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The Top Underclassmen at Every Skill Position

Alex SimsCorrespondent IIIAugust 21, 2013

The Top Underclassmen at Every Skill Position

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    Last college football season saw Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel become the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy.

    It also saw several other underclassmen produce yardage, touchdowns, tackles and turnovers for their teams.

    This next generation of skilled players will be turning heads on the field throughout 2013 and, at the season's end, will challenge their elders for national recognition.

    Note: Redshirt sophomores, three years removed from high school and thus eligible for the NFL draft, are not included on this list. 

     

    Last college football season saw Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel become the first freshman to ever win the Heisman Trophy.

    However, outside of the Aggies signal-caller, there was an abundance of underclassmen who produced yardage, touchdowns, tackles and turnovers for their teams.

    This next generation of skill players will be turning heads on the field throughout 2013 and eventually challenging their elders for national recognition at season's end.

    Note: Redshirt sophomores, three years removed from high school and thus eligible for the NFL draft, are not included on this list. 

     

Quarterback: Jameis Winston

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    Florida State's redshirt freshman quarterback Jameis Winston has already been compared to some of the greatest quarterbacks in college football history without even taking a meaningful snap.

    The Hueytown, Ala., native spent this spring in right field, showing off his arm and helping the Seminoles'  baseball team to the NCAA Super Regionals. Winston then shined in the FSU spring game and will likely be piloting the Seminoles' offense this season.

    Former FSU head coach Bobby Bowden even compared Winston to 2011 Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III while speaking to D.C. Reeves of Warchant.com

    "This kid has got some talent," Bowden told Warchant.com. "Reminds me of RG3...(Winston is) built like (Griffin), moves like him, got a great arm."

Running Back: Todd Gurley

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    It takes a special player to lead all Southeastern Conference running backs in yardage on the ground as a true freshman.

    Georgia's Todd Gurley is that remarkable kind of runner. As a freshman, Gurley amassed 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns while splitting time with fellow freshman Keith Marshall in the backfield.

    In 2013, Gurley will again team up with Marshall and senior quarterback Aaron Murray.

    UGA will boast one of the most dangerous and balanced offenses in the nation.

Running Back: T.J. Yeldon

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    T.J. Yeldon wasn't even the feature back in the Alabama offense as a freshman. However, even while splitting time with junior Eddie Lacy, he eclipsed 1,100 yards on the ground.

    Right from the start, Yeldon showed that he was physically ready for the college game by rushing for 111 yards in his debut against Michigan.

    He then finished the season in outstanding fashion by bruising his way to a combined 261 yards and two touchdowns in the SEC and BCS title games against Georgia and Notre Dame. 

Wide Receiver: Amari Cooper

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    It didn't take long for Alabama's Amari Cooper to become AJ McCarron's favorite target.

    As a freshman for the Crimson Tide, Cooper was one of the best deep threats in the nation, as he had an even 1,000 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns, averaging 17 yards per reception.

    A product of high school football powerhouse Miami Northwestern, Cooper has the kind of fluid athleticism that can't be taught.

Tight End: Devin Funchess

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    Coming off a freshman All-American season, Michigan's Devin Funchess is one of the best players at one of the most under-appreciated positions in college football.

    While tight end has been phased out in some spread offenses, Funchess showed in his first year that the position isn't dead yet. 

    After hauling in five touchdowns in Year 1, Funchess will be back as a serious Mackey Award candidate as a sophomore.

Defensive End: Devonte Fields

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    Defensive end hasn't always been thought of as a traditional skill position. However, more and more dynamic athletes have been taking up pass-rushing roles on defense.

    TCU's 6'4", 240-pound end Devonte Fields fit that role perfectly as a freshman, racking up 53 tackles, 18.5 tackles for a loss and 10 sacks.

    Fields was named the Big 12 defensive Freshman of the Year by conference coaches.

    Heading into 2013, the Big 12 media made him the only unanimous first-team preseason All-Big 12 selection.

Linebacker: James Ross III

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    James Ross III started just two games in his first year at Michigan but was still named to the freshman All-Big Ten Conference team.

    He tallied 36 tackles in 2012, but that number could double or triple in 2013 as he takes over a starting role for the Wolverines. 

    With the injury of star linebacker Jake Ryan, Ross' role will have to be even greater. Ryan is expected to return from his ACL injury sometime in October, as reported by Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com. However, until then, Ross will have time to emerge as a leader of the UM defense.

Cornerback: Jalen Mills

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    Jalen Mills was thrust into a starting role at LSU as a true freshman after the departure of Tyrann Mathieu. 

    In no time at all, the DeSoto, Texas, native refuted his modest composite 3-star rating and led all LSU corners with 57 tackles.

    He also nabbed a pair of interceptions and deflected seven passes, all of which was enough to earn him freshman All-American honors.

Safety: Karl Joseph

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    As a freshman, West Virginia safety Karl Joseph was one of the hardest-hitting defenders in all of college football.

    The Orlando, Fla., native led WVU with 104 tackles and was named the team's defensive player of the year, while also being named to several freshman All-American teams.

    Joseph was a one-man defensive highlight reel for the Mountaineers, forcing three fumbles and intercepting a pair of passes.

Returner: Stefon Diggs

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    With the departure of West Virginia's Tavon Austin, Maryland's Stefon Diggs will challenge for the vacant throne as the best all-purpose playmaker in the nation.

    Like Austin, Diggs wears No. 1, hails from Maryland and was seemingly born to make plays on the football field.

    As a freshman, Diggs compiled 172.4 all-purpose yards per game, good for No. 8 in the nation. A dynamic returner, Diggs brought two kickoffs back for touchdowns while also hauling in six touchdown receptions.

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