10 Former College Football Stars Who Will Surprise Everyone in the NFL

Brian PedersenFeatured ColumnistMay 7, 2014

10 Former College Football Stars Who Will Surprise Everyone in the NFL

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    Former Oregon star De'Anthony Thomas is one of many ex-college greats who are out to surprise people in the NFL.
    Former Oregon star De'Anthony Thomas is one of many ex-college greats who are out to surprise people in the NFL.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Remember these guys?

    It's been more than four months since the vast majority of college football's top players saw any action. For many guys looking to get taken in the 2014 NFL draft, that time away from the field has turned a lot of them into forgotten greats.

    We've had the NFL combine, pro days and individual workouts, but by and large most of the best players from the 2013 season have fallen out of the spotlight because of a lack of attention or a perception their best days were behind them.

    Great in college? Sure. Good in the pros? Well...

    But for these 10 players, this week's draft will serve as a launching point for a road to redemption. Whether they're taken first overall or not at all, each will be out to prove they can be as effective a professional as they were a collegiate player.

Jared Abbrederis, WR, Wisconsin

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    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Jared Abbrederis began his career at Wisconsin without a scholarship, but by the time he was done he shared the school record for career receptions (202) to go along with 3,140 receiving yards and 23 touchdowns. That kind of effort, capped by 1,081 yards and seven touchdowns as a senior, earned him the Burlsworth Trophy given to the nation's top player who started as a walk-on.

    It's a similar path taken by current NFL star wide receiver Jordy Nelson, who was a walk-on at Kansas State before becoming an All-American as a senior and getting drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the second round of the 2008 NFL Draft.

    Abbrederis isn't getting as much hype in terms of pro chances, despite his standout college career. According to his bio on NFL.com, his 6'1", 195-pound frame is in need of bulking up, and his strength is a concern after bench-pressing 225 pounds just four times at the combine.

    Someone is going to take a flyer on Abbrederis and odds are he'll embark on the same kind of journey that pushed him through Wisconsin to become a solid pro wide receiver.

Jeremiah Attaochu, LB, Georgia Tech

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Jeremiah Attaochu is fifth all-time in sacks in ACC history, recording 31.5 over his career at Georgia Tech. That tally is also a school record for the Yellow Jackets.

    But at 6'3" and 252 pounds, Attaochu is considered too small to play the defensive end position he dominated in college, so scouts and draft experts are listing him as a linebacker in their profiles. With that in mind, CBS Sports considers him the sixth-best player at that position in the draft, and he should go in the second or third round.

    Attaochu excelled in college without getting much national fanfare, even when his 12.5 sacks as a senior included two against Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd. And now with the position change, it's almost as if teams are trying to plug him into a hole instead of using his natural talents.

    As an edge-rusher, he showed off speed and agility but where Attaochu really needs to get credit is in his pursuit skills. Having had to lineup against Georgia Tech's triple-option offense in practice for four years, he's become adept at sniffing out all forms of plays, which has made him a great defensive "quarterback" and will lead to him having a very good NFL career.

Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Ka'Deem Carey is Arizona's career rushing leader, gaining more than 3,800 yards in his final two seasons to finish first and third, respectively in the national rankings.

    When he made the decision to leave college after his junior year back in January, Bleacher Report's Matt Fitzgerald noted he was the No. 1 running back in the 2014 draft class, according to CBS Sports. As we enter the week of the NFL draft, he sits eighth.

    How does someone fall that far? According to Fox Sports' Ross Jones, Carey's less-than-impressive time of 4.66 seconds in the 40-yard dash started the slide. Why one single skills test should have that much impact is surprising, but it's the world NFL prospects live in.

    Carey is now projected as a third- or fourth-round pick, rather than earlier in the draft as originally slotted. No matter, any defender who tried to take him down in college will tell you his tenacity and constantly moving legs will help him perform well as a professional, regardless of where he's drafted.

Marion Grice, RB, Arizona State

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Marion Grice was well on his way to setting Arizona State's single-season touchdown record in 2013, scoring 20 touchdowns in the Sun Devils' first 10 games. Then a leg injury knocked him out of a critical game at UCLA and also sidelined him for the rest of his senior year.

    The injury kept Grice from participating in the NFL combine or ASU's pro day, though he did work out for 15 teams in early April. The results weren't spectacular, according to NFL.com's Gil Brandt, with Grice not showing "a lot of explosion" in the running back drills.

    But that's not what made Grice such a special player in his two years at ASU. He averaged 5.7 yards per carry and had 25 touchdowns on the ground, but Grice's best attribute was his great pass-catching ability out of the backfield. In those two seasons he caught 91 passes for 863 yards and 14 TDs, providing an extension to the run game that most defenses can't plan for.

    Running backs who can catch the ball are a prized commodity in the NFL, and whoever picks Grice will likely have that in mind. They'll also have quite a late-round steal.

Marqise Lee, WR, USC

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Scroll down Marqise Lee's online bio on USC's football website and you'll come across a series of quotes about the wide receiver during his productive college career. The top quote, attributed to Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke, says Lee "is the best college football player in the country."

    That quote is from November 2012, during his sophomore year when Lee caught 118 passes for 1,721 yards and 14 touchdowns. That included a Pac-12 record 345 yards in one game.

    But injuries limited Lee to just 11 games in 2013, though he still led USC with 57 receptions but only had 791 yards and four TDs. He's slipped down the charts for wideouts, though he will be one of seven receivers attending Thursday's first round of the NFL Draft.

    Lee will get drafted, and he will still have some expectations, but they might be based more on 2013 rather than 2012. That would be foolish, because he's still capable of putting up those numbers.

Aaron Lynch, DT, South Florida

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    USA TODAY Sports

    A 4-star recruit out of high school, Aaron Lynch was one of the most sought after defensive players in the country in 2010 when he chose Notre Dame over many other suitors. But after one season with the Fighting Irish he transferred back to his home state of Florida.

    Lynch sat out the 2012 season, then played for South Florida in 2013. He had six sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss for the Bulls, who were abysmal at 2-10 and far from the national spotlight except when getting crushed by the likes of Central Florida and Louisville.

    Despite still possessing great skills, Lynch had become an afterthought and after dropping from 270 pounds at Notre Dame to in the 240s at USF his 6'6" frame looked underdeveloped.

    Scouts have been harsh in evaluating Lynch, with CBS Sports' online profile noting that "questions abound as to whether or not he has the attitude, team-first mentality and dedication required to succeed at the next level."

    Lynch may end up being a project in the NFL, needing to bulk up and work on some technique, but it's far too early to call him a bust.

A.J. McCarron, QB, Alabama

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    What did A.J. McCarron do in college, really?

    Besides win 36 of 40 starts over three seasons, sharing in a pair of NCAA titles along the way? Besides throw for more than 9,000 yards and 77 touchdowns with just 15 interceptions?

    I mean, really? What did he do?

    McCarron's numbers would be lauded had he played anywhere other than Alabama, where because of how good the teams were his efforts seemed unimportant. Draft projections have him going anywhere from the second to the fourth round, but in what's being called a deep draft for quarterbacks, McCarron isn't standing out in any major way.

    That could work in his favor, depending on where he ends up. As a proven winner, McCarron seems to be a perfect fit for a team that has most of the pieces in place and needs a solid backup. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller puts him in the third round to Cincinnati, where given a chance to play behind Andy Dalton could end up providing a great opportunity to shine in a relief role.

Connor Shaw, QB, South Carolina

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Steve Spurrier is famous for a lot of things in college football, one of which is producing high-level quarterbacks. But most of those passers don't pan out in the NFL, to the point where his quarterbacks at South Carolina don't get nearly as much attention as the ones he had at Florida.

    Yet Connor Shaw is among the best Spurrier has ever coached, a notion furthered by the fact he didn't get subjected to nearly as much of the constant quarterback shuffling that many of Spurrier's other great QBs had to deal with.

    Shaw went 27-5 as a starter, the best record ever for a Gamecock quarterback. As a senior he threw for 2,447 yards and 24 touchdowns, yet only threw one interception. And he also rushed for more than 500 yards in two of his last three seasons despite not being in a spread offense that called for a lot of designed quarterback runs.

    Injuries have limited his availability at times over the years, which will scare teams away, but that shouldn't just cause him to be ignored. When healthy, he's been great, and he can be great as a pro, too.

De'Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    At times in his college career, De'Anthony Thomas was one of the most electric and exciting players in the game. Every time he touched the ball there was an expectation he was going to do something amazing, whether it be on a run play, a short pass or a punt or kick return.

    He didn't disappoint...until his junior year, when an ankle injury and an aloof reputation, brought on by being quoted as saying the Rose Bowl wasn't "a big deal," struck. Thomas still finished the 2013 season with 1,353 all-purpose yards in 10 games, but that was down from 1,757 the year before and 2,235 as a freshman.

    A quick look at those numbers will say that Thomas peaked in his first year of college ball, when he had 18 touchdowns that included two on returns. That's part of why he's slipped far on draft boards, but there's also the issue of his being just 5'9" and 174 pounds.

    Similarly sized players have thrived in the NFL by doing a little bit of everything, including recent standouts Tavon Austin and Dexter McCluster. Thomas seems to be getting unfavorably compared to those players, when he may very well perform like them some day soon.

Keith Wenning, QB, Ball State

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    Brian Kersey/Getty Images

    Keith Wenning put up big numbers during his four years at Ball State, finishing with more than 11,000 passing yards and 92 touchdowns. His senior year was phenomenal, with 4,148 yards and 35 touchdowns against just seven interceptions.

    It was the kind of season that would have earned him Player of the Year honors in many conferences, but he wasn't even the most noteworthy quarterback in the Mid-American thanks to Jordan Lynch at Northern Illinois and Matt Johnson at Bowling Green.

    Lynch isn't going to be a quarterback in the NFL, and Johnson was just a sophomore. That leaves Wenning as the next person to carry the MAC's torch for producing pro quarterbacks.

    Though not as physically imposing as Marshall's Byron Leftwich or Ben Roethlisberger of Miami (Ohio), Wenning is still sturdily built at 6'3" and 220 pounds and avoided injury to make 47 straight starts. He doesn't have the notoriety of those other guys but could still surprise some people in the pros.

     

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.