Each college football season brings events like senior day and the senior bowl. Fans expect to lose upperclassmen each and every year, and only rare exceptions prevent it from happening (the elusive sixth year of eligibility).
Each season also brings underclassmen the hope of joining the ranks of the NFL early. This is possible for anyone who has been out of high school for at least three years, but the field will not be limited to just draft-eligible players here. As long as the player isn't a senior, he is eligible to be on this list.
Here is the one underclassman from each FBS squad who has the best chance of being drafted early.
Air Force's running back, Jon Lee, is going to be the Falcons' breakout star on offense this season. His 195-pound, 5'10" frame helped him gain 545 yards and four touchdowns off just 88 carries last season. He'll be the anchor of the Falcons' rushing attack in 2013.
Lee may or may not end up in the NFL, but he's got the size and talent to be an effective runner on the pro field. He wouldn't be an every-down back, but he would have a place on a roster.
Watch some 2013 Air Force games for more proof. He just hasn't been used to his fullest yet.
Akron running back Jawon Chisholm is the brightest star on the Akron roster. Head coach Terry Bowden has a long road from 1-11 to a successful program, but guys like Chisholm make things a bit easier.
Sadly, the Zips will not have him for much longer, as he's a junior in 2013. Akron isn't exactly a hotbed of NFL talent, but Chisholm is definitely capable of making it to the pro level.
T.J. Yeldon may not be the highest-drafted player from Alabama in his class (regardless of whether he declares early or waits until the 2016 draft), but he will be one of the top running backs when he leaves college.
He's got all the talent necessary to make it in the NFL, and Alabama's coaching staff will definitely not mess that up. The Tide trainers will help him grow to his full potential, and he'll make a name for himself in the pros. He's starting at 6'2" and 218 pounds, so the sky is the limit for the beast from the Southeast.
Alabama has four players who are ranked No. 1 at their respective positions for the 2016 draft alone: Amari Cooper (WR), Landon Collins (S), T.J. Yeldon (RB) and Ryan Kelly (C). Yeldon's spot on this list is not secure, but he's earned it.
Ka'Deem Carey is one season away from entering the NFL draft if he repeats the success of his sophomore campaign. Carey rushed for 1,929 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2012 off a team-leading 303 carries.
He finished as No. 1 in the country in rushing yardage last season, and he is likely to be the No. 1 tailback drafted if he crosses the 1,500-yard mark a second year in a row. If he stays healthy, there is little incentive for him to stick around for his senior season (unless Arizona gets close to a Pac-12 title in 2013).
Before you start asking questions about Will Sutton, he is a senior this season. As an upperclassman, he is ineligible for this list. Carl Bradford, the junior linebacker, is the best non-senior on the roster.
His 233-pound, 6'1" frame is ready to be coached into lethal form by any one of the NFL teams that is lucky enough to sign him. Bradford finished 2012 with 80 tackles (57 solo), 21.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks and three forced fumbles.
The kid will be a beast in the NFL, whenever he goes.
Trey Flowers' numbers aren't uniquely impressive, but they get hundreds of times better in light of the terrible season Arkansas posted last year. In 2012, the Razorbacks went 4-8, proving that success was limited.
Flowers didn't get that memo. He posted 50 tackles (22 solo), 13 tackles for loss, six sacks, three pass breakups and 11 quarterback hurries. If the rest of the Arkansas defense performed that well, the SEC West would have looked a lot different last year.
Plenty of NFL teams will be vying to get him on their rosters.
J.D. McKissic was a freshman last season who made his presence known immediately. McKissic hauled in 103 receptions for 1,022 yards and five touchdowns. The touchdown mark isn't as impressive as the rest of the stat sheet, but Arkansas State did turn his performance into a Sun Belt title last year.
McKissic is entering just his sophomore season, but those freshman numbers are impossible to ignore. The only thing holding him back from being a lock for the NFL is his 5'10" height. A lot of teams will pass on him due to his relatively short stature, but steady performances over the next couple of years can help ease a lot of the doubt.
Larry Dixon is a running back for the Army Black Knights who averaged six yards per carry over the 2012 season. He had 140 touches for 839 yards and six touchdowns.
He wasn't the most prolific rusher on the team, but Trent Steelman is gone and Raymond Maples is a senior. Of the kids qualified for this list, the 238-pound, 6'1" Dixon is the most NFL-built player on the roster.
He could reasonably get a shot at the NFL through free agency, but he'll likely stick with his career in the armed forces.
Despite the glaring lack of success over the past few years, Auburn has quite a few stellar talents on its roster. The best underclassman heading into 2013 is easily running back Tre Mason.
Mason will get most of Auburn's carries in 2013, and he will emerge as one of the best tailbacks in the SEC. He finished 2012 with 171 carries, 1,002 yards and eight touchdowns. That was when he played behind Onterio McCalebb.
His 5'10" height will play against him a little, but people are still acutely aware of Ray Rice's success. Rice lists at 5'8" for the Baltimore Ravens. Height won't kill an SEC running back's career if the stats are there to back him up.
Jalen Schlachter is a 317-pound, 6'6" monster of an offensive guard for the Ball State Cardinals. He's the top-rated prospect at Ball State, and he's got the size to compete in the NFL.
Whether he develops into a draft-worthy lineman or not, he's Ball State's best right now.
Baylor's 205-pound, 5'10" running back, Lache Seastrunk is the clear choice for this list. Honestly, his only real competition for this spot is Cyril Richardson. Richardson is a senior, so there's the answer.
Seastrunk finished the 2012 season with 131 carries, 1,012 yards and seven touchdowns. He did all that while sharing carries with fellow tailback Glasco Martin. Look for Seastrunk on the Heisman watch list in 2013, and don't be surprised if he jets for the NFL early.
Defensive end Demarcus Lawrence is an unsung hero for the Boise State Broncos. He's currently the No. 4 defensive end for the 2015 draft class, but he's still No. 15 if he declares for the 2014 cycle.
Lawrence logged a more than respectable 48 tackles (24 solo), 13.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, four forced fumbles (one returned for a touchdown), one interception and a blocked kick in 2012. He was a sophomore then, and should be even better as a junior. Boise will miss him when he leaves, whether that's after this season or the next.
Boston College has some talent on its roster, but the majority of star players, like Alex Amidon and Steele Divitto, are heading into their senior seasons. What's left at the top of the Eagles' talent list is underrated center Andy Gallik.
Gallik is a 300-pound, 6'3" anchor who commands attention from the defense every time he takes the field. He started all 12 games last season, and ESPN.com awarded him 2013 spring MVP honors as well. As difficult a time as Boston College is having, players like Gallik are making it easier rather than harder.
Bowling Green's star tailback, Anthon Samuel, is entering his junior season with the Falcons. Samuel finished 2012 with 202 carries, 998 yards and 11 touchdowns.
He currently weighs in at 188 pounds and stands at 5'11". He's not the biggest running back in the draft class, and Bowling Green simply may not have anyone drafted over the next couple of years. However, the Falcons aren't going to let a good 8-5 season go to waste on the recruiting trail.
Samuel may be the most talented underclassman at the moment, but the talent level should rise over the next couple of years.
Buffalo's kicker, Patrick Clarke, is a great asset to the team, but he's got to develop more in order to get his shot at the pro level. In 2012, he connected on 11-of-15 field goals. None of them were from 50 or more yards out.
He's reliable, but he's not elite yet. If he can hone his skills over the next couple of seasons, he could get his shot. At 197 pounds, he's already got the size necessary to bring down a returner in the NFL if that should become necessary.
Bronson Kaufusi is currently the No. 4 defensive end of the 2016 draft class, though there is plenty of time for that to change. The 270-pound two-sport (basketball) athlete is going to anchor BYU's defensive line in 2013, and he'll help make Kyle Van Noy look even better than he did last season.
Kaufusi could be the next defensive headliner for the Cougars. It all depends on how he reacts to coaching. It's safe to assume that he will respond well, considering he voluntarily receives coaching in two sports.
He's not on the 2013 Blietnikoff watch list for nothing.
California lost its star receiver, Keenan Allen, to the 2013 NFL draft. Luckily for the Golden Bears, there is an underclassman ready to take Allen's place: Chris Harper.
Harper is going to benefit greatly from the new coaching staff in place at Cal. Sonny Dykes is going to bring his style to Cal, and that style is what put Louisiana Tech on the map over the past few seasons. He coached a team that almost out-gunned Texas A&M in 2012, which is something that even the national champion couldn't do.
Harper finished last season with 41 receptions, 544 yards and two touchdowns. He was a freshman at the time, and Allen was the clear No. 1 receiver. In 2013 and beyond, Harper will be the go-to receiver with experience (assuming that he isn't passed up by a stud recruit in 2014).
He'll be the top draft pick from California when he declares, and there's no limit to how high his stock can rise.
Central Michigan just notched its belt with the No. 1 player selected in the 2013 NFL draft: Eric Fisher. That is not likely to happen in any one of the next three drafts. (Of course, it was unlikely to happen in 2013, too...)
Right now, the best underclassman for the Chippewas is Titus Davis. Davis will be a junior this fall, and he'll be the Chippewas' top receiver. He finished 2012 with 43 receptions, 860 yards and eight touchdowns.
He weighs in at 190 pounds and stands 6'2" tall. He's got the size to be an NFL receiver, but his 4.57-second 40-yard time may hold him back a bit. He's currently ranked 29th at his position for the 2015 draft. He has time to fix that, though.
Offensive tackle Eric Lefeld is Cincinnati's best underclassman heading into the fall. (Linebacker Greg Blair is a 2013 senior.) Lefeld tips the scales at 287 pounds and stands at 6'6".
He's the size of an NFL player already, and he's ranked seventh at his position for the 2015 draft class. Lefeld protected the Cincinnati passers as the Bearcats made their way to yet another postseason appearance in 2012.
This time, he helped Cincy come away with a win over Duke, in spite of the fact that physics itself tried to swing the game the Blue Devils' way. Lefeld could be a solid addition to an NFL roster. He'd provide quality depth at his position, even if he didn't make it to the starting lineup.
Sammy Watkins is the biggest playmaker on Clemson's roster this side of Tajh Boyd. Watkins will likely be ending his collegiate career after the 2013 season. Whether he raises or lowers his draft stock this fall, his quarterback will be graduating this year. It's in his best interests to take off after his junior season (unless his new quarterback is a Manning).
Watkins finished 2012 with 57 catches, 708 yards and three touchdowns. Those were far lower numbers than his freshman campaign. Expect Watkins to put on the afterburners in his final year, especially starting the slate against a near-national champion Georgia squad.
Watkins is the best non-senior on the roster, and it will show when he's drafted in 2014.
Paul Richardson is the No. 11 wide receiver of the 2014 cycle. If he waits until 2015, he's already No. 8 for that year. Of course, waiting will allow other receivers to pass him up, so it's really a difficult decision for him.
Richardson missed 2012 with a knee injury, so 2013 will be his junior year as far as eligibility is concerned. In 2011, he caught 39 passes for 555 yards and five touchdowns. He's the most talented player on Colorado's roster, and his being a junior makes him a no-brainer for this list.
That's Matthews lurking in the background.
Colorado State has a top 10 player on its roster, and what's more surprising is that he plays defense. Trent Matthews is the No. 9 strong safety of the 2016 class at the moment. If the new era of Colorado State football works out as planned, he'll be able to maintain that positional ranking until he declares.
Matthews finished 2012 (his freshman season) with 71 tackles (36 solo), three tackles for loss, one forced fumble, one interception and 10 pass breakups. They aren't NCAA-leading numbers, but he was a freshman on a 4-8 team. He has a boatload of potential.
Connecticut has a linebacker who easily earns his spot here. Yawin Smallwood is one of the best inside linebackers in the country, and he's currently ranked No. 2 on both the 2014 and 2015 draft lists.
Smallwood racked up a monstrous 120 tackles (59 solo), 15 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, four pass breakups and two forced fumbles in 2012, and that was as a sophomore. His junior year may push him up the draft boards high enough to cause him to declare early.
Jamison Crowder is another player on this list who is the best on his team, regardless of seniority. The fact that he's a junior just made things easier.
Crowder finished his sophomore campaign with 76 receptions, 1,074 yards and eight touchdowns. The 1,074-yard mark tied him for 27th in the country with two other receivers: Alec Lemon (Syracuse) and Conner Vernon (Duke).
Now that he won't be sharing catches with Vernon, Crowder will climb steadily up the draft boards all season. Blue Devils fans will simply be hoping that it's not enough to draw him away from campus a year early.
Jeremy Grove holds East Carolina's spot on the list. He's the No. 15 inside linebacker of the 2015 draft class, and he's growing into a defensive leader for the Pirates.
Grove tallied 83 tackles (43 solo), 4.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles last season. As ECU continues to rise back to success, Grove will lead the way on defense. Look for even better numbers from him in 2013.
Dylan Mulder isn't the most likely to be drafted, but he's the highest-ranked Eastern Michigan player at any given position. He's the No. 22 kicker for the 2016 class. That's a big gap to overcome between now and 2016, but that's also a lot of time.
Mulder connected with 10 of his 11 field goals last season, missing one from the 30-39 range. He hit all three from 40-49, though. He's got the leg to move up the rankings over the next couple of years, but he'll have some heated competition along the way.
Out of all the talent on Florida's field, it may be a misdemeanor to put him on this list, but Kyle Christy is an insanely talented punter. He was better than Brad Wing in 2012, and Wing was the best punter in the SEC in 2011.
Christy booted 66 punts last season for an average of 45.8 yards per attempt. That was good for fifth-best in the FBS. The four players ahead of him were all seniors. Expect Christy to turn some serious heads in 2013.
Nexon Dorvilus is in his last year of eligibility, so the tight end does not qualify for the list. Florida Atlantic's best underclassman is inside linebacker Andrae Kirk. He's ranked 41st at his position for the 2015 draft, but he has time to move up in the rankings.
He weighs 226 pounds and is 6'2" tall, so he is already sitting in the sweet spot for NFL size. All he needs to do now is put up some numbers to go along with his size. In 2012, he totaled a respectable 70 tackles (24 solo), four tackles for loss, three pass breakups, three quarterback hurries and one forced fumble.
Those numbers aren't going to get him drafted on the first two days, but he's got plenty of time to improve before his day arrives.
Ya'Keem Griner is the No. 28 tight end of the 2016 draft. That's a great start for the youngster, and there are plenty of years between now and his draft cycle. Even if he leaves early, he has two seasons left to prove himself to the NFL scouts.
The 234-pound, 6'4" freshman reeled in nine passes for 113 yards last season. He probably wanted more attention than that, but everyone has to start somewhere. An average of 12.56 yards per catch is a great place to begin.
Jameis Winston is an easy pick for this list, but he's not the best...yet. Keep an eye out for him over the next couple of seasons, though. Florida State's best proven underclassman is either Karlos Williams (SS) or Ronald Darby (CB). Both are ranked No. 1 at their positions.
Williams is more proven on the field, as he has had one more year in the system, so his stats put him ahead of Darby for this list. Williams racked up 31 tackles (25 solo), one tackle for loss, one interception and two pass breakups in 2012 alone.
For his first full season on the field, those are solid numbers. Especially if you consider the talent on FSU's squad last season. The Seminoles put 11 players into the NFL through the 2013 draft. With all that NFL-quality talent on the field, it's a wonder that Williams even had the opportunity to put up those numbers.
First point: Derek Carr is a senior, and that's why he isn't here. Derron Smith makes the cut as a 194-pound, 5'11" free safety with a 4.57 40-yard time. (The 20-plus-yard head start against any given wide receiver more than compensates for any speed disadvantage he would face.)
Smith made 79 tackles (61 solo), one tackle for loss, two pass breakups, one forced fumble and six interceptions (one pick-six) in 2012, and that was as a sophomore. He may not get the press that Carr does, but he's a highly effective member of the Bulldogs' secondary.
Currently, he's the No. 5 free safety on the 2015 board, and another great season could move him up even further.
Georgia has four players ranked at the top of their positions for the 2016 NFL draft. A long-snapper, a kicker, an offensive tackle and a strong safety. Anything can happen between now and then, but John Theus, the offensive tackle, is the front-runner at the moment.
He's 310 pounds and 6'6", and he's more than just an anchor on the line for the Bulldogs. Nothing happens without the offensive line, and Theus has proven himself worthy of his starting position on the roster.
He is only the third player in Georgia history to start in a season opener as a true freshman, and he held that starting gig for 14 straight games. If he keeps up the good work, NFL scouts will be salivating over him by the time he's ready for the draft in either 2015 or '16.
Matt Hubbard started at Georgia State as a walk-on punter, and he quickly earned a scholarship with the Panthers. He averaged a decent 41.9 yards per punt in 2011, but he raised the bar to 43.1 in 2012.
He also launched 21 of his punts over 50 yards. If he can bring consistency to his game and connect with those 50-yarders more often, he can move from No. 20 at his position to No. 1 before the 2015 draft rolls around.
While Jeremiah Attaochu gets a lot of deserved attention, there is an underclassman who is ready to step up and lead the defense once Attaochu is gone. That man is sophomore inside linebacker Jabari Hunt-Days.
As a freshman in 2012, he collected 84 tackles (47 solo), 4.5 tackles for loss, four pass breakups, one quarterback hurry and one interception. Those numbers are more than solid for a college freshman, and he'll be better in 2013.
David Lefotu is the No. 24 offensive guard of the 2015 class. There aren't a lot of good things to say about the 2012 Hawaii Warriors. They finished last in the Mountain West Conference in a lot of offensive categories.
However, Lefotu is one of the players who can make a difference now and in the near future. At 305 pounds and 6'3", he's built to stop defenses from breaking through. With conditioning, that frame could play in the NFL. It's a little on the low side of ideal, but he's still within the target range.
Deontay Greenberry is the No. 8 wide receiver of the 2016 class. As a freshman in 2012, he caught 47 passes for 569 yards and three touchdowns. While that doesn't seem that impressive, he had first-year starter David Piland throwing to him.
As Piland improves, so will Greenberry's stats. If Houston makes a jump back toward the offensive success it had under Case Keenum, Greenberry won't be stuck at No. 8 forever.
Idaho had a terrible season in 2012, but that doesn't mean that the Vandals should be written off completely. Every team has a bad season once in a while.
Idaho's best underclassman is Mike Marboe, the No. 10 center of the 2015 draft class. While the center is generally overlooked, he is an incredibly valuable contributor to the offensive line. Usually, he is the one responsible for getting the line ready for whatever is coming its way.
While the quarterback can audible if the play is completely wrong, the center is constantly making adjustments on the line that put the offense in the best possible position to succeed. Sometimes that isn't enough for a team win, but Marboe is individually an excellent player.
At 298 pounds and 6'2", Marboe is definitely big enough to get an NFL opportunity.
Mason Monheim is the No. 10 inside linebacker of the 2016 class. He's a solid 230 pounds and stands at 6'1". He's at the top end of ideal height for a linebacker, but he could use some conditioning. That makes complete sense, though, because he was a freshman last season.
As a freshman, he posted 86 tackles (33 solo), six tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, one pass breakup, two forced fumbles and one interception. Illinois would do itself (and Monheim) a huge favor by developing him as well as possible. With a linebacker like him, the postseason is not a pipe dream at all.
Indiana has one underclassman that boasts a top-three rating at his position: long snapper Matt Dooley. He's No. 3 at his position, and some NFL teams are decidedly aware that they either need new training regimens or better backups at long snapper. (Anything to keep this situation from happening again.)
Dooley is at the top of his class. He won't go in the first round, of course, but he could easily work his way up into the draft in some fashion. Long snappers are like kickers: You don't think about them until you need one, and then it's too late.
Any NFL squad would do well to pick up Dooley before they find out they needed him after the fact.
Iowa's best is Carl Davis, the No. 11 defensive tackle of the 2015 class. (Tight end Jake Duzey is ranked higher at his position, but he caught just three passes last season...hardly a representative sample.)
Davis didn't exactly have a career-making season in 2012, but neither did the Hawkeyes in general. Davis pulled down 14 tackles (six solo) and 1.5 tackles for loss last season, but his overall performance was enough to get him on this list.
On the defensive line, not everything is about statistics. Yes, they are certainly an indicator of talent, but they aren't the whole story. Of course, we're not projecting him in the first round, either.
Sam Richardson has every reason to believe that he'll end up on this list before his time at Iowa State is up, but this spot belongs to center Tom Farniok right now.
Farniok is the No. 17 center of his 2015 class, and his weight (287 pounds) and height (6'3") put him solidly in the NFL-potential category. While he is currently ranked high enough to get a shot at the NFL, he can move up into actual selection over the next two seasons.
There are other players, like tight end Ben Boesen, who could pass Farniok for the Iowa State position on this list, but it's Farniok's to lose for the time being. This is about NFL potential, not who will be drafted first from each team.
Jimmay Mundine is underused at Kansas, but he's still talented. He's the No. 7 fullback of the 2015 class, but he is listed as a tight end at Kansas. At 243 pounds and 6'2" tall, he's a little short to be a tight end or wide receiver in the NFL, but a little heavy (not much) to be a go-to running back.
If he lightens himself up a tad and puts on some speed, he could switch over to running back, but there is talent standing in the way of that move at the collegiate level.
In 2012, Mundine caught 14 passes for 183 yards and two touchdowns. Clearly, he's making the best of the tight end position. He can improve over the next couple of years and make it to the pro level, regardless of what position he holds at that point.
Kansas State's underclassman is center BJ Finney. He's 305 pounds, 6'3" and is ranked No. 4 at his position for the 2015 class. With all the success that Bill Snyder has put together at Kansas State, it's no wonder that the linemen are some of the best in the country.
College football games are won and lost in the trenches, and Collin Klein would have been pretty useless if he were sharing the offensive backfield with a bunch of enemy defenders.
Finney has anchored the line for a couple of years now, and his skill level is more impressive when you consider his modest roots: Finney was a walk-on at Kansas State for his redshirt season, and he's started every game after that.
Kent State's man is Trayion Durham. Sure, senior Dri Archer gets a lot of hype, but Durham is as good as he is. Durham finished 2012 with 276 carries for 1,316 yards and 14 touchdowns.
He has earned the No. 5 ranking at running back for the 2015 draft, and that means that he's likely to get selected instead of falling into the free-agency mix. He's definitely got the talent, and NFL teams have the resources to turn that into useful skill.
Glenn Faulkner left high school as the No. 1 prospect out of the state of Kentucky. He signed with the Kentucky Wildcats, and he saw a lot of time on special teams in his first season. He missed 2012 due to injury, but he's still rated the No. 8 strong safety of the 2016 class.
It will be nice to see him put some stats up in 2013 to back up his high school hype, but for now, all he has is his reputation to put him on this list.
Anthony Johnson is the No. 2 defensive tackle of the 2015 class, and he's going to be a junior in 2013. LSU lost a lot of talent to the NFL this offseason (as usual), and Johnson will be expected to take on more of a leadership role this fall.
In 2012, Johnson racked up 30 tackles (11 solo), 10 tackles for loss, three sacks, one pass breakup and two quarterback hurries. Those are not bad numbers at all for a sophomore on a perennial SEC title contender.
The 2011 New Orleans Bowl trophy.
Quarterback Terrance Broadway is unlikely to get a shot at the NFL. His biggest protector, 325-pound offensive guard Daniel Quave, could. Quave stands at 6'3", and he's got the body of an NFL lineman already.
Quave isn't perfect, but he was an integral part of one of the Ragin' Cajuns most successful seasons in recent memory: 2011. Now that his brother is on the line with him, he's got some serious competition for the spot on this list.
Harley Scioneaux is a 245-pound, 6'5" tight end from Louisiana-Monroe. He's the No. 25 tight end of the 2016 class, and he's built like an NFL specimen already.
In 2012, he caught four passes for 16 yards and three touchdowns. A 75-precent touchdown-to-reception ratio is insane. That's like Marqise Lee scoring 88 touchdowns last season.
Scioneaux missed the majority of last season due to battling testicular cancer. Warhawks and Warhawks fans hope he returns to the field in 2013. If so, his spot on this list is waiting for him.
Kenneth Dixon is the No. 16 running back of the 2016 class, and he's already made an impression as a freshman for the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs. In 2012, he carried the rock 200 times for 1,194 yards and 27 touchdowns.
That is a stellar freshman campaign, and the sky is the limit for Dixon. He's got NFL size (6' and 215 pounds), and his stats are bound to improve. As long as he can repeat his stat line, or at least get close, he's going to get his chance to play on Sundays.
As a sophomore in 2012, Teddy Bridgewater went 287-of-419 for 3,718 yards, 27 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. While there are cleaner quarterbacks out there, they are almost exclusively upperclassmen.
Bridgwater's biggest question isn't whether he's the best underclassman on Louisville's roster, it's whether he's the best underclassman in the 2014 draft class. He has an elite arm and great stats under his belt from 2012. That's a lot going for him already.
D.J. Hunter is the No. 7 strong safety of the 2016 class. He may be overshadowed by upperclassman Rakeem Cato, but Hunter is the diamond in the rough on defense.
He finished his freshman campaign in 2012 with 102 tackles (46 solo), 3.5 tackles for loss, two pass breakups, three quarterback hurries and one forced fumble. He's not a rock star or a ball-hawk, but he's a sound last line of defense for the Thundering Herd.
It would not be a surprise to see Hunter in the NFL after another season or two at Marshall.
Stefon Diggs is the No. 6 wide receiver of the 2016 class, and he's got some stiff competition ahead of him. Out of the top 10 receivers, he has the fastest 40 time of any of them at 4.48 seconds. Amari Cooper and others may stay ahead of him, but he is the only thing standing between himself and a top-five ranking at his position.
In 2012, Diggs hauled in 54 passes for 848 yards and six touchdowns. He averaged over 10 yards per return on 22 punts, and over five yards per carry on 20 attempts. He's an all-around offensive asset to the Maryland Terrapins.
With a solid quarterback and good coaching, you could be looking at a surprise first-round pick before his collegiate career is over.
Massachusetts has three underclassmen ranked No. 25 or better at their positions for the 2016 draft. There is time for that to change in either direction, but free safety Khary Baily-Smith is starting out at No. 21.
Baily-Smith put up 45 tackles (23 solo), one tackle for loss, one pass breakup, one forced fumble, one fumble return and two interceptions during his freshman run through 2012. Those are good numbers if you consider UMass's 1-11 record last season.
No single player can make up for all the issues that the Minutemen had last year, but solid players like Baily-Smith are necessary for the foundation of the team.
Alan Cross is the No. 13 fullback of the 2016 rotation. His placement is a little deceptive, as fullbacks are less utilized in the NFL, so don't expect to see him jump off the board in round three.
However, he is more than a little useful at 235 pounds and 6'1". He finished 2012 with 23 receptions for 301 yards and five touchdowns. That was good for third place on the squad. He's listed as a tight end by GoTigersGo.com (the Memphis official athletic site), so keep an eye on his draft stock as the months pass.
Changing positions always changes the game.
Duke Johnson is the No. 2 running back of the 2016 class, sandwiched between T.J. Yeldon (Alabama, No. 1) and Todd Gurley (Georgia, No. 3). All three of those players made huge impacts in their freshman years at major FBS programs.
Johnson is in good company, but it's also an intense battle for the top spot in the class. Johnson amassed 947 yards and 10 touchdowns off 139 carries as a freshman in 2012. Johnson may be a long shot for the Heisman in 2013, but he's still got a shot.
Johnson should have a lot more recognition this season, too. The Hurricanes are underrated, and they have a good chance of winning the ACC in 2013.
Brison Burris is the No. 46 free safety of the 2015 class. As a junior this season, he is looking to improve his draft stock immensely.
His stats from 2012 actually indicate that he may be better than No. 46, but he's not a pass-rushing specialist or anything, so that does hurt him a bit. As a last line of defense, he's good. He finished last season with 81 tackles (42 solo), 1.5 tackles for loss, five pass breakups, one quarterback hurry, one fumble return and three interceptions.
If he can improve at reading the quarterback and getting to the ball in time to disrupt the play (as opposed to simply making solid tackles), his draft stock will soar.
While Devin Gardner (No. 3 QB, 2015) would be a fine choice for this list, and he did look great in the spring game, the No. 4 tight end of the 2014 class (Devin Funchess) barely edges him out. Gardner can take this spot any time during the season, but Funchess is much less of a gamble at this time.
Funchess caught 15 passes for 234 yards and five touchdowns as a freshman last season, and he's got potential out the wazoo. At 229 pounds and 6'5", he's a prototypical tight end who will get a shot at the NFL barring unforeseen circumstances over the next two seasons.
As Michigan improves under Gardner, Funchess' stats will also improve. At some point, Gardner can pass Funchess, but they have a symbiotic relationship until Gardner becomes truly elite. Once both are considered "elite," the quarterback position will always trump the tight end.
Michigan State just lost some underclassmen to the 2013 draft, but there's another top-tier player that could head out as early as 2014: Mike Sadler. Sadler is the No. 3 punter of the 2015 draft class.
He booted 79 punts last season for an average of 43.32 yards each. He also had one 26-yard rush that had better have been for a first down. (Seriously, if you impulsively tuck it and run on anything greater than a 4th-and-26, you should probably lose your scholarship.)
Sadler is a great punter, and he's among the best in the FBS. He'll get a shot in the NFL, even if he's passed over during draft weekend.
Kevin Byard is the No. 5 strong safety on the 2016 draft boards, and he suits up with the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders. As a freshman, he asserted himself in Conference USA last season.
He collected 74 tackles (48 solo), two pass breakups, one quarterback hurry, two forced fumbles and four interception (two pick-sixes). That's not bad for any safety, but it's worth reiterating that he was a freshman at the time.
Say all you want about the conferences outside the Power Five, but it's still college football.
Drew Goodger is the No. 36 tight end of the 2015 class right now, but there is plenty of time for him to improve his stock before that fateful weekend comes. He's 265 pounds and 6'5". He has all the potential in the world, but potential doesn't win games.
Goodger caught 13 passes for 115 yards and three touchdowns as a sophomore in 2012. He's a solid blocker, but he's got some improvements to make before he breaks into the elite tier of college football.
The NFL is in need of tight ends, but the coaches aren't going to reach deep to fill a perceived need. They're going to wait for the talent to emerge. Goodger has the best NFL potential on the Minnesota team, but don't mistake that for a projected first-round selection.
Hands-down, Mississippi State's best underclassman is Benardrick McKinney...for now. He is listed as the No. 1 outside linebacker of the 2016 class, and it literally doesn't get any better than that. He'll have tough competition for that spot, but owning the No. 1 slot at any time is better than starting anywhere else.
McKinney earned the accolade with 102 tackles (45 solo), 4.5 tackles for loss, one sack and four quarterback hurries. While he hasn't yet developed into an all-out pass rusher or a specialist of any kind yet, there is time. (He''s only a sophomore in 2013.) He has the potential to grace the NFL's Pro Bowl eventually, but he needs to keep his head down and blinders on to get there.
Kony Ealy is the No. 5 defensive end of the 2015 class, and he is bound to move up. (Jadeveon Clowney and Stephon Tuitt are almost locks to move to the NFL in 2014, and that will remove at least two people ahead of Ealy.)
Ealy racked up 37 tackles (18 solo), 10 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, seven pass breakups, five quarterback hurries and one forced fumble as a sophomore in 2012, and he's poised to anchor a successful defensive line once again in 2013.
He has as much talent as almost anyone in the league, and that's no light statement. Again, his draft class has an incredible amount of talent, and he's ranked fifth.
Navy's 225-pound, 6'2" punter ranks 23rd at his position for the 2015 cycle. Pablo Beltran is not a likely draft pick yet, but punters can develop in an instant.
In 2012, Beltran rocketed 44 punts an average of 43.61 yards each. That was good for 21st in the nation out of no less than 124. (There were 124 FBS teams last season.) He accomplished that as a sophomore, and that was more than six yards-per-punt better than his 2011 average of 37.46.
It's unfair to assume that he'll advance by another six yards, but he'd be the No. 1 punter in the nation if he did it. (Just some food for thought.)
David Santos is the No. 6 inside linebacker of the 2016 class, which narrowly edges Ameer Abdullah (No. 10 RB) for Nebraska's slot on the list. Santos is still a raw talent, but this is about potential.
Santos logged 24 tackles (11 solo), two tackles for loss and one forced fumble in his rookie outing with the Cornhuskers, and he has plenty of time to improve before attending draft weekend in at least two more seasons.
Again, he is a raw talent, and he'll have to improve a lot to maintain his razor-thin lead over Abdullah.
Cody Fajardo is the MVP of the Nevada Wolf Pack, and he's an underclassman. That makes him the unanimous (one vote out of one possible) choice for this slot. He's the No. 5 quarterback of the 2015 class, and he has led Nevada to some serious Mountain West success.
Fajardo finished last season (his sophomore campaign) with 2,786 passing yards, 20 aerial touchdowns, nine interceptions, 1,121 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. He's one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country, and he may get a shot at the NFL.
He's already done a lot at Nevada, and he's only a junior heading into 2013.
Javarie Johnson is the No. 23 outside linebacker of the 2015 class, and he's New Mexico's top underclassman for 2013. He is the anchor of the New Mexico linebacking corps.
He finished his sophomore season with 22 tackles (17 solo), 5.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, one pass breakup and three quarterback hurries. He's developing into a solid pass rusher, but he still has plenty of room to grow. At least he's one of the few players that the Lobos don't have to worry about very much.
Matt Ramondo hasn't spent a lot of time on any collegiate fields yet, but he has transferred from Michigan State to New Mexico State. He is currently the No. 18 defensive tackle of the 2016 draft class.
Ramondo will be expected to come in and immediately anchor the defensive line for the New Mexico State Aggies. If he doesn't do that, then expect to see wide receiver Austin Franklin in this spot on any future lists like this, should they occur.
That's a lot of tacklers for a guy that's still standing.
UNC has two No. 1 players according to draft rankings, but tight end Eric Ebron takes the tiebreaker as the more proven commodity. Ebron is entering his junior season, where Landon Turner (OG) is entering his sophomore.
Ebron caught 40 passes last season for 625 yards and four touchdowns. At 235 pounds and 6'4" tall, he's almost ideal in size to play tight end in the NFL. With quarterback Bryn Renner under center, definitely don't expect a drop in stats in 2013.
He will have a ton of competition for the 2015 No. 1 slot, but he owns it right now.
Hakim Jones is the No. 4 strong safety of the 2016 class, and he edges out Pete Thomas (No. 2 quarterback, 2015) for the NC State position here. (Pete Thomas is a junior who just sat out a year after transferring from Colorado State.)
Jones didn't get a ton playing time in 2012, but the secondary was already locked down by guys like David Amerson. Jones posted 10 tackles (four solo) and an interception for the season, but is highly regarded coming into his sophomore season.
It's not easy to come in and earn playing time as a freshman, and he played in all 13 games last season. He's listed as the starter coming into the fall, and his stats should rise accordingly.
Cyril Lemon is the No. 19 offensive guard of the 2015 class. Behind his 322-pound, 6'3' frame, the North Texas Mean Green finished with the fifth-ranked rushing offense in the Sun Belt.
Lemon has the tangibles to play in the NFL, but he'll have to improve if he wants to get drafted. In seven rounds, the 19th-best player at most positions can usually look forward to free agency.
Dechane Durante is the No. 34 free safety of the 2015 class. He sports a 196-pound, 6'2" body with 4.64 speed. Durante accumulated 38 tackles (22 solo), 1.5 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles and one interception during his sophomore season.
Durante is an excellent tackler in space, and he holds his side of the field well as a result. The NFL may or may not take interest, but he will play professionally in one of the leagues out there.
Ibraheim Campbell is the No. 6 strong safety of the 2015 class, and he measures 205 pounds and 5'11". He's a valuable asset to the Northwestern Wildcats and their defense, and that's a large part of the reason that Northwestern took down Mississippi State in the postseason last winter.
Campbell finished the season with 88 tackles (58 solo), 0.5 tackles for loss, 12 pass breakups, one quarterback hurry, two forced fumbles and two interceptions. Those are more than just solid numbers. If you leave Campbell on an island in the secondary, he's going to own that parcel of land, much to the chagrin of the enemy aiming for the end zone.
Notre Dame has a lot of underclassmen ranked No. 2 at their positions, but it has only one ranked No. 1. That's nose guard Louis Nix III. Nix is listed as a senior heading into 2013, but Notre Dame lists their players by academic year, not by football eligibility.
Nix finished 2012 with 50 tackles (20 solo), 7.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, five pass breakups, three quarterback hurries and one forced fumble. Nix is one of the best defensive linemen in the country, and he'll be drafted as such in 2014.
The surprise will be if he passes up on this coming draft.
Nathan Carpenter is the No. 34 strong safety of the 2015 class. (Ohio's headliners are seniors, for those of you wondering about Tyler Tettleton and company.) Carpenter is the best underclassman on the roster for 2013.
He logged 53 tackles (36 solo), six tackles for loss, one sack, three pass breakups, one fumble return and two interceptions (one pick-six) during his sophomore trip through 2012.
If he returns as good or better in 2013, he'll have a good resume to pitch to the NFL. If he isn't better, though, he may want to stick around for his senior season to raise his draft stock.
Cornerback Bradley Roby and outside linebacker Ryan Shazier are both ranked No. 1 at their respective positions. Roby is innocent until proven guilty, but he was having some other off-field issues, namely with grades. That makes Shazier the best potential underclassman on the field for Ohio State in 2013.
Shazier racked up 114 tackles (69 solo), 17 tackles for loss, five sacks, 10 pass breakups, three quarterback hurries, three forced fumbles and one pick-six in 2012. Those numbers would be impressive for an upperclassman, but he was a sophomore.
Shazier is a first-round pick waiting to happen, whether he declares early or not.
Michael Hunnicutt is the No. 1 kicker of the 2015 draft class, and he's the best non-senior prospect on Oklahoma's roster. He connected with 17 of 21 of his field-goal attempts during the 2012 season, and he was 57-of-59 on PATs.
Hunnicutt is a reliable scoring option in fourth-down situations. While he's not as automatic as Tulane's Cairo Santos, he has the luxury of being in a different draft class. Hunnicutt will get his shot in the NFL.
J.W. Walsh is Oklahoma State's best underclassman, whether he wins the starting quarterback battle or not. He's currently the No. 9 quarterback in his class (2016), and there's time for him to improve before then.
Walsh went 109-of-163 for 1,564 yards, 13 touchdowns and a paltry three interceptions during his freshman year in 2012. That's an excellent start for any quarterback, major conference or not.
Walsh will get his turn before he graduates, and he'll make the most of it. Fans will find out whether that's the case here in less than a month.
Taylor Heinicke is the best underclassman at Old Dominion, though he'd better watch out for Claeb Taylor (No. 15 ILB for 2016). Heinicke is the 21st-ranked quarterback of the 2015 class.
As Old Dominion steps into the FBS, he will be expected to lead the charge. Heinicke turned in a 398-of-579 performance in 2012 for 5,076 yards, 44 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Back in '11, he went 211-of-307 for 2,385 yards, 25 touchdowns and just one pick.
(He rushed for 470 yards and an extra 11 scores in 2012, for those of you wondering if he's all arm.)
Heinicke boasts a career 68.7 completion percentage, and a 69-15 touchdown-to-interception ratio. While his stats may suffer a bit coming to the FBS, a 5,000-yard quarterback has stats to spare.
Donte Moncrief is the No. 4 wide receiver of the 2015 class, which should come as no surprise to anyone who's seen him play. He's a beast, and he was pivotal in the Ole Miss return to form last season.
Moncrief caught 66 passes for 979 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, and he'll return as a junior in 2013. If he can get that high on the 2014 draft board, he may want to consider the early jump. If he stays, though, he could be part of something special at Ole Miss.
Imagine him on the field at the same time as the nation's No. 5 recruiting class...
Oregon has an incredible five players ranked No. 3 at their positions over the 2015 and '16 draft classes, but there's only one ranked at the top. That's 2015's No. 1 center, Hroniss Grasu.
While the Ducks have a lot of talent spread across the field, the entire zone-read option offense hinges on the offensive line's ability to perform its job. The offensive line depends on the center to make the necessary adjustments to the game in order to repeat success.
If you don't believe that Oregon is successful on the offensive line, just remember this stat: 315.23 yards per game. That's how many rushing yards Oregon averaged throughout 2012. That was good for third nationally, behind only Army and Air Force, two of the service academies who rely heavily on the run to balance out certain personnel disadvantages.
Oregon's line imposes its will on nearly every opponent. Grasu will be missed the second he leaves for the NFL.
Oregon State's best underclassman has only two players ahead of him at his position on the 2015 draft board: Jadeveon Clowney and Stephon Tuitt. That's right, it's defensive end Scott Crichton.
If Tuitt and Clowney declare early as expected, Crichton will inherit the 2015 throne. Crichton racked up 44 tackles (23 solo), 17.5 tackles for loss, nine sacks, three pass breakups, one quarterback hurry and one forced fumble through 2012.
As a junior, expect him to perform even better, and expect Oregon State to contend for the Pac-12 as well. The Beavers aren't exactly on the verge of a national championship, but certain circumstances could put them into the Rose Bowl if Oregon were to slip up more than once throughout the season.
Crichton had better pay close attention to his draft stock in December/January. It doesn't make a lot of sense to willfully enter a draft at No. 3 if you can wait and be No. 1 at your position, but it would certainly be better than risking serious injury for another 365 days.
Allen Robinson emerged as a stellar wide receiver last season. He earned himself the No. 5 ranking at the position for the 2015 draft as a result of his actions.
He caught 77 passes for 1,018 yards and 11 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2012. Robinson was an All-Big Ten selection, and he's on watch lists galore for the 2013 season. Robinson was a big part of Penn State's success last season, and he will be a solid addition to an NFL roster in the near future.
J.P. Holtz is the No. 11 tight end of the 2016 draft class. He's already asserted himself as a viable option on Pitt's offense despite his freshman status.
Last season, Holtz reeled in just 13 passes for 173 yards and three touchdowns. That's an average of over 13 yards per catch and roughly one touchdown every four receptions. Those aren't bad numbers, regardless of your age, but for a freshman they're borderline outstanding.
If Pitt uses him more in the 2013 and '14 seasons, he could move as high as the second round of the draft.
Ryan Russell is the No. 19 defensive end of the 2015 draft, and he made a decent impact as a sophomore. He will be expected to do more in 2013, as Purdue's offense will be under construction again, but he's a solid contributor already.
Russell finished 2012 with 37 tackles (29 solo), 8.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, one pass breakup and one quarterback hurry. The most impressive stat is the solo tackle mark. Out of 37 total tackles, over 75 percent were unassisted.
Russell has the potential to be a lock-down defensive end, and he will raise his draft stock immensely if he can add pressure to quarterbacks in the process.
Covington is on the right, starting the takedown.
Christian Covington is the No. 8 defensive tackle of the 2016 class, and he's already seen action in 12 games as a freshman. (Rice played 13 in 2012.) He'll be back in 2013, and he'll likely be the starring end for the Owls.
Covington threw down 43 tackles (26 solo), eight tackles for loss, five sacks, one pass breakup, two quarterback hurries and one forced fumble in 2012 alone, and he has years before he's draft-eligible.
If he can steadily improve over the next few seasons, that No. 8 ranking is just a suggestion.
Rutgers is home to the nation's No. 3 wide receiver for the 2015 NFL draft. Brandon Coleman made a statement with his sophomore season in 2012.
He caught just 43 passes and took them for 718 yards and 10 touchdowns. That's a 16.7-yard, per-reception average, not to mention a touchdown every 4.3. Coleman could hang onto the No. 3 spot, but it will take a lot of work.
There is a lot of talent out there, and those kids aren't going to sit idly by as he takes the bronze.
Adam Muema is San Diego State's go-to tailback, and he's No. 26 at his position for the 2015 round. As a sophomore, he carried the ball 237 times for 1,458 yards and 16 touchdowns. He also added nine receptions for one more score.
Muema's stats are a little inflated from playing against MWC defenses, but 1,400 yards is still impressive in any FBS conference. Even if they don't get him drafted, you can bet that stats like that will get him a look during free agency.
San Jose State's best player is clearly David Fales, but fans are intensely aware that 2013 is his senior season. The Spartans' best underclassman is defensive tackle Travis Raciti.
He's ranked No. 10 at his position, and he's earned it. In 2012, he amassed 52 tackles (27 solo), 13 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, four pass breakups and one quarterback hurry. Those sophomore numbers point to a great career with the Spartans, regardless of whether he ends it early.
Raciti may be the most overlooked player at San Jose State, but that won't last long. If he stays for his senior season, he may well be the best player on the team for a year.
Another punter graces the list in the form of 2015's No. 15 prospect, Mike Loftus. Loftus has a great leg, and he averages over 60 yards per kickoff as well. Pulling double duty isn't easy, but he makes it look that way.
In 2012, he punted 52 times for an average of 41.87 yards per attempt. Again, he has a strong leg, but he'll have to raise his average distance to make it into the list of drafted players in 2015.
Terrell Brigham is the No. 35 free safety of the 2015 class, and he's South Alabama's best underclassman. As a sophomore in 2012, he picked up 71 tackles (42 solo), 1.5 tackles for loss, five pass breakups, one quarterback hurry and two interceptions.
Brigham isn't the most stingy safety in the business, but he's a great asset to the fledgling South Alabama Jaguars. While there's a lot of work to do before competing with the likes of Auburn or Alabama, the Jaguars are doing as well as can be expected heading into year five.
*Side note: In every season of South Alabama's existence, the BCS trophy has been in the state of Alabama. It was Auburn's in 2010, and Alabama's in '09, '11 and '12. No, there's no point to that, but you'll know the answer if it's ever on Jeopardy! now.
Jadeveon Clowney is the No. 1 defensive end in the class before he's "supposed" to leave college in 2015. He's arguably the No. 1 pick of the draft before he's primed. (The only argument coming from Teddy Bridgewater supporters, who may or may not be right.)
Clowney rocked 54 tackles (a massive 40 solo), 23.5 tackles for loss, 13 sacks, two pass breakups, five quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles (one recovered against Michigan).
Clowney may be the first purely defensive player to win a trip to the Heisman ceremony. If he puts up numbers anywhere close to his 2012 stats, he should probably win it. (That's a topic for another piece, though.)
Clowney will step into the NFL and contribute heavily as a rookie.
Aaron Lynch, the defensive end who transferred from Notre Dame and sat out the 2012 season, is getting a lot of attention. He's currently ranked No. 1 at his position for the 2016 class, and he hasn't seen the field since 2011. There is good reason for the hype, though.
He put up 33 tackles (19 solo), seven tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, two pass breakups, 14 quarterback hurries and one forced fumble in his freshman season, though. If his skill transfers (it will) to South Florida, he'll be the highest draft pick of his class, whether he declares for the 2015 or '16 cycle.
Nobody at South Florida is even close to him, if we're talking about underclassmen...and we are.
Emmanuel Johnson is the No. 39 free safety of the 2015 class, and he hails from the Southern Miss Golden Eagles. Johnson is the best underclassman on the squad, and he's one of the players whose skill can help the Eagles win more than zero games in 2013.
Johnson was an anchor last season, despite the zero-win record at the end of the season. He totaled 48 tackles (30 solo), two tackles for loss and two pass breakups on the season as a sophomore.
While those tackles for loss look a little sad, remember that the defensive backs are the last line of defense and Southern Miss didn't win any games. He was simply going where he was needed, and that was chasing down people heading for the end zone.
He did as good a job as anyone could in his situation. If the Eagles can restore order to their program, he could move up the rankings before the final whistle of his career.
David Yankey is the No. 1 offensive guard of the 2015 draft cycle, and he is one of the best offensive linemen in the country (seniors included). Stanford's ability to move the line of scrimmage at-will against almost any defense is due in no small part to Yankey's skill and versatility.
Yankey is in his next-to-last year of eligibility in 2013, and he'll be making a run for back-to-back All-America selections. Something tells me that won't be a problem for the 312-pound, 6'5" monster.
Blocking exactly how it's supposed to be done, by Hickey (#60).
Syracuse's Sean Hickey is the No. 4 offensive tackle of the 2015 class. He helped Syracuse to a Pinstripe Bowl win over the mighty West Virginia Mountaineers.
Hickey played in Justin Pugh's place while Pugh was injured, and he moved back to form one of the most intimidating offensive lines in the Big East when Pugh returned to the field. Hickey will be expected to fill the gap that Pugh left, and he should do just fine with that assignment.
Tyler Matakevich is 2016's No. 9 outside linebacker. That's definitely good enough to get drafted, although it won't be on the first day.
Matakevich notched 101 tackles (67 solo), three tackles for loss, three pass breakups and one forced fumble during his freshman season last year. That's just an insane number of stops, even if most weren't behind the line of scrimmage.
Matakevich may not be considered the best linebacker in the nation, but a couple more years like 2012, and he could be.
A.J. Johnson is the best inside linebacker of the 2015 class, and Tennessee is most definitely glad to have him around for at least one more season. While the Tennessee defense did not do well as a unit last season, there were still some bright spots.
Johnson destroyed offenses for 138 tackles (63 solo), 8.5 tackles for loss, one sack, one pass breakup and eight quarterback hurries. He was also used on offense, rushing 12 times for six touchdowns.
Johnson will be missed whenever he does leave, but he's the type of player that Butch Jones can build a team around. If Tennessee can get its act together quickly, then the Vols will no longer be competing just to stay off the bottom of the conference.
Quandre Diggs is the No. 8 cornerback in the 2015 draft, and he will raise his draft stock simply by staying healthy for the next year or two. Diggs is a key part of the Texas defense, and he'll be relied upon to pick up whatever slack manages to weasel its way through the front seven in 2013.
Back in 2012, Diggs made 53 tackles (38 solo), three tackles for loss, one sack, six pass breakups and four interceptions. Those aren't bad sophomore numbers, especially with so many key players on that side of the ball sustaining injury.
If he is back from his offseason wrist surgery this fall, expect Diggs to make a huge push toward the top of his positional rankings.
Johnny Manziel is the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, and he's got football instincts that are incredibly rare. Whether they translate well to the pro level or not is something that time will reveal, but he is potentially a game-changer.
Manziel's ability to read a play, adjust, adjust again if necessary and make it work is more valuable than some may think. Sometimes, a winner is simply a winner, no matter what the situation. If we are talking about potential, Manziel is Texas A&M's best underclassman.
If we're talking about proven measurable talent that translates reliably to an NFL field, then this slide would belong to wide receiver Mike Evans (No. 2, 2016). It may be a gamble of sorts, but Manziel is most likely worth the risk.
If not, that will be proven long before draft weekend.
Devonte Fields is TCU's best underclassman, despite the off-field troubles this offseason. He's the No. 5 defensive end of the 2016 draft class, and he's a beast. Though he'll be missed during the LSU game this month, he'll more than make up for it in Big 12 play.
Fields finished the 2012 season with 53 tackles (34 solo), 18.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, four pass breakups, three quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles and one interception. That was his freshman season, and he's got plenty of time left to help NFL scouts forget the summer of 2013.
Tim Gay had only 27 rushing attempts as a freshman tailback for Texas State last season, but he made the most of them. He ran for 279 yards and one touchdown off those carries to earn a 10.33 yards-per-carry average.
Gay may not be ranked on draft boards, and it may be tough for him to even climb up onto them. On the other hand, the 210-pound, 5'11" burst rusher may get an invitation to the combine or a couple of camps.
Even if he's used sparingly in the pros, it would be an NFL career.
Jace Amaro is the No. 5 tight end of the 2015 class, and he is going to be an incredibly valuable asset to the Texas Tech Red Raiders as they replace Seth Doege in 2013. No matter how talented the incoming quarterback is, there is still a learning curve.
Amaro will help make that learning curve a little easier. He caught 25 passes last season for 409 yards and four touchdowns. That's not bad at all for a safety valve. If the Red Raiders can work his 257-pound frame into the offense more often, then Amaro can contend for the Mackey award and the top ranking at his position.
Alonzo Russell is the 25th-ranked wide receiver of the 2016 class. He weighs in at 190 pounds, stands 6'3" tall and runs a 4.58 40-yard dash. As a freshman, he wowed Toledo fans in spite of the wealth of talent all over the field.
He caught 55 passes and turned them into 953 yards and five touchdowns. He's an underrated receiver as far as skill level is concerned, but he can make all the headlines he wants with conditioning and repetition. If he repeats his 17.33-yards-per-catch average, the NFL is bound to take notice.
Terrence Jones is a 306-pound, 6'3" brute on the Troy Trojans' offensive line. He's the size of an NFL lineman, and he can end up there if he improves his game. Troy finished the 2012 season tied for fourth place in the Sun Belt in the "sacks allowed" category with only 15.
Jones is ranked 40th at his position for the 2015 draft, but there's plenty of time to hit the practice field, drill stations and weight room to see if he can break into the NFL from the Sun Belt's trenches.
While Tulane is busy attempting to replace quarterback Ryan Griffin, Nick Montana has taken the lead for the starting position. He's the No. 19 quarterback of the 2015 class, and he has a lot of potential.
He started a game at Washington, moved down to junior college and decided to give FBS football another chance with the Green Wave. Nick is the son of Joe Montana, and he appears to have taken the lead for the starting gig over the spring.
Trent Martin is the No. 11 inside linebacker of the 2016 class, and he's definitely a player to watch as Tulsa attempts to repeat as Conference USA champion. Tulsa's best underclassman finished his freshman campaign with 37 tackles (25 solo), two tackles for loss, one sack, one pass breakup, two quarterback hurries and two blocked kicks.
Martin will be a leader for the defense before he graduates or leaves for the NFL (or both), but for now, he's simply got to live up to the hype he's created for himself.
Ty Long is the No. 2 place-kicker of the 2015 draft class. He connected with 39-of-41 PATs and 14-of-17 field goals.
Long was automatic up until 40 yards. He hit 5-of-6 from 40-49 yards out, and he was true on 2-of-4 from over 50 with a long of 54. While he isn't yet the automatic kicker you want in the NFL, he's more than reliable from inside 40.
Kickers don't get a whole lot of respect, but anyone who has ever needed one knows how important they can be.
UCF's quarterback, Blake Bortles, is surprisingly absent from a lot of headlines. He's the No. 11 quarterback in the 2015 cycle, and he's more than just decent.
Bortles went 251-of-399 for 3,059 yards, 25 touchdowns and just seven interceptions in 2012. He added 86 rushing attempts for eight touchdowns as well. He's not a dual-threat quarterback, but he's mobile and knows when to tuck and run.
He's capable, consistent and only a little risky with some of his throws. If he can bring that touchdown-to-interception ratio up, then he'll get a shot at the pro level, even if it's just as an emergency backup.
Brett Hundley is not done developing as a quarterback. In fact, he's just started, and he's already ranked No. 4 in the class of 2016's quarterback section.
Hundley completed 318 of his 478 pass attempts last season (as a freshman) for 3,740 yards, 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He added on 160 rushing attempts for an additional 355 yards and nine trips to the end zone.
Hundley is another intelligently mobile quarterback who isn't lacking in the arm department. Yes, he needs to bring down his number of interceptions, but he was a freshman last season. There is an adjustment period from one level to the next.
Robert Waterman is the anchor of the UNLV offense, and he's the No. 11 center of the 2015 draft season. He's been named All-MWC Honorable Mention twice in the past two seasons, and he's on the 2013 Rimington Trophy preseason watch list.
Waterman is one of the best centers in the country, and it's one of the more difficult positions to play. Look for him to climb up the draft ladder if the rest of the UNLV offense can accomplish something with what the line gives it.
Marqise Lee is the No. 1 wide receiver of the 2015 draft, but don't look for him to stay in college until then unless the Trojans get extremely close to a national title and miss. Lee is the gold standard for wideouts in college right now, and his stats confirm the reason.
Just in 2012, Lee caught 118 passes for 1,721 yards and 14 touchdowns. He was also a viable option in the run game, and he averaged almost 30 yards per return on kickoffs with one run back to the house.
Lee is an all-around stellar athlete, but his prowess at receiver is what's going to get him drafted in the first round a year early.
Eric Rowe is the best underclassman for the Utah Utes, and he's the No. 9 free safety of the 2015 class. Rowe is a large part of Utah's success in 2012, even though others might have earned more recognition.
He's got room to improve, but that's to be expected from a young player like Rowe. He made 64 tackles last season (39 solo), 0.5 tackles for loss, five pass breakups and one interception. Rowe, again, could use some improvement, but he's off to a great start at the collegiate level.
Kyler Fackrell is the No. 5 outside linebacker of the 2016 class, and that puts him in some good company. There are three SEC linebackers ahead of him and one from the Pac-12. That's not a bad place to be, especially if you're from a non-AQ conference.
Fackrell tallied a gigantic 87 tackles (28 solo), eight tackles for loss, three sacks, three pass breakups, seven quarterback hurries, one blocked kick and three interceptions last season. He's not a pass-rushing specialist, and he's not strictly a ball-hawk.
He's an all-around linebacker who can do whatever you need him to do depending on the situation. That's practically the "desired qualifications" list for any NFL squad.
Nick Dooley is the No. 7 long snapper of the 2016 class, and that's a position that was already covered once. Suffice it to say that a long snapper is overlooked by any given fanbase until the day he has a miscue on the field.
Dooley is a solid snapper, and he'll get a shot at the big leagues through free agency if nothing else. Dooley is good at what he does, and the NFL scouts will recognize that and give him a shot one way or another.
David Glasco II is UTSA's leading rusher from 2012. He finished the season with 94 carries, 410 yards and one touchdown. He also caught 10 passes for 71 yards and another score.
While he's not yet good enough to be drafted, there's no law against his working his tail off and getting there from here. He's 210 pounds and 5'10", so it's not like he's grossly undersized or anything. A weight room and constant practice is all he needs.
Of course, UTSA is still not eligible for bowl games in 2013 due to transition rules. If you were expecting to see an NFL-ready player at a program this young, you were expecting a little too much.
Andrew East is Vanderbilt's long snapper, and he's ranked No. 4 in the 2015 class at his position. He's quick and steady with his delivery, and he's fast enough to have made three tackles last season from punt formation.
East could be a valuable asset to an NFL squad, and there are some that are probably looking to sign some free agents after miscues cropped up during the last NFL season.
Demetrious Nicholson is the No. 11 cornerback of the 2015 cycle. He was the most prolific member of the Cavaliers' secondary last season, and Virginia fans will be glad to see him on the field again.
He racked up 58 tackles (30 solo), 1.5 tackles for loss and 15 pass breakups through his 2012 sophomore campaign. Virginia may still be fumbling around the bottom of the ACC, but that doesn't mean that every one of its players is bad.
Kyshoen Jarrett is the No. 10 strong safety of the 2015 class, but he plays a roving position at Virginia Tech, meaning he shifts from safety to corner as needed. Jarrett is an excellent defensive back, regardless of how he's tagged.
He logged 83 tackles (58 solo), 4.5 tackles for loss, four pass breakups and one forced fumble through the 2012 season, and he'll be back to anchor the secondary against Alabama on Aug. 31. Jarrett is Virginia Tech's best underclassman, but the Hokies defense isn't what fans should be worried about on opening day.
Logan Feimster is the final long snapper on this list. He's No. 2 at his position for the 2015 draft, and he's only outranked by Arizona's Chase Gorham. Feimster didn't have any tackles in 2012, but he was part of four in 2011 (two assisted and two solo, for a total of three on the stat sheet).
Feimster is a 250-pound, 6'5" beast who simply loves to get down the field and tackle people on punt duties. He has handled all field-goal, point-after and punt duties as long snapper since his second year on campus. He's tried and true, and he'll have a shot at the NFL before too long.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins is the No. 2 tight end for the 2015 draft, but he will leave for the NFL if he has another year like 2012. In fact, if he has a second year like last season, he may win the Mackey Award on top of being a high draft pick.
Jenkins caught 69 passes for 852 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore in 2012, and that placed him at No. 2 in the tight end category ranked by total yardage. (He was behind Stanford's Zach Ertz.)
Jenkins will have a place in the NFL whether he enters the 2014 or '15 draft, provided he stays out of trouble and remains healthy until then.
Darryl Monroe is the No. 8 inside linebacker of the 2016 class, and the Washington State Cougars certainly could use more skill like his at every position on the team. The Cougars finished the 2012 season with a big upset over the Washington Huskies, but that was just about the only good thing to say about the year.
Monroe is Washington State's best underclassman, and he has the stat line to prove it. As a freshman last season, he collected 80 tackles (39 solo), 8.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, two pass breakups, one quarterback hurry and two forced fumbles.
Monroe is to be feared by offenses, and if he can advance his skills as a pass-rusher, then he'll be a sought-after prospect when his draft day comes.
Karl Joseph is the No. 5 free safety of the 2016 class, and he's already established himself as a force for the West Virginia Mountaineers. Granted, he's on a defense that doesn't make many good headlines, but if all the players were like him, West Virginia might have won the Big 12 last season (or the national championship).
Joseph racked up 102 tackles (a mind-blowing 76 solo), seven tackles for loss, one sack, six pass breakups, three forced fumbles and two interceptions all as a freshman defensive back. Sometimes, rankings can be a little premature, but he has earned his No. 5 slot for the time being.
Andrew Jackson is the No. 3 inside linebacker of the 2015 draft cycle, and he is incredible. He has stats that almost anyone in the nation would envy, regardless of conference affiliation.
Jackson posted an impressive total of 122 tackles (80 solo), 17.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, one pass breakup, three quarterback hurries and four forced fumbles last year alone. Jackson may or may not be the best in the sport, but numbers like that point to an early departure into the 2014 draft.
Justin Currie is the No. 15 strong safety in the 2015 draft, and he's behaving as if that isn't good enough. (Which is exactly what every coach wants form every player from Alabama to Wyoming.)
Currie finished 2012 with 98 tackles (40 solo), 1.5 tackles for loss, three pass breakups and one forced fumble. He's more than just a solid defensive back, but to raise his draft stock at his position, he's going to need to break up or intercept a lot more passes.
With two years before his eligibility runs out, there's loads of time to develop those skills.
While fullbacks don't generally get drafted highly, there's one rank at every position that will always be considered if there is a need: No. 1. Wisconsin's fullback, Derek Watt, is ranked No. 1 at his position for the 2016 class. That's even more impressive, since he was signed as a defensive player.
Watt recorded 12 receptions for 150 yards and two carries for five yards. This was on top of the 13 tackles (10 solo, a lot like his brother J.J.) and one forced fumble while he was on defense. If he brings the Watt family work ethic to the table, he's practically a lock for the No. 1 ranking at whichever position he finally lands in.
Wyoming's quarterback, Brett Smith, holds the No. 13 ranking for the 2015 class, and rightfully so. He owns one of the best deep balls in the country, and he'd be much more recognized at a school with more recruiting power for an offensive line.
Smith went 205-of-330 for 2,832 yards, 27 touchdowns and just six interceptions last season, and he added 114 rushes for six touchdowns. He has an innate (or just well-learned) ability to move when necessary but keep himself in the pocket when things aren't completely breaking down.
Smith may still be an underrated quarterback when his draft rolls around, and he could be a Joe Flacco-like steal when the weekend comes to a close that year.