College Football

Ranking the 50 Best College Football Players Headed into 2014

Brian PedersenFeatured ColumnistMay 5, 2014

Ranking the 50 Best College Football Players Headed into 2014

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    These are the best of the best.

    Over the past few weeks Bleacher Report has brought you its list of the top college football players from each class heading into the 2014 season, but now comes the time to bring all those groups into one. It's like a Voltron comprised of the top players in the nation, who together form the ultimate blend of size, speed, strength and everything else we want in our college stars.

    Players are ranked based on their career performance to this point, as well as their projected accomplishments this fall. For draft-eligible players, the upcoming season is their last chance to raise their stock on the field, while those from the highly talented sophomore class are looking to build momentum and raise their profile.

    No freshmen made the list, simply because we don't know what will come from that group. Yes, the last two Heisman Trophy winners were first-year players, but this ranking is based more on performance than potential.

    Check out the list and then give us your thoughts in the comments section.

50. Brandon Scherff, Iowa

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Year: Senior

    Position: Offensive tackle

     

    Iowa's offense isn't one of those flashy types that throws the ball all around or does tricky things with its run game. But it doesn't need to with such a reliable blocker as Brandon Scherff, who for the past two seasons had anchored the Hawkeyes offensive line from the left tackle position.

    Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was among many associated with the program that were elated when Scherff decided not to go pro early.

    "The energy and the positive vibes that a good established player shares with his teammates, it's something that's invaluable," Ferentz told The Des Moines Register's Andrew Logue.

    With Scherff protecting whomever Iowa starts at quarterback, look for that offense to continue to improve on the strides it was making late last season.

49. Joey Bosa, Ohio State

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    Year: Sophomore

    Position: Defensive end

     

    Joey Bosa was part of a stacked defensive line for Ohio State last season, yet he put up numbers that would make him seem like he was doing it mostly alone. The first-year player finished with 7.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss, a big reason the Buckeyes started 12-0.

    At 6'5" and 285 pounds, Bosa has room to grow. At the pace he's going with his performance, he could be one of the best in the game by his junior year.

48. Derron Smith, Fresno State

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    Year: Senior

    Position: Safety

     

    When you think of Fresno State from 2013, you instantly think of the massive offensive numbers put up by Derek Carr and his receivers. And while the Bulldogs defense wasn't very good as a whole, that couldn't be said for Derron Smith on the back line.

    The fifth-year senior has 14 career interceptions, most of those coming the past two seasons. He has a chance to be a three-time All-Mountain West first-team selection, and if that happens, it will be a result of Fresno defensive coordinator Nick Toth putting more responsibility on Smith to be an on-the-field coach.

    "He can control the whole defense," Toth told Robert Kuwada of The Fresno Bee."He can make the whole thing right all by himself. He can call it. If something is wrong he can fix it. He's the type of guy that can do that."

47. Christian Hackenberg, Penn State

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    Year: Sophomore

    Position: Quarterback

     

    If not for some guy whose name rhymes with "famous," Christian Hackenberg would have been known as the most impressive freshman quarterback in the country last season. At it stands, he was the top true freshman, throwing for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns.

    He had a good coach to work with last year in Bill O'Brien, but the anticipation of what he might do under new coach James Franklin's guidance has Hackenberg—and us—intrigued to see the Nittany Lions this season.

46. Carl Lawson, Auburn

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    Year: Sophomore

    Position: Defensive end

     

    Carl Lawson fought his way into Auburn's lineup as a true freshman last season, though his time on the field was still limited due to experienced talent ahead of him. That didn't stop him from notching four sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss as an additional front-line threat in the push to the national title game.

    Look for Lawson to be much more involved in what the Tigers do in defending the run this season, something coach Gus Malzahn fully expects to happen.

    "We have high expectations for Carl, coming off the season he had," Malzahn told ESPN.com's Greg Ostendorf. "You can just tell he's a lot more confident out there and trying to be a leader by example."

    Lawson will be asked to help fill the void left by Dee Ford, who is preparing to get drafted this week.

45. Travis Greene, Bowling Green

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    Year: Junior

    Position: Running back

     

    Bowling Green's coach from last season, Dave Clawson, parlayed his team's success into a better job by getting hired on at Wake Forest. And though he's brought along his techniques and approach to the game, he probably wishes he could have taken Travis Greene with him as well.

    Greene had one of the quietest 1,594-yard, 11-touchdown seasons in recent years, providing consistent production throughout the Falcons' 10-4 season. He averaged a healthy 5.7 yards per carry and is part of why Bowling Green enters this season as a favorite to repeat as the Mid-American Conference champion.

44. Davis Webb, Texas Tech

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    Year: Sophomore

    Position: Quarterback

     

    Davis Webb battled through a season-long competition at quarterback as a true freshman, fighting it out with both Connor Brewer and Baker Mayfield for a chance to be part of one of the FBS' most prolific passing attacks. He eventually won out, not only by getting the start in the Holiday Bowl, but also through his epic performance in that game.

    His competitors have all since transferred, and Webb is locked in as the Red Raiders' passer for 2014. The 2,718 yards and 20 touchdowns he recorded last season will easily be surpassed if he can carry over the momentum gained from late last year.

43. Germain Ifedi, Texas A&M

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    Year: Sophomore

    Position: Offensive lineman

     

    Even before his second year of college football has started, Germain Ifedi is showing a level of versatility that is causing him to rise up the ranks of top linemen in the country. And at 6'5" and 320 pounds, he's already showing NFL moves with a professional body.

    Ifedi held the right guard spot for Texas A&M last season but now might end up at left tackle in an even more important role protecting the new Aggies quarterback's blind side.

42. Ryan Switzer, North Carolina

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    Year: Sophomore

    Position: Wide receiver/punt returner

     

    Ryan Switzer wasn't one of those players who made a huge impact on every game last season. But when he did something big, it was really big, as tends to be the way of top-tier return specialists.

    Switzer went from being a relative unknown to one of the hottest names in the country, tying an FBS record with five touchdowns on punt returns. His last, an 86-yard score in North Carolina's blowout bowl win over Cincinnati, showed on a big stage what he can do despite coming to college without much hype.

    "Everyone counts the little guy out," Switzer told Luke DeCock of The Charlotte Observer afterward.

41. A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama

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    Year: Sophomore

    Position: Defensive tackle

     

    As a part-time starter and frequent contributor, A'Shawn Robinson terrorized quarterbacks in the SEC as a true freshman. The thoughts of what he'll do to this year's crop of passers as a full-time starter are downright scary.

    Robinson had 5.5 sacks in a limited role last year but should easily top that this fall. His ability to eat up space in the middle of the defensive line will again be a nightmare to deal with.

40. Shock Linwood, Baylor

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    Year: Sophomore

    Position: Running back

     

    With the depth and variety of weapons that Baylor had in its offensive arsenal last season, Shock Linwood's contributions weren't essential for team success. They still had a major impact, though, as his 881 yards and eight touchdowns helped keep the Bears atop the yardage and scoring charts.

    Linwood moves into the featured back role this fall, and while the production he showed in 2013 doesn't automatically guarantee future success, he did show he could handle the load in games when he had more involvement. Against Oklahoma and Texas Tech, in back-to-back games, Linwood rushed for 369 yards.

39. Cedric Reed, Texas

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    Year: Senior

    Position: Defensive end

     

    It's hard to imagine Cedric Reed could do more than what he accomplished as a junior last season, when he had 10 sacks and 19 tackles for loss while forcing five fumbles and getting his mitts up to break up four passes. Then you hear Reed talk about what he expects of himself, and it all makes sense.

    "There were a lot of goals I set coming into college," Reed said during spring practice to ESPN.com's Max Olson.

    Among those goals is to achieve the kind of accolades his 2013 teammate, Jackson Jeffcoat, garnered, including Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and consensus All-American.

    Under the guidance of new head coach Charlie Strong and line coach Chris Rumph, both well regarded for their work on defense, the sky is the limit for Reed.

38. Nick Marshall, Auburn

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    Year: Senior

    Position: Quarterback

     

    The Nick Marshall we got to see in 2013 only scratched the surface of what this Heisman candidate is capable of. That's kind of scary to think, since what he did last year nearly got Auburn a national title.

    Working mostly as a runner and operator of a dominant read-option offense, Marshall finished with more than 3,000 yards of total offense and helped account for 26 touchdowns. He's once again surrounded by plenty of talent, but Marshall seems determined to show he can do more on his own, particularly by throwing the ball more this fall.

    "Nick was an electric player in the zone read last year. You can't deny that," offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee told Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated. "At times he was a very solid passer. It's just all about trying to bring the whole package together at a consistent level."

    Marshall threw for 236 yards and four touchdowns on just 22 attempts in Auburn's spring game, but expect even bigger outputs in the regular season.

37. Antwan Goodley, Baylor

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    Year: Senior

    Position: Wide receiver

     

    Antwan Goodley wasn't Baylor's big-play, deep-ball receiver last season, but he still played a big role in the offensive success as a reliable inside guy who finished with more than 1,300 yards and scored 13 times. His output should go up this fall, though, as he helps fans forget about departed wideout Tevin Reese.

    Goodley had a breakout year in 2013 after limited action his first two years in Waco, Texas. But his 2014 numbers could make last season feel like a minor contribution, especially with Bryce Petty once again on the other end of those throws.

36. Addison Gillam, Colorado

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    Year: Sophomore

    Position: Linebacker

     

    How important is Addison Gillam to Colorado's chances of getting back into a bowl game after a seven-year absence? He only needed one year of play on the field to earn a captain's spot on the Buffaloes.

    "It's great to know the team looks up to me and believes in me," Gillam said to Parker Baruh on CUBuffs.com. "They know I'll do the right things on and off the field, so it's just an awesome feeling."

    The captainship wasn't that surprising after seeing what Gillam did last year as a true freshman, when he had 107 tackles along with three sacks and an interception. He was the solo tackler on 71 of those takedowns, picking up the slack for poor play in other areas of the defense.

35. Cody Kessler, USC

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    Year: Junior

    Position: Quarterback

     

    Cody Kessler had a pretty good season in 2013, overcoming an early competition for the job before leading USC to 10 wins while throwing for 20 touchdowns and nearly 3,000 yards. Yet he had to win the spot again this spring, ultimately getting named the starter by new coach Steve Sarkisian.

    "I went in knowing that I have a year of experience and that I know what it takes in big games to win and what it takes to be successful," Kessler told the Los Angeles Times' Gary Klein.

    Now that the battle is over, Kessler will head into the fall trying to solidify his spot on scouts' big boards. He could have left after last year, but with another season of college play under his belt, he can become the latest USC quarterback to be a high draft pick.

34. Trey Flowers, Arkansas

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    Year: Senior

    Position: Defensive end

     

    What Trey Flowers accomplished last season would have gotten more attention had it come on a team that played better as a whole. Instead, Flowers' five sacks, 13.5 tackles for loss and one interception were mostly ignored because Arkansas was 3-9 and had its first-ever winless campaign in the SEC.

    The Razorbacks might not be much better this year, but it would be unwise to pay no mind to Flowers. The 6'4", 267-pound end keeps getting stronger and faster, and in his final year of college ball, he seems poised to go out with a bang.

33. Amari Cooper, Alabama

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    Year: Junior

    Position: Wide receiver

     

    Amari Cooper's numbers won't wow you, but that's usually the case with offensive players at Alabama. Big stats aren't important, nor are they that easy to achieve with the system and how the Crimson Tide regularly blow opponents out early.

    Cooper only caught four touchdown passes on 45 receptions totaling 736 yards in 2013, but he put up big games at the right time. That would be during the Iron Bowl and the Sugar Bowl, when he combined for 299 yards.

    If given a full season of games to rack up stats, Cooper might wow you better in that category. Instead, he has to settle for making great plays on a smaller scale, the kind that are well noticed by scouts and that will make him very attractive in the 2015 NFL draft.

32. Leonard Williams, USC

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    Year: Junior

    Position: Defensive lineman

     

    Leonard Williams has been a star in college at two different positions, as a defensive end in 2012 and then as an interior rusher last season. With a 6'5", 298-pound frame, he's built to do either, which will make him highly coveted when he becomes draft-eligible after this season.

    Williams had six sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss in 2013, but CBS Sports' Bruce Feldman said Williams told him he was "65 percent" during the season because of a shoulder injury. That means he could be even better this fall, if completely healthy, but even if he isn't, he's shown he can battle through pain to still perform at a high level.

31. Matt Johnson, Bowling Green

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    Year: Junior

    Position: Quarterback

     

    Matt Johnson may be the next great quarterback from the Mid-American Conference, following in the steps of Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich. Those guys didn't start getting as much attention until their senior years, but Johnson is already grabbing headlines after just one season as a starter.

    Johnson threw for 3,467 yards and 25 touchdowns last year, helping the Falcons win the MAC title and get to 10 wins. He also ran for five scores, showing a sneaky kind of speed that makes him even more comparable to Roethlisberger.

30. Jay Ajayi, Boise State

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    Year: Junior

    Position: Running back

     

    Jay Ajayi ran for 1,425 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2013, the most consistent piece of Boise's offense in a year when it rotated through multiple quarterbacks and struggled at times to score. It was a breakout year for the rusher, who averaged nearly seven yards per carry as a freshman but wasn't nearly as involved in the game plan.

    New coach Bryan Harsin has a hard worker at his disposal in Ajayi, who can also catch passes out of the backfield to provide another dimension to his game. The Broncos are among the favorites to grab the College Football Playoff spot open to a non-power conference team, but to do so, it will require Ajayi to put up even bigger numbers.

29. Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech

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    Year: Sophomore

    Position: Cornerback

     

    Kendall Fuller had a far better first year of college football than anyone could have predicted, as his six interceptions were the most ever by a freshman in ACC history. He came to Virginia Tech known more as the younger brother of former Virginia Tech defensive back Kyle Fuller but now has a chance to be one of the Hokies' best defensive players ever.

    Fuller played both safety and linebacker last season despite weighing only 195 pounds. But he responded well, finishing with 58 tackles and an enhanced understanding of the game that should translate into continued improvement this season.

28. Hroniss Grasu, Oregon

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    Year: Senior

    Position: Center

     

    Hroniss Grasu skipped a chance at the NFL draft for one more year hiking to Marcus Mariota and leading Oregon's offensive line, a group that projects to be the same from last season. He should be the top center taken in the 2015 draft, but the chance to work on things a little more served as a strong motivator to return.

    Grasu told The Register-Guard's Ryan Thorburn he has to improve at "getting off the ball better, playing at lower pad level, keeping his [sic] hands tighter and driving linebackers back on the second level." That sounds like a lot, but considering he was an All-American in 2013, that's more a statement of Grasu's perfectionism than anything else.

27. Su'a Cravens, USC

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    Year: Sophomore

    Position: Safety

     

    Su'a Cravens came to USC with a lot of hype, which is standard for most of the Trojans' recruits. But he didn't disappoint, intercepting four passes while logging 53 tackles and showing the kind of headiness you'd expect from a veteran.

    That will be Cravens this year, as many USC starters from 2013 have moved on. He made it through an up-and-down 2013 season, overcoming a midseason coaching change and injuries to many of his teammates. Now, with a new staff in place and (hopefully) a less tumultuous atmosphere, Cravens will continue to improve.

26. Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State

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    Year: Junior

    Position: Defensive end

     

    With 7.5 sacks, 14 tackles for loss and a defensive touchdown, Shilique Calhoun was instrumental in the Michigan State defense that was among the toughest in the country last season. He came out of nowhere, and it was somewhat of a surprise that he didn't take advantage of going pro as a third-year sophomore.

    Calhoun wouldn't mind if opponents act as if he didn't come back, because then it might lessen the chance they'll try to double-team him, he told MLive.com's Mike Griffith.

    "Hopefully they've forgotten about me ... hopefully, they're like, 'I don't remember number 89, he didn't do much,'" Calhoun said.

    That's pretty unlikely, considering how much time he spent in opposing backfields in 2013. But the edge-rusher seems determined to find ways to overcome the increased attention and, in the meantime, will continue to establish himself as one of the FBS' top defensive linemen.

25. T.J. Yeldon, Alabama

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    Year: Junior

    Position: Running back

     

    A familiar situation is unfolding in Alabama's backfield, where once again an up-and-coming running back is biding his time behind the entrenched (and talented) starter. But we're not here to talk about Derrick Henry, because T.J. Yeldon still has at least one more year to put up his great numbers.

    Yeldon had more than 1,200 yards with 14 touchdowns in 2013, this coming after 1,100-plus yards and 12 scores as a freshman and backup to Eddie Lacy. No matter his role, Yeldon has averaged at least six yards per carry his entire career, which makes you wonder what he could do if he could get more than 20 carries per game on a regular basis.

24. Connor Cook, Michigan State

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    Year: Junior

    Position: Quarterback

     

    As the 2013 season went on, Connor Cook became more and more comfortable leading the offense and taking on the expectations that come with being a quarterback at a major program. His numbers reflected this down the stretch, as he had 636 yards and five touchdowns combined in the Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl.

    Now he'll come into this fall with raised expectations, not just externally but from himself. And according to MLive.com's Kyle Austin, Cook figures what he can do to aid his cause is become a better runner.

    "I'm not trying to be a dual-threat guy, but if a play breaks down and I can just scramble, four yards, five yards on more of a consistent basis," Cook said during spring practice. "I feel like if I can do that, that will really take my game to the next level and separate me as a quarterback."

    Cook had 76 yards on 69 carries last season, scoring one TD.

23. Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska

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    Year: Senior

    Position: Running back

     

    Ameer Abdullah ran for 1,690 yards last season, a total that was good enough for ninth best in the FBS. But the more important number this year is one, as that's where he ranks among returning players in rushing yards.

    Abdullah didn't go pro, as many junior running backs will, instead choosing to come back to Nebraska to again be the focal point of an offense that struggled with the pass last year and will be relatively inexperienced at quarterback again. That just means more work for Abdullah, who, despite being just 5'9", runs like a big back to the tune of 281 carries last season.

    Bleacher Report's Sebastian Lena listed Abdullah as one of the 10 seniors with the most to prove this season, and if Abdullah is able to meet expectations, he should get a lot of interest from NFL teams.

22. Michael Bennett, Ohio State

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    Year: Senior

    Position: Defensive tackle

     

    Michael Bennett waited patiently for a shot to make a real impact with Ohio State, and when that opportunity came in 2013, he ran with it. As a junior, he notched seven sacks, plugging up the middle in the run-heavy Big Ten.

    Bennett is part of a defensive line that returns everyone from last year, meaning each player will be expected to improve on what he did in the past. That won't necessarily mean numbers as much as effort, according to what Bennett told Michael Citro of the Eleven Warriors blog.

    "I'll do whatever the coaches need from me," Bennett said. "If I get two tackles a game or 12 tackles a game I'm fine with it as long as we win, I'm doing my job and doing a good job at it."

    That has to be music to Urban Meyer's ears, knowing seniors such as Bennett are accepting their place and role rather than playing their own game.

21. Keenan Reynolds, Navy

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    Year: Junior

    Position: Quarterback

     

    The quarterback position at Navy has traditionally been the most important one since the program became primarily an option offense years ago, but few players in that spot have been ones who could perform as well as Keenan Reynolds did last season. And that's beyond just the one game when he rushed for seven touchdowns, most ever by a quarterback at the FBS level.

    Reynolds ran for 31 TDs in the season, leading the Midshipmen to a bowl victory over Middle Tennessee. His passing numbers weren't spectacular, but they also weren't bad. He tossed eight TDs and was intercepted only twice, making him one of the most efficient players in the country.

20. Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss

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    Year: Sophomore

    Position: Wide receiver

     

    While defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche garnered the bulk of the hype and attention at the beginning of the season, by year's end, it was Laquon Treadwell who had established himself as Ole Miss' most important and impactful freshman. It earned him the SEC's Freshman of the Year award and quickly launched him into the discussion for top wideouts in the country.

    Treadwell had 72 catches for 608 yards and five touchdowns last year, numbers that will be much higher this year as he steps into Donte Moncrief's spot as the No. 1 receiver. He'll also draw the top corners in the SEC, and if he can still produce against those defenders, then he'll move up the receiver ranks.

19. Cameron Erving, Florida State

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    Year: Senior

    Position: Offensive tackle

     

    The Heisman went to Jameis Winston, but credit needs to go around to several players on Florida State. The line starts with those blocking for Winston, most notably Cameron Erving, who was essential in keeping defenders off the quarterback in 2013.

    Erving used to be on the defensive side and seems to have tapped into that prior knowledge to help him better understand what's coming toward him on each play. Another year of blocking like that could not only give Winston a chance to retain his title, but could also boost Erving toward a high draft pick.

18. Brett Hundley, UCLA

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    Year: Junior

    Position: Quarterback

     

    Had Brett Hundley left for the NFL draft after last season, he might have gone in the first few rounds. If he can improve on what he did in 2013, he'll likely be a first-round pick.

    Hundley had 35 total touchdowns while compiling more than 3,800 yards of total offense last year, providing UCLA with both a potent passing attack as well as a viable running option. This season, he'll look to work more on the fundamentals of the former, something he's been doing almost since the Sun Bowl ended in December.

    "I learned the mindset behind being a quarterback," Hundley told the Los Angeles Times' Chris Foster. "It's not just about having a nice arm. It's about how you control the offense and control the players, on the field and off field."

    When he steps back to pass this fall, the option to run will still be there, but Hundley will be looking to throw more as he gets himself prepared for an NFL career.

17. Myles Jack, UCLA

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    Year: Sophomore

    Position: Linebacker

     

    Myles Jack became a national sensation when he was inserted at running back in early November and started plowing over defenders. But what had Jack getting attention before that, and what he'll continue to be most needed for, is his work as an effective tackler and pursuer.

    Jack had an impressive seven touchdowns on just 38 carries, but he also had 75 tackles, which, according to UCLA's website, is the second most by a true freshman in team history.

    The Bruins need his help more at linebacker than as a rusher, and he'll be the focal point of their defense this season. The foot injury to promising young defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes will put added importance on Jack during UCLA's early schedule, which includes a trip to Virginia and a matchup with Texas.

16. Taysom Hill, BYU

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    Year: Junior

    Position: Quarterback

     

    Taysom Hill produced more than 4,300 yards of total offense and 29 total touchdowns last season, including an amazing performance in a blowout win over Texas. His great running ability was a viable weapon all year, but accuracy issues plagued him at times and was a major factor in BYU's five losses.

    The Salt Lake Tribune's Kurt Kragthorpe noted that Hill had a completion percentage of under 50 percent in those five losses, but the quarterback has spent a lot of time this offseason working on what he needs to do to improve.

    "There are a lot of things that I know now that I didn't know last season," Hill said. "As I break down film, I can see why I missed high or why I missed low. I've been able to kind of nitpick myself and analyze what I need to do to get better."

    The key is whether Hill can act on that knowledge in games. If so, the ability to throw effectively, combined with his running ability, could make him the top dual-threat passer in the country this season.

15. Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M

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    Year: Senior

    Position: Offensive lineman

     

    Give Cedric Ogbuehi a blocking assignment, and he'll get the job done. No matter where on the line he's asked to play, the massive lineman has been effective during his career at Texas A&M.

    First a right guard, then a right tackle, Ogbuehi looks to be the Aggies' left tackle this fall. That will make him the backside protector for the team's new quarterback, a job that will make or break his draft status depending on how upright that new passer remains.

14. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon

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    Year: Senior

    Position: Cornerback

     

    Among the most feared corners in the nation the last two seasons, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu didn't leave for the NFL as was expected. That was a huge win for Oregon, which gets his shutdown skills and nose for the ball for another year.

    For his career, Ekpre-Olomu has seven interceptions and seven forced fumbles, and last year he upped his game with 83 tackles, including five for loss. Not just a pass defender, Ekpre-Olomu is an all-around defensive stopper, the kind who will be a nightmare for Pac-12 quarterbacks and running backs to deal with.

13. Tyler Lockett, Kansas State

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    Year: Senior

    Position: Wide receiver

     

    Tyler Lockett is on pace to be Kansas State's all-time leading receiver in terms of receptions, yards and touchdowns. Doing that will move him ahead of his father, Kevin, who currently holds all those records, not to mention cap a college career that has gotten better every year.

    Lockett really broke through in 2013, catching 81 passes for 1,262 yards and 11 touchdowns to help the Wildcats shake off a slow start to finish strong and win a bowl game. He credits his breakout year to becoming a student of film, but according to Kevin Haskin of The Topeka Capital-Journal, he did so in a different manner.

    "I kind of learned that you want to watch film against your opponent, look at the person that is going to guard you, see their technique," Lockett told Haskin. "It makes things a whole lot easier, because the game doesn't go as fast when you understand everything that's going on with it."

    If this is a new approach, imagine the numbers Lockett will put up this season.

12. Braxton Miller, Ohio State

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    Year: Senior

    Position: Quarterback

     

    Injuries kept Braxton Miller from being able to prove the critics wrong last season, so he's back for another year of running wild but also working on passing techniques that will be needed to get him into the NFL. That's good for Ohio State and bad for the players trying to shut him down.

    Miller threw for 24 touchdowns and 2,094 yards last year, which was still a career high, but it would have been a much better number had he not missed time multiple games with a knee issue. The running numbers were still good, with another 1,000-yard effort, but that's not what's going to get him a gig in the pros.

    It will be improved passing against quality opponents. Ohio State's upgraded schedule will help with half of that. The rest is up to him.

11. Tyler Boyd, Pittsburgh

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Year: Sophomore

    Position: Wide receiver

     

    Tyler Boyd is the latest great Pittsburgh wide receiver to break out as a freshman, following Antonio Bryant and Larry Fitzgerald, with one difference: Those predecessors didn't have numbers like Boyd's.

    The speedy wideout had 85 catches, 1,174 yards and seven touchdowns in 2013. His involvement in the punt return game increased as the year went along, capped by a return TD in the bowl victory over Bowling Green. And with at least two more years to keep getting better, the Panthers will know they have one of the game's best offensive weapons at their disposal.

10. Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Year: Sophomore

    Position: Cornerback

     

    Florida has become known for producing top-tier defensive backs, but that's usually a process that takes a few years before the major results are seen. Vernon Hargreaves III has taken a different route, exploding onto the scene as a true freshman last year to set the stage for a great career.

    Hargreaves only had three interceptions, but he also had 11 pass breakups as he shut down some of the better receivers the Gators faced last year. He did all that as an untested rookie, but now he's an elder statesman in the secondary who will take on leadership responsibilities along with the work he does against opposing wideouts.

9. Jeremy Langford, Michigan State

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Year: Senior

    Position: Running back

     

    Jeremy Langford went from a no-name to a brand name between the start and end of the 2013 season, a defensive backup and special teams player who was converted to running back and exploded to the tune of more than 1,400 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns. His consistency throughout the year enabled Connor Cook and the rest of Michigan State's offense to slowly develop.

    That unit has very high expectations on it this year, and those presumptions are even loftier for Langford. He really came on down the stretch last season—gaining 100-plus yards in eight games, including the Big Ten title game—but this time out, he'll need to be hot early to handle a schedule that includes a Sept. 6 trip to Oregon.

8. Todd Gurley, Georgia

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Year: Junior

    Position: Running back

     

    Todd Gurley failed to reach 1,000 rushing yards last season, the result of early injuries that cost him games and kept him from being 100 percent for much of the year. He wasn't all the way back during spring practice, but the signs are there that he could have it all back in time for a junior year that could end with a Heisman run.

    "Everything's starting to get better, slowly but surely," Gurley told Edward Aschoff of ESPN.com. "It's been a while since I've been healthy, but it's slowly getting there."

    Health seems to be the only thing that's keeping Gurley from being considered an elite running back, but if he can keep himself on the field, there will be big numbers and lots of wins for Georgia. Even with a new quarterback and other replacements, the Bulldogs can have a big year if Gurley doesn't get hurt.

7. Vic Beasley, Clemson

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Year: Senior

    Position: Defensive end

     

    As the only player in the country to finish in the top 10 nationally in sacks (13), tackles for loss (23) and forced fumbles (four), Vic Beasley was a devastating force coming off the edge for Clemson last season. Those kinds of numbers were good enough to get him a lot of buzz for the NFL, but he chose to come back to hone his skills a little more.

    Projected more as a linebacker in the pros, Beasley uses a skill set that can get him inside or around blockers because of his speed and drive. Clemson has questions on offense, but it at least knows there's a reliable force waiting to wreak havoc on defenses.

6. Randy Gregory, Nebraska

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    Eric Francis/Getty Images

    Year: Junior

    Position: Defensive end

     

    Originally headed to Purdue, Randy Gregory ended up spending time at a junior college in Arizona before making his way to Nebraska. The long journey finally paid dividends last season when he put together one of the best defensive seasons in the Cornhuskers' storied history.

    Gregory had 10.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss in 2013, making the All-Big Ten first team and plenty of other top performer lists. But according to coach Bo Pelini, we haven't seen anything yet.

    "Randy Gregory hasn't even scratched the surface of what he's going to become, what he's going to be," Pelini told Eric Olson of The Associated Press (via the Big Red Report).

    At 6'6" and 245 pounds, he's got the length to disrupt the passing game but also the speed and power to get free from blockers, something most Big Ten offensive linemen could attest to.

5. Mike Davis, South Carolina

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    RAINIER EHRHARDT/Associated Press

    Year: Junior

    Position: Running back

     

    Mike Davis didn't need to carry South Carolina's balanced offense last year, but that won't be the case this season. The increased expectations shouldn't be a problem for the physical runner, assuming he can avoid the nagging injuries that limited his effectiveness in 2013.

    Davis rushed for just under 1,200 yards last season and scored 11 touchdowns, doing his part to lead the Gamecocks to 11 wins yet again. But there's so much more he can do, and Davis knows it.

    "I'm going to run angry next season, and everybody's going to know about it," he told Chris Low of ESPN.com.

    That's compared to running in pain, as he did a lot last year. It kept him from reaching his full potential and seems to have inspired Davis to focus all of his energy into staying healthy and becoming even more productive.

4. Bryce Petty, Baylor

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Year: Senior

    Position: Quarterback

     

    Though he's only been a starter for one year, Bryce Petty heads into his final season of college ball as one of the more experienced quarterbacks after weathering the tough Big 12 schedule. Actually, it was more like dominating it, to the tune of 4,200 passing yards, 32 touchdowns and only three interceptions.

    Petty was also a pretty effective runner, especially in the red zone, scoring 14 rushing touchdowns. Yes, he had a lot of weapons around him, but an argument can be made that he was just as responsible for their numbers as they were.

    Baylor has a chance to get into the first-ever College Football Playoff, and if that happens, it will be as a result of Petty. His strong arm and big body must hold up through another tough schedule, but if they do, we'll be seeing the Bears play on New Year's Eve or New Year's Day.

3. Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Year: Junior

    Position: Running back

     

    Melvin Gordon hasn't had to be a workhorse back during his college career, which might help him last longer in the NFL since his body hasn't taken as many hits. It's also why his choice to stay in school when he was eligible for the draft this year wasn't such a bad idea.

    Gordon has averaged close to eight yards per carry while at Wisconsin, but last year was his "busiest" year, and he still only had 206 carries. He rushed for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2013, yet losing his last two games (including a bowl game against South Carolina) wasn't how he wanted it to end.

    "It is one thing to just come and go," Gordon told Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "But you want to leave a legacy."

    The Badgers are the favorites to win the Big Ten's West Division and have a great opportunity to make an early splash in their Aug. 30 game against LSU. Strong efforts by Gordon in 2014 can help make that legacy happen, and based on what he did last year, it's very possible.

2. Marcus Mariota, Oregon

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    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    Year: Junior

    Position: Quarterback

     

    Marcus Mariota didn't throw an interception until mid-November last season, an amazing run of accuracy that masked the fact he wasn't having as great a year running the ball. A knee injury slowed that part of his diverse game, but you wouldn't know it based on the 3,665 yards and 31 touchdowns he posted.

    Mariota still ran for 715 yards and nine touchdowns, but it could have been so much more, especially since Oregon has become known for such an electric rushing attack over the years. Mariota started off as more of a run-first guy, but he threw for nearly 1,000 yards more in 2013 than in his first year as a starter.

    He's the most complete quarterback the Ducks have produced during their extended stay in the national spotlight, and with the spotlight on them yet again, he's poised to be the catalyst for a push to the playoffs.

1. Jameis Winston, Florida State

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Year: Sophomore

    Position: Quarterback

     

    Jameis Winston is the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, having put up the kind of numbers (4,057 yards, 40 touchdowns) you could only hope your junior or senior quarterback would produce. For him to do it as a redshirt freshman—with no prior experience—was phenomenal.

    Don't let his recent off-the-field incident fool you: Winston is still the best player in the country. But with him eligible for the NFL draft after the 2014 season, it is time for some focus to be shown on the future, according to Yahoo! Sports' Dan Wetzel:

    Despite his success last season, he lacks the kind of pro-style throwing motion or velocity to assure anything about his future. He isn't good enough that this stuff doesn't matter. The NFL isn't going to run from an athlete based on this laundry list of 'incidents'it'll pretty much take anyone who can playbut teams will examine each one thoroughly. And then they'll repeatedly question Winston about his maturity and decision-making process. He has way too much ability and potential to allow that to overshadow him.

    As the face and on-field leader of the defending national champions, Winston has a job now that's much bigger than just finding the open man and avoiding the rush. But in a few months, that's all that will really matter, as he pilots the Seminoles toward a possible second straight championship.

     

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen at @realBJP.

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