College Football: 50 Unheralded Recruits Who Have Become Stars in College
College football recruiting is not an exact science, and many 4- and 5-star recruits don't pan out the way schools think they will. Wide receiver Duron Carter is a good example of that.
Of course, for every awesome recruit that doesn't get anywhere, there is a 2- or 3-star prospect that goes on to do great things. Through hard work and excellent coaching, these unheralded recruits become the faces of their programs.
From top-10 picks in the draft to major contributors currently on the field, here are 50 recruits who became stars in college despite being given no more than a 3-star rating coming out of high school.
50. Greg McElroy (QB, Alabama)
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Greg McElroy was the No. 37 quarterback in the 2006 recruiting class. He had a 3-star rating and essentially a consolation offer from Alabama. If Tim Tebow didn't sign with the Tide, McElroy was coming to Tuscaloosa.
Luckily for Alabama, Tebow signed with Florida and McElroy went to the Capstone. After sitting behind John Parker Wilson during the 2007 and 2008 seasons, McElroy got his shot in 2009.
He led Alabama to a perfect 14-0 record, including a monster win over the Tim Tebow-led Florida Gators in the 2009 SEC Championship Game. McElroy ignited the Crimson Tide and gave 'Bama fans their first national championship since 1992.
The Tide have won three out of the last four national titles, and 2009 was the beginning. McElroy capped his college career off with a 49-7 win over the Michigan State Spartans in the Capital One Bowl in the 2010 postseason.
McElroy finished his career with only three losses. Not many quarterbacks can say that, even if they only started for two seasons.
49. Will Sutton (DT, Arizona State)
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Will Sutton was a 3-star defensive tackle when he left high school in the 2009 class. He quickly became a force on the field for the Arizona State Sun Devils.
In 2012, Sutton finished third in the FBS with 13 sacks. He backed that up with 64 total tackles for the Sun Devils in 2012. He demolished Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl with 2.5 sacks and five tackles during the 62-28 thrashing.
Sutton may not have been a blue-chip recruit, but he has become a potential first-round draft pick. He's currently the fourth-ranked defensive tackle in the projected 2014 draft.
48. Javier Arenas (CB/KR, Alabama)
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Javier Arenas was a 3-star cornerback in the 2006 recruiting class, and he was ranked 29th at his position. Arenas was a stellar kick returner, and he posted 4,006 return yards in his career at Alabama.
That was good for a now-fourth-place ranking on the career all-purpose yards list. He's the only player on that list without any offensive yards. All of his yards were on kickoff, punt or interception returns.
Arenas became a star in college off his return game. He was also drafted as the 18th pick of the second round of the 2010 NFL draft. That's not bad for a guy who's listed at 5'8".
47. Storm Woods (RB, Oregon State)
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Storm Woods' 2012 season was a microcosm of the Oregon State Beavers during the same season. He made a huge statement as a freshman tailback while the Beavers were making a similar assertion in the Pac-12 conference.
Woods exited high school as a 3-star running back ranked No. 82 at his position in the 2011 class. Despite his lack of perceived talent, Woods tore through the Pac-12 for 940 yards and 13 touchdowns on 192 carries in 2012.
He proved that he can be an every-down 'back and average almost five yards per carry at the same time. Again, that was as a freshman. Imagine what he will be doing by the end of his junior season.
He's currently projected as the No. 7 running back of the 2016 draft, but expect him to declare for the 2015 draft and be ranked a little bit higher at that time.
Regardless of what the future brings, Woods already became a star in 2012.
46. LaMichael James (RB, Oregon)
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LaMichael James made his name known on the field for the Oregon Ducks. He went from No. 40 at his position as a recruit to No. 5 at his position in the 2012 NFL draft.
The 3-star recruit put together a final campaign that many tailbacks would have been happy spreading over two seasons. In 2011, James rushed for a mind-blowing 1,805 yards on 247 carries with 18 touchdowns.
He tacked on another 210 yards in the receiving game, but the 7.3 yards-per-carry mark on the ground was more than enough to get him drafted at the pro level. It was certainly enough to get him on this list.
45. Kenjon Barner (RB, Oregon)
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Kenjon Barner is yet another Oregon Duck who was not given his deserved respect coming out of high school. He was a 3-star recruit and ranked No. 93 at cornerback. He was also tabbed as a potential running back, but he was not treated like the running threat that he really was.
Oregon saw his potential, and the Ducks made him a staple in the rushing attack. He rewarded them with a gigantic 1,767-yard performance on 278 carries in 2012 alone. His 21 touchdowns on the season were second only to quarterback Marcus Mariota's 32 passing touchdowns. (No receiver scored more than seven of those, though.)
While his No. 13 ranking at his position in the upcoming draft won't get him selected on the first or second day of the draft, it's a vast improvement over the expectations placed on him exiting high school.
44. Tyrann Mathieu (CB, LSU)
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Tyrann Mathieu was a 3-star cornerback when he signed with LSU. He became the "Honey Badger" during LSU's 2011 SEC title season. From the opening game, Mathieu established himself as a ball-hawking, play-making force on the field.
Mathieu's forced fumble and recovery for a touchdown was LSU's first touchdown of the eventual 40-27 victory. He sparked the team that day, and the season took off from there. LSU's lone loss came to Alabama in the BCS title game.
He may not have been the best cornerback in the nation, but he had the uncanny ability to make big plays exactly when the Tigers needed him. Even with all his off-field drama, he's still the No. 22 corner in the 2013 NFL draft.
He will likely get a chance to prove himself in the NFL, and he may become the steal of the draft. That's all dependent on his work ethic and team commitment now.
43. Jawan Jamison (RB, Rutgers)
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Jawan Jamison had a breakout year in 2012. He ran for 1,075 yards on 255 carries for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights en route to a 12th-place ranking at his position in the NFL draft.
Jamison is further proof that a 3-star recruit may be a bigger grab than some 5-stars, especially if the 3-star is willing to work at his job. Jamison was ranked 81st at running back for the 2010 recruiting class.
Jamison helped Rutgers earn a share of the Big East title in 2012, and he did it with pizazz. Jamison had more offensive yards than the No. 1 receiver, and the second-place running back was well over 600 yards behind him in terms of production.
Jamison put his name in lights, and he's riding the burst of fame into the NFL at just the right time. Rutgers will definitely miss having a star like him on the field in 2013.
42. Stedman Bailey (WR, West Virginia)
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Stedman Bailey was on the receiving end of more than half of Geno Smith's 42 touchdown passes. Bailey finished 2012 with 1,622 yards and 25 touchdowns off 114 catches.
He's heading into the 2013 NFL draft as the 14th-ranked wide receiver, and that's after entering college as the 64th-best wide receiver of the 2009 class with only three stars to his name.
One of the major things working against him during the 2012 run was Tavon Austin. Austin also had 114 receptions. Without that competition, Bailey's numbers would have been even higher.
Scoring a touchdown more than 20 percent of the times he touched the ball absolutely earned him "star" status as far as the college level goes, though. He ended the 2012 season at No. 3 in the FBS in receiving yards.
41. Montee Ball (RB, Wisconsin)
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Montee Ball is another third-place finisher in the national rankings. He had the third-most rushing yards of any FBS running back in 2012 with 1,830.
Ball came to Wisconsin as a 3-star running back ranked 47th positionally. He quickly became the go-to 'back for the Badgers, and 2011 was his best season. Here's a comparison of his 2011 and 2012 seasons to show exactly what kind of star he became in college:
2011: 307 carries for 1,923 yards and 33 touchdowns.
2012: 356 carries for 1,830 yards and 22 touchdowns.
Ball proved himself as an every-down player with breakout potential on any given play. If you take his 2011 season to heart, he is one of the most threatening tailbacks in the receiving game as well. He scored six touchdowns on just 24 catches that season.
Ball is a superstar whom Wisconsin will have an extremely tough time replacing. It's a wonder that he only got three stars from the college scouts. He is ranked fourth at his position for the upcoming draft.
40. Johnathan Hankins (DT, Ohio State)
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Johnathan Hankins amassed 137 tackles and five sacks in his three-year stint with the Ohio State Buckeyes. He's ranked fifth at his defensive tackle position heading into April's draft.
He's a great lineman who had everything in the world to do with Ohio State's perfect 2012 season. In 2012 alone, he racked up 55 tackles and a sack. Ohio State won six of its games last season by a touchdown or less, and two were overtime victories.
His career started as a 3-star defensive tackle ranked No. 48 at the position exiting high school. Ohio State may be sad to see him go a year early to the draft, but the Buckeyes were certainly ecstatic to have him turn out to be a star lineman while he was in Columbus.
39. Desmond Trufant (CB, Washington)
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Desmond Trufant is a likely first-round selection in the upcoming NFL draft. He's the No. 3 cornerback and No. 23 overall.
He's a sticky corner who doesn't let many people get away from him. When teams made the decision to throw towards him in college, it turned out like the included picture more often than not.
In the big upset over then-undefeated Oregon State, Trufant racked up 10 tackles. Yes, that number can be misleading in some cases. This time, though, it was 10 tackles with nine unassisted. Trufant was protecting the open field as if his life depended on it.
Since the victory came by only three points, that intensity was perfect for the situation.
He entered the final phase of recruiting as the nation's No. 70 cornerback with a 3-star rating. What he produced in college was far more than those three little stars promised.
38. Jonathan Cooper (OG, UNC)
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Jonathan Cooper chose the UNC Tar Heels back when he was the No. 42 offensive guard in the sea of other 3-star recruits in 2008. He has come a long way.
Cooper helped pave the way for Giovani Bernard's 1,200-yard season, and he gained the respect of scouts everywhere in the process. Cooper is now the No. 2 offensive guard entering the draft, and he's ranked No. 22 overall.
Cooper may not have gotten the hype that Bernard did, but Bernard couldn't have gotten all that hype without an offensive line to give him opportunities all season long. UNC will miss Cooper dearly in 2013, especially while the Tar Heels try to break in a new running back.
37. Xavier Rhodes (CB, Florida State)
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Xavier Rhodes is the 2013 draft's No. 2 corner, and he had a good run at Florida State that earned him that spot. He performs very well as the team's last line of defense.
Against NC State, he recorded a season-high seven tackles, and he posted his second-best total of five tackles against Florida during rivalry weekend. Those two games were the only games Florida State lost in 2012. He was at his best when the Seminoles needed him.
He came to them as a lowly 3-star wide receiver ranked No. 50 at that position. Florida State had a better place for him, and it worked to everyone's advantage. Florida State got a great cornerback, and Rhodes got a likely first-round selection to the NFL.
Everybody won with Rhodes. Well, except the 123 schools he didn't go to.
36. Ka'Deem Carey (RB, Arizona)
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Ka'Deem Carey was one of the biggest jackpots on this list. He's a running back, so he absolutely has to be No. 1 in his draft class to secure the first-round pick. However, he's off to a phenomenal start.
He was a sophomore in 2012, and he rushed for 1,929 yards and 23 touchdowns on 303 carries. He tacked on another 303 yards and a touchdown off 36 receptions. He's got great hands, and he's an awesome running back.
It's hard to believe that two short years ago he was a 3-star running back ranked 55th in the 2011 class. Clearly, Carey learned something in his freshman year at college. He definitely brought it to the field, that's a certainty.
His Scout profile calls him "one of the best RB's in Arizona history." That raises the question: Why only three stars, Scout?
35. Star Lotulelei (DT, Utah)
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Star Lotulelei left high school as the country's No. 47 defensive lineman, and he was fluidly tabbed a 3-star defensive end.
While at Utah, he earned his stripes as a defensive tackle. He worked his way up the rankings as each week passed, and he's ranked No. 1 at his position entering the 2013 draft. He's ranked No. 7 overall, and he's a likely top-10 pick.
Lotulelei helped Utah earn a 23rd-place ranking nationally against the run in 2012, and that was despite a 5-7 win-loss record that kept the Utes out of the postseason. He will leave a giant hole in the defensive line next season.
Lotulelei is good enough to compete as a rookie at the pro level, especially if he takes some serious strength training from now until the preseason festivities. It all started at Utah.
34. Damontre Moore (DE, Texas A&M)
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Texas A&M posted a 35th national ranking against the run in 2012, and that was excellent for a first-year run through the SEC West's notoriously difficult schedule. A&M finished the season with a monster 11-2 record after totally destroying Oklahoma, 41-13, in the Cotton Bowl.
All three of the biggest contributors will show up on this list, but Damontre Moore is the first encounter with an Aggie today. Moore racked up 85 tackles and two blocked kicks on the way to becoming the 2013 draft's No. 2 defensive end.
He's expected to be one of the first five selected in the draft, and his skill supports that theory quite well. This is all coming from a 3-star defensive end prospect who was ranked 66th at that position back in 2010.
Moore had skill, but the trip through the SEC schedule confirmed that he could play against some of the best linemen in the nation. His draft stock rose accordingly.
33. Marcus Mariota (QB, Oregon)
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Marcus Mariota was the quarterback in charge of carrying on the Ducks' tradition of excellence. Much to the delight of the coaching staff, he did just that.
He ripped off a 230-of-336 passing performance for 2,677 yards, 32 touchdowns and only six interceptions...as a freshman. Instant stardom is to be expected from some recruits, but they are usually highly sought-after 5-star recruits that everybody wants.
Mariota was no such recruit. Sure, a lot of teams wanted him and his talent, but he was only a 3-star quarterback. For that matter, he was only ranked No. 34 at his position.
While it's far too early to tell where he'll end up, he's currently the No. 2 quarterback on the 2016 draft board.
32. Chance Warmack (OG, Alabama)
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Chance Warmack anchored an offensive line that produced the nation's 16th-best rushing offense and its most efficient quarterback. Warmack is a beast on the line, and he's the No. 1 offensive guard heading into the 2013 draft. He's expected to be snagged before the sixth pick is selected.
Warmack arrived at Tuscaloosa as a 3-star offensive guard ranked 45th at his position. He was expected to be a great contributor, but he was never thought to be the next headliner of a draft class.
Sure, Eddie Lacy might get more hype as a running back, but the offensive line made everything look easy for Alabama this past season. Well, outside of the LSU and Texas A&M games anyway.
In his final season with the Crimson Tide, Warmack blocked for two 1,000-yard rushers. Lacy was one of them, of course, but the other was freshman phenom T.J. Yeldon. Without guys like Warmack on the offensive line, Yeldon wouldn't have been nearly as phenomenal.
31. Nick Fairley (DT, Auburn)
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Nick Fairley is another 3-star recruit who had a change of position in college. He was the 27th-ranked offensive guard of the 2007 class, but he had an alternate position of defensive tackle.
In college, he rose from being a 3-star offensive guard with potential to being the anchor of a national championship-winning defense as a defensive tackle. He was selected 13th overall in the 2011 draft.
Fairley was on defense while Cam Newton was on offense. Without either of these two players, Auburn wouldn't have won the 2010 national title.
Fairley became a star with the Auburn Tigers, and he helped bring home only the second national title in school history. Fairley made the most of his tenure at Auburn, and he made a tremendous impact for the Tigers.
30. Tyson Alualu (DT, California)
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Tyson Alualu made it to the NFL as the 10th draft pick of the 2010 cycle. Alualu led the nation's 23rd-ranked rushing defense back in 2009, and the California Golden Bears had an eight-win season before falling to Utah in the Poinsettia Bowl.
Alualu came from high school as a 3-star defensive tackle ranked 55th at his position. The NFL seemed like a possibility, but it was going to take some serious dedication and hard work on his part. He did everything he needed to do to become a No. 10 pick.
Alualu was the anchor of the Cal defensive line back then, and the Golden Bears could still use more talent like his on the defensive front. Of course, so could any other college football team.
29. Jerod Mayo (LB, Tennessee)
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Jerod Mayo made a heck of a final pitch to the NFL scouts. In his final season at Tennessee, Mayo threw down 140 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a pick-six.
Mayo was a beast at Tennessee, and the NFL took notice. Mayo was drafted 10th in 2008, and the only linebacker taken before him was Keith Rivers at pick No. 9.
Mayo had all the final stats of a 4- or 5-star recruit when he was leaving college, but that was far from the truth. He came to Tennessee as a 3-star linebacker ranked 25th at his position. Tennessee's coaching staff took care of him, and he apparently paid attention.
Tennessee's current defense would give almost anything to have a linebacker as effective as Mayo was.
28. Luke Kuechly (LB, Boston College)
Luke Kuechly started at Boston College as a 3-star linebacker ranked 23rd at his position. While he wasn't highly touted coming out of high school, he quickly made up for that lack of attention by earning a lot during his final season at Boston College.
In 2011, Kuechly made a mind-numbing 191 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and three interceptions (one was a pick-six). Kuechly threw himself from potential NFL player right into the No. 9 draft slot back in 2012.
Kuechly is massive evidence that one player can't make all the difference between a national championship team and a team that doesn't make the postseason at all. Boston College only won four games in 2011, and that was with the nation's best linebacker on its squad.
27. Ryan Tannehill (QB, Texas A&M)
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Ryan Tannehill was the quarterback for Texas A&M immediately before Johnny Manziel took over. Tannehill's final season was a great audition for the NFL, even if the win-loss record wasn't the greatest.
Tannehill was selected eighth overall in the 2012 draft, the third quarterback selected behind only Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III.
Tannehill went 327-of-530 for 3,744 yards, 29 touchdowns and 15 interceptions in 2011. He could have used more time to work on his decision-making skills in college, but he ended up well on the good side of the NFL draft.
Tannehill came to the Aggies as a 3-star quarterback. He was the 58th-best quarterback of his recruiting class, which is a far cry from where he worked to get drafted. He led the Aggies to a seven-win season in his final jaunt with A&M, including a bowl win over the Northwestern Wildcats.
Tannehill was a widely recognized name in college football before he took off for Miami, and he made 100 percent of that name at Texas A&M.
26. Aldon Smith (DE, Missouri)
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Aldon Smith came from Raytown, Missouri as a 3-star defensive end ranked 54th at his position. He didn't make any waves or send a shock through the nation with his commitment to the Missouri Tigers.
However, after he got on campus, he started working. He worked his way up the lists until he finally landed in the No. 7 spot in the 2011 draft.
Smith led Missouri's defense to a 10-win season in his final year, and none of the three losses were by more than 14 points. The crowning achievement of that season was an upset win over then-No. 1 Oklahoma.
Smith took his skills to the NFL after that monster season, but his fame came from Missouri.
25. Darrius Heyward-Bey (WR, Maryland)
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Darrius Heyward-Bey went to Maryland as a 3-star wide receiver ranked 39th at the position for the 2005 class. Heyward-Bey immediately went to work once he got to campus.
Over his three-year career at Maryland, Heyward-Bey racked up 2,089 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns off 138 receptions. That was an average of 15.1 yards per catch over his collegiate career.
Maryland may not have been a national championship contender during his reign as leading wide receiver, but Bey certainly pulled his own weight.
When the 2009 draft hit, Bey was selected No. 7. He was the top wideout selected that season.
24. Vernon Gholston (DE, Ohio State)
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Vernon Gholston was a 3-star defensive end coming out of high school, and he held the 39th spot at that position for the 2004 class. Though he wasn't a highly recruited player, he acted like one in college.
He quickly became a valuable part of Ohio State's defensive line. In his final season with the Buckeyes, he anchored a defensive line that was third-best in the nation against the run. The Buckeyes allowed a scant 82.9 yards per game back in 2007.
He started as a 3-star prospect and finished as the sixth pick of the 2008 draft. He was the second defensive end to get drafted. (Chris Long was the first.)
23. Morris Claiborne (CB, LSU)
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Morris Claiborne came to LSU as a 3-star wide receiver ranked 90th at his position in the 2009 recruiting cycle. LSU had a better place for him than on offense. LSU needed a stout defense to support the iffy offense that LSU fielded while Claiborne was there.
Claiborne got moved to cornerback, and that's all he needed. He made a name for himself on some of the stingiest defenses in recent memory. In Claiborne's final season, the LSU Tigers finished eighth against the pass with a conference championship as icing on the cake.
Claiborne had six interceptions, 51 tackles and an astounding kick-return average of over 25 yards per attempt. Claiborne was a part of a special defense that carried LSU all the way to the BCS National Championship Game.
22. A.J. Hawk (LB, Ohio State)
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A.J. Hawk left high school in the 2002 recruiting class as a 3-star linebacker ranked No. 32 at his position. Hawk came to Ohio State and made the two-deep depth chart in his first season.
He led Ohio State in tackles in 2003, 2004 and 2005, and he was a two-time All-American. He also won the Vince Lombardi Award in 2005. For his stardom, he was the first defender selected in the 2006 draft. He went as the fifth pick of the draft.
A.J. Hawk was one of the best linebackers that Ohio State has ever seen, and he was only the fifth one in history to be selected All-America twice. You don't get much more bang for your buck than that when you're out on the recruiting trail.
21. Justin Blackmon (WR, Oklahoma State)
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Justin Blackmon helped lead the Oklahoma State Cowboys to the Fiesta Bowl against Stanford back in 2011. They were a missed field goal away from playing against LSU for the national title that season.
Blackmon earned his way to the top off two stellar seasons as a receiver. Just in 2010 and 2011 combined, he had 232 receptions for 3,304 yards and 38 touchdowns.
If you are interested in a more detailed explanation of exactly how awesome Blackmon is, check out this edition of ESPN's Sports Science from YouTube. It's worth the three minutes.
It's completely insane that he was once a 3-star recruit only ranked 58th at his position. Either that, or the Oklahoma State wide receivers coach was simply being paid about $5 million less than he deserved.
20. D'Brickashaw Ferguson (OT, Virginia)
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D'Brickashaw Ferguson, apart from having the coolest name on this list, was one of the highest-drafted players in question. He was selected as the No. 1 offensive tackle and went fourth overall in the 2006 draft.
Ferguson came to Virginia as a 3-star lineman who played both ways in high school. He was ranked 40th as an offensive lineman. Virginia chose to place him on the offensive line, and the rest is history.
People considered him to be the top offensive lineman in the country heading into the 2006 draft, and suspicions were confirmed when he was the first one of his kind selected in the draft.
He was a freshman All-American, and he started at left tackle during that season back in 2002. In 2004, he bulked up to 295 pounds from 265 the previous season, and that helped him earn his way up the draft boards.
While Virginia is currently sitting near the bottom of the ACC, visions of Ferguson dance in fans' heads. Everyone is waiting for another recruiting class that can bring the Cavaliers back to contention for conference titles.
19. Trent Williams (OT, Oklahoma)
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Trent Williams was a 3-star offensive lineman ranked 56th at his position. Oklahoma signed him and put him at offensive tackle.
What it got was not a 3-star player at all. It got a serious piece of talent that helped pave the way for an Oklahoma offense that rushed for 1,750 yards and threw for 3,760 in 2009. That was Williams' last season before dropping into the draft mix.
In 2008, the Sooners amassed 2,779 rushing yards with two 1,000-yard rushers. Williams led the way that year as well. The Sooners made it to the BCS title game against the Florida Gators that season.
He caught the NFL's attention with all his skill, too. He was selected fourth overall as the first offensive lineman in the 2010 draft. All that in a 3-star recruit for the Sooners. They must have seen something that no one else saw.
They were right.
18. Marcel Dareus (DT, Alabama)
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Marcel Dareus (spelling verified here because the internet is split 50/50 on the issue) was one of the best pass-rushers in the SEC back in 2010 (his final season with Alabama). He had 11 tackles for loss, 33 total tackles, 4.5 sacks and 10 quarterback hurries that year.
He is most famously remembered for taking out Texas quarterback Colt McCoy in the BCS National Championship Game and taking all the intensity out of the game. Alabama marched to a 37-21 victory over the Longhorns thanks to Dareus, who also had a pick-six in that game.
Dareus was selected as the top defensive lineman in the 2011 draft, and he was picked third overall. His scouting report coming out of high school told nothing of his abilities.
He was a 3-star defensive tackle ranked 28th at his position for the 2008 class. He projected well, but not nearly as well as he played. Alabama's coaching staff worked its special kind of magic, and Dareus listened and worked.
17. Matt Ryan (QB, Boston College)
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Matt Ryan left high school as a 3-star quarterback prospect ranked 44th at his position. Ryan got to Boston College and started working on his game.
In 2005, he transitioned to starter, and he completed 121 passes for 1,514 yards, eight touchdowns and five interceptions. In 2006, Ryan went 262-of-425 for 2,939 yards, 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
In his final season, 2007, he continued his improvement in every aspect except touchdown-to-interception ratio. He went 388-of-654 for 4,507 yards, 31 touchdowns and 19 interceptions.
He capped his final season off with a Champs Sports Bowl win that pushed the season mark to 11-3. The NFL (via the Atlanta Falcons) decided he was the No. 1 quarterback in the draft, and the Falcons selected him third overall.
16. Chris Long (DE, Virginia)
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Chris Long showed up at Virginia as a 3-star defensive end ranked 20th at his position. He wasn't expected to turn out as a first-round draft pick, but that's certainly how things turned out.
Virginia was sitting on an excellent defensive lineman, and the Cavaliers didn't even know it until he began starting for them in 2005. He matured quickly and threw down a wonderful season in his final year. He tied for third place in 2007 with 14 sacks, just two behind the No. 1 player.
Also in 2007, Virginia ranked 13th nationally in rushing yards allowed per game. He led a defensive line that was simply stingy. The Cavaliers put together a nine-win season, but two of their losses were by less than a touchdown.
Long made the Cavaliers great, and he earned stardom along the way. He was picked second overall as the top defender in the 2008 draft. He was even selected ahead of quarterback Matt Ryan.
15. Stefphon Jefferson (RB, Nevada)
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Jefferson made the jump from nobody to hero in one season. He only rushed for 429 yards and five touchdowns on 70 carries in 2011.
That season-to-season jump is a great example of exactly what he did from high school to college. He's actually ranked higher than Ka'Deem Carey because his leap was more impressive.
Jefferson came out of high school as just a 2-star running back. He was ranked 131st at his position. While he's not expected to be drafted (he's ranked 420th overall on the draft board), he raised his positional ranking from 131st to 31st while he was at Nevada.
Whether he's drafted or not, he became a star at Nevada in 2012.
14. Le'Veon Bell (RB, Michigan State)
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Le'Veon Bell just finished a stellar season with the Michigan State Spartans. While the Spartans didn't make it to a BCS bowl, Bell did everything he could to make it happen.
Bell finished the 2012 season with 1,793 yards and 12 touchdowns on 382 carries. That performance was good for fifth place nationally in total rushing yards for the 2012 season. Bell turned on the juice and was the highlight of the Michigan State season.
He's the No. 10 running back in the upcoming draft, and he's expected to go in the fourth or fifth round. That's a far cry from his 2-star, unranked status as a recruit back in 2010.
Read that again. He was unranked coming into college, and he's leaving at No. 10 at his position. That's astonishing.
13. Terrence Williams (WR, Baylor)
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Terrence Williams stepped up and helped Baylor deal with the loss of Robert Griffin III fairly well. The Bears dropped a few games, but rebounded with a huge win over then-national championship-favorite Kansas State.
Williams finished 2012 ranked No. 1 in the country in receiving yards. He caught 97 passes for 1,832 yards and 12 touchdowns during Baylor's 8-5 run through the season. The icing on the cake was a 49-26 win over the UCLA Bruins, who had just won the Pac-12 South Division.
Williams is a great receiver, and he's ranked seventh at his position for the upcoming draft. Williams was a 2-star wide receiver ranked 262nd at his position coming out of high school.
It doesn't get much more unheralded than two stars, and it doesn't get much better than a projected top-10 pick heading into the draft.
12. Jordan Lynch (QB, Northern Illinois)
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Jordan Lynch led the Northern Illinois Huskies to a BCS bowl with one loss. It was the first time in BCS history that a team from a non-AQ conference had made it into one of the elite bowls without being undefeated. It was also the first time a Mid-American Conference team had made it at all.
Lynch did some amazing things during the season, including setting three NCAA records. The most impressive was that he was the first quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,500 yards in the same season.
Lynch passed for 3,138 yards and 25 touchdowns, and he rushed for 1,815 yards and 19 more touchdowns in 2012 alone. He also threw only six interceptions.
These mind-numbing stats may have come from outside the AQ conferences, but it doesn't make them any less impressive. Lynch came out of high school as a 2-star quarterback ranked 137th at his position.
Forget the ESPN 150, he barely made it into his position's top 150. He has already turned himself into the 2014 draft's No. 13 quarterback. If he backs last season up with a better one this year, he may climb even higher.
Northern Illinois hit one of the biggest jackpots ever with this 2-star prospect.
11. Michael Crabtree (WR, Texas Tech)
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Michael Crabtree was a 2-star wide receiver unranked at his position when he was leaving high school. Texas Tech came to the rescue, and Crabtree did what everyone else on this list did: He took advantage of the opportunity.
In just two seasons, he took himself from off-the-radar to No. 2 at his position in the 2009 NFL draft. In 2007, he caught 134 passes for 1,962 yards and 22 touchdowns. He backed that up in 2008 with 97 catches for 1,165 yards and 19 touchdowns.
He became a nearly guaranteed first down whenever he was targeted in college, and the NFL obviously took notice. The only receiver that was drafted ahead of him was Darrius Heyward-Bey, who started life as a 3-star recruit.
Crabtree was chosen 10th overall in the 2009 draft. That made a miracle of his college career, though not as big a miracle as the next player on the list.
10. Amobi Okoye (DT, Louisville)
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Amobi Okoye started his college career as a highly underrated 2-star defensive tackle unranked at his position. He took control of his own destiny at Louisville and flipped his ranking completely.
The other fact that helps him make this list is that he went to college when he was only 16 years old. He was 19 when he was drafted. Of course, he was overlooked by the scouts. Regardless of your weight, there's just so little desire to recruit a kid who is two (or more) years younger than everyone else on the field.
Okoye didn't have much football knowledge, and he definitely didn't have much experience when he got to Louisville. By his final season, he was ready to lead the defense. He racked up 58 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, eight sacks and three fumble recoveries in 2006.
When the 2007 draft rolled around, he was selected as the first defensive tackle. He was picked 10th overall in the cycle. This kid was making wads of cash playing pro football while he was still a teenager.
9. B.J. Raji (DT, Boston College)
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B.J. Raji was a 2-star defensive tackle unranked at his position when he left high school. Boston College may have thought they were getting a good deal with his signature, but the Eagles couldn't have known what they were about to witness.
Raji stepped into his role at Boston College, and he flourished. He led a defensive line that ranked second nationally against the run in his next-to-last season. The 2007 Eagles allowed only 75.5 yards per game on the ground.
Raji led another top-10 defense in his final season. The 2008 Boston College Eagles allowed only 91.2 yards per game on the ground with their stifling defensive front. Raji was the cornerstone of the line, and his draft stock soared.
By the time he left the program, he was the No. 1 defensive tackle of the 2009 draft. He was selected No. 9 overall, and the second-place defensive tackle (Peria Jerry) wasn't chosen until pick 24.
8. Jamaal Anderson (DE, Arkansas)
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Jamaal Anderson was a 2-star wide receiver as he was leaving high school. He was ranked 116th at his position when he was on the recruiting radar.
The Arkansas Razorbacks would have none of that "wide receiver" nonsense, and they moved him to defensive end in 2004. It would be long journey of effort and simple willpower before he would make major contributions on the field.
He followed that 2005 performance up with a 65-tackle, 19.5-tackle-for-loss and 13.5-sack monstrosity of a 2006 season. That drove his draft stock through the roof.
He was selected No. 8 overall as the second defensive end of the 2007 NFL draft, and he was the steal of the recruiting class.
7. Eric Fisher (OT, Central Michigan)
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Eric Fisher came out of high school as a 2-star offensive guard ranked 112th at that position. Fisher proved that you are not always a product of your environment, as he rose up the draft boards playing for Central Michigan.
Central Michigan pulled out a 7-6 season in 2012, and there's NFL talent on the roster, but Fisher isn't just an NFL talent. He is the No. 2 offensive tackle of the 2013 draft class and an expected top-10 pick.
In Fisher's final season (2012), the Chippewas ranked 18th nationally in sacks allowed with just 15. That was ahead of both teams that played in the national championship game. That was also good for second place in the MAC.
Fisher may not have a national championship to his name, but he can start working toward a Super Bowl ring in 2013.
6. Gaines Adams (DE, Clemson)
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Gaines Adams was a 2-star defensive end unranked at his position in the 2002 recruiting class. Adams had his work cut out for him when he got to Clemson. Luckily for him, there was a staff ready to guide him when he got there.
In his final season at Clemson, he earned the ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors. He was also a unanimous First-Team All-America selection. Prior to his selection, Clemson had only one unanimous selection in the history of the school.
He was a pass-rushing monster, and his 2006 stat line proves it: 62 tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks, 26 quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.
As he laid waste to opposing offenses, his draft stock rose. His stock was forced to plateau when he reached No. 1 at his position. He was selected No. 4 overall, and he was the first defensive player to be drafted.
5. Tyson Jackson (DE, LSU)
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Tyson Jackson started as a 2-star defensive end prospect ranked 120th at his position. (He was tagged as an offensive lineman for that ranking, but it still works for the storyline.) Jackson signed with LSU as part of the 2004 class, which was right after LSU's first national championship of the BCS era.
Jackson was on the field for LSU's 2007 national-title run, and he was more than just a little productive. In 2007, Jackson amassed 36 tackles, five tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, 10 pass breakups, 10 quarterback hurries and one forced fumble.
In 2008, he was much more balanced, with 36 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, four pass breakups, seven quarterback hurries and one fumble recovery. At first glance, those numbers look worse than the previous year's, but he traded some hurries and breakups for more takedowns behind the line of scrimmage.
Jackson rode that national championship and two great seasons right into the No. 3 overall spot in the 2009 draft. He was the first defender to get picked.
4. Jason Smith (OL, Baylor)
Jason Smith is on the far left.
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Jason Smith is yet another member of the 2-star, unranked army of players populating this list. He was tabbed as an offensive lineman coming out of high school, and he eventually found his niche at the tackle position.
Baylor had a balanced offense in 2008, rushing for 180.5 yards per game and passing for 195.75. The rushing attack ranked 21st nationally that season, and Smith was a large part of the offensive line that made that possible.
Unfortunately, Baylor was not exactly in the throes of success at the time he was with the Bears. In 2007 and 2008, Baylor combined for seven wins. The Bears were on the rise, but Smith wasn't converted from tight end to offensive tackle until 2007.
He played left tackle in 2008, and the left side of the field yielded 65 percent of Baylor's rushing yards that season. He was the only starter on the line that year that hadn't started on the line in 2007.
He earned his way up the draft board and finally landed at No. 1 for his position. He was drafted No. 2 overall behind only Matthew Stafford, the quarterback from Georgia.
3. Alex Smith (QB, Utah)
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Alex Smith is the final 2-star athlete on the list, and he's the only player to rise all the way to the No. 1 overall pick in any of the drafts used in this piece.
Smith was a 2-star, unranked quarterback in the 2002 class. He only started for two seasons at Utah, and the better of the two was his final season (2004). He led the Utes to a 12-0 season in 2004 with a Fiesta Bowl win over the Pittsburgh Panthers.
Other signature wins during that run were over Texas A&M, Arizona and BYU. Smith went 214-of-317 for 2,952 yards, 32 touchdowns and four interceptions during the season that made him a star.
On the heels of that season, Smith was selected by the San Francisco 49ers as the No. 1 overall pick of the 2005 draft. There's only one way to earn a higher ranking on a college-based list like this...
2. Mark Ingram (RB, Alabama)
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...and that's by winning college football's highest award: The Heisman Memorial Trophy. Mark Ingram began his football career as a 3-star running back ranked 58th at his position in the 2008 recruiting class.
While Ingram was not expected to be great, he turned out to be one of the greatest running backs in Alabama's history. Since he's this high on the list because he won the 2009 Heisman, his 2009 season will be examined as the factual support for his placement.
Ingram posted 1,658 yards and 17 touchdowns via 271 carries in 2009, and those numbers, combined with the strength of Alabama's schedule, won him the Heisman. Alabama opened the season against then-No. 7 Virginia Tech, and the Tide faced four other Top 25 teams before the Heisman was awarded.
After Ingram won Alabama's first Heisman ever, the Tide rolled over the Texas Longhorns, 37-21, in the BCS title game to win Alabama's first national championship since the 1992 season.
Ingram was the driving force of the offense all season long, and he became a Heisman winner after starting with 3-star potential. There's only one story in recent memory that's more impressive than his.
(That story is on the next slide.)
1. Johnny Manziel (QB, Texas A&M)
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While Mark Ingram did win the first Heisman in his school's history, Johnny Manziel did something even better. Manziel began as a 3-star quarterback ranked 22nd at his position in the 2011 class.
He arrived at Texas A&M, redshirted one season in the Big 12 and followed that year on the bench up with a year in the SEC spotlight. Manziel started his on-field career with a tough three-point loss to the Florida Gators.
The only other loss Texas A&M had was a five-pointer to LSU. Aside from those two losses, Manziel orchestrated a superb season that included a monster upset of then-undefeated Alabama. Alabama would go on to win the national title, thanks to losses by key teams standing in the way.
Manziel finished his freshman season 295-of-434 for 3,706 yards, 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Manziel also tacked on 1,410 rushing yards on 201 carries for 21 more touchdowns.
Manziel capped his first collegiate season off by winning the Heisman Trophy. He was the first freshman in history to do that. Ingram's story finishes second place to Manziel's without question.
From three stars to superstar in one season. Manziel is going to have a book deal before he's eligible for the NFL.