10 Dark-Horse College Football Stars to Watch in 2013
College football fans are aware of Johnny Manziel, Marcus Mariota, Jordan Lynch and Marqise Lee. Going into the 2013 season, they are all household names.
Prior to last season, though, some didn't know them from Adam.
Similarly, the players on this list are overshadowed by stars on their team and not receiving the attention they are due. They are also primed to put up huge numbers in 2013 and have an impact on the college football season.
You won't find Jadeveon Clowney, De'Anthony Thomas or Lache Seastrunk here. Instead, these are players flying under the radar heading into the season.
Honorable Mention: Wesley Johnson, OT, Vanderbilt
Wesley Johnson is one of the most versatile players in the SEC.
Over the course of his career, the senior has played every position on the offensive line with the exception of right guard, and he has done a fantastic job at all of his stops.
Johnson started at left tackle last season and is slated to do so again in 2013, meaning he will match up against Jadeveon Clowney, among others.
Keep an eye on him; he has as much impact on a game as any offensive lineman in college football.
Vanderbilt, playing in the SEC, has an extremely difficult schedule to navigate, including six teams that should finish the season bowl-eligible.
By the end of that slate, Johnson will have proved he is one of the best offensive linemen in the game.
10. Philip Nelson, QB, Minnesota
Philip Nelson was not great last season as a freshman.
He played in seven games for Minnesota in 2012, completing 49.3 percent of his passes while only averaging 5.7 yards per attempt. He threw eight touchdown passes but also tossed eight interceptions.
He's not going to finish the season as a Heisman candidate or even one of the top quarterbacks in the nation.
However, with a year of experience under his belt and some developing talent on offense, it would not be surprising to see him jump into the top tier of Big Ten quarterbacks.
The Golden Gophers' schedule is littered with difficult challenges, including a solid San Jose State team and at least four meetings with ranked Big Ten teams.
However, UNLV, New Mexico State and Western Illinois are all soft in the secondary, and rival Wisconsin's secondary is filled with players that have little to no experience at this level.
Nelson also rushed for nearly 200 yards last season, displaying that he is more mobile than the average pocket passer. Given the nod from day one in 2013, Nelson has the potential to put up over 25 total touchdowns and lead the Gophers to a bowl game for the second consecutive season.
Games to Watch
Nelson may put up huge numbers during a soft nonconference schedule, but the game against rival Wisconsin and its inexperienced, thin secondary will be his chance to highlight his progress.
9. Damien Williams, RB, Oklahoma
Oklahoma senior Damien Williams seems to get a raw deal in Big 12 running back rankings.
TCU's Waymon James, West Virginia's Charles Sims, Kansas State's John Hubert and Texas' three-headed attack of Malcolm Brown, Joe Bergeron and Johnathan Gray all seem to get more credit than Williams, who rushed for 946 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, while averaging 5.4 yards per carry.
In his second season with the Sooners, in an offense with an inexperienced quarterback—Oklahoma has tabbed redshirt freshman Trevor Knight as the starter heading into 2013—Williams will get plenty of carries as the focal point of the offense.
With the right breaks, Williams could be a dark-horse Heisman candidate.
Games to Watch
Texas fans are certainly familiar with Williams; he went off for 167 yards and 7.6 yards per carry in the Red River Shootout last season. Tulsa, Notre Dame, TCU and Kansas State were all top-21 teams in rushing defense in 2012, and each of them is on the Sooners' 2013 schedule.
8. Taylor Hart, DE, Oregon
Defense doesn't immediately come to mind when pondering the Oregon Ducks. Rather, that incredibly talented offense loaded with speed jumps to the forefront.
But football takes both offense and defense, and Oregon's defense has been solid, if not elite, for the past half decade or so.
Taylor Hart will be the catalyst for the defense in 2013.
He posted 11 tackles for loss and eight sacks last season, and he has the speed off the edge to significantly increase that number in 2013.
While not a first-round talent, Hart exhibits the tools to be one of the best defensive ends in the Pac-12 this season and will easily break the double-digit sack mark.
Games to Watch
Barring an upset of massive proportions, Oregon will be 7-0 heading into tough games against UCLA and Stanford in back-to-back weeks. UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley will need to watch out for Hart, and if the Ducks make a run at the Rose Bowl or a national title, it will be because Hart had an impact against Stanford. Those two meetings will define not only Hart's season, but the Ducks' as well.
7. Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona
Talk about a guy who gets no respect. Ka'Deem Carey has to be at the top of the underrated list.
It wasn't Lache Seastrunk who led the nation in rushing last season, nor was it Montee Ball or Todd Gurley.
It was Carey, who finished 2012 with 1,929 yards rushing and tacked on 303 yards receiving, yet the man can't seem to get any love.
He has struggled to stay out of trouble off the field, so conventional wisdom would say Arizona prefers to keep him out of the headlines as much as possible.
If this is the case, it is doing a bang-up job, considering Carey is a dark-horse Heisman candidate just one year removed from leading the nation in rushing yards.
If presumed starting quarterback B.J. Denker can throw the ball accurately at all, Carey will not have to deal with nine- and 10-man fronts and will rush for over 1,500 yards again in 2013.
Games to Watch
The non-conference schedule is weaker than a wet paper towel. Northern Arizona, UNLV and UTSA start off the season for the Wildcats. Carey will only see limited time against these "pushover" teams. Otherwise, he is worth a watch in every game this season, particularly when the Wildcats play Colorado. He went off for 366 yards and five touchdowns against the Buffaloes last season.
6. E.J. Gaines, CB, Missouri
Missouri struggled last season, no question.
The team could not get over the injury bug, and the transition from the Big 12 to the SEC was just too much to handle for the Tigers, who finished 5-7 and missed a bowl game for the first time since 2004.
But 2013 will be better, even if the Tigers don't compete for an SEC title. E.J. Gaines is one of the players who will make it happen.
At 5'11", 195 pounds, he plays bigger than he is, delivering punishment from his corner position with regularity.
He forced two fumbles last season, defended 11 passes, scored a defensive touchdown and posted seven tackles for loss as a cornerback.
If he can get his hands around a few of those defended passes and catch them instead of knocking them down, he will finish the season as one of the top cornerbacks in the SEC.
Games to Watch
Gaines is primed for a big season, but in order to get some national respect, he needs to add to his interception total. If he can do that in games against Georgia and Texas A&M facing Aaron Murray and Johnny Manziel, respectively, he will have taken a major step toward establishing himself.
Gaines will also have a great opportunity to raise his profile against Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace. Wallace threw 17 interceptions last season, tied for the most in the nation, and though he should be improved this year, he will still struggle with accuracy at times.
5. Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
Melvin Gordon has the potential to be the next great Wisconsin running back, and he's not even at the top of the depth chart in 2013.
Gordon sat third on the depth chart behind Montee Ball and James White last season, but he forced the coaching staff to get him on the field and took advantage of his opportunities. He only carried the ball 62 times but averaged 10 yards per carry.
Moving up the depth chart can only help Gordon—and if White slips a little bit, Gordon could be the starter by season's end.
This guy is poised to be the starting running back for Wisconsin each of the next two seasons, and he will start his Heisman campaign early with a monster year in 2013.
Games to Watch
On Sept. 14 Wisconsin meets Arizona State, whose defense features two All-American-caliber talents in linebacker Carl Bradford and lineman Will Sutton. Gordon will look to flash the talent that will make him a Heisman candidate in 2014.
As well, the Badgers' meeting with Ohio State on Sept. 28 is key to their success this season. If Gordon is effective, Wisconsin could pull the upset in the Horseshoe.
4. Marion Grice, RB, Arizona State
The defense of the Arizona State Sun Devils is getting most of the press heading into the 2013 season, and with good reason. The aforementioned Bradford and Sutton posted 45 tackles for loss between them in 2012, and they return this year.
But if the Sun Devils are going to make some noise in the Pac-12, they will need a boost on offense. That will come in the form of running back Marion Grice.
The speedy running back out of Houston only carried the ball 103 times in 2012, but he averaged 6.6 yards per carry and scored 11 touchdowns. He's also a threat in the passing game, catching eight touchdowns last season and averaging over 10 yards per reception.
Games to Watch
Keep an eye on Grice in a nationally televised Week 3 matchup against Wisconsin. That game will be a good gauge for the Sun Devils—and a good gauge for Grice's season too.
Following the Wisconsin contest, the Sun Devils host Stanford and then travel to USC and Notre Dame. That's four consecutive teams with very deep defensive front sevens. Grice will have to be productive against at least two of these teams to establish himself in 2013.
3. Donte Moncrief, WR, Ole Miss
The SEC's receiver pool is deep. Amari Cooper, Jordan Matthews, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham and Malcolm Mitchell are all in the mix, along with Ole Miss wide receiver Donte Moncrief.
Moncrief caught 66 passes last season for 979 yards and 10 touchdowns. He posted those numbers playing with quarterback Bo Wallace, who tied for the national lead in interceptions thrown and struggled mightily with his accuracy at times.
Moncrief will be the best receiver in the SEC this season—at least as good as Cooper—and his numbers will increase as Wallace's accuracy improves.
His athletic ability is astonishing, as noted by Bruce Feldman of CBS Sports, and it will be on display with regularity this season for the Rebels.
Games to Watch
Moncrief loved the Egg Bowl last season, averaging 24.7 yards per reception and scoring three times against Mississippi State. Also keep an eye on the battle between Moncrief and Missouri cornerback E.J. Gaines the week before the Egg Bowl.
2. Peter Jinkens, LB, Texas
Peter Jinkens will be one of the spectacular young players who help lead Mack Brown's team back into national prominence.
Jinkens is a little small at 6'1", 210 pounds, but he is speedy and plays smart.
Through the Longhorns' first nine games of last season, Jinkens was a non-factor, posting only two tackles and seeing limited time.
In the last four games of the season, though, he amassed 25 tackles (including two tackles for loss), along with an interception against Oregon State in the Alamo Bowl.
The Texas defense is vastly underrated at this point, but guys like Jinkens will force the defense into the national eye early in the season.
Games to Watch
Jinkens and Texas need a win over Oklahoma to establish themselves as the best in the Big 12. It has been true since Bob Stoops took over at Oklahoma, and it will remain true this season. There are other teams that can contend for the conference title, such as Oklahoma State, but the Red River Shootout is the key to the conference title in 2013.
1. Lamin Barrow, LB, LSU
Kevin Minter was the best linebacker LSU fielded in 2012—but it wasn't by much.
Lamin Barrow posted 104 tackles, making him one of just eight players in the conference to reach the century mark.
He also notched five quarterback hurries, broke up five passes and forced a fumble.
While the Tigers lost all kinds of talent on defense, Barrow is one of the guys with the potential to keep them among the nation's elite.
He's versatile, with the ability to play inside or outside, and has the lateral quickness to explode wherever the ball goes.
Barrow will finish the year as one of the top defensive players in college football.
Games to Watch
From the jump, LSU has to play well on defense, as the team takes on TCU in Week 1. The biggest games of the season will be in November, when the Tigers take on Alabama and Texas A&M in consecutive games. Barrow will have the opportunity to help contain 'Bama running back T.J. Yeldon and A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.