25 Surprise College Football Stars of 2012

Alex Callos@@alexcallosCorrespondent IJanuary 2, 2013

25 Surprise College Football Stars of 2012

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    Every year, some college football players come out of nowhere to make a name for themselves on the national scene.

    This year was no different, as names like Johnny Manziel, Jordan Lynch and Marcus Mariota came out of nowhere to not only become solid contributors on their respective teams, but also some of the best players in the country.

    While there are certainly more than 25 surprise college football stars, the names on this list are players that were either backups in 2011 or had previously contributed in a much smaller fashion than in 2012.

    Here are the top 25 surprise college football stars of 2012.

25. Jeremy Hill, RB, LSU

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    In a backfield that is filled with a plethora of talent, freshman Jeremy Hill emerged for LSU after beginning the season fifth on the depth chart. 

    Hill finished the season with 755 yards and 12 touchdowns on only 142 carries, despite only receiving 13 carries in the first six games.

    He worked his way up the depth chart and finished the season as the go-to guy on offense.

    Hill carried the ball 12 times for 124 yards and two scores in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Clemson.

24. Davante Adams, WR, Fresno State

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    Fresno State had a lot of talent on the offensive side of the ball, but one of those weapons was a freshman a lot of people did not expect to have the success he did.

    Wide receiver Davante Adams finished the year with 102 catches for 1,312 yards with 14 touchdowns.

    In the Hawaii Bowl against SMU, Adams caught 13 balls for 144 yards and a touchdown.

23. Austin Franklin, WR, New Mexico State

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    New Mexico State is by no means a national football power, but there was at least one player on the roster worth mentioning.

    During his sophomore campaign in 2012, wide receiver Austin Franklin caught 74 passes for 1,245 yards and nine scores. Those are pretty impressive numbers from a team that finished the year 1-11. 

    This came after Franklin only caught 34 passes for 524 yards and three touchdowns during his freshman season.

22. Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan

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    Devin Gardner was a seldom-used receiver earlier in the season, but then an injury to quarterback Denard Robinson allowed Gardner to take center stage.

    While he did not put up huge numbers, he was very impressive during his time at quarterback and will likely be there again next season.

    Gardner finished the year with 1,219 yards along with 11 touchdowns and five picks in only five games. 

    Not bad numbers for a wide receiver.

21. Kevin Hogan, QB, Stanford

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    Stanford can thank Kevin Hogan for a lot of its late-season success. The redshirt freshman was inserted into the starting lineup for Stanford midway through the season when the Cardinal were 5-2.

    From that point on, Stanford won its final six games of the season, including wins over Oregon State, Oregon, UCLA (twice) and Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.

    He threw nine touchdown passes on the year with only three picks, totaling 1,096 yards.

    Without inserting him into the starting lineup, Stanford likely would not have won the Pac-12 or ended up in the Rose Bowl.

    Hogan was clearly a difference-maker for the Cardinal in 2012.

20. Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M

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    Texas A&M had quite a season in 2012, thanks in large part to Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.

    The favorite target of Manziel is freshman wide receiver Mike Evans, who burst onto the scene this year and caught 75 passes for 1,022 yards with five scores.

    He had at least four receptions and 40 yards in every game this season. Those are very consistent numbers, particularly for a freshman.

19. Everett Golson, QB, Notre Dame

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    Nobody could have expected Notre Dame to have the success it has had this season, and part of that is due to the emergence of first-year quarterback Everett Golson.

    Golson has improved steadily throughout the season, passing for 2,135 yards with 11 touchdowns and five picks.

    He has also rushed for 305 yards and five more scores.

    There is no doubt that he will be the X-factor in the national championship game against Alabama.

18. Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State

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    Very few players had as much of an improvement from one year to the next as Penn State wide receiver Allen Robinson.

    As a freshman in 2011, Robinson only caught three passes for 29 yards. This year was a completely different story, as the sophomore hauled in 77 passes for 1,018 yards and 11 touchdowns this season.

    He had two individual games with over 130 yards and three touchdowns.

    Robinson was a huge reason for the surprising success of Penn State in 2012.

17. Greg Blair, LB, Cincinnati

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    Cincinnati linebacker Greg Blair was a virtual unknown before the season began. He joined Cincinnati in 2011 as a junior but only saw action in one game.

    In 2012, he emerged as one of the best linebackers in the Big East, earning first-team all-conference honors on his way to a 123-tackle season.

    Blair also had 2.5 sacks, nine tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, six passes defensed and two fumble recoveries.

    Not a bad season for a guy who only played in one game a year ago.

16. Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State

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    Oregon State had a very successful season, and there were a lot of weapons on the offensive side of the ball for the Beavers.

    One of those weapons was sophomore wide receiver Brandin Cooks, who caught 31 passes for 391 yards and three touchdowns as a freshman in 2011.

    He followed that up this season with five touchdowns on 67 catches and 1,115 yards.

    A very noteworthy (and unpredictable) improvement for Cooks.

15. George Winn, RB, Cincinnati

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    When Isaiah Pead graduated and moved on to the NFL after the 2011 season, the Cincinnati Bearcats had a lot of question marks surrounding the running back position.

    Those questions were quickly put to rest when fifth-year senior George Winn emerged.

    He had only totaled 376 yards and two touchdowns during his first three seasons in the program, but he emerged this season with a huge year.

    Winn finished with 1,334 yards and 13 touchdowns while averaging 5.5 yards for each of his 243 carries. He also caught 15 passes for 128 yards.

14. Rakeem Cato, QB, Marshall

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    Rakeem Cato had a solid freshman campaign in 2011, finishing the year with 2,059 yards passing along with 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

    In 2012, his sophomore season, he was third in the country with 4,201 yards, putting him first before bowl season.

    Cato threw 11 picks like he did in 2011, but he had an impressive 37 touchdown passes, ranking third in the country.

    An excellent sophomore season for Cato, even though Marshall only won five games.

13. David Fluellen, RB, Toledo

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    The Toledo offensive attack was one of the best in the MAC, and running back David Fluellen was a big reason for that.

    He rushed for 1,498 yards with 13 touchdowns on 259 carries, despite missing the season finale against Akron.

    Fluellen improved on his rushing total by more than 1,000 yards from his sophomore season in 2011.

    He will be a force next season, as will the Toledo Rockets.

12. Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia

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    Georgia had a pair of talented freshman running backs this season, but the one who stood out was Todd Gurley.

    Gurley finished his freshman season with 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns on only 222 carries.

    Those are some pretty impressive numbers for a true freshman playing in the SEC.

    Expect good things from Gurley and fellow freshman Keith Marshall over the next few years.

11. Morgan Breslin, DE, USC

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    It is hard to tell what a team is going to get from a junior college transfer, but USC has to be pleasantly surprised with defensive end Morgan Breslin.

    Even though the Trojans struggled to a 7-6 season, one of the true bright spots was the play of Breslin.

    He finished the year with an astounding 13 sacks and spent a good portion of the season in the backfield of opposing offenses.

    Expect next season to be even better for Breslin.

10. Stefphon Jefferson, RB, Nevada

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    Nevada running back Stefphon Jefferson burst onto the scene for Nevada in a big way in 2012, helping to lead the Wolf Pack to a successful 7-6 campaign.

    During his first two seasons in the program, he rushed for a grand total of 455 yards and six touchdowns on 73 carries.

    This year he totaled 1,883 yards on 375 carries along with 24 touchdowns. He also caught 22 balls out of the backfield for 170 yards and a touchdown.

    Quite a season.

9. Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska

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    Ameer Abdullah had a chance to emerge due to the injuries Rex Burkhead suffered during the season.

    The sophomore certainly took advantage of the opportunity, finishing the year with 1,137 yards and eight scores on only 226 carries.

    Those numbers are good for over five yards a carry and will certainly give Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini some confidence heading into next season with Burkhead departing.

8. Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington

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    In very limited action, Bishop Sankey showed what he could do in 2011 as a freshman. He only carried the ball 28 times, but he did manage 187 yards and a touchdown.

    During the 2012 season, he emerged as one of the best running backs in the Pac-12, finishing the year with 1,439 yards and 16 touchdowns.

    Sankey also displayed some receiving skills out of the backfield. He caught 33 passes for 249 yards on the year.

    Expect even bigger things next year from this guy.

7. Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona

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    Arizona sophomore running back Ka'Deem Carey certainly had potential coming into the season, but nobody could have expected him to have the season he did.

    Carey finished the year with 1,929 yards and 23 touchdowns on 303 carries, including 172 yards and three scores in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl victory over Nevada.

    This came after a freshman season that saw him carry the ball 91 times for 425 yards.

    Carey benefited immensely in the Rich Rodriguez offense, averaging 6.4 yards a carry.

6. Matt McGloin, QB, Penn State

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    Unlike some other Penn State players, Matt McGloin decided to hang around for his senior season, and what a year he had.

    After only passing for 3,129 yards during his first three seasons at Penn State, McGloin threw for 3,271 yards with 24 touchdowns and only five interceptions in 2012.

    McGloin was instrumental in helping to lead Penn State to an 8-4 season, which was impressive considering the circumstances.

5. Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA

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    There were a few freshman quarterbacks who burst onto the national scene this season. One that might not be talked about as much as a few others is Brett Hundley from UCLA.

    Hundley finished the season with 3,740 yards passing along with 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in helping to lead UCLA to a 9-5 season.

    At 6'3" and 223 pounds, Hundley also rushed for 355 yards and nine touchdowns on 160 carries.

    There is a bright future for UCLA, and after a surprising freshman season like this, Hundley is the main reason why.

4. Nick Florence, QB, Baylor

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    Nick Florence did see some playing time for Baylor during the 2009 season, when he passed for 1,786 yards and only six touchdowns compared to nine picks.

    After backing up Robert Griffin III for two seasons, Florence finally got his chance to start again in 2012.

    He put together one of the best years of any quarterback in the country. Florence finished the season with 4,309 yards, 33 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He could also beat teams with his feet, as he rushed for 568 yards and 10 more touchdowns on 139 carries.

    Quite a year in leading an offense that was one of the hardest to stop in the country.

3. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon

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    Before the season began, there were huge question marks surrounding the Oregon quarterback position.

    Marcus Mariota was in a battle with Bryan Bennett for the starting job. He won the job and then led Oregon to an 11-1 season.

    Even though he did not play in the second half in many of the games due to blowouts, Mariota was outstanding. He finished the year with 2,511 yards, 30 touchdowns and only six interceptions.

    Like many other past Oregon quarterbacks, Mariota is also a threat with his feet. He rushed for 690 yards and four touchdowns on 98 carries.

    This guy will be a stud in Oregon for the next three seasons.

2. Jordan Lynch, QB, Northern Illinois

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    A month ago, not a lot of people had even heard of Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch.

    After leading his team to the Orange Bowl, Lynch is poised to make a run at the Heisman in 2013.

    He is a junior, but he spent his first two seasons in the program as a backup. In 2012, Lynch proved to be one of the best quarterbacks in the nation.

    During the regular season, Lynch passed for 2,962 yards and 24 touchdowns with only five interceptions. Where he did a lot of his damage, though, was on the ground. Lynch rushed for 1,771 yards and 19 touchdowns on 271 carries, an average of 6.5 yards a carry.

    He struggled mightily against stiff competition in the Orange Bowl, but still has a very bright future.

    Expect even bigger things from this guy in 2013.

1. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M

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    Was there any question who No. 1 was going to be?

    Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel burst onto the scene this year after spending 2011 redshirting with future top-10 pick Ryan Tannehilll in front of him at the quarterback position.

    Manziel finished the regular season with 3,419 yards, 24 touchdowns and eight picks. He also rushed for 1,181 yards and 19 touchdowns on 184 carries—all of that while playing in the SEC.

    Manziel put the Aggies on his back in a road victory against then-No. 1 Alabama on November 10.