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Superlatives: The best breakout players of 2011

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

The best (and worst) of the season. Today: Freshmen, transfers and other newcomers who made the best of their first shot at the field.

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10. OL Hroniss Grasu, Oregon.
Grasu took over line calls from departing center Jordan Holmes, and pulled it off without hitch — even with a mostly rebuilt front, the Ducks wound up at or near their 2010 yields in every major category, and led the Pac-12 in rushing, total and scoring offense for the fifth year in a row. And you tell me: How is it possible for an offense to dominate a conference with zero all-conference linemen?

9. P Brad Wing, LSU.
Endearingly cocky Australian earned more attention for his stellar swagger than his leg, but his leg was invaluable: LSU led the SEC in net punting and led the nation in return yards allowed, consistently staying ahead of the field position battle thanks to Wing's knack for dropping un-returnable punts inside the 20-yard line.

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And when the Tigers needed a big boot, he could do that, too: Under the circumstances, the 73-yard rocket Wing launched out of his own end zone in the fourth quarter of LSU's eventual win at Alabama is the kick of the year. And he's more than willing to let you know it.

8. WR/KR Tyler Lockett, Kansas State.
Lockett's initial instinct was to take a redshirt year to ensure his own survival — he was generously listed at 160 pounds out of high school — and for a while that looked pretty smart: He touched the ball 10 times in the Wildcats' first five games, for a grand total of 82 yards. Once they let him start returning kicks in mid-October, though, the light went on: Lockett took a kickoff back for a touchdown against Texas Tech, took another one back against Kansas a week later, rang up 315 all-purpose yards in a near-upset at Oklahoma State and finished with the best kickoff return average in the country.

He'd rank a lot higher, in fact, if he hadn't suffered a lacerated kidney in the process that kept him out of the last three games. But it didn't stop him from landing on a couple of All-America teams in an "all-purpose" capacity, or from taking a giant step out of the family shadow.

7. LB Dion Bailey, USC.
Bailey showed up last winter listed as a safety, and still looks like a safety at 200 pounds on a 6-foot-nothing frame. He immediately took to linebacker, though, instinctively navigating his way through the bodies to lead the Trojans in tackles, a distinction he should probably get used to for the next three years.{YSP:MORE}

6. DE Scott Crichton, Oregon State.
Crichton is arguably the most obscure name here, but given the disaster that was Oregon State's season, he may have also been the Beavers' only real bright spot: As a true freshman, he started every game, ranked second in the Pac-12 in tackles for loss (14.5) and third nationally in forced fumbles (six). Now, if he can only help OSU climb out of the conference cellar against the run.

5. DT Jesse Williams, Alabama.
The nature of his position means Williams doesn't show up much in the box score, but he stands out in almost every other way: He's 6-foot-4 and 320 pounds, he's tattooed to the hilt and he speaks with an Australian accent. (It was a big year for Aussies in the SEC.) He's also the only junior college transfer on the list.

But his impact on Alabama's defense is obvious enough: With Williams starting every game in the middle of the line, the Crimson Tide easily led the nation against the run, led the nation in total defense and allowed fewer points than any Division I outfit in more than a decade. That doesn't happen without an immoveable object in the middle, and Alabama's is about as unmovable — and underrated, if that's possible — as anyone in college football.

4. DE Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina.
Clowney's first season had no chance to match his outrageous recruiting hype, which would have required a debut so dominant it forced the NFL to grant a waiver to its age restriction just to keep poor college quarterbacks out of the hospital. In reality, Clowney is still listed as a backup behind senior All-American Melvin Ingram, and spent most of the season biding his time as a bit player on one of the most dominant defenses — and dominant defensive lines, specifically — in the country.

But even the glare of outsized expectations couldn't obscure Clowney's role in that dominance, via 10 tackles for loss, six sacks and five forced fumbles, two of which set up Ingram for the touchdowns that helped make him an All-American (see above). Given his potential, Clowney's Freshman of the Year nod from SEC coaches is a grudging acknowledgement of years of nightmares to come.

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3. WR Marqise Lee, USC.
There's no end to the list of first-rate receivers in the Pac-12, a roll call that begins with Lee's prolific teammate, Robert Woods. By the end of the year, though, Lee was practically in a dead heat with Woods as Matt Barkley's favorite target, distancing himself from a blue-chip pack with 39 catches for 609 yards and six touchdowns in the month of November alone. For the season, Lee had 15 grabs covering at least 25 yards, making him the more lethal half of the most lethal receiving tandem in the country.

2. RB/WR/KR De'Anthony Thomas, Oregon.
"Black Mamba" was no secret — Trojan fans are still a little bent out of shape over his mysterious defection from USC at the last minute — but it was impossible to imagine just how quickly Thomas would entrench himself in Chip Kelly's offense, or how eclectically: At the end of the year, Mamba leads the Ducks in receiving, leads the Pac-12 in kickoff returns and has well over 400 yards rushing from his nominal position in the backfield.

He's got an obvious place on the All-Pac-12 roster, too, courtesy of league coaches who made him the only freshman voted to the first team.

1. WR/KR Sammy Watkins, Clemson.
If you somehow missed Watkins' emergence from coveted blue-chip to master of all he surveys, well, that's on you. Including rushing and return yards, Watkins racked up at least 150 all-purpose yards in nine different games, including 199-yard and 175-yard outbursts against Auburn and Florida State, respectively, that made him an instant star in September.

His 345-yard, three-touchdown masterpiece against Maryland briefly saved the Tigers' perfect season in mid-October, and his 53-yard touchdown catch in the ACC Championship Game sparked a second-half rout that put Clemson in its first BCS bowl. He had 16 plays covering at least 30 yards, seven plays covering at least 50 and at least one 20-yard catch in every game — 10 of which wound up in the end zone.

In other words: The kid's a star, and the rest of the ACC still has two more years to deal with him and sophomore quarterback Tajh Boyd.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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