Vince Young was supposedly the be-all-end-all college quarterback, and then Tim Tebow came along.
And then Cam Newton was better.
The college football world was still buzzing about Ndamukong Suh’s 2009 season, and then Nick Fairley came up with his dominant year. Michael Crabtree was the standard bearer for high-octane receivers, and then Justin Blackmon blew up the Big 12 world.
Remember, Cam Newton wasn’t Cam Newton until about midway through last season, and then he finished with the greatest year of any quarterback in college football history. Fairley was great early on, but he came from out of nowhere after a non-descript 2009 season. Blackmon was supposed to be good, but almost no one thought he was going to come up with an epic campaign.
It’s not fair and it’s not right to hold anyone up to the lofty standards set by Newton, Fairley, and Blackmon, but who is in position to possibly be the next big thing? Who could be the new superstars to come from completely out of the blue? These aren’t necessarily the guys who’ll take a big step forward; these are the players the average fan doesn’t know much, if anything, about and could end up becoming legendary if everything breaks the right way.
10. Florida QB Jeff Driskel and/or Texas QB Case McCoy
Fine, so these two belong in this article next year, but both young quarterbacks are going to be superstars before their careers are over and the fans of the respective programs are going to be screaming to see the top prospects if the offenses start to struggle. They’re on powerhouse teams that have championship aspirations, and they’re both battling with next-level passing prospects who were completely screwed up by their respective coaching staffs. It’ll take something special for Florida’s John Brantley and Texas’ Garrett Gilbert to not be the starters on Day 1, but the backups aren’t making it easy.
Gilbert’s struggles last year and this offseason opened the door for Case McCoy, who’d have the pressure of dealing with the impossible task of trying to step into the legacy of his brother, Colt, but the Longhorns passing game is a mess. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound sophomore is a good athlete, extremely smart, and has good mobility to go along with a live, active arm. No, he’s not Colt, but he has the same sort of moxie and fight to his game; he’s a baller who looked just good enough at times this offseason to get the job.
While McCoy is deep in the hunt for the starting job, with Brantley far more entrenched than Gilbert is at Texas, Driskel is fighting with Tyler Murphy at the moment for the backup job. However, he’s being given his chances and he looks the part.
It’s always hard to follow a legend, like Brantley had to do going into last year, but it’s not a bad thing to be the guy after the guy who follows a legend. Driskel is a true freshman and is the perfect fit for the new offense with 6-4, 238-pound size, a tremendous arm and just enough mobility to not be a stick in the mud. He’s a bomber with the touch to connect on the short to mid-range throws with accuracy, and the gun to push it deep and stretch the field. Considered the top quarterback recruit in the nation by many, he could’ve gone anywhere and now has to deal with through-the-roof hype. It’s a stretch to say that the expectations are at a Tebow-like level when No. 15 entered the program, but they’re not far off. He’s that good.
9. Clemson QB Tajh Boyd
The Kyle Parker experiment is over. The Tajh Boyd era is about to get off the ground. Parker flamed out in his second year as the starting quarterback, wisely realizing that his time would be better served on the baseball diamond. There’s no telling if he would have been beaten out Boyd this fall anyway. The Tigers’ big catch of 2009, Boyd’s been itching at the opportunity to let loose and lead the offense, and now it’s his time to shine. The 6-1, 230-pound sophomore with the powerful right arm made seven appearances last year, hitting 33-of-63 for 329 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions. A gifted all-around athlete, he needs to evolve as a passer, honing his mechanics, footwork and reads. While the expectations are high this year, his breakout season could end up coming next year after a bit more seasoning.
8. Colorado State QB Pete Thomas
After a battle for the starting job, Thomas , a true freshman at the time, was the choice, and he showed why early on with a 305-yard day against Miami University and a 386-yard, three score performance in the win over Idaho. At 6-5 and 219 pounds, he has prototype size, a terrific arm, and the pro-style passing skills that could quickly make him a hot NFL prospect with a little more time and seasoning. He completed 65 percent of his throws for 2,662 yards and 11 touchdowns, but he threw 13 interceptions. Youth and inexperience were a problem, but Thomas didn’t get any help behind a porous offensive front and his receiving corps was mediocre. He’s the franchise now, and everything is going to be geared around tapping in to his immense talent. Making matters better for his stats is a defense that’ll give up yards and points in bunches; Thomas will have to bomb away to keep up.
No, no Auburn quarterback will ever be Newton, but offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn gets big production out of anyone who’s under center. Junior Barrett Trotter is the likely starter, and it’s not like he’s coming out of left field. The sleeper in the race for the starting job two years ago, he suffered a torn ACL and wasn’t quite the same in last year’s fight for the job. The 6-2, 206-pounder fought tooth and nail for the No. 1 spot last spring, before it became obvious shortly after the end of spring practice that Newton had something special. Does that mean that Trotter can come close to matching Newton’s numbers? Not a chance, but the coaching staff has confidence in him. His strength is throwing the timing routes, which fits well with Malzahn’s ideal scheme, but he also showed some nice touch on deep balls toward the end of an inconsistent spring practice.
Clint Moseley doesn’t have as much game experience as Trotter, but the 6-3, 223 pound former Alabama Mr. Football has a cannon arm and he’s coming up with a big push for the starting gig. With a much stronger arm than Trotter, he was ahead in the quarterback race shortly before Auburn’s spring game. If he can master the timing routes that Malzahn loves so much, he could be the guy.
The eventual star of the show is true freshman quarterback Kiehl Frazier, a 6-3, 210 pound dual-threat playmaker from Springdale, Ark., who was the No. 4 QB recruit in the country last year according to Scout.com. Malzhan is a master at adjusting his playbook to the talents of his personnel, and if he wants to continue to utilize the run/pass system that he made Newton such a star, Frazier may turn out to be the best option.
6. Missouri DT Sheldon Richardson
The question was whether Sheldon Richardson could qualify academically or not, and now he’ll be one of the team’s top defensive tackles coming into the fall on a team loaded with phenomenal defensive tackles. The 6-4, 270-pound four-star JUCO transfer has tremendous size and the quickness to work on the end. He could’ve gone anywhere with NFL talent and ability to anchor anyone’s line, but Mizzou got him to go along with veteran nose tackle Dominique Hamilton and excellent end Brad Madison. Now he has to be ready after trying to become a Tiger for the last few years.
5. Minnesota QB Marqueis Gray
Yes, it’s finally time for MarQueis “O.J.” Gray to live up to his potential. One the nation’s top dual-threat spread quarterbacks coming out of high school, he has had a rough career and a rocky road to the starting quarterback spot. First he wasn’t eligible, then the offense changed from the spread and then he was moved to receiver for a stretch. The 6-4, 229-pound junior has tremendous athleticism, a live arm and the talent and ability to have been an Elite 11 Quarterback camper in high school. After missing his senior year with a broken arm, several schools soured on him, Minnesota kept calling, and now he’s the franchise. After finishing second on the team with 42 catches for 587 yards and five scores, and running for 110 yards and a score, it’s his quarterback job now. Northern Illinois QB Chandler Harnish put up huge numbers last year in Jerry Kill’s offense; now the more talented Gray should blow up.
4. Wisconsin LB Chris Borland
The 5-11, 244-pound cult hero came out of the blue to dominate as a true freshman, earning Big Ten Freshman on the Year honors making 54 tackles with five sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss and five forced fumbles. However, he suffered a bad shoulder injury and missed almost all of the 2010 season after making seven tackles and a sack in just over a game of work. A guided missile of a big hitter in the middle, he’s a playmaker all over the field and has All-America potential if he can stay healthy. Out this offseason resting up, he has to prove early on that he’s not rusty. The jury is still out, though, as he hasn’t been able to go full tilt in practices. It’s just a case of the coaching staff keeping the star healthy, and he’ll be unleashed in September when he should quickly become one of the nation’s top all-around linebackers.
3. Kansas State RB Bryce Brown and LB Arthur Brown
Sophomore running back Bryce Brown was considered by some to be the nation’s top recruit in the 2009 class. After a ton of drama and plenty of goofy posturing from the Brown camp – including talk about trying to turn pro early and going to the CFL – he ended up at Tennessee and ran for 460 yards in his first year. Lane Kiffin took off, and so did Brown, who moved to Kansas State when his brother, great-looking linebacker Arthur Brown, decided to transfer. Now it’s time to see what he can do. The 6-0, 220-pounder has the talent and the skill to be one of the nation’s best backs, but he needs his attitude to be right, he has to bust his tail, and he has to use his speed and power to be a dangerous workhorse.
The hope for an instant improvement on the defense comes with Arthur Brown, a Wichita native and Bryce’s brother, who started out his career at Miami, making 15 tackles in two seasons before transferring back close to home. The 6-1, 223-pounder isn’t huge for the middle job, but he’s fast, fast, fast. All over the place this off-season, he was the star of the early practices making 14 stops in the spring game and taking on the leadership role for the front seven; at least he did on the field. A quiet player, he’s not going to do a bunch of woofing and hollering, but he should be able to get the job done and be one of the team’s leading tacklers.
2. West Virginia QB Geno Smith
While Smith isn’t exactly coming from out of left field, he qualifies as a relatively unknown player on a national scale who could go absolutely ballistic as Dana Holgorsen’s quarterback. Smith was a revelation in his first year on the job, far exceeding all expectations, and now he’ll get to wing it all over the yard and he should put up special numbers. A top recruit who could have chosen a much brighter spotlight, he earned a spot on the All-Big East second team, completing 241 of 372 passes for 2,763 yards with 24 touchdowns and seven picks. A throw-first quarterback, he still added 217 rushing yards and a bunch of escapes to his opening stat line. Standing tall in the pocket, the 6-3, 214-pounder has tremendous poise, throws a catchable ball and has a great feel for the game. In an offense that really features the quarterback, he’s set to explode in 2011. Make a note of Sept. 24th vs. LSU. Like Cam Newton showed the world he was ready for the Heisman against the Tigers last year, Smith’s date against LSU could be his breakout moment.
1. Georgia DT John Jenkins, LB Jarvis Jones, and RB Isaiah Crowell
Georgia already has a nice base of players going into the 2011 season, but it needs an influx of talent to possibly challenge for the SEC title. Problem solved.
The quarterback is already in place in Aaron Murray, and now the Dawgs should have an anchor for the defensive front in Jenkins, a playmaking leader for the linebacking corps in Jones, and a balancer for the offense in Crowell. The expectations are through the roof for these three, and they could be the difference between a good year and a championship. No, you didn’t see Auburn coming last year, and you didn’t see Cam Newton and Nick Fairley doing what they did. Yes, it’s asking too much for Jenkins, Jarvis and Jones to provide the same sort of pop and for Georgia to be THAT team from SEC this year, but …
Jenkins is an NFL-ready defensive tackle who’ll hang out in Athens for a year or so. At 6-4 and 350 pounds, he’s a huge run-stuffer who was targeted by the Georgia staff to be the main man for the defensive front, and while Kwame Geathers might have been great this offseason, this could be Jenkins’ job as soon as he’s ready – and in shape. He needs to get his conditioning in place, but everything is there to be special.
The big key to the linebacking corps, and the defense, is Jones, a USC transfer who’s expected to be the big replacement for Houston as an all-around playmaker. The 6-3, 241-pound sophomore will work on the strongside after sitting out last year because of the transfer, but he’s ready to become a terror after seeing a little time for the Trojans two years ago, making 13 tackles with 1.5 tackles for loss. He was a big part of the rotation before hurting his neck and missing the second half of the 2009 season, but he’s fine now with the speed and range to be the team’s next linebacking star.
With several problems with the Georgia running backs, fortunately, there’s a tremendous upgrade of talent coming ready to shine, led by Isaiah Crowell, a 6-0, 210-pound true freshman who might be the most prepared running back coming to Georgia since Herschel Walker’s heyday in the early 1980s. Garrison Hearst, Musa Smith, Thomas Brown, Knowshon Moreno and Robert Edwards were impressive, but none of them exploded one season after high school. Still, Crowell plays a lot like Edwards, who had tremendous burst and could take it to the house on any run. Crowell might not start the first game of the season, and he got banged up in summer practices, but he’ll get heavy snaps and could be the starter by the time the season is over.