College Football's 25 Most Explosive Offensive Players for 2013

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistJune 18, 2013

College Football's 25 Most Explosive Offensive Players for 2013

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    Football used to be a war of attrition, a 12-play-per-drive slug-fest where only the strongest could survive. It was grind-it-out or get-it-out, a sport that Charles Darwin, had he seen it, would have probably cited in The Origin of Species.

    But those days are gone.

    Football is still a physical sport, but the era of pluck has been replaced by an era of quickness. Spread offenses, read options, four-play drives—these are the principles du jour in America's game. And those who linger too long in the past get left there.

    Here are the 25 most explosive players in college football, the guys who most adhere to this new-fangled methodology. Don't blink when you see them on Saturday; there's a good chance you'll miss something special.

Honorable Mention: RB Charles Sims, TBD

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    Watch: Sims vs. Tulane – 2011 (10 car, 207 yds, 2 TD; 5 rec, 45 yds)

    The future remains murky for Sims, who announced his decision to leave Houston and now must choose between transferring or entering the NFL Supplemental Draft. He graduated from Houston in the spring, so he would become eligible immediately, and per ESPN's Joe Schad he is genuinely interested in playing for West Virginia or Cal in 2013.

    Still, because we can't be sure Sims won't flee to the NFL, it's impossible to rank him on this list. Just take one look at the video above if you want to know what kind of talent he is.

    Had he returned to Houston (or another school) this season, he would rank in the Top 20.

25. QB Cody Fajardo, Nevada

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    Watch: Fajardo 49-yard TD run at Cal

    Farjado topped 230 yards passing and 95 yards rushing in the same game five times last year—almost 40 percent of the time his team took the field.

    Entering his junior season, the 6'2'' speedster from Brea, Ca. is still coming into his own. He's made his presence felt on the ground, and because of that, more and more big plays should open up through the air.

    Expect him to improve on already impressive numbers.

24. WR Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri

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    Watch: Green-Beckham 80-yard TD catch at UCF

    Missouri's tough transition to the SEC made Green-Beckham's first year look worse than it was. Sure, he was a bit disappointing on his own merit, but the way his team was constantly overwhelmed served to amplify those issues.

    Head coach Gary Pinkel called Green-Beckham "a different guy" in May, which is coach-speak for "he underachieved last year," but is still a welcoming sign. DBG didn't look like a former top-ranked recruit in 2012, so if he looks like a different guy in 2013, that hopefully means a revert to previous form.

    The consistency wasn't there, but Green-Beckham did hit a couple home runs last season. He caught a 70-yard touchdown against Syracuse and an 80-yard one against UCF. The potential to go All-SEC is there, and this kid is too impressive to not ever reach it.

23. WR DeVante Parker, Louisville

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    Watch: Parker 64-yard TD catch vs. Cincinnati

    Teddy Bridgewater has an explosive arm, but it's his favorite receiver, DeVante Parker, who is actually the more explosive athlete.

    He only caught 40 passes last season, but made them all count, averaging a Big East-best 18.6 yards per reception. His 10 touchdown grabs were also tops in the former conference, tied for that honor with Rutgers' Brandon Coleman.

    With the return of Michaelee Harris in 2013, Parker will be counted on even less as a possession player and, somehow, be given the green light to get down field more often. Remember that yards-per-catch number from before? Don't be surprised if it inflates.

22. QB Chuckie Keeton, Utah State

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    Watch: Keeton 62-yard TD run vs. Toledo

    Keeton led Utah State to an 11-2 record last season. Their only two losses were against Wisconsin and BYU—two established modern powerhouses—and came by a combined five points.

    In short, this team was dangerously close to going undefeated.

    Gary Wilkerson is gone, defected to that very same Wisconsin team, but Keeton's leadership and big-play ability should keep the Aggies competitive again in 2013. With Utah, USC, San Jose State and Boise State all on the schedule, they'll need a similar performance to find repeated success.

21. RB Keith Marshall, Georgia

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    Watch: Marshall 72-yard TD run vs. Tennessee

    The (slightly) less-heralded half of "Gurshall," Keith Marshall is unlikely to lead his backfield in touches. But while Todd Gurley is better suited to handle the rigors of chain-moving, Marshall is better suited to score from his side of the 50.

    He needed only 117 carries to rack up 759 yards last season, an influential average of 6.5 yards per tote. In 2013, he'll likely see that workload increase a little bit, but a year's worth of training should make his output increase a lot.

    Remember how good Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon were for Alabama last year? "Gurshall" is just like that, only with the chance to, eventually, be better.

20. QB Jordan Lynch, Northern Illinois

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    Watch: Lynch 2012 Highlights

    Lynch is more powerful than shifty as a runner—think Jake Locker, not Denard Robinson—but still possesses game-breaking potential with both his arms and legs.

    He finished fourth among all players in rush yards last season, sporting a healthy 6.2 yards-per-carry and only finishing below 100 yards once. He also completed a pass of 40-plus yards in 10 of the Huskies' 14 games. 

    In 2013, a rebuilt NIU offense will count, once again, on Lynch to conjure offense from thin air. If his play last year was any indication, the plucky senior will not let them down.

19. RB Venric Mark, Northwestern

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    Watch: Mark 75-yard punt return TD at Penn State

    Mark is the best offensive player on a woefully overlooked football team. A fourth-quarter collapse against Michigan and a missed field goal against Nebraska was all that stood between Northwestern and a 12-1 record.

    Still, 10-3 ain't too shabby in the Big Ten, especially with wins over two SEC bowl teams (Vanderbilt and Mississippi State). Mark scored a touchdown in both SEC upsets and also posted eight 100-yard rushing games—five of which came with 20-or-less carries.

    Excelling, too, in the return game, Mark is undoubtedly one of the best playmakers in college football.

18. WR Kenny Bell, Nebraska

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    Watch: Bell 82-yard TD run at Minnesota

    Bell made a name for himself (at least on Youtube and Twitter) in the Big Ten Championship last season, after issuing one of the best—legal!—blocks anyone had seen all season.

    But the sophomore receiver made an impact in more traditional ways too, needing only 50 catches to rack up 863 yards. He also scored eight touchdowns in 2012, each one sharing a single, salient feature:

    They all came from 25 yards or more.

17. QB Jameis Winston, Florida State

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    Watch: Winston 2011 Highlights (HS)

    Tallahassee has bought into the hype, and before too long, the rest of our nation will follow suit. Jameis Winston is the real deal.

    I could lecture you with stats and figures and testimony from Trent Dilfer, but Winston's game is more visceral than that. He needs, at times, to be seen to be believed.

    Just take a look at the highlight tape above, and you'll understand why he's on this list. Come season's end, there's a good chance he'll rank even higher.

16. WR Brandin Cooks, Oregon State

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    Watch: Cooks 75-yard TD catch at UCLA

    Last year's Oregon State offense was balanced and symmetric. Storm Woods got his on the ground, and passing reps were split fairly between Markus Wheaton underneath and Brandin Cooks over the top.

    Even with a future-third round pick stealing touches, Cooks still managed to top 1,000 yards last season, averaging 17.2 yards per reception. In 2013, Cody Vaz will look his way even more often, and by season's end, Cooks might have All-Pac 12 numbers to show for it.

15. WR Sammy Watkins, Clemson

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    Watch: Watkins 2011 Highlights

    Watkins wasn't bad in 2012—708 yards is nothing to scoff at—but given the lofty precedent of his freshman season, he was easily one of college football's most disappointing players.

    Still, with DeAndre Hopkins now squarely out of the picture, a return to form is expected from Watkins, who is only one season removed from a historic freshman campaign. 

    Between Clemson's explosive system and a future NFL quarterback under center, Watkins has all the help he needs to put up All-American numbers. Whether or not he does, one would have to think, will be entirely mental.

14. WR Tyler Lockett, Kansas State

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    Watch: Lockett 97-yard kickoff return TD at Kansas

    Tyler Lockett ran two kickoffs back for touchdowns last season, one from 100 yards, and averaged an NCAA-best 32.8 yards per return.

    Unlike some of his fellow returners, though, his offensive skill-set doesn't end there. Lockett turned 44 catches in 687 yards last season, and stands poised to contribute even more as a junior.

    If the Wildcats' spring game was any indication, Lockett should be a highlight factory in 2013.

13. QB Braxton Miller, Ohio State

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    Watch: Miller 2012 Highlights

    In 2012, Ohio State's offense, at times, seemed like it functioned better on broken plays than proper ones. Not because Urban Meyer's offense is deficient—we all know it isn't—but rather because Miller is so good at making something out of nothing.

    Impossible to take down in the pocket, Miller is readily capable of turning a negative play into a plus. He has great maneuverability and always keeps his eyes locked down the field.

    If he adds some accuracy to his deep ball, Miller will be ranked even higher come season's end.

12. RB Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona

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    Watch: Carey vs. Colorado – 2012 (25 car, 366 yds, 5 TD)

    Carey led the nation with 1,929 rushing yards last season, which is scary since he "only" needed 303 carries to get there. Of all the players in last year's Top 10, his 6.4 yards-per-carry tied for first with Oregon's Kenjon Barner.

    Carey is a back perfectly suited to Rich Rodriguez's offense. The difference between him and, say, Steve Slaton, is hard to identify. He's got speed to reach the outside, and one cut later, he's gone.

    Without Matt Scott around to occupy defensive ends, Carey could have a rougher go of things this season. But something tells me he's up to the task.

11. WR Stefon Diggs, Maryland

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    Watch: Diggs 2012 Highlights

    What Diggs was able to manage last season, as a true freshman, was honestly remarkable. The numbers don't pop out at you—54 rec, 846 yards, 6 TD—but start to make sense once you remember that he had a FRESHMAN LINEBACKER PLAYING QUARTERBACK.

    Diggs almost cracked 1,000 yards in an offense that, come the end of the season, was basically running a pistol. He also contributed on kickoffs (that TD against Virginia is insane!) and by refusing to pout despite his team's bad luck.

    With a roster full of healthy quarterbacks back in College Park, Diggs is a dark horse to go All-American.

10. RB T.J. Yeldon, Alabama

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    Watch: Yeldon 28-yard TD catch at LSU

    Yeldon needed under 200 carries to break 1,000 yards last season, averaging 6.3 yards per tote and scoring 12 touchdowns on the ground.

    With Eddie Lacy out of the equation, all of those numbers (except maybe the average) are poised to go up—not just a little bit, but significantly.

    The fact that Yeldon can't leave Alabama until 2014 is terrifying. There could very well be a Heisman Trophy in his future...and he might not need to wait that long to get it.

9. WR Tevin Reese, Baylor

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    Watch: Reese, two selected games – 2011

    It's hard to explain why, but Reese is a slightly less-known commodity. That video above is hardly indicative of his talent; it's just the best thing you can find of his on YouTube.

    That won't be the case for long.

    Baylor's offense is lethal, a quick-strike attack that beats opponents vertically even when they know what's coming. Terrence Williams rode that system to All-American status in 2012, but Reese is more of a Kendall Wright—speed, speed and more speed.

    He's caught 50 balls in each of the past two years, averaging over 17 yards per catch both times, and nearly breaking 1,000 yards total in 2012. If quarterback Bryce Petty is as good as Baylor says he is, Reese could post Williams-esque numbers as a senior.

8. WR Amari Cooper, Alabama

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    Watch: Cooper 2012 Highlights

    Let's see if you can name the Alabama freshman by his numbers:

    Player A: 58 rec, 924 yds, 15.9 ypc, 4 TD

    Player B: 59 rec, 1,000 yds, 16.9 ypc, 11 TD

    Player B is obviously Amari Cooper; why would I list him this high then argue it by making him look bad? But Player A is Julio Jones, currently regarded as one of the NFL's top playmakers for the Atlanta Falcons.

    See what I'm getting at?

    Julio's numbers took a big step back as a sophomore, but there's too much stability for that to happen to Cooper. With T.J. Yeldon and A.J. McCarron in the backfield, there's no good reason to expect regression.

    If anything, now that he's be a focal point right from Week 1 (Cooper had five catches in the Tide's first three games last year) those numbers should actually go up.

7. RB Duke Johnson, Miami

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    Watch: Johnson at Boston College – 2012 (7 car, 135 yds, 2 TD)

    Randy "Duke" Johnson, the Big Unit, did the unthinkable last season. In a year where T.J. Yeldon, Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall ripped through the nation's best conference, Johnson made sure the best freshman running back played in the ACC.

    He ran for 492 yards in Miami's final four games, averaging 8.8 yards per carry over that span. He also averaged 31.9 yards on his 28 kickoff returns, the second-highest average in college football behind Tyler Lockett.

    Johnson's profile says that: "[Duke] Johnson reminds us of...Chris Johnson."

    We'd go one further: Duke Johnson reminds us of...Chris Johnson circa 2009.

6. QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon

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    Watch: Mariota at USC – 2012 (20-for-23, 304 yds, 4 TD; 15 car, 96 yds)

    Put as frankly as possible, Mariota is the best quarterback in modern Oregon history. Better than Dennis Dixon, better than Darren Thomas, better than Jeremiah Masoli—better than all of them.

    B/R's Randy Chambers proves that with exhaustive statistical detail, which is great to know, but really, it's obvious the moment you turn on the TV. Mariota runs this offense to perfection.

    Thanks to Mariota, the transition from Chip Kelly to Mark Helfrich should go as smoothly as the transition from Mike Belotti to Chip Kelly. With De'Anthony Thomas by his side (more on him later), Mariota and Oregon, once again, will represent the nation's most explosive attack.

5. RB Dri Archer, Kent State

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    Watch: Archer vs. Bowling Green – 2012 (17 car, 241 yds, 2 TD)

    Say what you will about the competition; I could watch this guy's tape all day. If you don't believe me, please, I implore you: watch the video above.

    Archer stands just 5'8'', but his impact on the game is much larger. He averaged 9.0 yards on his 159 carries, the highest average in the nation by a long shot.

    The soft competition does dilute his numbers a little bit. But any list that doesn't rank Archer as one of the five most explosive players, is a list that shouldn't be believed.

4. RB Lache Seastrunk, Baylor

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    Watch: Seastrunk 76-yard TD run vs. Oklahoma State (on one leg!)

    Seastrunk was a blue-chip recruit coming out of high school, but never found his footing at Oregon. He transferred after a redshirt season and came back to his home state of Texas.

    How scary would the Ducks be if he hadn't?

    In his first season of live college football, Seastrunk topped 1,000 yards on just 131 carries. His rushing average, 7.7 yards per carry, trailed on aforementioned Dri Archer on the national leaderboard.

    The scariest part: Seastrunk didn't even get going until the last part of the season. Through October he had never topped seven carries or 56 yards in a game. In his next six games, though, Seastrunk tallied 831 yards and five touchdowns.

    Extrapolate those numbers over 12-13 games, and folks, we might have ourselves a Heisman contender.

3. WR Marqise Lee, USC

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    Watch: Lee vs. Arizona – 2012 (16 rec, 345 yds, 2 TD)

    Matt Barkley's (relative) struggles stole the headlines last year, but they didn't much seem to affect Marqise Lee. The then-sophomore receiver earned All-America honors with 118 catches (first in the country), 1,721 yards (second in the country) and 14 touchdowns.

    Lee doesn't boast the same average as some other names on this list, but that's only because he catches so many passes. Don't be fooled by those numbers, though: Lee is a threat to score every time he touches the ball.

    Without Robert Woods and Matt Barkley to support him, Lee might find it tougher to get open and catch passes. Then again, he might just find new ways to make highlights.

    My money is on the latter.

2. RB De'Anthony Thomas, Oregon

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    Watch: Thomas 94-yard kickoff return TD vs. Kansas State 

    Nobody does more with less than De'Anthony Thomas. Whether it be carries of anatomical surface area, Oregon's scat back can take trace amounts of anything and turn it into points.

    He averaged 7.6 yards per carry last season—trailing just Archer and Seastrunk—but contributed more than either of them in the passing game, where he's tallied 91 catches, 1,050 yards and 14 touchdowns in two seasons.

    He also returns kickoffs, in case you didn't watch the Fiesta Bowl, and he's pretty darn good at that as well. The only thing he doesn't do is throw, but honestly, I wouldn't put anything past him this season.

1. QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M

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    Watch: Manziel vs. Oklahoma – 2012 (22-for-34, 287 yds, 2 TD; 17 car, 229 yds, 2 TD)

    Johnny Football has embraced his celebrity this offseason, which has led to some pointed (and predictable) backlash. The world was rooting for him last season, but in 2013, there's a chance some football fans, perturbed by his Twitter account or perceived sense of diva, will be hoping for him to fail.

    Good luck with that.

    Once Manziel gets back on the field, we'll all remember why we fell in love with him in the first place. Forget turning negative plays into a positive—this guy turns negative plays into touchdowns.

    Texas A&M is a threat to score every time Johnny Manziel touches the ball. As he touches the ball on every single snap, it's because of him that Texas A&M is among the nation's most dangerous offenses.

    And that makes him the nation's most explosive player.