College Football 2011: 25 'Off the Beaten Path' Players You Need to Know
In 2009, I wrote that "It is imperative to know that there is more to college football than Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford, and Colt McCoy." That was the year I introduced to all the bleacher creature's the likes of Kellen Moore, Shane Vereen, Dexter McCluster, Golden Tate, Jerry Hughes and Chris Marve.
Establishing a strangle-hold on which college football players are primed to break out isn't easy.
For the first time since 1999, The "Off the Beaten Path" series is back to highlight the 25 college football players you need to know for the 2011 season. There is more to college football than Landry Jones, Trent Richardson, and LaMichael James.
Each season gift-wraps us pleasant surprises that help change the landscape of the college football realm.
In 2010, a junior college-transfer by the name of Cameron Newton swept everybody off of their feet as he took the Auburn Tigers to a BCS National Championship victory while toting the Heisman Trophy in his back pocket.
Who could possibly top that? No one might but there are 25 players who could break out in similar fashion.
Who will rekindle the flames that burn for all of those unheralded college football players in 2011?
QB Jake Heaps, Brigham Young
BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall knows how to develop quarterbacks. When one looks back at the recent success he has had with the likes of John Beck and Max Hall, no wonder BYU always succeeds offensively.
BYU is historically known for its quarterbacks. Ty Detmer, Jim McMahon, Steve Sarkisian, and Steve Young all at one time suited up for the Cougars. Sophomore Jake Heaps appears to be the next descendant in BYU's long-line of immaculate passers.
As a frosh last year, things didn't always go the way Heaps would have wished. His first few starts were filled with potholes and speed bumps but over the course of the final five games, including the bowl game versus UTEP, Heaps average 251.8-passing yards per game while totaling 13 touchdowns and just 2 interceptions.
QB Tyler Bray, Tennessee
While the Tennessee football program recovers from one disastrous season a couple of years ago under Lane Kiffin, a major bright spot sticks out for the boys in Knoxville -- Quarterback Tyler Bray.
Bray helped save the season for the Volunteers by throwing 16 touchdown passes in the final 5 games of the season, including the bowl game victory over the UNC Tar Heels. While those numbers are impressive, this sophomore will have to cut back on his turnovers. He had 7 interceptions in his final three games.
Still, Bray has the poise and feel of a stout pocket-passer. His decision-making will continue to improve. On the surface, he looks like the new version of former Miami QB Ken Dorsey but the fans in Rocky Top hope he is the next Peyton Manning, but a little like Dorsey in that he can help bring Tennessee its first national title since Tee Martin.
RB Carlos Hyde, Ohio State
Ohio State may be depending on Dan Herron to carry the load once his five-game suspension is up but he may have a tough time taking the job back from redshirt sophomore Carlos Hyde.
Hyde is a prototypical work horse runner. His role for the Buckeyes will be to find a running lane and help move the chains since the Buckeyes may be offensively deficient in 2011. Due to the heat brought on Herron, thanks in part to the spotlight being placed on Ohio State thanks to Jim Tressel and Terrelle Pryor, Herron may not be as much of a fan favorite as he had expected to be entering the year.
Still, Hyde will be toting the rock from the get-go. Early success against the likes of Miami, Colorado, and Michigan State could overwhelm Herron's standing on the depth chart once Herron returns from his suspension.
RB Silas Redd, Penn State
Penn State will be looking to replace its programs all-time leading rusher Evan Royster. They will not have to look far since they have Silas Redd on the roster.
Redd is poised for a breakout season where a run at the Heisman ceremony is not out of the question. He is a deliberate runner who will not be tackled with by one-armed defenders. He lowers his pads and punishes the defense.
Looking forward to what the season will bring for Penn State, any success will depend on how well Redd adjust's to being the featured rusher. He is equipped to do some damage in the Big Ten and will likely emerge as somebody to talk about on Saturday night's for college football talking heads.
RB Ronnie Hillman, San Diego State
Did you know that Ronnie Hillman rushed for 1,532 yards and 17 touchdowns a year ago? Most people do not know this. In fact, they might not even know that the Aztecs have a football program.
Ronnie Hillman will not be in contention for the Heisman Trophy or anything but he will be an explosive, highlight reel making running back on a San Diego State squad that is expected to turn some heads in 2011.
The plight of not playing in a BCS-conference is detrimental to the lack of publicity that Hillman will receive. But, once he begins getting the attention he deserves, you will notice. His style of running is intense and watching him pound the rock is addicting.
WR Travis Benjamin, Miami
The Miami Hurricanes will be in a transition year but they will be looking to replace WR Leonard Hankerson's production with the skills brought to the gridiron by Travis Benjamin.
Hankerson finished school as one of the best wide receiver's in Miami history. That is saying something. The fact that Benjamin may be more of a polished wide receiver than Hankerson is by no stretch of the imagination a farce.
First off, Benjamin can't drop passes like he did last year. That stymied his production. Secondly, Benjamin will need to foster an environment where he sells his routes, much like he is known to do, because of the poor quarterback play in Coral Gables. Finally, Benjamin is expected to be more of a contributor as a blocker in the rushing attack new head coach Al Golden is going to implement.
WR Joe Adams, Arkansas
Joe Adams is returning to Arkansas for his senior season after leading the Razorbacks in receiving last season. Expecting big things between him and the new quarterback, Tyler Wilson, Adams brings to the table a plethora of skills that make his multi-faceted approach very scary.
Indeed, speed is everything in the SEC. Joe Adams epitomizes that belief. Aside from his 813 receiving yards from 2010, Adams rushed for 249 yards. He scored 7 total touchdowns.
The passing attack is expected to be spread out again but Adams, a senior, is expected to top the 1,000-yards mark for the first time in his career. If he does so, his NFL stock will shoot through the roof. Look forward to hearing this guy's name being announced this fall as he will be making one spectacular play after another.
WR Josh Huff, Oregon
With WR Jeff Maehl graduating from Oregon, there is plenty of production to make up for his loss and Josh Huff is expected to fill that role. The 5-11 sophomore showed signs of explosiveness as a frosh last year.
In 2010, Huff tallied 303 yards receiving and 214 yards rushing. On kick returns, Huff averaged nearly 25 yards per return on 23 returns. He scored a total of 5 touchdowns. Considering that most of his offensive production came in limited situations, one can expect great things out of the sophomore come this fall.
Huff is barely known and will continue to play in the shadows as long as RB LaMichael James and QB Darron Thomas are still playing for the Ducks. Still, a breakout season is about to come for Huff. The newly formed Pac-12 has been put on notice.
TE George Bryan, N.C. State
George Bryan is expected to take the ACC by storm with his soft hands and after-the-catch burst. He is arguably the top tight end in the nation and with N.C. State expected to pass more in 2011, Bryan's stock will continue to increase.
Last season, Bryan hauled in 35 passes for 369 yards and 3 scores. Expect him to catch about 10 more passes for close to 500 yards and 6 scores in 2011.
Bryan's ability to catch is not the only good thing about him. He is an incredible blocker too. Look for N.C. State to be improved this year and on offense, things will happen when Bryan is in the mix.
OT Levy Adcock, Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State has continued to churn out good offensive linemen over the last few years. The next big man to hail from Oklahoma State is Levy Adcock.
Adcock is a versatile offensive lineman who can play either tackle position. His upper body strength balances well with his low center of gravity.
Adcock will be instrumental in the protection of quarterback Brandon Weeden. He cannot have a let-down season if the Cowboys hope to break through and reach the Bowl Championship Series for the first time in school history.
OG Ryan Miller, Colorado
Colorado is making its debut in the Pac-12. While some think they will get beat down in their new league, things will be better than expected thanks to the offensive line, which is anchored by guard Ryan Miller.
Miller is the strong lynch pin that will hold things together for the Buffaloes. His ability to step in the gap and create a running lane is what makes him a special blocker.
Add in the fact that he is a versatile lineman and we have one of the best blockers in the nation in Miller. He will not go unnoticed this year. Pay attention to the trenches whenever you watch Colorado because Miller will be making noise.
OC Joe Madsen, West Virginia
West Virginia appears to be the heavy favorite to win the Big East and make a trip to the Bowl Championship Series. The offense is led by quarterback Geno Smith but his success is due in part to the play of his center, Joe Madsen.
Madsen is a bully in the middle who can stretch the field, get downhill and lay out a defender. He eats interior linemen for breakfast. Well, his pancakes will tell you so.
Madsen doesn't struggle very often. He is equipped to be this year's Maurkice Pouncey. Breaking out from the middle of the pack and forcing his body onto defenders is what he does best.
DE Junior Onyeali, Arizona State
Last season, Arizona State was led in sacks by defensive end Junior Onyeali with 6.5. Expect to see that number of sacks increase in 2011.
Arizona State is expected to be a dark horse to win the Pac-12 this year. A lot of this hype stems from the defense, which is led by the stellar play of Onyeali. He also had 11.5 tackles for a loss and forced 2 fumbles a year ago.
Onyeali has the physique of Elvis Dumervil but it appears that he bulked up even more this offseason. Despite being a little shorter than most pass rushers, Onyeali's low center of gravity and sheer speed from the edge is what sets him apart from the rest.
DE Ronald Powell, Florida
Will Muschamp's defense always gets it done in terms of sacks. He will hope to bring this to Florida and the guy he will be depending on is Ronald Powell.
Little known outside of Gainesville, Powell had just one sack in limited playing time last year, despite appearing in all 13 games. As a freshman, Powell also had just 16 solo tackles.
Powell will be a breakout player in the SEC as Florida is a bit underrated at this point in the early hours of the 2011 preseason. He is quick and determined to make plays. His sophomore year will yield more playing time and more productive results.
DT Tydreke Powell, North Carolina
North Carolina lost a ton of defensive bodies last year but the other guys stepped up and did their jobs well. One guy that is expected to step up even further in 2011 is Tydreke Powell.
A year ago, Powell tallied 2.5 sacks and 1 forced fumble while appearing in every game with the Tar Heels. The big body is expected to have an even larger influence defensively as the Tar Heels will lean on him to increase his production tremendously.
Powell is primed to have a huge year. Is he the next Nick Fairley? Maybe. His talent sure suggests that he could explode in great fashion though.
DT Alameda Ta'amu, Washington
Since Jake Locker moved on to the NFL, it seems like their isn't much to talk about in Washington. Well, defensive tackle Alameda Ta'amu is about to change all that.
Arguably the best interior lineman in the Pac-12, Ta'amu will have an opportunity to lead a Huskies defense that is expected to be improved from a year ago.
Washington may not have the most encouraging defense but things will be tough for any rusher trying to find a running lane against this gap-filler.
LB Tank Carder, TCU
TCU's rise to a perennial power in college football has been built around a sound offensive strategy and its defense. Linebacker Tank Carder is expected to fill a vacuum left by the Horned Frogs who have moved on to the NFL.
Carder was a do-it-all kind of guy for TCU last year. He had 3.5 sacks, 9.5 tackles for a loss, 1 fumble recovery and 1 interception. The bottom line is that this guy can flat out play. He is the TCU version of former Penn State linebacker Paul Posluszny.
TCU is not going to have another run at the BCS if Carder has a difficult time getting in the offense's backfield. I don't think that will be a problem though. Carder is one of the best linebackers in the game and you can bet your bottom dollar that he will be involved in every play defensively, one way or another. The All-American team is calling his name, therefore, you better know it.
LB Sean Spence, Miami
Miami's defense is getting better and in 2011, it will be led by linebacker Sean Spence. Entering 2011 as a senior, Spence has been a critical piece to the Miami defense and each year he has improved on his coverage skills as well, dropping back into the zone.
In 2011, Spence nabbed 3.5 sacks for the Hurricanes. More impressive was that he was able to get 17 tackles for a loss.
Spence is a nuisance in the backfield for any offense. His ability to move around and use his natural instincts to find the ball is what makes him so great.
LB Jelani Jenkins, Florida
As I have already stated, the Florida Gators are a bit underrated. The defense will be better thanks to some new faces. One of those new faces is Jelani Jenkins.
As a freshman last year, Jenkins was second on the Gators defense in tackles per game. He recorded just two sacks but did add one fumble recovery and one interception.
Jenkins is a prime prospect for tripling his sack totals. Even though he can play all of the linebacker positions, look for him to be best utilized in the middle. Still, he will be able to watch the offensive line give him some daylight and then cause mayhem for opposing offensive coordinators.
CB Tony Jefferson, Oklahoma
Tony Jefferson looks like he will be the next great defensive back to hail out of Norman, Oklahoma. This Sooner was a monster as a freshman last year.
Looking to draw upon a strong frosh season where he had 44 solo tackles, 2 sacks, 7 tackles for a loss, and 2 interceptions, Jefferson is a multi-dimensional ballhawk who can play either cornerback or safety.
He is incredibly smooth and flips his hips well. In coverage, he holds his jam well while frustrating opposing wide-out's and quarterbacks. Look for Jefferson to emerge as the premiere defensive back in 2011 as Oklahoma makes a strong push for the BCS crown.
CB Jonathan Banks, Mississippi State
The Mississippi State Bulldogs continue to improve and as they begin to round out into an elite SEC football squad, they will continue to lean on guys like Jonathan Banks.
Last year, Banks was tied for the most interceptions for the Bulldogs with 3. He also contributed with 34 tackles and one sack.
Banks is a highlight reel waiting to happen. His ability to break on the ball and disrupt the pass is encouraging.
CB Josh Robinson, UCF
Central Florida is trying to make a bid for the Big East, that way they can be in the running for the Bowl Championship Series but it will take great effort from their guys, and the coming breakout season from cornerback Josh Robinson, for it to happen.
Josh Robinson poses as a great coverage defensive back and a solid punt returner. Last year, he had 2 interceptions to go along with his 45 solo tackles.
UCF is quietly building a pipeline for defensive backs to the NFL. Robinson appears to be the next stunner to play for the Knights.
S Blake Gideon, Texas
Texas is looking to see its defense improve. They will be counting on its senior safety Blake Gideon to help make that happen.
Gideon is like a linebacker in the defensive backfield. He was third on the Longhorns in tackles last year yet he garnished no public attention. This is probably due to their struggles. As Texas looks to regroup from a disastrous 2010 campaign, Gideon will emerge as one of the best safeties in America.
He has 39 solo tackles, one interception, and one sack last year. He broke out late in the season against Oklahoma State with 13 total tackles. Gideon is a strong gunner who takes the most direct route when tackling. Look for him to emerge as a great ballhawk in 2011.
S Zeke Motta, Notre Dame
Many people are propping up Notre Dame this year. Finally, it appears as if their secondary is on pace to be one of the best in the country. This is in part to the superb play of Zeke Motta and what is expected of him in 2011.
Motta had just 1 interceptions and 30 solo tackles last year. This year, expect to see him contribute more in stopping the run by playing closer to the line of scrimmage. In the spring, it appears as if Motta has really worked on improving.
With Motta at the helm, many teams will be keeping an eye on him as Motta will use a line of sight and quick feet to get in excellent position to make a difference defensively.
P Tress Way, Oklahoma
As odd as it may be to see a punter on this list, Way will have a large impact with the Sooners. The importance of special teams often goes unnoticed but with field positioning being crucial in what can be the high-scoring Big 12, Way's impact will not go unnoticed.
The best punter in the nation, Way is also one of the best kicker in the game. He doesn't kick field goals though, he kicks off. This big when one considers the variety of kick returners who can change the dynamics of a game in a matter of seconds.
Therefore, don't sleep on Tress Way. If you do, your team will be stuck with poor field positioning.