11 Underclassmen Whose NFL Draft Decisions Will Shape 2013 Preseason Polls

Ian BergCorrespondent IDecember 26, 2012

11 Underclassmen Whose NFL Draft Decisions Will Shape 2013 Preseason Polls

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    Preseason polls have been a major part of college football since 1950. Some hate them and others love them. No matter your stance, it is impossible to ignore that they drive the college football conversation during the offseason. 

    As voters prepare for their 2013 votes, these 11 players will shape the preseason poll landscape if they decide to make the early leap to the NFL. There teams led the country in 2013, and most of those squads are expected to make it back to the top again next season.

    A number of big name programs have relied on these underclassmen to help them achieve the big wins that came in 2012. Experience is difficult to replace with raw talent, and the loss of these 11 guys will help mold the outcome of the 2013 preseason polls. 

Aaron Murray: Quarterback, Georgia

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    Aaron Murray has been the only constant for the Georgia offense for the past three seasons. 

    The Bulldogs have struggled to find consistency at times on offense using a plethora of different running backs and offensive line combinations trying to find a winning recipe. Aaron Murray was the foundation the offense was built around. 

    This year was his best season yet for Georgia guiding the Bulldogs to the SEC title game for the second consecutive season. A last minute drive ended inside the three yard line, but redemption from the heartbreaking loss may not be enough to keep the signal-caller around for a possible third championship game run. 

    Murray is one of the most NFL-ready quarterbacks that is draft eligible, and that may push him into the draft. Then again, a chance at a national title may bring him back into the fold. 

    If Murray stays the Bulldogs are a Top 10 team. Without him, they are looking from the outside in. 

Eddie Lacy: Running Back, Alabama

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    Eddie Lacy stepped into the starting running back role for the Alabama Crimson Tide this season after the early departure of Trent Richardson to the NFL. In his one season as the full-time starter, Lacy showed the country how he earned the job.

    Lacy brings a unique blend of power and quickness to the field for the Crimson Tide, at times looking like a video game running back with the spin move that he employs against opposing defenses. 

    Alabama has relied on a tandem of backs since it began its string of national title runs. It began with Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, and now the Tide relies on Lacy and freshman T.J. Yeldon. 

    With no clear leader behind Yeldon to help drive the Tide offense and keep the tandem alive, voters will question if the Alabama offense will have the dangerous 1-2 punch that has been present over the past few seasons. 

D.J. Fluker: Offensive Tackle, Alabama

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    Eddie Lacy will be missed by Alabama, but the Tide will lose a number of top offensive linemen after the 2012 season. D.J. Fluker may be one of the linemen that leaves Tuscaloosa for the NFL. 

    Fluker is considered one of the best offensive tackles in the game, helping pave the way for the Alabama offense to produce two 1,000-yard rushers this season. He is also considered to be a premier pass blocker for the Crimson Tide. 

    If Fluker decides to leave for the draft after the national title game, the Tide will lose three starting offensive linemen. That will be a tough blow to overcome, and one the voters won’t miss. 

Tyler Eifert: Tight End, Notre Dame

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    Tyler Eifert won the Mackey Award this season for his performance from the tight end position for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Eifert was used as a primary blocker early in the season, but as the Irish worked out their quarterback quandary by mid-season, Eifert became the premier target for the Notre Dame passing game. 

    Eifert is a listed senior by Notre Dame, but he red-shirted his first season giving him an additional year of eligibility for the 2013 season. At this point, it looks like he is going pro. 

    The Irish return a lot of talent offensively next year, but without Eifert, the offense will struggle. He has become the safety valve for the young and developing Everett Golson. 

    If Eifert jumps to the pros, the Irish will have another hill to climb in the polls to start 2013—no matter the outcome of the BCS National Championship Game. 

DeAndre Hopkins: Receiver, Clemson

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    DeAndre Hopkins was considered the second option in the Clemson receiving corps heading into 2012, but with Sammy Watkins serving a suspension to start the year, Hopkins became the primary target for Tajh Boyd. 

    Hopkins put together an amazing year, catching 69 passes for 1,214 yards and 16 touchdowns. He was the premier receiver for the Tigers even after the return of Sammy Watkins. 

    His stock shot so high that Hopkins is now considered a flight risk to the NFL. If he departs Clemson for the pros, he will leave a void on one half of the field for the Clemson offense. 

    Without Hopkins, the Tigers lose the dangerous tandem that has led to the offensive explosion of the past two seasons and will hurt the preseason ranking for Clemson. 

Giovani Bernard: Running Back, North Carolina

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    Giovani Bernard was one of the most under-appreciated running backs in the country this season. Bernard rushed for over 1,000-yards for his second consecutive season in 2012, averaging 6.7 yards per carry. 

    The Tar Heels finished the year with eight wins, but because of NCAA sanctions, were unable to appear in the postseason. 

    If Bernard would have stayed with the Tar Heels, there is a good chance they would enter the Top 25 to begin the year as they finished the year leading the Coastal Conference inside the ACC and would have been in the ACC title game this season if not for the NCAA ban. 

    Without Bernard, rising senior Bryn Renner will have to continue the rise of the Tar Heels alone. 

Marcus Lattimore: Running Back, South Carolina

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    Marcus Lattimore is one of the premier running backs in the country. His name is well known, and after the devastating knee injury he sustained earlier this year, he has decided to opt for the NFL. 

    Lattimore may not have been ready to play for the 2013 season, but if he was, the Gamecocks would enter 2013 as an automatic Top 10 selection. Without him on the sideline South Carolina has an uphill battle nationally and in the SEC. 

    Without Lattimore, South Carolina struggled to move the ball on the ground, and with the departure of senior Kenny Miles this season the Gamecocks will be starting from scratch in the backfield to start 2013, hurting their national ranking. 

Zach Ertz: Tight End, Stanford

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    Zach Ertz was the leading receiver for the Stanford Cardinal this season from the tight end position. Ertz was a finalist for the Mackey Award this season after producing 66 catches and 837 yards this year. 

    Ertz is one of the best receiving tight ends in the game and has a great chance of jumping to the NFL this year. If he does, Stanford will take a blow in the passing game and have a rising sophomore quarterback that has lost his go-to playmaker. 

    The Cardinal will be leaders in the Pac-12 again in 2013, but without Ertz they will take a blow with no clear-cut leader in place to step up at receiver. 

Xavier Rhodes: Cornerback, Florida State

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    Big-bodied, physical corners are tough to come by—Rhodes is one of the few. 

    Florida State was expected to make a national title run this fall, but after a loss to N.C. State early in the season a BCS bowl bid to Miami was the next best thing. Rhodes will likely be making his final stand in a game situation for on-looking NFL scouts. 

    The Seminoles will be strong again next year, but without the shutdown capabilities of Rhodes on the field the defense will take a dip. Rhodes is talented, but he is also a leader for this team. 

    Without Rhodes, voters will carefully approach the preseason ranking of the Seminoles in 2013. 

Jarvis Jones: Outside Linebacker, Georgia

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    Jarvis Jones is arguably the best outside linebacker in the college game this year. He has been a force for the Bulldogs finishing the year with 22.5 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks. 

    Jones battled through injuries early in the year and still finished the year leading the nation in tackles for loss and tied for fifth in sacks. 

    There are very few players that look immediately ready to step in and play on Sundays—Jones is one of them. With the loss of Jones and other key defenders after this season, Georgia will be looking from outside the Top 10 to start the 2013 season. 

Luke Joeckel: Offensive Tackle, Texas A&M

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    Luke Joeckel has been an elite offensive tackle for the Aggies three years running. Johnny Manziel got the headlines this season after his Heisman winning campaign, but without Joeckel that success wouldn’t have happened. 

    He finished 2012 winning the Outland Trophy as well as the Jacobs Blocking Trophy which is given to the top blocker in the SEC, ACC, SAC and South Conference. 

    He is projected as the No. 1 tackle in the draft by CBSSports.com. His departure would mark the first change at left tackle for the Aggies in three seasons, which would be a huge blow to the Texas A&M offense.