Johnny Manziel and College Football's 25 Biggest Surprise Stars of 2012

David Luther@@davidrlutherFeatured ColumnistNovember 22, 2012

Johnny Manziel and College Football's 25 Biggest Surprise Stars of 2012

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    We knew Johnny Football was supposed to be the next big thing at Texas A&M, but we didn't expect this.

    Manziel has put together a freshman performance for the ages and is even being mentioned for Heisman consideration, again, as a freshman.

    Manziel hasn't been the only surprise this season. All across the nation, previous unknowns—or players we never expected to make an impact—are rising up to contribute in big ways.

    As we all recover from our traditional Thanksgiving overeating, let's pause for a moment and recognize the early Christmas gifts we received in the form of the 25 surprise college football stars of 2012.


Jordan Poyer, DB, Oregon State

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    It's probably safe to say that the entire Oregon State team has been a pretty decent surprise this season.

    Jordan Poyer has been a major part of the Beavers' success this season, prowling the secondary just waiting for a pass to come his way.

    He's pulled down six interceptions this season, leading the Pac-12 (and tied for second in the FBS) while breaking up another five throws and forcing a fumble.

    Oregon State has been the doormat of the conference on defense for a while, but with Poyer leading the way this season, the Beavers are suddenly a force out west.

Derron Smith, DB, Fresno State

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    Derron Smith, a sophomore defensive back at Fresno State, has become the face of the Bulldogs' future on defense.

    Smith has six interceptions this season, including one returned for a touchdown.

    But what is perhaps even more surprising is the fact that Smith is just one piece of a deadly secondary tandem in Fresno...

Phillip Thomas, DB, Fresno State

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    Phillip Thomas is the other piece to that puzzle, and it's clear this senior's wisdom—and perhaps some of his skill—is rubbing off on the younger Smith.

    Thomas has an FBS-leading eight interceptions this season, three of which were returned for touchdowns (which also leads the FBS).

    With a combined 14 interceptions and four touchdowns just between these two defenders, offensive coordinators would be wise to avoid throwing the ball at all against Fresno this season.

Quanterus Smith, DL, Western Kentucky

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    When it comes to senior leadership, you often find defensive linemen taking up the role of team captain.

    Quanterus Smith takes that leadership to a whole other level at Western Kentucky.

    Smith leads not only his team, or the Sun Belt conference, but the entire nation in sacks this season with 12.5. It's no small wonder the Hilltoppers are bowl eligible for a second straight season (WKU was not offered a bowl bid last season despite finishing 7-5).

Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State

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    Another key part to the Oregon State rejuvenation is sophomore wideout Brandin Cooks.

    Cooks currently sits 10th in the nation in receiving yards per game (103.9) and is one of just 12 players nationally to average triple digits in receiving yards.

    The real good news is that Cooks should be around for another year or two, so get ready to hear his name repeatedly between now and graduation.

Nick Florence, QB, Baylor

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    When Heisman winner Robert Griffin III walked off the Baylor campus for the last time as a student, one could understand why Bears fans might be overheard lamenting the end of the “good times.”

    Enter Nick Florence.

    Everyone knows that following an act like RG3 is a tall order, so there wasn't much hope placed in Florence for his 2012 senior season. After all, he couldn't possibly be as good as Griffin was, right?

    OK, so Florence won't be winning the Heisman this season. But that doesn't for one moment take away from the fact that he leads all BCS AQ program quarterbacks with 342.9 yards per game through the air (second in the FBS) and is fifth in the nation in total passing yards (3,429).

    Oh yeah. He also led his team to a massive upset over then-No. 1 Kansas State this past weekend, hanging 52 points on the unsuspecting Wildcats.

Seth Doege, QB, Texas Tech

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    Did anyone see Texas Tech coming this season?

    Seriously, anyone?

    After a 5-7 campaign in 2011, we didn't really expect to see a whole lot out of the Red Raiders in 2012. But TTU will end 2012 having faced no fewer than six opponents sporting Top 25 rankings at the time of the game, and the Red Raiders have won two of them.

    Texas Tech has also eclipsed last season's win total by two already and will be shooting for its eighth win of the season on Saturday against Baylor.

    The return to bowl eligibility has been led senior quarterback Seth Doege.

    Doege has completed an impressive 70 percent of his passes this season and has amassed 3,575 passing yards through 11 games.

    OK, we all know the Big 12 is known for offense. But did anyone pick Doege to lead the conference in passing this season? He also currently occupies the No. 3 spot in passing yards nationally at the moment.

    Not even the mighty Geno Smith or Collin Klein can touch Doege's numbers.

Rakeem Cato, QB, Marshall

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    Since we're on a quarterbacking kick, we might as well mention Marshall's Rakeem Cato and his gaudy numbers.

    Cato has put together an eye-popping performance this season and will likely become the first quarterback to break the 4,000-yard mark this season.

    Cato is just 117 yards shy of that lofty mark. And his 32 passing touchdowns don't look too shabby either.

    If Cato had any help on defense this season, the Thundering Herd might be a little closer to that second straight bowl trip this season than they are now (at 5-6).

Davante Adams, WR, Fresno State

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    Davante Adams is the third Bulldog from Fresno State to make our surprising stars of 2012 list.

    Adams has been a big part of the offensive attack at Fresno State this season, with 11 receiving touchdowns (tied for fourth in the FBS).

    He has also eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark with 1,027 yards for an average of 93.4 yards per game.

    What's so surprising about these impressive numbers? Davante Adams in another in a growing list of ultra-talented freshmen to make our list.

Johnathan Franklin, RB, UCLA

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    The UCLA Bruins have clinched the Pac-12 South Division title and now await either Stanford or Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

    Curiously enough, UCLA can decide who that opponent will be.

    If UCLA defeats Stanford on Saturday at the Rose Bowl, the Bruins play Oregon in Eugene. If the Bruins lose, UCLA will play Stanford again the following week at Stanford.

    Regardless, the fact that UCLA has clinched the South is very impressive, especially when you consider many people had USC as the No. 1 team in the nation when the season began way back in September.

    Without the exploits of Johnathan Franklin, this repeat appearance in the conference title game would never have happened for UCLA.

    Franklin is second in the Pac-12 with 1,441 rushing yards and has added 10 touchdowns for the Bruins in 2012. He also averages just over 6.3 yards per carry and has become the premier offensive attack force for Jim Mora's retooled Bruins.

Damontre Moore, DL, Texas A&M

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    We knew coming into 2012 that Damontre Moore was good.

    But his play this season for Texas A&M has elevated even our previously lofty opinion of this defensive stud.

    Moore is tied for the current FBS lead in sacks with 12.5 as well as sharing the top spot in the nation in tackles for loss with 20.

    He's also knocked down two passes, pressured quarterbacks into seven hurries, forced a fumble and blocked a kick.

    Is there anything this 6'4", 250-pound lineman can't do?

Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona

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    Pop quiz: Name the team that sports the nation's leading rusher.

    Here's a hit: It's a Pac-12 team.

    OK, most of us are probably thinking Oregon right about now. And we're wrong. It's Arizona.

    Ka'Deem Carey leads the nation in rushing yards so far this season with 1,585 yards—more than 150 yards ahead of Oregon's Kenjon Barner.

    Carey has also matched Barner's touchdown production with 19 thus far.

    So where's the postseason-award buzz for Carey? He's certainly deserving, and his presence alone has made Arizona the type of team that can beat USC and Washington—both teams that have sported Top 25 BCS rankings at some point this season.

Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M

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    We all know Johnny Manziel is going to make this list.

    But for every great quarterback, there needs to be some solid wide receivers on the field to actually catch the passes.

    In the case of Texas A&M, Manziel has a receiver in Mike Evans who is far better than simply “solid.”

    Evans' contributions may be overshadowed a bit by Manziel wearing the same uniform every Saturday, but that shouldn't detract from what has been a great season for Evans with 923 yards and four touchdowns.

    What's more, Evans—like Manziel—is a freshman.

    That's right, folks. Prepare yourself for “Manziel to Evans,” because we're going to hear it a lot and for a while.

Stefphon Jefferson, RB, Nevada

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    Stefphon Jefferson may have an oddly-spelled first name, but there's nothing unusual about the way he runs with the football: over, around and through defenders.

    Jefferson is currently the No. 2 running back in the nation, both in yards and touchdowns (1,564 and 20, respectively).

    Jefferson has also added 175 receiving yards and a touchdown on 21 receptions.

    It's not entirely unusual to find such raw talent in college football these days.

    What is unusual is to find a running back of this caliber that fell through the cracks from Visalia, Calif., to Reno, Nev.

    There wasn't one school in the running back mecca of the Pac-12 that wanted to pick up this kid?

T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama

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    While we're never surprised to see someone from the Crimson Tide step up and take a leadership role, we are impressed that one of the 2012 leaders for Alabama is freshman T.J. Yeldon.

    Junior Eddie Lacy is the clear-cut front man out of the Alabama backfield, but Yeldon has over 800 yards this season and is one score shy of double-digit touchdowns in 2012.

    With the way Nick Saban recruits down in Tuscaloosa, maybe we shouldn't be so surprised to see a freshman from Alabama make national headlines.

David Fluellen, RB, Toledo

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    This junior running back already has 13 rushing touchdowns to go along with his 1,460 rushing yards this season at Toledo.

    Ordinarily, we wouldn't espouse a stellar performance in the MAC as evidence of potential greatness, but this season has proven to be a horse of a different color in the Midwest.

    The MAC has two teams ranked in the AP Top 25, both with 10-1 records. The conference also has an uncharacteristic six bowl-eligible teams thus far.

    So with increased competition across the conference, we're starting to sit up and take notice of the great performances in the MAC—including likely NFL-bound David Fluellen.

Le'Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State

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    OK, so the Heisman hype didn't last long in East Lansing for Le'Veon Bell.

    Continuous losses have a way of doing that.

    Still, Bell emerged as a true premiere back in the Big Ten this season, and he still has another season of eligibility at MSU if he and his coaches so desire.

    Michigan State may be 5-6, but only one of those losses has been by more than four points (a 20-3 loss to the current No. 1 team in the nation), and Bell has easily been the biggest source of offensive output this season for the Spartans.

    Bell still ranks in the top 10 nationally in rushing yards per game and total yards, and he is second in the Big Ten behind Wisconsin's Montee Ball.

    Again, that Heisman talk after his performance against Boise State was clearly premature. But if Ball puts on the green and white again in 2013, he may have a better chance if MSU can find a way to win a few more games.

Austin Franklin, WR, New Mexico State

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    When talking about college football stars or great college football performances, the state of New Mexico is not the first locale that pops into mind.

    Or even the sixth.

    But New Mexico State standout receiver Austin Franklin has been making a name for himself despite the handicap of going to college in the “Land of Enchantment.”

    Franklin, a sophomore, has already amassed 1,135 receiving yards this season—more than all but seven FBS players across the nation.

    He's also fifth in yards per game with 113.5.

    Unfortunately, the Aggies are just 1-9 this season. Otherwise, Franklin would undoubtedly be the toast of the WAC.

Duke Johnson, RB, Miami (FL)

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    The University of Miami has certainly seen better days, and the dark clouds surrounding the Nevin Shapiro scandal continue to swirl.

    But one of the (very) bright spots in an otherwise gloomy Miami forecast has been Duke Johnson. Another freshman in one of the most talented classes we've seen in a long while, Johnson has put together 771 rushing yards and seven touchdowns while averaging nearly 6.3 yards per carry in 2012.

    Johnson also has 209 receiving yards and a touchdown, making his presence felt in the passing game as well.

    It's been a long time since Miami has won much of anything, including a conference championship (shared the Big East title in 2003), and with the way the NCAA investigation is going, it might be a while longer.

    But when the Hurricanes do emerge from the swamp of sanctions, you can bet that Duke Johnson will play a pivotal role in rebuilding toward a potential first ACC championship.

Stefon Diggs, WR, Maryland

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    Big doings in Maryland these days.

    Not only have the Terrapins announced they are leaving the ACC for the Big Ten, but the Terps also appear to have the beginnings of a team that can actually compete in their new conference home (Maryland officially moves over in July, 2014).

    Stefon Diggs has been the most dynamic player at Maryland in a good many years, and he has been making an important impact for the Terps in every aspect of the game.

    Diggs has 766 receiving yards and six touchdowns. He's also returned a kickoff for a touchdown this season, and he averages better than 10 yards per punt return.

    Add in a 5.5-yard average on those rare rushing occasions, and you have yourself one heck of an all-around player.

    With continued maturity, he could be hitting his stride just in time to compete for Big Ten Player of the Year awards.

Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia

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    Top-rated recruits coming to the University of Georgia is nothing new, so it wasn't a galloping shock to see head coach Mark Richt bring in a prospect like Toddy Gurley.

    What none of us expected was the complete domination this 4-star running back would show in just his first year on campus.

    Gurley currently leads all SEC running backs with 1,041 rushing yards, and he has found the end zone 12 times this season. His 6.35 yards per carry also ranks him fourth among SEC running backs.

    Gurley isn't the only new face to make plays for the Bulldogs this season, but he might be one of the more surprising stars in Athens. If Georgia is to complete its turnaround and win an SEC title, you can bet that Todd Gurley will play a major role.

Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville

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    Louisville is 9-1 and still controls its own destiny in the Big East this season thanks in large part to the play of sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

    Bridgewater has 2,858 passing yards already this season. More importantly, he's thrown 21 touchdowns to just five interceptions.

    Completing nearly 71 percent of his throws and averaging nearly 10 yards per attempt, Bridgewater is emerging as a top contender for national awards.

    The Big East isn't the easiest conference from which to impress national pollsters, but with Bridgewater taking the snaps, the Cardinals may be a multiple-season BCS threat.

Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State

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    Braxton Miller was supposed to be a major part of any success the Ohio State Buckeyes had this season, so what's so surprising about his rise to stardom?

    Ohio State, in the midst of an NCAA sanction-induced bowl ban (which includes the Big Ten Championship Game), is an impressive 11-0, and it has risen as far as No. 4 in the both the Bleacher Report College Football Top 25 Poll and AP Poll.

    Ohio State's return to form has been amazingly quick (6-7 in 2011), and Miller is the major reason for the turnaround. Miller ranks second in the Big Ten in total offense with 3,064 yards (which is more than 65 percent of Ohio State's total output).

    While there won't be any BCS bowl this season (Ohio State is still eligible for the AP national championship), don't be at all surprised to see Braxton Miller and the Buckeyes as an early favorite in 2013.

Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State

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    Regardless of how unsurprising Colin Klein's greatness is after 12 weeks of the season, we still can't get over everything this quarterback from Kansas State has accomplished in Manhattan.

    Did we mention he plays for Kansas State?

    Manhattan, Kan., isn't the typical address for great college football quarterbacks, but in this case, Klein could get an invitation to another famous Manhattan next month. Despite a terrible performance against Baylor last week, he could return to Kansas with a little extra luggage.

    In the end, we're surprised by Klein not because he was good this season, but because he was Heisman good this season.

Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M

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    Finally, we come to the biggest surprise star of the 2012 college football season: Johnny Manziel.

    You just had to know something was up with this kid when he stepped onto the field at Texas A&M with a nickname like “Johnny Football.”

    In his first season on the field, this redshirt freshman has put together one of the all-time great freshman performances, leading the FBS in total offense (4,161 yards).

    He's also helped erase any doubts of the Aggies' ability to play in the SEC, guiding his team to a 5-2 conference mark, a 9-2 overall record and a Top 10 BCS ranking.

    Oh yeah. There's also the little matter of that win over then-No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

    With that one game, the legend of Johnny Football was born.

    If all of that isn't enough to surprise you, there's ample reason to believe that Johnny Football might very well earn an invitation to New York City in December as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy—again, as a freshman.

    Even if Manziel doesn't win the famed 25-pound pose of Ed Smith, he'll have three more seasons to compete for the Heisman. And with the way things are going for Johnny Football and the Texas A&M Aggies, the Heisman Trophy could be just one of many trophies that will have to be stuffed into the trophy cases in College Station.

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