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Previewing the Top 25 College Football Players for 2014

Brian PedersenFeatured Columnist IVDecember 31, 2016

Previewing the Top 25 College Football Players for 2014

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    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

    So many great college football players exhausted their eligibility in 2013, and far too many standout underclassmen have declared their intentions to enter the NFL draft.

    But even with such a massive talent exodus, there are more than enough stars remaining in college to ensure we'll get yet another amazing season in 2014.

    It's the cyclical nature of the college game: players leave, and new ones take their place. And with freshmen becoming more and more relied upon as key contributors—resulting in first-year players snagging the last two Heisman trophies—it is almost as if each year produces a better set of superstars than the year before.

    And 2014 shouldn't be any exception.

    While a lot can happen between now and the first games in late August, here's our way-too-early list of the top 25 college football players for the 2014 season.

25. Roberto Aguayo, K, Florida State

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    Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

    Did you happen to notice that all those old jokes related to Florida State's historic kicking woes—wide right!—didn't get much traction in 2013?

    Yeah, that's because of Roberto Aguayo, who made 21-of-22 field goals (including both tries in the BCS National Championship Game) and all 94 extra-point attempts as a redshirt freshman. His efforts earned him the Lou Groza Award as the nation's top place-kicker, the third Seminole to win that award.

    Aguayo was so effective and reliable, his 157 points were nearly as many as the 170 the Seminoles allowed in their 14 games.

24. Tyler Matakevich, LB, Temple

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    Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

    Here's the only two things you need to know about Temple from the 2013 football season:

    1. The Owls were not good, going just 2-10.
    2. Tyler Matakevich was really good.

    Matakevich, a sophomore, registered a whopping 105 solo tackles in 12 games for Temple. Not only was that the most in FBS in 2013, it was more than 1.5 tackles per game better than anyone else in the country. 

23. Myles Jack, RB/LB, UCLA

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    Myles Jack became that rare specimen in 2013 when, due to injuries depleting the rushing lineup, UCLA put the true freshman linebacker in as a running back in an early-November game at Arizona.

    Jack carried the ball six times for 120 yards and a long touchdown, and for the next few games was starring for the Bruins on both sides of the ball. By the end of the season he'd earned the Pac-12 Conference's offensive and defensive freshman of the year awards.

    UCLA's backfield should be healthier in 2014, meaning Jack can focus on filling the void left by standout 'backer Anthony Barr. But coach Jim Mora can take solace in knowing that, in a pinch, he can slide Jack in on offense and get some quality carries.

22. Ryan Switzer, WR/PR, North Carolina

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    Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

    College freshmen who aren't the most highly recruited players will look for any opportunity possible to make a name for themselves that first year.

    Though Ryan Switzer was rated at 3 stars and was listed as the top player from West Virginia, according to 247sports.com, he came into preseason camp low on North Carolina's depth chart. Yet by the end of 2013 he was arguably the most dangerous return man in the country.

    Switzer tied the FBS record for punt returns for touchdown in a season with five, including one in the Tar Heels' bowl win over Cincinnati.

    He has at least two seasons to surpass the career FBS mark of eight, shared by Wes Welker of Texas Tech and Antonio Perkins of Oklahoma.

21. Keenan Reynolds, QB, Navy

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    Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

    The U.S. Naval Academy doesn't really recruit like Army and Air Force, it takes what it can get, which usually means relatively athletic players who have more to think about than their pro prospects.

    Yet every now and then a hidden gem is uncovered, as is the case with Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds. Since taking over as the starter midway through his freshman year, Reynolds has emerged as far more than the average, run-of-the-mill option QB.

    As a sophomore in 2013, he tied for the FBS lead in rushing touchdowns with 31—including a quarterback-record seven in a triple-overtime win at San Jose State Reynolds—rushed for 1,346 yards while also throwing for 1,057 yards and eight touchdowns for the Midshipmen, who remain the top service academy in terms of football.

    Reynolds will get some nice opportunities to show his skills off in high-profile games in 2014, facing Ohio State in the opener in Baltimore and later meeting Notre Dame in Washington, D.C.

20. Javorius Allen, RB, USC

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    Before Lane Kiffin was fired by USC midway through the 2013 season, Javorius Allen was just another 4-star recruit who didn't get much playing time thanks to the Trojans' overabundance of blue-chip players.

    But after Ed Orgeron took over at interim coach, the redshirt sophomore Allen got his chance to get the ball and ran with it. Quite a bit, actually: he had 29 carries through USC's first eight games, then ran it 106 times for 648 yards and 12 touchdowns over the final six contests.

    Steve Sarkisian had himself a workhorse at Washington in Bishop Sankey, and at 6'1" and 215 pounds, Allen could be Sark's next featured back now that he's taken over the USC program.

19. Vernon Hargreaves III, DB, Florida

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    The worst season for Florida Gators football in more than 30 years still managed to produce at least one beacon of hope for the future, that being the play of true freshman Vernon Hargreaves III.

    The 5'11" cornerback had three interceptions and 11 pass breakups in 2013, earning him a spot on the SEC's all-conference team, the only freshman to earn that honor.

    With fellow Gator corners Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson leaving early for the NFL, it will be Hargreaves' job to blanket the many top wideouts Florida will face in 2014.

18. Duke Johnson, RB, Miami (Fla.)

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    With Duke Johnson carrying the ball, Miami (Fla.) was near the top of the rankings in 2013. But once the sophomore broke his leg in the Hurricanes' loss to Florida State in early November, ending his season, it was all downhill for The U.

    Johnson had gained 920 yards and six touchdowns in his seven-plus games of action, nearly matching his output from a solid freshman season. Those numbers projected to close to 1,700 rushing yards over a full year.

    The Orlando Sentinel reported last month that Johnson doesn't expect to be ready for spring practice, but assuming he heals properly and gets enough work in over the summer and during preseason camp, Johnson should return to his old self and once again be one of the country's top runners.

17. Taysom Hill, QB, BYU

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    Considering how much attention Jordan Lynch got during his final two years running and throwing for Northern Illinois, we might have gotten a glimpse of the next such do-everything quarterback in Taysom Hill's 2013 season.

    The sophomore threw for 2,938 yards and 19 touchdowns while adding 1,344 yards and 10 TDs on the ground in his first year at BYU's full-time starter. And though his accuracy was an issue at times, his legs never let him down.

    Just ask Texas, who saw Hill run for 259 yards and three TDs back in September.

    BYU has been striving to become the Notre Dame of the West with its move to independent football a few years back. Hill is the guy to rally behind for that movement, and he'll get plenty of opportunities to shine with a schedule that features games against teams from the ACC, American, Big 12 and Pac-12.

16. T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama

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    T.J. Yeldon already has his place in Alabama rushing history, becoming the first Crimson Tide true freshman to rush for 1,000 yards in 2012. With 1,235 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2013, he also became the first 'Bama back to reach four-figures in his first two seasons on campus.

    Imagine what Yeldon could do with a full workload, considering his numbers have come despite averaging less than 15 carries per game through his first two seasons.

    A.J. McCarron is gone, which could very well mean Nick Saban will look to his backfield for offensive consistency. Whether that means Yeldon will get more carries, or he'll continue to split touches with Kenyan Drake and the fast-rising Derrick Henry is still a mystery.

15. Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska

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    So much attention was paid to Nebraska's polarizing coach, Bo Pelini, and its issues on defense and at quarterback during the 2013 that its top performer somehow went mostly unnoticed.

    But now that Ameer Abdullah is coming back for his senior season, don't expect him to remain a mystery.

    Though on the small side at 5'9" and 190 pounds, Abdullah quietly rushed for 1,690 yards and nine touchdowns while averaging six yards per carry.

    The Cornhuskers' QB situation remains murky heading into 2014, meaning Abdullah should be relied on heavily to keep the offense moving.

14. Tyler Boyd, WR, Pittsburgh

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    Pittsburgh has had a history of phenomenal first-year wide receivers, and Tyler Boyd is right up there on that list. In fact, by statistical standards, he's at the top of the heap.

    Boyd caught 85 passes for 1,174 yards as a true freshman in 2013, both of which are school records for a Panther freshman. The previous record-holder? Some guy named Larry Fitzgerald.

    At 6'2" and 185 pounds, the speedster was able to go up and get the high balls while also outracing defenders for deep passes. He had 242 all-purpose yards in the Panthers' bowl win over Bowling Green, contributing a punt return TD in the process.

    With at least two years left to shine, Boyd is well on his way to becoming one of the best receivers in FBS history.

13. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, DB, Oregon

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    Ifo Ekpre-Olomu was one of the most feared cornerbacks in the country in 2013 as a junior, despite what his numbers might indicate. Actually, those numbers are probably quite indicative of a defender that opposing quarterbacks did whatever they could to avoid throwing near.

    With Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard graduating and the likes of Ohio State's Bradley Roby, South Carolina's Vic Hampton and Florida's Loucheiz Purifoy leaving early for the NFL, the 5'10" Ekpre-Olomu will find himself on an island in 2014 in terms of college football's top corners.

12. Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan State

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Jeremy Langford benefited greatly from Michigan State's stout defense in 2013, as that side of the ball dominated so much it afforded the sophomore running back time to develop into a runner that gained 100-plus rushing yards in eight straight games en route to the Spartans' Big Ten title.

    Langford rushed for 1,422 yards and scored 18 touchdowns in 2013, and if he continues the pace he had during the second half of that season, he should easily top those numbers as a junior.

11. Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia

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    Todd Gurley contracted the injury bug that ravaged Georgia's team in 2013, derailing a sophomore season that looked like it was going to be among the best by a Bulldogs running back in school history.

    The sophomore strained a quad in the season opener, then missed several games with an ankle injury. Despite all that he managed to rush for 989 yards and 10 touchdowns while also catching 37 passes for 441 yards and six TDs.

    Assuming he's able to stay out of the infirmary in 2014, Gurley projects to be a huge part of Georgia's offense. He'll be the go-to guy while quarterback Hutson Mason eases into this role.

10. Tyler Lockett, WR, Kansas State

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    Tyler Lockett is one of the best receivers in Kansas State history, yet he's only third-best on that list in his own family.

    Lockett, the son of all-time Wildcats receiving leader Kevin Lockett and nephew of fellow K-State standout wideout Aaron Lockett, will enter his senior year with a chance to surpass both of them.

    He showed what he was capable of at key moments in 2013, setting school records for single-game receiving yards (278) and all-purpose yards (440) along with three touchdowns in a loss to Oklahoma, while in K-State's bowl win over Michigan he caught 10 passes for 116 yards and three TDs.

9. Vic Beasley, DE, Clemson

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    Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

    Vic Beasley's spot on this list is a tentative one, as the standout defensive end has still yet to make his decision on going pro or coming back to Clemson for his senior year with Wednesday's draft declaration deadline approaching. The Greenville (S.C.) News' Mandrallius Robinson reported the speed rusher attend class on Monday while continuing to mull his options.

    At 6'3" and 225 pounds, Beasley was a force on passing downs for Clemson in 2013, with 12 of his 40 tackles resulting in sacks. If he comes back for another year, he'll likely get plenty of opportunities to show pro scouts how he handles getting double- or triple-teamed by opposing linemen.

8. Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin

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    As of Tuesday, there had been 17 draft-eligible underclassmen running backs who had declared their intentions to go pro, according to NFL.com. Though a large number, it's not exactly surprising considering the short shelf life of an average NFL rusher.

    But Melvin Gordon has bucked that trend, choosing to come back to Wisconsin for another year despite a redshirt sophomore season in which he ran for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns on just 206 carries.

    The 6'1" Gordon told Jeff Potrykus of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that he wanted to "leave a legacy" at Wisconsin, similar to how fellow Badger rusher Ron Dayne did.

    The legacy-making can start Aug. 30 when Wisconsin faces LSU in Houston to open the 2014 season.

7. Bryce Petty, QB, Baylor

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Bryce Petty entered his first season as Baylor's starting quarterback without much fanfare, just another guy that would probably put up some good numbers thanks to the Bears' lightning-fast offensive scheme.

    But the system can only do so much. The rest was all Petty, who in 2013 threw for 4,200 yards and 32 touchdowns to go with 14 rushing TDs. The junior only threw three interceptions in more than 400 attempts and averaged more than 10 yards per throw.

    Baylor does have the kind of offense that any good quarterback could thrive in, but Petty showed he could take that system to another level. And with a full season under his belt, 2014 could be even more prolific.

6. Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Missouri

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    Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

    Dorial Green-Beckham is a 6'6" wide receiver that held the distinction of being the No. 1 overall player in the 2012 recruiting class, according to 247sports.com's composite rankings. And while his college numbers haven't been record-breaking, he's done enough to show why he earned such a lofty prep ranking.

    Green-Beckham had a breakout year in 2013, catching 59 passes for 883 yards and 12 touchdowns (including a school-record four TD receptions in one game) while showing off the size, hands and footwork that has NFL scouts counting down the days until he's draft-eligible.

    With his upcoming junior season very likely being his last, don't be surprised if Green-Beckham is a regular contributor to college football highlight reels.

5. Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA

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    The way Brett Hundley capped his redshirt sophomore season at UCLA, it seemed like a safe bet he was going to parlay that performance—387 yards of total offense, including 161 rushing, and four total touchdowns in a 42-12 Sun Bowl win over Virginia Tech—into an early exit to the NFL.

    But Hundley decided another year at the college level was in his best interests, the Los Angeles Times' Chris Foster reported.

    His choice to come back probably puts UCLA in the Top 10 of most preseason polls, and the school has already started the #Hundley4Heisman campaign on its Web site.

    NFL.com's Dan Greenspan wrote that Hundley's return will allow him to work on his deep-ball accuracy and footwork under pressure, so look for the Bruins to be a big-play offense in 2014.

4. Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina

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    Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports

    Mike Davis had a solid sophomore season, rushing for 1,183 yards and 11 touchdowns despite being slowed by injuries down the stretch and only twice getting more than 20 carries in a game.

    Davis' contribution wasn't needed more than that in 2013 because of the playmaking ability of quarterback Connor Shaw and receiver Bruce Ellington. But with them both gone, as well as numerous studs on defense, it looks like Davis will be called upon to be a workhorse in 2014.

    It says here the small (5'9") yet powerful Davis will be up to the challenge. Assuming his body can handle all the contact.

3. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State

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    Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

    Braxton Miller went into 2013 looking like a solid Heisman candidate, but early injuries and a nationwide poo-pooing of Ohio State's schedule derailed those notions. Still, the junior put together a stellar year, accounting for more than 3,100 yards and 36 total touchdowns.

    Miller decided to come back after learning his draft grade tabbed him as a mid- to late-round pick, according to Bill Rabinowitz of the Columbus Post-Dispatch. Looked at more as a runner than a passer, it made sense for him to come back and try to hone his throwing skills before going pro.

    That means the Buckeyes will get another year of Miller's dual-threat ability, which comes in handy with the departure of bruising senior rusher Carlos Hyde.

2. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon

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    A bum knee in the second half of the season seriously curtailed Marcus Mariota's production, and consequently Oregon suffered both of its losses during that stretch and fell mostly out of the national spotlight.

    But Mariota decided to return for his redshirt junior year, and in doing so gave us another year to awe at his unique blend of elusive running and pinpoint passing.

    Mariota didn't throw his first interception in 2013 until the 11th game of the season—and that came only because Arizona executed the tip drill to perfection—and he finished with just four picks in 386 attempts. He also threw 31 touchdown passes while adding nine rushing TDs that all came before his knee issues popped up.

    Pumped up yet? If not, here's another carrot: Mariota and Oregon host Michigan State and its swarming, quarterback-eating defense on Sept. 6. Make sure you're schedule is cleared.

1. Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State

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    A year ago at this time, only the most knowledgeable of college football fans—as well as nearly all of the Florida State fan base—knew of Jameis Winston.

    Now, "Famous Jameis" has become as much of a household name as "Johnny Football" did following his breakout freshman year.

    And just like that other Heisman Trophy winner, it's going to be hard for Winston to top what he did in 2013. In fact, anything short of another Heisman and another national title for the Seminoles would seem like a letdown, right?

    Winston gets a tougher schedule in 2014, one that includes matchups with Oklahoma State, Notre Dame and Louisville. Maybe that's just the motivation he'll need to make his sophomore season even bigger and better than his freshman campaign.

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