Every College Football Team's Best Returning Player for 2014
One player doesn't make a team in most sports, especially in college football.
But that doesn't mean being able to identify each team's best player isn't important. Not to mention, it's a fun exercise.
There's more than six months until the first games of the 2014 season, although spring practices have already started and will provide schools with their first batch of answers as far as whom they can count on in the fall.
Most teams are replacing their best player from 2013—a guy who either graduated or is in the process of trying to get drafted by the NFL. A select few were fortunate enough to have their best be someone who's coming back.
Either way, here's our list of the best returning player for each and every FBS football team heading into the 2014 campaign.
Note: A player's year is based on what class he'll be in for the 2014 season.
Air Force Falcons
Will Conant, Sr., K
How bad of a year was it for Air Force? Only two of its players made the Mountain West's all-conference team, and both were honorable mentions.
Conant is the only one who is back for 2014, and he might need to produce even more than his 11-of-13 field goals and 32-of-33 extra points, which got him honored last season.
Jatavis Brown, Jr., LB
Brown was a second team all-MAC selection in 2013, and as he made more tackles, Akron began winning more games.
He finished with 107 tackles for the year, including at least 12 in each of the Zips' final four games.
Alabama Crimson Tide
T.J. Yeldon, Jr., RB
Yeldon isn't the flashiest or most prolific running back in the game, and he probably never will be a superstar in Alabama's system. Big numbers aren't a part of that approach; instead it's about quality performance.
And Yeldon has been full of those kinds of efforts, with 1,200-plus rushing yards on approximately 200 carries. He can do so much more if allowed, but with so much talent on the Crimson Tide, he gets held back in a way.
When given the chance, though, he has always excelled.
Appalachian State Mountaineers
Marcus Cox, So., RB
Cox is a big reason why Appalachian State's transition from FCS to FBS as a member of the Sun Belt Conference won't be as difficult as it's been for other teams.
The true freshman rushed for 1,250 yards and 15 touchdowns last season, capping the year with a 215-yard, three-touchdown effort against Western Carolina.
Scooby Wright, So., LB
Wright made a strong impression in training camp as a true freshman, and as a result, he earned a starting spot in the middle of Arizona's 3-3-5 defense.
He had 83 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss in 2013, and his lone interception was a memorable one, as it came on the first snap of the Wildcats' upset win over Oregon in November.
Arizona State Sun Devils
Taylor Kelly, Sr., QB
Kelly transformed himself into an efficient dual-threat quarterback in 2013. He added a running ability that managed 600 rushing yards and eight touchdowns to a passing repertoire that posted 3,635 yards and 28 TDs.
Now entering his third year as the Arizona State starter, Kelly is just as good as the many other standout quarterbacks who are returning to the Pac-12 in 2014.
Trey Flowers, Sr., DE
The Razorbacks dodged a bullet when Flowers turned down a chance to leave early for the NFL. His return will help anchor a defense that might again be asked to do a lot as a struggling offense tries to get established.
Flowers had 13.5 tackles for loss and five sacks last year. He was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal season for Arkansas in 2013.
Arkansas State Red Wolves
Qushaun Lee, Sr., LB
Lee was a first-team all-Sun Belt selection in 2013, thanks to the 134 tackles that he registered during the season.
While Arkansas State is once again going through coaching turnover, new coach Blake Anderson at least knows he has a consistent presence in the middle of the defense in Lee.
Army Black Knights
Terry Baggett, Sr., RB
Army didn't have a very good season in 2013, but the same didn't go for Baggett.
He rushed for more than 1,100 yards as a junior, fitting in well in the Black Knights' option run game. His numbers included a school-record 304 yards and four touchdowns in a win over Eastern Michigan.
Nick Marshall, Sr., QB
As with most of Auburn's stars in the breakout season of 2013, Nick Marshall was an unknown quantity heading into the year. Not anymore.
After more than 3,000 total yards and 26 total touchdowns, he is the on-field coach who drives the Tigers' offensive engine.
Ball State Cardinals
Jahwan Edwards, Sr., RB
With Keith Wenning and Willie Snead gone from Ball State's roster, Edwards is the lone piece remaining from the Cardinals' prolific offensive trio that led the team to 10 wins in 2013.
He rushed for more than 1,100 yards and 14 touchdowns in just 11 games, including three straight contests where he scored three TDs on the ground.
Bryce Petty, Sr., QB
Put aside all the talk that Baylor's success is based solely on its offensive system. Petty's play in that system was just as important in 2013, getting the Bears into their first-ever BCS bowl and winning the Big 12 title.
Petty threw for 4,200 yards with 32 touchdowns and only three interceptions last season, but he was also deadly as a rusher. He scored 16 touchdowns on the ground, including three in the Fiesta Bowl against Central Florida.
Boise State Broncos
Jay Ajayi, Jr., RB
Ajayi had a breakout season in 2013, rushing for 1,425 yards and 18 touchdowns. He provided a level of consistency during a year when the Broncos lost more than normal and had to use multiple quarterbacks because of injury.
Now, with Boise switching coaches, Ajayi will likely once again be called on to be the grounding force for a team that should contend for a Mountain West title again.
Boston College Eagles
Myles Willis, So., RB
Few teams lost as much as Boston College, which had seniors at nearly every key position in 2013. There's very little coming back in terms of experience, but of those returning, Willis seems to be the biggest key.
He only had 60 carries in relief of 2,000-yard rusher Andre Williams, but Willis managed nearly six yards per carry and was solid when given the chance. A smaller, shifty back at 5'9" and 187 pounds, he has the capability to break free from tacklers because of his size.
Bowling Green Falcons
Matt Johnson, Jr., QB
Johnson was lost in the wave of attention the Mid-American Conference and the rest of the country put on league contemporary Jordan Lynch of Northern Illinois. But when the two met in the MAC title game, it was the Bowling Green passer who came out on top.
Though not as prolific as Lynch, Johnson was a far more efficient passer, finishing with 3,467 yards, 25 touchdowns and the 11th-best efficiency rating in the country at 161.7.
Joe Licata, Jr., QB
Licata was one of the few non-seniors who starred for Buffalo in its return to a bowl game, so he'll be working with a lot of newcomers and inexperienced players in 2014.
But he might be slow in his return after having offseason hip surgery. Assuming all goes well, look for him to top last year's 2,800-yard, 24-touchdown effort.
Taysom Hill, Jr., QB
Quarterbacks who can run effectively are a premium in college football, which is why BYU fared so well with Hill running things. Literally.
While his accuracy remains a work in progress but showed improvement over the course of 2013, Hill's running ability has never been in question. He had more than 1,300 rushing yards to go with 2,900-plus passing yards last season. He is a threat every time he tucks it and goes.
California Golden Bears
Jared Goff, So., QB
Goff showed all the signs that he's the right guy for California in Sonny Dykes' "Bear Raid" passing attack. Although he had the kind of mistakes you'd expect from a freshman, his numbers were still solid.
He had nearly 3,500 passing yards before getting injured in the Golden Bears' season finale. He's expected to be fully healthy for the fall, when he should once again put up big numbers through the air.
Central Florida Knights
J.J. Worton, Sr., WR
Blake Bortles got most of the credit (and nearly all of the attention) for Central Florida's storybook run to the BCS last season. But without Worton, the Knights wouldn't have gotten there.
He was the Knights' third-leading receiver in 2013, but he probably had the biggest catch of the season during his three-touchdown performance in a comeback win over Temple. His one-handed reception for a 30-yard TD tied the game and made it on catch-of-the-year lists all over.
Central Michigan Chippewas
Titus Davis, Sr., WR
A three-year contributor for the Chippewas, Davis enters his senior year with 24 career touchdowns after scoring eight TDs and gaining 1,109 yards in 2013.
He did that on just 61 catches, so he is a solid deep threat, which is part of the reason that Central Michigan rallied late in the season to finish at 6-6.
Silverberry Mouhon, Jr., DT
Besides having one of the greatest names in sports history, Mouhon also had a great sophomore year and was a key part of Cincinnati's solid defense in 2013.
He finished with 12.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks, and those numbers should only go up with another offseason of training.
Vic Beasley, Sr., DE
A speed-rusher by the clearest definition of the term, Beasley is one of the nation's top returning defensive linemen.
He had 13 sacks in 2013, a one-per-game average that ranked him tied for third nationally. His decision to stay in school was welcomed by a Clemson team that has to replace a lot of weapons on offense and wouldn't mind having such a solid defensive force carrying the load early.
Addison Gillam, So., LB
Gillam stepped into Colorado's defense from the outset of the 2013 season and finished as its most impactful player, not to mention one with great stats.
The true freshman had 107 tackles, including 9.5 for loss, and seemed to be involved in nearly every key play the Buffaloes made last year.
Colorado State Rams
Garrett Grayson, Jr., QB
Grayson threw for nearly 3,700 yards in 2013. That number might have been higher if Kapri Bibbs had not emerged as such a potent rushing threat for the Rams.
Bibbs is off to the NFL now, so look for Grayson to be even more productive during his junior season.
Geremy Davis, Sr., WR
Davis was one of the few bright spots that excelled all season in 2013 for the Huskies. While the team won its last three games after an 0-9 start, he was a standout all year long.
He finished with four 100-yard receiving games and 1,085 yards all told, including a future-building 15-catch, 207-yard, one-touchdown effort in the season-finale win over Memphis.
Duke Blue Devils
DeVon Edwards, So., CB/KR
Edwards is a threat to score a touchdown no matter what he's doing, as he showed several times in 2013.
All told, he had four return TDs: two on interceptions and two on kick returns.
He almost singlehandedly won Duke's game over North Carolina State in early November, returning a kickoff for a TD and then bringing back picks for scores on back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter.
East Carolina Pirates
Shane Carden, Sr., QB
Carden was one of the best quarterbacks in the country last season, but not many people noticed his exploits in Conference USA.
But his 4,139 passing yards and 33 touchdowns included numbers put up in wins at North Carolina and North Carolina State. And with with East Carolina moving into the more high-profile American Athletic Conference in 2014, look for him to get more attention.
Eastern Michigan Eagles
Bronson Hill, Sr., RB
Eastern Michigan is one of the worst FBS programs in the nation, but Hill has managed to still produce solid numbers the past two seasons.
He rushed for 1,101 yards and five touchdowns in 2013 as one of the Eagles' few offensive bright spots.
Vernon Hargreaves III, So., CB
The best first-year player on the defensive side of the ball wasted no time making his impact felt at Florida, becoming the only freshman on the SEC's all-conference team. And this was as a true freshman, no redshirting involved.
His stats (three interceptions, 11 pass breakups) might not indicate how stellar he was, but that's mostly because offensive coordinators learned quickly not to call plays that involved throwing in Hargreaves' direction.
Florida Atlantic Owls
D'Joun Smith, Sr., CB
Smith intercepted seven passes for Florida Atlantic in 2013, also registering a sack, two tackles for loss and two forced fumbles.
He was second in the FBS in passes defended last season, knocking away 13 from prospective receivers.
Florida International Golden Panthers
Justin Halley, Sr., CB
Halley was among a select few FIU players who could consider last season a good one from an individual standpoint, since the Golden Panthers were a woeful 1-11.
Halley stood out because he managed solid numbers in the secondary, finishing with 43 tackles and an interception in the season finale against rival Florida Atlantic.
Florida State Seminoles
Jameis Winston, So., QB
The reigning Heisman Trophy winner will be out to prove that 2013 wasn't a fluke, and with most of his targets from last year in the NFL, he'll likely need to take on even more responsibility.
That's kind of hard to imagine, since he threw for 4,057 yards and 40 touchdowns while leading Florida State to the national title.
Fresno State Bulldogs
Derron Smith, Sr., S
While Fresno State's defense got very little credit as a unit due to its propensity to give up lots of points, Smith found a way to stand out in a big way.
In 2013 he intercepted seven passes, including one he returned 41 yards for a touchdown in the Bulldogs' Las Vegas Bowl loss to USC. For the season, he also had 87 tackles.
Todd Gurley, Jr., RB
Gurley would have been up near the top of the national rushing numbers and possibly even a strong Heisman candidate, if not for leg injuries that ate up huge chunks of last season. Still, he managed more than 1,400 yards of total offense.
He might be the best pass-catching running back east of the Mississippi, and if the Bulldogs are smart, they'll use him as much as possible in all facets of the offense this fall.
Georgia Southern Eagles
Kevin Ellison, So., QB
Ellison is the future of Georgia Southern football and a key part of the Eagles' transition into FBS this season.
He showed off his talents for an FBS team at the end of 2013, rushing for 118 yards and two touchdowns out of Georgia Southern's option attack to pace a 26-20 upset of Florida.
Georgia State Panthers
Joseph Peterson, Jr., LB
Peterson has been a force for the Panthers for his entire career, leading the team in tackles during its last season in FCS and during the 2013 transition to the FBS ranks.
Last year he registered 103 tackles, which is a school record.
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Shaquille Mason, Sr., OG
An option team relies as much on its schemes and misdirection as it does anything else. But no amount of formation trickery can overcome the importance of solid blocking.
Mason was Tech's right guard in 2013, helping set the tone for an offense that was among the most productive in the country in rushing. He could be moved to a tackle position this year to help fill a hole, but wherever he is, he'll make an impact.
Hawaii Rainbow Warriors
Beau Yap, Sr., DL
Hawaii's defense didn't get much credit in 2013, but Yap was well-regarded on an individual level.
He had 36 tackles, 27 of them solo, and added 5.5 sacks to earn a spot on the Mountain West's all-conference second team.
Deontay Greenberry, Jr., WR
Greenberry was a legitimate big-play receiving threat in 2013 who will be even more dangerous in the upcoming season thanks to his leaping ability and speed.
He had 1,202 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, providing the Cougars offense with its best option when trying to stretch the field.
Dezmon Epps, Sr., WR
The nomadic season of independent play for Idaho was a long a difficult one in 2013, but Epps still managed to make a name for himself.
The junior college transfer caught 79 passes for 980 yards and four touchdowns, logging three 100-yard games as one of the few consistent bright spots for the Vandals.
Illinois Fighting Illini
Josh Ferguson, Jr., RB
Ferguson was one of the country's most underrated pass-catching running backs in 2013, tallying 50 receptions for 535 yards to go along with nearly 800 rushing yards. All told, he scored 11 touchdowns.
If Illinois is going to get back to winning ways in 2014, Ferguson is going to be a key part of that.
Tevin Coleman, Jr., RB
Indiana didn't have trouble putting up big offensive numbers in 2013, and Coleman was a big reason for that.
The sophomore averaged more than seven yards per carry and scored 12 rushing touchdowns, helping the Hoosiers score more than 38 points per game. Now, if only he could have helped Indiana's leaky defense.
Brandon Scherff, Sr., OT
While Iowa's offense wasn't anything spectacular in 2013, it wasn't because the quarterback was getting knocked all over the place. And Scherff was responsible for that.
As the Hawkeyes' left tackle, he was the key backside blocker on passing downs while also helping to clear big holes for the run game. Opting not to go pro early, he'll again be the anchor on that line.
Iowa State Cyclones
Quenton Bundrage, Jr., WR
Bundrage was one of the few Iowa State players who was able to put together a solid season amid all the chaos of a disappointing overall result. He finished with nine touchdown catches and nearly 700 receiving yards.
Expect even bigger numbers in 2014 with the arrival of former Kansas coach Mark Mangino as offensive coordinator.
Ben Heeney, Sr., LB
Heeney has made the second team of the Big 12 all-conference squad each of the past two years, which is a small piece of consistency on one of the most struggling programs in the country.
He got involved in most plays on defense, finishing last season with 88 tackles, 11.5 for loss and three interceptions.
Kansas State Wildcats
Tyler Lockett, Sr., WR
Tyler Lockett is the latest in a line of Locketts who stuff the stat sheets at receiver for Kansas State, after his father and uncle did it. With the junior year he just had, he might be breaking those relatives' career marks in 2014.
He had 81 catches for 1,262 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2013, nearly doubling his production from the year before. Look for those numbers to go up even more in his senior campaign.
Kent State Golden Flashes
Colin Reardon, So., QB
It was a down year for Kent State, which played in the MAC title game in 2012 but had a losing record in 2013.
But the play of Reardon, who started 11 games for the Golden Flashes, provided promise for the future. He threw for 1,957 yards and 12 touchdowns and added another 348 yards and two scores on the ground.
Alvin Dupree, Sr., DL
Dupree had 61 tackles last season, which is a rather high number for a defensive lineman and shows how involved he was in making plays.
Of those tackles, 9.5 were for loss, and seven were sacks. He got his hands on a number of fumbles, too, and in 2014, he will be a key mentor for Kentucky's many well-regarded incoming recruits.
DeVante Parker, Sr., WR
Parker is the lone standout who has hung around from the Charlie Strong regime, and new coach Bobby Petrino is apt to make him a central point of his offense.
Parker was Teddy Bridgewater's main target in 2013, scoring 12 touchdowns on just 55 receptions. Expect much bigger numbers this fall from a player who could have left for the pros already.
Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns
Terrance Broadway, Sr., QB
The former Houston quarterback has thrived at Louisiana-Lafayette, leading the Ragin' Cajuns to back-to-back New Orleans Bowl victories.
His hand injury late last season cost the team to lose games down the stretch, but he returned for the bowl to complete a 2,400-yard, 19-touchdown campaign.
Rashon Ceaser, Jr., WR
Ceaser was the favorite target of Louisiana-Monroe quarterback Kolton Browning, as the pair hooked up 65 times for 964 yards and seven touchdowns.
Browning is gone now, but Ceaser is back to help the Warhawks return to a bowl game.
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
Kenneth Dixon, So., RB
Dixon was one of the few Louisiana Tech players who remained productive on offense in 2013, when the Bulldogs struggled to match the output it had the year before under previous coach Sonny Dykes.
Dixon had 917 rushing yards but only four touchdowns last season, compared to 1,194 yards and a whopping 27 touchdowns in 2012. Look for something closer to the old numbers this fall.
La'el Collins, Sr., OL
Collins is the lone offensive standout from 2013 who is back for another year, and his presence on the line will be essential in helping the Tigers' new skill players excel.
A first-team all-SEC pick last year, he helped LSU rush for a school-record 37 touchdowns.
Marshall Thundering Herd
Rakeem Cato, Sr., QB
Cato has quietly put together one of the more prolific passing careers in FBS history, and he's a key reason Marshall is a contender for a conference title each season.
He threw for 3,916 yards and 39 touchdowns with only nine interceptions last season, leading the Thundering Herd to a bowl win over Maryland and a 10-win season.
Stefon Diggs, Jr., WR
Like most of Maryland's impact players in 2013, Diggs was hampered by injuries that affected his numbers and kept him from showing his true potential. But it's there.
He had 34 catches for 587 yards and three touchdowns before missing the final six games with a broken leg. He should be fine for the fall and will be a big target for the Terrapins in the pass game.
Tajae Sharp, Jr., WR
Sharp had a solid year for a team that didn't have an overall good result. He caught 61 passes for 680 yards and four touchdowns, accounting for about one-third of the Minutemen's receiving yards.
His numbers were triple what he did as a freshman, and if continued improvement happens in 2014, he could become one of the Mid-American Conference's best receivers.
Martin Ifedi, Sr., DL
While Memphis' offense struggled all season in 2013, the Tigers were above average when it came to playing defense. And Ifedi was a big reason for that.
He has played both end and tackle in his college career, and last year, he was among the national sack leaders with 11.5. All told, he had 14.5 tackles for loss.
Miami (Fla.) Hurricanes
Duke Johnson, Jr., RB
Johnson was on his way to a stellar season in 2013 before a broken ankle against Florida State ended his year and sent the Hurricanes into an offensive tailspin.
He had rushed for 920 yards by that point, and without him, Miami struggled to move the ball. With a full offseason to recover, his production should be back to its old levels in time for the fall.
Miami (Ohio) RedHawks
Kent Kern, Jr., LB
Kern collected 98 tackles for Miami in 2013 and always seemed to be around the ball-carrier. That happened a lot past the line of scrimmage for a RedHawks team that went 0-12.
Kern's experience is likely to be something new coach Chuck Martin counts on this fall.
Devin Funchess, Jr., TE
Arguably the nation's top returning tight end, Devin Funchess was one of the most consistent contributors to Michigan's otherwise inconsistent offense in 2013.
He caught 49 passes for 748 yards and six touchdowns last year, and under new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, those numbers could be even better.
Michigan State Spartans
Jeremy Langford, Sr., RB
Michigan State gained most of its attention last year because of a punishing, unforgiving defense, and all that credit was well-deserved. But without Langford's consistency on offense, the Spartans wouldn't have made it as far as they did.
He went from complete unknown (with 23 career yards entering 2013) to a superstar over the course of the season, finishing with more than 1,400 yards and 18 touchdowns. His running in the Big Ten title win over Ohio State put him on the map, and he'll stay there this season.
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
T.T. Barber, Jr., LB
Barber was the anchor of Middle Tennessee's defense in 2013, earning first-team all-Conference USA honors after registering 118 tackles, three sacks and four interceptions.
He should only get better, and at 6'1" and 215 pounds, he has the size and speed to possibly be an NFL linebacker in the future.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
David Cobb, Sr., RB
Minnesota's offense was one of the least productive in the country for a winning team last season, but Cobb found a way to do his part with more than 1,200 yards and seven touchdowns.
The Golden Gophers used two quarterbacks last season, which might have led to consistency issues. Only one will play in 2014, and Cobb will work better in a system with more consistency.
Robert Nkemdiche, So., DE
The top overall prospect in the 2013 recruiting class didn't have the earth-shattering debut that might have been expected from a player with such a ranking, but Nkemdiche still managed to put up solid numbers (34 tackles, eight tackles for loss and two sacks).
While the Ole Miss offense should again be potent, Nkemdiche's play on the end against the SEC's great offensive lines will be key to the Rebels' success. He showed signs of greatness and should blossom even further as a sophomore.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Dak Prescott, Jr., QB
A dual-threat quarterback without the notoriety of Johnny Manziel or Marcus Mariota, Prescott also became a Mississippi State folk hero with his come-off-the-bench performance in the Egg Bowl win over Ole Miss.
Last season he had more than 2,800 yards of total offense, scoring touchdowns on runs and a catch as well as the ones he threw.
Dorial Green-Beckham, Jr., WR
Green-Beckham is going to be an NFL receiver—that much seems obvious based on his size (6'6" and 225 pounds), hands and ability to outleap any defender. Let's make sure to enjoy what's probably his last season in 2014.
His numbers weren't out-of-this-world as a sophomore, with 59 receptions for 883 yards and 12 touchdowns. But he's shown he can take over a game, as he did when he caught four touchdowns against Kentucky.
Keenan Reynolds, Jr., RB
Navy's option rushing attack requires a quarterback who can make great decisions and without much time to come up with the right choice—skills that a future sailor should possess.
Reynolds made plenty of great decisions in 2013, mostly involving the choice to keep the ball and run roughshod over nearly every team he faced. He finished with 31 touchdowns on the ground, including seven in a game against San Jose State, which is an FBS record for a quarterback.
Ameer Abdullah, Sr., RB
While most of his contemporaries have graduated or left early for the NFL, Abdullah decided to stick around for his final season with the Cornhuskers. And his team couldn't have been happier.
With 1,690 rushing yards last season, he is the highest-ranked rusher returning from 2013. And with Nebraska hoping to stay in the hunt for a Big Ten title, he'll be counted on to get at least that much again this season.
Nevada Wolf Pack
Brock Hekking, Sr., DE
Hekking had a very productive junior year for the Wolf Pack, registering nine sacks among his 48 tackles and also pulling down an interception.
Nevada had a losing record in 2013, but if it rebounds this fall, there's no doubt Hekking will be integral in that turnaround.
New Mexico Lobos
Cole Gautsche, Jr., QB
Gautsche wasn't the greatest of passers, completing less than 45 percent of his throws in 2013, but he made up for it by being quite an effective runner in New Mexico's spread offense.
He rushed for 770 yards and eight touchdowns last season, a number that would have been higher had he not missed three games due to injury.
New Mexico State Aggies
Adam Shapiro, Sr., WR
On a team with not much talent returning from a pretty bad season, Shapiro is the de facto torch bearer for the Aggies thanks to his usage as an all-purpose player.
Shapiro was third on the team in receiving yards with 431 in 2013, but also was New Mexico State's main kick returner who averaged 20.5 yards per return. All told, he tallied more than 81 all-purpose yards per game last season.
North Carolina Tar Heels
Ryan Switzer, So., WR/PR
Switzer established himself as the best punt returner in the country as a true freshman in 2013, bringing back five punts for touchdowns to tie the FBS single-season record. He also has a leg up on the field for the career mark of eight.
And with North Carolina losing top receiving target Eric Ebron early to the NFL, expect Switzer to also get more involved on offense. He had 32 receptions and three TDs last season.
North Carolina State Wolfpack
Shadrach Thornton, Jr., RB
Thornton was a beacon of consistency and solid production in an otherwise horrible season for the Wolfpack in 2013, as he rushed for 768 yards and four touchdowns.
Dave Doeren had explosive offensive teams at Northern Illinois, and if that's going to be the case at NC State, it will involve Thornton as a major contributor.
North Texas Mean Green
Mason Y'Barbo, Sr., OL
North Texas' turnaround season in 2013 was heavily influenced by senior leadership, but Y'Barbo was also a strong factor with his blocking on the line.
The Mean Green averaged more than 180 rushing yards per game last season, and his return will help the next set of runners get their yards, too.
Northern Illinois Huskies
Tommylee Lewis, Sr., WR
Lewis had 86 catches in 12 games last season for the Huskies, providing Jordan Lynch with a short-yardage receiver who served as an extension of NIU's running attack.
He should be the main weapon for the Huskies in their first post-Lynch season, too.
Chi Chi Ariguzo, Sr., LB
Besides having a great name, Ariguzo also played a great game as the Wildcats' leading tackler in 2013. He finished with 108 takedowns while also recording two sacks and intercepting four passes.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Everett Golson, Jr., QB
Golson was a key piece of the Fighting Irish's undefeated 2012 season and run to the national title game, and his absence last year had a major impact on offensive production.
Although he's not guaranteed to be the starter come the fall, he is still the best player that Notre Dame has coming back. If he can show the same type of play from two years ago, he'll be starting before you know it.
Devin Bass, Jr., CB/KR
Bass was a key part of the Bobcats' winning season in 2013 in two facets, both as their best cover corner and as the top kick-return option.
Look for him to get involved in both of those areas again this fall, possibly even adding some receiver time to show off his many skills.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Braxton Miller, Sr., QB
Injuries greatly affected Miller's production and development last season, which is a big reason why he opted against the lure of the NFL for another year in Columbus.
He'll be expected to do a lot as a senior, with the Buckeyes breaking in a new running back and looking to fill holes on defense. But with great footwork and an improving arm, he should be up to the challenge.
Charles Tapper, Jr., DE
A first-year starter in 2013, Tapper was a solid addition to the Sooners defensive line. All the defensive linemen are coming back next season, but he is the best of the lot.
He had 5.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss last season as a linchpin of an Oklahoma defense that was 20th-best nationally.
Oklahoma State Cowboys
Desmond Roland, Sr., RB
Roland rushed for 16 touchdowns in 2013, coming on strong in the second half of the season after not being involved much early on.
He did this despite not getting the kind of workload you'd expect from a featured running back. With the Cowboys losing some other key players on offense, look for him to get more touches and put up more big numbers.
Old Dominion Monarchs
Taylor Heinicke, Sr., QB
Heinicke thrived in Old Dominion's offense-first approach in its initial year of FBS play, throwing for 4,022 yards and 33 touchdowns in 2013. That included three 300-yard performances against upper-level programs in the transitional season.
With the Monarchs playing a full schedule as part of Conference USA in 2014, look for his numbers to go up even more.
Marcus Mariota, Jr., QB
If not for a knee injury, Mariota's 2013 season could have been something special. Even with the ailment, he put up solid numbers, throwing for more than 3,600 yards with 31 touchdowns and only four interceptions (none of which came until late November).
His running ability was the thing most hampered by the knee injury, but with an expected clean bill of health for 2014, he'll be the nation's top returning dual-threat quarterback.
Oregon State Beavers
Sean Mannion, Sr., QB
A three-year starter (though not always full time), Mannion is the active FBS passing leader with 10,436 yards for the Beavers.
He threw for more than 4,600 yards in 2013, along with 37 touchdowns, but with the loss of top-flight receiver Brandin Cooks to the NFL, he'll have to spread the ball around more than last season.
Penn State Nittany Lions
Christian Hackenberg, So., QB
While Jameis Winston was far and away the best first-year player in college football last season, Hackenburg might have been the nation's best true freshman. As far as quarterbacks in that category go, he was the winner hands down.
He threw for 20 touchdowns and tallied nearly 3,000 passing yards, and though he struggled with getting sacked for much of the year, his production was consistent throughout when it came to accuracy and effective throws.
Tyler Boyd, So., WR
If not for a guy named Jameis Winston, Boyd might have been the best freshman in the country in 2013. He was certainly a darn good one, and Pittsburgh should relish in knowing it will have him for at least two more years.
Boyd set numerous school records for a first-year player last season, beating out the likes of Antonio Bryant and Larry Fitzgerald. It's hard to argue with those kind of accolades.
Danny Etling, So., QB
It's hard to base things off one game, but as bad as Purdue was in 2013, the performance Etling had in the season finale has to be something to be hopeful about.
The true freshman threw for 485 yards and four touchdowns in the loss to rival Indiana—more than he'd had in any two games prior to that as a starter.
Jordan Taylor, Sr., WR
Taylor was the leading receiver for Rice in its run to a Conference USA title, catching 55 passes for 848 yards and eight touchdowns.
He's had 800-plus yards each of the past two seasons and will be relied upon to have even more production during his senior year.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Paul James, Jr., RB
Rutgers sorely missed James' early production when injuries cost him games in the middle of 2013. He struggled a bit to get back to that level after returning but still finished with nearly 900 yards and nine touchdowns.
With the Scarlet Knights moving to the Big Ten, rushing will be a key to success. That will mean James will have a major impact on Rutgers' debut in this new conference.
San Diego State Aztecs
Adam Muema, Sr., RB
After a slow start to 2013, Muema picked up the pace as the year went on and finished with more than 1,200 yards and 18 touchdowns. Not coincidentally, his improved production came as the Aztecs started winning.
He saved his best for last, rushing for 229 yards and three touchdowns in SDSU's bowl win over Buffalo.
San Jose State Spartans
Jarrod Lawson, So., RB
Lawson was overshadowed by the impressive passing game that David Fales orchestrated for San Jose State last season, but he had a pretty good freshman year.
He rushed for 788 yards and four touchdowns, including a career-best 187 yards and a score in a midseason win over UNLV.
Darius Joseph, Jr., WR
Joseph somehow managed to get left off the American Athletic Conference's all-league team despite catching 103 passes in 2013. Though he averaged less than eight yards per reception, he provided his ability to be a solid target whenever needed.
SMU throws the ball a lot, and with the Mustangs' other top target no longer around, Joseph could be challenging some records this fall.
South Alabama Jaguars
Wes Saxton, Sr., TE
Saxton was the top tight end in the Sun Belt Conference last season, earning first-team honors thanks to his 50 receptions and 635 yards.
He had a big role in the Jaguars' season-ending upset of conference champ Louisiana-Lafayette, catching five passes for 88 yards.
South Carolina Gamecocks
Mike Davis, Jr., RB
Mike Davis didn't put up the most yards in the country last season or even in the SEC, but his production was as valuable as any other player's.
If injuries don't keep him slowed down, as was the case at times in 2013, he'll be a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate and be in the running for one of the best seasons ever by a Steve Spurrier-coached running back.
South Florida Bulls
Andre Davis, Sr., WR
Davis was one of the few offensive weapons that South Florida's woeful attack could rely on in 2013, even if he only managed 49 catches for 735 yards and two touchdowns. Those were huge numbers in the scope of the Bulls offense.
His numbers should be much better in the second season under Willie Taggart, who took awhile to get things going at Western Kentucky as well.
Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles
Tyre'oune Holmes, So., WR
While Southern Mississippi had one of the worst offensive seasons in school history, Holmes still managed to establish himself as a solid receiving option in his first year of college play.
He had 53 catches for 410 yards and two touchdowns for the Golden Eagles, catching his TDs in each of the final two games in 2013.
Ty Montgomery, Sr., WR/KR
While Montgomery was far and away Stanford's best receiving option in 2013, catching 61 passes for 958 yards and 10 touchdowns, his true value came as one of the nation's deadliest return men.
He averaged more than 30 yards per kickoff return last season, which was second-best in the FBS (and only after Florida State's Kermit Whitfield returned a kick for a touchdown in the BCS title game) and was enhanced by a pair of kickoff-return TDs.
Terrel Hunt, Jr., QB
Syracuse was uneven for most of the season on offense, but once Hunt got his legs under him (and started using them), the attack became more effective.
He split time at quarterback for much of the year but took over late and finished with more than 2,100 total yards and 17 touchdowns, including seven rushing scores.
TCU Horned Frogs
Sam Carter, Sr., CB
Along with Jason Verrett, Carter gave TCU one of the best one-two cornerback tandems in the Big 12, if not the country.
He picked off five passes and returned one for a touchdown in 2013. Now the main defender, he'll be covering the guys that Verrett got last year and should do just find with that task.
Tyler Matakevich, So., LB
There was only one certainty of a positive nature for woeful Temple in 2013: Matakevich was going to make the biggest plays on defense.
Not only that, he tended to make nearly all the plays, registering an astounding 105 solo tackles. Only about 70 players in the entire country had that many total tackles, including ones they assisted on.
A.J. Johnson, Sr., LB
To make the all-SEC team at any position can be a big deal; at linebacker, it's a huge accomplishment, and one that Johnson managed as a junior in 2013.
He'll be one of the best returning linebackers in the country this fall, looking to somehow improve on back-to-back 100-tackle seasons that have each included 11.5 tackles for loss.
Malcolm Brown, Sr., RB
Brown had to take over the main running back duties for Texas after Johnathan Gray was injured. And he certainly took over.
He finished with 841 yards and eight touchdowns over the final seven games, with five 100-yard rushing games.
Texas A&M Aggies
Drew Kaser, Jr., P
The Aggies' offensive identity has moved onto the NFL in the form of Johnny Manziel, Mike Evans and Jake Matthews, while A&M's defense hasn't created an identity beyond being a collective sieve. That leaves Kaser as the top constant that returns for 2014.
He averaged a superb 47.4 yards per punt last season. He was arguably A&M's best defensive weapon in his ability to flip the field on the rare occasions when the offense couldn't produce.
Texas State Bobcats
Robert Lowe, Jr., RB
Lowe rushed for 945 yards and nine touchdowns in his first season as the Bobcats starter, earning second-team all-Sun Belt honors for the effort.
His breakout game came in Texas State's upset win over Wyoming, when he rushed for 138 yards and scored three times.
Texas Tech Red Raiders
Davis Webb, So., QB
Webb made a name for himself late in the 2013 season, particularly in his dominant performance in Texas Tech's surprising Holiday Bowl win over Arizona State.
Even before the Red Raiders saw several quarterbacks transfer from the program, Webb was a front-runner to be the starter again in 2014. Now that such a thing is a fact, look for him to improve even more without having to compete for the job.
Junior Sylvestre, Sr., LB
The first-team all-MAC selection was the Rockets' top defender in 2013, registering 118 tackles, five sacks and an interception.
He is on the smaller side (6'0", 210 pounds) for his position but makes up for it with tenacity and hard hitting.
Tyler Roberts, Jr., DE
Roberts doesn't have the typical size of a college end, coming in at 6'2" and 220 pounds, but that didn't stop him from playing like one last season.
He finished the year with 49 tackles and 5.5 sacks for the Trojans.
Tulane Green Wave
Lorenzo Doss, Jr., CB
Doss was as good as any defensive back in Conference USA last season, intercepting seven passes and returning two of them for touchdowns.
He had a 59-yard return for a score in the Green Wave's key win over North Texas, while he also brought one back 69 yards for a TD in a loss to Florida Atlantic.
Tulsa Golden Hurricane
Michael Mudoh, Jr., DB
While Mudoh didn't have a great season in terms of pass defense, registering only one interception, he made up for it in tackling.
He had linebacker-like tackle numbers for the Golden Hurricane, finishing with 133 tackles. He had no fewer than eight in every game.
Jamarcus Nelson, Sr., WR/KR
Nelson was one of the few bright spots for UAB in 2013. He was so involved in what the Blazers did that he logged stats in nearly every way possible.
He finished the year 10th nationally in all-purpose yards with 157 per game, with most coming as a receiver (846) or kickoff returner (617). He had 10 total touchdowns, one each on a punt and kick return.
Brett Hundley, Jr., QB
Hundley won't put up the gaudy numbers that other quarterbacks collect—he had just one 300-yard passing game in 2013, and that was in a blowout win—but he's still one of the most dangerous guys around at his position.
He is likely going to use much of 2014 working on his passing game for an anticipated NFL career, but don't forget about his legs. He rushed for 11 touchdowns and more than 760 yards last season, including a 161-yard, 2-TD effort in the Sun Bowl romp over Virginia Tech.
UNLV Runnin' Rebels
Devante Davis, Sr., WR
Davis was a big piece of the Runnin' Rebels' three-headed monster of offensive production in 2013, and he's the only one who will be back this season.
He had 87 receptions for 1,290 yards and 14 touchdowns last year and will head into this fall as one of the top targets in the country.
Leonard Williams, Jr., DL
USC lost a number of players to the draft early after the 2013 season. Williams played so well he probably would have joined them if eligible.
Luckily for the Trojans, he has at least one more season left. And if it's as productive as his six-sack effort was this past year, that will bode well for USC's chances at success.
Dres Anderson, Sr., WR/KR
Anderson was someone whom Utah could rely on for nearly every sort of positive production, whether it was as a 1,000-yard receiver, an occasional rusher or an effective return man.
He was consistent despite the Utes' offensive struggles in the second half of 2013. For this fall to be more successful, he'll need to be even more involved in the attack.
Utah State Aggies
Chuckie Keeton, Sr., QB
Keeton was well on his way to another awesome season when he suffered a knee injury midway through the year, which put him on the shelf for the rest of 2013.
Expected to be back at full strength for the 2014 campaign, he'll quickly surpass the 1,388 yards and 18 touchdowns (with just two interceptions) that he'd managed in the five-plus games before his injury.
Autrey Golden, Jr., RB/KR
Golden didn't get many touches in the backfield for the Miners in 2013, but that's because he was busy impressing as one of the nation's best kickoff returners.
He averaged 27.9 yards per kickoff for UTEP, returning two kicks for touchdowns.
Triston Wade, Sr., S
Wade had an astounding 94 tackles from the safety position in 2013, showing his versatility to play up for the run as well as help defend the pass.
He also had a pair of interceptions, returning one 82 yards for a touchdown in a win over Tulsa.
Caleb Azubike, Jr., DL
The 2014 version of Vanderbilt is going to look vastly different than last season's Commodores team, and not just because the coach is gone. Many top standouts have graduated, but there are still some key pieces remaining.
Azubike tops that list. He had 10 tackles for loss in 2013 and also recorded four sacks. Expect even bigger numbers the next time out.
Anthony Harris, Sr., S
Virginia's most effective players during the horrible 2-10 season in 2013 were on defense, despite that side allowing many big plays.
Harris was by far the best of the lot, tallying eight interceptions as well as 80 tackles.
Virginia Tech Hokies
Kendall Fuller, So., CB
Fuller was one of the most impactful freshman defenders in the country last season, recording 58 tackles and six interceptions as a starter right out of high school.
Defense is the linchpin of Virginia Tech's teams under Frank Beamer, and with at least two more years to develop in that system, Fuller can only get better.
Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Ryan Janvion, So., S
Wake Forest has a new coach for 2014, with Bowling Green's Dave Clawson bringing his defense-first approach to Winston-Salem.
Janvion should fit right in with that system. In his first season of college football, he had 95 tackles and knocked around plenty of ACC receivers when they came over the middle.
Shaq Thompson, Jr., LB
There were probably a lot of factors that led to Chris Petersen finally giving in to the allure of coaching a bigger program. Getting to coach Thompson had to be part of that decision.
The explosive hitter only had 78 tackles, which is on the low end for a linebacker, but he made them count.
Washington State Cougars
Connor Halliday, Sr., QB
Halliday must have an iron arm for the amount of times he threw the ball last season for Washington State. As a junior he attempted 714 passes—55 more than any other player in the country—and completed 449 of them for 4,597 yards.
He set the FBS record for attempts in a game when he slung it 89 times last October against Oregon. In Mike Leach's pass-heavy offense, throwing well is a premium. And Halliday has shown he's capable of doing that, although his 22 interceptions in 2013 will need to be cut down this coming fall.
West Virginia Mountaineers
Nick Kwiatkoski, Jr., LB
Defense hasn't been why West Virginia has gained notoriety over the last few years, but Kwiatkoski might be changing that.
While the Mountaineers struggled offensively in 2013, the sophomore managed a solid season with three interceptions and 68 tackles.
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
Cam Thomas, Sr., CB
Most of Western Kentucky's top contributors were seniors in 2013, but Thomas leads a talented unit of underclassmen into the Hilltoppers' move to Conference USA.
He was a second-team all-Sun Belt selection last year, registering 41 tackles and five interceptions.
Western Michigan Broncos
Corey Davis, So., WR
Western Michigan struggled to a 1-11 season in 2013, but there's hope for the future thanks to young guys like Davis.
He finished his first season of college ball with 67 catches for 941 yards and six touchdowns, including a 10-reception, 154-yard, two-touchdown performance in a win over Massachusetts.
Melvin Gordon, Jr., RB
Gordon averaged nearly eight yards per carry in 2013, an astounding number that's only tempered by the fact the Badgers handed him the ball less than 16 times per game. Imagine what he could do with a full load?
Wisconsin might find out this fall, as it would be silly for him to not have more involvement in the offense if Gary Andersen wants to vie for a Big Ten title.
Jordan Stanton, Sr., LB
Stanton was one of the few defensive bright spots for a Wyoming team that couldn't stop anyone in 2013.
A Mountain West all-conference honorable-mention pick, he had 139 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!