Last year, while writing as a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, the largest independent sports media outlet in the world, I compiled a list of 25 college football players that everyone should watch for in 2009. None the less, the article was a hit. It attracted nearly 5,000 independent reads and was one of the most talked about articles in the month of August that year.
Well folks, I am back with the second annual 25 College Football Players to Watch. Last year, I introduced to you players such as Kellen Moore, Jerrod Johnson, Shane Vereen, Dexter McCluster, Golden Tate, Jason Worilds, Chris Marve and Drew Astorino.
This year’s list includes some players that you might already be aware of, but don’t know all that much about. It will also consist of players that you have never even heard of. Regardless, keep these names tattooed in your mind as you sit down and watch the schools go head-to-head on Saturday’s.
QB Russell Wilson, North Carolina State
The folks in Raleigh, North Carolina thought they had a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Russell Wilson a year ago. To the rest of the country, he was just some guy that can barely be remembered for his athletic play. Last year, Russell finished fourth nationally in passing touchdowns while leading the N.C. State Wolfpack to a miserable 5-7 record.
He helped break the hearts of Pitt Panther fans everywhere when he threw four touchdowns and compiled 322 passing yards against one of the best defenses in the country. This year, expect to see Wilson lead the Wolfpack to a bowl game and win at least eight games. He is a dual-threat passer, but he is just plain relentless while on the move. Don’t forget this guy’s name because he will make a splash as a junior in 2010.
QB Ben Chappell, Indiana
The Big Ten’s leading returner at quarterback is expected to help the Indiana Hoosiers return to a bowl game after finishing 4-8 a year ago. Chappell led the Hoosiers offense, ranked 35th nationally in 2009, to just four wins a year ago but he returns with six other starters on offense, including All-America candidate at wide receiver Tandon Doss. Chappell will have to remain consistent after setting the school record for accuracy a year ago (62.6 percent).
With four of their first six games winnable, don’t be surprised if the Hoosiers welcome Michigan into Memorial Stadium and shock their underachieving secondary off of the strength of Chappell’s arm and decision-making. As a sturdy, steady and not-so flashy passer, Chappell is the early favorite to be the Big Ten’s top passer. Finally, don’t be surprised if Indiana’s passing offense finishes in the top 20 nationally either.
QB Blaine Gabbert, Missouri Tigers
Last year, Gabbert got off to a hot start after running through non-viable non-conference opponents. He then hit a couple snags and the rest of the road was bumpy for him and his offense, as the Tigers struggled to score points in a 35-13 Texas Bowl loss to Navy. Regardless, his 24 TD and nine INT performance over the course of the season was pretty impressive for a first-time starter.
In 2010 with a year of experience under his belt, this junior QB is looking to guide the Tigers to a 6-0 start before hosting the Oklahoma Sooners on October 23. This is possible. Gabbert, a former five-star recruit, is living up to the hype in Columbia and could finally deliver the Tigers results that they have been hoping for—a Big 12 Championship. The aforementioned thought is not as far fetched as it was four years ago.
RB Washaun Ealey, Georgia
Rarely does a Georgia Bulldog running back go unnoticed, but last year, their leading rusher, a freshman by the name of Washaun Ealey, did go unnoticed after Knowshon Moreno was drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft. Despite not playing in the first four games of the season, Ealey still managed to post 717 rushing yards and three TD through nine games. Over the course of the season, if Ealey had not missed the first four games, he would have totaled 1,036 rushing yards as a frosh.
Despite having the potential to be a prolific tailback in the SEC, Ealey, projected by many to be alongside Alabama’s Mark Ingram as the best rusher in the league, will be showcasing his skills in-conference three times in the month of September. With that said, look for him to improve as a receiver out of the backfield since he rarely caught the pigskin as a freshman. Look for a breakout year from Ealey as his name gets tossed into the Heisman discussion as well.
RB Vai Taua, Nevada
For a running back that topped 1,300 yards and 10 TD one year ago, it is hard to fly under the radar but most people only know Taua from being ruled ineligible for the Hawaii Bowl last year. Well, Taua has been given a second chance and he has the potential to lead the nation in rushing in 2010. It is no surprise since the Wolf Pack led the nation in rushing offense last year.
In his last 15 games, Taua has 3,208 total yards, rushing and receiving, while reaching paydirt on 30 occasions. While most running backs from the WAC go unnoticed, last year, Ryan Mathews was a first round NFL pick so he may have essentially broken down the barrier for WAC rushers. Taua will take full advantage of that and he will be out leading the stride on September 17 as Nevada looks to upset the visiting Cal Golden Bears.
RB Trent Richardson, Alabama
Last year, Alabama’s incumbent at running back, Mark Ingram won the Heisman Trophy. This year, the incumbent is returning, but I foresee a year in which his backup Richardson does not go unnoticed either. In 2009 as a freshman, Richardson rushed for 749 yards while playing second fiddle to Ingram. This year Richardson will continue to play second fiddle to Ingram but he could have an even more expanded role with the offense.
Could Alabama have two 1,000-yard rushers in 2010? I would bet my bottom dollar that they can and will. The fact of the matter is that there is too much talent for head coach Nick Saban to pass on for him not to play Richardson. With games where blowouts could occur, Richardson should see more carries than Ingram. Some even say that Richardson is the nation’s second best running back, behind only Ingram.
WR Armon Binns, Cincinnati
While Cincinnati is expected to take a large step backwards in 2010, don’t be surprised if the offense remains as high octane as it was while Brian Kelly was still the head coach. If it is as high octane as previously, Bearcat faithful will be thanking wide receiver Armon Binns. Binns is the Bearcats’ leading receiver from a year ago; He is bringing with him experience and an ability to make the tough catch.
Last year, he caught 61 passes for 888 yards and 11 TD. While his numbers may not increase as drastically, don’t be fooled if he catches closer to 15 TD as he acts as an extension of the ground game in the red zone.
With a tough stretch out of conference in September, if Cincy shocks anybody you will be sure to see Binns on the highlights reels dazzling defenders.
WR Jereme Brooks, Utah
In the Utes' last stint with the MWC, look for them to pile on the yards as they try to crash the Bowl Championship Series once again. If they do, it will be partly because of their top-notch leading receiver Jereme Brooks. Last year Brooks reeled in 56 receptions for nearly 700 yards and seven TD.
This year he will look to improve upon these numbers as the only starting wideout returning on offense.
Brooks will be asked to replace David Reed’s production in the offense. With an opening game at home versus the Pitt Panthers, Brooks will be tested early on but he should suffice in filling Reed’s cleats. Eventually Brooks should turn into the top wide-out in the Mountain West, along side San Diego State’s Vincent Brown.
WR LaRon Byrd, Miami, Fl.
The Miami Hurricanes are expected to have one of the more potent offenses in the country this year thanks to their extremely deep set of wide receivers and Heisman dark horse quarterback Jacory Harris. One guy who will break the field wide open and deliver every time he catches the field is WR LaRon Byrd.
Byrd is projected to have a more active role in the offense after catching 33 passes last year as a sophomore.
He battled some lingering injury issues but maintained enough health to appear in every game last year. His physical toughness coincides with his lack of fear for hauling in a pass over the middle and turning that catch into a twenty yard gain. If Miami wishes to have as much success as they think they will, a large chunk of the yardage produced must go through Byrd.
TE Allen Reisner, Iowa
Despite catching just 14 passes last year, Reisner, a senior in 2010, will be share a large portion of the Hawkeyes offense in the coming season. Iowa always finds a way to keep their tight ends involved in the offense as they have showed in the last few years with Tony Moeaki, Brandon Myers and Scott Chandler.
Reisner will be no exception even if he is known more for his downfield blocking than he is for his hands.
Big and strong but lacking elite speed for his position, Reisner will be tough to bring down. The bottom line is that you can't just arm tackle this beast. He is strong at the base and lowers his shoulder to initiate contact after the catch. If his route running catches up with his intangibles, Reisner could sneak onto the All-Big Ten team.
TE Joe Halahuni, Oregon State
Where is the preseason love for the best tight end in the Pac-10? A year after catching 35 passes for 486 yards and three TD, Halahuni is primed to become a household name. Despite having some of the best numbers among any tight end as a sophomore, Halahuni could embark into the kind of production that lands him All-American honors. The question remains—will the Beavers success or lack thereof impact him at all?
I don’t think so. I do think that Oregon State could make an appearance in the BCS and shock the soon-to-be Pac-12 but the fact remains—Halahuni is a staple in this offense and he will get his looks come Saturday. He is part of a group of 19 starters returning to campus in Corvallis and his success alone will help elevate the Beavers offense as they go into games in the Pac-10 plus non-conference battles with TCU, Louisville and Boise State.
OT Nate Solder, Colorado
These days, there might not be much to cheer about in Boulder, Colorado, but left tackle Nate Solder is one of the best blockers in the game and he is anchoring an offensive line that is returning all five starters from a year ago. Ironically enough, the Buffaloes allowed 43 sacks a year ago, which was 117th in the country but a lot of that had to do with QB Tyler Hansen trying to make plays with his feet. Consider that a misnomer.
As for Solder, he is as stout as anyone and many media outlets have him ranked as one of the top offensive linemen in the country. Still, he has his flaws and the Buffaloes ground game, expected to be great with RB Rodney Stewart, will depend on how long Solder can hold his ground.
Expect to see big things out of Boulder for this offensive line thanks in part to Solder and his ability to plug the hole and hand out pancakes.
OC Stefen Wisniewski, Penn State
It is a crying shame if you do not know this name by now but odds are, unless you are a Penn State die-hard, you have no clue who this senior is. Stefen Wisniewski is a versatile lineman that has played every spot upfront but started the majority of his time at guard and center. Last season, he started every game at center for a Penn State offensive line that allowed just 17 sacks (27th in the nation).
He is returning to help guide an offense that will focus primarily on the run while the new quarterback, whomever it may end up being, gets acquainted with the “Spread-HD” format in Happy Valley. In my opinion, Wisniewski might be the best offensive lineman in the country not named Nate Potter (Boise State).
Still, he will have to help carry the load upfront as he and three other starters return from a 2009 campaign that had its highs and lows.
OG David Spurlock, Florida State
The Florida State Seminoles offensive line has been talked about a lot, but most of the focus goes on guard Rodney Hudson or tackle Andrew Datko. I am here to tell you that you might not find a better guard than David Spurlock. Despite not getting as much attention as some of the other guys, Spurlock is one of the reasons why Florida State has the highest rated offensive line across the board.
His ability to get into traffic and knock the defender off of his feet is what makes him so special. Aside from mobility, Spurlock is good enough to read the defense and know when someone is keying in on him.
He will help the Seminoles ground game out tremendously as they look to get a 1,000-yard rusher.
DE Sam Acho, Texas
Rarely do pass rushers hailing out of the Longhorns football program go amiss attention-wise, but Acho is not even a blip on the mainstream media’s radar despite leading the team in sacks last year. Spearheading a defense that will be without Sergio Kindle, Acho looks to improve on his seven sacks from last year as he goes toe-to-toe with some schools in the Big 12 that are rebuilding their offensive lines.
Big in stature but physically dominating at the point of contact, Acho is the prototypical five-technique lineman. He boasts a strong sense of awareness and rarely gets beat off of the snap. Acho was tenth in the Big 12 last year in tackles for a loss but that should be improved upon now that the likes of Ndamukong Suh and Lamarr Houston have moved on to the NFL.
DE Julian Miller, West Virginia
After grabbing eight sacks in 2009, Miller is looking to help improve the Mountaineers defense which soared to new heights, finishing 36th overall in the country (something it couldn’t do under Rich Rodriguez). Miller is the leading sacker returning for West Virginia and he should have a smooth go of things until Septemeber 25 when he and his teammates travel to LSU.
Still, Miller is a special talent that should burst onto the scene as West Virginia once again becomes recognized for having a stout defense. He will man the front line and prove that he is more than just an over-sized linebacker. He has a good second gear but must become a better tackler and help out more often with stopping the run—which I think he will do in 2010.
NT Sione Fua, Stanford
The Stanford Cardinal, in hopes of making their first BCS appearance, have switched their defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4. This will be critical for nose tackle Sione Fua who is expected to lead this defense by being the tip of the arrow in improving their 90th ranking nationally in total defense from 2009.
At 6’2″ and 310 lbs., Fua is built for this role. It has been speculated that he is up to 315 lbs., but this has yet to be confirmed. Watching Fua play it is reminiscent of Justin Harrell in his good days for the Tennessee Volunteers. He has the ability but is he under-performing?
I expect a breakout season from this big fella as Stanford makes a run at the Pac-10 title.
DT Drake Nevis, LSU
Quite possibly the most feared interior lineman in the SEC entering 2010, Nevis is set to embark on a senior season where he can elevate his draft stock tremendously. After tallying 11 tackles for a loss and four sacks a year ago, I am behooved to question why no one is talking about this big guy yet.
The LSU defense has been very good over the years but it may not have lived up to its billing last year when it finished 26th nationally in total defense. The numbers are good and far better than many schools but the standard is set much higher in Baton Rouge. Nevis will be depended upon to make a splash in a hurry as the Tigers open up with a brutal stretch—North Carolina, at Vanderbilt, Miss. State, West Virginia, Tennessee, and at Florida.
If he can guide the defense from up front, all things could get interesting in the SEC.
LB Corico Hawkins, Clemson
The Clemson Tigers are a school known for its defense. Last year they ranked 20th nationally in total defense. Much has been written about their splendid secondary but little focus has been given to its linebacker corps. Corico Hawkins, a sophomore, is geared to enter the season as a starter and his numbers against the run should rocket him towards attention as one of the best tacklers in the country.
With the ability to make good reads on the offense and run a direct line into the offender, look for Hawkins to break out and surpass many of the other linebackers in the ACC. Despite having just two sacks in limited time last year, Hawkins should see that number rise to around seven or eight.
LB Jacquian Williams, South Florida
This senior will be entering 2010 as a first-time starter but it is no wonder when one considers the pass rushers that have hailed out of USF before him. Williams is playing outside linebacker but he has the frame of a free safety. With enough speed to get to the passer in a hurry, don’t be surprised if he ends up being one of the Big East’s sack leaders.
Last year the Bulls ranked 19th nationally in scoring defense. With Williams now starting on the outside, they should improve their 49th overall ranking against the run since he is strong and quick enough to beat the rusher to the edge. If he can properly lock down the runner tackling-wise, the USF Bulls will be just fine.
LB Brian Wagner, Akron
Not much love is generally given to linebackers out of the Mid-American Conference but Wagner was truly special as a freshman for the Zips in 2010. He trapped 132 tackles, 77 of which were solo, while proving to be one of the most reliable inside linebackers to strap on a helmet last year.
Not recruited very well coming out of high school, Wagner jumped on board with the Zips.
With new head coach Rob Ianello, one can expect to see similar production with Wagner in 2010. Ianello has assisted in the past with Wisconsin, Alabama and Notre Dame. He is a tough and gritty head coach who should help turn around Akron in a couple years. For Ianello, it will begin on defense and Wagner’s production should pay dividends.
CB Deveron Carr, Arizona State
Believe it or not, the Sun Devils had one of the elite defenses in 2009. They finished 13th nationally in total defense while leading the Pac-10 in three of four major statistical categories. Head coach Dennis Erickson knows how to fill the slot and he will look towards sophomore Deveron Carr, a first-year starter, to solidify the cornerback position.
Carr is a very good back expected to be more of a shut-down corner than anything. While his accolades might not come until his junior season, it will be important to remember his name. This kid has potential dripping out of his pores and as long as he continues to digest the playbook and work off of his intangibles, he will grow into one of the best cornerbacks in the country.
CB Josh Robinson, UCF
Another freshman that broke out last year was Robinson. Robinson led the Knights with six interceptions while hoping to follow in the footsteps of former UCF defensive backs Travis Fisher, Asante Samuel and Joe Burnett. UCF has churned out lots of great talent over the years but Robinson may be the best that they have ever had to play in the defensive backfield.
This is evident after one season but since UCF plays in Conference USA, nobody really has heard of him.
Fortunately, Robinson was tied for eighth nationally in interceptions and gained recognition for picking off a Colt McCoy pass when UCF took on Texas last year. He will be good going forward plus he might contribute more against the run.
FS Tejay Johnson, TCU
The Horned Frogs ranked No. 1 in the nation in total defense last year yet all anyone can seem to remember from that team is Jerry Hughes and Daryl Washington. Well, they return with one of the best free safeties in the nation. With plenty of experience under his belt, Johnson will look to improve on his ballhawking abilities.
Last year Johnson grabbed three interceptions but he was much more effective as a deterrent for opposing quarterbacks. He will not masquerade around as a decoy that makes the big hit either. Johnson is one of the best tacklers in the Mountain West and proved his skill set was thorough enough for the national level when he grabbed seven solo tackles in last season’s Fiesta Bowl.
FS Orhian Johnson, Ohio State
While he is inexperienced and unproven, Orhian Johnson will bring stability to the free safety position for the Buckeyes defense which hopes to fight for a BCS title opportunity. He will be the new face to a secondary that is returning with three starters but his scouting reports don’t lie—the guy can’t straight up read an offense.
His ability to break on the ball and divert attention away from his area in zone will bode well in the Big Ten. As a frosh Johnson had just ten total tackles, but that number will jump tremendously in 2010. His first true test will come on September 11 when he has to help defend the wide array of wide receivers the Miami Hurricanes will be throwing at the Buckeyes secondary.
Pete Dymeck runs his own football blog at In The Beginning... There Was Football.