Every Power-Conference Team's Best Returning Player for 2015 Season
The deadline has come and gone for the 2015 NFL draft, with stars like Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and Florida State’s Jameis Winston headlining a strong group of underclassmen who’ve made themselves eligible for May’s draft.
You might wonder: Who’s left? Who can I focus my attention on next fall? Never fear: There’s plenty of talent remaining in college football’s ranks. That’s the beauty of the game. Talented players always step forward to replace those who’ve graduated and moved on to the NFL, and 2015 is no exception.
Here’s a look at the most talented player on each Power Five roster. We examined the rosters and looked for significant impact, as well as the potential to do more this fall.
Stats come from each team’s individual website.
With Amari Cooper and T.J. Yeldon off to the NFL draft, there’s an obvious leadership and production void in Alabama’s offense. As the Crimson Tide ponders how to take the next step back towards a national title, there’s one obvious candidate: Derrick Henry.
The powerful tailback took a big step forward production-wise in 2014. After carrying just 36 times (albeit for 382 yards, averaging 10.6 yards per carry) as a freshman, Henry rushed for 990 yards and 11 touchdowns as a sophomore.
He is powerfully built at 6’3” and 241 pounds, and with Yeldon off to the NFL, he figures to get the lion’s share of carries as a junior. He is a punishing back and should emerge as a centerpiece of Lane Kiffin’s offense.
This fall, Rich Rodriguez’s Arizona program enjoyed a breakthrough season, going 10-4 , winning the Pac-12 South and qualifying for the Fiesta Bowl. The Wildcats did so with a cadre of young players on both sides of the ball, but none were more impressive than linebacker Scooby Wright.
Wright was a straight steal for Rodriguez’s staff: Arizona was his only FBS offer coming out of high school two years ago. He was a monster, piling up 163 tackles, 29 tackles for loss and 14 sacks on his way to becoming a unanimous All-American and winning the Bednarik, Lombardi and Nagurski Awards.
He was the nation’s clear top defensive player, and he’ll be a terror all over the field next season for the improving Wildcats.
Following a 10-3 season, Arizona State loses significant talent from its offense, including standout receiver Jaelen Strong and quarterback Taylor Kelly. But the Sun Devils have an excellent building block in tailback D.J. Foster, a rising senior. Foster had shown versatility in his first two seasons, but with a starting role this fall, he truly spread his wings.
He went from 501 to 1,088 yards rushing this fall with nine rushing touchdowns and added 62 receptions for 688 yards and three scores through the air.
The 5’11” and 203-pounder was a weapon all over the field for the Sun Devils and will play an even larger role in ASU’s offense next fall.
Arkansas went into the offseason with huge momentum after finishing 2014 7-6 with a rousing Texas Bowl win over Texas. It was a sign Bret Bielema’s rebuild is right on track, using a powerful running game and a strong offensive line. Arkansas got bowl eligible largely thanks to a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams.
The two are nearly equal, both rushing for at least 1,100 yards and 12 touchdowns apiece. But the powerful Williams put up slightly better stats, rushing for 1,190 yards to Collins' 1,100. And he averaged 5.6 yards per carry to Collins’ 5.4. Both are very talented players, but give Williams the slight edge. Regardless, both will be huge factors for the Razorbacks in 2014.
Following a disappointing 8-5 season, Auburn is losing production across the board thanks to the graduation of senior quarterback Nick Marshall as well as tailback Cameron Artis-Payne (1,608 yards, 13 scores) and Corey Grant, not to mention Sammie Coates’ early departure to the NFL. But the Tigers still have offensive talent on hand.
Receiver D’haquille Williams was very impressive in his first season of SEC play, catching 45 passes for 730 yards and five touchdowns. And he did that while missing two games with injury and sitting out the Outback Bowl for disciplinary reasons. He averaged 16.2 yards per reception and showed excellent downfield and leaping ability.
At 6’2” and 216 pounds, he already has an NFL body but can use some seasoning. He’ll be a key force in Auburn’s passing game and the No. 1 target of new starting quarterback Jeremy Johnson next fall.
Baylor won 11 games in 2014, but the Bears’ season ended in highly disappointing fashion after blowing a 41-21 fourth-quarter lead against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl. Art Briles’ group will be highly motivated entering 2015, and one of its biggest leaders will be defensive end Shawn Oakman.
Oakman became a true pass-rushing force this fall, and his 6’9”, 280-pound frame was enough to intimidate left tackles across the nation. He had 51 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss and 11 sacks in his first season as a full-time starter and turned down a potential NFL draft run for his senior season.
The scary part? Oakman still has room for improvement. With an offseason to improve, it’s frightening to think how good the big guy could be in 2015 as Baylor’s most talented player and a surefire first-round pick.
Boston College made a second consecutive bowl game this season, finishing 7-6 after dropping a narrow 31-30 Pinstripe Bowl decision to Penn State. Do-everything senior quarterback Tyler Murphy is gone, but the Eagles have an impressive building block in tailback Jon Hilliman.
Hilliman had a great debut in college football, rushing for 860 yards and 13 touchdowns as BC’s No. 2 rusher behind Murphy. He had three 100-yard rushing games and saved his best for last, rushing for 148 yards and a touchdown against the Nittany Lions.
With Murphy gone, Hilliman will be asked to take a larger role in the offense, a role he appears to be ready for as the Eagles’ next great tailback.
You might have missed it, but one of the Pac-12 and the nation’s most improved teams in 2014 resided in Berkeley, California. Following a 1-11 record in Sonny Dykes’ first season, the Bears improved by four games and narrowly missed a bowl with a 5-7 record.
Dykes’ trademark passing offense was impressive, and it was led by sophomore quarterback Jared Goff. Goff threw for 3,973 yards with 35 touchdowns against seven interceptions and showed big progress from his freshman season, when he had 18 touchdowns against 10 interceptions.
Goff is a key part of the Bears’ rebuild, and if he can take another step forward next fall (and Cal can find a better defense), Dykes should have Cal bowling in his third season.
It was no surprise Clemson’s offense was far more efficient with Deshaun Watson at the helm. The only problem was keeping him there. The talented true freshman quarterback made an immediate impact as the Tigers’ backup, and once he took over the starting role, he had impressive production.
In his first start, he tied an ACC record with six touchdown passes and threw for 435 yards in a win over North Carolina. Watson missed most of four games with a broken finger and suffered a knee injury in his return against Georgia Tech that sidelined him for the following week.
After leading a 35-17 win over South Carolina, it was revealed he was playing on a partially torn ACL (which was repaired in late December). He finished with 1,466 yards passing and 14 touchdowns against two interceptions. He is expected to be healthy in time for the 2015 season, and he’ll be one of the nation’s top quarterbacks. He has a huge arm and mobility and will play a huge role in Clemson’s pursuit of an ACC championship.
It was another ugly football season in Boulder. Colorado finished 2-10 and went 0-9 in Pac-12 play, the league’s only winless team in conference play. That said, it wasn’t the fault of junior receiver Nelson Spruce. Spruce had an excellent season, catching 106 passes for 1,198 yards and 12 touchdowns. He showed significant improvement from a solid sophomore year (55 receptions, 650 yards, four touchdowns).
The 6’1”, 195-pound wideout was unstoppable at times and had four games with at least 10 receptions. Against Cal, he had 19 receptions for 179 yards and three touchdowns. He formed an excellent tandem with quarterback Sefo Liufau and gave Buffaloes fans hope that 2015 will be better, assuming a porous defense improves.
Duke will lose significant offensive talent from 2014’s 9-4 team that wrapped up with a narrow Sun Bowl loss to Arizona, but the Blue Devils do have some talent returning, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
The defense will be led by prolific safety Jeremy Cash, who’ll return for his final season of college football as one of the ACC’s top defensive backs. He was all over the field in 2014, making 111 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and two interceptions. He was the nation’s only defensive back to pile up more than 100 tackles, 10.0 tackles for loss and five-plus sacks.
If he can build on those numbers and improve his skills, he’ll surely have a future in the NFL.
At Florida, 7-5 seasons simply aren’t good enough. Especially when they’re following 4-8 seasons, which is why Jim McElwain will begin his first season as the Gators’ head coach in 2015, replacing the deposed Will Muschamp. McElwain will have issues to deal with in Gainesville, but he won’t have to worry about one cornerback spot. Not with Vernon Hargreaves III on the roster.
Hargreaves emerged as one of the nation’s top cornerbacks this fall, making 50 tackles with three interceptions and 13 pass breakups. His pass defense stats could certainly have been higher, but Hargreaves has the kind of talent that forces opposing quarterbacks to ignore his side of the field. He had a few down moments (most notably against Alabama’s Amari Cooper) but has excellent pass-defense skills.
He was named by The Sporting News as a first-team All-American and will surely be a fixture on such lists as he enters his junior season. He’s a key building block for McElwain’s staff.
Following a Rose Bowl loss to Oregon that ended its 29-game win streak, Florida State will be a significantly younger team next fall, with quarterback Jameis Winston leading the parade of talent out of Tallahassee. But don’t expect the Seminoles to fall far, as coach Jimbo Fisher has recruited exceptionally well and continues to do so.
One of the cornerstones? Tailback Dalvin Cook. Cook was one of the top recruits in the class of 2014 but had a tough adjustment to major college football. Once he found his footing, however, he showed why he was so prized.
In Florida State’s first three games, Cook had just 14 carries for 70 yards and a touchdown. In FSU’s sixth game, he broke out for 122 yards. He improved significantly from there. Cook’s 110 yards and two touchdowns keyed a second-half rally at Louisville, and he finished with three consecutive 100-yard games, going for 144 against Florida and 177 and a touchdown in the Seminoles’ ACC title game win over Georgia Tech.
The 6’1”, 200-pounder has a solid frame and great power and speed. He finished with 1,008 yards and eight touchdowns on the season, and he’ll only get better from here.
Todd who? When the 2014 season began, junior Todd Gurley was the clear headliner in Georgia’s talented backfield. By season’s end, few were mourning Gurley’s departure to the NFL draft.
With Gurley sidelined by an NCAA suspension and then a torn ACL, freshman Nick Chubb emerged as one of the best tailbacks in America and the Bulldogs’ lead back.
Chubb, who stands 5’10” and 228 pounds, is a physical, bruising presence, and he left his imprint on the SEC. He finished with 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns, averaging 7.1 yards per carry. He ended the season with an eight-game string of 100-yard games and bashed Louisville for 266 yards and two touchdowns in a Belk Bowl rout.
Gurley is gone to the NFL but Chubb will be a Heisman candidate in the Bulldogs’ backfield. Todd who, indeed.
Vad Lee’s transfer from Georgia Tech following the 2013 season left a hole in the Yellow Jackets’ offense. Or was it an opportunity? Justin Thomas showed it was the latter. The sophomore breathed new life into Paul Johnson’s flexbone offense and played a huge role in an 11-win season capped by an Orange Bowl victory over Mississippi State.
The starting quarterback is a linchpin for the flexbone option offense, and Thomas has thrived in that role. He threw for 1,719 yards with 18 touchdowns against six interceptions and was also Tech’s leading rusher with 1,086 yards and six touchdowns.
Thomas and Johnson should send Lee, who is now at FCS James Madison, a thank-you card. His departure was one of the key moments of the Jackets’ 2014 season.
Illinois was decidedly mediocre this fall: The Fighting Illini (6-7) likely saved coach Tim Beckman’s job with a 47-33 regular-season finale win over Northwestern that got them bowl eligible, but Louisiana Tech blew them out in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
Mike Dudek was one of the top freshman receivers in the nation, catching 76 passes for 1,038 yards and six touchdowns. The 5’11”, 180-pounder caught at least three passes in every game and was consistently prolific. He has proved himself a key part of Illinois’ future, whatever that might be.
Indiana football is not the easiest job in the world. In 2014, the Hoosiers finished 4-8 with a 2,000-yard rusher in Tevin Coleman and then lost Coleman a year early to the NFL draft. So Indiana will likely be rebuilding again this fall. That said, coach Kevin Wilson does have talent on the roster.
The Hoosiers defense allowed 32.8 points per game, No. 102 nationally, but freshman linebacker Tegray Scales will be a key building block. He had 46 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions and two sacks. If the defense improves in 2015, Scales will be a big reason why.
It was an ugly season in Iowa City. Despite a favorable schedule, Iowa finished 7-6 following a blowout TaxSlayer Bowl loss to Tennessee, which raised questions about Kirk Ferentz’s long reign as the Hawkeyes’ head coach.
Facing fan angst, Ferentz released a rare January depth chart, with C.J. Beathard over Jake Rudock at quarterback. The quarterback battle is far from over, but whoever emerges will have a great target in receiver Tevaun Smith.
Smith finished as the Hawkeyes’ leading receiver, catching 43 passes for 596 yards and three touchdowns. That comes on the heels of his sophomore season, which saw him catch 24 passes for 310 yards and a score. If Iowa can get consistent quarterback play, the talented Smith could take another step forward in the Hawkeyes passing game next fall.
2014 was a year to forget in Ames. The Cyclones went 2-10, with their only wins coming over in-state rival Iowa and Toledo, going 0-9 in the Big 12. However, the ugly season did yield an impressive gem in true freshman receiver Allen Lazard.
Lazard, who grew up 40 miles south of campus in Urbandale, Iowa, immediately stepped into the Cyclones offense as the No. 2 receiver. He caught 45 passes for 593 yards and three touchdowns, showing tremendous potential with a 6’5”, 221-pound frame that helped him hold up against more experienced defenders. At the very least, Paul Rhodes and Co. know they have a solid building block in Lazard.
New Kansas coach David Beaty walks into a difficult situation, taking over one of the worst programs in the FBS ranks. The Jayhawks went 2-10 this season and fired coach Charlie Weis before the end of the first month. KU averaged only 17.8 points per game, No. 118 nationally, and 121.2 rushing yards per game, No. 112 nationally.
However, KU did find a bright spot in freshman tailback Corey Avery. The 5’10”, 195-pounder showed some solid moves, leading the Jayhawks in rushing with 631 yards and five touchdowns. Kansas will be a major rebuilding project, but Beaty has a nice piece already on campus in Avery.
The surname is familiar, but you might not realize the talent that Glenn Gronkowski possesses. Glenn, the youngest in a football-first family led by New England Patriots tight end and older brother Rob Gronkowski, was a first-team All-Big 12 selection as a Kansas State fullback this fall.
He is an excellent blocker and was an integral part of the Wildcats offense. Gronkowski caught five passes for 99 yards and a touchdown, including a 62-yard touchdown in a win over Oklahoma. You might not know this Gronk yet, but you will soon. Trust us.
This fall, Kentucky showed major improvement, going from 2-10 to 5-7 and just missing a bowl game. The only thing that kept Mark Stoops’ young team from the postseason were a 36-30 triple-overtime loss at Florida and a 44-40 loss to Louisville.
One of the biggest building blocks on the roster going forward will be quarterback Patrick Towles, who flashed major talent and had an overall solid first season as the Wildcats’ offensive leader. He struggled down the stretch, throwing four touchdowns against five interceptions in the final six games, but he was capable overall, throwing for 2,718 yards with 14 touchdowns against nine interceptions. His arm showed potential, and he has solid mobility. With an offseason of work, Towles should be ready to build on his solid season in 2015.
Despite a Belk Bowl loss to Georgia, Louisville had a strong first season in the ACC, finishing 9-4. The Cardinals lose significant talent to the NFL draft, including safety Gerod Holliman, who won the Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back while tying the NCAA single-season interceptions record.
However, coach Bobby Petrino still has plenty of talent around for next year. Start with junior defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, who’ll return as one of the ACC’s top defensive linemen.
Rankins had an excellent season, making 48 tackles with 12.5 tackles for loss and 7.0 sacks. He created havoc in opposing backfields all season and will do so again next fall as a keystone for the Cardinals defensive line.
Les Miles had another young team this season, but the Tigers are clearly talented despite a down 8-5 season. And no one exemplifies that talent better than tailback Leonard Fournette, who developed into one of the nation’s top runners by season’s end.
He was regarded as the nation’s top incoming freshman, but he struggled to find room to run early on.
In the season opener against Wisconsin, Fournette managed just 18 yards on eight carries, and LSU’s struggles took some of the spotlight away from him. But gradually, Fournette found his way. In his seventh game, he broke out with a 140-yard, two-touchdown effort against Florida and finished the season with 146 yards and a touchdown in a win over Texas A&M.
Fournette has power and speed and is more than capable of running over opposing linebackers or dancing around them. He had five 100-yard efforts in his last nine games and closed with a flourish in the Music City Bowl against Notre Dame. Fournette had 11 carries for 143 yards and two rushing touchdowns (including an 89-yarder) and a kickoff return for a score. He finished with 1,034 yards and 10 touchdowns and showed everyone why he’ll be a prime Heisman Trophy candidate in 2015.
Maryland finished its first Big Ten season 7-6, but the Terrapins made an impression on the rest of the league with talented skill players.
One of the best was cornerback Will Likely. He emerged as one of the league’s best cornerbacks this fall. Likely entered the season with experience in Maryland’s secondary, but this fall, the sophomore turned that experience into production. He was one of the Big Ten’s most prolific corners, making 83 tackles with six interceptions, nine pass breakups and 15 passes defended.
Lively stands only 5’7”, but he plays bigger. He has excellent leaping ability and speed and makes a big impact. He returned two interceptions for touchdowns and also excelled as a kick and punt returner. He averaged 11.2 yards per punt return and had a 69-yard return for a touchdown.
As the 2014 season began, Miami’s quarterback situation was uncertain due to suspensions and injuries.
The Hurricanes had no choice but to turn to true freshman Brad Kaaya. That might have been the best takeaway from a disappointing 6-7 season.
Kaaya got off to a rough start, averaging just over 175 yards passing with three touchdowns against four interceptions. But he found his way with consecutive 300-yard passing games against Arkansas State and Nebraska.
He finished the season with 3,198 passing yards and 26 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. While Miami’s season was tough, Kaaya showed a strong arm and poise as the leader of the Hurricanes’ attack. Over the last 10 weeks of the regular season, the ACC Rookie of the Year threw 22 touchdowns against seven interceptions and looks like Miami’s starter of the future.
When Michigan hired Jim Harbaugh, the Wolverines grabbed the biggest prize of the 2014-15 coaching carousel. But that doesn’t solve all of Michigan’s problems: namely the talent on a roster that finished 5-7 and loses its starting quarterback and top receiver.
However, one player who barely made an impact last fall should be a key piece for Harbaugh this fall. Highly touted cornerback recruit Jabrill Peppers made his debut in 2014 but was forced to redshirt due to recurring leg injuries. One of the best recruits in Michigan history, Peppers has excellent athleticism and coverage abilities and should make a name for himself under Harbaugh’s watch.
Following two of the best back-to-back seasons in program history, Michigan State has established itself as a national power. The Spartans lose their top rusher in Jeremy Langford and top receiver in Tony Lippett, but they do have one key piece returning in quarterback Connor Cook.
Cook built on his sophomore emergence in 2013’s 13-1 season with an excellent 2014. He threw for 3,214 yards with 24 touchdowns against eight interceptions and played a huge role in a 12-2 season.
He exhibits a solid arm and excellent leadership and should only improve as a senior under Mark Dantonio.
While a Citrus Bowl loss to Missouri was disappointing, there’s not much bad to say about Minnesota’s 2014 season. Under Jerry Kill’s watch, the Golden Gophers were in the race for the Big Ten West title until the final Saturday and finished 8-5.
Minnesota had a talented defense, and junior cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun played a huge role. He led the Gophers with four interceptions and eight pass breakups. He also made 47 tackles and forced and recovered a fumble as a rock of the Gophers secondary. He’ll play a similarly large role next fall as well.
This was a season to remember in Starkville. This fall, Mississippi State made the move upward from the middle of the SEC West to become one of college football’s best teams, spending a significant portion of the season at No. 1 before falling to Alabama and Ole Miss. The Bulldogs finished 10-3 following an Orange Bowl loss to Georgia Tech, and it couldn’t have happened without Dak Prescott.
The junior, who is returning for his final season at MSU, developed into one of college football’s top all-around quarterbacks.
He thought about leaving but decided he could follow a popular path by returning for his senior year, as he told Michael Bonner of The (Jackson) Clarion-Ledger.
“You’re looking at Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, some of those guys had chances to leave early in their career,” Prescott said. “But didn’t. They decided to come back for another year. I want to do that as well.”
Prescott was a great dual-threat who threw for 3,449 yards with 27 touchdowns against 11 interceptions and rushed for 986 yards and 14 touchdowns as MSU’s second-leading rusher behind Josh Robinson. He’ll be a huge part of the Bulldogs’ push to repeat their surprising success in 2014.
Missouri continues to exceed expectations in the SEC. The Tigers followed a surprising SEC East title in 2013 with another in 2014, returning to the SEC Championship Game before falling to Alabama. Gary Pinkel will lose significant offensive and defensive talent from his roster but does return a key piece in junior tailback Russell Hansbrough.
The 5’9”, 190-pounder excelled in the Tigers backfield last fall, rushing for 1,084 yards and 10 touchdowns. He had four 100-yard games, including a 199-yard, two-touchdown effort against Texas A&M. With Missouri’s top two receivers graduating, the team will lean on Hansbrough to take pressure off quarterback Maty Mauk in 2015.
This offseason feels much better for N.C. State coach Dave Doeren. Following a 3-9 debut, the Wolfpack were much better in Doeren’s second season, finishing 8-5 with a St. Petersburg Bowl win over Central Florida. It’s not out of the question to mark up much of the improvement to the eligibility of quarterback Jacoby Brissett. He transferred from Florida for a second chance and has made the most of it in the ACC.
Brissett’s mobility gave the Wolfpack’s system a new dimension this fall. He threw for 2,606 yards with 26 touchdowns against six interceptions. He was also the Wolfpack’s No. 3 rusher with 529 yards and three touchdowns. He has one season left at N.C. State, and if he can improve his game, the ‘Pack will improve with him.
While Nebraska’s up-and-down 2014 season led to Bo Pelini’s ouster as head coach, new coach Mike Riley does inherit his share of talent in Lincoln. One of the most electric pieces? Freshman wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El. He is a dangerous playmaker who emerged as one of the nation’s top punt returners in his first season of college football.
Pierson-El led the nation in total punt return yards and returned three punt returns for touchdowns, including a pair of 80-yard scores. His punt returns shifted momentum in Nebraska’s regular-season finale at Iowa, allowing the Huskers to make an impressive second-half comeback and eventually win in overtime. He also had 23 receptions for 321 yards and four touchdowns. For Pierson-El, the best is yet to come.
North Carolina suffered through a disappointing 6-7 season, but one bright spot was sophomore wide receiver Ryan Switzer. The 5’10”, 180-pounder is a big-play threat in multiple areas. As a freshman, he earned All-America honors after returning five punts for touchdowns, tying an NCAA single-season record. He had no punt return scores this fall but contributed in other areas.
He became the Tar Heels’ No. 1 receiver, catching 61 passes for 757 yards and four touchdowns. If he can regain his prowess as a punt returner, he’ll be an all-around threat who could make a difference for North Carolina and coach Larry Fedora.
2014 was disappointing for Northwestern. The Wildcats ended the season with a 47-33 loss to rival Illinois, capping a second consecutive 5-7 season and a postseason spent at home. However, Pat Fitzgerald’s staff found a gem in freshman tailback Justin Jackson.
Senior Venric Mark’s surprising preseason transfer left a void in the backfield, but the 5’11”, 180-pound freshman filled it ably. Jackson finished the season with 1,187 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns, averaging 4.8 yards per carry.
He improved as the season wore on, piling up all six of his 100-yard rushing efforts in NU’s final eight games, including a 149-yard effort against Notre Dame, 147 against Purdue and 130 against Illinois. Northwestern needs improvement, but Jackson is a piece worth building around.
Notre Dame’s 2014 season was up-and-down. The Fighting Irish salvaged an 8-5 finish with a Music City Bowl win over LSU, but that broke a four-game losing streak that consigned quarterback Everett Golson to the bench and raised serious questions about the Irish’s offense.
It’s unclear whether Golson or Malik Zaire will emerge as the starter, but whoever goes under center in 2015 will have a great piece in receiver William Fuller.
Following a quiet freshman campaign that saw him catch six passes for 160 yards and a touchdown, Fuller became Notre Dame’s leading receiver this fall.
He had 71 receptions for 1,094 yards and 15 touchdowns. Fuller had four 100-yard receiving efforts on the season and three games with 100-plus yards and multiple touchdowns, including a nine-catch, 159-yard, three-touchdown day in a 43-40 overtime loss to Northwestern. The 6’1”, 180-pounder will be a focal point for the Irish offense in 2015.
Boy, where to start here? Following an impressive run to the first College Football Playoff National Championship, Ohio State has one of the nation’s most talented rosters. The Buckeyes were down to their third-string quarterback, but Cardale Jones looked cool, calm and collected in finishing the playoff run.
J.T. Barrett was impressive before breaking his ankle late in the regular season. So was defensive end Joey Bosa. But tailback Ezekiel Elliott looked like the most talented player on the roster in the national title run.
Elliott enjoyed a breakout season, rushing for 1,878 yards and 18 touchdowns. He got better as the season progressed, finishing with three consecutive 200-yard games. In the national title game, Elliott demoralized Oregon with 246 yards and four touchdowns. He is tough to bring down and will be a huge force again in 2015.
It’s hard to consider Oklahoma’s 2013 season as anything but a disappointment. Following an 11-2 season that finished with a rousing Sugar Bowl win over Alabama, the Sooners entered 2014 as a fixture in every preseason top 10 poll and a legit College Football Playoff contender.
They finished with a thud in a 40-6 Russell Athletic Bowl loss to Clemson. Afterward, Bob Stoops shook up his coaching staff, firing offensive coordinators Josh Heupel and Jay Norvell. New OC Lincoln Riley is an Air Raid proponent, but he’ll have a huge backfield piece in tailback Samaje Perine.
This season, Perine became one of college football’s best tailbacks. He stands 5’11”, 243 pounds and is incredibly hard for opposing defenders to tackle. He finished with 1,713 yards and 21 touchdowns and averaged 6.5 yards per carry.
He broke the FBS single-game rushing record with 427 yards against Kansas Nov. 22, one week after Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon set the record at 408 yards. Perine has set the bar high, but he has the talent to live up to his own high standards.
One of the biggest questions of the 2014 season in Stillwater was: Why did Mike Gundy wait so long to take the redshirt off freshman quarterback Mason Rudolph? Oklahoma State struggled with inconsistency and injuries at quarterback but seemed to hit another gear when Rudolph went under center late in the season.
Rudolph responded to having his redshirt pulled in mid-November by throwing for 853 yards with six touchdowns against four interceptions in three starts.
With Rudolph in charge, the Cowboys upset rival Oklahoma 38-35 to get bowl-eligible and then held off Washington 30-22 in the Cactus Bowl. In the process, they found a quarterback.
One of the cornerstones of Ole Miss’ surprising 9-4 season was its defense. The Rebels’ Land Shark defense was the nation’s stingiest, allowing just 16 points per game and keeping Hugh Freeze’s team in almost every game.
While Ole Miss will suffer serious losses from its secondary with Cody Prewitt and Senquez Golson’s graduations, the Rebs have a huge piece returning on the defensive line in defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche. He had 35 tackles, 4.0 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks and was incredibly disruptive. He was a load for opposing offensive linemen to handle, and if his stats reflect that in 2015, he’ll become an even bigger name nationally.
With Marcus Mariota off to the NFL draft, someone needs to pick up the slack for Oregon, which went 12-2 and made its second national title game in five seasons.
The best bet to become a focal point for the Ducks offense? Tailback Royce Freeman. This season, he performed like a “Rolls” Royce as a true freshman, rushing for 1,365 yards and 18 touchdowns. The 6'1", 229-pounder had six 100-yard efforts and ran with power and speed.
The Ducks also have talented tailbacks in Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner, but Freeman was the back the coaching staff trusted the most. It would be no surprise to see him dominate the Heisman hype next year around Eugene.
It was an interesting season in Corvallis. Oregon State missed out on postseason play, finishing 5-7, and longtime coach Mike Riley made a surprising change of scenery, bolting to take Nebraska’s head coach opening. The Beavers then sent the coaching carousel spinning further, luring Gary Andersen away from Wisconsin after just two seasons.
Andersen takes over a program which is in second place in the state behind Oregon, but he inherits some intriguing pieces, including sophomore receiver Victor Bolden. He took the leap from afterthought to the Beavers’ best receiver this fall.
Following a freshman season that saw him catch only six passes for 62 yards, Bolden caught 72 passes for 798 yards and two touchdowns this fall. He had four 100-yard receiving efforts, including a 10-catch, 145-yard night against Washington. The best part? As a sophomore, Bolden has room to grow in the Beavers offense with a new coach.
On the surface, Christian Hackenberg took a big step back in his second season of college football. After throwing for 2,955 yards with 20 touchdowns against 10 interceptions as a freshman, the Penn State quarterback threw for 2,977 yards with 12 touchdowns against 15 interceptions.
However, that discounts one key stat. In 2013, Hackenberg was sacked 21 times. This fall? A leaky offensive line led to 44 sacks. The sophomore still has an excellent arm and prototypical size at 6’4”, 234 pounds. Get him some protection, and Hackenberg will thrive again.
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi was known for his defensive acumen as Michigan State’s standout defensive coordinator, but he does inherit some excellent offensive pieces. The best? Tailback James Conner.
Conner emerged as one of college football’s top tailbacks in 2014. He earned ACC Player of the Year honors while rushing for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns, which included 200-yard efforts against Boston College, Duke and North Carolina.
At 5’11”, 250 pounds, Conner is a rolling ball of rage who is impossible to bring down with an arm tackle. If he can carry 298 times again next season, he could threaten the 2,000-yard mark as a junior.
It was another difficult season for Purdue, which went from 1-11 to 3-9. One of the highlights for the Boilermakers? Versatile junior defensive back Frankie Williams. He split his time between safety and cornerback and excelled at both positions.
He had 74 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, one sack, three interceptions, seven pass breakups and a 39-yard defensive touchdown against Iowa. He was also Purdue’s primary punt returner. While the Boilermakers have plenty of work to do, Williams is a key piece of the rebuilding process.
Rutgers’ first season in the Big Ten finished about as well as could be expected. The Scarlet Knights finished 8-5 and routed North Carolina in the Quick Lane Bowl. One of the biggest offensive standouts was junior receiver Leonte Carroo.
The 6’1”, 205-pound Caroo had a solid first season in a Rutgers uniform, making 28 receptions for 478 yards and nine touchdowns in 2013. But he developed into the Knights’ top overall receiver this fall. He finished with 1,086 yards and 10 receiving touchdowns, averaging 19.7 yards per catch.
Caroo had six 100-yard receiving games, including a seven-catch, 140-yard, three-touchdown effort against Tulane, a five-catch, 125-yard, two-touchdown day against Indiana and a six-catch, 104-yard, two-touchdown day in the season finale against Maryland.
Four of his 100-yard days coincided with Rutgers’ victories, which is no coincidence. While Rutgers will be breaking in a new quarterback next fall, whoever emerges will have a key target in Caroo.
South Carolina’s 2014 season was one of disappointment. Following three consecutive 11-2 seasons, the Gamecocks slipped badly after standouts like Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles and Connor Shaw departed for the NFL. USC finished 7-6 following an Independence Bowl win over Miami.
One bright spot? Receiver Pharoh Cooper. The 5’11”, 201-pound sophomore turned into an all-around star and the Gamecocks’ top receiver. He had 69 receptions for 1,136 yards and nine touchdowns, leading the team in all three categories. His best day came against Tennessee, when he grabbed 11 receptions for 233 yards and two touchdowns in a 45-42 overtime defeat.
He also had a huge day in the Independence Bowl, making nine catches for 170 yards and a touchdown.
Cooper was a prep quarterback, and he also completed five of eight passes this season for 78 yards and two touchdowns. With senior Dylan Thompson graduating, it wouldn’t be a stretch to see Cooper challenge for the Gamecocks’ starting role next fall. He’ll surely be on the field somewhere for Steve Spurrier and Co.
Stanford had a down season following back-to-back Pac-12 titles but ended on a high note, winning three consecutive games to finish 8-5, including a Foster Farms Bowl rout of Maryland. Quarterback Kevin Hogan will hang around for his final season of eligibility, but one of the most intriguing players on the roster is tailback Christian McCaffrey.
The son of former NFL wideout Ed McCaffrey, Christian did a little bit of everything as a freshman, rushing for 300 yards and making 17 catches for 251 yards and two touchdowns. He had a 52-yard touchdown reception in his first collegiate game against UC-Davis and figures to be a much bigger part of the Cardinal's backfield next season with excellent speed and moves.
Southern California took a big hit in this NFL draft cycle, losing defensive end Leonard Williams, wide receiver Nelson Agholor and tailback Javorius “Buck” Allen to early NFL draft entry. However, coach Steve Sarkisian is happy that Adoree’ Jackson has at least two more seasons left on campus.
Jackson lived up to billing as one of the nation’s top recruits this fall, playing all over the field and excelling whenever he touched the ball. He had 10 receptions for 138 yards and three touchdowns as a receiver but settled in mostly at cornerback, where he had 49 tackles and 10 pass breakups. He also proved to be an exceptional kick returner, with 684 yards and two touchdowns, including a 100-yard return for a score.
The Trojans will lean on Jackson next fall, and he only figures to get better with experience. Speed clearly isn’t a problem for him.
Call him Ishmael? Call him a player.
Syracuse suffered through a disappointing 3-9 season in 2014, which was especially distressing after the Orange finished with seven victories and a Texas Bowl win in 2013. But one of the biggest bright spots was freshman wide receiver Steve Ishmael, who established himself as a valued playmaker.
Ishmael caught 27 passes for 415 yards and three touchdowns, averaging 15.4 yards per reception. He had at least one reception in 10 of 12 games. At 6’2”, 184, Ishmael has solid collegiate size. He is proving to be a great catch from Syracuse’s 2014 recruiting class.
TCU was one of the best stories of the 2014 college football season. Following a 4-8 season in 2013, coach Gary Patterson junked his offense in favor of the Air Raid system, a move that worked out perfectly. The Horned Frogs had a potent offense and finished 12-1 following a Peach Bowl rout of Ole Miss.
The Frogs couldn’t have done it without quarterback Trevone Boykin. A potent dual threat, he threw for 3,910 yards with 33 touchdowns against 10 interceptions, adding 707 yards rushing and eight touchdowns as TCU’s No. 2 rusher.
He is a versatile and talented player, as his time as a wide receiver shows. With Boykin under center, TCU will be a strong 2015 College Football Playoff contender, and Boykin will be a Heisman Trophy candidate. Braden Gall of Athlon Sports agrees.
Tennessee was a young team this fall, playing 23 freshmen. The Volunteers improved as the season went on, squeezing into the TaxSlayer Bowl at 6-6 and routing Iowa 45-28. With players like defensive end Derek Barnett on board, Butch Jones’ future is bright on Rocky Top.
Barnett began his college career on a high note in August against Utah State, when he became Tennessee’s first true freshman defensive lineman ever to start a season opener. He has backed up the trust his coaches gave him.
He finished with 72 tackles as well as 20.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks; the latter two are both UT freshman records. He had three-sack games against Ole Miss and South Carolina and was a handful for opposing offensive tackles to deal with, leading all SEC freshmen in tackles.
At 6’3”, 267 pounds, Barnett has an athletic but physical body, and as he refines his skills, he’ll be a true nuisance for SEC offensive linemen.
It was a tough first season for Charlie Strong in Austin. Texas’ new coach proved himself as a disciplinarian, but that approach didn’t always show up on the field, as the Longhorns finished 6-7 following a disappointing Texas Bowl loss to Arkansas.
The ‘Horns’ cupboard isn’t bare, though. Strong has recruited well and has a base of talent left over from the Mack Brown era. One key player will be safety Dylan Haines. He proved himself as a capable player this season, making 86 tackles, a team-high four interceptions and 11 passes defensed.
Haines will be a force on Texas’ defense as Strong continues his tough-love rebuild in 2015.
Texas A&M and coach Kevin Sumlin executed an SEC West coup by hiring defensive coordinator John Chavis away from LSU as the Aggies’ new defensive coordinator.
Chavis is regarded as one of college football’s best defensive coordinators, and you have to imagine he’ll be licking his chops at the prospect of working with defensive end Myles Garrett.
The true freshman broke out this season as one of the top pass-rushers in college football. He finished the regular season with 53 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and 11.0 sacks. The sack total was a freshman record, racing past the old record of 8.0 set by former South Carolina end and No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Jadeveon Clowney. He also piled up 3.5 sacks against Louisiana-Monroe, setting an A&M freshman record.
Garrett stands 6’5”, 255 pounds and has excellent speed and power; he's the kind of edge-rusher coveted by defensive coordinators across the country. He surpassed Clowney’s SEC freshman sack record in just nine games and five starts. It might be just the beginning, and with Chavis on board to mold him, the sky is the limit.
Kliff Kingsbury’s second season at Texas Tech was one to forget. The Red Raiders slipped to 4-8, ending the coach's honeymoon. The Red Raiders struggled defensively but had serious talent on offense. One of the biggest breakout players was freshman quarterback Patrick Mahomes. The son of former MLB player Pat Mahomes started the season’s final four games and excelled.
He had 1,547 passing yards on the season with 16 touchdowns against four interceptions. In the season finale against Baylor, he threw for 598 yards and six touchdowns against one interception in a 48-46 loss. Mahomes is a two-sport star and will also play for Tech’s talented baseball team this spring as a pitcher. He has already made a significant impression on the football field.
Versatility has become a trend in college football, and few exemplify that virtue better than UCLA’s Myles Jack. He is one of the most versatile players in the game, possessing the ability to contribute on both sides of the ball.
As a freshman, Jack won the Pac-12’s defensive and offensive freshman of the year awards, and he had another solid season in 2014. He made 88 tackles, eight tackles for loss and an interception as a linebacker and also had 28 carries for 113 yards and three touchdowns as a tailback.
Jack is quick and active and plays all over the field. Now, he figures to become a true leader for the Bruins defense and roster as a whole with the graduation of Butkus Award winner Eric Kendricks, UCLA’s leading tackler.
Utah took a big step forward as a program this season, rebounding from a 5-7 season in 2013 to a nine-win campaign capped off with a 45-10 rout of Colorado State in the Las Vegas Bowl. A big reason why? The rushing offense, which offset a shaky quarterback situation.
Junior tailback Devontae Booker was a key piece of the offense, rushing for 1,512 yards and 10 touchdowns. He finished strong, bashing the Rams defense for 162 yards and a touchdown. He averaged 6.2 yards per carry.
The 5’11”, 203-pound back was hard to bring down and has excellent speed. He had seven 100-yard rushing efforts and also contributed 43 receptions for 306 yards and two touchdowns.
Derek Mason’s first season at Vanderbilt was disappointing. After three consecutive nine-win seasons capped by bowl wins under former coach James Franklin, the bottom fell out. Mason led the Commodores to a 3-9 record and had to revamp his coaching staff, firing both his defensive and offensive coordinators.
That said, the new staff found a bright spot in freshman tailback Ralph Webb. He led Vanderbilt with 907 rushing yards and four touchdowns, averaging 4.3 yards per carry. 2014 was a season to forget, but Webb will remember it. Vandy clearly has a nice building block in its backfield with his continued presence.
Virginia fans had high expectations for Quin Blanding this fall.
The freshman safety lived up to them and then some.
He stepped into UVA’s lineup and was a star from Day 1. He piled up 123 tackles, No. 2 in the ACC and No. 12 nationally. That’s the most by a UVA player since 2002. He was one of two freshmen nationally to lead his team in tackles.
He was Virginia’s first true freshman to start the opener at safety since 1976, and he set a Virginia freshman record for tackles. He was a true, steady force in the Cavaliers secondary, winning ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year and FWAA Freshman All-American honors. It’s scary to imagine that he can improve from here.
It’s easy to see why Virginia Tech’s 2014 was a disappointment to its fans. Despite an upset of College Football Playoff national champion Ohio State, the Hokies finished 7-6 following a Military Bowl win over Cincinnati.
Tech struggled to score points, averaging 24.1 points per game, No. 96 nationally.
However, Bud Foster’s defense was solid as always, allowing 20.2 points per game, No. 14 nationally. A big reason why? Sophomore cornerback Kendall Fuller. He continued the family tradition of playing at Virginia Tech and built on a solid freshman season, making 54 tackles with two interceptions and earning first-team All-ACC honors.
He is a force in the Hokies secondary and has served notice to ACC quarterbacks that his side of the field should be thrown to at your own risk.
It’s no stunner that 2014 was largely miserable for Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons finished 3-9, and the offense was one of the nation’s worst, averaging 14.8 points per game, finishing No. 127 nationally. However, there were some bright spots in Dave Clawson’s first season, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
Sophomore linebacker Marquel Lee emerged as a playmaker for the defense, piling up 101 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and four sacks. Rebuilding at Wake won’t be easy, but with active players like Lee on the roster, Clawson’s task will be a bit simpler.
With a defense led by unanimous All-America linebacker Shaq Thompson, Washington didn’t lack for talent on that side of the ball this fall. But with Thompson gone to the NFL, it’s time for the next generation of leaders to step forward
Look no further than freshman defensive back Budda Baker. In his first collegiate season, Baker made an immediate impact, recording 80 tackles, two tackles for loss, an interception and seven pass breakups.
He was a force in Washington’s secondary and should emerge as a key component of the Huskies defense entering 2015.
This was a difficult season in the Palouse. Following a bowl appearance in 2013, Mike Leach’s Washington State team regressed this fall, slipping to 3-9. However, there were some positives among the gloom.
Leach and WSU found the Cougars’ quarterback of the future in freshman Luke Falk, albeit not as they had hoped. When senior Connor Halliday, one of the nation’s most prolific quarterbacks, saw his career end due to a broken leg, Falk stepped in and didn’t miss a beat.
In his second career start, Falk threw for 471 yards and five touchdowns against Oregon State. The following week, he completed 45 of 74 passes for 601 yards against Arizona State. The Air Raid offense needs a quarterback who can throw, throw, throw, and Falk fits the bill. He threw for 1,859 yards with 13 touchdowns against seven interceptions this fall and only figures to add to those totals going forward.
A talented offense and All-American receiver Kevin White fueled West Virginia’s return to the postseason this fall, but the defense pulled its share of the load as well.
One of the standouts was junior defensive back Karl Joseph, a first-team All-Big 12 honoree. Joseph was an active player in the Mountaineers secondary, notching 82 tackles, four tackles for loss, three pass breakups, one interception and two forced fumbles.
If West Virginia hopes to take the next step into the upper echelon of the league, its defense must improve. Joseph will be a huge part of those plans in 2015.
Wisconsin’s backfield has become a running back factory. Some schools produce wide receivers. Some produce offensive linemen. Wisconsin produces tailbacks—one after another.
Melvin Gordon was the latest example: In 2014, he turned in the second-best rushing performance in college football history, rushing for 2,587 yards and 29 touchdowns while finishing as the Heisman Trophy runner-up.
Gordon is gone to the NFL. So who’s next? Look no further than Corey Clement. He excelled as Gordon’s understudy in 2014, rushing for 949 yards and nine touchdowns. He has excellent speed and power, averaging 6.5 yards per carry. He had four 100-yard rushing games, including a 105-yard effort in the Outback Bowl win over Auburn.
With Gordon (who received 343 carries in 2014) no longer in the picture, the onus falls to Clement to lead the backfield and keep the ball moving. With more opportunities in 2015, his profile figures to skyrocket.