by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
What is a breakout player? Defining that term isn’t exactly easy. Although Big East fans are likely already familiar with the names on this list, this is Athlon’s attempt to peg the players that will be household names at the end of the 2011 season. These players may have started at some point in their career, but have yet to become a name familiar with all college football fans.
Arthur Brown, LB, Kansas State – Improving the defense is the No. 1 priority for Kansas State in 2011. The Wildcats finished 119th out of 120 teams against the run last year and allowed 29.1 points per game. Although the defensive line remains an issue, Kansas State should have a much-improved linebacking corps. Brown came to Miami as an elite recruit, but collected only 17 tackles in two seasons and transferred to Kansas State. However, he is coming off a strong showing in spring practice and was voted as a captain for 2011. All signs point to Brown becoming a leader and one of the top defensive players for Kansas State.
Malcolm Brown, RB, Texas/Mike Davis, WR, Texas – A 5-7 year is simply unacceptable at Texas. Mack Brown made wholesale staff changes, bringing in Bryan Harsin from Boise State as the co-offensive coordinator. With the staff changes and a fresh attitude, the Longhorns should show some improvement on offense. Quarterback Garrett Gilbert is still a question mark, but the emergence of Davis and Brown’s arrival should help. Brown ranked as the No. 4 overall prospect in the 2011 Athlon Consensus 100 and will be counted upon to shoulder much of the rushing load this season. If Brown lives up to the hype and Davis continues to emerge as a No. 1 option for Gilbert, the Longhorns should easily surpass last year’s offensive rankings.
Ahmad Dixon, S, Baylor – Dixon was widely-regarded as one of the top prospects out of Texas in the 2010 recruiting class. He played in 11 games as a true freshman, collecting 16 tackles and one forced fumble. The Bears have big expectations for Dixon in 2011, as he is expected to be one of the centerpieces of the defense. New coordinator Phil Bennett is moving Dixon to a hybrid linebacker/safety position, which should help the Bears contain the Big 12’s passing offenses. The sophomore has the talent, now it’s all about putting everything together. Look for Dixon to emerge as one of Baylor’s top defenders in 2011.
Seth Doege, QB, Texas Tech – Quarterback play hasn’t been an issue in Lubbock for several seasons and don’t expect that trend to change in this year. Doege made one start in 2009, throwing for 159 yards and a score in a victory against Kansas. He played in two games last season, completing three passes and throwing for 58 yards. Although his experience is fairly limited, Doege is stepping into a good situation. The Red Raiders have a solid offensive line and a stable of capable receivers and running backs. Although Doege may not post 35 touchdown tosses like Taylor Potts did last season, don’t expect the Texas Tech offense to slow down.
Demontre Hurst, CB/Tony Jefferson, S/LB, Oklahoma – This Oklahoma duo is familiar with fans in the Big 12, but should be on the national radar by the end of the year. Hurst quietly had a good season in 2010, starting 14 games, registering 50 tackles and breaking up 11 passes. With Jamell Fleming reinstated to the team, the Sooners should have one of the top corner combinations in college football. Jefferson will play a hybrid linebacker/safety role in 2011, which should help Oklahoma slow down the passing attacks in the Big 12. Jefferson was the conference’s 2010 co-defensive freshman of the year and big things should be in store for the sophomore this season.
Jackson Jeffcoat, DE, Texas/Jordan Hicks, LB, Texas – Jeffcoat and Hicks are the second trio of Texas players to make this list. Both players received significant snaps last year, but are expected to move into starting roles in 2011. Jeffcoat collected 15 tackles and picked up 2.5 sacks, while Hicks registered 23 tackles last year. Jeffcoat has big shoes to fill with the departure of Sam Acho, but is capable of becoming the team’s top pass rusher. If Hicks performs as expected, the Texas linebacking corps should be one of the best in college football.
Luke Joeckel/Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M – The Aggies’ offensive line didn’t get off to a great start last season. However, this was a much-improved unit throughout the second half of the year. Joeckel ranked No. 106 in the 2010 recruiting class by Athlon Sports, while Matthews checked in as the No. 33 overall prospect. Joeckel earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors and started all 13 games at left tackle. Matthews started the final seven games on the right side. Both players should be better in their sophomore season, and the improvement on the line will only make Texas A&M’s offense even more dangerous in 2011.
Shontrelle Johnson, RB, Iowa State – Alexander Robinson was an underrated back during his career at Iowa State and his contributions will be missed this year. Johnson steps in as the starter, but has only 35 carries under his belt. He rushed for 218 yards and two touchdowns last year. Johnson’s best performance came against Texas Tech, rushing for 102 yards and one score. The Cyclones are in good shape along the offensive line, with three starters returning, including All-America candidate Kelechi Osemele. Johnson showed big-play ability during his limited work last year and should push for 1,000 yards this season.
Shaun Lewis, LB, Oklahoma State – Lewis was an instant impact player for the Oklahoma State defense last year. As a true freshman, he collected 58 tackles, three interceptions and forced three fumbles. Lewis also started the final six games of last year. The Cowboys have to revamp the linebacking corps this season, as Orie Lemon and Justin Gent have finished their eligibility in Stillwater. Although the defense has some holes to fill, Lewis should be one of the rising stars in the Big 12. The sophomore is an Athlon Sports preseason second-team All-Big 12 selection.
Brad Madison, DE, Missouri – Even with Aldon Smith off to the NFL, Missouri still owns one of the best defensive lines in the nation. Madison played in all 13 games last year, but made only two starts. He finished 2010 with 7.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and 11 tackles for a loss. Madison came to Missouri as an offensive lineman, but has made a quick transition to one of the Big 12’s best at defensive end. The Tigers won’t have to solely rely on Madison’s contributions at end, as senior Jacquies Smith and redshirt freshman Kony Ealy will provide plenty of help. If Madison picks up where he left off last year, he could lead the Big 12 in sacks.
Corey Nelson, LB, Oklahoma – Nelson was one of the stars of Oklahoma’s spring practice, but was expected to enter the season as a backup. However, Travis Lewis suffered a foot injury that will keep him out at least eight weeks, which means Nelson will be looking at more playing time. He tallied 21 tackles in 14 games last season, but has yet to make his first start. Even with a key senior leader like Lewis sidelined, the Oklahoma linebacking corps likely won’t miss a beat. Nelson appears primed for a breakout year, while sophomores Tom Wort and Tony Jefferson will join him in the starting lineup.
Toben Opurum, DE/LB, Kansas – Opurum is off a peculiar start in his Jayhawk career. He played running back in 2009, rushing for 554 yards and nine scores. However, Turner Gill decided to move Opurum to defense in 2010. He was first shifted to linebacker, then to defensive end for the final six games. Opurum ended the year with 21 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. The junior will play a rush end in Kansas’ 3-4 scheme, where his athleticism and speed will be valuable in bolstering the pass rush.
Tyler Patmon, CB, Kansas – If you are looking for a deep sleeper to breakout from this list, Patmon would be the one to target. The Jayhawks ranked seventh in the Big 12 in pass defense last season, allowing 222.5 yards per game. With three starters back and more depth, Kansas should be able to expect some improvement from the secondary. Patmon will likely be the leader of this group, after collecting 45 tackles and 10 pass breakups last year. The sophomore still has a ways to go in his development, but could emerge as Kansas’ top defensive player.
Joseph Randle, RB, Oklahoma State – With Kendall Hunter out of eligibility in Stillwater, the Cowboys need a new go-to running back to emerge. Randle saw 82 carries as a reserve last year, rushing for 452 yards and two scores. He also caught 37 passes for 427 yards and a touchdown. The Cowboys will also get Jeremy Smith involved with the ground attack, but Randle should lead the team in carries. Outside of Texas A&M’s Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael, the Big 12 lacks proven stars at running back. With the opportunity for carries and a solid freshman debut last year, look for Randle to approach 1,000 rushing yards.
Cyril Richardson, OT, Baylor – The Bears have produced a NFL first-round selection on the offensive line in two out of the last three drafts. Despite losing Danny Watkins, Baylor remains in good shape up front. Richardson played in 12 games and made four starts last season. The sophomore will move from guard to tackle this year and fill the void Watkins is leaving behind on the left side. At 6-foot-5 and 330 pounds, Richardson has the strength and size to protect Robert Griffin’s blindside. Art Briles and his staff has done a nice job developing offensive linemen during their time in Waco, and Richardson could be the next first-round selection in a couple of seasons.
James Sims, RB, Kansas – Sims was one of the few bright spots for Kansas last season. As a true freshman, he rushed for 742 yards and nine scores, along with catching 19 passes for 134 yards and a touchdown. The best performance by Sims came in the 52-45 win over Colorado, totaling 123 rushing yards and four scores. The Kansas coaching staff plans to involve more than one running back this year, but Sims should lead the team in carries. The Jayhawks should have an improved offensive line, which can only help the sophomore’s chances of getting to 1,000 yards.
Ty Zimmerman, S, Kansas State – Zimmerman is the second Kansas State defender to make this list. He collected 74 tackles, three picks and two fumble recoveries last season and earned freshman All-American honors from the FWAA. Although the Wildcats struggled to stop the run, the secondary finished fifth in the Big 12 in pass defense. Zimmerman was one of Kansas State’s top defenders last year and should only improve in his sophomore year, while contending for all-conference honors.
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