10 College Football Underclassmen Who Will Generate NFL Buzz in 2014
Along with every college football season comes underclassmen who have breakout performances, and NFL attention soon follows the upstart players.
Some young guns have established themselves as elite—like reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston—and others are primed to become household names in 2014.
All freshmen and sophomores are eligible for inclusion as well as redshirt sophomores (despite being draft-eligible following the upcoming year).
Note: All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Other Names to Watch
Trevor Knight: QB, Oklahoma, RS Sophomore
Alex Collins: RB, Arkansas, Sophomore
Derrick Henry: RB, Alabama, Sophomore
Thomas Tyner: RB, Oregon, Sophomore
Laquon Treadwell: WR, Ole Miss, Sophomore
A'Shawn Robinson: DL, Alabama, Sophomore
Myles Jack: LB, UCLA, Sophomore
Jaylon Smith: LB, Notre Dame, Sophomore
Jabrill Peppers: CB, Michigan, Freshman
Tony Conner: S, Ole Miss, Sophomore
Su'a Cravens: S, USC, Sophomore
Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State
Year: RS Sophomore
This one is pretty obvious: He's a Heisman winner. An All-American. A national champion. Jameis Winston was college football's best player last season, and early-round draft aspirations obviously follow that honor.
Though priority No. 1 for the sophomore is leading his Florida State Seminoles to a second straight title, bolting for the big league is an appealing option. Rob Rang of CBS Sports—and many other draft analysts, for the matter—have Winston going first overall next summer.
Granted, Jeff Sentell of AL.com notes Winston's father believes his son will stay at FSU for two more seasons.
But that won't stop NFL buzz from swarming Famous Jameis.
Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State
Christian Hackenberg was recently named the first sophomore captain in Penn State history, yet that's merely one of many accolades he will achieve.
While the second-year starter cannot declare for next summer's draft, he has already made an impression on Bleacher Report NFL draft expert Matt Miller.
Hackenberg is "incredibly smart," Miller said, and he "has the arm, size, vision, feet, etc. to do it all. He's pro-ready." Additionally, depending on which season Winston leaves for the pros, Miller believes Hackenberg is currently the best prospect for the 2016 draft.
His professional career may be a couple years away, but Hackenberg is certainly making scouts take notice.
Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
Leonard Fournette is easily the most hyped Class of 2014 signee, and for good reason.
Bleacher Report's Carter Bryant said, "Fournette is a specimen. His mixture of power, speed and ability to change direction is unprecedented."
Once the true freshman bullies a defender, shakes one more and sprints by another en route to the end zone, NFL similarities will be flowing like the Mississippi River.
The comparison everyone makes with Fournette is Adrian Peterson, which includes B/R's Michael Felder and LSU's Terrence Magee," Bryant said. "I believe that one is pretty accurate. But fellow South Louisiana native Matt Forte is similar as well. Both are phenomenal at cutting on a dime and catching the football out of the backfield. All three have similar builds, but Fournette is actually slightly bigger in weight.
Fournette has yet to record an official stat at LSU, but football fans, coaches and scouts at every level are eager to watch him dominate in Death Valley.
Tyler Boyd, WR, Pittsburgh
One of college football's under-the-radar standouts, Tyler Boyd possesses skills that are somewhat similar to Cordarrelle Patterson of the Minnesota Vikings.
During Patterson's lone year at Tennessee, he caught 46 passes for 778 yards and five touchdowns, adding 308 yards on the ground and averaging 28.0 yards per kick return.
As a freshman at Pitt, Boyd racked up 85 receptions for 1,174 yards and seven scores, complemented by 108 rushing yards and a 22.4-yard kick return mark. Yes, those numbers are a slight drop. But Boyd was 18 years old, so he has a few years to improve those stats.
Per Jerry DiPaola of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Panthers coach Paul Chryst has given Boyd two days off days during fall camp to keep him fresh for the season.
And with an electric, NFL-caliber player like Boyd, that's definitely not a bad idea.
O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama
In 2013, Alabama tight end O.J. Howard snagged just 14 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns.
For someone Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer calls "maybe the best athlete college football has seen at the tight end position in quite some time," that is criminal underutilization.
Sure, there are legitimate reasons the tight end was not targeted more frequently, such as inexperience and overall unfamiliarity with Crimson Tide's offense.
But the 6'6", 240-pounder clearly boasts NFL size, and mismatches Howard creates are too favorable not to exploit.
Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss
Skill positions receive the most attention, but left tackles are typically a significant reason those playmakers even enter the spotlight. And Laremy Tunsil fits that billing at Ole Miss.
Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee is confident the sophomore will soon be among the nation's best.
Tunsil came in to Ole Miss as an accomplished tackle who could step in and play right away," Sallee said. "He has tremendous run blocking and good enough in pass pro to start right away. As he moves into his sophomore year, he will evolve into one of the top linemen in all of college football.
Of course, playing in the vaunted Southeastern Conference—cue technological "SEC! SEC!" chant—means Tunsil will be tested by premier defensive talent.
"If he can go up against some of the tremendous edge rushers like Trey Flowers at Arkansas and Alabama's outside linebackers and succeed," Sallee said, "he'll be well on his way."
On his way to nationwide college football notoriety, and into NFL discussions, that is.
Joey Bosa, DL, Ohio State
Ohio State used Joey Bosa at various spots along the defensive line during his inaugural season, and the freshman All-American tallied 7.5 sacks.
This season, fellow lineman Noah Spence is suspended for the first two games, giving Bosa an opportunity to lessen the impact of his teammate's absence.
Nevertheless, the Buckeyes are unquestionably strong on the entire D-line, so much that NFL.com's Mike Huguenin calls Bosa and Spence "the best end duo in the nation."
One-half of the country's best pair? High—and impressive—praise for an underclassman.
Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss
Robert Nkemdiche had a relatively forgettable 2013 campaign, accounting for eight tackles for loss with two sacks after being the unanimous top prospect.
According to ESPN's Edward Aschoff, Nkemdiche is ready to break out in 2014, and there are few reasons the freakish sophomore cannot.
Equipped with quickness undeniably elite both for his position and 6'4", 280-pound frame, the sophomore's initial burst at the line of scrimmage can prove lethal.
Per Hugh Kellenberger of The Clarion-Ledger, Nkemdiche has been dominating fall camp. Pretty soon, he'll be overpowering the Rebels' competition and living up to his monstrous hype as an eventual NFL star.
Kendall Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
Family is almost exclusively the first thing that comes to mind when Virginia Tech defensive back Kendall Fuller is mentioned.
Three brothers also played at the school and all earned a spot in the pros, which could make it easy for the youngest Fuller to look ahead. Besides, Kyle Fuller was a first-round draft pick in May, and Kendall was arguably better in 2013.
However, Mark Giannatto of The Washington Post writes, "The NFL...is not the first thing on Kendall's list of goals. He simply wants to emerge from his siblings' shadows now that he's the only Fuller on campus."
Of course, it hardly matter what Fuller wants; his on-field performance demands next-level awareness, anyway.
Vernon Hargreaves, CB, Florida
Vernon Hargreaves earned first-team All-SEC and third-team All-American honors as a true freshman. Yeah, he's pretty good.
"Hargreaves came in with tremendous football instincts," Sallee said. "That's what set him apart from other freshmen. ... He takes coaching well and is physical at the line of scrimmage. He has quick hips and great straight line speed, which makes him a complete corner."
Sallee is most looking forward to the sophomore squaring off with Alabama's Amari Cooper, which is one of college football's top individual matchups this season. Then again, the less Hargreaves is discussed, the better.
"If all goes according to plan for Florida," Sallee said, "you won't hear much about Hargreaves all year because quarterbacks just won't throw to his side."
Silence sometimes speaks the loudest, and Hargreaves' well-deserved NFL buzz will be created that way.