Every Power 5 College Football Team's Most Important Returning Player for 2015

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistFebruary 17, 2015

Every Power 5 College Football Team's Most Important Returning Player for 2015

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    It's all up to them.

    Well, maybe that's a bit much. Very few teams in college football nowadays have their entire seasons riding on the performance of a single player, especially among power-conference schools that have a distinct recruiting advantage on smaller programs. If they do, that's a problem in its own right.

    What every power program does have, though, is a most important player, the one who will be counted on more than any other. This player can play any position—though it often ends up being the quarterback, or whoever the offense is centered around—and his role involves both production and leadership.

    Looking at what every school has coming back for 2015, we have identified their most important returner and explain how much they mean to success this season.


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    Derrick Henry, Jr., RB

    At 6'3" and 241 pounds, Henry is built like a linebacker or a tight end, yet when he runs you're seeing why he's one of the most feared running backs in the country. And as Alabama's leading rusher from a year ago, he'll help carry the Crimson Tide's offense in 2015 as they break in another new starting quarterback.

    Henry ran for 990 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, splitting time with the departed T.J. Yeldon in the backfield. The job is Henry's now, and while Alabama is likely to groom another younger back to be his replacement with some key carries, it will be Henry who gets the call most often.

    And considering the replacements Alabama needs to make up front, he's even more important.

    "Alabama will have to restructure an offensive line that will lose three starters and a new quarterback will take over, but what makes Henry so good is his ability to fight for extra yards and find a means to escape when things break down. He has tremendous vision to go with his unique athleticism," ESPN.com's Edward Aschoff wrote.


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    Scooby Wright, So., LB

    On a team that's known far more for its offense, Wright has sometimes seemed like a one-man defense. But last year that led to him winning three major defensive player of the year awards, taking home the Bednarik, Lombardi and Nagurski trophies.

    After leading FBS in tackles, tackles for loss and forced fumbles, the 6'1", 246-pound Wright heads into 2015 as one of just six starters returning on defense for Arizona. The Wildcats ranked 105th in total defense last year, despite what Wright was able to accomplish, so without him having a similar performance this season it could be a rough go on that side of the ball.

    Wright will be involved in nearly every stop on defense this fall.

Arizona State

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    D.J. Foster, Sr., WR

    A year after rushing for more than 1,000 yards, Foster has been moved from running back into the slot to help fill the loss of top receiver Jaelen Strong as well as to clear the way for rising sophomore Demario Richard to get more touches in the backfield.

    The 5'11", 205-pounder was quite an effective pass-catcher in 2014, finishing second on Arizona State in receptions (62) and yards (688) to finish the year 30th in the nation with 136.1 all-purpose yards per game.

    By moving him to the slot, the Sun Devils not only take advantage of Foster's ability to make plays in space, but it also gives quarterback Mike Bercovici—who takes over for Taylor Kelly—a reliable target to work with as he settles into the job full time.


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    Brandon Allen, Sr., QB

    With most of its massive line, two 1,000-yard receivers and some reliable receiving targets all returning, Arkansas is stacked on offense for 2015. But the player who makes it all go is Allen, who after slowly coming along during his first two seasons as a starter is ready to break through in his final year.

    Allen only completed 56 percent of his passes last year, but he threw 20 touchdowns against just five interceptions and went without a pick over his final 40 throws spanning four games. Not surprisingly, the Razorbacks went 3-1 in that stretch.

    He won't set any passing records, but with Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams getting lots of touches he doesn't need to. The 6'3", 210-pound Allen is there to make it all work, and it's why he carries such importance to the Hogs' hope for success in 2015. 


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    Cassanova McKinzy, Sr., LB

    Even with many notable starters gone from the offense, that side of the ball shouldn't be a concern for Auburn heading into 2015 because of the system that coach Gus Malzahn has in place. The defense, on the other hand...is still a work in progress.

    It's why the Tigers hired former Florida coach Will Muschamp as defensive coordinator, and while that move has already reaped benefits on the recruiting trail—he helped land eight defensive prospects rated by 247Sports as 4- or 5-star talents—it should also pay off in getting Auburn's top returning defenders to improve.

    At the front of that list is McKinzy.

    Last season he had 91 tackles and led the Tigers with 11 tackles for loss, though the 6'3", 249-pound McKinzy struggled like the rest of his team in terms of rushing the passer.

    Expect big things from McKinzy this season as a result of working with Muschamp.


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    Shawn Oakman, Sr., DE

    Baylor's offense is so explosive and diverse it seems to run itself, regardless of which players are on the field. The same can't be said for the Bears defense, which last year ranked 51st overall but 110th against the pass.

    Oakman was the exception to that rule, both performance-wise and through his sheer appearance. The 6'9", 280-pound edge-rusher was one of the most imposing players on the field last year en route to recording 11 sacks, 19.5 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles and three pass break-ups.

    His return for 2015 is a huge lift for the Bears, who will continue to be known for their offense but need to become more competitive in defending in order to make the next step into the playoffs.

Boston College

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    Jon Hilliman, So., RB

    The run game was a huge part of Boston College's makeup in 2014, with the Eagles ranking 15th nationally in rushing offense at 254.7 yards per game. The primary piece of that attack was quarterback Tyler Murphy, who ran for 1,179 yards and 11 touchdowns.

    But just as important then—and even more crucial this upcoming season—was Hilliman, who as a true freshman had a breakout performance with 860 yards and 13 touchdowns. The 6'0", 215-pound rusher had three 100-yard games, including in the Pinstripe Bowl loss to Penn State.

    BC has to find a new quarterback and replace its entire offensive line, which will put extra emphasis on what Hilliman is able to accomplish early on in 2015.


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    Jared Goff, Jr., QB

    For the past two seasons, Goff's play at quarterback has been the most consistent thing for California as it works to get back to prominence under coach Sonny Dykes. While the wins haven't shown up yet—the Golden Bears are 6-18 in Dykes' tenure—it's not because of a lack of production from the 6'4", 210-pound Goff.

    He was fifth in FBS last season with 331.1 passing yards per game, throwing 35 touchdowns and just seven interceptions on 509 attempts. Goff has already thrown for 7,481 yards in his career; he's 626 away from becoming the school's all-time leader.

    Though Cal is making a push to be more balanced on offense, it's still a pass-first attack. That makes Goff the central piece of the Bears' hopes this season.


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    Deshaun Watson, So., QB

    Despite a broken hand and two knee injuries, the last requiring surgery, Watson didn't have trouble making a name for himself as a true freshman. His return to full strength (and, hopefully, the ability to stay healthy) will dictate whether Clemson can get to 10 wins for a fifth straight season.

    The 6'2", 205-pound Watson started four games and subbed for Cole Stoudt in four others last year, finishing with 1,466 passing yards and 14 touchdowns while completing 67.9 percent of his throws. Watson also ran for five scores, giving the Tigers a dual-threat option that Stoudt didn't provide.

    Watson had surgery on Dec. 12 to repair a torn ACL, and his progress has been great so far, according to coach Dabo Swinney.

    "He is a month or two ahead of where anyone else would be," Swinney told Scott Keepfer of the Greenville News earlier this month.


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    Nelson Spruce, Sr., WR

    Knowing there is a receiver out there who will catch pretty much anything thrown their way is one of the most comforting things a quarterback can have. Colorado's Sefo Liufau knows this well, as he hooked up with Spruce a whopping 106 times last season.

    While the 6'1", 195-pound Spruce wasn't much of a deep threat, averaging just over 11 yards per reception, he did haul in 12 touchdowns catches and had five 100-yard games. He served as both a safety valve on broken plays and the go-to target on designed rollouts, keeping Liufau from suffering more sacks than the 23 his line gave up.

    Spruce has 210 receptions and 19 touchdowns in his Colorado career.


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    DeVon Edwards, Jr., S/KR

    Duke has questions to answer all over the field, including finding a new quarterback and replacing a graduation-raided receiving unit. DeVon Edwards has made it so that similar uncertainty doesn't abound in the secondary or on special teams.

    Last year the 5'9", 175-pound Edwards showed off his value in multiple ways, finishing second on the team with 133 tackles to go with 4.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss as well as an interception. In the return game, Edwards averaged 25.7 yards on kickoffs, including a touchdown return in the Blue Devils' wild win at Pittsburgh in early November.

    Edwards' athleticism could even make him an option as a receiver, if Duke becomes desperate there.


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    Vernon Hargreaves III, Jr., CB

    New Florida coach Jim McElwain will likely be devoting most of his time early on to developing an offense that can move the ball and produce. He has less to worry about on the defensive side, particularly on the back line, as the Gators bring back four of their top five defensive backs.

    Leading that group is Hargreaves, a 5'11", 195-pound corner who broke up 13 passes and intercepted three others last season. Though he's very likely to turn pro after his junior year, and could be the first defensive back taken in the 2016 draft, he's listed by NFLDraftScout.com as the No. 2 corner in the 2017 class.

    With Hargreaves covering one side of the field, Florida doesn't have to worry about what will happen when teams throw in that direction. Odds are, most won't if Hargreaves is on the field.

Florida State

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    Dalvin Cook, So., RB

    Florida State is going through a transition year in 2015, making the move from the Jameis Winston/national title era to one where the Seminoles' recent recruiting bumper crop becomes more involved in the overall team performance. We saw a few of these future stars emerge last year, including Cook.

    Limited early because of an injury during spring ball, the 6'0", 200-pound Cook didn't see his first significant action until the sixth game of the season. He ran for 122 yards and a touchdown in that win at Syracuse, and from there on out was FSU's primary rusher as he finished with a team-best 1,008 yards and eight scores.

    Cook also showed off his speed and elusiveness in the open field, catching 22 passes for 203 yards.

    As the Seminoles search for their new quarterback, Cook's role in the offense figures to become even more prevalent than when he averaged just 12.1 carries per game as a true freshman.


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    Nick Chubb, So., RB

    If not for Chubb, Georgia's 2014 season wouldn't have come close to reaching the 10-win plateau yet again. He was the offensive savior after Todd Gurley first was suspended, then later lost for the season with a knee injury, as the 5'10", 228-pound true freshman ran for at least 100 yards in all eight of his starts.

    Despite hardly touching the ball in the Bulldogs' first five games, Chubb finished with 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns. He set a school bowl record with 266 yards and two scores in the Belk Bowl victory over Louisville, his third game of 2014 with at least 30 carries.

    As Bleacher Report's Andrew Hall noted, Chubb could be in line for the largest workload of any single Georgia running back since 2008. That's because Georgia has to find another quarterback after Hutson Mason graduated, and the Bulldogs are young at receiver.

    "Chubb is set to carry the ball an awful lot in 2015," Hall wrote. "He's one of the better backs in the country and rightfully deserving of those carries, but what remains to be seen is how well he holds up over prolonged periods of high usage."

Georgia Tech

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    Justin Thomas, Jr., QB

    Georgia Tech's triple-option run game was at its very best last season, getting the Yellow Jackets into the ACC title game and then pacing a dominant win over Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl. Many pieces of that attack will be different in 2015, except for the most important one.

    The 5'11", 189-pound Thomas was the leading rusher (1,089 yards, eight touchdowns) for a Tech run game that was second nationally at 342.1 yards per game. He's also the only player among Tech's top five ball-carriers that returns this season.

    Thomas had great instincts for when to keep, pitch or hand off to the dive man. He also had a knack for hitting the home run through the passing game, averaging 9.2 yards per attempt and throwing 18 TDs on 187 passes.


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    Jihad Ward, Sr., DT

    Illinois was atrocious on defense last season, ranking 112th in total yards allowed and 118th against the run. In order to reach a second straight bowl game (and probably save coach Tim Beckman's job), the Fighting Illini need to shore up this area.

    That starts with the play of Ward, a junior college transfer who had three sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss last season. The 6'6", 295-pound Ward can play tackle or end, and he showed good instincts by forcing and recovering two fumbles. More must come from him, especially with Illinois needing to replace two starting defensive linemen.


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    Nate Hoff, So., DT

    Indiana allowed at least 400 yards in eight games last season, and now it has to replace five starters including top defensive lineman Bobby Richardson. His departure paves the way for Hoff, who had a promising first college season, to become far more involved in the game plan.

    Last year the 6'2", 305-pound Hoff started eight games as a redshirt freshman, finishing second on the team with 8.5 tackles for loss along with 3.5 sacks. With as big a deal as run defense is in the Big Ten, Hoff's ability to plug up rushing lanes is imperative for Indiana to have success in 2015.


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    C.J. Beathard, Jr., WR

    It's been several years since Iowa had anything that could be considered a "star" quarterback, and last season the position was split between Beathard and Jake Rudock. Neither were stellar, though Beathard's play in some stretches showed the most promise.

    It's why Beathard figures to win the job full time in 2015, allowing the 6'2", 203-pounder a chance to show off both his arm and his mobility. He ran for 156 yards, including 82 in the TaxSlayer Bowl loss to Tennessee, while throwing for 645 yards and five touchdowns.

    Beathard was named by coach Kirk Ferentz as the team's starter back in January, but expect that to be affirmed after spring practice.

Iowa State

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    Quenton Bundrage, Jr., WR

    Iowa State's hopes for a bounce-back season in 2014 went down the drain right around the time top receiver Bundrage went to the ground clutching his knee after blocking on a run play. The injury caused the 6'2", 189-pound wideout to miss the entire season and left the Cyclones without an experienced pass-catching option.

    While Bundrage's absence did allow freshman Allen Lazard and sophomore D'Vario Montgomery to emerge, neither had Bundrage's deep-threat ability. In 2013 he averaged 14.1 yards per reception and had nine touchdowns on just 48 catches.


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    Corey Avery, So., RB

    Kansas only averaged 121.2 rushing yards per game last season, which ranked 112th in FBS. Considering the woes the Jayhawks had with their backfield from an injury standpoint, it could have been much worse.

    Prior to the season even starting, projected top rushers Brandon Bourbon and Taylor Cox both suffered injuries that knocked them out for the year. Bourbon, who had 191 yards and three touchdowns as a junior in 2013, tore his ACL, while Cox tore his Achilles. For Cox, it was his second season-ending injury in as many seasons.

    But Corey Avery managed to step up as a freshman and lead Kansas, albeit with only 631 yards and five scores. Though he only topped 100 yards in one game last year, going for 103 in the win over Iowa State, the experience should help for this upcoming season.

Kansas State

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    Matthew McCrane, So., K

    It's slim pickings for key returners on Kansas State, which loses 11 starters and nearly every major offensive player. But at least the Wildcats know they have one of the most reliable kickers in the game, one that didn't get his shot until the fourth game of last season.

    McCrane replaced Jack Cantele as the starter against UTEP and proceeded to make 18 of 19 field-goal tries and 41 of 42 extra points. Amazingly, his only misses came from extremely close range, though he was 5 of 5 on tries of 40 yards or longer.

    As K-State searches for new contributors on offense, knowing that McCrane can put points on the board when drives stall will take pressure off these newcomers.


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    Josh Forrest, Sr., LB

    With a run defense that ranked 91st in the country last season, Kentucky can place a lot of blame from its late-season collapse on the inability to slow opponents down and let its slowly improving offense time to grow. The Wildcats figure to continue getting better when they have the ball, but it will be their defense that dictates how the season goes in 2015.

    Forrest will be a key contributor to that effort, as he was last season's top tackler (110), and his 8.5 tackles for loss were second only to the now-graduated Bud Dupree. Dupree's departure is a big hole, and the 6'3", 236-pound Forrest will be looked toward to replace a lot of that production.


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    Sheldon Rankins, Sr., DE

    Louisville landed a major recruiting win by getting former TCU star defensive end Devonte Fields to join the team this season, giving the Cardinals a pair of impact edge rushers who should help them come close to matching last year's sixth-ranked defense output.

    Fields will join Rankins, a 6'2", 305-pound beast, who led Louisville with eight sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. He also had two interceptions and a fumble return, contributing in all facets to a defense that allowed fewer than 20 points in six games last season.


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    Leonard Fournette, So., RB

    The most intriguing offseason question for LSU is how it will figure out its lackluster quarterback situation, choosing between Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris after last year's weak output from the position. The only interest at running back is how much bigger, faster and stronger Fournette is going to get with a full year to train at the collegiate level.

    Fournette had a very strong true freshman season, starting off slowly but finishing hot with 289 yards and three touchdowns over his final two games and ending up with 1,034 yards and 10 rushing scores. The 6'1", 230-pounder also showed off some impressive speed for a big back by returning a kickoff 100 yards for a TD in the Music City Bowl against Notre Dame.

    "Fournette will be LSU's No. 1 back heading into 2015 and has the potential to make a run at the Heisman," Bleacher Report's Carter Bryant wrote.


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    William Likely, Jr., CB/KR

    As one of the most productive return men in the country, Likely provides enough value in that area to make him Maryland's top returner in 2015. But that's just scratching the surface on what the 5'7", 175-pound defensive back provides to the Terrapins.

    Likely was fourth in FBS in kick-return average last year, at 31 yards per attempt, including a touchdown. His 11.05 average on punt returns ranked 13th, and he scored on one of those as well.

    When on defense, Likely was Maryland's most reliable player. He had six interceptions, returning two for TDs, broke up nine more passes and also had 83 tackles.

Miami (Florida)

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    Brad Kaaya, So., QB

    At this point last year, it wasn't very likely that Kaaya would see much time as a true freshman because Miami had a few quarterbacks ahead of him on the depth chart. But when all was said and done, the 6'4", 209-pound prospect from California ended up starting every game, finishing with nearly 3,200 passing yards and 26 touchdowns.

    Now we get to see what Kaaya can do with a full offseason of training, rather than showing up in the summer and getting thrown into the fire.

    "This team, these guys that are coming back, they're seeing results in so many different areas," Miami coach Al Golden told The Associated Press. "Now we have to see them collectively. I'm confident we will do that."

    With Miami coming off a disappointing 6-7 season and Golden's job security looking quite shaky, Kaaya is the key to the future.


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    Jabrill Peppers, R-Fr., S

    It was hard to get excited about much that Michigan did last season, but that won't be the case in 2015. Not just because new coach Jim Harbaugh has raised the bar on the Wolverines' expectations, but also because it will be our first chance to see a truly healthy Peppers get a chance to be utilized in many different ways.

    Last year Peppers saw time at cornerback and had one punt return, but we never saw what the 6'1", 202-pound freshman was capable of on offense because injuries limited him to just three games and shut him down by October. As a result, he applied for a medical redshirt that was granted by the NCAA on Feb. 9.

    Look for Harbaugh to get Peppers involved all over, and not just in terms of moving him from corner to safety. He's one of Michigan's best athletes, and his use will go a long way toward determining how the Wolverines do this season.

Michigan State

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    Connor Cook, Sr., QB

    The rise of Cook over the past two seasons has coincided with Michigan State's best two-year run in decades. Whether that run can continue depends on whether Cook can work his magic with a mostly new crop of supporting players in 2015.

    Gone is dependable running back Jeremy Langford, key backup rusher Nick Hill and top receiver Tony Lippett. What remains is the 6'4", 218-pound Cook, who threw for 3,214 yards and 24 touchdowns last season and who has only 15 interceptions in 762 career passes. His decision to come back for one more year, while not surprising, was very helpful to Michigan State's goal of again competing for the Big Ten title.


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    Mitch Leidner, Jr., QB

    With dependable running back David Cobb graduated and big-play tight end Maxx Williams turning pro, Minnesota's offensive options will have far less experience in 2015. Except at the quarterback position, where Leidner will head into his third year as a starter, the second on a full-time basis.

    He battled injuries last year but still led the Golden Gophers to their best Big Ten record in more than a decade, throwing for 1,798 yards and 11 touchdowns and adding 452 rushing yards and 10 scores. His running ability will be even more valuable this fall, as no other returning player had more than 235 yards on the ground.

Mississippi State

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    Dak Prescott, Sr., QB

    The most experienced quarterback in the SEC decided not to turn pro after his junior year. That was a huge win for Mississippi State, especially after running back Josh Robinson surprisingly turned pro and with the Bulldogs already losing key receivers Jameon Lewis and Malcolm Johnson to graduation.

    With the fewest starters back of any team in the conference, MSU's lack of experience is heavily offset by the 6'2", 230-pound Prescott, who was sixth nationally in total offense at 341.2 yards per game. That included 986 rushing yards, and along with a receiving touchdown, he was responsible for 42 TDs last year.

    Prescott's mobility will get extra use in 2015 with the Bulldogs lacking in experienced ball-carriers. He had five games with at least 20 rushes last year, and that figures to be what he averages this time around.


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    Maty Mauk, Jr., QB

    Even though many experts—including Bleacher Report's Michael Felder—project him to lose his job to an incoming freshman, Mauk is still the player who matters most to Missouri's success in 2015. That's because, after a lackluster sophomore year, having him able to show improvement and become a complete player would negate having to turn the quarterback spot over to an untested player.

    Mauk threw for 2,548 yards and 25 touchdowns last season, but he was intercepted 13 times and only completed 53.4 percent of his passes. He went three straight games without a TD pass at one point. And during that same time had a five-game stretch where he failed to top 164 yards in a single outing and even had a 20-yard performance on 6-of-18 passing.

    After faring well as an injury replacement as a redshirt freshman in 2013, Mauk regressed last year. His ability to bounce back from that—and thus allow the Tigers to let Drew Lock develop in practice instead of in games—will be best for the two-time defending SEC East Division champion's continued success.


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    De'Mornay Pierson-El, So., WR/KR

    There's much uncertainty associated with Nebraska's program heading into 2015. The Cornhuskers have a new coach, going from the fiery Bo Pelini to the humble Mike Riley, and they've graduated top running back Ameer Abdullah and saw fierce pass-rusher Randy Gregory turn pro.

    There are also questions at quarterback and in the secondary that need to be addressed. And there is one good problem to address: how best to use Pierson-El's diverse skill set.

    Last year as a freshman the 5'9", 175-pound speedster only caught 23 passes for 321 yards and four touchdowns. But he made up for that lack of production by killing it on special teams, returning three punts for TDs and averaging 17.5 yards per kick to rank third nationally.

    Look for Pierson-El to get more involved in Nebraska's offense while continuing to make plays in the punt return department.

North Carolina

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    Ryan Switzer, Jr., WR/KR

    It wasn't so much a sophomore slump as a return to reality for Switzer, who after tying an FBS single-season record with five punt return touchdowns in 2015 managed only 4.65 yards on 37 returns this past season.

    The 5'10", 180-pound Switzer was far more involved in the receiving game than as a freshman, leading North Carolina with 61 receptions for 762 yards and four TDs. However, aside from a nine-catch, 136-yard, two-touchdown effort against Georgia Tech he failed to have much of an impact.

    Switzer may never return another touchdown for a score in his college career, but he needs to still be handling those duties. Same with catching passes, though the Tar Heels must find a way to get him into space so he can utilize the skills that made him such a great open-field runner.

North Carolina State

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    Jacoby Brissett, Sr., QB

    A big difference between the 4-8 record North Carolina State had in coach Dave Doeren's first season and the eight wins it had last year was because of the play of Brissett, a Florida transfer who injected excitement into the Wolfpack's offense with his mobility and knack for big plays.

    The 6'4", 231-pound Brissett moved quite well for a big passer, something he showed often during the first half of NC State's near-upset of defending champion Florida State in late September. He threw for 359 yards and three touchdowns in that game, and for the year he had 2,606 yards and 23 TDs while also rushing for 539 yards and three scores.

    Brissett's presence for one more year should keep NC State moving upward and help it make a push to challenge the top teams in the ACC's Atlantic Division.


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    Justin Jackson, So., RB

    There were 10 freshmen who rushed for 1,000 or more yards in FBS last season, but none performed as far above expectations as Jackson. It didn't translate into a return to the postseason for Northwestern, but it does provide promise for the future knowing that the Wildcats have a capable running back to build around.

    The 5'11", 185-pound Jackson ran for 1,187 and 10 touchdowns in 2014, adding 22 receptions and a receiving score. He had 100-yard rushing games in six of his last eight contests, going from someone who wasn't on the depth chart at the beginning of training camp to a player who had more than half of Northwestern's 486 rushes.

Notre Dame

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    Malik Zaire, So., QB

    We were made to believe there was a true competition last summer between Zaire and Everett Golson for Notre Dame's starting quarterback job, but it was pretty clear Golson was going to be in that role when the 2014 season began. By the time that year ended, though, Zaire got his chance to make an impression and now has sparked the competition up again for 2015.

    What sets the 6'0", 210-pound Zaire apart from his challenger is his decision-making, particularly in terms of not making mistakes. The two quarterbacks split snaps in the Music City Bowl against LSU, and on his 37 touchdowns Zaire completed 12 of 15 passes for 96 yards and ran 22 times for 96 yards.

    Golson had 22 turnovers himself during the 2014 season, so Zaire's ability to hold on to the ball gives him an edge in the battle for the starting job. "Zaire might just be the favorite," Bill Bender of Sporting News wrote. Notre Dame coach "(Brian) Kelly will go with the hot hand, and Golson's turnovers won’t be forgiven."

Ohio State

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    Ezekiel Elliott, Jr., RB

    The most important decision that Ohio State has to make before it can begin defense of its national title is figuring out which quarterback to go with. No such choices need to be made about how to use Elliott, not with how he performed during the postseason run last December and January.

    Elliott had 696 yards and eight touchdowns spread over the Big Ten title game, the Sugar Bowl and the national championship game, taking immense pressure off Cardale Jones when he took over as the Buckeyes' quarterback. The 6'0", 225-pound Elliott finished with 1,878 yards and 18 TDs, finishing just 39 yards short of Eddie George's single-season school record.

    Looking like a surefire NFL star when he becomes draft-eligible after the 2015 season, some have suggested Elliott sit this upcoming season in an effort to avoid injury.

    "Given the physical demands of the position he plays, he should avoid absorbing further punishment—and losing additional knee cartilage—by playing football for compensation far less than the value he has brought to his school, the Big Ten conference and the NCAA," ProFootballTalk's Mike Florio wrote.

    If that were to happen, OSU would probably find a way to survive. But with him playing, the chance of repeating as champions is very strong.


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    Samaje Perine, So., RB

    While the overall performance of Oklahoma in 2014 fell far below expectations, this was not the case with Perine. It was hard to predict what would come that season from the 5'11", 243-pound true freshman, one of three players vying to replace Brennan Clay as the Sooners' starting tailback.

    Perine broke through in the fourth game of the season with 242 yards and four touchdowns at West Virginia, and then in November he set the FBS single-game rushing record by going for 427 yards and five scores against Kansas. When the year was done, he had rushed for 1,713 yards and 21 TDs, averaging more than 6.5 yards per carry.

    Oklahoma has overhauled its coaching staff, and its quarterback situation is uncertain. Perine will be the source of consistency in the middle of everything and could end up rushing for even more yardage as a sophomore.

Oklahoma State

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    Emmanuel Ogbah, Jr., DE

    Oklahoma State's offense showed some excitement down the stretch in 2014 when freshman Mason Rudolph took over at quarterback and led the Cowboys to a bowl bid and victory. That unit will continue to get better this season, but being able to take the next step will come from defensive improvement.

    The Cowboys were 93rd in total defense last year, but Ogbah held his own and kept things from being worse. The 6'4", 270-pound edge-rusher had a team-high 17 tackles for loss and 11 sacks, also breaking up five passes with his long reach and pass-defense instincts.

Ole Miss

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    Robert Nkemdiche, Jr., DT

    Ole Miss' defense was the key to success in 2014, as the Rebels finished No. 1 in the nation in scoring at 16 points per game. Nkemdiche contributed to that effort but not to the level that was expected of him at this point in his career.

    The 6'4", 280-pound Nkemdiche had only two sacks and four tackles for loss last year, down from eight tackles for loss as a true freshman. For someone who was rated by 247Sports as the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2013 recruiting class, these numbers so far have been disappointing.

    "In his third year of college and his second year as a defensive tackle, Nkemdiche will have a chance to come into his own with a breakout season that could vault him to a high pick in the 2016 NFL draft," wrote Ethan Levine of Saturday Down South. "He'll certainly have plenty of opportunities, as Ole Miss will lean on its biggest, baddest defender more next year than ever before."

    Ole Miss graduated four key defensive starters, so Nkemdiche's importance is even greater in 2015.


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    Royce Freeman, So., RB

    Who will take over for Marcus Mariota as Oregon's quarterback? That's the question everyone wants to know as the Ducks try to move on from their second unsuccessful national title game appearance in the past five years.

    Whoever coach Mark Helfrich goes with to replace his Heisman winner will ultimately be the most important player on the 2015 team, but at this point he is an unknown quantity. A far more locked-in area is the run game, with Freeman set to build off his stellar freshman year and become even more integral to the Ducks offense.

    Freeman ran for a freshman school-record 1,365 yards and 18 touchdowns last year, impressing enough to move 1,000-yard rusher Byron Marshall to receiver. The 6'0", 229-pound Freeman wore down late in the season only 66 yards in the two playoff games, but he figures to be fresh and ready for a big season this fall.

Oregon State

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    Victor Bolden, Jr., WR

    Oregon State has graduated the Pac-12's all-time passing leader in Sean Mannion as well as solid running back Terron Ward. New coach Gary Andersen doesn't have a lot to work with on offense in his first season, but he can take comfort in knowing the Bolden is developing into a top-tier receiver.

    Last year the 5'9", 175-pound Ward did his best to fill the large void left by the departure of Biletnikoff Award winner Brandin Cooks, leading the Beavers with 72 receptions for 798 yards. He only found the end zone twice, though, and will need to become more of a reliable weapon in the red zone as his development continues.

Penn State

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    Christian Hackenberg, Jr., QB

    After a breakout freshman year, big things were expected from Christian Hackenberg in 2014. Working with new coach James Franklin, the 6'4", 234-pound Hackenberg seemed to have everything in place to take the next step and become an elite college passer.

    Everything except an offensive line to block for him that is, which resulted in Hackenberg getting sacked 44 times and kept him from making progress. He threw for 2,977 yards and 12 touchdowns with 15 interceptions, almost disappearing in between throwing for 454 yards in the season opener and then for 371 yards and four TDs in the Pinstripe Bowl.

    Though the Nittany Lions' biggest need is to fix its line, Hackenberg also must continue to progress and do so in spite of any limitations.


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    Tyler Boyd, Jr., WR/KR

    On pace to being the most prolific wide receiver in school history—a big feat considering Pittsburgh is where Larry Fitzgerald and Antonio Bryant played—while also making big plays as a kick and punt returner, Boyd is the most diverse threat new Panthers coach Pat Narduzzi has to work with this season. It's a fair assumption he'll make great use of Boyd's skills in what could be his last college year.

    The 6'2", 190-pound Boyd ranked 14th in FBS with 148.3 all-purpose yards per game in 2014, contributing in multiple ways. He had 78 receptions for 1,261 yards and eight touchdowns, ran for 63 yards, averaged 10.1 yards on punt returns and 27.6 yards on kickoff returns.


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    Jake Replogle, Jr., DE

    Purdue's defense was still a sore spot in 2014, giving up 31.7 points per game and keeping the progress made on the offensive end from producing more than the three wins the Boilermakers had last season. Across the board, better play from every defensive position must happen if there's any shot at getting bowl-eligible this year.

    A blueprint for success could be to have more players perform at the level of Replogle, who as a sophomore led the team with 11 tackles for loss. The 6'5", 269-pound defensive end had 6.5 tackles for loss in his last five games, setting himself up for a strong junior year.


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    Leonte Carroo, Sr., WR

    Rutgers' move to the Big Ten went better than expected, with the offensive production helping to get the Scarlet Knights some wins in games they didn't seem capable of claiming. Veteran quarterback Gary Nova and noted offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen had big roles in that, but with Nova having graduated and Friedgen stepping down because of health reasons, there are going to need to be new offensive leaders in 2015.

    A top choice for that gig will be Carroo, Rutgers' leading receiver last year with 55 receptions for 1,086 yards and 10 touchdowns. The 6'1", 205-pound Carroo flirted with the NFL before deciding to come back for one more season, and after ranking ninth in FBS with a 19.75 yards-per-catch average he has the capability to be a big-play target for Rutgers' next quarterback.

    "Carroo's talent and work ethic should result in a connection with whoever wins the quarterback competition," wrote Dan Duggan of NJ.com.

South Carolina

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    Pharoh Cooper, Jr., WR

    South Carolina is without an experienced quarterback for the first time since the early years of Steve Spurrier's time in Columbia, and the run game is lacking in a go-to player with plenty of carries in his past. The receiving corps is pretty thin too save for one player.

    That same wideout, Cooper, is also a strong candidate to be involved in the Gamecocks' run game and as an alternate on passing plays, much as he has done the past two seasons. The 5'11", 201-pound Cooper was responsible for 13 touchdowns last year—nine on receptions and two each on rushes and passes—while in 2013 he had one score in all three areas.

    Cooper has managed to score in three different ways in the same game, and with the lack of experience around him on offense he will get touches all over the field.


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    Kevin Hogan, Sr., QB

    For the second time in four years, Stanford gets to work with a quarterback entering his third season as the start. And while Hogan isn't anywhere as good as Andrew Luck was, he hasn't lacked in terms of success or production.

    The 6'4", 225-pound Hogan threw for 2,792 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2014, up from 2,635 yards and 20 touchdowns as a sophomore the season before. Despite Stanford having struggles as a team when getting into the red zone, Hogan remained efficient if not flashy, completing 65.9 percent of his passes and only throwing eight interceptions in 352 attempts last year.

    Hogan's importance increases this season with the Cardinal losing top receivers Ty Montgomery and Devon Cajuste. His experience will come in handy when helping to break in new pass-catchers.


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    Terrel Hunt, Sr., QB

    A broken leg ended Hunt's 2014 season, one that could have been as good for him and for Syracuse had he been able to stay upright. An underrated dual-threat passer who had 2,132 yards of total offense in 2013, Hunt still managed to lead the Orange in that category (with 1,275 yards) last year despite getting hurt early in the fifth game.

    Without Hunt, Syracuse's offense fell apart. Assuming he comes back healthy from the injury, the 6'3", 234-pound athlete should get the Orange back on track and make it easier to overcome the loss of their top two running backs.

    Stephen Bailey of Syracuse.com reported that Hunt should be at full strength for spring practice later this month, improving his chances of being the starter again this fall.

    "Hunt's readiness to start for spring ball is especially important with offensive coordinator Tim Lester installing his offensive system," Bailey wrote.


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    Trevone Boykin, Sr., QB

    The key to TCU going from a middling sub-.500 team to one that vied for a spot in the playoffs last season was Boykin, who broke through with a massive junior year after struggling to find a role before that. Now Boykin is the key to the Horned Frogs remaining at their current level and pushing further into the semifinals.

    The 6'2", 205-pound Boykin was fourth nationally in total offense with 354.5 yards per game while accounting for 42 touchdowns. He struggled with accuracy at times, completing less than 60 percent of his passes in six games and under 50 percent twice, but he made up for it by being able to scramble and keep plays alive to find an open receiver deep or pick up 707 rushing yards with eight TDs.

    Boykin spent time as a receiver and running back as a sophomore, and offensive coordinators Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham tapped into that versatility last year. This season, look for more ways to creatively use Boykin's skills while also including TCU's many strong skill options.


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    Joshua Dobbs, Jr., QB

    The plan was to keep Dobbs out for all of last season, saving his eligibility for the future after he'd showed some promise as a freshman in 2013.

    But coach Butch Jones decided to pull the trigger and have Dobbs make his debut early in Tennessee's eighth game of the year, and the rest was history—positive history, as in a 4-1 record as a starter that enabled the Volunteers to reach a bowl game and then finish above .500 for the first time in five years.

    The 6'3", 216-pound Dobbs energized the offense, finishing with 279.2 yards of total offense per game including 469 rushing yards and eight touchdowns.

    Tennessee brings back nearly its entire offense for 2015, so hopes are high in Knoxville. But no single player matters more to continued improvement than Dobbs, who brings a strong arm, great legs and a level of leadership you wouldn't expect from a younger player.


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    Dylan Haines, Jr., S

    The second year of the Charlie Strong era in Austin should look completely different, as most of the key players from last season's Texas team have moved on and the Longhorns will feature plenty of Strong's recruits from the past two classes. Haines is one of the few holdovers and by far the one who will matter most to how 2015 turns out.

    He led Texas' strong defense with four interceptions, returning one 74 yards for a touchdown against Iowa State. The 6'1", 194-pound Haines also had a fumble return, made 74 tackles and broke up six passes.

    The Longhorns defense should again be the team's strength this season, with Haines being looked to for both performance and leadership. He'll help bring the gap from the old guard and the new regime.

Texas A&M

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    Myles Garrett, So., DE

    With offensive options as far as the eye can see, Texas A&M will not be lacking for production in 2015. It's the Aggies defense that dictates whether they can truly compete in the SEC and for national titles, as is the hope, and Garrett signifies the kind of players they need to make this happen.

    Though A&M still struggled as a team on defense, ranking 104th in yards allowed and giving up 28.1 points per game, Garrett quickly adapted to the college game and made his mark. The 6'5", 255-pound Garrett led A&M with 11.5 sacks—breaking Jadeveon Clowney's SEC freshman record—and 14 tackles for losses, though only 3.5 sacks and five tackles for losses came in conference play.

    He's still got work to do in order to become an elite defender, but the progress is being made. Another year of development should produce a much better year in 2015, and with 5-star defensive tackle Daylon Mack joining him on the line, the Aggies might no longer be disregarded on defense.

Texas Tech

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    Pete Robertson, Sr., LB

    After years of being able to get by without having much help from its defense, Texas Tech bottomed out at 4-8 as the offense struggled with injuries and turnovers and could only sit back and watch the Red Raiders allow more than 500 yards per game.

    Reinforcements are headed to Lubbock from the recent recruiting class, but the player who matters most to getting that defense to a level where it can be competitive is Robertson. The veteran has started the last 25 games at the bandit position, where his 6'3", 236-pound frame has turned speed and power into consistent production.

    Robertson had 13 sacks, 15.5 tackles for loss and 82 tackles last year, one of the few Tech defenders who could be relied upon. While more should be able to get it done in 2015, Robertson will still lead the charge.


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    Myles Jack, Jr., RB/LB

    With the emergence of Paul Perkins as a dependable running back, UCLA didn't need Jack to lend his services to the offense much in 2014. But if the Bruins need a spark from him next season, don't be surprised to see one of the country's top two-way players pulling double duty again.

    The 6'1", 232-pound Jack ran for three touchdowns last year on 28 carries after scoring seven times as a freshman, when he was named the Pac-12's Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year. Last year Jack spent most of his time patrolling the middle of the defense, where he had 87 tackles, eight tackles for loss, an interception and seven pass breakups.

    With UCLA pulling in a top-12 recruiting class that features several notable defensive prospects, Jack could end up getting more work in the backfield. Wherever he plays, though, he'll be a key component for the Bruins.


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    Adoree' Jackson, So., WR/CB/KR

    Is he a receiver or a defensive back? Why can't he be both?

    And don't forget about special teams too. Whatever the job, Jackson showed he could do it last year as a true freshman, and there's no sign this will change in 2015.

    "The tug o' war will continue between the Trojans' offensive and defensive coaches, because he has the ability to change a game whichever side of the ball he is on," ESPN.com's Travis Haney wrote.

    The 5'11", 185-pound Jackson started games at both receiver and cornerback—including both in the same game—while serving as a kick returner all season. He ranked fifth in the country with a 29.7 yards-per-return average fueled by two returns for touchdowns that included one in the Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska.

    Jackson also had three receptions for 73 yards and a TD as well as seven tackles on defense against the Cornhuskers.

    USC lost three of its top four receiving options to the NFL draft, so expect Jackson to be involved even more on offense this season.


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    Devontae Booker, Sr., RB

    Outside of the coaching staff at Utah, few people expected much from Booker as a junior college transfer last season. He had two good years at American River College in California but did not play in 2013 in order to improve his academics.

    Yet Booker ended up being the most important part of the Utes offense in 2014, and that figures to be the case again this year. After running for 1,512 yards and 10 touchdowns, with seven 100-yard games, Utah will ensure its offensive plans are centered around what the 5'11", 203-pound Booker does best.

    That won't just be in terms of straightforward rushing, though, as he was big in the passing game with 42 receptions for 311 yards and two touchdowns.


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    Nigel Bowden, So., LB

    With a background in defense, it stands to reason that Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason would have a better knack for developing players on that side of the ball. While the Commodores offense in his first season at the helm was lethargic, the defensive unit had some young playmakers who point toward better team results in the future.

    Bowden tops that list of promising players following a heck of a first college season. In 2014 the 6'1", 245-pound Bowden had 78 tackles as a redshirt freshman, teaming with fellow redshirt Zach Cunningham on the inside of Vandy's 3-4 alignment.


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    Quin Blanding, So., S

    When Virginia was able to land in-state prospects Blanding and Andrew Brown in its 2014 recruiting class it signaled a move in the right direction for a program that rarely managed to hold onto the Commonwealth's better players. It also meant the opportunity to make defense the Cavaliers' staple.

    While Brown took some time to come around on the defensive line, Blanding was an impact player from the opening kickoff. The 6'4", 215-pound true freshman loomed large in the secondary and led the Cavs with 123 tackles while grabbing three interceptions and breaking up six passes.

    Virginia ranked 29th in total defense last season, and Blanding will be key to it doing as well or better this fall.

Virginia Tech

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    Dadi Nicolas, Sr., DE

    Regardless of the overall results, if there's one place you can look to for consistency and strong play on Virginia Tech it's on the defensive line. Nicolas continued that tradition last season, and for his final year of college he figures to be among the best at his position in the ACC, if not the country.

    The 6'4", 231-pound Nicolas had 8.5 sacks and a team-best 18 tackles for loss, handling both pass-rushing and run-stopping duties with equal effectiveness. He was credited with a whopping 26 quarterback hurries in 2014 and also helped the Hokies hold nine of 13 opponents below 150 rushing yards.

    Tech has to replace five defensive starters, many of which were key to its pass defense last year. Nicolas' talents become even more critical as the Hokies break in new defenders.

Wake Forest

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    Ryan Janvion, Jr., S

    Dave Clawson didn't have much to work with when he took over Wake Forest last year, but one of the best holdovers was Janvion. As a sophomore, he did his best to keep the Demon Deacons in the game by registering a team-high 115 tackles along with seven tackles for loss and six pass breakups.

    The 5'11', 190-pound Janvion already has 210 career tackles. And as one of seven projected starters coming back this season he'll be guiding a group trying to improve on its No. 41 ranking in total defense.


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    John Ross, Jr., WR/CB/KR

    When a team finds a player with the skills and athleticism to take on multiple roles, there's no reason not to give it a shot. Washington had already had success with linebacker Shaq Thompson being used as a running back, and then it discovered Ross' ability to be more than just a speedy receiver and kick returner.

    Ross ended up starting the Huskies' final five games at cornerback, this after averaging 21.8 yards per reception during the first half of the season. Throughout the year, though, he remained the No. 1 option on kick returns, finishing with a 24.7 yards-per-return average and two touchdowns.

    Despite playing through a knee injury that required minor surgery in early January, Ross is expected to be in a similar multifaceted role in 2015.

    "I'm going to need to have a big offseason," Ross told Adam Jude of The Seattle Times. "I just have to work hard. You never know: I might wake up one morning and say, 'I want to be a DB. Or I want to be a receiver.' So you never know. I'm going to work very hard to get bigger, faster, stronger and watch more film."

Washington State

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    Luke Falk, So., QB

    Passing will always be a major part of any offense that Mike Leach is calling, and this hasn't changed since going from Texas Tech to Washington State. The quarterback remains the most important piece of the puzzle, and even when a record-breaker like Connor Halliday went down in November there was little change in this approach.

    Falk had two career pass attempts—completing both for 86 yards and a touchdown—before being pressed into service on Nov. 1 when Halliday was lost for the year with a broken leg. All the 6'4", 208-pound redshirt freshman did was throw for 346 yards and two touchdowns that game—then had 1,427 yards and 10 TDs over the Cougars' final three contests.

    As a quarterback who was specifically recruited by Leach unlike Halliday, who had been brought in by the previous coaching staff, Falk is the future of WSU football.

West Virginia

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    Josh Lambert, Jr., K

    When in doubt, send out the kicker.

    For as much as West Virginia's offense was praised last season, it often stalled when it got close to or into the red zone. The Mountaineers were 12th in yardage but tied for 36th in scoring in 2014. And the latter ranking would have been far lower had Lambert not been as effective as he was.

    Though he missed nine times, the 5'11", 215-pound Lambert made an FBS-leading 30 field goals that included several big ones in the clutch. He kicked long game-winners to beat Maryland and Texas Tech and had six games with at least three makes.

    With West Virginia replacing several key contributors on offense, some early struggles in the red zone are likely early on in 2015. When that happens, it knows Lambert can be called on to make the kick most of the time.


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    Corey Clement, Jr., RB

    The double whammy of losing a 2,500-yard running back and a head coach in a short timespan could have sent Wisconsin's program into a tailspin. But the hiring of former offensive coordinator Paul Chryst to take over the Badgers addressed one of the those issues, while Clement is being tasked with handling the other area.

    Clement has already shown he can run effectively, serving as Melvin Gordon's backup the past two seasons. During that time the 5'11", 217-pound Clement gained 1,496 yards and scored 14 touchdowns, nearly hitting 1,000 yards alone in 2014.

    "I've had these years to develop into a true leader and I'm more than happy to be a leader for this team the next two years," Clement told Kyle Phillippi for NJ Advance Media.

    Clement will be running behind a rebuilt offensive line, so he's not expected to match the massive numbers that Gordon put up the past two seasons. Still, he'll be among the most productive in the Big Ten.

    All statistics courtesy of CFBStats.com. Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.