Back to School: The Top 15 Returning Players in CFB
As the summer begins to wind down, another college football season is rapidly approaching. Tailgates will soon be dropped, grills will soon be lit, coolers will soon be filled, and Saturdays will once again provide us with the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat that no other sport can match.
The individual talent that we'll see in stadiums around the country this fall is as good as it's ever been. Comparing players in different conferences and at different positions is about as easy as defeating Nick Saban when he has a month to prepare, but we've done just that.
Here are the top 15 returning players in college football for the 2013 season.
No. 15: LB Kyle Van Noy, BYU (Sr.)
Yes, a BYU linebacker is one of the 15 best players in college football. Kyle Van Noy is an absolute terror coming off of the edge for Bronco Mendenhall's defense, always one of the stingiest in college football.
The Cougars schedule is loaded this season, so there will be plenty of chances to see Van Noy play. BYU has spotlight games against Texas, Boise State, Georgia Tech, Wisconsin and Notre Dame.
|Sacks||Tackles for Loss||Tackles|
No. 14: WR Amari Cooper, Alabama (So.)
Although it won the national title in 2011, Alabama lacked a big-play receiver after the departure of Julio Jones. That problem was alleviated last season, as Amari Cooper emerged as one of the most dangerous deep threats in college football.
A solid sophomore season could make him the school record holder in touchdown receptions in just two years in Tuscaloosa. Playing alongside a dominant running game and one of the best quarterbacks in the country only helps.
No. 13: OG David Yankey, Stanford (Jr.)
Jim Harbaugh, and now David Shaw, resurrected a downtrodden Stanford program by placing a focus on offensive line play. The Cardinal had two of their offensive linemen selected in the first two rounds of the 2012 NFL draft and could duplicate that feat next spring if David Yankey opts to forgo his senior season.
Yankey is the leader of one of the nation's best units, having started all 27 games in his career. He was an All-American last season at tackle but shifts inside to guard for his junior year. There aren't statistics to measure his production, but a quick film session will tell you all you need to know about Yankey.
No. 12: QB Braxton Miller, Ohio State (Jr.)
Urban Meyer walked into a great situation last year in Columbus, with Braxton Miller having wet his feet as a freshman and still at least two seasons away from going to the NFL. All Miller did was go 12-0 last season, proving to be a perfect fit in Meyer's spread offense.
Miller's 13 rushing touchdowns were third in the Big Ten, a remarkable feat for a quarterback not named Tim Tebow (another Meyer product). He also has his top two targets back this season in Devin Smith and Corey "Philly" Brown. This will likely be his final collegiate season, but it could culminate with an invitation to New York City for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
|Completions||Attempts||Pass Yards||Pass TD||INT||Rush Yards||Rush TD|
No. 11: OT Taylor Lewan, Michigan (Sr.)
There are always some surprises each January when juniors are deciding whether or not to enter the NFL draft, but perhaps none was more stunning than Taylor Lewan, who would have been a first-round pick had he left Ann Arbor.
The Wolverines were staring at four new offensive line starters had Lewan left, but instead they now have an All-American tackle protecting new quarterback Devin Gardner's blind side. Extremely long at 6'8", Lewan is nearly impossible for pass-rushers to get around. He'll anchor a unit that is expected to start second-year players at all three interior positions.
No. 10: RB Duke Johnson, Miami (FL) (So.)
Despite playing for a program that rarely flies under the radar, Duke Johnson's incredible freshman season went somewhat unnoticed by most college football fans. He finished with 13 touchdowns, coming as a rusher, receiver and returner.
He'll benefit from 10 returning starters on offense for the Hurricanes as well as a more up-tempo system under new coordinator James Coley, who came to Coral Gables from rival Florida State. He's on the smaller side at 5'9" and around 175 pounds, but when the ball in his hands, he's as electric as any player in the country.
|Rushes||Rush Yards||Rush TD||Kick Return Yards||Kick Return TD|
No. 9: DE Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame (Jr.)
It's difficult to explain how someone with Stephon Tuitt's size (6'6", 322 pounds) can be as athletic as he is. An ideal 3-4 defensive end, Tuitt went from a good player to a great player in 2012 with 12 sacks during Notre Dame's run to the BCS Championship Game.
There's not a better defensive line duo in the country than Tuitt and nose guard Louis Nix. The Fighting Irish rode their defense a year ago, as it finished the regular season No. 1 in the country in points allowed. They'll have to do the same this season after losing their starting quarterback, top two rushers and leading receiver.
|Sacks||Tackles for Loss||Tackles|
No. 8: QB A.J. McCarron, Alabama (Sr.)
Almost every school passing record should belong to A.J. McCarron following this season, but it's his win-loss record that makes him stand out most. He's 13-0 as a starter away from home, including two wins in BCS Championship Games.
While the self-proclaimed perfectionist has the most talent any Nick Saban quarterback has had around him, McCarron is far more than just a distributor. Expect the phrase “best college quarterback ever" to be mentioned if he can bring home a third straight national championship.
No. 7: QB Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville (Jr.)
On a chilly late November night in Piscataway, NJ, Teddy Bridgewater turned into Willis Reed just a few miles from where the great Knicks center became a hero for his performance in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals with an injured leg.
Bridgewater, who could not take a snap under center due to a broken wrist, came off the bench to lead Louisville back from an early deficit to defeat Rutgers and claim the Big East's final conference title.
The Miami native followed that up with an upset of Florida in the Sugar Bowl, and expectations are now sky-high for both Bridgewater and the Cardinals. Mobile, but not a true dual-threat quarterback, Bridgewater completed almost 70 percent of his throws last season and finished with just eight interceptions.
No. 6: RB Todd Gurley, Georgia (So.)
After he went through spring practice in 2012, Georgia knew it had something special in Todd Gurley, who wasn’t even the highest-rated running back the Bulldogs signed that year (that was Keith Marshall). Almost 1,400 yards and 17 touchdowns later, Gurley is now an All-American candidate heading into his sophomore season.
He’ll be running behind an offensive line that returns all five starters from 2012 and playing with one of the best quarterbacks in the country in senior Aaron Murray. With spotlight games in Weeks 1 and 2 against Clemson and South Carolina, Gurley will have a chance to quickly state his case to be a Heisman Trophy candidate.
No. 5: OT Jake Matthews, Texas A&M (Sr.)
The son of NFL Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews flips to the left side this year to replace Outland Trophy winner Luke Joeckel. He’s started 33 games at right tackle, but the transition to Johnny Manziel’s blind side should be seamless for someone with the pedigree of Matthews.
There will be another Matthews on the Texas A&M offensive line, as Jake's younger brother, Mike, will start at center for the Aggies. Jake Matthews may not be selected as high as Joeckel was (No. 2 overall), but he’ll be one of the most coveted players in the 2014 NFL draft.
No. 4: DT Will Sutton, Arizona State (Sr.)
Will Sutton may look like the prototypical defensive tackle who simply takes on two blockers and frees up space for linebackers to roam, but he's a whole lot more than that. His 13 sacks ranked third in the nation last season, and his 23.5 tackles for loss ranked second.
He turned down the NFL to return for a final season in Tempe, as the Sun Devils hope to contend for their first Pac-12 title in 17 years. Sutton isn't tall at just 6'1" but is very fluid for his size. Expectations for Sutton are nothing short of a second straight All-American season.
|Sacks||Tackles for Loss||Tackles|
No. 3: QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M (So.)
The story of the 2012 season has turned into the story of the 2013 offseason, as questions linger over Johnny Manziel's eligibility with just weeks until the new season begins. Should he play, the Aggies are a bona fide national title contender, at least until their colossal showdown with Alabama in College Station on Sept. 14.
Manziel's 5,116 yards of total offense last season were the most ever in the SEC. The Aggies offense made defenses accustomed to pro-style attacks have to adjust to Manziel and the team's up-tempo style. While a second straight Heisman Trophy is a long shot, we can only hope he at least has the opportunity to compete for it.
|Completions||Attempts||Pass Yards||Pass TDs||INT||Rush Yards||Rush TDs|
No. 2: WR Marqise Lee, USC (Jr.)
The numbers are simply eye-popping. Accumulating 345 yards over three games is impressive, but Marqise Lee did that in one game against Arizona. The next week against Oregon, he amassed over 400 all-purpose yards.
Even without Matt Barkley, Lee almost turned the game against No. 1 Notre Dame around last season with a long reception late in the fourth quarter, but the Irish held on for a 22-13 victory. Had the Trojans not lost four of their final five regular-season games, Lee probably would have been a Heisman Trophy finalist.
|Receptions||Receiving Yards||TD||Kick Return Yards||Kick Return TD|
No. 1: DE Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina (Jr.)
Words don't do justice to the impact Jadeveon Clowney can have on a football game. The video of him separating Michigan's Vincent Smith from his helmet while forcing and recovering a fumble does, however. Georgia coach Mark Richt said at SEC Media Days that while Clowney can be game-planned for, executing that game plan is nearly impossible.
The consensus No. 1 player in the 2011 class, Clowney has lived up to every ounce of hype, finishing his sophomore season with 13 sacks and being named SEC Defensive Player of the Year. There will be no drama around who is selected first in the 2014 NFL draft.
|Sacks||Tackles for Loss||Tackles|