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14 College Football Players Who Will Reach Elite Status in 2014

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistJuly 3, 2014

14 College Football Players Who Will Reach Elite Status in 2014

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    The leap from very good to great is a difficult transition for a player to make, but it is among the most important things in college football. It replenishes the sport with stars after each year's NFL draft and gives the teams new faces to market.

    There is a small difference between this list and a normal "all-breakout" team. On this list, many (but not all) players have already broken out. They have proved themselves capable of becoming productive players but have yet become consistently great ones.

    No one on this list was considered among the top five or 10 players at his position last season. Most weren't even in the top 20 or 30. In fact, as a guiding rule in constructing this list, I did not include a single player who made his all-conference first or second team.

    By the end of the 2014 season, however, each of these players could—and arguably should—be considered among the very best at their respective positions. Based on their physical attributes, how they've performed in the past and how they looked during spring practice, there is reason to believe they will make the nebulous "leap."

    I've only included 14 players—two for every position group on the field—so there were plenty of qualified candidates who did not make the cut. These are the players I feel the most confident backing, but there are arguments to be made in so many different directions.

    Chime in below, and let me know whom you would have included.

QB Maty Mauk, Missouri

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    L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

    Maty Mauk did an admirable job of filling in for James Franklin last season, going 3-1 as a starter and nearly orchestrating a win over South Carolina before a late-game collapse cost Missouri the game.

    At the time, though, he was being asked not to screw things up more than he was being asked to make plays. He was standing behind a veteran offensive line, he had Henry Josey beside him in the backfield, and his trio of wide receivers—L'Damian Washington, Dorial Green-Beckham and Marcus Lucas—could rival any group in America.

    This year, all of that support is gone. Mauk will be asked to win games instead of not lose them. And even though that is a daunting task, he is precocious and has the dual-threat skills to succeed.

    "Things have slowed down for [Mauk] in terms of things that he sees," said Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel this spring, per David Morrison of the Columbia Daily Tribune. "He's much smarter in terms of reading the field and understanding defenses and our offense. And I think he can be a lot, lot better player than he's been."

    If that is indeed the case—i.e., if Mauk can be "a lot, lot better" than he was as a redshirt freshman in 2013—the sky is the limit on how good he can become. He already looks pretty darn good.

    Don't rule out an All-SEC season.

QB Davis Webb, Texas Tech

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury made news this offseason when he told Bruce Feldman of FoxSports.com that his quarterback, Davis Webb, has the tools of a "top-five talent" in the NFL draft.

    But is he really so crazy for saying so?

    Webb does, after all, possess some rare physical gifts. He is 6'5" and mobile outside the pocket—not in a Robert Griffin III way but in an Andrew Luck/Blake Bortles way. It is functional athleticism.

    He also had a historically good freshman season. He finished No. 12 in the country and eighth among returning players in ESPN's Total QBR metric, checking in with a score of 82.6. Dating back to 2004, the earliest year the Total QBR numbers are accounted for, no freshman has ever finished with a higher score than Webb's.

    His emergence led Michael Brewer and Baker Mayfield to transfer out of Lubbock, and Brandon Chatmon of ESPN.com said he "looked even better during the spring with his spot as 'the man' in the Red Raiders’ offense (locked down)." He ended spring camp with a four-touchdown performance in the spring game.

    That could become the norm in 2014.

     

    Note: There appears to be a glitch on the ESPN website right now, so the Total QBR numbers are currently down. But I had previously collected the data and published it in an article from June.

RB Javorius "Buck" Allen, USC

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    Entering last season, Buck Allen was lost in the deep shuffle of USC running backs. He had only received six carries since arriving on campus in 2011, and he had just 29 in the first eight games of 2013.

    But then his career began to change.

    Allen became the featured weapon of USC's offense in the second half of last season, finishing the year with more than 1,000 total yards on only 156 touches. He is dependable in the running game and catching the ball out of the backfield and could be used in a similar capacity to that of Bishop Sankey under Steve Sarkisian last year.

    Like Davis Webb, Allen also showed the aura of someone who knows he is "the man" this offseason, per Garry Paskwietz of ESPN.com.

    "The players knew what he could do before he got his chance, and they know how special he was once he finally got on the field," Paskwietz wrote, calling Allen a potential future Heisman candidate.

    Might Allen be the next great USC tailback?

RB Thomas Tyner, Oregon

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    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    Byron Marshall and De'Anthony Thomas were both useful threats out of the backfield last season—to say the least—but as the year went on, it became harder and harder for Mark Helfrich to keep true freshman running back Thomas Tyner off the field.

    He was the No. 20 overall prospect in the 2013 recruiting class, and it wasn't hard to see why when he was gashing Oregon State for 165 total yards and a touchdown in the Civil War victory.

    Marshall is still around in 2014 and will likely remain the nominal "starter"—which is fine. He has earned that with solid contributions.

    But we all know which Oregon back will keep opposing defensive coordinators awake on Friday evenings. And it won't be No. 9. This has all the makings of a classic "Alabama running back" scenario.

TE O.J. Howard, Alabama

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    USA TODAY Sports

    O.J. Howard was eased into utility last season. He flashed with big plays against Texas A&M and (especially) LSU but was not relied upon to contribute every week. He was playing with house money.

    As a true sophomore in 2014, however, he should become a legitimate focal point of the offense. A tight end is an inexperienced quarterback's best friend, and whoever starts under center this year will not have any starting experience to rely on.

    Howard is a new-age weapon in the middle of the field. In a different time, he might have played outside wide receiver. But given the success of big, rangy, uberathletic tight ends in recent seasons, the decision to put him in the seam was an easy one.

    He checks in at 6'6", 237 pounds and moves with the fluidity of a running back. He was the No. 19 overall prospect in the 2013 class—one spot ahead of Thomas Tyner, whom he follows on this list—and there's a reason Nick Saban was so keen on snatching him up.

    He can alter the course of a football game.

WR Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss

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    Laquon Treadwell played the role of a supporting actor last season, deferring to vertical threat Donte Moncrief and reinventing himself as a possession receiver across the middle of the field.

    This reinvention enabled him to lead the team in receptions (72) as a true freshman, but he only had 608 yards—a scant average of 8.44 yards per catch. While other blue-chip freshmen such as Tyler Boyd of Pittsburgh and Stacy Coley of Miami were emboldened to run down the field, Treadwell was intentionally being hamstrung.

    But Moncrief declared for the 2014 NFL draft, freeing Treadwell to make a (much) bigger impact in 2014. He is the undisputed top target of quarterback Bo Wallace and is ready to seize the opportunity.

    "Ohhh, I think so," was the reaction of head coach Hugh Freeze when asked by Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee if Treadwell could have a better career than Moncrief. "He's in a system that will give him that opportunity, where Donte was only in it two years."

    Opportunity is the operative word with Treadwell, whose talent has never been in dispute. He was the No. 14 overall prospect in the 2013 class for a reason, and there's nothing on the field he cannot do.

    He just needs to be asked to start doing it.

OT Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    This one feels almost too easy.

    Texas A&M has made a precedent of developing left tackles into top-10 NFL draft picks. There is also a precedent for Aggies right tackles to move across the line and become the left tackles that develop into top-10 NFL draft picks (see: Jake Matthews in 2013).

    By all indications, Cedric Ogbuehi is good enough to follow in Matthews' footsteps and become one of the premier left tackles in college football. He played well on the right last season (for a unit that was dominant—as usual) and is nimble for a 6'5", 300-pound player.

    In his first mock draft of the 2015 cycle, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller had Ogbuehi going in the top five at No. 4 overall. Sports Illustrated did him one better—predicting Ogbuehi as the No. 1 overall pick.

    Learning under Matthews and Luke Joeckel is an unfair advantage.

OG A.J. Cann, South Carolina

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Tackle play is sexier than guard play, which is a big reason A.J. Cann got overlooked in the All-SEC selection process last season. Playing in a league so stacked with linemen didn't help matters, either.

    Still, the burly Gamecocks left guard has more than just all-conference potential in 2014. He has All-America, early-round NFL draft pick potential. He is perfectly sized for the position (6'4", 318 lbs) and plays with the nastiness that all offensive line coaches long to see.

    Especially as a run-blocker, he should solidify himself as one of the best—if not the single best—interior linemen in America.

    South Carolina will feed star running back Mike Davis often, and the left side of the line will be his bread and butter.

DL Joey Bosa, Ohio State

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Joey Bosa was the most difficult inclusion on this list. He came thisss close to being left off. That's not to say he will not play like a superstar next season, however. Very much the opposite.

    It's to say that he already has been.

    Alas, Bosa came on too late as a true freshman in 2013 to earn All-Big Ten honors, which made him eligible for this article. But don't expect him to show up in the "Honorable Mentions" section once again. He is far more likely to be listed as the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year than he is to be left off the all-conference teams.

    Bosa was almost impossible to block in the final six games of last season, racking up 5.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss. His combination of size (6'5", 285 lbs), technique and doggedness makes him the perfect pass-rusher on the edge and even sometimes at tackle.

    With Noah Spence, Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington lining up beside him, Bosa will not be shackled by the constant double-teams his performance probably dictates. Opponents will have to isolate him with a blocker and hope for the best.

    Yeah. Good luck with that.

DL Shawn Oakman, Baylor

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Shawn Oakman is a physical freak of nature, a 6'9" specimen who transferred from Penn State to Baylor and looked pretty good in his first season with the Bears.

    He has looked better than "pretty good" this offseason, however, and is primed to have a monster junior season. His development is a big reason for head coach Art Briles' touting of his defensive line.

    "I’ve been saying it for four months," Briles said in April, according to Jake Trotter of ESPN.com, "I would put our D-line up against any D-line in the United States of America, when you’re looking at six- or seven-deep personnel and say, hey, let’s roll the ball out there and let’s play, let’s see who’s better."

    Oakman appeared to have put all his tools together during the Baylor spring game, recording two sacks and prompting even more praise from his head coach. "We can’t block him," Briles said, per Max Olson of ESPN.com, "and I don’t think anyone else will, either."

    That about sums it all up.

LB Benardrick McKinney

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Quarterback isn't the only position where the SEC needs an overhaul; the loss of C.J. Mosley demands a new top dog at linebacker, as well.

    Benardrick McKinney figures to be part of that conversation.

    Even though Ramik Wilson and A.J. Johnson return to school from the AP All-SEC first team this season, Chris Low of ESPN.com ranked McKinney as the class of the conference's linebackers, lauding his imposing stature (6'5", 245 lbs), his athleticism and his production.

    McKinney is built like a pure pass-rushing specimen but also contributes well in run support, as evidenced by his 102 tackles in 2012. He actually might be better flying around the field and making plays than he is at getting after the quarterback.

    This could (and should) be the year he puts everything together.

LB Shaq Thompson, Washington

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Shaq Thompson is a triple-'tweener. Is he a safety, a linebacker or a running back? Where is he most properly utilized?

    Honestly? Probably everywhere.

    His NFL future is likely in the defensive backfield, but Thompson has enough size (6'2", 231 lbs) to hold up as a linebacker in the Pac-12. He should be happy in Chris Petersen and Pete Kwiatkowski's defense, which turned lesser prospects into stars at Boise State.

    Thompson was the No. 4 overall prospect in the 2012 class but has yet to fully realize his potential. He has been a very good but not a great player during his first two seasons with the Huskies—precisely the type of career we were targeting with this list.

    But few in the sport can match Thompson's combination of coverage and tackling abilities. In both of those facets, he grades out at an NFL-ready level. He should garner All-America consideration this season.

DB Jalen Ramsey, Florida State

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Jalen Ramsey is a man of many roles.

    He started the first game of last season at cornerback—becoming the first Florida State freshman to do so since Deion Sanders—but moved to strong safety after Tyler Hunter went down with a neck injury and swapped to free safety after a couple of weeks.

    Anywhere he went, though, he excelled. And even though his position for the upcoming season has yet to be determined—my prediction: an advanced version of what Lamarcus Joyner played in 2013—there is no reason to expect he will stop excelling.

    Ramsey was the No. 15 overall recruit in the 2013 class, and at 6'1" he has the size to compete on the outside in a way Joyner never could. However, he has the same pluck and grit that made Joyner such a valuable weapon in the slot despite his lack of height.

    He should become a captain of sorts for the FSU secondary.

DB Trae Waynes, Michigan State

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Darqueze Dennard—winner of the 2013 Thorpe Award—was the best cornerback on Michigan State's roster last season, but Trae Waynes was not far behind. Given his youth and his relative inexperience, it is not crazy to suggest that Waynes might eventually be better.

    And "eventually" could very well be in 2014.

    Dennard's greatest traits were not tangible but rather his technique and physicality at the line. He was able to pass those gifts down to Waynes, who embraced Michigan State's "No Fly Zone" principles and was comfortable playing press-man coverage on the outside.

    But as a physical specimen, Waynes is already superior to Dennard. He is 6'1" and one of the fastest players on the team, whereas Dennard was 5'11" and had his speed questioned during the NFL draft process (and ostensibly fell to No. 24 overall because of it).

    Dennard was considered one of the safest prospects in the 2014 draft; scouts didn't doubt that he would be good at the next level, only whether he could be greatWaynes appears just as safe as his former mentor, but his ceiling is much, much higher.

    He will likely flirt with reaching it this season.

     

    Note: All recruiting data via the 247Sports composite rankings.

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