25 College Football Underclassmen to Watch for This Spring

Randy ChambersAnalyst IFebruary 13, 2013

25 College Football Underclassmen to Watch for This Spring

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    College football spring ball will be here before you know it. This means storylines, position battles and players emerging out of nowhere will be discussed at a high rate. One of the most exciting things to pay attention to during the spring is the young players not many people talk about this early in the year.

    While seniors and proven veterans continue to receive credit for last year’s accomplishments, underclassmen have yet to prove themselves and haven't earned that household name like their teammates. The good thing is that spring gives these guys a chance to turn heads and show that they too can compete at a high level as they all fight for playing time.

    Who are some of the underclassmen you should be paying attention to in 2013?

    Let's take a look.

    Note: Underclassmen include true sophomores, redshirt freshmen and true freshmen.

Bralon Addison, WR, Oregon

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    Class: True Sophomore

    Key Stats from a Year Ago: 22 receptions, 243 receiving yards and three touchdowns

     

    Bralon Addison got off to a quick start last season, hauling in at least two passes in six of the first seven games. His production began to dip toward the end of the year, but he still showed Ducks fans what he is capable of, averaging a little more than 11 yards a reception on 22 catches.

    Addison is that typical Oregon player with terrific speed and elusiveness in the open field. He can help the offense out in many different ways and can become an even bigger factor on special teams. Although the Ducks return most of their playmakers on offense from last season, Addison should see an increased workload and develop into that next flashy player in Eugene.

Gunner Kiel, QB, Notre Dame

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    Class: Redshirt Freshman

    Key Stats from a Year Ago: N/A

     

    I am a believer in Everett Golson and think he could eventually do some big things in South Bend. He should be considered the starter entering the new year, but things don't always go as planned once camp begins. Gunner Kiel should have his say during the spring and will be given every opportunity to make an impact on the coaching staff and Irish fans.

    Most considered Kiel the top quarterback prospect of the 2012 class, and he has all of the tools to become a legit starter for any program in the country. The 6'4" signal-caller from Columbus, Ind. did not come to Notre Dame to ride the bench for his first couple of seasons.

    Golson will remain the favorite, but if Kiel can live up to expectations, let the quarterback controversy begin.

Nathan Peterman, QB, Tennessee

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    Class: Redshirt Freshman

    Key Stats from a Year Ago: N/A

     

    Tyler Bray surprised many when he announced he would leave Tennessee and enter the NFL draft a year early. This leaves an open battle at the quarterback position, and there aren't many experienced candidates to choose from.

    Nathan Peterman is one of the guys new head coach Butch Jones will be watching closely. The young quarterback has a quick release and is able to buy himself extra time in the pocket by scrambling with his feet a bit. He broke many high school passing records and brings a lot of upside to the Tennessee offense.

    Justin Worley is currently the only quarterback on the Tennessee roster with any type of experience, but it is the young Peterman who most Volunteers fans should be paying attention to. 

Su'a Cravens, S, USC

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    Class: True Freshman

    Key Stats from a Year Ago: N/A

     

    Su'a Cravens is one of the top safety prospects of the 2013 class, and he had to have immediate playing time in the back of his mind when he picked the USC Trojans. Not only were the Trojans absolutely terrible on the defensive side of the ball a year ago, but they lose three of four starters in the defensive backfield.

    Cravens is a playmaker in the secondary and is known for his high football IQ. He reacts to the ball well and not only makes plays on the football but is also a force in run support, showing he can be that tough and aggressive player who can make plays at the line of scrimmage.

    It's never easy for a true freshman to start from the moment he steps on campus, but Cravens has that type of ability.

Shaq Thompson, S, Washington

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    Class: True Sophomore

    Key Stats from a Year Ago: 74 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and three interceptions

     

    Speaking of Pac-12 safeties, Shaq Thompson is a name you should get to know rather quickly. Spending a lot of time on the field as a first-year player last season, the Washington defensive player earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors and was named to the second-team all-freshman list by FoxSportsNext.com.

    Thompson is a big guy at 6'2" and obviously isn't afraid to get his hands dirty, as he finished fifth on the team in tackles. He is an athletic player who wants to lay the wood on whoever has the ball but is also disciplined enough to make a play when the ball is in the air.

    Thompson has a lot of upside and should help this Huskies defense improve heading into next year. If you were sleeping last year, start paying attention to this guy and what he brings to the football field.

Tracy Howard, CB, Miami (Fla.)

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    Class: True Sophomore

    Key Stats from a Year Ago: 17 tackles and four passes broken up

     

    Tracy Howard saw action in all 12 games last season but only had one start under his belt as a true freshman. All of that will change now that he has a year of experience and has shown flashes of what he is capable of bringing to the table.

    Howard has the ability to be a shutdown cornerback, and he gets his hands on a ton of footballs. His change-of-direction ability and quick feet allow him to make plays on the ball, and you rarely see him get beat in coverage. You would like to see him improve in the tackling department, but if you are looking for a young kid who can be that next great corner, you have found him down in Miami.

    The Hurricanes have a lot of returning starters in the secondary, but Howard will see the field a lot more this upcoming season.

Kelvin Taylor, RB, Florida

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    Class: True Freshman

    Key Stats from a Year Ago: N/A

     

    Did you see the Florida Gators' offense last season?

    It was not worth watching. It was painful at times seeing a unit that lacked elite skill position players trying to move the football.

    This is why running back Kelvin Taylor has enrolled early and will be given every chance to become the starter for the new season. The first-year player is the son of former Gator great Fred Taylor, and he has a lot of the traits his dad had back in the day. He has nice balance to his game with terrific field vision, and he has underrated speed and elusiveness.

    Florida is absolutely desperate on the offensive side of the ball and needs guys who can contribute right away. Taylor is somebody who should be up to that challenge.

Jordan Jenkins, LB, Georgia

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    Class: True Sophomore

    Key Stats from a Year Ago: 31 tackles, eight tackles for loss and five sacks

     

    Jordan Jenkins was recruited as a defensive end, but the Georgia Bulldogs have a completely different plan for him. Instead of being the guy on the defensive line with his hand in the dirt, Jenkins will line up at outside linebacker and replace one of the nation's best defensive players, Jarvis Jones.

    Jenkins has similar speed and explosion to his game, which allows many to think he can help fill those shoes a bit. He already played the position last season and earned a few starts, and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham believes that Jenkins is a future All-American player.

    The young linebacker was a productive a year ago, and it will be interesting to see how well he does as a full-time starter at the position.

Dante Fowler, DE, Florida

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    Class: True Sophomore

    Key Stats from a Year Ago: 30 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks

     

    Dante Fowler was a 5-star recruit back in 2012 and saw significant playing time last year, but we haven't seen anything yet. This kid has the goods to be the next great thing on the defensive side of the ball, and with so much talent departing the Gators defense, Fowler will be asked to take his game to another level.

    Fowler has quickness off the ball and true pass-rushing skills, and he has a variety of moves he can put on an offensive lineman. He has continued to receive praise from the Gators' coaching staff and really turned some heads when the team practiced for the Sugar Bowl against Louisville.

    If Florida can get consistent production out of Fowler on the defensive line, the defense should be just as scary as it was a year ago.

Barry Sanders Jr., RB, Stanford

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    Class: Redshirt Freshman

    Key Stats from a Year Ago: N/A 

     

    Do I really need to explain why you should keep an eye on Barry Sanders Jr.?

    Besides the name, as the son of one of the best running backs of all time, Sanders runs a lot like his father did back in the day. He has incredible acceleration, can change direction with the best of them and is even a factor catching the ball out of the backfield. He is lightning in a bottle when he gets the ball in his hands, and he can really pick up chunk yardage in a hurry.

    Sanders spent most of last season preparing the Stanford defense for opposing running backs, but now he will have a chance to contribute in real games. Hopefully everything goes well and the Cardinal can have that explosive runner everybody will want to see play on Saturdays.

Davonte' Neal, WR, Notre Dame

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    Class: True Sophomore

    Key Stats from a Year Ago: 21 punt returns and 46 yards

     

    When the Irish landed Davonte' Neal in the 2012 recruiting class, you thought the team finally had a speedy guy on offense and that it would use him in every way possible. Instead, he was thrown back there on punt returns and asked to fair-catch everything in sight.

    What?

    Neal is easily one of the fastest guys on the team and has playmaking ability when he gets his hands on the ball. Somebody with this much potential should be on the field often and allowed to help make plays on offense.

    The good news is that Neal will be the favorite to start at the slot receiver position now that Robby Toma has left, and Notre Dame fans will finally have a chance to see what the sophomore receiver is truly capable of.

Chris Black, WR, Alabama

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    Class: Redshirt Freshman

    Key Stats from a Year Ago: N/A

     

    Chris Black had high expectations coming out of high school and was expected to contribute at a high level his first season. However, he injured his shoulder and ended up missing the entire season. The bright side is that Black was prepared to play in the SEC Championship game, meaning that he will be ready to go in the spring.

    Black is a speedy wide receiver who will provide a nice tandem with Amari Cooper. He isn't nearly as big as Cooper is, but he has great hands and is dangerous after the catch.

    Alabama has a ton of wide receiver prospects that will be fighting throughout the offseason for playing time. Black is one of the favorites to see the field often, and it will be a treat watching him make plays to earn those reps.

Ondre Pipkins, DT, Michigan

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    Class: True Sophomore

    Key Stats from a Year Ago: Seven tackles and 0.5 tackles for loss 

     

    The statistics are certainly no indication of how well Ondre Pipkins played last season. Easily one of the best reserve defensive players for Michigan, Pipkins held his own throughout the year and showed why he was a top recruit coming out of high school in 2012.

    He actually came to Ann Arbor out of shape, as he was close to pushing 250 pounds, but he quickly trimmed down and earned more and more playing time throughout the year. His size and explosion off the ball make him an intriguing starting defensive tackle next season for the Wolverines.

    Considering defensive line is an area of concern for Michigan, Pipkins is the guy that needs to stand out during these practices and make an impact.

    Pipkins has the look of a solid defensive player. Now he just needs to prove he has what it takes.

Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State

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    Class: Redshirt Freshman

    Key Stats from a Year Ago: N/A 

     

    Jameis Winston will compete with Clint Trickett for the starting quarterback job during the offseason. While Trickett has the upper hand, it is easy to look at a player like Winston and see him taking control of the offense.

    At 6'4" with more than enough athleticism and dual-threat ability, Winston has enough upside for the Florida State coaching staff to drool over. He also has an arm strong enough to get the job done, the evidence of which is slowly making its way around the Internet.

    Winston remains an interesting player because he has a bright future with baseball as well, and you wonder just how committed he may be to football, but if the Seminoles are looking for a boost to their offense, the dual-threat quarterback may be the best choice.

Adolphus Washington, DE, Ohio State

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    Class: True Sophomore

    Key Stats from a Year Ago: Nine tackles and three sacks

     

    With the Ohio State Buckeyes losing so many bodies on the defensive side, this is where Urban Meyer's recruits begin to prove their worth. Guys like Adolphus Washington will be asked to take a step forward and make an immediate impact in their second year.

    Washington played in 10 games last season and really showed some of his potential, picking up three sacks in very limited playing time. His explosion off the line and off-the-charts athletic ability make him an intriguing player and somebody who should be able to help fill in the gaps on the defensive front for Ohio State.

    Washington has the ability to be one of the best defensive linemen in the country, and it will all start with a great spring performance to earn that starting spot.

Jonathan Bullard, DE, Florida

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    Class: True Sophomore

    Key Stats from a Year Ago: 27 tackles, five tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks

     

    Similar to Ohio State, Florida has to replace a ton of defensive guys from last season and will be counting on numerous young players to step up. One of those players for the Gators is defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard, who saw solid minutes last year.

    One of the top recruits from the 2012 recruiting class, Bullard is as physical as it gets up front, and he is effective against the run as well as the pass. He plays the game with a very high motor and can be the most disruptive guy on the football field when he really gets going.

    Gators fans saw bits and pieces of what Bullard is capable of last season, but he can show a lot more with a full season now under his belt.

Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina

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    Class: True Sophomore

    Key Stats from a Year Ago: 52 rushing attempts, 275 rushing yards and two touchdowns

     

    South Carolina struggled last season to replace running back Marcus Lattimore when he went down with another knee injury. With the star Gamecock now testing the NFL waters, the offense will have to find a true replacement before the season begins.

    This is where Mike Davis steps in as the favorite to take over the backfield. Built well at 5'9", 200-plus pounds, Davis has the size and the balance to be an every-down back. He also runs with tremendous patience and can be effective catching the football as well.

    Davis isn't a flashy runner and isn't going to hit many home runs, but he is effective and should give South Carolina some stability at the running back position.

Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Missouri

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    Class: True Sophomore

    Key Stats from a Year Ago: 28 receptions, 395 receiving yards and five touchdowns

     

    Dorial Green-Beckham did not have the freshman season everybody hoped for. Listed as the top wide receiver prospect and arguably the top recruit of the 2012 class, many seemed to even forget that he was on the field last season.

    Still, this is a kid that has all of the tools to be a game-changer at the receiver position. Standing 6'6" with tremendous speed to get downfield in a hurry, Green-Beckham should shred the secondary. The talented receiver did finish last season on a good note, hauling in four touchdowns in the final three games.

    With experience and some momentum on his side, Green-Beckham is a player everybody should keep an eye on.

Mario Edwards, DE, Florida State

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    Class: True Sophomore

    Key Stats from a Year Ago: 17 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks

     

    Florida State loses every starter on the defensive line from last year. This means that talented recruits from the last recruiting class will be expected to turn the corner and help fill in the gaps.

    There aren't many defensive players as highly recruited as Mario Edwards. Whether you ask him to rush the passer or help stop the run, Edwards is a disruptive player who can do a little bit of everything at a high level. His strength and high motor allow him to be a force on the defensive end and give opposing offenses a hard time for all four quarters.

    Edwards saw a little bit of playing time last year, but his name will be known throughout all of college football sooner than later.

Landon Collins, S, Alabama

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    Class: True Sophomore

    Key Stats from a Year Ago: 17 tackles and one blocked punt

     

    Landon Collins was one of the top safety prospects of the 2012 recruiting class and will battle Vinnie Sunseri for a starting safety spot. Sunseri was effective last season but could have improved his coverage and did miss a handful of tackles.

    Collins is an aggressive player who can add some toughness to the defensive backfield with his ability to help in run support and separate the receiver from the football. He is a playmaker on the defensive side of the ball and reacts to things a lot quicker than players his age.

    Sunseri will be penciled in as the starter, but don't be surprised if Collins closes the gap and adds a little heat to one of the few position battles for the Tide.

Trey Williams, RB, Texas A&M

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    Class: True Sophomore

    Key Stats from a Year Ago: 65 carries, 376 rushing yards and five touchdowns

     

    Since everybody and their grandmother knows about Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, it is time for folks to recognize Trey Williams. Yes, believe it or not, there are other players who wear an Aggies uniform that can make plays.

    Williams is an impressive runner who has above-average acceleration and makes fans hold their breath when he has the football. He is capable of going the distance every time he touches the ball and is even more dangerous due to his solid receiving skills. Williams averaged nearly six yards a carry last season and should see an increased workload in his second year.

    Manziel isn't the only Texas A&M player you should watch this spring.

Cayleb Jones, WR, Texas

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    Class: True Sophomore

    Key Stats from a Year Ago: Two receptions and 35 yards

     

    Cayleb Jones was not as effective as I thought he would be in his freshman season, but with the lack of quality receivers on this Texas offense, he should thrive in his second year.

    Jones isn't exactly the fastest receiver in the world, but he does just about everything right you would want to see from a productive one. His hands are amazing, he runs crisp routes and with his size he has no problem getting physical with defenders and breaking tackles in the open field. Jones has the potential to be a great receiver in the Big 12 and should turn heads once the spring arrives.

    Expect this young wide receiver to make a huge impact in his sophomore season.

Kwon Alexander, LB, LSU

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    Class: True Sophomore

    Key Stats from a Year Ago: 12 tackles, one tackle for loss and one fumble recovery

     

    Kwon Alexander was an impact player last season, even starting a couple games at strong-side linebacker. Alexander broke his ankle in October and missed a portion of the season, and he wasn't very effective in the bowl game against Clemson when he tried to make a comeback.

    Alexander has now built a reputation of running into the injury bug and it will be worth watching to see how healthy he really is once spring kicks off. It will also be interesting to see how he adapts to his new role, as LSU will need more out of him with so many defensive guys no longer around.

    The former 4-star linebacker has a perfect combination of speed and physicality and could develop into something special if he can remain healthy.

Sheldon Day, DE, Notre Dame

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    Class: True Sophomore

    Key Stats from a Year Ago: 23 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks

     

    While everybody was quick to credit most of Notre Dame's defensive success to linebacker Manti Te'o, the Irish's magical run really started with pressure from the defensive line. Sheldon Day will now be added to that mix to help keep the defensive front strong and lead to more consistent defensive performances.

    Day saw a lot of action last season but was a backup behind Kapron Lewis-Moore. Not nearly as big as the guy he is replacing and still a little raw in some areas, Day does have the potential to become a great defensive lineman and will immediately add his pass-rushing skills to the conversation.

    Day will be worth watching, especially if you are interested in whether Notre Dame can continue to compete at a high level in 2013.

Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama

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    Class: True Freshman

    Key Stats from a Year Ago: N/A 

     

    Derrick Henry enrolled early so he could make an immediate impact on this Alabama team. It really isn't a question of how talented he is or if he can see playing time as a freshman. The question is where will he line up?

    Yes, Henry does have the most rushing yards of any high school player in the history of the game, and he is committed to playing the running back position. However, Alabama is stacked in the backfield, and Henry does have the size and athleticism to be just as effective defensively.

    Does Alabama try to convince him to switch sides? If so, will Henry really say no to head coach Nick Saban?

    It is going to be worth a look to see what the Crimson Tide coaching staff does with this kid and if they are able to fit him in the running back rotation.