the country, comprised of Kevin Johnson and Merrill Noel.

Both Johnson and Noel will return to the fold in 2014, but it will be the former who is truly the one to watch out for this fall.

Finding a 6’1” cornerback with sub 4.5 speed certainly isn’t easy, which is why Johnson is one of the most intriguing senior prospects at his position in the 2015 NFL draft class.

After putting together a solid junior campaign, in which he totaled 58 tackles, picked off three passes and broke up another 12 throws, the big, highly athletic cover man will now be looking to solidify his status as one of the top overall corners in college football in 2014.

 

Jaylon Smith, LB, Notre Dame

Notre Dame’s defense is going to have a much different look in 2014 than it did this past season. Not only do the Irish have to replace five starters in the front-seven, including NFL draft picks Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix and Prince Shembo, they also have to replace defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, who left South Bend to become the head coach at UConn.

After losing Diaco and key veterans like Tuitt, Nix and Shembo, the Irish defense is clearly in need of a leadership figure who the unit can rally around. Though he’s only just a true sophomore, Jaylon Smith looks like he’s ready to be the defensive leader the Irish so desperately need.

After arriving at Notre Dame as the most decorated and heralded prospect of the team’s 2013 recruiting class, Smith quickly made an instant impact in his debut season, ranking third on the team with 67 tackles, including 41 solo stops.

After lining up on the outside as a freshman, the 6’2”, 230-pound former 5-star recruit will now shift inside to the “Will” linebacker spot, where he’ll have the chance to be an even bigger part of the action.

If the Irish defensive linemen can occupy blockers and free up Smith to roam around and make plays, he should put together a 100-plus tackle campaign in 2014.

 

Kevin Hogan QB, Stanford

When Kevin Hogan walked off the field after Stanford’s 24-20 loss to Michigan State in the Rose Bowl, he probably felt a little bit strange. That’s because losing isn’t a feeling that Hogan’s had to deal with very often during his collegiate career. Since taking over as the team’s starter midway through the 2012 season, the junior signal-caller has compiled a 16-3 overall record, which has included two Pac-12 championships and two Rose Bowl berths.

Though Hogan has already put plenty of wins on his resume, he’s done so in a game-manager type of role. Coach David Shaw has been content to establish a strong ground game and play solid defense to win games (the Cardinal threw the ball just 311 times in 2013—only 13 FBS teams attempted less pass attempts last season).

The time has finally come for Shaw to let the talented pro-style passer off the leash so he can show off what he’s truly capable of. Though Hogan may lack the “it” factor that his predecessor Andrew Luck had, the 6’4”, 228-pound junior does have the size, arm strength, intangibles and intelligence to excel in Shaw’s system and become one of the sport’s most efficient and productive passers in 2014.

Josh Ferguson, RB, Illinois

When Josh Ferguson first arrived on the Illinois campus back in 2011, there were some folks around the program who wondered if the 175-pound freshman would amount to anything more than just a small, one-dimensional speed back.

After seeing what Ferguson was able to accomplish in 2013, there’s no one wondering about that any longer. After gradually bulking up and getting stronger throughout his first two years, the 5’10”, 195-pound speedster finally proved that he could be a valuable multi-dimensional weapon for the Illini offense this past season, when he rushed for 779 yards on just 141 carries (5.5 yards per attempt), caught 50 passes for 535 yards and scored 11 touchdowns.

Ferguson has managed to win over the critics who initially thought he was too small. Now, he’ll be looking to gain the respect from the rest of the Big Ten and receive the credit he deserves as one of the conference’s most dangerous playmakers.

Brandon Shell, OT, South Carolina

At this point last offseason, not even the most respected college football analysts and preseason publications had pegged Auburn OT Greg Robinson as one of the SEC’s top offensive lineman. As it turned out, though, Robinson made them all look foolish, as he emerged as a dominant All-American performer and ultimately became the No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft.

When trying to find a tackle who could potentially follow in Robinson’s footsteps and put together a similar type of breakout performance in 2014, South Carolina’s Brandon Shell is a player who immediately sticks out.

Up to this point in his career, Shell has been overshadowed by fellow Gamecock linemen Corey Robinson and AJ Cann. But that certainly doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have the type of skills that warrant attention. The 6’6”, 334-pound junior is a massive, powerful and agile former 5-star recruit who has been a stalwart starter at right tackle since entering the starting lineup as a redshirt freshman in 2012.

The nephew of legendary Hall-of-Famer Art Shell obviously has the bloodlines to be great. Now, it’s up to Shell to make the most of his potential and put his tremendous physical gifts to good use in 2014.

 

D.J. Foster, RB, Arizona State

When examining Arizona State’s offensive outlook for the 2014 season, obviously, QB Taylor Kelly and WR Jaelen Strong are the first two players to focus on. Kelly and Strong form one of the most powerful passing partnerships in all of college football. Still, the real key to the Sun Devils’ offensive success this year could actually be RB D.J. Foster.

With the team’s leading rusher from 2013: Marion Grice, now out of the picture, Foster is set to become an even bigger part of the offensive game plan this fall. That’s a scary thought, considering the 5’11”, 195-pound junior managed to total over 1,100 yards of offense and score 10 touchdowns on just 156 total touches last season.

Foster is an exciting, explosive and versatile game-breaking threat who can do just as much damage in the passing game as he can as a rusher.

Opposing defenses will likely focus on containing Kelly and Strong in 2014, but it could ultimately be No. 8 who really ends up burning them.

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