They're the teams within the team - those cohesive little units bound together by their shared responsibilities within the larger team context.
Whether it's the offensive linemen firing off time after time into those familiar blocking sleds, or the defensive linemen drilling repeatedly on how to shed blockers, or the defensive backs breaking on ball after ball - these teams in miniature hone their tasks on the practice field until those tasks become second nature.
Whether or not these units function as one can make the difference between winning and losing, and a single unit can carry a college football team to New Year's Day - or beyond.
It's entirely fitting, then, for us to honor the best of the best at each position with our 11th annual Athlon Awards.
1. Arkansas - The Razorbacks return four receivers who could contend for All-SEC honors in 2011. Greg Childs finished second on the team with 46 receptions despite missing five games due to injury. Joe Adams led the team with 813 receiving yards, including a 120-yard effort against Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl. Junior Cobi Hamilton equaled the six touchdowns posted by Childs and Adams, hauling in two against LSU in their November matchup. Senior Jarius Wright also averaged more than 18 yards per catch last year. Finally, junior tight end Chris Gragg gets first crack at replacing All-SEC tight end D.J. Williams. Gragg scored a 57-yard TD against Georgia, so he does have a bit of big-play potential.
2. Oklahoma - Ryan Broyles is back after leading all FBS receivers with 131 receptions last season. He also ranked third nationally with 1,622 yards. The senior is arguably the top receiver in college football, and another year of 100-plus receptions isn’t out of the question. Kenny Stills caught 61 passes as a freshman last year and should be showcased more in the offense this season. Tight end James Hanna only caught 18 balls last season, but seven were for touchdowns, ranking second on the team behind Broyles. Also returning as weapons for quarterback Landry Jones will be sophomore Trey Franks and senior Dejuan Miller. Athlon's third-ranked incoming freshman receiver, 6-foot-2 Trey Metoyer of Whitehouse, Texas, could be a factor by season's end.
3. Oklahoma State - Justin Blackmon entered 2010 as a relative unknown, but he finished as the Biletnikoff winner after a monster year. Blackmon posted at least 100 receiving yards in every game that he played in last season, ranking in the top three nationally in catches, yards, and touchdowns. No one else caught more than five touchdowns last season, but senior Josh Cooper will seek to improve on his five scores and 68 catches. Junior Tracy Moore and redshirt sophomore Michael Harrison also return. Senior Hubert Anyiam was injured most of last year, but should figure more into the passing attack at full health in 2011. Anyiam totaled 515 yards in 2009, so the potential is there.
4. Texas A&M - The Aggies return their top five statistical wide receivers from last year, most notably standout Jeff Fuller. The senior caught 72 passes for 1,066 yards and 12 scores last year, making first-team All-Big 12. Fuller's season is even more remarkable for the fact that he became the first Aggie ever to amass 1,000 receiving yards in a season. Ryan Swope tied Fuller for the team lead with 72 receptions accounting for 825 yards, a total that ranked eighth in the conference. Junior Uzoma Nwachukwu added 407 yards on 36 catches, scoring twice against LSU in the Cotton Bowl. Junior Kenric McNeal added 23 catches, including six for 64 yards against Texas. Tight end Nehemiah Hicks had a promising freshman campaign, catching 11 passes for 141 yards.
5. Notre Dame - Michael Floyd had a career season in 2010 with 79 receptions. If he can remain healthy — and stay out of trouble — Floyd should have another special season. He isn’t the only weapon in the receiving corps, either. Junior Theo Riddick missed four games with a severe ankle injury, but was a major factor before that. Riddick's big game came against Michigan State, catching 10 passes for 128 yards and a touchdown. Sophomore TJ Jones should fill the third starting spot after snagging three touchdowns last year. Tight end Tyler Eifert caught 26 passes in seven games after Kyle Rudolph went down last season, and could be a major threat this year. With another offseason to pick up Brian Kelly’s scheme, the Irish could have a monster year on offense in 2011.
6. Arizona - Senior Juron Criner decided against going pro and could be the best receiver in the Pac-12 this season. He led the league in catches and yards, adding 11 scores. Texas transfer Dan Buckner should be dangerous, standing 6-foot-4 and weighing in at 220 pounds. Seniors David Roberts and David Douglas were both key members of the receiving corps last year and will figure prominently into the offense.
7. Missouri - Junior T.J. Moe gets overshadowed by conference rivals Blackmon, Broyles, and Fuller, but he's almost as dangerous. Moe hauled in 92 passes for 1,045 yards in 2010. Tight end Michael Egnew is an Athlon First Team All-American after his 90-reception season. Seniors Jerrell Jackson (50 catches) and Wes Kemp (39) can't be ignored.
8. Baylor - The Bears are led by senior Kendall Wright, who caught 78 balls for almost 1,000 yards last season. Four other returning players had at least 42 receptions, meaning there are plenty of options whether or not junior Josh Gordon (42 catches, 714 yards, seven TDs) is allowed to return from his indefinite suspension.
9. Washington - Senior Jermaine Kearse was a second-team All-Pac-10 pick last season, catching 63 passes for 1,005 yards and 12 scores. His classmate Devin Aguilar is one of the only other proven producers returning, catching 28 passes in 2010. James Johnson suffered through an injury-riddled sophomore season, after catching 39 balls as a freshman in 2009. If Johnson is 100 percent, it would be a big boost to the Washington offense. Freshman wideout Kasen Williams and tight end Austin Sefarian-Jenkins, both Athlon Consensus 100 recruits, will need to hit the groud running.
10. Florida State - The Seminoles return an experienced group, led by senior Bert Reed, who caught 58 passes last season. Juniors Willie Haulstead and Rodney Smith are back after breaking the 400-yard mark last season. Haulstead exploded for 10 catches and 154 yards against North Carolina. Redshirt freshman Christian Green is a name to watch, along with sophomore Kenny Shaw. True freshman tight end Nick O'Leary could also see significant snaps this year.