Every year, college football fans are introduced to a handful of players that become household names by the end of the season. Predicting which players will breakout any year is never an easy task.
Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston ranks as Athlon’s No. 1 breakout player for 2013, and even though there’s some key personnel departing on defense, the redshirt freshman is poised to keep the Seminoles in the national title picture. Michigan’s Devin Gardner and Baylor’s Bryce Petty are the only other quarterbacks listed in the top 10. Receiver Nelson Agholor is already off to a good start in fall camp and will help take some of the pressure off of Marqise Lee on the other side. Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson was a key reason why the Huskies improved on defense last year, and the sophomore is due for even bigger and better things in 2013.
Defining what is a breakout player is nearly impossible. Everyone has a different perspective on how players are viewed around the conference and nationally. Athlon's list of breakout players for 2013 tries to take into account which names will be known nationally (not just within the conference) by the end of season. So while some of these players on this list are known to fans of a particular team, the rest of the conference or nation might not be as familiar.
College Football's Top 35 Breakout Players for 2013
1. Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State
Considering Winston’s preseason buzz has reached meteoric levels, he might be a little too obvious to put on this list. However, the redshirt freshman has the talent to have a breakout year similar to what Texas A&M got from Johnny Manziel last season. Of course, a Heisman Trophy is simply too much to ask from Winston this year, but the Alabama native will be a difference maker for Florida State, especially with one of the ACC’s best supporting casts at his disposal. If Winston lives up to the hype, the Seminoles could match last year’s 12 wins.
2. Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan
Considering his performance to close 2012, it’s a bit of a stretch to put Gardner on this list. Filling in for an injured Denard Robinson in the final five games, Gardner recorded 18 touchdowns during that span and threw for 314 yards in a win over Iowa. With Gardner now entrenched as the full-time starter, and Robinson playing in the NFL, the Wolverines will transition to more of a pro-style approach on offense. Michigan’s offensive line and receiving corps needs work, but Gardner will be one of the Big Ten’s top quarterbacks by the end of 2013.
3. Nelson Agholor, WR, USC
There’s no question that USC will miss Robert Woods, but the Trojans still have one of the nation’s top receiving corps. Marqise Lee is an Athlon Sports first-team All-American for 2013, and Agholor is poised to push for all-conference honors this year as well. As a true freshman last season, Agholor caught 19 passes for 340 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 17.9 yards per catch. The Tampa native had his best performance against Oregon, recording six catches for 162 yards and one score. With defenses aiming to stop Lee, look for Agholor to see more passes in his direction this year.
4. Bryce Petty, QB, Baylor
Coach Art Briles certainly knows a thing or two about quarterbacks. After all, Robert Griffin III won the Heisman in 2011, and Nick Florence ranked second nationally in total offense last year. No pressure, Bryce Petty. The junior steps into the starting role after serving as an understudy over the last two years and hopes to continue Baylor’s recent run of successful passers. Petty has thrown only 14 passes in his career but has been impressive as the No. 1 quarterback this spring. There’s still plenty for the junior to prove in 2013, but considering Briles’ history of developing quarterbacks, the Bears have to feel good about Petty’s chances of emerging as a standout player this year.
5. Shaq Thompson, LB, Washington
After a freshman year that saw him garner honorable mention All-Pac-12 accolades, it’s time for the rest of the nation to take notice of No. 7 in Seattle. Thompson recorded 74 tackles, two sacks and three picks last season and ranked second on the team with 8.5 tackles for a loss. The 6-foot-2 linebacker’s speed and athleticism is crucial for Washington’s defense, especially when it comes to defending the spread offenses in the Pac-12. The Pac-12 already knows all about Thompson, but look for the sophomore to push for All-American honors this season.
6. Jordan Jenkins, LB, Georgia
Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree are gone, leaving a huge void in the Georgia linebacker corps for 2013. Talent certainly isn’t an issue for coordinator Todd Grantham, as Jenkins was impressive as a freshman in limited action last year and is poised to be one of the new leaders for Georgia’s defense. In 14 games last season, Jenkins recorded 31 tackles, five sacks and one forced fumble. Replacing Jones’ production on the outside won’t be easy, but Jenkins should easily push for 10 sacks this year.
7. Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington, DE, Ohio State
The Buckeyes have no shortage of talent on the roster, but the defensive line is a concern with four new starters stepping into the lineup. Spence and Washington are expected to be the new leaders for the line in 2013, as both players were top-30 recruits in the 2012 signing class and impressed in limited action last year. Spence recorded 12 tackles and one sack in 11 appearances, while Washington recorded nine tackles and three sacks in 10 games. The Big Ten is thin on proven talent at defensive end, but players like Spence and Washington could turn this position into a strength by October.
8. Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
Despite losing Montee Ball, the Badgers aren’t too worried about their rushing attack. With Gordon and James White returning, it’s easy to see why running back is near the bottom of concerns for new coach Gary Andersen. After rushing for 98 yards as a freshman in 2011, Gordon gashed opposing defenses for 621 yards on 62 attempts last fall, averaging 10 yards a carry. His best performance came against Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship, recording 216 yards on nine attempts. Gordon will split carries with White, but the junior should finish as the Badgers’ leading rusher this year.
9. La’el Collins, OT, LSU
LSU fans are certainly familiar with Collins’ ability, but the rest of the nation needs to take notice. The SEC is stocked with talent at tackle, as Jake Matthews, Antonio Richardson and Cyrus Kouandjio are considered the frontrunners for first-team All-American recognition. And Tennessee’s Ja’Wuan James and Vanderbilt’s Wesley Johnson are solid players who shouldn’t be overlooked in 2013. Collins earned honorable mention All-SEC accolades last season after starting 13 games at left guard. The Baton Rouge native plans to move to left tackle this year, and at 6-foot-5, 315 pounds, Collins certainly has the size to move defenders in the run game or counteract edge rushers on passing downs.
10. Chris Black, WR, Alabama
Amari Cooper emerged as one of the SEC’s top receivers last season, and Alabama’s receiving corps is poised to get another boost in 2013 with the addition of Black. The Jacksonville native was regarded as one of the top receiver prospects in the 2012 signing class and was expected to be a factor in the Crimson Tide’s passing attack last year. However, Black suffered a shoulder injury in August, which forced him to redshirt. The redshirt freshman is now healthy, and his emergence will provide quarterback AJ McCarron with one of the nation’s deepest receiving corps.
11. Brendan Bigelow, RB, California
Injuries have hindered Bigelow throughout his career, but if can stay healthy, the junior is a threat to rush for 1,000 yards in coach Sonny Dykes’ wide-open offense. On 44 attempts last year, Bigelow recorded 431 yards and three scores. He also averaged 23 yards per kickoff return and caught seven passes for 92 yards and one touchdown. Bigelow is a dynamic playmaker when he has the ball in his hands, so expect Dykes and coordinator Tony Franklin to get him at least 20 touches a game – provided he can avoid the pesky injury bug.
12. Vad Lee, QB, Georgia Tech
Fans of the ACC are certainly familiar with Lee, but the rest of the college football world should take notice of the sophomore in 2013. The North Carolina native did not record a start under center but played in 12 of Georgia Tech’s 14 contests. Lee threw for 596 yards and four touchdowns and showcased his athleticism by averaging 5.7 yards per carry on 96 attempts. He scored nine times on 96 attempts and had a 79-yard run against Presbyterian. Lee doesn’t have to be a dynamic thrower in Georgia Tech’s option attack, but he should be an upgrade in the passing attack over Tevin Washington.
13. Andrus Peat, OT, Stanford
With four starters returning, Stanford’s offensive line is expected to be one of the best in college football in 2013. But what’s even scarier for the opposition: This unit still has room to improve, especially at left tackle. There’s where Peat comes into play. As a freshman in 2012, the Arizona native didn’t make a start but played in 13 games. With David Yankey sliding back to guard, Peat is poised to step into the lineup and solidify Stanford’s left tackle position.
14. Jermauria Rasco, DE, LSU
Despite having to replace a handful of key players from last year’s defense, LSU’s defense is expected to remain near the top of the SEC once again. The line will miss Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, but Rasco and Danielle Hunter aren’t short on talent and will be a handful for opposing linemen this season. Rasco was a five-star recruit in the 2011 signing class and has played in 22 games in his first two years at LSU. Although he doesn’t have a start under his belt, Rasco has 27 tackles and two sacks during that span. The junior is expected to anchor one of the end spots for coordinator John Chavis and could earn All-SEC honors at the conclusion of 2013.
15. Quinshad Davis, WR, North Carolina
The Tar Heels sped up the tempo in coach Larry Fedora’s first season in Chapel Hill, averaging 40.6 points per game and finishing 14th nationally in total offense (485.6 yards per game). Quarterback Bryn Renner is back in 2013, and the entire offense has a full offseason to learn under Fedora and his staff. Even though the Tar Heels have to replace running back Giovani Bernard and top offensive lineman Jonathan Cooper, this offense could improve upon its yards and points per game. Renner’s go-to target in the passing game should be Davis, who turned in an impressive freshman season with 61 catches for 776 yards and five scores. Davis played well late in the year, catching 32 passes over the final three games, including 16 in a win against Virginia. Expect the sophomore to be one of the ACC’s leading receivers in 2013.
16. Marion Grice, RB, Arizona State
Arizona State had three running backs record over 100 carries last season, but with Cameron Marshall expiring his eligibility, Grice is due for an increase in touches. In his first year after transferring in from a junior college, Grice rushed for 679 yards and 11 scores and caught 41 passes for 425 yards and eight touchdowns. The Texas native came on strong at the end of the year, gashing Arizona for 156 yards and three scores and Navy for 159 yards and two touchdowns. Although DJ Foster will see plenty of work, Grice should be Arizona State’s leading rusher and could push for All-Pac-12 recognition in 2013.
17. Alex Carter, CB, Stanford
In an offensive-minded league like the Pac-12, it’s not easy for any true freshman to step onto the field at cornerback. However, Carter did just that last year, earning honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors in the process. In 14 games (with eight starts), the Virginia native recorded 46 tackles and three forced fumbles. With another offseason under his belt, Carter should continue to develop into one of the Pac-12’s top cornerbacks this season.
18. Ryan Kelly, C, Alabama
There’s no question the Crimson Tide will miss center Barrett Jones, guard Chance Warmack and tackle D.J. Fluker this year. However, with the return of left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and guard Anthony Steen, a solid foundation in place. Kelly is slated to replace Jones at center, and the Ohio native already has plenty of game action under his belt. With Jones hobbled by a foot injury last season, Kelly played in nine contests and impressed in limited action. Equaling the accolades and performance Jones had during his four years in Tuscaloosa is nearly impossible, but Kelly should ensure Alabama’s offensive line remains one of the nation’s best.
19. Daniel Sams/Jake Waters, QB, Kansas State
It’s a bit of a cop out to list Sams and Waters here, but both players are capable of keeping Kansas State in the Big 12 title race. Sams is a dynamic athlete, recording 235 yards and eight rushing touchdowns on 32 attempts in 2012. He only threw eight passes last year but completed six throws for 55 yards. Waters comes to Kansas State after two years at Iowa Western Community College. The Iowa native had a huge 2012 season, earning NJCAA Offensive Player of the Year honors after throwing for 3,501 yards and 39 scores. Although Waters isn’t as dynamic on the ground as Sams, the junior isn’t a statue in the pocket. There’s no question Collin Klein will be missed this year. However, the Wildcats’ offense shouldn't fall off much with Sams or Waters leading the way.
20. Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Missouri
The nation’s No. 1 recruit in the 2012 signing class had a relatively quiet debut. Green-Beckham was suspended for one game and finished the year with just 28 receptions for 395 yards and five scores. However, Green-Beckham’s performance picked up late in the season, catching 21 passes over the final five games, with a touchdown catch coming in each of the last three contests. With quarterback James Franklin closer to 100 percent after shoulder surgery last year, Missouri’s passing attack is poised to improve in 2013. All signs point to Green-Beckham having a good offseason, which should translate into more production.
21. Jeremy Smith, RB, Oklahoma State
It might be a little too obvious to list Smith in this article, but after playing behind Joseph Randle and Kendall Hunter, it’s his time to shine. In his first three years in Stillwater, Smith has rushed for 1,439 yards and 25 touchdowns. Smith’s best performance in his career came against Grambling in 2009, recording 160 yards and one score on 15 attempts. However, the Tulsa native has played well in Big 12 action, rushing for 140 yards and two touchdowns against Texas in 2011. With Randle playing in the NFL, this is Smith’s job to lose, and the senior should rank near the top of the Big 12 in rushing yards this year.
22. Bud Dupree, DE, Kentucky
New coach Mark Stoops played a key role in turning around Florida State’s defense, and Big Blue Nation hopes he can develop Dupree and junior college transfer Za’Darius Smith into All-SEC ends. Dupree played last season as the rush end in Kentucky’s 3-4 scheme, but he will slide exclusively into one of the end spots in 2013. The Georgia native recorded 91 tackles and 6.5 sacks last season and should continue to develop with a defined role coming off the edge. Double-digit sacks isn’t out of the question for Dupree this year.
23. Dontre Wilson, RB/WR, Ohio State
If Ohio State wants to play for a Big Ten title, keeping quarterback Braxton Miller healthy is priority No. 1. Miller took a pounding last season, and coach Urban Meyer would like to see the supporting cast take a bigger role in the offense. Thanks to top-notch recruiting, Meyer appears to have found a big-time playmaker for Miller. Wilson is a 5-foot-10, 174 pound running back/receiver that will be a dangerous option for Ohio State’s offense. The Texas native shined in fall practice and could fill the “Percy Harvin position” that Meyer wants to establish. With running back Carlos Hyde suspended for the first three games, Wilson should expect to see plenty of carries and passes in his direction in the early part of the year.
24. Mario Edwards Jr., DE, Florida State
The Seminoles lose four key players from a defensive line that played a significant role in finishing first in the ACC in rush defense, along with ranking sixth nationally in points allowed. While ends Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine will be missed, there’s no shortage of talent returning to Tallahassee. The next star on Florida State’s line should be Edwards, who was pressed into action after an early-season injury to Brandon Jenkins. Although it was a small sample size, Edwards showcased why he was one of the top recruits in the 2012 signing class, recording 17 tackles, 1.5 sacks and 2.5 tackles for a loss. With a full offseason to work in the weight room and learn under new ends coach Sal Sunseri, Edwards is primed for a breakout year in Tallahassee.
25. Robbie Rhodes, WR, Baylor
The Bears know what they have in senior receiver Tevin Reese, and Antwan Goodley and Levi Norwood are back after combining for 57 receptions last year. But the receiving corps could use another gamebreaker to help ease the loss of Terrance Williams. Could Rhodes be that player? The true freshman has been one of the stars of fall camp, catching four passes for 112 yards and a touchdown in the team’s second scrimmage. Rhodes was rated as the No. 4 receiver in the 2013 recruiting class by Athlon Sports, and all signs point to a big season from the true freshman.
26. Alex Collins, RB, Arkansas
New coach Bret Bielema had one of the nation’s top rushing attacks under his direction at Wisconsin and is building a run-first mentality in Fayetteville. Sophomore Jonathan Williams is expected to open the year as the starter at running back, but Collins will see plenty of action. The Florida native ranked as the No. 13 running back in the nation by Rivals.com and earned Broward County Player of the Year honors after rushing for 1,786 yards and 28 touchdowns in 2012. As Bielema’s offenses showed at Wisconsin, there’s plenty of carries available for two running backs. And even though he may not open the year as the starter, Collins will make it difficult for the coaching staff to keep him on the sidelines for long.
27. Deontay Greenberry, WR, Houston
Even with the departure of running back Charles Sims, Houston should have one of the American Athletic Conference’s top offenses in 2013. The Cougars averaged 32.4 points a game last year despite inconsistent quarterback play, and coach Tony Levine’s decision to hire Doug Meacham as co-offensive coordinator should pay dividends. Greenberry was a huge catch on the recruiting trail for Levine, and he didn’t disappoint as a true freshman, grabbing 47 receptions for 569 yards and three scores. The sophomore should approach 60-70 catches in 2013 and is an Athlon Sports second-team American Athletic Conference selection for this season.
28. Byron Marshall, RB, Oregon
Replacing Kenjon Barner is likely to be a three-man task in Oregon’s backfield. Junior De’Anthony Thomas is a dynamic all-around threat but won’t handle 25-30 carries a week. True freshman Thomas Tyner will see plenty of time, but the Ducks’ workhorse could be Marshall. As a true freshman last season, he recorded 447 yards and four touchdowns. Marshall had one 100-yard effort in 2012, gashing Tennessee Tech for 125 yards on 13 attempts. Expect the California native to factor prominently into Oregon’s ground attack this year.
29. Deon Bush, S, Miami
Finding answers on defense is the top priority for Miami coach Al Golden this offseason. The Hurricanes ranked last in the ACC in rushing, pass and total defense, and coordinator Mark D’Onofrio will have seven new full-time starters stepping into the lineup. Bush was one of the few bright spots for Miami last year, as he recorded 34 stops, three forced fumbles and one tackle for a loss. Even though he’s only a sophomore, Bush should be a leader in Miami’s secondary in 2013 and is expected to push for All-ACC honors.
30. Taysom Hill, QB, BYU
With Riley Nelson battling a back injury last year, BYU was forced to hand the reins of the offense to Hill in his first season with the Cougars. The Idaho native responded by throwing for 235 yards and one touchdown and recording 80 yards on the ground in a 6-3 win over Utah State. Hill also recorded 255 yards and two touchdowns against Hawaii. A knee injury ended Hill’s season prematurely but is not expected to hinder his sophomore campaign. Robert Anae has returned to Provo to coordinate the offense, and BYU is hoping to speed up the tempo this year. Although Hill is still growing as a passer, his dual-threat ability should allow him to make plenty of plays in 2013.
31. Devin Funchess, TE, Michigan
With Devin Gardner set to assume the full-time quarterback job, the Wolverines will use more of a pro-style offense in 2013. Gardner proved he is ready to emerge as one of the Big Ten’s top quarterbacks after a strong finish to the year, and now Michigan needs to find a few dependable receivers this fall to complement Jeremy Gallon. Funchess could emerge as the team’s No. 2 target after catching 15 passes for 234 yards and five scores as a true freshman last year. The 6-foot-5 target should be a valuable weapon over the middle and in the red zone for Gardner and could easily double his 2012 numbers.
32. Akeem Hunt, RB, Purdue
New Purdue coach Darrell Hazell developed Kent State’s offense into one of the nation's most productive rushing attacks last year, finishing 18th at 225.8 yards per game. With an unsettled quarterback situation, the Boilermakers need a big season from their ground game, which is likely to be headlined by Hunt. The 5-foot-9 back resembles Kent State standout Dri Archer, and Purdue hopes he has a similar impact in 2013. Hunt rushed for 335 yards, caught 13 passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns and averaged 22.2 yards on 39 kickoff returns last year. Expect Hunt to play a similar all-around role in 2013, but he also will see a significant increase in carries.
33. Sterling Shepard, WR, Oklahoma
Even though there's a new starting quarterback in Norman, the Sooners will continue to have one of the Big 12’s top offenses in 2013. And both passers have plenty of weapons at their disposal, including Jalen Saunders, Trey Metoyer and rising star Sterling Shepard. Saunders, Justin Brown and Kenny Stills overshadowed Shepard’s play last year. However, as a true freshman, he caught 45 passes for 621 yards and three scores. Shepard did not have a touchdown reception over the final five games, but he caught at least three passes in each of the last six contests. Saunders is clearly Oklahoma’s No. 1 target. However, expect Shepard to be an even bigger factor in the Sooners’ attack this year.
34. Eli Harold, DE, Virginia
It’s an overused cliché, but Virginia’s defense should be more aggressive in 2013. Jon Tenuta joins the Cavaliers’ staff from NC State, and the veteran coordinator has promised to turn up the pressure on opposing quarterbacks this year. Harold should benefit from the change in schemes and is expected to be the unit’s top pass-rusher. In 12 games last year as a true freshman, Harold recorded 36 stops, two sacks and one forced fumble. At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, the Virginia native has the athleticism to be a standout pass-rusher and could easily triple his sack total from last season under Tenuta’s direction.
35. Jeff Luc, LB, Cincinnati
With Greg Blair and Nick Temple returning, Cincinnati’s linebacking corps was already set to be the best in the American Athletic Conference this year. And this group could be among the top groups in the nation, provided Luc lives up to the hype in 2013. Luc played in 19 games with Florida State, recording 23 tackles and three tackles for a loss. The Florida native was regarded as a top-100 recruit coming out of high school.
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