Preview 2013 - Players About To Take Off
Arizona State RB Marion Grice
Get ready for the new stars about to fly on the 2013 CFN All-Tarmac Team.
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CFN All-Tarmac Defense
Out with the old and in with the new. The constant revolving door that is college athletics ensures that as one wave of superstars exits, another jockeys in its wake for the spotlight. Over the past couple of seasons, bunches of former heralded recruits have practiced and studied for the time when they'd earn that coveted starring role and a chance to begin making a splash of their own. For them, their time has arrived. Although many of the names are familiar, and their work was on display last fall, 2013 represents a first good chance to make a national statement.
The following student-athletes are on the career tarmac, as they prepare for lift-off.
QB Michael Brewer, Texas Tech
About the only thing better for a quarterback than operating behind an impenetrable O-line is working for the right coach and in the right system. Kliff Kingsbury and his Air Raid, for instance. Kingsbury, for those who forgot, was instrumental in Johnny Manziel's remarkable debut in 2012. Brewer is poised to replace Seth Doege in Lubbock, a gig he's been working toward since arriving in 2011. The third-year sophomore is a gamer, with a firm grasp on what it takes to run this system. Brewer is also a legit dual-threat, deftly extending plays once protection breaks down.
QB Devin Gardner, Michigan
Yeah, it took a while before Gardner emerged as a factor at quarterback in Ann Arbor, but the senior will prove worth the wait in 2013. The career backup to Denard Robinson doubled as a wide receiver before a Robinson injury last fall created an opportunity to get back under center. Gardner responded by completing 75-of-126 passes for 1,219 yards, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions. He also showcased the footwork and athleticism to make pass rushers look silly. At 6-4, Gardner has the size to see over linemen, and his tight spirals mesh well with Michigan's gravitation to a pro-style offense.
QB Bryce Petty, Baylor
Journeyman Nick Florence accounted for 43 touchdowns in his lone season as the successor to RG3 in Waco. Petty has considerably more upside and physical ability than Florence. The junior has next-level measurables, which will begin to surface this fall. The hard-throwing 6-3, 230-pound Petty is capable of sprinting through or past defenders, blending power with speed. Best of all, he's now in his fourth season as a Bear, and has a good feel for Art Briles' attack. Briles plus Petty is an equation that will put some Baylor offensive records in jeopardy in 2013.
RB Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
The country as a whole isn't all too familiar with Gordon's exploits. In Lincoln, Nebr., however, he was the source of many nightmares. While Gordon played sporadically as the third-stringer to Montee Ball and James White, he only needed nine carries to torch the Huskers for 216 yards in last December's Big Ten Championship Game. Now that Ball is a Denver Bronco, Gordon is going to get more touches. The 203-pound sophomore wound up averaging more than 10 yards per carry, displaying the soft hips, sudden change of direction and straight-line speed of a smaller back.
RB Marion Grice, Arizona State
The graduation of Cameron Marshall has created an opening for Grice to become the Sun Devils' feature back. And he plans on making the most of it. The senior maximized his reps in his debut out of Blinn (Tex.) Community College in 2012. A complement within the attack, and a versatile one at that, Grice rushed for 679 yards and 11 touchdowns on only 103 carries, adding 41 receptions for 425 yards and another eight scores. As quiet off the field as he is explosive on it, he's a graceful runner, with the efficient stride and second gear to leave defensive backs helplessly chasing him from behind.
RB Matt Jones, Florida
The Gators need a workhorse out of the backfield to help offset Mike Gillislee's production. Jones is the right man for the job. The four-star recruit showed flashes of his potential as a rookie in 2012, going for 275 yards and three scores on 52 carries. This season, Jones plans to start tapping into his considerable potential. For a 6-2, 226-pounder, he's surprisingly nimble and light on his feet in the open field. If Jones runs with assertiveness and optimum pad level, he has the skill set and the focus to become an emerging young star of the SEC.
RB James Wilder Jr., Florida State
Think Ricky Watters, right down to the No. 32 emblazoned on his jersey. Wilder finished third on the Seminoles with 635 yards and 11 touchdowns on 110 carries in 2012. However, his production is headed north now that leading ground gainer Chris Thompson has graduated. Wilder runs hard on every down, punishing defenders between the tackles. The 6-2, 230-pounder often requires multiple tacklers to drag him down, churning his legs until the play is blown dead. Testament to his versatility and overall athletic ability, he also caught 19 balls for 136 yards and two more touchdowns a year ago.
WR Nelson Agholor, USC
Now that Robert Woods is a member of the Buffalo Bills, the Trojans are seeking a complement at split end to superstar Marqise Lee. The position is a critical one to the Troy passing attack that will be filled by Agholor. The 6-1, 185-pound sophomore gave intermittent hints to his ability as a rookie, making 19 grabs for 340 yards and a couple of scores. Agholor is a fluid all-around athlete who gets to second gear in a hurry, turning short hitches into explosions through the opposing secondary. During the spring, he showed off improved ball skills, an element of his game that needed tweaking.
WR Stefon Diggs, Maryland
In his first year removed from high school, Diggs wound up being every bit as good as advertised, when he was one of the nation's top wide receiver recruits. Despite being paired with a hodgepodge of unproven quarterbacks, Diggs wound up catching a team-high 54 passes for 848 yards and six touchdowns. He also rushed for 114 yards and returned two kicks for scores, parading the speed, elusiveness and open-field moves that first attracted so many scholarship offers. With a little more consistency from the hurlers, Diggs is capable of blooming into one of the ACC's top all-purpose weapons, the Terps' version of Clemson's Sammy Watkins.
WR Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri
The debut of Green-Beckham didn't quite go as planned. Heck, Jerry Rice probably couldn't have lived up to the hype that preceded the arrival of the can't-miss recruit from Springfield, Mo. Green-Beckham started just a single game, got into some midseason trouble and wound up catching only 28 passes for 395 yards and five touchdowns. Not to worry. He's still 6-6 and 220 pounds, with the speed and the long arms to cause fits for opposing defensive backs. Green-Beckham performed like a transformed player in the spring, a sign that he's ready to bust out as a sophomore.
WR Malcolm Mitchell, Georgia
Mitchell has yet to play a full season in Athens, missing time with injuries as a freshman and a sophomore. If he can stay on the field for an entire year, he has the electrifying skills to become a household name. Mitchell is one of the most dynamic and versatile playmakers in the SEC, even chipping in at cornerback for the first four games of 2012. He still ended up second on the team to Tavarres King with 40 catches for 572 yards and four touchdowns. Healthy and finally dedicated to one position, Mitchell will be on the receiving end of a lot of Aaron Murray TD strikes this fall.
WR Devin Smith, Ohio State
It's Smith's junior season in Columbus. Time to start maxing out all of his abundant physical ability. Arguably the most dynamic athlete on the Buckeyes roster, Smith possesses the speed and the leaping ability of a track athlete. His big-play ability was apparent in 2011 and 2012, turning 44 receptions into 912 yards and 10 touchdowns. Now, Smith is looking to become a consistent weapon in the passing game by improving his overall production and fundamentals. He's determined to be more than just the player who delivers a highlight-reel grab every few weeks.
TE Gerald Christian, Louisville
Don't read too much into the fact that Christian is listed No. 2 on the depth chart behind Ryan Hubbell entering summer. Christian is the tight end the Cardinals want to employ the most in the passing game. The Florida transfer is an outstanding athlete and an assertive blocker at 6-3 and 260 pounds, and is eager to show why he was a four-star recruit of the Gators in 2010. With so much attention being given to the outside receivers, Christian is liable to explode on to the scene as a favorite target of Teddy Bridgewater in the middle of the field.
TE Devin Funchess, Michigan
Funchess made the most of his snaps as a rookie. Now that those reps are increasing, his output will follow a similar trajectory. Funchess only started five games in 2012, and only caught 15 balls, but he scored five times and averaged more than 15 yards a reception. At 6-5 and 228 pounds, with a long wingspan, he creates matchup nightmares for linebackers and defensive backs, especially on jump balls. The athleticism and ball skills of Funchess are going to blend very nicely with a Michigan offense looking to make better use of its tight ends.
OL Spencer Drango, Baylor
Drango is hardly a recognizable name when the subject is the Bears' prolific offense, but he was a key component of last year's success. In just his first season as a starter, the agile 6-6, 315-pounder totaled 76 knockdowns, while averaging a coaches' grade of 89.2%. He dominated a quality UCLA front in the Holiday Bowl, adding an exclamation point to a Freshman All-American campaign. Even though he'll live in the shadow of massive linemate Cyril Richardson for one more year, Drango's identity gets unchained this fall.
OL Jake Fisher, Oregon
A tackle named Fisher from the state of Michigan is going to make NFL scouts gush for a second straight year. In 2012, Central Michigan's Eric Fisher soared up draft boards, eventually being taken No. 1 overall. Traverse City native Jake Fisher might not be a top pick, but if he continues down his current path, he certainly could be enticed to leave Eugene at the end of his junior season. The former high school tight end is now 6-6 and 294 pounds, a unique athlete for his size. He slides his feet fluidly, while improving the use of his hands. But what often gets overlooked are Fisher's intangibles, such as his nasty demeanor and the way he flattens learning curves as if they're opposing linemen.
OL Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin
Havenstein is pretty much what fans expect from Badgers blockers these days—big, physical and, well, big. The 6-8, 338-pounder actually trimmed down considerably prior to last year, successfully starting the entire season at right tackle. As a former high school basketball and lacrosse player, Havenstein developed the balance and the footwork of a much smaller blocker. And now that he has a full season of work in the vault, he's eyeing the kind of progress that earns notice from All-Big Ten voters.
OL Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama
Yeah, there's a crush of hype surrounding Kouandjio, but he still hasn't officially lifted off. That moment comes this fall, as the Tide develops new leaders on the front wall. Kouandjio was one of just two starting Bama linemen not named to the All-SEC First Team in 2012. Still, the nation's top-ranked high school lineman of 2010 graded out at higher than 90% in half of last year's games, setting the stage for what should be a salary run season in 2013. If Kouandjio plays to his potential, and leaves school after his junior year, he could be plucked in the first few picks of next April's draft.
OL Josue Matias, Florida State
Of the three Seminoles O-linemen to be named Second Team All-ACC last year, Matias wasn't one of them. That situation is liable to change in 2013. The returning starter at left guard in Tallahassee is a tenacious and assertive run blocker at 6-6 and 320 pounds, leading the 2012 squad with 31 knockdown blocks. The agile and mammoth Matias should start getting plenty more attention from all-league voters—and NFL scouts—now that he has a full season of snaps on his resume.
OL Brandon Vitabile, Northwestern
Vitabile is an interior lineman in Evanston, Ill., so he's never going to receiver cover boy attention. But he will begin his junior year as arguably the Big Ten's premier center. The durable leader of the Wildcats' front has started every game of the last two seasons, bringing stability and consistency to the unit. Vitabile is smart and hard-working, an underrated cog in a Northwestern ground game that ranked 19th nationally a year ago. No longer a hidden gem, he'll spend the next two seasons on the all-league team.
OL Cody Whitehair, Kansas State
Cornelius Lucas and B.J. Finney are the headline-makers in the trenches, but Whitehair is a budding pillar for the Wildcats' O-line. As a redshirt freshman, Whitehair started 11 games, playing well enough to garner honorable mention All-Big 12 honors from league coaches. The 6-4, 309-pounder is stout at the point of attack, holding his ground long enough for a K-State back to find daylight. Even if Whitehair remains somewhat subordinate to Lucas and Finney in the pecking order, he'll continue evolving into a terrific run blocker.
CFN All-Tarmac Defense