College Football 2011 Top 25 Rankings: The Unsung Hero from Each Team
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It is easy to say that players like Andrew Luck at Stanford and Landry Jones at Oklahoma will make a huge impact in 2011. They are the obvious stars of their team.
However, they are not the only important players on their team. Most players will not get as much press as Luck or Jones, but will make nearly as big of an impact.
The players on this list are the ones who will not be deemed the team’s superstar, but will play an irreplaceable role.
These are the players from each Top 25 team that will be unsung heroes in the 2011 season.
25. Texas Longhorns: TE Blaine Irby
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Most Texas fans have probably never even heard of Blaine Irby because the senior tight end has not played since early in his sophomore season.
Irby is finally recovered from injuries and looks to be the Longhorns' main pass-catching tight end in 2011.
Traditionally, the tight end is viewed as a “security blanket” for quarterbacks. Irby is much-needed because struggling quarterback Garrett Gilbert has been searching for someone like him.
Irby will help open up the Longhorn passing attack, something that is necessary if they want to rebound from their disappointing 2010 season.
24. Florida Gators: WR Deonte Thompson
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Coming out of high school, Deonte Thompson was one of the most hyped wide receivers in the nation. He is one of the fastest players in college football and has amazing pure physical talent.
However, he has had a terrible case of “the drops” for most of his career at Florida.
Last season, Thompson led the Gators with 38 receptions and 570 yards receiving, but more is needed out of him.
With a struggling quarterback, John Brantley, Thompson will be vital if the Gators want to be a highly-ranked team.
In new offensive coordinator Charlie Weis’ system, receivers and quarterbacks usually thrive. This should be a strong year for Deonte Thompson.
23. Auburn Tigers: LB Eltoro Freeman
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The Auburn Tigers are losing as much as any team in the country this offseason. The most notable of those losses are Heisman quarterback Cam Newton and defensive tackle Nick Fairley.
The position that is not getting enough attention at Auburn is linebacker. The Tigers lost their two leading tacklers from a season ago, Craig Stevens and Josh Bynes.
Eltoro Freeman has shown that he can be dominant for short stretches, but this year, he must prove he can be consistent.
Freeman, an undersized senior linebacker, will need to take on a more prominent role in the defense next season. He will be one of the many Auburn players looking to make up for all the team’s lost talent.
22. Arizona State Sun Devils: S Eddie Elder
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The Sun Devils are one of the most hyped teams for the upcoming 2011 season. It is easy to like a team that returns 19 starters from a season ago, like the Sun Devils do.
Arizona State’s main strength is their speed and vicious defense. The superstars most people may have heard of on this squad are linebacker Vontaze Burfict and cornerback Omar Bolden.
Though Arizona State’s defense is great, their defense against the pass has been inconsistent at times. If they want to solve this problem, a lot will rest on senior safety Eddie Elder’s shoulders.
Last season was Elder’s first at ASU after playing at the junior college level. He recorded 64 tackles and two interceptions in 2010.
I expect Elder to be one of the biggest defensive stars in the Pac-12 next season. He is extremely fast and a surprisingly hard hitter, despite his 5’10” 186-pound frame.
21. Virginia Tech Hokies: DT Nick Acree
Nick Acree was a freshman last season but was red-shirted after he tore his ACL before the season. He probably will not start the season, but has a chance to become a big-time college lineman.
Head coach Frank Beamer has always been known for his defense and Acree is the kind of player you can build a defense around. He is one of the most physically intimidating people you will ever see.
Because the Hokies are losing so much talent on the offensive side of ball, they will rely heavily on their defense. Young stars like Acree will be the guys who decide how successful Virginia Tech is next season.
20. Georgia Bulldogs: NT John Jenkins
Last season, the Georgia Bulldogs went a disappointing 6-7. The main reason was that their defense, in its first year running the 3-4, was very inconsistent.
Most of the blame landed on the team’s lack of players at the nose tackle position. So the coaching staff addressed this problem directly during the offseason.
They found John Jenkins, a 6’4” 340-pound mountain of a man. Jenkins has a scary combination of size, brute strength and great quickness to get off the line.
Jenkins and eight returning starters on defense make Bulldog fans very confident for the 2011 season.
19. Mississippi State Bulldogs: Insert Linebacker Name Here
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Quarterback Chris Relf and running back Vick Ballard are exceptionally talented college football players, but Mississippi State did not go 9-3 last season because of their offense. Instead, the Bulldogs had success due in large part to their dominating defense.
The Bulldogs lose all three starting linebackers from a season ago, Emmanuel Gatling, Chris White and C.J. Wright.
Right now, the projected starters at linebackers appear to be Cameron Lawrence, Brandon Wilson and Mike Hunt. One of these guys will need to step up if they want their team to have any success.
Mississippi State plays in a brutal conference, weakness at the linebacker position is something that they cannot afford to have. One of their new young linebackers needs to be the hero that saves their season.
18. Nebraska Cornhuskers: CB Alfonzo Dennard
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This is going to be a huge season for Alfonzo Dennard because he will no longer be overshadowed by graduating cornerback Prince Amukamara.
Despite being one of the better cornerbacks in the country, Dennard doesn’t get recognized as one of Nebraska’s biggest stars. Those spots are reserved for quarterback Taylor Martinez and players in the front seven.
Regardless, Dennard will play a huge role in 2011. He will need to make up for the loss of Amukamara and will need to be the shut down guy for the Huskers.
Pass defense is key in a conference with so many star quarterbacks like the Big 12. Dennard should have a big season and will be one of the most important players to his team.
17. TCU Horned Frogs: K Ross Evans
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The 2011 TCU season really comes down to just three tough road games—the first against Baylor, midway through at San Diego State and later at Boise State.
If head coach Garry Patterson can will his team past these games, than he should find his team in a BCS bowl again.
I guarantee that at least one, it not more, of these games will be decided by field goals late in the game. TCU has lost a lot of talent from their Rose Bowl-winning team last season and will be forced to play much tighter games.
So when Ross Evans needs to make a last-second field goal on the blue turf of Boise State to win, will he get it done?
If this situation occurs, then the Horned Frogs’ entire season could depend on the leg of this kid.
16. Missouri Tigers: RB De’Vion Moore
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All of the buzz in Missouri spring camp is about who will replace NFL-bound quarterback Blaine Gabbert. However, the real question may be about how the offense will change without Gabbert.
Senior running back De’Vion Moore will probably become more of a focal point in their 2011 offense. Last season he ran for 517 yards and scored eight touchdowns in just 99 carries.
He shares the load at running back with Henry Josey and Kendial Lawrence, but he will be given the first chance to separate himself as the starter.
15. Notre Dame Fighting Irish: RB Cierre Wood
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Notre Dame have not had a running back run more than 700 yards in a season since Darius Walker ran for 1,267 in 2006.
Brian Kelly seems to be starting a new era at Notre Dame though, and maybe the running game is the next thing to come.
Cierre Wood seems to have separated himself from the pack and is Notre Dame’s strongest back. He is extremely quick and has the makings of an NFL-quality running back.
If Notre Dame wants to live up to the hype of competing for a BCS bowl bid, they will need to have a consistent running game. This will all start with how well Wood can play.
14. Michigan State Spartans: LB Max Bullough
Can anyone replace Greg Jones at middle linebacker?
Probably not, but Max Bullough will be expected to at least try to be the tackle machine that Jones was. The two are very different players, so their transition could be rough.
Jones was so good because he was always in the right place and always made the right plays. While Bullough is a more instinctive player that uses his God-given talent to make plays.
Bullough has a chance to be even better than Jones if he can become a student of the game. If he can be as strong as Jones, the Spartans could compete for the Big Ten championship.
13. Wisconsin Badgers: Coach Bret Bielema
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Have you ever had that team that you were incredibly confident about, even though they lost numerous key players?
Wisconsin is that team for me this season. The reason is, I have faith in head coach Bret Bielema. It seems as if every year, Bielema can replace and occasionally improve after key seniors graduate.
It is always tough to replace guys like quarterback Scott Tolzien and defensive lineman J.J. Watt, but Bielema always seems to get it done.
Coaching matters in college football more than any other major sport. Bielema will do his job and the Badgers will compete for the Big Ten championship again in 2011.
12. Florida State Seminoles: FS LaMarcus Joyner
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As a freshman last season, LaMarcus Joyner experienced a wild ride. He was a very highly-rated cornerback out of high school, but has since changed his position to free safety.
Joyner is small, but as athletic and as quick as they come.
He will be fighting Nick Moody for the staring spot in one of the most impressive defensive backfields in the nation.
Florida State is one of the most hyped teams in the nation, in large part to young talent like Joyner. If he can live up to his hype, their defensive backs will be scary.
11. Stanford Cardinal: OT Jonathan Martin
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One of the main reasons quarterback Andrew Luck was so phenomenal in 2010 was because of his exceptional offensive line.
Unfortunately for Andrew Luck, three of this starters from 2010 are gone, but luckily his blind side blocker, Jonathan Martin, returns.
Martin is one of the best left tackles in the country and might be the most important player in the country that nobody is talking about.
He has one job: Make sure Andrew Luck is protected. If he succeeds, then Stanford has another memorable season in store.
10. South Carolina Gamecocks: FB Matt Coffee
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A fullback is the definition of an unsung hero. Next season, Matt Coffee will have the job of being the lead blocker for one of the best running backs in the nation, Marcus Lattimore.
Last season, Patrick DiMarco started at fullback and was an incredible lead blocker for Lattimore. He did not record a single carry all season and caught only 15 balls, but he was key in Lattimore’s breakout freshman season.
Fullback is a versatile position at South Carolina. You have to be able to block from the tight end and fullback position.
If the Gamecocks expect as much success this year from Lattimore as last season, Coffee will need to match DiMarco’s ability to make holes.
9. Arkansas Razorbacks: WR Jarius Wright
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Despite losing quarterback Ryan Mallett to the NFL draft, there is still a lot for the Arkansas Razorbacks to be confident about.
The first order of business for Arkansas is replacing Mallett, but luckily they have a promising young star at quarterback in Tyler Wilson. However, it will still be Wilson’s first season as a starter and he will need all the help he can get.
Jarius Wright comes into the 2011 season atop the Razorbacks' depth chart at wide receiver.
Last season he recorded 42 catches for 788 yards and five touchdowns.
He and the other receivers will need to play at the top of their game to make the transition from Mallett to Wilson a smooth one. A lot depends on the receivers of this team.
8. Boise State Broncos: K Jimmy Pavel
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If you asked people why Boise State failed to make a BCS game last season, most would answer that it was because Kyle Brotzman missed two field goals against Nevada.
In 2011, the Broncos will have a new kicker, Jimmy Pavel. He is a junior who has only taken two field goal attempts and 13 extra point attempts in his career at Boise State.
Boise State plays a tougher schedule than usual in 2011. They have road tests against Georgia and San Diego State and need to defend the home turf against TCU and Nevada.
It is likely that at least one of these games will be decided by a field goal or less. If Pavel can deliver, then he will be a hero. If he cannot, then his legacy will be tainted forever.
7. Oklahoma State Cowboys: P Quinn Sharp
The Oklahoma State Cowboys return one of the most potent offensives in the country, but their defense is a different story.
They gave up more than 25 points seven times last season. The even worse news is that they only return five starters from that already depleted defensive unit.
So this means two things: Hopefully their defense can drastically improve, and hopefully they have a great punter to put teams in bad field position.
Luckily for the Cowboys, the latter is very true. Quinn Sharp had a net punting average of 46.2 yards last season as a sophomore.
If Sharp can pin opposing teams deep in their own territory, then it will give the defense more room to make mistakes.
6. Texas A&M Aggies: LB Damontre Moore
One of the hottest topics in the NFL draft is former Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller. Simultaneously, one of the hottest topics in College Station is trying to find a replacement for Miller.
The leading candidate right now is sophomore Damontre Moore. In his 2010 freshman campaign, Moore recorded 40 tackles, scored two touchdowns and picked one pass off.
Moore definitely isn’t as athletic as Miller, but has great size and can rush the quarterback.
Nobody could ever replace a talent like Von Miller, but Moore will do his best to at least compensate for the loss. Texas A&M’s hard-hitting reputation may be damaged if Moore cannot bring the same intensity that Miller did.
5. Ohio State Buckeyes: QB Joe Bauserman
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Normally, a backup quarterback would not hold too much significance. But in Ohio State’s case, their backup quarterback could decide the fate of their 2011 season.
Starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor, along with four others and coach Jim Tressell, are suspended for the first five games of the season. During that time, Joe Bauserman will be under center.
He will be expected to lead his Buckeyes in two very tough games. The first coming on the road at Miami (FL) and the second coming at home against Michigan State.
Like every season, the Buckeyes are BCS title contenders. If Bauserman can lead his team to a 5-0 record to start the season, they will still be in the running.
4. LSU Tigers: RB Michael Ford
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The LSU Tigers' offseason has been surrounded by quarterback controversy. Fans are calling for starter Jordan Jefferson to benched and replaced by junior college transfer Zach Mettenberger.
However, this battle is taking a lot of focus from another key issue at LSU.
Who will replace Steven Ridley at running back?
The leading candidate appears to be junior Michael Ford, who received very limited playing time behind Ridley.
He ran for 268 yards and three touchdowns, despite getting just 45 carries in 2010.
Ford will have to prepare for a huge increase in the amount of carries he receives next season. Last year, Ridley was a workhorse, carrying the ball 249 times.
This is a lot to expect from Ford, but he is talented enough to be the Bayou Bengals' feature back.
3. Oregon Ducks: FS John Boyett
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John Boyett tends to be overshadowed at Oregon by superstars like LaMichael James, Darron Williams and Cliff Harris, although Boyett might be the biggest defensive game-changer returning for the Ducks.
Boyett isn’t the fastest player on the team, but he makes up for that with his instincts and tackling ability.
Throwing the ball in the middle of the field against Oregon puts your wide receiver at risk.
When he isn’t laying out unsuspecting wide receivers, Boyett is picking balls off. Last season he was second in the Pac-10 with five interceptions.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide: WR Darius Hanks
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The Crimson Tide will miss wide receiver Julio Jones, but he will have a very worthy replacement next season in Darius Hanks.
Hanks caught 32 balls last season for 456 yards and three touchdowns.
Hanks is especially important for the Tide because they will have a new starting quarterback in 2011. Greg McElroy graduated and now the job appears to belong to sophomore A.J. McCarron.
If McCarron is successful, that means big numbers from Hanks. He should be Alabama’s top receiver next season.
1. Oklahoma Sooners: CB Demontre Hurst
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The Oklahoma Sooners are finding themselves at the top of most preseason polls, and for good reason. They are returning 16 starters from a season ago and are loaded with talent.
The only position there seems to be doubt at is defensive back. Demontre Hurst is the only returning starter from a season ago.
Although the Sooners have plenty of young talent here, Hurst is the only proven guy.
Expect Hurst to take up the role of the team’s shutdown cornerback. He will be give the toughest assignment every game. The success of the passing defense will depend heavily on how he plays.