Ranking the Top 50 Juniors Heading into the 2014 College Football Season

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistApril 17, 2014

Ranking the Top 50 Juniors Heading into the 2014 College Football Season

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    Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon is among the top junior players in college football entering the 2014 season.
    Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon is among the top junior players in college football entering the 2014 season.USA TODAY Sports

    Today's top college football juniors are tomorrow's top NFL rookies.

    With the best of the best often forgoing their final seasons of eligibility for the pros, the junior class is perennially the most talented and accomplished group in the college game.

    That makes ranking the 50 best juniors in the FBS heading into the 2014 season like putting together a way-too-early draft big board.

    Ranking the top freshmen and sophomores in college was hard enough, but there are so many great juniors set to hit the field this fall that plenty of worthy candidates will miss the cut.

50. T.T. Barber, Middle Tennessee

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    J Pat Carter

    Position: Linebacker

    T.T. Barber had a breakout season in 2013, registering 119 tackles as the anchor in the center of Middle Tennessee's solid defense. He made 73 solo tackles and was a big reason the Blue Raiders reached a bowl game for the third time in five seasons.

    The 6'1", 205-pound Barber also had three interceptions last season, and he'll get to show his skills off in high-profile games this fall against BYU, Marshall and Minnesota.

49. Drew Kaser, Texas A&M

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Position: Punter

    With as good as Texas A&M's offense has been the past two years, what the Aggies have done on special teams hasn't gotten much attention. Yet Drew Kaser was among the best punters in the country last year, averaging more than 47 yards per attempt in 2013.

    That would have put him second nationally had he kicked enough times, but he only had 44 punts. He could get more this fall if A&M struggles breaking in its new quarterback, but Kaser has already shown he can handle that responsibility.

48. Chris Hackett, TCU

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Position: Safety

    Chris Hackett's play as a sophomore last season was somewhat overshadowed by the work that TCU's cornerbacks did covering Big 12 receivers, which is a shame. There were fewer safeties who had more of an impact on passing attacks than Hackett.

    The 6'2", 195-pound Hackett had 88 tackles, two sacks and three interceptions, and this fall he'll once again show off both his run-stopping and pass defense.

47. D'haquille Williams, Auburn

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    Position: Wide receiver

    D'haquille Williams was the No. 1 overall prospect from the junior college ranks in the 2014 recruiting class, and Auburn picked him up after the 6'3" wideout decommitted from LSU last summer.

    What the Tigers are getting is a receiver who caught 26 touchdown passes in two seasons at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. His addition to an already solid group of skill players should help Auburn become more balanced on offense after being primarily a run team last season.

46. Marshall Morgan, Georgia

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    Dave Tulis

    Position: Kicker

    Georgia's 2013 season had a lot of ups and downs related to injuries and breakdowns on defense, but one place the Bulldogs didn't struggle was in the kicking game thanks to Marshall Morgan.

    After missing the first two games due to suspension, Morgan was nearly perfect in making 22-of-24 field goals and connecting on all 47 extra-point tries. Those numbers were a vast improvement off his 2012 effort, when he missed 6-of-14 field goals and had four PAT misses.

45. Tyreek Hill, Oklahoma State

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    Position: Wide receiver

    Tyreek Hill may not be very big, but what the 5'8", 185-pound junior college star lacked in size he more than made up for in speed and elusiveness as both a running back and receiver at Garden City (Kan.) Community College last year.

    Hill, who had 1,195 yards and 11 total touchdowns last year, should step right into Oklahoma State's offensive rotation. He can provide a chance of pace for Desmond Roland in the backfield and be a slot target on passing plays.

44. Jeremy Cash, Duke

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Position: Safety

    Jeremy Cash began his career at Ohio State, but after playing sparingly as a freshman in 2011 and seeing the Buckeyes get hit with a bowl ban, he transferred to Duke and sat out the 2012 season.

    With 113 tackles and four interceptions last season, Cash was a big part of a Duke defense last year that was very underrated but quite effective. Eight of his tackles were for loss, and he also forced two fumbles.

43. Ejiro Ederaine, Fresno State

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Position: Linebacker

    Ejiro Ederaine was a hidden gem whose effort last season was overshadowed by Fresno State's offense, which scored so many points no one bothered to notice what happened on the other side of the ball. Too bad, because Ederaine was a burgeoning star.

    The 6'3", 220-pound Ederaine had 10 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss, but he also was a hard hitter on the back line when Fresno adjusted its defense to handle the many passing teams it faced.

42. Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Position: Running back

    Kenneth Dixon's rushing numbers weren't that different from his freshman to sophomore seasons, but the 6'0", 215-pound back saw his touchdown numbers plummet in 2013 as Louisiana Tech's offense went from prolific to paltry.

    Still, Dixon has averaged more than six yards per carry for his career, and he did score 27 touchdowns as a freshman. With the right pieces around him, he could definitely do that again this fall.

41. Darius Joseph, SMU

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Position: Wide receiver

    Darius Joseph was both a big and small part of SMU's passing attack last season. While he had 103 receptions, the 6'0" slow receiver only managed 808 yards on those catches with five touchdowns.

    Call him a possession receiver, if you must, but what Joseph provided was a reliable outlet option that was always there when the Mustangs' quarterback needed it. Look for that and more this season, with SMU needing a new No. 1 receiver.

40. Isaac Seumalo, Oregon State

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    George Frey/Getty Images

    Position: Offensive lineman

    Oregon State's offensive line doesn't get much credit because of how little the Beavers run the ball, but guys like center Isaac Seumalo deserve to be recognized for how they've helped OSU become so adept in the passing game.

    The 6'3", 305-pound Seumalo has anchored the middle of the line since the start of the 2012 season, and he'll go into this fall working on 26 consecutive starts.

39. Michael Mudoh, Tulsa

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    Bill Haber

    Position: Defensive back

    Michael Mudoh is officially listed as a defensive back, but he has pretty much played all over the secondary and linebacking unit for Tulsa in his two seasons.

    Mudoh's numbers in 2013 were phenomenal, as he had 133 tackles, an interception and five defended passes. The Golden Hurricane might struggle this year in moving to the American Athletic Conference, but it won't be because of the 5'10", 198-pound rover.

38. Marcus Peters, Washington

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    Steve Dykes/Getty Images

    Position: Cornerback

    Marcus Peters had his work cut out for him in 2013 as a cover corner in the pass-happy Pac-12 Conference, but he held his own pretty well with five interceptions and nine breakups.

    With Chris Petersen running things now in Seattle, look for Peters to get some chances to blitz off the edge and show off his speed and strong tackling ability in defending the run.

37. Christian Covington, Rice

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Position: Defensive tackle

    Christian Covington might not be a household name to the casual college football fan, but scouts and NFL executives are well aware of what this potential high-round draft pick can do. CBS Sports has him rated as the second-best defensive tackle in the 2016 draft, though as a redshirt junior he may very well come out after this season.

    At 6'2" and 295 pounds, Covington is on the smaller side for interior defensive linemen, but he makes up for that with speed and strength. His four sacks were misleading, as his impact was best felt in stopping the run.

36. Silverberry Mouhon, Cincinnati

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    Chuck Burton

    Position: Defensive end

    Besides having one of the best names in the college game, Silverberry Mouhon is a pretty darn good pass-rusher. Just ask the quarterbacks he sacked 9.5 times last season, or the many rushers he tackled for a loss.

    Cincinnati's defense was underrated last year, and this fall he'll get a chance to chase down the likes of Braxton Miller, Shane Carden and whoever plays quarterback for Miami (Fla.). With good enough results, the 6'4", 248-pound Mouhon may play his way into a strong rise up the draft boards.

35. Quenton Bundrage, Iowa State

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Position: Wide receiver

    Quenton Bundrage only caught 48 passes last season, but he turned nine of those into touchdowns in 2013. One of those went for 97 yards in a one-point loss to Texas, arguably one of most exciting plays in an otherwise depressing year for Iowa State.

    Bundrage also ended on a high note, scoring three touchdowns in his final two games, including two in an overtime victory over West Virginia.

34. Noah Spence, Ohio State

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    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Position: Defensive end

    Noah Spence had a breakout season in 2013, registering eight sacks and establishing himself as one of the premier pass-rushers in the country. But a drug-related suspension just before the Orange Bowl kept him out of that game and will sideline him for the first two games of the 2014 season.

    Spence has the tools to be one of the best at his position, but a lot will depend on how he responds to missed time.

33. Andrus Peat, Stanford

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Position: Offensive lineman

    Andrus Peat is projected by CBS Sports to be the top offensive lineman prospect in the 2016 NFL draft, which is when he'll be done with college. But the way he played as a sophomore last year, he may very well rate nearly as high after his junior season.

    Peat is 6'7" and 313 pounds; the kind of size the NFL covets. For now, though, he'll keep Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan protected and open up large holes for Cardinal running backs for another season.

32. Dak Prescott, Mississippi State

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Position: Quarterback

    Dak Prescott split time at quarterback most of last season, but when he was at the reins is when Mississippi State fared the best thanks to Prescott's running ability and solid passing skills.

    Prescott missed two games late in 2013 but still finished with 1,940 passing yards, 829 rushing yards and was responsible for 23 total touchdowns. He was also the hero of the Bulldogs' biggest win, an overtime comeback over Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl.

31. Shaq Thompson, Washington

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    Steve Dykes/Getty Images

    Position: Linebacker

    Shaq Thompson's numbers might not stack up with some of the more active linebackers in the country, but what Washington's best defensive player accounts for in terms of hustle, hard hits and overall chaos is plenty.

    At 6'2" and 225 pounds, Thompson is maybe 10 or 15 pounds away from having a perfect NFL body. And with another year of heavily watched play in several high-profile Pac-12 games, he'll be getting plenty of attention from pro scouts.

30. Tyler Matakevich, Temple

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Position: Linebacker

    Tyler Matakevich, plain and simple, is a tackling machine. Partly because he's on a team that didn't have much else going for it defensively, but mostly because of his great pursuit skills, Matakevich led FBS with 105 solo tackles last season.

    The 6'1", 230-pound defender has a nose for the ball, and with a schedule that includes East Carolina, Navy and Penn State, he'll get plenty of chances to chase down ball-carriers and quarterbacks.

29. Landon Collins, Alabama

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    Rusty Costanza

    Position: Safety

    The injury to Vinnie Sunseri served as an opportunity for Landon Collins last season, and the sophomore ran with it. Now, his name is getting mentioned in the same way that Sunseri's did at this time last year in terms of a potential NFL safety.

    Collins had 67 tackles and two interceptions last year, picking off a pass and returning it 89 yards for a score against Tennessee last October. And this fall he'll be looked to as a leader who will get to mentor some of Alabama's talented new defensive backs.

28. Kevin Hogan, Stanford

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Position: Quarterback

    People will never confuse Kevin Hogan with his predecessor at Stanford, Andrew Luck. But they'll also not be able to say that Hogan didn't do as good a job running the Cardinal offense in his own way.

    Hogan elevated himself from a game manager to a game leader last season, his second as a starter, throwing for 2,610 yards and 20 touchdowns as Stanford once again won the Pac-12 and played in the Rose Bowl. The 6'4" redshirt junior also showed off some good mobility, averaging more than four yards per rush with two TDs.

27. Lorenzo Doss, Tulane

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Position: Cornerback

    Lorenzo Doss was one of the most effective cornerbacks in the nation last season, and if quarterbacks didn't know that before the game, they knew so after throwing his direction. Doss finished the year with seven interceptions, second-most in FBS.

    Two of those picks were returned for scores, helping Tulane reach its first bowl game since 2002. And with the move to the American Athletic Conference this season, look for the 5'11", 175-pound Doss to continue to line up against opponents' toughest receivers.

26. Jaelen Strong, Arizona State

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Position: Wide receiver

    Jaelen Strong has one of the best debuts at the FBS level in recent memory, coming from junior college and instantly making an impact as Arizona State's top receiving threat in 2013. He finished the year with 75 catches for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns.

    Strong had seven games with at least 100 yards in catches, and at 6'4" and 205 pounds, he's got the body that NFL teams will keep close track of this fall.

25. Devin Funchess, Michigan

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Position: Tight end

    Devin Funchess has shown in his two years at the college level that he's got a chance for a solid pro career. With 49 receptions for 748 yards and six touchdowns last year, he's well on his way to being a high draft pick.

    Funchess, at 6'5", is a huge target that plays more like a slot receiver than a traditional Big Ten tight end meant to block. This season will need to be devoted to improving his hands, though, to ensure his pro status if he were to come out early.

24. Nelson Agholor, USC

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    David Cleveland

    Position: Wide receiver

    USC's injury issues in 2013 helped open the door for some younger players to make a name for themselves, and Nelson Agholor was one of the first to walk through that door. He was the Trojans' top receiver before the season was out, finishing with 56 catches for 918 yards and six touchdowns.

    But what may get Agholor into the NFL quickest is his punt return skills. Last year he averaged 19 yards a return and scored a pair of TDs, showing off his open-field elusiveness in a different fashion.

23. Byron Marshall, Oregon

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Position: Running back

    Byron Marshall emerged from the overcrowded backfield that Oregon began the season with as the most dependable rusher, and only an ankle injury slowed him down late and forced him to miss the Civil War against Oregon State.

    Marshall finished with 1,038 yards and 14 touchdowns, scoring two or more on the ground in five different games. His best work came at critical points in the season, when he ran for 431 yards (and averaged more than seven yards per carry) with eight TDs in wins over Washington, Washington State and UCLA.

22. Blake Countess, Michigan

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    Matthew Holst/Getty Images

    Position: Cornerback

    After missing most of the 2012 season with a knee injury, Blake Countess rejoined Michigan's secondary like he'd never left last year. He finished with six interceptions, including two in the Wolverines' win over Notre Dame.

    While other parts of Michigan's defense began to look like a liability last season, Countess remained among the better cover corners in the game. One more season like that and he could find himself drafted pretty high.

21. Tevin Coleman, Indiana

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Position: Running back

    If not for an ankle injury that cost him the last three games of the season, Tevin Coleman would have had a very big year in 2013 in terms of numbers. He still had a solid one, rushing for 958 yards and 12 touchdowns while averaging 7.3 yards per carry.

    At 6'1" and 205 pounds, he's a bruiser in the backfield but has surprisingly good hands that led to 19 receptions last year. With more action in the passing game, he could really become a force.

20. Duke Johnson, Miami (Fla.)

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Position: Running back

    A broken ankle during Miami's first loss of last season derailed what was looking to be a brilliant season for Duke Johnson. It also symbolized the end of the Hurricanes' chances of having a really good year, as the offense sputtered without its star rusher.

    Though he was limited during spring ball, Johnson did show a bulked up body that should easily help him surpass last year's totals of 920 yards and six touchdowns.

19. Deontay Greenberry, Houston

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Position: Wide receiver

    Deontay Greenberry brought a much-needed burst of speed and leaping ability to Houston's offense last season, helping the Cougars win eight games and get back into a bowl.

    The 6'3" Greenberry had 82 receptions for 1,202 yards and 11 touchdowns as John O'Korn's main target. His breakout game came when he caught eight balls for 168 yards and three TDs in a blowout of Rutgers, which helped move him onto scouts' radars.

18. Malcom Brown, Texas

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    eric gay

    Position: Defensive tackle

    Malcom Brown (not to be confused with the like-named Texas running back, Malcolm Brown) is one of the most up-and-coming defensive tackles in the college game, despite what his stats might indicate.

    At 6'4" and 305 pounds, Brown is a beast that clogs up a lot of holes in the run defense. He can still work on his pass rushing, but paired with senior Cedric Reed, he's one half of a fierce interior duo.

17. Travis Greene, Bowling Green

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Position: Running back

    One of the biggest surprise teams last season was Bowling Green, which knocked off Northern Illinois to win the Mid-American title behind a pair of super sophomores on offense. Travis Greene was one half of that duo, rushing for 1,594 yards and 11 touchdowns while also scoring a pair of TDs on receptions.

    Greene had nine 100-yard games and averaged a healthy 5.7 yards per carry. His footwork and speed will work great in new coach Dino Babers' wide-open offense.

16. Cody Kessler, USC

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Position: Quarterback

    Cody Kessler will enter this fall as USC's starting quarterback after winning a competition for the spot for the second year in a row. He beat out Max Wittek (but split time with him early) in 2013, and was just named the starter for 2014 by new coach Steve Sarkisian over Max Browne.

    Despite all that turmoil and uncertainty, Kessler has fared well when on the field. He ended up piloting the Trojans to 10 wins, throwing for nearly 3,000 yards along with 20 touchdowns, and those numbers could be much better this fall.

15. Amari Cooper, Alabama

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Position: Wide receiver

    Alabama didn't need to have any players put up huge numbers last season, its offense being so efficient that big stats weren't required. But had they been, Amari Cooper would have been the one to do so.

    Cooper finished last year with 45 catches for 736 yards and four touchdowns and finished incredibly strong with 178 yards and a TD in the Iron Bowl and another 121 yards in the Sugar Bowl. He had 1,000 yards and 11 TDs as a freshman in 2012, when more was asked of him, and those are the kind of numbers he could register while helping the Crimson Tide break in a new quarterback.

14. Leonard Williams, USC

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    Mark J. Terrill

    Position: Defensive tackle

    Leonard Williams has been both an end and tackle for USC in his two seasons, standing out at both positions. In 2013, he was exceptionally good on the inside, notching six sacks and creating havoc with an interior rush that was more fitting of an edge push.

    Williams has shown the versatility to play both in a 3-4 and 4-3 in college, and with more chances to show off those moves this season under the guidance of new coordinator Justin Wilcox, his draft stock should continue to rise.

13. Matt Johnson, Bowling Green

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Position: Quarterback

    Matt Johnson had one of the quietest big-time seasons of any quarterback last year, only starting to get noticed when he orchestrated Bowling Green's upset of Northern Illinois in the Mid-American title game. That's when Johnson, who threw for 393 yards and five touchdowns, showed off a very varied skill set.

    Johnson has a unique kind of mobility, one that's based more on avoiding the rush than trying to gain big chunks of yards. But he did score five touchdowns on the ground, to go along with 25 through the air and more than 3,700 yards of total offense.

12. Jay Ajayi, Boise State

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Position: Running back

    Boise State's lengthy run as a mid-major power has been mostly centered on great quarterback play to go with solid receivers and a stout defense. Jay Ajayi has broken that mold and is in the midst of possibly the best career for any Broncos rusher.

    Ajayi ran for 1,425 yards and 18 touchdowns last season, the most consistent piece of Boise's offense in 2013. New coach Bryan Harsin will look to Ajayi a lot this fall, and he's shown he can handle the load.

11. Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State

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    Andrew Nelles

    Position: Defensive end

    Shilique Calhoun burst onto the national scene early last season with a pair of defensive touchdowns, being Johnny-on-the-spot for the Spartans during a fast start. But he really developed his reputation with great pursuit throughout the year, finishing with 7.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss.

    The redshirt junior passed up a chance to go pro after last season despite getting a first-round grade, and if he can put together another big year, that gamble will have definitely paid off.

10. T.J. Yeldon, Alabama

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Position: Running back

    T.J. Yeldon has been an integral part of Alabama's offense since he first stepped on the field two years ago, and that will again be the case in 2014. He may never put up the massive numbers of other star running backs, but he's got the ability to do so.

    Yeldon rushed for 1,235 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, after gaining 1,108 yards and 12 TDs as a freshman. He's averaged more than six yards per carry for his career, and even with plenty of other options to turn to, he'll be the Crimson Tide's most important offensive player this fall.

9. Connor Cook, Michigan State

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    Jae C. Hong

    Position: Quarterback

    The emergence of Connor Cook as a dependable quarterback over the course of last season had as much to do with Michigan State's rise to a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl victory as anyone else on the team. Not bad for a guy that was just 12-of-27 for 74 yards in his first two career starts.

    Once Cook began to gain confidence in 2013, so did the Spartans' offense as a whole. And his last two games, in the Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl, were the best of the lot, with 636 yards and five touchdowns combined in those wins.

8. Keenan Reynolds, Navy

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Position: Quarterback

    Keenan Reynolds is never going to be confused with any of the big-armed quarterbacks that throw for 3,000 or more yards and countless touchdowns each season. That's fine, because none of them are going to be confused for the kind of effective runner Reynolds has become.

    Reynolds showed off his mastery of Navy's option run game to the tune of 31 touchdowns, tied for the most in FBS in 2013. That included an FBS record (for a quarterback) seven TDs in one game, while, when needed, he also threw eight TD passes and only two interceptions.

    Navy gets a pair of high-profile matchups in virtual home games this season, facing Ohio State in Baltimore and Notre Dame in Washington, D.C. Those will be some great chances for Reynolds to back up what he did last year.

7. Brett Hundley, UCLA

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Position: Quarterback

    Brett Hundley passed up on a chance to leave for the NFL after his redshirt sophomore season, and the move was applauded by draft experts as well as his coaches at UCLA. And if he can have another year like what he did in 2013, that move will get even more credit.

    Hundley showed a lot of growth last year, accounting for more than 3,800 yards of total offense and 35 touchdowns. Whether it was 410 passing yards and three TDs against California or 161 rushing yards and two scores in the Sun Bowl against Virginia Tech, Hundley was nearly unstoppable.

    Scouts will want to see more of that in 2014, and with games against Texas, Virginia and the Pac-12 powers, he will be in the spotlight numerous times.

6. Taysom Hill, BYU

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Position: Quarterback

    Taysom Hill was not a very accurate passer at the beginning of the 2013 season, but he was still a force to be reckoned with because of his legs. As the throwing got better, though, Hill's running game remained strong and kept BYU in every game it played.

    Hill finished his sophomore year with 2,938 passing yards and 19 touchdowns as well as 1,344 rushing yards and 10 scores. The accuracy still needs to get better, ending up at only 53.9 percent for the year, but Hill remains a threat no matter what he does with the ball.

5. Todd Gurley, Georgia

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Position: Running back

    Injuries were the only thing that kept Todd Gurley from being one of the top running backs in the country last season from a statistical standpoint. But the small sample we got to see outside of the time missed because of ankle issues showed he would have been right up there.

    Gurley finished with 989 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2013, numbers that were still solid. Now healthy and ready to take on a full load of carries, look for this back to vie for the SEC and national lead in yardage and also be a major player in the Heisman race.

    And he'll do it with a rushing style that's both swift and strong, using his 230-pound frame to bust tackles when he's not outrunning them.

4. Randy Gregory, Nebraska

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    Tony Ding

    Position: Defensive end

    Randy Gregory's path to being the best defensive player in the junior class was a long and winding one, with stops at Purdue and a junior college before bursting onto the scene with Nebraska last season. That journey has steeled the 6'6", 245-pound edge-rusher into the star he's become.

    In 2013, Gregory had 10.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss despite only starting 10 of the Cornhuskers' 13 games. Those numbers earned him College Football News' Sophomore Defensive Player of the Year award and a spot on the Big Ten's first team for defense.

    Gregory will be the focus of every offensive line coach Nebraska faces this season, but all that will do is lead to headaches in game-planning a way to stop him.

3. Mike Davis, South Carolina

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Position: Running back

    Mike Davis is the best running back South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has had since Fred Taylor, and the only thing that's kept that from being seen by the country have been some nagging injuries. Davis was hobbled at several points in 2013, yet still ran for 1,183 yards and 11 touchdowns.

    The Gamecocks will probably be more run-heavy this season than last, which will put more pressure on Davis to come through. He's looked better in the spring, and if he can stay healthy and not wear down you can expect Davis to be among the national leaders in yardage and a prime candidate for many postseason awards.

2. Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin

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    Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    Position: Running back

    The opportunity to leave for the NFL after his redshirt sophomore season was an enticing one for Melvin Gordon, and his choice to come back was among the few surprises of the early declaration season. But it also means that Wisconsin's run game is going to be potent yet again.

    Gordon had 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, and he did that on just over 200 carries. He's never had to be much of a workhorse, but his 7.8 yards-per-carry average last season was so high that even if it dropped down a bit with more touches he'd still put up big numbers.

    Wisconsin will be using a more wide-open attack in 2014 after Gary Andersen took his time installing the offense. That fits right into Gordon's running style, and he should have a huge year.

1. Marcus Mariota, Oregon

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Position: Quarterback

    Marcus Mariota has been the motor that's powered Oregon's high-flying attack the past two years, and when that engine had breakdowns (in the form of a knee injury late last season) the Ducks were not the same team. He still ran for 715 yards, but the effectiveness of his running wasn't the same down the stretch.

    Despite the injury, Mariota still shined as a passer, going until the 11th game of the season before throwing his first interception. He tossed just four picks, against 31 touchdowns, and his growth in that area bodes well for a pro career.

    Mariota chose to come back for one more year to work on his overall development, not to mention to prove that the quarterback he was when hurt isn't the one he'll be in the NFL. That means another year of his accurate throws as well as a mastery of the read-option run game that can't be matched by any other quarterback in the country.

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.