Back by semi-popular demand (my editor and a guy down the street said they liked it), we have the second annual Most Intriguing Series previewing the 2013 college football season. This week the series wraps up with the 25 most intriguing non-quarterbacks.
1. Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina DE. Unless something goes terribly awry, he will be the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL draft. But can he win a Heisman Trophy and lift the Gamecocks to an SEC title along the way? Popular mythology says a defensive player has no chance to win the Heisman, but one has finished in the top five of the voting three of the last four years (Manti Te'o last year, Tyrann Mathieu in 2011, Ndomakung Suh in '09). And none of them started the season with the hype Clowney has.
2. T.J. Yeldon, Alabama RB. The Crimson Tide is loaded at wide receiver and has a three-year starter at quarterback, but Yeldon figures to be the centerpiece of the offense. He got 15 or more carries in a game only four times last year – and went over 100 yards every time. Feed him 20-25 touches per game this season, and watch the guy who is a little like a young Adrian Peterson produce a Heisman finalist-type season, following in the footsteps of Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson.
3. Marqise Lee, USC WR/KR. The most gifted and pro-ready receiver in America has caught 191 passes and scored 31 touchdowns in two seasons as a collegian. His big-play ability makes finding the right quarterback a matter of highest urgency for the Trojans, who don't want to leave their Lamborghini wideout in the parking lot all fall. Lane Kiffin's employment status could depend on it.
4. De'Anthony Thomas, Oregon RB/WR/KR. At a place where speed is the coin of the realm, he's the rarest and most valuable coin. The ultimate Oregon weapon scored touchdowns last year running (11 of them), receiving (five), on a punt return (one) and a kickoff return (one). He's averaging 8.8 yards per carry in his college career, which is just silly. And more carries should be coming his way this year with Kenjon Barner gone to the NFL.
5. Louis Nix III, Notre Dame NT. Big man (357 pounds) with a big personality (@1irishchocolate is a quality Twitter follow) is a big reason why Manti Te'o got free run to make so many tackles – because Nix was occupying so many blockers up front. Bypassed the NFL draft in part as a gift to his mom, but it's also a huge gift to Brian Kelly and all Fighting Irish fans. Notre Dame defense should be tremendous again this year.
6. Shayne Skov, Stanford LB.
Emotional power source for a Cardinal defense that has been outstanding the past three seasons, and may be even better this time around. Skov is part eye black, part Mohawk and all intensity, and now he's back for a fifth year and hoping his surgically repaired knee is closer to 100 percent than what he played on last year. Even then, he recorded a team-high 81 tackles.
7. Todd Gurley, Georgia RB. It took the Bulldogs three games last year to fully implement the true freshman into the offense. But after splitting carries with two other backs, Gurley took over and quickly established himself as one of the best runners in the nation. And the bigger the game, the better he ran, hitting Florida for 118 yards, Alabama for 122 and Nebraska for 125. At 232 pounds, he can run through tackles, but also has the burst to record four runs last year of 44 yards or longer.
8. Michael Dyer, Louisville RB. Last time anyone paid close attention to him on the football field, he was winning MVP honors in the BCS championship game as an Auburn Tiger. It's been a humbling fall from grace since, being dismissed from two schools after gun and drug charges. Louisville stepped in this summer to offer Dyer a third chance, and he's eligible right away in a backfield where playing time is available. If he screws up, he will take a piece of Charlie Strong's reputation with him to the scrap heap. If he flies right and regains old form, the Cardinals have an even stronger chance at 12-0.
9. Sammy Watkins, Clemson WR/KR. He was a revelation as a freshman and regressed as a sophomore. A suspension cost him two games, an illness cost him two more, and suddenly Watkins had slipped well down the list of Clemson playmakers. Watkins reportedly has learned from all the mishaps of 2012 and is ready to return to 2011 form, and then some. If so, he will be one of the most exciting players in the country.
10. Taylor Lewan, Michigan OT. Arguably the most surprising college returnee from the potential draft class of 2013, the 6-foot-8, 315-pound Lewan came back to school to refashion his body. Lewan changed his diet and diversified his work in the weight room to reportedly shed five percent of his body fat. If he stays healthy, either Lewan or Jake Matthews of Texas A&M figures to be the first offensive lineman called in the '14 draft.
11. Loucheiz Purifoy, Florida CB/WR/KR.
He's the leading returning tackler from the Gators' excellent 2012 defense, but playing cornerback is only the start of Purifoy's potential responsibilities this fall. After getting reps at receiver at the end of last season, Purifoy is being test-driven as one answer to Florida's questions at that position this fall. He also figures to return more kicks, after averaging 24 yards per kickoff return in spot duty last year. Florida coaches say Purifoy can handle 100 snaps per game if need be.
12. Lache Seastrunk, Baylor RB. Was a 1,000-yard rusher last year without having a single 20-carry game. In fact, he had only 29 carries in the first seven games before finally getting the ball and showing why Oregon was willing to pay Will Lyles all that money for his "scouting service." Seastrunk says he is the fastest back in the country, and might also be the most confident. He has predicted he'll win the Heisman this year.
13. C.J. Mosley, Alabama LB. The Crimson Tide defense was ridiculous last year, and Mosley was its leading tackler by nearly double over runner-up Trey DePriest. He is wherever Nick Saban needs him to be on the field – in the backfield as a blitzer, dropping in coverage, knocking running backs to the ground. But he's also where Saban needs him off the field, taking over a leadership role on a unit with some holes to fill.
14. Anthony Barr, UCLA LB. His 13.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss in 2012 are impressive under any circumstance. Add in the fact they came in his first season playing defense in college and they're astounding numbers. Barr was an oversized running back his first two seasons at UCLA until new coach Jim Mora moved him to defense. The result could be a top-five draft pick come April if Barr continues the time-lapse progression he started last year.
15. Mario Edwards, Florida State DE. The nation's No. 1 recruit in the class of 2012 ate his way out of significant playing time as a true freshman, reporting to Tallahassee at nearly 320 pounds. Now weighing in at 279, Edwards appears ready to fulfill his huge potential. The Seminoles need him ready right now, after losing three high-impact defensive ends to the draft last year. If the 'Noles' defense is going to be anywhere near as good as last year's, Edwards will have to make a big impact.
16. Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame DE. Out of all the studs on the Fighting Irish defense last year, none pass the look test like Tuitt. Or maybe used to pass it. The 6-foot-6 Tuitt was a puffy 322 pounds during spring practice after offseason hernia surgery, and is reportedly still working some of the excess weight off during fall camp. Top-10 draft status may be riding on it for a guy armed with remarkable athleticism and explosion for his size – Tuitt returned a fumble 77 yards for a touchdown in the opener last year and had a team-high 12 sacks. If he regains optimum conditioning, he could put another dozen sacks on the board this season as well.
17. Venric Mark, Northwestern RB/KR.
If you like undersized (5-foot-8), under-recruited (none of the big-time programs in his home state of Texas offered a scholarship) guys with over-the-top versatility, you have to love Mark. He ran for 1,366 yards last year, caught 20 passes, returned two punts for touchdowns and was a dangerous kickoff returner as well. The Wildcats are sneaky contenders in the Big Ten this year largely because of everything Mark can do for them.
18. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington TE. Tight end is the vogue position in the NFL, and Seferian-Jenkins inherits the role as the top collegian at that spot. An offseason DUI and an August pinkie fracture and surgery don't help his preparation for the season, but he should be full-go by Pac-12 play at the latest. Has 110 catches and 13 touchdowns in his two years at Washington.
19. Anthony Johnson, LSU DT. The Tigers suffered massive defensive losses to the NFL, which means it's time for the No. 2 national recruit in 2011 to fully assert himself. To prepare for that role, Johnson has trimmed down to just less than 300 pounds and started speaking up in the locker room. He had seven tackles for loss and three sacks last year, and could double those numbers this time around if he isn't double-teamed all game, every game.
20. Mike Evans, Texas A&M WR. He's 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, a walking matchup problem – except he's rarely walking, more often jumping over or running past defenders. Evans meshed with fellow redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel and became the Aggies' leading receiver last year with 82 catches for 1,105 yards. He's the key part of a lavishly talented collection of skill players who complement Manziel.
21. Seantrel Henderson, Miami OT. Remember him? He was the No. 1 recruit in the nation in 2010 and ticketed for USC. When probation blew up the Trojans, Henderson called an audible and enrolled at Miami instead. The on-field play hasn't lived up to the pre-college hype, which is why Henderson is back for a senior year most never expected to see. But at 6-foot-8 and 336 pounds, the size and athletic talent is there, and if the mind is willing, he may have the kind of dominant season long expected of him.
22. Dri Archer, Kent State RB/KR.
Little guy at a little school who was the biggest of big-play threats in 2012. Listed at 5-8 (doubtful), Archer averaged a ridiculous 8.99 yards per carry, easily the best in the nation, and scored 16 rushing touchdowns. He also caught 39 passes, four for touchdowns. He returned three kickoffs for touchdowns. And he threw a touchdown pass. See how he does against the big-boy defenses of LSU and Penn State Sept. 21 and 28.
23. Charles Sims, West Virginia RB. Which player is the biggest instant-impact recruit of 2013? Probably Sims, who transfers in from Houston and has immediate eligibility. He can run (1,672 career yards and 20 touchdowns for the Cougars) and catch (948 yards and seven TDs), which makes him an immediate fit in Dana Holgorsen's spread offense. If he and fellow instant-eligible transfer Clint Trickett both have big seasons, the Mountaineers may be better than most people expect.
24. Ryan Shazier, Ohio State LB. Just four starters return on the Buckeyes' defense, and one of them – star cornerback Bradley Roby – is suspended for the season opener. Which means linebacker Shazier will probably have to be even better than he was last year, when he made a team-high 115 tackles and was second in the Big Ten in tackles per game. Shazier can also cover, breaking up 11 passes and intercepting one. He's just a junior, but expect to see him shaking Roger Goodell's hand next April as a first-round pick.
25. Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri WR. The biggest recruit of the Gary Pinkel Era and one of the biggest in school history took a while to get up to SEC speed. Green-Beckham had just seven catches in the first seven games of last season, then finally became a factor down the stretch with 21 catches and four touchdowns in the final five games. If the Tigers are going to be markedly better after their first losing season since 2004, quarterback James Franklin needs to find Green-Beckham with regularity.
Just missed the list: James White, Wisconsin; Will Sutton, Arizona State DT; Max Bullough, Michigan State LB; Amari Cooper, Alabama WR; David Yankey, Stanford OG; Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State CB; Kyle Van Noy, BYU LB; Mike Davis, Texas WR; Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama OT; Aaron Lynch, South Florida DE; DeVante Parker, Louisville WR; Stefon Diggs, Maryland WR/KR; Duke Johnson, Miami RB/KR; Demarcus Lawrence, Boise State DE; Chandler Catanzaro, Clemson K; Cameron Johnston, Ohio State P; Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska RB; Antonio Andrews, Western Kentucky RB; Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona RB.
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