12 College Football Players with Most to Prove in 2014

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistAugust 14, 2014

12 College Football Players with Most to Prove in 2014

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    JOE RAYMOND/Associated Press

    What is college football if not one big proving ground?

    Everybody wants to show somebody something, whether it's a well-respected player trying to vindicate his supporters or an ill-reputed player trying to silence his detractors.

    Even reigning Heisman Trophy winner and national champion Jameis Winston, who is 14-0 as a starter and had the highest quarterback rating in the country last season, has critics that he needs to shut up.

    For the most part, though—and this is painting with admittedly broad strokes—the players with the most to prove exist where hype exceeds production. That is, where what was expected of someone, at some point, has not yet been achieved...or perhaps was once achieved but now must be corroborated with another good season.

    This is the case for 11 of the players on this list, the one exception being a freshman who hasn't had a chance to meet his hype, but whose hype is so big that he has a lot to prove regardless.

    Not included on the list are players whose main thing to prove is "that they can stay healthy." Former blue-chip prospects such as USC wide receiver George Farmer and even semi-proven commodities such as Texas quarterback David Ash were considered but left off because injuries are the main thing that have derailed them.

    By contrast, the players who did make the list are ones in whom we recognize potential greatness but aren't sure if we've seen it yet, even though they've had ample time to show us (with one exception).

    Sound off below and let me know whom I might have missed.

DL Arik Armstead, Oregon

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    Craig Mitchelldyer/Getty Images

    Defensive end Arik Armstead is a 6'8", 290-pound former basketball star who's been decent for Oregon the past two seasons. But decent isn't enough for...well, a 6'8", 290-pound former basketball star. 

    With that blend of size and coordination, he should probably be great.

    Armstead was the No. 14 overall recruit and top-ranked athlete in the 2012 class, moving to defense in a much-debated move over his other potential position, offensive tackle. He's basically Glen Davis if Davis had pursued football over basketball instead of vice versa.

    The Ducks need Armstead to realize his potential in 2014 after losing their most productive defensive lineman, Taylor Hart, and a couple of useful rotation pieces, Wade Keliikipi and Ricky Havili-Heimuli.

    Even with those players plugging the middle, Oregon's defensive line finished No. 115 in power success rate and No. 123 in stuff rate last season, per Football Study Hall. Essentially, what that means is that it couldn't make plays in the backfield against the run, and that it got pushed off the line in short-yardage rushing situations.

    Armstead is the man who can fix that.

QB Jeff Driskel, Florida

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Think of Jeff Driskel as a scaled-down Logan Thomas.

    Like the embattled former Virginia Tech quarterback, Driskel has every physical tool one could ask for (size, mobility, arm action, etc.) and has enjoyed pretty good team success (he and Thomas have both made a BCS bowl game) but still feels like an abject disappointment.

    This year, he will run out of excuses for not putting up quality numbers, as Florida fired banal offensive coordinator Brent Pease and replaced him with 2013 Broyles Award finalist Kurt Roper (via Duke).

    Driskel has had plenty of time to heal from the broken leg that ended his season last September, and Roper's wide-open, shotgun-based scheme should fit his dual-threat abilities. He is the ideal physical prototype to run this offense, even more so than Anthony Boone, who led Duke to last year's ACC title game, and Sean Renfree and Thad Lewis, whom Roper coached into viable NFL players.

    These are a far cry from Urban Meyer's Gators, but even if it's not Percy Harvin, Riley Cooper and Aaron Hernandez catching passes, the trio of Quinton Dunbar, Demarcus Robinson and Virginia transfer Jake McGee is the best Driskel has ever gotten to work with. Between that and an offensive line that almost has to stay healthier in 2014, nothing but Driskel's own failings can hold this offense (too far) back.

    It's not often that a QB with a career average of 6.2 adjusted yards per attempt gets mentioned as a Heisman dark horse, as Driskel was by Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee. Then again, not everyone got off the Thomas hype train before it was too late, either.

    Which direction does Driskel go in 2014?

    Your guess is as good as mine.

RB Leonard Fournette, LSU

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    This one hardly seems fair, and to be perfectly honest, it isn't. 

    But that doesn't make it any less true.

    Leonard Fournette has a lot to prove this season, even though he's only a true freshman, because he was the No. 1 overall recruit in the country, he's been compared (by media and teammates alike) to Adrian Peterson, and he plays a position, running back, that does not have a historically steep learning curve for first-year players.

    Now he needs to prove that he's been worth it. That he's deserved all this eager suspense. That we weren't ooh-and-aahing over videos of preseason blocking drills that ultimately meant nothing.

    Because that would make us all feel pretty dumb.

QB Devin Gardner, Michigan

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    Tony Ding/Associated Press

    Everyone has an opinion on Devin Gardner, and none of them seem to fall in line with one another.

    Some Michigan fans think he can revitalize the offense; others think Shane Morris' time is now. Some Ohio State fans have made him a punch line; others remember the near-upset he led in 2013.

    Personally, I'm a Gardner supporter, but not in an ardent way: It's a paradoxical blend of optimism and skepticism that only certain players can evoke. I believe in Gardner the same way I believe in St. Louis Rams tight end Jared Cook. He's basically my fantasy kryptonite.

    This year, that belief is buoyed by new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, a supposed quarterback specialist who helped turn Jake Locker into a top-10 NFL draft pick at Washington and AJ McCarron into a likely College Football Hall of Famer at Alabama.

    Gardner should improve as much as the offensive line improves, but even if his blockers remain well below average, he must prove he can get the ball out of his hands quicker than he did last year and make sounder decisions.

    There can be no repeats of the gaffe against Notre Dame, which it feels like more people would remember had Michigan lost the game.

    He's a senior, but it still feels like we don't know what Gardner is.

    Now is his chance to show us, once and for all.

QB Everett Golson, Notre Dame

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    JOE RAYMOND/Associated Press

    Everett Golson piloted Notre Dame to a 12-0 regular season, a No. 1 BCS ranking and a spot in the national title game against Alabama as a redshirt freshman in 2012 before missing last year with a university-imposed academic suspension.

    In a vacuum, you would think he has done enough proving. Especially since Notre Dame's offense that year finished No. 9 in the F/+ ratings, it would seem like Golson has earned some respect, right?

    Not exactly.

    It's OK, though. Brian Kelly's got this. He's one of the best head coaches in America, and he knows how to defend his quarterback. He will put Golson's critics in their place.

    Or not…

    "I would argue Everett rode the bus to the championship," Kelly said of Golson's role in 2012, per Chris Hine of the Chicago Tribune.

    (So much for internal support.)

    There is actually some merit to calling Golson overrated, but it has nothing to do with him "riding the bus" to a championship. Again, Notre Dame had a top-10 offense in 2012, per the F/+ ratings, and its defense actually ranked a little bit lower at No. 13.

    The argument against Golson comes because last year's offense, which was led by a quarterback (Tommy Rees) whose nickname is literally "Turnover," finished in the top 25 in offensive F/+, too.

    Might it be the system, not the quarterback, that makes this offense so efficient?

QB Gunner Kiel, Cincinnati

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    Joe Raymond/Associated Press

    Like any No. 2-ranked quarterback in a recruiting class, Gunner Kiel will forever be linked with the one passer rated ahead of him.

    Let's stack up the numbers after two seasons:

     1. Jameis Winston2. Gunner Kiel
    Starts (Record)14 (14-0)0 (0-0)
    Total Yards 4,276
    Total TDs 44
    National Titles 1
    Heisman Trophies  1 

    Not exactly a nail-biter.

    Of course, Kiel had less auspicious circumstances when he arrived at Notre Dame than Jameis Winston had at Florida State. Both players took a redshirt in 2012, but Kiel's was behind a freshman, Golson, while Winston's was behind a senior, EJ Manuel.

    Kiel was right to transfer out for a clearer shot to play.

    Now starting his third year out of high school, however, he will not be afforded the benefit of the doubt that goes to most first-time starters. He was a 5-star recruit, he learned Cincinnati's offense on the scout team last season, and he has a decent cast of receivers highlighted by 5'9" over-the-middle target Shaq Washington.

    Kiel must prove that he was worth all the attention he once got and that Winston is not the only top-10 quarterback from the 2012 class—a group that also includes names such as Zach Kline, Tanner Mangum, Anthony Alford, Matt Davis, Connor Brewer and Chad Kelly—who's worth more than a hill of beans at the college level.

    He definitely has the talent to succeed at that.

QB Trevor Knight, Oklahoma

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    USA TODAY Sports

    In the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama, Trevor Knight proved he could play like one of the best quarterbacks in America...for 60 minutes.

    Now he needs to excise that last part.

    Because no matter how good Knight was in defeating the Crimson Tide—final line: 32-of-44 passing for 348 yards, four touchdowns and one interception—he was equally bad in early-season games against UL-Monroe and West Virginia, which led to his eventual benching.

    In fact, prior to throwing 44 passes against Alabama, Knight had only thrown 90 passes in his entire career. His best game came in OU's biggest, which makes it easy to forget that he spent most of the season backing up newly converted tight end Blake Bell.

    The physical tools are there for Knight to play like the Heisman contender he's been touted as. His accuracy—especially on vertical routes—was on display against 'Bama, and he's athletic enough that he mimicked Johnny Manziel (and reportedly looked "untouchable") on the scout team before the 2013 Cotton Bowl.

    But Knight failed to capitalize on January's momentum during the spring game, his first public showing since the Sugar Bowl, when he was badly outplayed by Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield. 

    By and large, spring games should be treated like international soccer friendlies—i.e., not looked to for meaningful takeaways—but Knight's was a rare performance that felt semi-important.

    We know for sure what type of player he can be, but we don't know for sure what type of player Knight actually is. At the current moment, his most (only?) apt descriptor might be: boom-or-bust.

    Again...now he needs to excise that last part.

RB Barry J. Sanders, Stanford

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    USA TODAY Sports

    It's wrong to say it's "now or never" for Barry J. Sanders, who has made big ripples but never a true splash in two years at Stanford. The leap we're all waiting hoping for doesn't have to happen posthaste.

    But it better happen pretty darn soon.

    The Cardinal have a huge void in the backfield after losing workhorse Tyler Gaffney, and even though they lose four starters along the offensive line, the backups they return come mostly from a recruiting class that's regarded as one of the best positional hauls ever.

    The run blocking will be fine, and with senior quarterback Kevin Hogan, star receiver Ty Montgomery and 6'4" monster Devon Cajuste all returning, the passing game will warrant more respect from defenses than in any other year of the post-Andrew Luck era.

    All of which is to say that Sanders, who was the No. 81 overall recruit in 2012, will have ample opportunity for playing time and decent-to-massively sized holes to run through. He doesn't have to post Barry Sr.-type numbers under those conditions, but he does have to post something consistent and encouraging.

    Otherwise, our chance of seeing Sanders 2.0 gets pretty bleak.

LB Tony Steward, Clemson

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    Credit: 247Sports

    It took (a lot) longer than expected, but former 5-star recruit Tony Steward has finally risen to the top of Clemson's depth chart.

    Now a senior, the No. 15 overall player in the 2011 recruiting class is two full seasons removed from the torn ACL that ended his freshman year and slated to start at weak-side linebacker on a loaded defense.

    Injuries have nagged Steward throughout his college career, which almost led to his omission from the list, but despite minor setbacks here and there since 2011, he has appeared in 26 games the past two years. It's not for lack of availability that he has underachieved.

    "I came here to be more than just a special teams player and to contribute more to the defense," Steward said in May, per David Hood of TigerNet.com. "Hopefully, this is the year I can take that step.

    "Every aspect of my game needs to improve. I think everything needs work and there is room for improvement. I just think I have to continue to work on the details, the little things like technique."

    If he fails, it won't be for lack of proper attitude.

CB Damian Swann, Georgia

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    Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

    Damian Swann was so, so good as a sophomore in 2012, functioning as the lead cornerback for a defense that allowed just 175.6 passing yards per game, the eighth-lowest total in the country.

    But things began to crumble last season, when he (and Georgia's entire defense) took a massive step back. He didn't play with the same type of confidence, got beaten with consistency in man coverage and generally looked like a much different player from the year before.

    This year, though, the Bulldogs welcome former Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who crafted one of the best secondaries in college football last season. Before that, he spent three years coaching defensive backs under Nick Saban at Alabama.

    If anyone is going to tap back into Swann's potential, it's Pruitt, who is now regarded as one of the best secondary instructors in the country. Which means that if Swann does not revert back to his previous form, he (and anyone else) can blame no one but himself.

    Georgia didn't just lose its defensive coordinator when Todd Grantham left for Louisville this offseason.

    It lost its defensive scapegoat.

DT Lawrence Thomas, Michigan State

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    Credit: 247Sports

    It's weird that a school such as Michigan State, which is famous for turning 3-star prospects into All-Big Ten performers, has struggled to develop some of the rare blue-chip recruits it has brought in.

    Lawrence Thomas, for example, is the only top-50 player Sparty landed between 2011 and 2013, and he's yet to make a significant impact on the field. The only other top-100 player it landed in that span, wide receiver Aaron Burbridge, has been very much the same.

    This year, though, Thomas is being counted on to produce in a big way. Underappreciated starters Tyler Hoover and Micajah Reynolds are gone at defensive tackle, and one of their projected replacements, Damon Knox, is out indefinitely with an undisclosed injury.

    Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi—who is definitely not the type to mince words—has been high on Thomas' performance so far in fall camp, calling the 6'4", 309-pound junior a "bad man" and saying he may give the defense something it hasn't "had (at defensive tackle) since Jerel Worthy," per Joe Rexrode of MLive.com.

    If he (finally) lives up to that billing, watch out.

QB Clint Trickett, West Virginia

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    Chris Jackson/Associated Press

    West Virginia's quarterback and head coach, Clint Trickett and Dana Holgorsen, have their fates twined together like a pretzel knot.

    If one succeeds in 2014, so will the other.

    If one comes up short, so will both.

    The reputation each came to Morgantown with plays a part in that.

    Holgorsen was supposed to be an offensive genius, so if Trickett can't succeed in his system, it's doubtful he could have succeeded anywhere. Trickett, meanwhile, was "competing" to start over Jameis Winston at Florida State, so if Holgorsen can't recharge the offense with him under center, it's doubtful he could have with anyone.

    Having said that, Holgorsen will never be out of a job. He might be out of a head coaching job, but even if West Virginia goes down the toilet this year and Holgorsen gets canned, some power-conference team will break the bank to hire him as an offensive coordinator.

    Trickett is not so lucky. His days playing relevant football might be numbered if he doesn't prove himself consistent, reliable and decisive in 2014. Now that he's had a full season and offseason with the program, there's no excuse for posting a QB rating below 115. 

    We'll learn a lot about where he stands against Alabama in Week 1.

     

    Note: All recruiting info courtesy of the 247Sports composite rankings, and all stats, unless otherwise cited, courtesy of cfbstats.com.

    Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT