Before we get to the most explosive play-makers in college football, here are some names who just missed the cut and some freshmen to watch:
Oregon's Thomas Tyner (pictured) headlines a group of potential big-play freshmen poised to make a big impact. Tyner was a record-setting, five-star prep back in Oregon and has a chance to fill the void for the in-state Ducks left by Kenjon Barner. Florida State's Levonte "Kermit" Whitfield, Florida's Demarcus Robinson, Ohio State's Dontre Wilson and Baylor's Robbie Rhodes are just a few other impact freshmen who can score from anywhere on the field.
Among the non-freshmen, some names to watch in this category include LSU's Odell Beckham, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Baylor's Tevin Reese, Notre Dame's George Atkinson and Vanderbilt's Brian Kimbrow, to name a few.
The Huskers' top target was second in the Big Ten in yards (863) and touchdowns (8) a year ago and averaged over 17 yards per catch. What makes him a particularly special big-play threat, however, is one glaring and impressive statistic: all eight of his touchdowns came from 25 yards out or longer. With Taylor Martinez back for his senior season, fans in Lincoln can expect to see No. 80 streaking down the field all year long.
This is somewhat of a projection but the most prolific high school wide receiver ever and the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2012 class is poised for a huge season in 2013. He showed flashes of brilliance in the final month as a true freshman, catching 21 of his 28 passes, 267 of his 395 yards and four of his five touchdowns in the final five games. He is a freak of nature at 6-6, 225 and will be the next elite jumbo wideout in college football.
The all-purpose dynamo for Northwestern led the Big Ten in all-purpose yards last year at 166.6 per game. He scored 12 rushing touchdowns, one receiving touchdown and has three career return touchdowns, including two punt returns last year. Mark averaged 6.0 yards per carry a year ago and returns to lead what could be the most talented Wildcats offense ever assembled.
Just pop in the tape of the Ohio State game last year and you will see all you need to know about Bigelow's big-play talent. He averaged 40.0 yards per carry and scored twice on four carries in the Horseshoe, and for the season averaged nearly 10 yards per carry (44 att., 431 yards, 3 TD). He is now the full-time starter in Berkeley, and, in Sonny Dykes' new scheme, Bigelow should become a household name nationally.
From a straight-line speed standpoint, few in the nation can match the burner from Kansas State. He was third in the nation a year ago in kickoff returns, averaging 32.8 yards per attempt, and is one of the nation's most dangerous return specialists. Bill Snyder uses Lockett all over the field and his big-play ability is blatantly apparent. In his short two-year career thus far, Lockett has averaged 9.7 yards per carry (17 att., 165 yards) and 15.0 yards per catch (62 rec., 933 yards, 7 TD).
As the lighting half of the Georgia Bulldogs' running back duo, Marshall lived up to his electric hype as a recruit. He averaged 6.5 yards per carry on 117 attempts (759 yards) and scored eight times as just a true freshman. The star sophomore would start for most teams in the nation but will see his carries limited by the fact that he plays on the same offense as two other elite explosive offensive stars (RB Todd Gurley and WR Malcolm Mitchell).
The new Alabama starting tailback might not be the truest definition of explosive because of his power and strength. But Yeldon can take small gainers and turn them into big plays because of his overall explosiveness. He finished his freshman year with 1,108 yards and 12 touchdowns — that's 6.3 yards per carry in the SEC as a backup. Defenses will know all about No. 4 this fall.
The Bulldogs' top wide receiver can flat out fly. Mitchell has bounced between defense and offense during his short two-year stint in Athens but now appears focused solely on playing wide receiver. He has averaged nearly 15 yards per catch for his career and can score from anywhere on the field. His ability to stretch the field vertically gives Aaron Murray a big-time target on the outside. Good luck to defenses that choose to play man coverage against this speedster.
From a statistical standpoint, few players return to college football with Andrews' resume. He was fifth in the nation in rushing (132.9) and led the nation in all-purpose yards (243.1). In fact, he nearly broke Barry Sanders' three-decade old single-season all-purpose NCAA record with his 3,166 total yards. He scored 15 times three different ways and now has Bobby Petrino calling plays for his offense.
Cooks may not be a name you know yet but by the end of 2013, the whole nation will know about No. 7. Mike Riley has produced smallish, explosive do-everything wideouts (James Rodgers, Markus Wheaton) before and Cooks is the next one. He averaged 17.2 yards per catch — 67 receptions for 1,151 yards — and has 29 rushing attempts in two seasons. Look for Riley and the Beavers' offense to make Cooks a national star this fall.
Archer does a little bit of everything for Kent State, as he led the MAC in all-purpose yards (184.1) and scoring (9.9 points per game) last fall. He rushed for 1,429 yards and 16 scores on 8.9 yards per carry while catching 39 passes for 561 yards through the air. Archer is a special player who will drive defenses bonkers with his joystick-like, open-field moves and elite explosiveness.
Carey led the nation in rushing a year ago with 1,929 yards and scored 24 total touchdowns on 339 total offensive touches. He set a Pac-12 single-game rushing record with 366 yards against Colorado and was the most effective back against Stanford all season (132 yards, 3 TD). His combination of speed, burst and toughness make him a perfect fit in Rich Rodriguez's zone-read spread option and he can reach paydirt on any given play.
It took a couple of seasons before the nation got what they expected from the former five-star recruit, but few players were as productive down the stretch last year than the Baylor running back. He finished the year with five 100-yard games in his last six and scored six of his seven touchdowns in the final five games. Seastrunk averaged 7.7 yards per carry for the season and is poised for a Heisman Trophy-type season in one of the nation's best offensive schemes.
Is 1,385 yards and 17 rushing touchdowns on 222 attempts a good season for a true freshman in the nation's toughest conference? How about setting a Georgia and SEC record with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in his first career game? That's all Gurley did last year and it has expectations in 2013 sky high. He is a virtual clone of former Alabama star Trent Richardson and his rare combination of power, size, speed and burst make him arguably the nation's most talented running back.
It didn't take long for Diggs to prove his five-star recruiting hype was warranted. He finished second in the ACC in all-purpose yards at 172.4 per game and showed his electric, big-play versatility. he caught six touchdown passes on 15.7 yards per catch, returned two kicks for touchdowns, ran the ball 20 times for 114 yards and even threw a touchdown pass against North Carolina. As a sophomore, Diggs should be the focal point of the Terrapins' offense and will give defensive coordinators nightmares all season long.
Few players in the nation have a more explosive first step than Alabama's Cooper. As just a true freshman, he started on the BCS National Championship offense, catching 59 passes at a 16.9-yard clip (1,000 yards). He scored 11 times and made huge down-the-field plays against Georgia in the SEC Championship game (among many others). Cooper can start and stop with ease and it makes him one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the nation.
Lee's resume is nearly complete after just two years of college football. He was second in the nation in receptions per game (9.1) and second in receiving yards per game (132.4) while leading the Pac-12 in kickoff returns (28.5). He owns multiple league and school single-season receiving records, won the Biletnikoff Award and finished fourth in the Heisman voting. With good quarterback play — which is a question mark for USC — Lee should post yet another monster campaign this fall.
Randy "Duke" Johnson was an elite recruit despite his small (5-8, 190) stature. Why? Because of his blazing speed and elite big-play potential. Johnson was third in the ACC in all-purpose yards (171.7) and finished second in the nation in kickoff returns at over 33 yards per attempt. He scored 10 times on the ground, twice on kickoffs, once as a receiver and even threw a touchdowns against Virginia. He averaged 6.8 yards per carry on just 139 rushes last year. Imagine what he could do with 250-275 offensive touches as a sophomore this fall?
Assuming he's fully healthy and fully focused off the field, Watkins should return to his 2011 form. As a true freshman, he posted one of the best first seasons in NCAA history by catching 82 passes for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns while rushing for 231 yards on 32 attempts and scoring on one of his 32 kickoff returns. His numbers regressed last year due to nagging injuries and a lack of focus off the field. If those issues are behind him, Watkins is the Maserati of wideouts playing in the Ferrari of offensive schemes.
Nicknamed The Black Mamba because of his fast-strike ability, Thomas is a perfect fit in the Ducks' fast-paced spread offense. In two seasons in Eugene, he has scored 18 rushing touchdowns and averaged 8.8 yards per carry (147 att., 1,296 yards). He has scored 14 times through the air on 91 receptions (1,050 yards). And he has four special teams touchdowns (3 KR, 1 PR). He is the most explosive, most dangerous big-play star in college football today and is the most difficult player in the nation to stop in the open field. He won't ever be a true running back or true wide receiver, but that is just fine by him. Thomas has 3,992 career all-purpose yards in two years and another 2,000-yard season is all but assured in 2013.
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