Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - While college football has plenty of bankable star power, part of what makes the game great is its unpredictability from year to year.
Every season, players emerge seemingly from nowhere -- rising from a backup position, a part-time role or even straight from high school to become a household name.
This trend of breakout stars has been on the upswing in recent seasons. Johnny Manziel became the first-ever freshman to win the Heisman Trophy in 2012, and last season Jameis Winston wasted no time adding his name to that exclusive list. Two other Heisman finalists from 2013, Auburn's Tre Mason and Boston College's Andre Williams, busted loose in a big way as well, with the duo combining for an astonishing 3,993 rushing yards and 41 touchdowns (after posting just 1,586 yards and 12 TDs in 2012).
With heralded stars graduating or moving on to the NFL and unforeseen injuries hitting during training camp, there will be plenty of opportunities for breakout playmakers to assert themselves on the offensive side of the ball in 2014.
Here are some to watch:
Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State -- In a loaded SEC, it's hard to imagine Mississippi State taking a step up into the elite in 2014, but the Bulldogs could become a dark horse if Prescott's star continues to ascend. After starting the 2013 campaign in a two-quarterback system with Tyler Russell, Prescott's outstanding dual-threat ability took over full time to the tune of 1,940 passing yards, 829 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns. With the starting gig all his, the 6-foot-2, 235-pound signal caller will likely continue to cause nightmares to opposing defensive coordinators.
Jacob Coker, QB, Alabama -- Coker spent last season stuck behind Winston on a BCS championship-winning Florida State squad, but now he's in the catbird seat following a transfer to Tuscaloosa. With no major threat to his starting job, Coker will be given plenty of opportunities to succeed on a national- championship-caliber team with a loaded supporting cast to help him along the way.
Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson -- While redshirt freshman quarterbacks are all the rage of late, it's rare that a true first-year player makes a lasting impression under center. Watson could be the exception to the rule. Although Cole Stoudt is likely to be the starter, the dual-threat Watson is clearly the long-term answer to supplant Tajh Boyd, and head coach Dabo Swinney is expected to figure out plenty of innovative ways to get Watson involved with the offense from Day 1.
Kevin Olsen, QB, Miami (Fla.) -- With Ryan Williams recovering from a torn ACL, there's feisty quarterback competition going on in Miami, but even with the addition of former Kansas product Jake Heaps, figure Olsen to have an equally fair shot at winning the job. The redshirt freshman and former top recruit could bring the Hurricanes back to relevance in the ACC.
Tra Carson, RB, Texas A&M -- In the wake of Manziel's departure for the NFL, there will clearly need to be some changes to the Aggies' offensive attack, and that could very well come through the rushing attack. Manziel accounted for nearly a third of all the team's carries in 2013, and with Ben Malena (564 yards, 10 TDs) gone as well, the onus is on Carson to shoulder the load. The 6-1, 230-pound bruiser saw limited action as a sophomore after previously transferring from Oregon (62 carries, 340 yards), but he had a nose for the end zone (seven TDs) and has the right makeup to attack those vicious SEC defensive fronts.
Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU -- Arguably the most coveted prize during the 2014 recruiting season, Fournette is set to shine in Baton Rouge this season, especially with his path to carries cleared following the departures of Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue. Fournette is only 19 years old, but he's already built like a veteran at 6-1, 224 pounds. Drawing early comparisons to Adrian Peterson is likely setting the bar too high for the youngster, but considering the success of Tigers' running backs in recent years, he should have no problem putting together big numbers from the outset.
Shock Linwood, RB, Baylor -- You could argue that Linwood's breakout campaign already happened in 2013, when the freshman emerged to rush for 881 yards (6.9 yards per carry) and eight touchdowns for the nation's most prolific offense, but the best is likely yet to come for the electrifying tailback. With Bryce Petty eyeing a Heisman-caliber campaign under center and last season's leading rusher Lache Seastruck (1,177 yards, 11 TDs) now suiting up for the Washington Redskins, Linwood's home run ability will be put on display even more often in Art Briles' revolutionary offense.
Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama -- Excitement for a full-blown breakout from Henry in 2014 should be tempered. After all, the Tide welcome back one of the nation's premiere rushers in T.J. Yeldon, who has pieced together back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing campaigns while scoring 27 touchdowns during that time, but there could be plenty of opportunities for Henry to strut his stuff as well. Despite standing an imposing 6-3, 238 pounds, Henry boasted eye-popping elusiveness in limited reps as a freshman last season (10.6 yards per carry) and was one of Alabama's lone bright spots in the Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma with eight carries for 100 yards and a touchdown to go with a 61-yard receiving score.
De'Andre Thompkins, WR, Penn State -- The Nittany Lions brought aboard several highly touted receiving prospects in the hopes of filling the void left by Allen Robinson, and Thompkins appears to be the most ready to contribute right away. After enrolling early and gaining a leg up on the other recruits by participating in spring practice, the speedy wideout should see plenty of opportunities out of the slot and in the return game, where his home run abilities could change the course of games.
Ricky Seals-Jones, WR, Texas A&M -- Big things were expected out of Seals- Jones during his freshman campaign last season, and he lived up to lofty expectations in his Texas A&M debut against Rice last August (three receptions, 81 yards, TD), but a knee injury cut his year short. With the medical redshirt is behind him, however, a fully healthy Seals-Jones will try to elevate the play of the post-Manziel era of Aggies' quarterbacks. Standing 6-5 and 225 pounds with deceptive speed, he's the perfect candidate to fill the role that Mike Evans played last season.