12 CFB Underclassmen Already Showing NFL Potential
Similar to the impact rookies are making in the NFL, college football has experienced an influx of talented underclassmen who are already creating buzz about their futures in the NFL.
For example, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, USC wide receiver Marqise Lee and Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins were household names by the end of their freshmen campaigns.
A handful of rising sophomores are poised to add to their sterling bodies of work.
So, which players comprise the latest batch of college underclassmen who have attracted the undivided attention of NFL scouts?
*Players are listed in alphabetical order.
Amari Cooper: WR, Alabama
2012 Stats: 59 receptions, 1,000 yards, 11 TDs
One of the biggest reasons Alabama was able to capture the 2012 national title was the emergence of freshman wideout Amari Cooper.
The 6’1”, 202-pound Cooper topped the century mark in four of the Tide’s last five games, with three of those games coming against teams that finished ranked in the Top Five.
To put his debut season in perspective, Cooper’s 2012 numbers topped the freshman stats put up by former Tide All-American receiver Julio Jones.
In a story written by Alex Scarborough of ESPN’s TideNation, ESPN draft analyst Kevin Weidl broke down what makes Cooper stand out to scouts: “He has body control, hands, and the one thing I really like is he has some savvy for a young guy, in terms of setting up defenders—subtle things scouts look for."
Ronald Darby: CB, Florida State
2012 Stats: 22 tackles, 8 breakups, 1 forced fumble
Despite stepping into a crowded secondary, Florida State freshman corner Ronald Darby played well enough as a true freshman to be crowned the ACC’s Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Considering he played last season with a sports hernia, according to Coley Harvey of the Orlando Sentinel, that feat is even more impressive.
The 5’11”, 189-pound Darby is also a sprinter on the Seminoles' track team, and his speed is likely to grab the attention of NFL personnel.
With Xavier Rhodes off to the NFL, Darby is in contention for a starting corner spot, presuming he remains healthy.
Mike Evans: WR, Texas A&M
2012 Stats: 82 receptions, 1,105 yards, 5 TDs
Johnny Manziel wasn’t the only Texas A&M freshman to take the SEC by storm last season.
Receiver Mike Evans, who checks in at an impressive 6’5”, 225 pounds, was the Aggies' leading pass-catcher as a redshirt freshman and caught at least four passes in every game.
The graduation of seniors Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu and the transfer of Thomas Johnson leave Evans as the Aggies' clear-cut No. 1 target.
With his size and on-field production in the toughest league in college football, Evans could be a candidate to bolt College Station after just two seasons if he has another strong year in 2013.
Todd Gurley: RB, Georgia
2012 Stats: 222 carries, 1,385 yards, 17 TDs
16 receptions, 117 yards
1 kickoff return for TD
No SEC running back ran for more yards or touchdowns than Georgia true freshman Todd Gurley did last season (Manziel led the conference in rushing yards and touchdowns).
Gurley averaged more than six yards per carry and had nine games with more than 100 yards rushing.
With all five returning starters on the offensive line, and after packing on an extra 14 pounds of muscle in the offseason, the 6’1”, 232-pound Gurley could have an even bigger sophomore season.
Even though the running back position has depreciated in terms of value in the draft, Gurley is a special talent worthy of being considered a franchise-caliber back at the next level.
Brett Hundley: QB, UCLA
2012 Stats: 318/478, 3,740 passing yards, 29 TDs, 11 INTs
160 carries, 355 yards, 9 rush TDs
On his first snap in a college game, UCLA dual-threat quarterback Brett Hundley scampered 72 yards for a touchdown against Rice.
Hundley would go on to pile up more than 4,000 yards of total offense and lead the Bruins to a nine-win season and a Pac-12 South division title.
According to Matt Hayes of the Sporting News, Hundley has put together an equally impressive resume in the classroom. With his skill set appealing to NFL teams who are moving toward adding mobile passers, Hundley is another third-year sophomore who could test the draft waters following the season.
Aaron Lynch: DE, South Florida
2011 Stats (at Notre Dame): 33 tackles, 14 QB hurries, 7 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks
After a standout freshman season two years ago at Notre Dame, defensive end Aaron Lynch decided to transfer to South Florida to be closer to his hometown of Cape Coral, Fla.
While his recruitment and his only offseason in South Bend could be considered a soap opera, Lynch is ready to re-emerge for the Bulls this season.
According to Bruce Feldman of CBS Sports, Lynch has already garnered praise from new Bulls head coach Willie Taggart, who compared the 6’6”, 244-pounder to 49ers All-Pro sack master Aldon Smith.
While Clowney is clearly the top pass-rushing prospect in the 2014 draft class, Lynch could vault into the discussion to be the second defensive end off the board, especially if he can put together a solid 2013 season.
Johnny Manziel: QB, Texas A&M
2012 Stats: 295/434, 3,706 passing yards, 26 TDs, 9 INTs
201 carries, 1,410 yards, 21 rush TDs
With all of the headlines Johnny Manziel has generated in the offseason, the focus has shifted from the remarkable season he put together in 2012.
Johnny Football is eligible for the 2014 draft, and the discussion about his future has already become a hot topic among NFL evaluators, according to Chris Wesseling of NFL.com.
While Manziel’s size (6’1”, 200 pounds) could be a deterrent for some teams, the recent success of Russell Wilson should help alleviate that concern.
With the spotlight on Manziel almost Tim Tebow-like in intensity, how he fares this fall will either fuel or quell the concerns about his ability to play in the NFL.
Marcus Mariota: QB, Oregon
2012 Stats: 230/336, 2,677 yards, 32 TDs, 6 INTs
106 carries, 752 yards, 5 rush TDs
For NFL-types looking for the next Colin Kaepernick, the closest thing to the 49ers' star signal-caller could reside in Eugene, Ore., according to Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com.
Similar to Manziel, Marcus Mariota was a relative unknown at this point a year ago. However, the 6’4”, 212-pound Mariota has the size NFL scouts covet and comes without the cult-like following.
With former Ducks coach Chip Kelly off to the NFL, the spotlight will gravitate toward Mariota as he becomes a symbol of the new era of Oregon football.
John Theus: OT, Georgia
2012 Stats: Started all 14 games at right tackle, freshman All-American
Coming into 2012, one of the biggest question marks for the Georgia Bulldogs was their situation on the offensive line.
True freshman and former 5-star recruit John Theus was plugged in as a starter immediately, and the 6’6”, 298-pounder played a pivotal role in helping the Bulldogs average nearly 470 yards of total offense per game.
Shaq Thompson: OLB, Washington
2012 Stats: 74 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 3 INTs, 2 sacks
Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson signed with the Huskies as a 5-star safety prospect in 2012. However, as Bob Condotta of The Seattle Times noted, defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox moved him into the box and helped him earn freshman All-American honors.
The 6’2”, 230-pound Thompson is just beginning to scratch the surface of his potential at his new position.
With his athletic frame and instincts in coverage, Thompson fits the mold of hybrid linebackers who are becoming all the rage for NFL defenses.
Leonard Williams: DE, USC
2012 Stats: 64 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 8 sacks, 1 INT
While USC’s 2012 recruiting class made headlines with the addition of 5-star receiver and Florida native Nelson Agholor, Lane Kiffin quietly pulled another stud from the Sunshine State on national signing day last February.
Defensive end Leonard Williams shocked most recruiting analysts by opting for USC over the likes of Florida State and Florida, but he validated his lofty prep credentials by wreaking havoc on Pac-12 quarterbacks in his first season as a Trojan.
The 6’5”, 270-pounder, who also saw action as a defensive tackle, was named the 2012 Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year.
With fellow stud pass-rusher Morgan Breslin on the opposite end, Williams should continue to build a strong buzz as one of the top pass-rushers in the 2015 draft class.
T.J. Yeldon: RB, Alabama
2012 Stats: 175 carries, 1,108 yards, 12 TDs
11 receptions, 131 yards, 1 receiving TD
During Nick Saban’s run at Alabama, he’s had the luxury of producing standout rushers such as Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy.
But while all of those players enjoyed standout college careers and were high NFL draft choices, none was able to put together a freshman season like T.J. Yeldon.
With Lacy off to the NFL, the 6’2”, 218-pound Yeldon is now the Tide's featured back.
As Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com points out, Yeldon already grasps the art of pass-blocking at this early stage in his career. That attribute and his versatility as a runner make Yeldon attractive to NFL scouts.