College Football 2012: 25 Players Primed for Breakout Seasons
Every year in college football, new stars are born.
Tyrann Mathieu, Sammy Watkins, and Logan Thomas are a few of the studs who had stellar seasons and joined the nation's elite in 2011.
While it's hard to predict this year's biggest breakout stars, their performances and off-season news from 2011 offer clues.
This list, of course, does not cover everyone with major potential, but these guys appear to be primed for big years.
Let's take a look at 25 under-the-radar players set to join the college football elite in 2012.
Stephone Anthony: Sophomore LB, Clemson
Getting past last season's embarrassing Orange Bowl loss, in which Clemson allowed 70 points to West Virginia, won't be easy to do. Sophomore linebacker Stephone Anthony is one of Clemson's young stars who will help new defensive coordinator Brent Venables try do just that in 2012.
According to both Rivals and Scout, Anthony was a 5-star recruit in 2011. At 6'3" and 220 pounds, he is an extremely athletic linebacker with great range on the field. Though he could afford to improve his tackling technique, he makes up for it with his tremendous upper body strength, power, and speed.
According to CBSSports.com, the sophomore tore a ligament in his finger during spring practice, which required surgery. However, Anthony should be back in time for the beginning of training camp.
As a true freshman, he had a solid season in 2011, recording 32 total tackles and six tackles for loss. He also forced two fumbles. That production should only improve in 2012 as the starting middle linebacker job appears to be his with Corico Hawkins moving to weakside linebacker.
Clemson coaches are very optimistic about Anthony. According to head coach Dabo Swinney, Anthony has "the right stuff, is talented and mature," and predicts that he is an "All-American in the making."
Look for Anthony to become one of the ACC's best linebackers in the middle of Clemson's defense in 2012.
Sean Mannion: Sophomore QB, Oregon State
Sean Mannion came out of nowhere to replace the struggling Ryan Katz in 2011. While Oregon State had a disappointing 3-9 season, Mannion's outstanding play gave Beaver fans something to be excited about.
While Mannion started only 10 games last season as a redshirt freshman, his 3,328 passing yards was the third highest single-season total in school history. He averaged 277.3 passing yards per game, and he ended the season with 11 straight games of at least 200 yards through the air.
Mannion led the Beavers to an encouraging late-season win over Washington, a game in which he threw for 339 yards and two touchdowns.
According to OregonLive.com, head coach Mike Riley believes that Mannion was the most advanced freshman quarterback he has ever worked with. “I think that he is poised beyond his years and knowledgeable beyond his years,’’ Riley said of Mannion after winning the starting job.
While his 18 interceptions are cause for concern, that number should decrease in 2012 as he gets more comfortable during his second year in the offense.
Oregon State does not have too many offensive weapons, but if Mannion can improve on his 2011 season and develop a solid connection with wide receiver Markus Wheaton, the Beaver offense may actually make some noise in the Pac-12 North this season.
Brandon Carter: Sophomore WR, TCU
Boise State fans probably remember Brandon Carter as the true freshman who caught four passes for 120 yards and two key touchdowns during the Broncos' heartbreaking loss to the Horned Frogs in 2011. Oklahoma fans may remember Carter as the one who got away after he switched his verbal commitment from the Sooners to TCU in 2011 only about two weeks before National Signing Day.
But I don't care how you remember him, as long as you remember his name. Carter appears to be in for big things at TCU. The sophomore is a mere 5'11" and 161 pounds but has found a way to come up with 23 catches for 352 yards and three touchdowns in 2011 as a true freshman.
While his lack of size is definitely an obstacle, Carter's speed, acceleration, and quickness were enough for Scout to grant him a 4-star rating in 2011.
TCU still has two other great receivers in Josh Boyce and Skye Dawson, so Carter may not blow your mind on the stat sheets right away. Still, this kid is a real talent and one of TCU's most valuable and versatile offensive weapons. Look for him to improve as he becomes a bigger part of the offense in 2012.
La'el Collins: Sophomore OG, LSU
Last season, La'el Collins played in seven games at left guard as a true freshman after Josh Dworaczyk went down with a knee injury. Collins played so well in those seven games that it looks like that job belongs to him permanently, even with Dworaczyk's return.
The former 5-star recruit has a impressive 6'5", 320 pound frame. While he has a massive upper body, his lower body is leaner, allowing him to be quick and athletic for his size.
Collins is so talented and versatile that he could probably be used anywhere on LSU's offensive line. However, since he has put on some weight after arriving in Baton Rouge, guard would probably be the best fit.
The impressive sophomore has the strength to run block effectively and the athleticism to protect the quarterback. Watch for Collins to emerge as one of the most dominant interior linemen in the country in what looks to be his first full year as a starter.
Colt Lyerla: Sophomore TE, Oregon
While Oregon fans will miss the strong hands and consistency of David Paulson, who is now a Pittsburgh Steeler, sophomore tight end Colt Lyerla has a very high ceiling.
Lyerla is so athletic that he could probably be a star at wide receiver, running back, or linebacker if the Ducks needed him to be. The 6'5" and 238-pound sophomore has all the physical tools, with 4.55 speed, a 39-inch vertical leap, and a 320-pound bench-press max.
With all of those attributes, Lyerla is a match-up nightmare for both linebackers and safeties in the middle of the field.
In 2011, the former 5-star recruit caught only seven passes for 147 yards, but five of those seven catches were touchdowns that showed off his big-play ability.
If Lyerla proves to have the solid hands and blocking ability that his predecessor Paulson possessed, expect to see him emerge as one of the Pac-12's most dangerous offensive weapons in 2012.
Tevin Mitchel: Sophomore CB, Arkansas
Last season, Tevin Mitchel was one of the lone bright spots on an Arkansas defense that finished tenth in the SEC in pass defense.
Mitchel was one of the Razorbacks' biggest prizes from the 2011 recruiting class, and the former 4-star recruit played like a stud as a true freshman. While he had only one pass break-up and no interceptions, Mitchel made 56 tackles, a total that is especially impressive considering the fact that he didn't earn his starting job until halfway through the season.
At 6'0" and 192 pounds, Mitchel has solid size and great tackling ability for a young cornerback. He also shows great aggression and never hesitates to step up and help defend against the run.
As Mitchel fully settles in to his starting role, he will improve his game even further and become one of the SEC's best defensive backs this year.
Steve Edmond: Sophomore LB, Texas
Steve Edmond is another second-year linebacker ready to take the college football world by storm in 2012.
With the departure of Keenan Robinson to the NFL, Edmond will be the Longhorns' starter at middle linebacker. In limited playing time behind Robinson, Edmond impressed with 16 total tackles, including two for loss and a forced fumble in 2011 as a true freshman.
Edmond was a highly touted recruit in 2011, as Scout awarded him a 5-star rating. He has excellent strength and size at 6'3" and 255 pounds. While he may be on the heavy side for a linebacker, Edmond makes up for it with his impressive speed, range, and instincts.
According to Orangebloods.com, defensive coordinator Manny Diaz gave Edmond plenty of praise. "Steve, first of all, is a good instinctual linebacker," Diaz said. "For his size, he moves very well, which is what we like about him there. He has the ability to play the run and pass equally well, which is important in the league we play in."
Fellow Texas defensive players have also been impressed with Edmond so far. As HornsNation reported, safety Kenny Vaccaro stated that Edmond is "a true middle linebacker," and fellow LB Jordan Hicks added that he is "big, long, strong, and athletic."
Edmond looks to be in for a big year in 2012, so watch for him to become one of the Big-12's top linebackers.
Rashad Green: Sophomore WR, Florida State
In Rashad Green's first five games, he caught 26 passes for 457 yards and six touchdowns. Unfortunately, he suffered an ankle injury coming off of his best performance against Wake Forest, where he caught 12 balls for 163 yards and a touchdown.
Green was forced to miss the next four games and wasn't quite the same when he came back. In his last four games, he totaled only 12 catches for 139 yards. Despite the nagging injury, Green still led the team in receiving with 596 yards.
Green has a truly lethal combination of skills at his disposal. He has excellent pure speed and acceleration, underrated quickness, and a true understanding for the wide receiver position. That rare skill set is what allowed him to catch the ball 25 yards downfield at the highest point over two defenders and then proceed to outrun three more for 30 yards on his way to the end zone last September against Oklahoma (pictured above).
You don't see that combination of skills very often, especially in a true freshman. Expect him to thrive in his first full healthy season in 2012.
Pat Eger: Junior OT, West Virginia
It appears West Virginia's starting right tackle job now belongs to Pat Eger.
As a redshirt sophomore, Eger played in all 13 games, including 12 starts. He finished the season with 24 knockdown blocks.
While he struggled a bit in pass protection in 2011, Eger should improve this year as he settles into his starting position.
At 6'1" and 300 pounds, the junior has great size, athleticism, and a lot of potential.
Look for Eger to explode as a junior and become one of the best tackles in the Big 12.
Brandon Moore: Junior DT, Texas
Brandon Moore is a very big man.
The junior defensive tackle from East Mississippi Community College stands in at 6'6" and 330 pounds. A player that size is exactly what Texas needs in the middle of their defense, especially after the departure of Kheeston Randall.
For a man of his size, Moore demonstrates very impressive athleticism.
"Brandon's a guy that obviously has great size but he also has great leverage and athleticism for his size," said Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, according to DallasNews.com. "The bigger the you are, in some ways, the more technique you have to play with because football isn't a big man's game. It's a low man's game."
"I watch pass rush every day, because I like to see the big boys getting after it," said safety Kenny Vaccaro. "And I've seen Brandon Moore just completely dominating on the pass rush side of the ball for us."
With the big impression that Moore has been making since arriving at Texas, look for him to become a key part of the Longhorns defense in 2012.
Ishaq Williams: Sophomore LB, Notre Dame
Very few players possess the same combination of size and speed like Ishaq Williams.
The former 5-star recruit stands in at 6'5" and 255 pounds and has lethal wheels for linebacker. He is big enough to stuff holes on the inside and fast enough to emerge as a pass-rushing force off the edge.
He impressed in Notre Dame's spring game, recording both an interception and a fumble recovery.
Williams should get the chance to start at outside linebacker for the Irish in 2012, after recording only six tackles in limited playing time a season ago.
With all his talent, the former New York Gatorade Player of the Year should have an excellent upcoming season.
Anthony Chickillo: Sophomore DE, Miami
Anthony Chickillo proved why he was a 5-star recruit in 2011. Based on the success he had during his first year at Miami, one could even argue that he's already had his breakout season.
The true freshman earned his spot in the lineup, starting the last nine games of the 2011 season. Chickillo recorded 38 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, and five sacks, earning him Freshman All-American honors.
The humble and hardworking sophomore has become a definitive leader on the Miami defense. He plays with a great motor and never quits on a play.
Chickillo is also extremely quick and powerful off the edge, particularly for someone his size.
Watch for him to only improve in his first full year as a starter and become one of the most lethal pass-rushers in college football.
Hroniss Grasu: Sophomore C, Oregon
While the Oregon offensive line is lacking in depth, the Ducks have a solid rock in the middle for years to come.
In 2011, Hroniss Grasu greatly exceeded expectations in his first year as he proved to be an immovable object at center. The former 3-star recruit from Encino, CA, showed impressive poise, leadership, aggression, and drive for a rookie starter.
Grasu was the center of a front wall that opened up enough holes for running back LaMichael James to break the school's single-season rushing record in 2011 with 1,805 yards.
Earlier this month, Grasu was named to the preseason watch list for the Rimington Award watch list, which honors college football's best center.
After earning Freshman All-American honors in 2011, Grasu should improve and become a force in the middle of the Ducks' offensive line for years to come.
Michael Holmes: Freshman (RS) RB, Virginia Tech
Frank Beamer has a recent history of producing elite running backs. Darren Evans, Ryan Williams, and David Wilson all recorded at least 1,200 yards rushing in three consecutive years.
Unlike his predecessors, Michael Holmes was not a heavily recruited player coming out of high school. Nonetheless, the former 3-star recruit has been impressing coaches in practice for awhile.
Holmes' 60-yard touchdown run during a scrimmage in April proved that he was easily the best back on the team. The 5'11" and 208-pound redshirt freshman demonstrates a nice balance of speed, size, and power.
He may not have the big-play abilities of David Wilson, but Holmes can definitely run the ball effectively between the tackles. With the elite defense that the Hokies have, that's all Frank Beamer really needs from his running back.
Because Virginia Tech's offensive line returns only one starter, Holmes may struggle a bit at first. However, as the season progresses look for the redshirt freshman to continue the Hokie running back trend of a 1,000-yard season.
Kasen Williams: Sophomore WR, Washington
It's beginning to look like Washington may make some noise in the Pac-12 this season.
Kasen Williams is one of the Huskies' most promising young stars. The former 4-star recruit had a great season in 2011, catching 36 passes for 427 yards and six touchdowns.
Washington loses Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar, the team's two leading receivers from a year ago, so Williams should have plenty of opportunities to make plays in 2012.
The 6'2" 216-pound sophomore has excellent size for a wide receiver. Williams also boasts tremendous athleticism, as he proved last season when he jumped clean over a Washington State defender. That combination of size and athleticism creates match-up nightmares for defensive backs and give Williams a big advantage.
Washington's passing attack looks pretty dangerous with Keith Price under center and fellow sophomore Austin Seferian-Jenkins at tight end, so look for Williams to have a big year on the outside.
Rob Havenstein: Sophomore OT, Wisconsin
After spending the 2011 season as a reliable backup, Rob Havenstein should own the right tackle position in 2012.
He is a massive body at 6'8" and 343 pounds, so defenders will have a hard time getting around him.
Havenstein's large frame also allows him to have great range, as his wingspan gives even the fastest pass-rushers fits.
Aside from his talent in pass protection, Havenstein is capable of getting physical and can be a very effective drive blocker in the run game.
Look for Havenstein to emerge as a stud on Wisconsin's loaded offensive line in his first year as a starter during the upcoming season.
Blake Countess: Sophomore CB, Michigan
Blake Countess exploded onto the scene as a true freshman in 2011.
The highly touted 4-star recruit worked his way into the lineup throughout the season, starting the last six games of the season. While he didn't record an interception, Countess tallied an impressive 44 tackles and six passes defended.
Countess has a small 5'10" and 175-pound frame, so he may have some trouble against some of the bigger receivers he faces.
However, what he lacks in size, he makes up for in his aggression and athleticism. Countess has excellent tackling ability, especially in open space, and is never afraid to step up and make a tackle. That kind of aggression is hard to teach and rare for a young cornerback.
Despite his small frame, the sophomore possesses great speed and agility, which should result in an en excellent season for the Wolverines.
Marcus Rush: Sophomore DE, Michigan State
Rush. What a great name for a defensive end.
Marcus Rush was a key part of an elite Spartans defense that, last season, ranked sixth nationally in total defense and third nationally in sacks.
Rush was often overlooked in 2011 compared to fellow defensive end William Gholston. Nonetheless, the redshirt freshman tallied 58 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, and four sacks while starting all 14 games.
The Freshman All-American is a pure pass-rusher with great agility and speed off the ball.
At 6'2" and 250 pounds, Rush was originally recruited as a linebacker until he proved that he could handle the responsibilities required at defensive end.
While Gholston attracts the attention of coaches and quarterbacks opposite his teammate, Rush should pile up the sacks and emerge as one of the best in the Big 10.
Wayne Lyons: Freshman (RS) CB, Stanford
Wayne Lyons has the potential to emerge as Stanford's number one cornerback by the end of the 2012 season.
The Cardinal lose three starters from a defensive backfield that finished 95th in pass defense and intercepted only seven passes a season ago.
At 6'1" and 194 pounds, Lyons has a great blend of size and speed for a cornerback. He has great quickness, fluidity, and tackling ability for such a young player.
Lyons played in two games last season before an injury cut his season short and forced him to redshirt.
The former 4-star recruit says he is now "feeling 100 percent," and that his goal for 2012 is to be named a Freshman All-American.
Lyons should rotate in and out of the secondary with Barry Browning and Terrence Brown, but don't be surprised if he emerges as the Cardinal's best cornerback in 2012.
Marcus Davis: Senior WR, Virginia Tech
Marcus Davis is one of the nation's most underrated receivers.
The only senior on this list, Davis should prove what he is made of during his last season at Virginia Tech. With the Hokies' two leading receivers, Danny Coale and Jarrett Boykin, both out of the picture, Davis should become Logan Thomas' top target.
Davis has an amazing combination of size and speed. At 6'4" and 230 pounds, Davis has the height and strength to go up and catch the ball over nearly any defensive back.
The senior totaled 30 catches for 510 yards and five touchdowns in 2011.
In his last season as a Hokie, Davis should develop a lethal connection with quarterback Logan Thomas and make some real noise.
Adrian Hubbard: Sophomore LB, Alabama
It looks like Adrian Hubbard may be the next great linebacker at Alabama.
The freakishly talented sophomore has the size of a defensive end and the athleticism of a linebacker. At 6'6" and 248 pounds, Hubbard has the ability to play at either outside linebacker position.
Hubbard exploded during the spring game this April recording seven tackles, four tackles for loss, and three sacks.
According to TideNation.com, he was earning high praise from his teammates during spring practice.
“Adrian is a really good pass-rusher,” senior defensive tackle Jesse Williams said in April. “He’s really elusive. He shakes dudes down off the edge and stuff like that. I feel more comfortable when I’m rushing outside him because he’s going to keep it contained.”
Hubbard has all the physical tools necessary to be Alabama's next defensive superstar this year.
Andrew Maxwell: Junior QB, Michigan State
With Kirk Cousins now in the NFL, Michigan State needs Andrew Maxwell to step up and become a star.
Maxwell appears to be up to the task. In 2011, he completed 18 of 26 passes for 171 yards and a touchdown.
The junior has good size for a quarterback at 6'3" and 212 pounds. He possesses a pro-style quarterback skill set, including a very strong arm.
After learning the offense behind Kirk Cousins for three years, Maxwell should be comfortable under center despite his lack of experience. Even if he needs some time to settle in, he has a great running back in Le'Veon Bell and an elite defense to help him out.
Spartan fans shouldn't fear the loss of Cousins too much, as Maxwell should emerge as one of the nation's better passers in 2012.
Denzel Perryman: Sophomore LB, Miami
Denzel Perryman appears to be one of the most promising young linebackers in America.
With the departure of Sean Spence to the NFL, Perryman should be filling in at middle linebacker in 2012. He already has plenty of experience, earning Freshman All-American honors after starting five games last season.
As a true freshman, Perryman recorded 69 tackles, including 6.5 for loss. He also forced a couple of fumbles.
According to The Miami Herald, linebackers coach Michael Barrow believes that Perryman's transition to middle linebacker is going well.
“The sky’s the limit for him,” Barrow said this spring. “The only thing that can stop Denzel from reaching his potential is himself. He just has to detail the work and make sure he’s ready. He’s definitely got all the athletic ability, and he’s a great kid.”
The 6'0" and 225 pound sophomore doesn't have great size for a linebacker, but he hits with real power and shows outstanding lateral quickness and range.
Look for Perryman to emerge as one of the best linebackers in the nation in his first full season as a starter.
George Uko: Sophomore DT, USC
After losing tackles DaJohn Harris and Christian Tupou, USC is counting on George Uko to fill the holes in the middle of the defensive line.
In 2010, Uko was an elite recruit and started a few games in 2011 after redshirting during his first year on campus.
For a 6'3" and 285-pound tackle, Uko has outstanding quickness and acceleration that he combines with his strength to regularly disrupt plays in the offensive backfield.
George Uko is now probably USC's best interior lineman and, after showing flashes of brilliance in 2011, he should have a breakout year under defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron.
Reese Dismukes: Sophomore C, Auburn
After enrolling early at Auburn in the spring of 2011, Reese Dismukes proved that he could handle a heavy workload right off the bat.
As a true freshman in 2011, the former 4-star recruit started all 13 games and earned Freshman All-American honors.
Dismukes wasn't always consistent during his freshman year, but he is a very smart player with great athleticism. He should only improve in 2012 after settling in a bit more.
After playing at 300 pounds last season, Dismukes has worked hard to get his weight down to 290. The sophomore now says that he "can move a lot better" and that he is in "a lot better shape than he was last year."
After being named to the Rimington Award watch list earlier this month, Dismukes is set to emerge as one of the nation's best centers in 2012.