50 top college football players

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These aren't necessarily the top pro prospects, and they might not even be among the most talented players, but they're going to be the most influential and most productive stars of the 2010 season. These will be the difference makers, the playmakers, and the award winners. In other words, these are the players everyone will care about.

More rankings: Players 26-50

25. QB Colin Kaepernick, Sr. Nevada

Kaepernick hasn’t led the team to many big wins and he hasn’t come through in the bowls, but he has been one of the nation’s top dual-threat playmakers with two straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons while completing 56% of his career throws for 7,076 yards with 61 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. When he’s on a roll, he’s unstoppable rushing for 240 yards and three touchdowns against UNLV a few years ago and ripping off 230 yards and four scores against Idaho while running for five 100-yard games on the year. Deadly on the move, he has rushed for 39 career scores averaging 6.8 yards per carry. How accurate was he last year? He threw just two interceptions over the final 11 games. A Vince Young type of quarterback, he’s 6-6 and 215 pounds with a slippery running style and a live arm with a major-league fastball. But for all the stats and for all the amazing things he has done over his phenomenal career, it’s all about coming up with the big wins in his final year.

24. QB Ryan Mallett, Jr. Arkansas

Mallett might not have gone No. 1 overall to St. Louis in the 2010 NFL Draft, but he would’ve been considered. At 6-7 and 238 pounds, he has tremendous size, a huge arm, and is a pure pro bomber who’s expected to take Arkansas to a whole other level. After starting out his career at Michigan, and getting a few starts as a true freshman completing 61-of-141 passes for 892 yards and seven scores, the hiring of Rich Rodriguez meant the end of Mallett’s time in Ann Arbor. A perfect fit for Bobby Petrino’s offense, he has all the throws in the bag and is a fiery leader who’s the unquestioned main man in the offense.

Ryan Mallett

Ryan Mallett

Al Messerschmidt

Expected to shine right away after getting a year off after transferring, he blew up from the start highlighted by a 409-yard, five touchdown day in the loss to Georgia and continued to roll from there. He finished the season as the SEC’s best passer completing 56% of his throws for 3,624 yards and 30 touchdowns with seven interceptions, and while he had his problems against the teams with the better pass rushes, he managed to fight back from adversity to make big plays. He might have completed 12-of-27 passes against Florida, but he had the Hogs in the game up until the end. However, consistency will be a key and he needs to be far better against the top teams. Against Alabama, Florida, Ole Miss, LSU, and in the bowl against East Carolina, he completed 68-of-171 of his throws (just 39.7%) and with five touchdown passes while never throwing for more than 254 yards.

23. CB Patrick Peterson, Jr. LSU

Peterson would probably be starting for most NFL teams this year and will almost certainly be one of the top three defensive backs picks in next year’s draft (if he chooses to leave early) and he could be a top ten overall selection. All the skills are there with 6-1, 211-pound size and terrific coverage skills. While he might be not be a blazer, he has sub-4.5 wheels and fluidly cuts like a much smaller player, and he can hit like a safety. 43 of his 52 tackles last year were made in the open field, and he led the way with 13 broken up passes to go along with two picks. While he earned second-team All-SEC honors last year, he should be on everyone’s All-America list coming into this season.

22. CB Ras-I Dowling, Sr., Virginia

While there are key departures, such as CB Chris Cook, the Cavaliers return the core of a defensive backfield that was among the ACC’s best in 2009. Leading the way for one final year will be the 6-2, 205-pound Dowling , a next-level cornerback and two-time all-league selection. He possesses a tremendous combination of size, closing speed, and natural instincts, shutting down passing lanes and stepping up in run defense. Voted the team’s most improved player a year ago, he had 58 tackles, two tackles for loss, three picks, and eight pass breakups.

21. QB Kellen Moore, Jr. Boise State

It’s time to start including Moore in the discussion among the best players in America. Everyone wants to talk about Boise State being a buster in the BCS and possibly the national championship, but Moore could also be a bit of a trailblazer (at least since Ty Detmer won 20 years ago) and bring the Heisman to a non-BCS team.

After setting the NCAA record for completion percentage by a freshman (69.4%), the lefty was even more magnificent last year completing 69.3% of his throws for 3,536 yards. After throwing ten picks in 2008, he threw just three last season along with 39 touchdowns (to 25 in 2008). But his great year was more than just about stats; he always seemed to generate the foot-on-the-throat drive to put teams away and came up with the scores needed to prevent any legitimate threats. At 6-0 and 186 pounds he’s not big, has decent arm, and he’s not all that mobile, but he’s accurate and he knows how to get things moving. The Washington high school record holder for touchdown passes (173) is ultra-efficient, mistake-free, and as cool as they come. A 26-1 career record isn’t bad, either.

20. LB Luke Kuechly, Soph., Boston College

The coaching staff tried to temper the enthusiasm about Kuechly's great first year, but he finished first in the ACC and second in the nation in tackles with 158 stops, and he even took an interception for a score against Central Michigan. Steady, he came up with double-digit stops in each of the last nine games including a 19-tackle performance against North Carolina. Great in the open field, he doesn't miss a stop.

19. C Mike Pouncey, Sr. Florida

Pouncey looks like his brother both on and off the field, Pittsburgh Steeler and first round draft pick, Maurkice, but he’s not quite the same talent. That’s not a slap; he’s still really, really good and could end up earning All-America honors moving from guard to center. The 6-4, 310-pounder is a pounding blocker who blasts away for the ground game and he’s among the SEC’s most physical blockers. He’s still not a finished product in the middle in place of his brother, and he has to be more consistent with his shotgun snaps, but he’ll be more than fine and should be on the short list of Rimington Award candidates if he stays at center. There’s a chance he could move back to his right guard spot where he helped protect Tim Tebow’s blind side (and moved to the left side when Tebow got hurt and the right handed John Brantley was in), and he’s talented enough to play tackle if desperately needed.

18. OLB/DE Justin Houston, Jr. Georgia

In the new defensive scheme, the former defensive end will be turned loose as an outside linebacker. One of the SEC’s premier pass rushers, the 6-3, 259-pound junior made 7.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss along with 39 tackles in a full-time role after missing the first few games of last season due to a suspension for violating the team’s drug policy. He’s going to have to do more against the run now that he’s playing with his hand off the ground, but he’ll also get a head start and more space to move to fly into the backfield on every play.

Travis Lewis

Travis Lewis

Otto Greule Jr

17. LB Travis Lewis, Sr. Oklahoma

Lewis has been a tackling machine and has emerged as the next great Oklahoma linebacker. He followed up a tremendous 144-tackle 2008 by leading the team with 109 stops, a sack, and 9.5 tackles for loss in his second straight All-Big 12 season. At 6-2 and 232 pounds he has good size and tremendous sideline to sideline range from his weakside spot, and while he could stand to do a bit more against the pass, he has few problems staying with receivers. A tremendous high school running back, he has been timed at 4.34 in the 40 and has phenomenal weight room strength. Able to play any position in the linebacking corps, he'll produce no matter where he lines up.

16. WR A.J. Green, Jr. Georgia

If Alabama’s Julio Jones isn’t the top NFL receiver prospect in college football, it’s Green, who has been the more consistent of the two stars but without as much fanfare. Despite being the target of every secondary after a breakout 56-catch season, he still made 53 grabs for 808 yards and six touchdowns despite missing three games. At 6-4 and 207 pounds with around 4.5 speed (although he has been reportedly clocked faster), he has the right blend of talents to go along with the smarts and the makeup to revolve a pro passing attack around. If someone can get him the ball on a regular basis, he’ll carry the offense at times and he has the talent and ability to force safeties to rotate over to him on every play.

15. DE Greg Romeus, Sr. Pitt

The program caught a huge break back in January, when Romeus opted to return for his senior year rather than turn pro. One of the game’s best pass rushers, he’s been All-Big East the last two seasons, making 43 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, and a career-high eight sacks in 2009. An unheralded 220-pounder coming out of high school, he’s now a 6-6, 270-pound force off the edge, with the long arms to obstruct the quarterback’s vision.

14. WR/PR Ryan Broyles, Jr. Oklahoma

The Sooners needed a No. 1 target to emerge from the pack going into last year, and they really needed a player to settle things down once Sam Bradford went down and with Jermaine Gresham out. Broyles stepped up his game and became terrific with a team-leading 89 catches for 1,120 yards and 15 touchdowns for the offense, while averaging a tremendous 15.87 yards per punt return. A steady speedster, he was dominant at times with three, three-touchdown games including a 13-catch, 156-yard, three touchdown effort against Stanford in the Sun Bowl. The problem is his size at a wispy 5-11 and 178 pounds, and he could have problems staying healthy. He was knocked out of the Miami game and missed the Baylor game the week after, but he’s tough, fast, and has a knack for always coming up with the key catch. Along with possibly being the nation’s top receiver, Broyles is one of the nation’s elite returners averaging 15.9 yards per punt return and 20.2 yards on his four kickoff returns.

13. QB Case Keenum, Sr. Houston

After three prolific seasons as the rifleman for the high-powered Cougar offense, the 6-2, 210-pound Keenum is one healthy year away from smashing all kinds of NCAA passing marks. A reigning All-American, who joined Texas Tech’s Graham Harrell as the only players to have multiple 5,000-yard seasons, he completed 492-of-700 passes for 5,671 yards, 44 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions. An ideal fit for this Houston attack, he has a quick trigger, excellent feet, and a great feel for the pocket and the system. He did, however, finish the year by throwing nine interceptions in back-to-back losses to East Carolina and Air Force, which could linger in the minds of some national award voters.

Marvin Austin

Marvin Austin

Streeter Lecka

12. DT Marvin Austin, Sr., North Carolina

Austin is to the interior what Quinn is to the ends, a returning all-star and a lineman who requires more than one blocker. A potential first round pick had he opted for the NFL in 2010, he combines an explosive first step with the upper body strength to shove linemen into reverse. Another All-ACC first teamer a year ago, his 42 tackles, six tackles for loss, and four sacks don’t even begin to shed light on his disruptive nature.

11. LG Rodney Hudson, Sr., Florida State

In 2008, the Seminoles had one of the nation’s youngest offensive lines. In 2010, they’ll boast a front wall that returns five starters, who have combined for 142 career starts. The leading man will once again be the 6-2, 282-pound Hudson, the star at left guard. A fourth-year starter, he’s been All-ACC over the last three seasons, earning the league’s Jacobs Blocking Award and a spot on the All-American team in 2009. Versatile, athletic, and technically flawless, he doesn’t make mistakes and graded out at a pristine 88% a year ago.

10. DE Von Miller, Sr. Texas A&M

Yeah, Miller led the nation in sacks with 17 and was fifth in tackles for loss with 21.5, to go along with 48 tackles with four forced fumbles and five broken up passes, but the All-America mostly lit up the weak and the sad while being kept under wraps by the teams with a pulse. He was shut out against Oklahoma and didn’t get a sack against Oklahoma State, but he came up with two sacks against Texas Tech and one against Texas. Teams started to scheme against him and then the sack production tailed off with the sack against the Longhorns the lone tally over the final four games of the year. But for the first nine he was a holy terror, and he should flourish even more in the hybrid Joker position which allows the 6-3, 240-pounder to work partly as a pass rushing defensive end and partly as an outside linebacker. He was used in the same sort of role last year, but now he really will be more of a 3-4 linebacker and he should be able to do even more in space. With improved size to go along with his speed and closing ability, he’ll get a long look from the next level types as a possible first rounder.

9. QB Terrelle Pryor, Jr. Ohio State

Now the expectations go from hoping he’ll take another step forward to hoping he can win a Heisman while leading Ohio State to the national title. Pryor hasn’t been the be-all-end-all transcendent player that many thought he’d be right away after being everyone’s No. 1, can’t-miss recruit in the 2008 class, but he has been good enough to be the starting quarterback on two BCS bowl teams and the reason why the team won the 2010 Rose Bowl. At 6-6 and 233 pounds he’s big, really big, and tough to bring down with just one defender. Extremely fast and elusive for a player of his size, he ran for 779 yards and seven touchdowns last year with 74 yards against Michigan and 72 against Oregon in the Rose Bowl despite playing on a banged up knee. While he might never be Peyton Manning as a passer, he’s improving enough to be accurate and effective on midrange throws while making defenses worry a bit more on the deep balls. At his best when on the move, he’s great making plays out of the pocket while being able to make something out of nothing when the play breaks down.

He appears to be working his way up in the logical progression of a great college quarterback’s career having relied on his raw skills as a freshman and expanding his passing abilities last year, completing 57% of his throws for 2,094 yards and 18 touchdowns with 11 interceptions. He completed 61% of his passes for 1,311 yards with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions as a freshman, but he wasn’t allowed to do anything that wasn’t ultra-safe. After a year and a half of starting experience, he’s more in command of the offense now, appears to be quicker with his decision making, and he’s ready to open up the attack more to unleash his tremendous arm on more downfield throws. Work-level isn’t an issue; he has had problems with a sore arm from overuse working on throw after throw. Toughness isn’t an issue; he played hurt at the end of last year and underwent minor knee surgery to clean everything up. This is his team and his season for the taking, and for all the hype and all the promise, he appears ready to be the player everyone has been waiting for. The pressure has gone up ten-fold on his career and the success of the team rest squarely on his shoulders.

8. RB Ryan Williams, Soph., Virginia Tech

With Darren Evans out for the 2009 season, the ground game failed to skip a beat with Williams running 293 times for 1,655 yards and 21 touchdowns. He also caught 16 passes for 180 yards and a score in an epic debut. A solid 5-10, 211-pounder, he wastes no movement getting to the hole and has the wiggle and game-breaking speed to cripple defenses in the open field.

7. RB Dion Lewis, Soph. Pitt

There’s no way Pitt was going to adequately replace LeSean McCoy in such short notice. Yeah, right. Good luck convincing Lewis, who authored one of the great true freshman seasons ever for a back. Almost completely bypassed out of high school because of his 5-8, 195-pound frame, he erupted for 1,799 yards and 17 touchdowns on 325 carries. He added 25 catches for 189 yards and another score in an unexpected national coming-out party. Forget the size thing. He runs much tougher than expected, and has the vision and cutback ability to pick up yards even when it appears there’s nothing there.

Jacquizz Rodgers

Jacquizz Rodgers

Steve Dykes

6. RB Jacquizz Rodgers, Jr. Oregon State

Go ahead and include the 5-7, 191-pound Rodgers on the short list for just about any individual award this season; he is that special. Healthy for an entire season, he displayed his full arsenal of skills rushing 273 times for 1,440 yards and 21 touchdowns , and catching 78 passes for 522 yards and another score. He also threw a touchdown pass on his only attempt. A confluence of shiftiness and unexpected power in that compact frame, he won’t dance around and is always moving forward for more yards. Destined to be one of the best to ever play in Corvallis, injuries about the only thing capable of slowing him down this season.

5. DE Adrian Clayborn, Sr. Iowa

For some reason, Clayborn is still playing college football. The 6-4, 285-pounder would’ve likely been a first round draft pick this year and is being listed among the top three seniors for the 2011 NFL Draft. With a tremendous combination of size, quickness, and pass rushing ability, he came up with 70 tackles, 11.5 sacks, and 20 tackles for loss highlighted on a national scale by a dominant performance against Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl with nine solo stops and two sacks. The first-team All-Big Ten star had some issues this offseason with an issue involving a cab driver, but everything has been cleared up and he should be one of the league’s dominant figures. He’s a 4-3 end in college but can be a 3-4 at the next level.

4. DE Robert Quinn, Jr., North Carolina

Losing two starters on the defensive line might unnerve most programs, but not North Carolina, which has recruited the position exceedingly well. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to have All-America candidates on the outside and inside. Quinn had his coming-out party last fall, making 52 tackles, a league-best 19 tackles for loss, 11 sacks, and six forced fumbles en route to a spot on the All-ACC first team. Unusually quick at 6-5 and 270 pounds, it’ll be a shock if he isn’t on someone’s NFL roster at this time next year.

3. RB John Clay, Jr. Wisconsin

As the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year, Clay is on the list of legitimate Heisman candidates after running for 1,517 yards and 18 touchdowns hitting the 100-yard mark in each of the final six games including 121 yards against Miami in the bowl game and 151 against Michigan. Not just a big bruiser, he can fly when he gets into the open field with the speed to be a part of 4x100 in the Wisconsin state high school finals two years in a row. While he’s not used as a receiver, he has the hands to have a few screens and delays come his way. The key will be staying healthy after undergoing surgery on both ankles this offseason.

He might have been able to get through the year without missing a game, he was banged up late and took his share of big shots. It’s salary drive time as he has the talent and potential to be a first rounder with another big season, but he has to prove he can play through everything and he has to show he can be the main man against the top-shelf defenses. He might have been fine against Miami, but he ran 41 times for 144 yards in the losses to Ohio State and Iowa. Over the last two seasons, Wisconsin is 9-2 when the 6-1, 248 pounder gets 100 yards or more.

2. RB Mark Ingram, Jr. Alabama

Ingram was great as a true freshman, thumping away for 728 yards and a team-leading 12 touchdowns, but no one saw what was coming next. With a special combination of speed, shiftiness, and power, the 5-10, 215-pounder cranked out 1,658 yards and 17 touchdowns, along with 32 catches (finishing second on the team in receptions) for 334 yards and three scores, on the way to becoming Alabama’s first Heisman trophy winner.

Mark Ingram

Mark Ingram

Kevin C. Cox

Others ran for more yards and others came up with more impressive stats, but Ingram’s worth was his ability to come up big in the biggest of games and the tightest of moments. For a team that relied on good defense, solid special teams, and a bruising running game, he was the sparkplug who made everything else go with 150 yards and a score against Virginia Tech, 246 yards and a score against South Carolina, 155 yards against LSU, and a Heisman-clinching 113-yard, three touchdown, two-catch, 76-receiving-yard SEC Championship against Florida. If there was any doubt about whether or not he was worthy, he came through big against the tremendous Texas run defense tearing off 116 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries.

1. LB Greg Jones, Sr. Michigan State

Jones was the best linebacker in college football last year. While Alabama’s Rolando McClain won the Butkus as the leader of a national title-level defense, no one did more for their team than Jones, who led the team (and finished third in the nation) with 154 tackles, nine sacks, and 14 tackles for loss after making 127 tackles with two sacks and 14 tackles for loss in 2008. Not just explosive, he’s as steady as they come and is terrific against spread attacks of all types making 15 stops in the loss to Central Michigan and 13 against Texas Tech. He came up with ten stops or more in nine games and spread his sacks throughout the season.

He doesn’t do too much against the pass, mostly because that’s not really his role, but he’s active enough to work on the outside if needed with just enough raw speed and quickness to handle backs on short to midrange routes. While he’s as tough as they come and he’s a peerless tackler, the knock on him at the next level is his lack of size. At a generously listed 6-1 and 235 pounds, he’s a bit small to be the centerpiece of an NFL defense, and he doesn’t have the raw wheels to be a killer of a pro 3-4 outside linebacker. Even so, he’ll likely be someone’s early second round pick who makes tackle after tackle as a do-it-all playmaker.

More rankings: Players 26-50

Tagged: Florida State, Virginia, North Carolina, Boston College, Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech, Iowa, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, North Texas, Boise State, Oregon State, Florida, Alabama, LSU, Arkansas, Georgia, Nevada, Navy, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, East Carolina, Houston, Memphis, Air Force, Robert Quinn, Ryan Williams, Greg Romeus, Kellen Moore, John Clay, Ryan Mallett, Ryan Broyles, Travis Lewis, Justin Houston, Greg Jones, Mark Ingram, Julio Jones, Ryan Williams

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