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 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 12th annual Athlon Awards.
Athlon's Top 20 WR/TE Corps for 2012
1. USC – There’s not a better one-two receiver combination in the country than Robert Woods and Marqise Lee. The duo combined for 2,435 yards on 184 catches and 26 scores. Both players should contend for All-America honors in 2012. Sophomore George Farmer, redshirt freshman Victor Blackwell and junior De’Von Flournoy are expected to round out the rotation, and true freshman Nelson Agholor could earn playing time as well. Tight end Randall Telfer is an underrated weapon. Bottom line: Matt Barkley should have no trouble finding weapons to throw to in 2012.
2. Clemson –The Tigers must replace tight end Dwayne Allen, but there’s no shortage of weapons for quarterback Tajh Boyd. Sammy Watkins was one of the top freshmen in college football last season and is an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-American for 2012. However, he is suspended for the first two games of the season due to an off-the-field incident. DeAndre Hopkins was overshadowed by Watkins last year, but he finished with 72 catches for 978 yards and five scores. Jaron Brown, Adam Humphries, Charone Peake and Martavis Bryant are capable options as well, and Brandon Ford is expected to step in for Allen at tight end.
3. West Virginia – The Mountaineers don’t have much proven depth here, but there’s a lot to like about the starting corps. Tavon Austin led the team with 101 receptions last season, while Stedman Bailey ranked first with 1,279 yards and 12 receiving scores. Ivan McCartney was a solid No. 3 option last year, catching 49 passes for 585 yards, but his status for 2012 was up in the air early in fall practice. This group could get a boost from freshmen Jordan Thompson, Dante Campbell and Travares Copeland.
4. Tennessee – "If" is the key word surrounding Tennessee’s receiving corps for 2012. Justin Hunter was off to a fast start in 2011 but suffered a torn ACL in the third game of the season. He is expected to be at full strength this fall. Da’Rick Rogers led the team with 67 receptions for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns, but he spent most of the spring in Derek Dooley’s doghouse. If Hunter and Rogers stay on the field, Tennessee will have the SEC’s best collection of pass-catchers, especially with tight end Mychal Rivera and junior college wideout Cordarrelle Patterson expected to be significant contributors.
5. Baylor – Kendall Wright will be catching passes on Sundays, but Art Briles isn’t worried about his receiving corps for new quarterback Nick Florence. Terrance Williams finished second on the team with 59 receptions for 957 yards last year and should assume the go-to role in 2012. Tevin Reese returns after averaging 17.2 yards per catch last season and will be joined by Lanear Sampson (42 catches) and tight end Jordan Najvar (15 catches) as experienced and dangerous weapons for the Bears. This group got a boost in July with the addition of Michigan transfer Darryl Stonum.
6. Florida State – If the Seminoles can find the right mix on the offensive line, quarterback EJ Manuel is going to have a huge season. Rashad Greene was one of the ACC’s top receivers last season, even after missing four games due to injury. Look for the sophomore lead the team in receptions, yards and touchdowns in 2012. Senior Rodney Smith caught 36 passes last year and is back as a solid No. 2 threat. The Seminoles are loaded with options outside of Greene and Smith, including sophomore Christian Green and juniors Willie Haulstead and Kenny Shaw. Redshirt freshman Kelvin Benjamin has the talent to become a major factor in the receiving corps in 2012.
7. Washington – Even with Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar departing, the Huskies are still in great shape at receiver. Kasen Williams had a solid freshman campaign, catching 36 passes for 427 yards and six scores last year. Look for Williams to become the No. 1 target for quarterback Keith Price. Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins also had a standout freshman season, nabbing 41 receptions for 538 yards and six touchdowns. Seniors James Johnson and Cody Bruns are experienced and will factor prominently into the receiving corps.
8. Georgia – Wide receiver or cornerback? That’s the question facing the Bulldogs coaching staff and where to play Malcolm Mitchell. With suspensions taking a toll in the secondary early in the year, Georgia may be forced to play Mitchell more on defense – at least through the first few games. Even if Mitchell has to play cornerback, there’s plenty of options for quarterback Aaron Murray. Senior Tavarres King led the team with 47 catches and 705 yards last year, while Michael Bennett returns after recording 32 receptions in 2011. The coaching staff hopes Marlon Brown finally reaches his potential, but the group has other contributors waiting in the wings, including Chris Conley and Justin Scott-Wesley.
9. Washington State – Mike Leach pass-first offense should have no trouble getting off the ground this year. Marquess Wilson is one of the nation’s best receivers and will surpass 1,000 yards for the second year in a row. The Cougars need a few targets to step up around Wilson, and sophomore Kristoff Williams and freshman Dominique Williams will be two players to watch in fall practice. Converted tight end Andrei Lintz is also expected to be a key factor in the receiving corps.
10. Oklahoma – How will the Sooners replace Ryan Broyles? That’s the big question facing this unit in the fall. The passing attack struggled once Broyles was knocked out for the year and now that he’s moved onto the NFL, the door is open for inexperienced players to step up. Junior Kenny Stills should challenge for first-team All-Big 12 honors, and freshman Trey Metoyer is one of the Big 12’s top breakout players. However, after Stills and Metoyer is where the question marks begin. Jaz Reynolds and Trey Franks are suspended indefinitely, leaving freshmen Durron Neal, Derrick Woods and Sterling Shepard as major contributors. Junior college recruit Lacoltan Bester joined the team after spring practice and will be a wildcard to watch this fall.
11. Texas A&M – New coach Kevin Sumlin and coordinator Kliff Kingsbury are no stranger to producing standout passing attacks. During Sumlin’s tenure at Houston, the Cougars ranked among the nation’s best through the air. With a new quarterback taking over, it could be a challenge finishing in the top 10 in passing offense this season. However, the Aggies have plenty of receivers to ease the transition. Senior Ryan Swope will be the No. 1 target after catching 89 passes for 1,207 yards and 11 scores last year. Uzoma Nwachukwu (50 catches) and Kenric McNeal (8 catches) are experienced receivers, but sophomore Malcome Kennedy and freshman Thomas Johnson will figure prominently into the mix.
12. TCU – The Horned Frogs should have no trouble fitting into the offensive-minded Big 12. Quarterback Casey Pachall is back after throwing for 2,921 yards and 25 scores last season, and he will be throwing to a deep, athletic group of receivers. Josh Boyce is the headliner, catching 61 passes for 998 yards and nine scores last year. Skye Dawson (45 catches) and Brandon Carter (23) are back as the No. 2 and No. 3 receivers, while sophomore David Porter and freshman LaDarius Brown will add depth and playmaking ability.
13. Texas Tech – As usual, the Red Raiders aren’t short on receiving options. Eric Ward led the team with 84 catches, 800 yards and 11 touchdowns last season and is primed to be the team’s go-to target once again in 2012. Darrin Moore got off to a fast start last year, but an injury prevented him from becoming a bigger factor in the offense. Moore’s status with the team for 2012 is up in the air due to an off-the-field incident. Senior Alex Torres is a dependable option for quarterback Seth Doege, but he is recovering from a torn ACL. This group needs freshman Jakeem Grant and sophomores Jace Amaro and Bradley Marquez to step up as key contributors in 2012.
14. Texas – There’s no question the Longhorns have talent here. However, the quarterback position remains a concern going into fall practice. Jaxon Shipley had a standout freshman season, catching 44 passes for 607 yards and three touchdowns. He should be an even bigger factor in the passing attack this year. Mike Davis heads into his junior year with back-to-back seasons of at least 45 catches, while freshman Cayleb Jones could be an impact newcomer. The wildcard to watch will be redshirt freshman tight end M.J. McFarland.
15. BYU – The Cougars return their top three targets from last season, including Cody Hoffman (61 catches) and Ross Apo (34). JD Falslev will serve as the No. 3 option for quarterback Riley Nelson after grabbing 31 passes last year. Marcus Mathews caught 27 passes last season and is the likely starter at tight end.
16. Notre Dame – Michael Floyd will be missed, but the Fighting Irish return the nation’s best tight end (Tyler Eifert) and capable targets in TJ Jones, Theo Riddick and Robby Toma. DaVaris Daniels and Davonte Neal are two names to watch in 2012.
17. Missouri – T.J. Moe is back as the No. 1 receiver, but all of the excitement in Columbia is with Dorial Green-Beckham. The true freshman ranked as the top prospect in the 2012 Athlon Consensus 100 and should be an impact newcomer. Juniors Marcus Lucas and L’Damian Washington will likely be the No. 3 and No. 4 options for quarterback James Franklin.
18. Nebraska – It’s a weak year for receivers in the Big Ten, but there’s also a lot of potential with the group returning to Nebraska. Kenny Bell had a solid freshman campaign in 2011, catching 32 passes for 461 yards and three scores. He should be the go-to target for quarterback Taylor Martinez, but keep an eye on sophomore Jamal Turner and junior Quincy Enunwa. The Cornhuskers are in great shape at tight end with seniors Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton returning.
19. South Florida – The Bulls should have the Big East’s No. 1 receiving corps, especially if Sterling Griffin can stay healthy for the entire year. The junior emerged as the favorite receiver for quarterback B.J. Daniels, but a foot injury sidelined him late in the season. Sophomore Andre Davis is an intriguing talent, while the coaching staff hopes Florida transfer Chris Dunkley can become another dangerous weapon for Daniels. Tight end Evan Landi is an underrated option over the middle.
20. Rutgers – Mohamed Sanu is gone, but the cupboard is far from bare for coach Kyle Flood. Senior Mark Harrison looks to bounce back after a disappointing junior year, while sophomore Brandon Coleman should be one of the Big East’s top breakout players. Senior Tim Wright and junior Quron Pratt will see plenty of snaps as the No. 3 and No. 4 options. Tight end D.C. Jefferson is due for a breakout season and should see more passes his way with Sanu catching passes in the NFL.
by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
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