Every Power-5 Conference's All-Sleeper Team for 2014
One of the first reputable all-conference teams of the College Football Playoff era came out yesterday, as AL.com released a poll of the 14 Sports Information Directors in the SEC, which included a look at the league's top-projected players.
As conference media days approach—and we are only about a month away!—more lists of this ilk will be released and argued about ad nauseam. Which means, of course, that we shouldn't waste our breath doing it now if we're just going to do it again so soon.
Instead, let's look at and argue about a different kind of all-conference team: The all-sleeper team of every power-five conference.
Let's take the most underappreciated quarterback, running back, pass-catcher, offensive lineman, defensive lineman and defensive back in each of the country's best conferences and talk about why they have a chance to become more appreciated names in 2014.
There were but two steadfast rules for eligibility.
A player could not be listed on this team if he made—or was named an "honorable mention" for—an all-conference team last season. He also could not make this team if he is a former 5-star recruit from the past two or three seasons. However, a former 5-star recruit from 2011 or earlier that has failed to pan-out thus far was deemed eligible.
At Clemson, for example, Grady Jerrett is poised for a huge year at defensive tackle, and MacKensie Alexander is poised for a huge year at cornerback. But the former was an All-ACC honorable mention in 2013, and the latter was a 5-star recruit two cycles ago.
Neither one has been included on this list.
Make sense? Cool. Sound off below with those whom I missed.
Quarterback: Chad Voytik, Pittsburgh
Chad Voytik barely saw the field as a redshirt freshman but came on and played admirably in the second half of the Little Caesars Bowl after Tom Savage got injured. He doesn't have Savage's size or arm, but Voytik is fairly mobile, very accurate and mechanically sound and was the No. 5 pro-style quarterback on the 247Sports Composite in 2012. With Biletnikoff candidate Tyler Boyd on the outside and a decent group of tailbacks behind him, Voytik is set up for success.
Running Back: Taquan Mizzell, Virginia
Taquan Mizzell was one of the most eagerly anticipated freshmen in the country last season, but he did not have the Duke Johnson-type impact many hoped he would have at Virginia. However, the 5'10" scatback still has the physical tools that made him so well-regarded in the first place, and his current form has been auspicious. According to Matt Fortuna of ESPN.com, "Mizzell has taken all of the right steps going into his second season, and is, by all accounts, well on his way to reaching his potential."
Receiver/Tight End: Bryan Underwood (WR), N.C. State
Bryan Underwood took a massive step back last season. One year after catching 44 passes for 620 yards and 10 touchdowns from Mike Glennon, he was unable to overcome the Wolfpack's inconsistent quarterback play and finished with just 32 catches for 382 yards and one touchdown in seven games. This year, however, N.C. State loses its top two receivers (Rashard Smith and Quintin Payton) and gains a viable QB in Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett. Underwood flashed his 2012 form with two touchdown receptions in the spring game.
Offensive Line: Austin Barron, Florida State
Usually, when a player does not start until his senior season, it indicates some sort of deficiency within himself. In Austin Barron's case, however, it was simply a product of playing behind Bryan Stork. Now Barron steps into a Florida State lineup with four returning starters, but he is talented enough to become more than just a fungible part. Even after losing last year's Rimington Trophy recipient, the Seminoles will not experience a massive drop-off at center.
Defensive Line: Dadi Nicolas, Virginia Tech
Dadi Nicolas is one of the quickest, fastest defensive ends in the country, and he used that speed to rack up 7.5 tackles for loss as a backup in 2013. With James Gayle and J.R. Collins departed, he will now step into the starting lineup and be counted on as the leader of the Hokies' pass-rush. His slight frame has been a problem, but according to Andy Bitter of The Roanoke Times, he was up to 225 pounds in April and is aiming to play at 240 pounds next season. "If he gets to 240, oof," said linemate Ken Ekanem. "He'll be an animal over there."
Linebacker: Tony Steward, Clemson
It's been a long journey to the projected starting lineup for Tony Steward, who was the No. 15 overall player and No. 1 outside linebacker on the 247Sports Composite in 2011. He tore his ACL as a freshman but has fought his way back and become a standout special teams player in the process. But now appears to be Steward's big shot, and head coach Dabo Swinney is happy for him. "I am proud of his work ethic and I am proud of where he is mentally and physically," Swinney said, per David Hood of Tigernet.com. "It does your heart good, to be honest…to see a guy claw and fight and persevere."
Defensive Back: Dallas Crawford, Miami
Dallas Crawford did an admirable job replacing Duke Johnson in the Hurricanes' backfield last season, finishing with 558 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. But now that Johnson is back and (hopefully) healthy, head coach Al Golden decided that Crawford would be better utilized in the secondary—the spot he was recruited to play out of high school. The early returns have been positive, and Crawford ran with the first-team defense during spring camp. He brings a much-needed air of physicality to the Hurricanes' defensive backfield.
Quarterback: C.J. Brown, Maryland
C.J. Brown was a legitimate Heisman candidate after four games last season. He had 1,043 passing yards, 283 rushing yards, 13 total touchdowns and one interception at the end of September, but he was unable to keep up the pace while the rest of his teammates dropped like flies around him. This year, if star receiver Stefon Diggs can stay on the field, Brown will return along with almost every piece from an offense that has always been underrated when healthy. The Big Ten might be surprised to find that Brown is Braxton Miller-lite.
Running Back: Akeel Lynch, Penn State
There will be competition for touches in the Penn State backfield, which also returns leading rushers Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton from 2013. But no back on the roster has the upside of Akeel Lynch, who averaged 5.97 yards-per-carry on 60 carries last season and topped 100 yards twice in the first four games. His statistical ceiling might be limited by the depth around him, but Lynch is the most-talented skill-position player on a team that just lost Allen Robinson and is in desperate need of a big-play threat to aide budding quarterback Christian Hackenberg in Year 2.
Receiver/Tight End: Drew Wolitarsky (WR), Minnesota
Drew Wolitarsky worked well with new starting quarterback Mitch Leidner in the Texas Bowl, catching a 55-yard touchdown (the first score of his career) and finishing with a game-high 94 receiving yards. Now entering his true sophomore season, Wolitarsky should benefit from another year of development and the newfound clarity under center following Phillip Nelson's departure. He was a record-breaking high school receiver in California, and after watching him dominate the Texas Bowl, Bruce Feldman of FoxSports.com remembered seeing Wolitarksy at a Nike camp and being surprised that more Pac-12 schools didn't pursue him in earnest. That makes two of us.
Offensive Line: Alex Lewis, Nebraska
Alex Lewis was a revelation at left tackle for Nebraska this spring and should be the man protecting Tommy Armstrong's blind side come the fall. He came to Lincoln after two successful seasons at Colorado and will not be daunted by the level of competition. According to Mitchell Byars of the Boulder Daily Camera, he will have to serve 45 days in jail for his role in a fight before his transfer, but Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini told the Lincoln Journal Star that that will not affect Lewis' playing status this fall.
Defensive Line: Demetrius Cooper, Michigan State
Michigan State loses more at linebacker and in the secondary than it does along the defensive line, but Demetrius Cooper has been too good to ignore. He was the talk of East Lansing during spring practice, and he justified the hype with a nice showing in the Michigan State spring game. "It was bittersweet, because I didn’t want him to have more sacks than me," said All-America candidate Shileque Calhoun, according to Kyle Austin of MLive.com. "But I was proud that he was actually doing well out there. We consider this a game, so this was a big-time game for him to come out and improve."
Linebacker: Joshua Perry, Ohio State
Joshua Perry showed well on the strong-side and in the middle last season. With the departure of Ryan Shazier, however, he is now slated to play on the weak-side of Ohio State's defense—a role that has lent itself to huge stat totals in the past. "Hopefully," Perry said when asked if he could duplicate Shazier's 134 tackles from 2013, per Doug Lesmerises of The Cleveland Plain Dealer. "But it's not about individual stats. It's about what I can do for the team." Good answer.
Defensive Back: Jourdan Lewis, Michigan
Jourdan Lewis stated his case to start in the Michigan spring game, playing aggressive man-to-man defense throughout and coming down with a pair of interceptions. The Wolverines are loaded in the defensive backfield, and it still remains to be seen where Raymon Taylor, Blake Countess and incoming freshman Jabrill Peppers will line up and how they will all be used. But after the spring Lewis just had, he will almost definitely factor into the starting rotation.
Quarterback: Grant Rohach, Iowa State
It didn't come against the best competition, but Grant Rohach led Iowa State to a pair of season-ending victories over Kansas and West Virginia in 2013. Those wins were much-needed after a 1-9 start to the season, and Rohach threw for 300 or more yards in both of them. He hasn't won the starting job over Sam Richardson quite yet, but he was easily the better player in the Cyclones' spring game and appears to have the upper-hand heading into fall camp. This team might surprise some people next season, and Rohach is a big reason why.
Running Back: Johnny Jefferson, Baylor
A coaches' favorite throughout spring practice, redshirt freshman Johnny Jefferson should play the lightning to Shock Linwood's thunder in Baylor's backfield next season. He doesn't have the experience of Linwood or Devin Chafin but his big-play ability—which is redolent of now-departed tailback Lache Seastrunk—is a huge asset in Art Briles' score-from-anywhere offense. You'll see (at least) a few of his long touchdowns go by on SportsCenter during the fall.
Receiver/Tight End: Tyreek Hill (WR), Oklahoma State
Speaking of home-run threats … JUCO transfer Tyreek Hill has become a mythic figure of sorts during spring practice. We're cheating by listing him at wide receiver—he'll play primarily from the slot but also from the backfield—but there was no way to leave him off this list. A track star who won the Big 12's 200-meter race in March, Hill will be the Cowboys' go-to big-play weapon in 2013. "When you've got a good tool," said running backs coach Jemal Singleton, per Berry Thamel of The Oklahoman, "you've got to figure out different ways to use it.
Offensive Line: Tyrus Thompson, Oklahoma
Outside of Norman, Tyrus Thompson is perhaps best known as the anger-addled tackle who punched a TCU player when he was down in 2012. Inside Norman, he is best known as a tantalizing blocker who has not been able to stay healthy enough to make an All-Conference-type impact. But despite all that ignominy, Thompson has the size (6'5", 330 lbs), experience and surprising lack of stiffness to become one of the top offensive linemen in the conference this season. His ceiling might be even higher than that.
Defensive Line: Shiro Davis, Texas
Shiro Davis has shown flashes during his first two seasons with the Longhorns but failed to put it all together for sustained periods of time. With Jackson Jeffcoat thoroughly out of the picture, however, now might be his chance to emerge. Cedric Reed is good enough to demand attention across the line, so there will be room for Davis to operate when he plays. And he certainly has the physical tools to take advantage of those opportunities as early as 2014.
Linebacker: Kenny Williams, Texas Tech
Kenny Williams has led Texas Tech in rushing the past two seasons, but knowing that offense is not, never has been, and probably never will be his team's problem, head coach Kliff Kingsbury used him primarily at linebacker this spring. The results? If you believe the word from camp—where he ran with the first-team defense—they're pretty 'darn good thus far. "Kenny has done a great job coming over and learning the system," said defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt, per Jake Trotter of ESPN.com. "He’s a football guy, so it doesn’t take him a whole lot of time. He sees everything, understands the concepts."
Defensive Back: Daryl Worley, West Virginia
Daryl Worley was thrown into the fire as a true freshman last season, and unlike most of the other young West Virginia defenders, he did not come out covered in third-degree burns. He made five starts at cornerback and finished second on the team with five pass breakups and also chipped in 46 tackles. Max Olson of ESPN.com called Worley "one of the best defensive backs whom nobody is talking about in the Big 12" and said that Mountaineers coaches have called him "easily one of their best defensive players." That will have to be the case in a year head coach Dana Holgorsen cannot afford to waste.
Quarterback: Travis Wilson, Utah
Travis Wilson's career was in jeopardy earlier this offseason, but he was cleared to participate in spring practice despite concussion issues and did not show any lingering effects. In fact, he might have looked even better than ever, throwing five touchdowns on 21 passes in one of the Utes' scrimmages. According to Mathew Piper of The Salt Lake Tribune, head coach Kyle Whittingham called Wilson "exceptionally sharp" after that performance, which has me feeling good about the glowing prediction I made back in February.
Running Back: Dwayne Washington, Washington
The aptly named Dwayne Washington has the highest ceiling of the four players vying, primarily, to replace Bishop Sankey in Seattle. He has intimidating size (6'2", 221 lbs) but also flashed impressive speed during limited action in 2013, when he ripped off scoring runs of 71 and 52 yards against Oregon State and Colorado, respectively. Chris Petersen coached a similar (albeit smaller) blend of power and speed at Boise State when he had Doug Martin in the backfield. UW's new head coach will know how to uncork Washington.
Receiver/Tight End: Vince Mayle (WR), Washington State
Mike Leach likes to pass the football. He also likes converting gifted athletes from other positions to wide receiver. He did it with Edward Britton and—more notably—Michael Crabtree at Texas Tech, and he appears to have done it again with Vince Mayle at Washington State. Mayle is a freaky athlete who, by all accounts, has put in the work to get better this offseason. "He's a guy that wants to be good," said outside wide receiver coach Dennis Simmons, according to Chantel Jennings of ESPN.com. "A lot of people say that but you meet very few young men who are willing to put in the work to do that."
Offensive Line: Christian Westerman, Arizona State
Remember Christian Westerman? The former 5-star recruit and No. 10 overall player on the 247Sports Composite transferred nearer to home after making little impact at Auburn. He sat out all but the Holiday Bowl last season, per NCAA transfer rules, but he stood out as a star at left guard during spring camp. He has a chance to become one of the best interior blockers in the conference.
Defensive Line: Aziz Shittu, Stanford
Aziz Shittu has not lived up to the potential that made him a top-100 overall player and the No. 10 defensive tackle on the 247Sports Composite in 2012. That all began to change, however, with a strong spring camp that led Kyle Bonagura of of ESPN.com to call him the Cardinal's "breakout" player. With Ben Gardner and Josh Mauro gone from the always-dominant Stanford defensive line, Shittu will get a chance to step in and quickly become in impact player.
Linebacker: Jabari Ruffin, USC
Jabari Ruffin saw limited time as a redshirt freshman last season, but he did leave his mark with 22 tackles in 13 appearances and even started the season-opener at Hawaii. He is battling now with Quinton Powell for a starting outside linebacker job in Chris Wilcox's defense, and although the competition is close, Ruffin had a strong enough spring camp that Ted Miller of ESPN.com mentioned him in his "spring gold" column in early May. Whoever wins that job will have earned it by beating quality competition, and Ruffin appears to have an edge—however slight—heading into fall camp.
Defensive Back: Tyree Robinson, Oregon
Tyree Robinson is a big, athletic, physical freak of nature that could transform Oregon's rushing defense from the back end and make opposing receivers afraid to cross the middle. He is 6'4" and capable of playing a Taylor Mays-, Kam Chancellor-type role in the Ducks' secondary. His acrobatic interception of Taylor Alie was a big—if not the biggest—highlight from the UO spring game, and Robinson appears to have even more where that came from stowed away.
Quarterback: Justin Worley, Tennessee
The transfer of redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson gives Justin Worley—a senior—the big upper-hand to start for the Vols next season. His career to-date has been unspectacular, but in 2014, the Vols will surround Worley with more talent than he's ever seen. With Marquez North, Josh Malone, Von Pearson and (hopefully) Pig Howard as receiving options, Worley will be set up well for a big statistical season.
Running Back: Braylon Heard, Kentucky
Braylon Heard forced his way into a crowded Nebraska backfield as a sophomore in 2012, taking 52 carries for 348 yards despite playing alongside Ameer Abdullah, Rex Burkhead and Imani Cross. He transferred to Kentucky last offseason and should be able to crack the top of the rotation over returning leading rusher JoJo Kemp. Heard runs with long, bounding strides—think of a poor man's Darren McFadden—and should give the Wildcats a unique, reliable threat out of the backfield. That is something they have lacked since the days of Rafael Little in the late 2000s.
Receiver/Tight End: Pharoh Cooper (WR), South Carolina
Pharoh Cooper made the SEC All-Freshman team as an "all-purpose player" last season, but that was mostly on the strength of his return skills. As a receiver, he is largely untested, having only caught three passes for 54 yards and one touchdown. But he is poised to take over Bruce Ellington's role at the heart of South Carolina's offense this season and is probably the Gamecocks' most explosive player not named Mike Davis. Cooper should emerge as Dylan Thompson's favorite target and could be in store for a fine statistical season.
Offensive Line: Shon Coleman, Auburn
Man, what a story. Shon Coleman was diagnosed with cancer shortly after signing his national letter of intent in 2010 and didn't make his college football debut until last season, when he backed up No. 2 NFL draft pick Greg Robinson. But Coleman is not just a College Gameday feature waiting to happen; he's an extraordinarily talented player who impressed during spring camp and is the favorite to replace Robinson at left tackle in 2014. Per Brandon Marcello of AL.com, teammates compared his strength to that of Robinson during spring practice.
Defensive Line: Chris Mayes, Georgia
A lot of players are mentioned before Chris Mayes when people talk about the potential of Georgia's front seven. Ray Drew, Ramik Wilson, Jordan Jenkins, Leonard Floyd—they all supersede Mayes in that discussion. But the massive nose tackle (6'4", 330 lbs) got better as the season went on in 2013 and has looked the part of a dominant force this spring. "Chris Mayes, that kid hasn’t stopped fighting since Day 1," said defensive line coach Tracy Rocker, per Seth Emerson of the Macon Telegraph. "I moved him around, moved him around, and his last week here has probably been his best day out here."
Linebacker: Jarrad Davis, Florida
In the short-term, Florida's injury woes in 2013 led to an embarrassing 4-8 record—one of the worst seasons in program history. But in the long-term, they might have been a blessing in disguise (of sorts), having allowed young players like Jarrad Davis to see the field in a meaningful capacity before they would have in a perfect world. Now a full-time starter, Davis has earned the respect of his locker room, per Scott Carter of GatorZone.com, and is poised for a big true sophomore season. His instincts are remarkable for a player his age.
Defensive Back: Derrick Jones, Ole Miss
Edward Aschoff of ESPN.com listed Derrick Jones as one of the five breakout players of spring camp in the SEC West. For someone with his unique physical profile—6'2", long arms, fluid hips—to be standing out in practice is a bad sign for the rest of the division and conference. Mike Hilton and Senquez Golson stand in his way on the depth chart, but in 2014, every team essentially needs three starting cornerbacks. And Jones has the highest upside of any of them.
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