13 Players Who Will Make the Leap from Good to Great in 2013

David Luther@@davidrlutherFeatured ColumnistJanuary 22, 2013

13 Players Who Will Make the Leap from Good to Great in 2013

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    There's a world of difference between good and great college football players. Some seem destined for stardom, while a select few mature into the greats we remember from seasons past.

    Every year, a select few “good” players morph into national stars, and the upcoming 2013 season will be no different. But spotting players on the cusp of greatness can be a difficult task, especially with so many factors combining to transform a current player into a college football great.

    Let look at who will make the leap from Average Joe to Big Man on Campus.

Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt

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    Vanderbilt has long been used as an example by SEC detractors that the conference isn't as all-powerful from top to bottom as some would have the rest of the nation believe. The only problem with that theory is that the Commodores have now played in back-to-back bowl games, including a 38-24 victory over North Carolina State in the 2012 Music City Bowl.

    As Vandy works to build on that success, Jordan Matthews is going to play a major role moving forward. Matthews finished 2012 somehow unnoticed with 90 catches for 1,335 receiving yards. That puts him second in the SEC behind Cobi Hamilton of Arkansas, good for ninth in the nation.

    It's also important to remember that those numbers came against some of the best defenses in the nation, and that experience against top-level talent won't go to waste. You can rest assured that Matthews will be a big part of the Commodores' game plan in 2013, and a spot in the preseason All-America team wouldn't be completely out of line.

Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan

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    It's been a long time since the Michigan Wolverines had a quarterback. A true quarterback, that is. As great as Denard Robinson was, Michigan was always missing something when he lined up under center: a passing game any defense bothered to take seriously.

    Robinson's inability to throw the ball down field with any consistency took a huge slice of Michigan's play book off the table. Luckily, Shoelace made up for it with his sick abilities while carrying the football.

    But Michigan fans got a glimpse of the future late in 2012. With Robinson sidelines with a nagging injury, Devin Gardner stepped into the role for which he was originally recruited. All of a sudden, the Wolverines had a passing attack that was not only capable of moving the ball, but doing so in big chunks.

    It was too little, too late for Michigan last season, but with an entire spring and fall to prepare for the upcoming 2013 campaign, don't be surprised if the Wolverines all of the sudden start looking a lot like the Michigan football teams of Lloyd Carr.

Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia

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    We've long been waiting for a breakout season from Aaron Murray at Georgia and 2012 was almost it.

    Murray's Bulldogs were five yards (a few seconds from one more chance) at a game-winning, ultimately SEC-winning score against Alabama. Georgia very well might have emerged as SEC Champions last season and Murray would instead be featured in articles about MVP awards, draft stock or future Heisman candidacy.

    Instead, we're waiting Murray to finally lead a team from the East Division to a Conference Championship. Murray really only needs a championship ring of some sort to round out his career accomplishments.

    And coming off of a 2012 season where he was the only FBS quarterback to average 10-or-more yards per pass attempt (10.1), we think there's an excellent chance Murray will finish 2013 as a bona fide “great” at Georgia.

Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska

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    When is Taylor Martinez going to show up in the big games for Nebraska?

    Coming into 2012, we had high hopes for Martinez and we're betting Cornhuskers fans across the nation felt the same way. Once again, Martinez didn't quite live up to the hype, although some significant strides were made over the course of the season.

    Martinez is not as impulsive with the ball as he once was and his completion percentage jumped from 56.3 percent in 2011 to 62.0 last season.

    Still, his real impact comes courtesy of his his running ability. Martinez added 1,019 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground, giving him a total offensive output of 3,890 yards and 33 touchdowns.

    Clearly, experience and maturity have brought Martinez a long way. The Huskers went from being pretty much embarrassed in every single important conference game in their first Big Ten outing in 2011 to winning a few of the marquee matchups of 2012.

    If Martinez can make that one last step forward to Nebraska greatness, the Cornhuskers may find themselves atop the Legends Division once again come next December.

Austin Hill, WR, Arizona

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    When it comes to putting up gaudy receiving numbers, there are few in the Pac-12 (or even the entire nation) better at it than Arizona's Austin Hill.

    Hill has flourished under new head coach Rich Rodriguez's speed spread system, and Hill finished 2012 with 104.9 yards per game, second in the conference only to USC's Marqise Lee. Hill's numbers were also good enough for seventh in the FBS.

    It's been a long time since anyone has paid much attention to the Wildcats, but as the team continues to learn and adjust to Rich Rod's system, Arizona could become a force in the Pac-12 South Division.

    The Wildcats already have the nation's top rusher in Ka'Deem Carey (1,929 yards) returning for 2013. Add Hill to the mixand Arizona suddenly looks like a divisional contender.

Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin

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    Montee Ball may be gone for the NFL, but Badgers fans should not assume the running game is suddenly going to disappear. With Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin still has a dynamite weapon on offense capable of huge chunks of yards at any given moment.

    If you haven't heard of Gordon, you're not alone. After all, it's hard to pay attention to a freshman running back buried on the depth chart at a school like Wisconsin that features one of the nation's top senior backs. But if you don't know Gordon yet, you soon will.

    In 2012, Gordon was the only FBS players to average over 10 yards per carry (10.02). And we're not stretching numbers to make Gordon look good. He's not a guy who came across the ball a half dozen times with one or two huge runs to make his stats pop.

    No, Gordon 62 times for 621 yards and three touchdowns. Gordon, who never carried the ball more than 10 times in a game, nevertheless posted for 80-plus yard performances, including a 216-yard effort against Nebraska.

    Maybe there's something to his big average.

    Add in an offensive line that returns numerous sturdy starters from 2012 and there's every opportunity for Gordon to morph into the next great Big Ten running back.

Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson

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    There's little doubt that Tajh Boyd is a very good quarterback. But he—along with the entire Clemson team—has been missing a certain something over the past couple of seasons.

    Boyd will be returning for his senior season in 2013, and we expect him to at the very least continue to perform at his usual high level. Last season, Boyd was just an eyelash shy of 300 passing yards per game (299.7), finishing 14th in the nation. His 3,896 passing yards was tenth best and his 36 passing scores had him tied for fifth.

    So what's keeping Boyd from being a truly great quarterback? Those pesky big games.

    Clemson has been toying with its fans' emotions for a long time. Just when the Tigers get to a point where people start believing they have a shot, an unsuspecting loss comes up and ruins everything. In 2011, Clemson started 8-0 only to finish 2-4, including an embarrassingly lopsided loss in the Orange Bowl. Last season, an early loss to Florida State combined to a regular season finale loss to arch rival South Carolina dashed any BCS hopes.

    For 2013, Boyd looks to be ready to play the part of lead, dragging his team along kicking and screaming if necessary back to the BCS.  

Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA

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    Brett Hundley might very well be the most underrated quarterback in the nation. Hundley was in the top 30 is passing yards per game last season with 267.1 and his 3,740 passing yards placed him 13th in the FBS. He also led UCLA to the Pac-12 Championship Game and a trip to the Holiday Bowl.

    All as a freshman.

    There's a lot of excitement surrounding the Bruins right now, and for good reason. New head coach Jim Mora has the program on the right trajectory, and with players like Hundley, there's plenty of upside to UCLA's 2013 season. With a little experience under his belt, Hundley could reach some lofty heights in Westwood—and he doesn't have far to go!

Lamin Barrow, LB, Louisiana State

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    If there's any cause for concern among LSU fans, it might be centered around the defensive unit that will lose no fewer than seven starters from the 2012 squad. But Tigers fans know as well as anyone that Les Miles is capable of reloading his team overnight with some scary-good talent, particularly on defense.

    But as deep as LSU is on defense, it's one of the four returning starters that has caught our attention. Lamin Barrow was a name lost at times in the long list of superstar names prowling the LSU defensive backfield. But with 104 tackles in 2012, we can't help but think that this returning senior will emerge as a leader of the Tigers defense.

    Anyone who leads LSU is destined for stardom.

Erick Dargan, DB, Oregon

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    When you think about stars at Oregon, you rarely think about anyone playing defense. The Ducks are at their core a team that believes the best defense is a very, very good offense. After all, how good does your defense really need to be if you can score 60 points a game without breaking much of a sweat?

    But if you look closely, you'll notice some budding defensive stars in Eugene, and we're going to draw your attention to one in particular: Erick Dargan.

    Pac-12 quarterbacks would be well advised to identify this young man before each and every snap. Dargan has an almost unmatched ability to close on a football in the air as he brings that lauded Oregon speed to his position at free safety.

    While he may not have the experience of Avery Patterson, who returns for his senior season, Dargan is proving to be just too good to leave on the sidelines. New Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich would be smart to find a way to get Dargan on the field as often as possible, and once he does, Dargan will be a new kind of Oregon star: a defensive one.

Devonte Fields, DE, Texas Christian

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    Texas Christian found a moderate level of success during its first season in the Big 12, but the player we see as making the jump from good to great in 2013 might be a surprise for many in the conference. Devonte Fields is the rarest of breeds these days: a dominating Big 12 player on defense.

    The Big 12 could, at times, be viewed as a “defense optional” league, but Fields not only stands out amongst his conference-mates, he's also on the cusp of breaking onto the national scene following a 2012 campaign that was impressive by any conference's standards.

    In his 2012 freshman season, Fields recorded 10 sacks for the Horned Frogs. That's the third most of any Big 12 player, and in the top 20 nationally. He also knocked down four passes, forced two fumbles, and added 6.5 tackles for loss on top of his 10 sacks, including 6.5 in a 5-game stretch. He also added one interception.

    Is there anything this kid can't do?

A.J. McCarron, QB, Alabama

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    If you're wondering why we aren't already considering A.J. McCarron a “great” player, it's important to keep in mind that we're talking about him individually on this list, not as a part of the two-time BCS National Champion Alabama Crimson Tide.

    Individually, McCarron threw for just 209.5 yards per game. Or, to put it another way, he was 67th in the nation in passing average.

    Sure, Alabama had a running game featuring Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, so passing wasn't always a necessity. McCarron's abilities as a quarterback were only one small part of Alabama's success in 2012.

    What has us believing McCarron could emerge as a great quarterback in his own right is an impressive 67.2 percent completion rate. McCarron is incredibly accurate, and he's the kind of quarterback coaches love: smart and calm under pressure. Last season, McCarron threw just three interceptions to 30 touchdowns.

    As he continues to improve—a scary thought for opposing SEC defenses—he's only going to get better. And if he gets better, there may be no stopping Alabama in 2013.

Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State

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    Braxton Miller was the quarterback for the only undefeated team in the nation last season. Unfortunately, Ohio State's past transgressions resulted in an otherwise unheralded 2012 season.

    Although the Buckeyes were eligible to receive national championship recognition from the Associated Press last season, the AP rightly left the Buckeyes without a realistic chance. After all, a quick glance at Ohio State's margin of victory over particular opponents in the Big Ten wasn't what any sane person could call impressive.

    Ohio State's problem last season was the passing game—or complete lack thereof. The Buckeyes were 105th in the FBS last season with 181.5 passing yards per game. Sure, the Big Ten is still at its heart a run-first kind of conference, but finishing 105th out of 124 FBS programs is pretty ugly.

    For Miller, his strength has always been—and will continue to be—his feet. While that won't change in 2013, you can be sure he'll be working all summer long to add a serviceable passing game to his repertoire.

    And that's all he really needs to springboard himself into an elite grouping of quarterbacks.