Who will prove their worth this college football season by putting up big numbers and making an impact on his team?
The NCAA college football season is certain to showcase players who will break out from obscurity, mediocrity and injury, as well as those improving on already impressive numbers.
While the Matt Barkleys and Denard Robinsons of the college football world are virtual locks to have egregious numbers in 2012, there are plenty of upstart players who will join the conversation as the nation’s best.
This list is focused around skill-position players on offense and defense, mostly because of how difficult it is to rate the play of offensive and defensive linemen.
There will definitely be players who are left off of this list, which is why you should weigh in with your potential breakout players.
But first, read on.
De’Anthony Thomas, Oregon, So., RB
The sophomore running back from Los Angeles had a terrific 2011 season, with first-year accolades galore.
Thomas was named Pac-12 co-Offensive Freshman of the Year, Sporting News Freshman All-American and to Phil Steele's All-Freshman first team.
After averaging 147.8 all-purpose yards per game, Thomas was rewarded with just about everything but a pedicure, and deservedly so.
Thomas could go between skill positions, as a wide receiver and returner. His versatility will lead to touches despite the presence of the Kenjon Barner in the backfield.
This season, Thomas will be given more than enough opportunities by head coach Chip Kelly to break away from not only the rest of his class, but all of Division I football, as he will be in contention for the Heisman Trophy come January.
Knile Davis, Arkansas, Jr., RB
A broken ankle sidelined Davis for the entire 2011 season. Davis is entering his junior year, appearing poised to duplicate a productive 2010 sophomore season.
Davis ran for 1,322 yards on 204 carries (6.5 yards per carry), scoring 13 touchdowns in the defense-minded SEC.
While fans question whether or not Davis has lost a step, he certainly has no lack of swagger, saying he believes he is the best running back in the SEC, according to Andy Staples of SI.com.
Collin Klein, Kansas State, Sr., QB
It is becoming apparent in college football that dual-threat quarterbacks can be the most effective weapons, as is evident in Heisman voting in the last six years.
Beginning with Ohio State’s Troy Smith in 2006, the Heisman prize has gone to a running quarterback four of the last six years.
Will Klein win the award in 2012? Probably not.
After rushing for 1,141 yards and 27 touchdowns last year, however—not to mention a 125.6 passer rating—he is a lock to put up big numbers.
Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina, Jr., RB
Like Davis, Lattimore can be considered one of the best rushers in the 2012 season, barring the health of his knee, which suffered an ACL tear in October that kept him from completing what was a fine 2011 season.
With 818 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns in seven games last season, Lattimore has the potential to be scary good.
The only question is if he has run into the right medical and training staff.
Barkevious Mingo, LSU, Jr., DE
Awarded 2009 Name of the Year by some strange, obscure website, Mingo is already one of the top draft prospects and could compete for the No. 1 overall pick if his upcoming season goes well.
Playing in a backup role for some of last season, Mingo recorded eight sacks for 60 yards, earning SEC All-Second Team honors.
The 6’5”, 210-pound lineman is not just an opposing force, according to the LSU staff, who chose Mingo for its Jimmy Taylor Award for outstanding leadership last season.
Sammy Watkins, Clemson, So., WR
The young Watkins may have already had a breakout year in 2011, tallying 82 catches for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns.
That is, if you believe he can’t accrue even higher stats in 2012.
With All-ACC quarterback Tajh Boyd at the helm, there is no telling how much the offensive pair can accomplish. Since they're both underclassmen, their success could even spill over into 2013.
Jacob Pedersen, Wisconsin, Jr., TE
With eight touchdowns in 2011, Pedersen finished a solid sophomore season, catching 30 passes for 356 yards.
While his receiving numbers might not be glaring by year’s end, his impact will be felt through opening holes for Montee Ball and protecting Danny O’Brien or Curt Phillips, depending upon who wins the battle for the starting quarterback spot (as is being reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel).
Pedersen's experience could prove to be his biggest asset in 2012.
C.J. Mosley, Alabama, Jr., LB
Following separate dislocations to both his elbow and hip at the end of the 2011 season, Mosley is prepared to dislocate opposing players from the ball in 2012.
The junior and former Freshman All-American will thrive in an expanded role after recording 37 tackles and two sacks last season.
As long as Mosley can stay healthy, he will be one of the top linebackers in the country this year.
Merrill Noel, Wake Forest, So., DB
A consensus Freshman All-American, Noel broke up a school-record 19 passes as a redshirt in 2011.
After starting all 13 games last season, there is no indication he won’t continue the pace that is slowly making him one of the top cornerbacks in the country.
More experience should lead to increased confidence and danger in the eyes of opposing quarterbacks.
E.J. Manuel, FSU, Sr., QB
While the success of the aforementioned Barkley and Robinson, along with Aaron Murray (Georgia), Tyler Wilson (Arkansas) and Geno Smith (West Virginia) appears imminent, here is another quarterback to keep an eye on.
Manuel has never had the opportunity to take the lion's share of the snaps. Between injuries and inconsistency, it is questionable just how much success he will have.
Yet with an explosive defense behind him on what many believe to be a top-10 team, Manuel has the potential to not only thrive, but excel in 2012.